Christianity turns on a number of paradoxes. The Christian God is both imminent and transcendent; Jesus Christ is both human and divine; his Kingdom both has and has not yet arrived. These various internal tensions have proven immensely productive for anthropologists, and here Matthew Engelke is no exception. Engelke’s first monograph, A Problem of Presence, examined how Apostolic Christians in Zimbabwe navigate the simultaneous proximity and distance of God by seeking direct experiences of the Holy Spirit, so much so that they reject all forms of mediation, including the biblical text. Engelke’s new book, God’s Agents, explores a very different group of Christians (with, it must be said, a very different relationship to Scripture), the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Engelke has already established himself as a skilful ethnographic writer, and in God’s Agents he is in fine form. It is not easy to create compelling descriptions of the mundane workings of a nonprofit organization, but in this book even board meetings and the drafting of press releases are made to matter because Engelke has situated them in a game with stakes we’ve come to appreciate. In addition to ethnographic description and the firsthand narrations of his informants (as anthropologists call the people they study), the text is dotted with quotations from newspaper articles and blogs, as well as the words of Christian writers who have influenced the Bible society staff. These voices give the book a texture that extends the analysis beyond a particular Christian organization to contemporary Britain more generally. One of the primary implications of this wider focus is that God’s Agents is very much an ethnography of secularism. What we learn from Engelke’s analysis is that the secular is multifaceted, and that the Bible society has a long and complicated relationship with it.
Engelke focuses on the work of the Bible society at home in Britain, much of which amounts to “Bible advocacy,” attempts to convince an increasingly indifferent public that the Bible, and Christianity more generally, have not become irrelevant.