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MATTHEW ENGELKE

London School of Economics

Angels in Swindon:
Public religion and ambient faith in England

I
A B S T R A C T t is now almost two decades since José Casanova declared “that re-
In this article, I introduce the idea of “ambient ligious traditions throughout the world are refusing to accept the
faith” in an effort to clarify the stakes in marginal and privatized role which theories of modernity as well
long-standing debates about public and private as theories of secularization have reserved for them” (1994:5). Dur-
religion. I take as my starting point the increasingly ing that time, understandings of both modernity and seculariza-
common recognition that conceptual distinctions tion within the human sciences have increasingly accommodated the oft-
between publicity and privacy are difficult to mentioned return of the religious and, in particular, a return of the religious
maintain in the first place and that they are, in any to the public sphere and public square. Jürgen Habermas (2009; see also
case, always relative. The idea of “ambient faith,” Habermas and Ratzinger 2007) and Richard Rorty (2003, 2010) are just two
which I connect to work on the turn to a materialist of the more prominent public intellectuals who, in their later work, increas-
semiotics, can serve as both a critique of and ingly recognize the viability and even legitimacy of public religion in their
supplement to the ideas of “public” and “private” respective philosophical and sociopolitical programs.
religion. Introducing ambience—the sense of These matters are not settled. Within many European national contexts,
ambience—allows one to raise important questions for instance—the main staging grounds for theories of modernity and secu-
about the processes through which faith comes to larization that Casanova has questioned—what constitutes public religion
the foreground or stays in the background—the is still the subject of passionate debate and an impetus for social action.
extent to which faith, in other words, goes public or How public is public? What role should a church, or a bishop, or a rabbi,
stays private. I use my research on a Christian or an imam play in the public square? How should these figures speak? To
organization in England, the Bible Society of what extent should an established church appear on the national stage or
England and Wales, to illuminate these points, in the state corridors of power? To what extent should a national identity or
discussing the society’s campaign in 2006 to bring European identity be linked to a Christian heritage? How should the citizen
angels to Swindon and its promotion of Bible dress? These are just some of the questions and issues being debated, all of
reading in coffee shops. I also consider Brian Eno’s which hinge in part on balancing conceptions of publicity and privacy.
music and recent advertising trends for additional In this article, I explore the balancing of such conceptions in relation to
insights into the notion of “ambience.” [Christianity, the ideas and activities of a Christian charity based in England, the Bible
secularism, semiotics, public religion, England] Society of England and Wales. I look at how one group of religious actors
tries to set the terms for religion’s place in the nation as well as the condi-
tions for its possibility. As I explain, this involves something of both a re-
fusal and confusion of the ideas labeled by the three key terms in play—
public, private, and religion—and puts in their place something that I call
“ambient faith.” This refusal and confusion is often central to the strate-
gies and tactics of religious actors the world over, from imams in Cairo

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 155–170, ISSN 0094-0496, online
ISSN 1548-1425. ⃝C 2012 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01355.x
American Ethnologist ! Volume 39 Number 1 February 2012

(Hirschkind 2006) to Pentecostal preachers in Accra (Meyer on staff whom I got to know, and they did not use this
2006). What this particular strand of work on public reli- label, but almost everyone else was comfortable with it,
gions highlights is the extent to which the mediums and and even the Catholics were happy to accept its general
forms of such action are integral to the strategies and tac- applicability—in large part because many of the society’s
tics of creating publicity. This is more than acknowledging, early 19th-century founders were pivotal figures in the
as within Habermas’s (1989) historical sociology, the im- Evangelical Revival (see Ditchfield 1998). Even this label,
portance of the newspaper and the coffeehouse as vehicles though, where appropriate, signified only a passionate love
and sites for the production of a public sphere. It is about of the Book, and, for many, being an “evangelical” in the
recognizing the sensual and material aspects of such com- current stereotypical sense—knocking on doors, standing
municative channels, modes of sociality, and imaginings of on street corners—was unappealing. This was also a period
community. of time during which the U.S. president, George W. Bush,
To show how the ambient faith of Bible Society is being stood for what it meant to be an evangelical Christian. This
imagined and enacted, I turn to two examples. The first made many of the staff at Bible Society uncomfortable, for
concerns a project to provide the Christmas decorations for they saw him as too conservative.
the shopping center in an English town; the second is about Ecumenism has become an increasingly common
efforts to encourage Christians to meet for Bible reading trend in many parts of England since the 1980s (Davie
sessions in coffee shops and pubs. Notwithstanding the 1994:163–167), yet a large part of what has allowed such
importance of coffeehouses to the emergence of modern a loose arrangement to work for Bible Society for over
conceptions of publics, these examples may seem, on first 200 years was a decision by the society’s founders to pro-
thought, relatively inconsequential. They have not, as with mote and provide the Bible “without note or comment.”
concerns over blasphemy in Denmark (Asad et al. 2009) or What one “hears” from the Bible, as staff might put it now,
headscarves in France (Bowen 2008), stirred international is not tightly proscribed. While the staff are conscious that
debates. Even so, Christmas decorations and coffeehouse “no comment” is a comment in itself and that it is impos-
sociality are, as I hope to show, far from trivial matters sible to present a view from nowhere, the constitutional ar-
when it comes to understanding how a public religion gets rangement functions remarkably well as an as-if state, such
constituted. that people with very different interpretive standpoints and
And so to an important scene: One day in January theological commitments can work side by side.
2006, Luke Walton went with a colleague to the Parade, One of Luke’s first major tasks in the arts post was
an outdoor shopping center in the heart of Swindon, to coordinate the 2006 Christmas decorations for the Pa-
the town in Wiltshire, England, once famous for housing rade, which the society was in the process of arranging with
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway works. The Parade is a Swindon Borough Council, the local government body. The
good example of the modernist architecture that dominated 2005 Christmas ceremonies, which had just concluded, had
so much postwar building in Britain; that is to say, it is pretty been dubbed the “Harry Potter Christmas,” complete with
stark. It was cold that day, and windy, especially given the a holiday visit from two members of the cast of Harry Pot-
tunnel-like effect among the Parade’s buildings. Luke was ter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell 2005), who were on hand
looking for an idea. He had been hired not long before as the to turn on Swindon’s Christmas lights the night before the
arts officer for Bible Society, itself based in Swindon since film’s national release. Luke had nothing against Harry Pot-
the mid-1980s. Bible Society is an independent Christian ter per se, but he did not see how the stories had any-
charity, not affiliated with any one church or denomination. thing to do with Christmas, much less—as a Christian—
It was founded in 1804 on the wave of the Evangelical Re- the most important part of Christmas. Luke wanted to do
vival, its mandate to promote the “circulation and use” of better.
Scripture. When I was doing my research, this commitment Not long before taking the Bible Society job, Luke,
was expressed by the motto, “Making the Bible heard.” who is an ordained Anglican priest (not a prerequisite for
About one hundred staff worked for the society during the arts post), had been involved in arranging the annual
the period of my research (2006–09), almost all of whom conference of the Fellowship for Parish Evangelists. At the
attended or belonged to Protestant churches, with many conference, two researchers, Yvonne Richmond and Steve
being Anglican.1 The label “Anglican,” however, is not very Hollinghurst, had presented some findings that caught
precise, and what really united the staff was a love of the Luke’s attention: At the same time that most people look
Book—a commitment to the centrality of the Bible for down on religion, many also acknowledge the importance
coming to know and foster a relationship with both God of spirituality and, even, the existence of spiritual beings.
and the world. As I discuss below, eschewing labels and What the researchers emphasized, in particular, as Luke re-
even denominational affiliation was de rigueur for some called it for me, was what he described as “the spirituality of
staff, but if one label had any sticking power or appeal, angels in the common domain.” Angels, Luke got to think-
it was “evangelical.” There were three Roman Catholics ing, can still capture the imagination. Angels can still inspire

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a faith of sorts, even if the traditions in which they are found panics. In 2006 alone, plenty of other indicators of such
do not. preseason moral panic were available to choose from, with
Luke’s interest in the presentation by Richmond and the Daily Mail (2006b) reporting that “only one in
Hollinghurst can be related to academic debates in recent 100 Christmas cards sold in Britain contains any religious
years about shifts away from religion and toward spiritual- imagery or message”; Gordon Brown, then chancellor of
ity. In Britain, one of these debates has taken shape around the exchequer, criticizing a government-funded children’s
the sociologist Grace Davie’s (1994) thesis on “believing center in Sheffield for referring to a “winter celebration”
without belonging,” simply put, that even though church rather than “Christmas” in a newsletter (see Daily Mail
affiliation and attendance levels are dropping, Britons 2006a); and the Very Revered Colin Slee, dean of Southwark
themselves are not necessarily becoming disenchanted— Cathedral, complaining about the “pathetic spinelessness”
that they still recognize, as Luke wanted to emphasize it, of local government councils for “deleting Christmas from
a spiritual dimension to life. As other scholars of religion their greeting cards and street decorations” (very much in
in Britain have gone on to argue, people express their con- “threat of winterval” tradition; see Guardian 2006).
nection to this dimension through more “individualistic” So part of what was appealing to Luke about the angels
rather than “institutional” channels. According to some idea was that it allowed Bible Society to meet the Harry Pot-
researchers, there is a “spiritual revolution” (Heelas and ter public on a conceptual middle ground. Angels, Luke sur-
Woodhead 2005) underway that is reconfiguring the tenor mised, could be relatively easily fitted into the spiritual-but-
and tone of religiosity. not-religious imagination. Moreover, as society staff have
Luke wanted in on any such revolution. As he stood long felt, there is no point shoving “religion” down peo-
on the Parade in Swindon that cold, windy, winter day, the ple’s throats. Even if most people are not part of an ag-
point about angels and “spirituality in the common do- gressively atheist vanguard, the general populace is wary
main” hit home. Luke got his idea. For the Bible Society’s about too much religion and does not like to be preached
Swindon Christmas, why not use angels rather than movie at. The good thing about the angels, then, was that they
stars to mark the celebrations? Why not create a spectacu- would not be preaching—in fact, they would keep their dis-
lar display of angels flying in the wind above the Parade’s tance, high above the walkways of the Parade, fluttering in
shops? Angels in Swindon might be the perfect way for Luke the wind. This general approach was a good fit, as well, with
to reach the spiritual-but-not-religious public. the society’s historical commitment to refrain from offering
That Swindon Borough Council had gone with a Harry “note or comment” when it came to how people should take
Potter Christmas in 2005 was hardly surprising or shock- up the messages and meanings of Scripture. Luke thought
ing to Luke, just as it would not have been to many other that the angels idea could probably work for the Borough
Christians in England (and elsewhere), for whom the “true” Council too; he suspected that the councilors would have
meaning of Christmas has long since been changed by to be mindful, in this secularly sensitive age, of not coming
consumerism and other onslaughts of secular modernity. across as sanctioning a “Christian” project. The Christmas
Although 72 percent of people identified themselves as angels would not be depictions of Gabriel delivering the
Christian in the United Kingdom’s 2001 Census, some divine message to Mary, then. They would, rather, be just
Christians in England see themselves as a minority, some- angels. They would not force the local councilors to face up
times even an embattled minority that faces “aggressive” to whether they were pathetically spineless.
atheists and secularists.2 Among the staff at Bible Soci- So, indeed, the angels would not be part of any “pub-
ety with whom I worked (as well as the many Christians lic religion.” But if their association would not be with
in church and para-church organizations, the media, and public religion, neither would it be with its assumed post-
charities whom I observed in the course of my research), Enlightenment opposite: “private religion.” Part of such a
evidence for such aggression often comes in the form of suggestion, as I have highlighted, had to do with the ap-
particular events reported in the news: an airline employee peal to spirituality that the angels allowed. If the angels
forced to remove a cross necklace, a nurse reprimanded for were to work, Luke hoped they could do so on the basis
praying for a patient, and so on. of tapping a spiritual channel among Swindon’s shoppers.
Alongside such specific cases, Christmas provides an Just as much, though, it had to do with playing on the sen-
annual opportunity for reflection on the sense of embat- sual registers that often serve to confuse the coherence of
tlement. In the run-up to Christmas in 2006, there was ca- public–private divides. Luke wanted the angels to have a
sual talk among staff at Bible House (the headquarters of material impact—to demand, in their physicality, a sensual
Bible Society) about a story that the Christmas holiday sea- engagement with the shoppers of Swindon. Their presen-
son was going to rebranded as “winterval.” One version or tation was going to be something akin to a site-specific
another of this story seems to crop up in the news every art installation, incorporating the ambience of the Parade
year, or at least circulates as rumor, and although the de- and, in the process, challenging what the society per-
tails are often vague, it feeds into staple preholiday moral ceived to be the normative understanding of public–private

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distinctions. What Bible Society wanted to foster was an cultural context, or historical current is not one that has re-
ambient faith. ceived much explicit attention from anthropologists, and
yet I argue here that ambience can be a helpful concept with
which to make sense of the ways in which religion can be
Ambience and the public–private
understood (and gets understood) as public or private.
Bible Society’s effort to bring angels to Swindon allows for Within Britain, the popular debate in recent years
the clarification of what might be called the “sensual” stakes about whether and to what extent religion should be public
in long-standing debates about public and private religion. or private, as well as what this means, has been framed in re-
These debates—and the very ideas of religion being pub- lation to a remark made in 2003 by Alastair Campbell, Prime
lic or private in the first place—have their origins in sev- Minister Tony Blair’s longtime spin doctor. What Campbell
eral sources: the interiorization of faith, often associated said was, “We don’t do God.” The simple reading of this
with the Reformation (Asad 1993:27–54; Keane 2002; Taylor statement is that political figures in Britain must work ac-
2007:539–544); the emergence and codification of the dif- cording to a secular settlement in which faith remains pri-
ference between politics and religion, as understood in re- vate. Alongside this general point, though, Campbell’s in-
lation to both church and Enlightenment narratives of sec- tervention has other valences. By 2003, Campbell’s public
ularization (Casanova 1994:11–39; Gauchet 1997:101–161); persona was that of a “devious high priest of spin,” and an
and the increasingly common recognition, especially after aggressive and bombastic one at that (Observer 2003). On
the Romantic age, of religion (and now spirituality) as about the occasion when he uttered the famous words about not
feelings and immaterial truths not subject to institutional doing God, Campbell was replying—on Blair’s behalf—to a
arrangement or control (Bender 2010:1–20; Heelas 2008; question from a Vanity Fair reporter who had asked Blair
Taylor 2007:313–317). In just the brief introduction to the about his Christian faith. It was well known at the time that
angels project I have provided, it should not be difficult to Blair held a strong faith, and in the context of his relation-
see how all three of these source traditions are relevant, re- ship with President Bush, with whom he was embarking on
flecting back on Casanova’s observation with which I began. a war in Iraq, that faith had become a particularly inter-
Rather than rehearse these traditions further, however, in esting issue among what are often referred to in Britain as
this section I make the case for ambience as a helpful con- the “chattering classes” (i.e., people who read Vanity Fair).
cept for thinking through the issues each tradition raises. I What was so remarked on at the time, and subsequently,
then return to my ethnography, drawing out the issues, first, is that Campbell felt empowered—even compelled—to an-
in relation to the angels in Swindon and, then, in relation to swer on Blair’s behalf. Indeed, in one account of the ex-
another Bible Society project, called “Lyfe,” about promot- change, Campbell is described as having “interrupted” the
ing Bible reading in such public places as coffee shops and prime minister (see, Daily Telegraph 2003). For the peo-
pubs. ple I know in Bible Society—and, indeed, a good number
Ambience is akin to what anthropologists have often of other Christians who participate in the public square—
called “context,” which is itself indexed to the more gen- Campbell’s attempt to keep religion “out of public” in this
eral notion of “culture,” but I want to distinguish ambi- memorable instance has served as a troublesome indica-
ence from context. For one thing, ambience often conveys tion of just how influential a certain brand of the secular
a more distinct sense of what is in the background, es- settlement has become—a brand that is, like Campbell him-
pecially in acoustical terms. So, when one has a romantic self, understood to be rather pugnacious. And the declara-
candlelit dinner, complete with violin music, one says the tion was taken as relevant not only to politicians but also to
ambience is right, not “the context is right.” Equally, it is any other Christian who wanted to speak up or speak out.
the ambience of a church—rather than the context—that The concern with controlling religion’s public presence
inspires a contemplative mood. Ambience is also more per- is also notable in non-Western national contexts where a
tinent here than context because of the latter’s historical discourse of secular modernity has been particularly influ-
association with matters of language. Whereas most anthro- ential. Charles Hirschkind’s (2006) work in Cairo, Egypt, on
pologists will today talk about context as shaped by nondis- the circulation of audio cassette sermons is a good example
cursive elements, the term has its roots in linguistics. And, of this—and a good example of how ambience can be un-
to be sure, this etymology is reflected in anthropology’s derstood both as an aspect of social life and as an analytic
epistemology, one in which the linguistic turn is often still tool with which to make sense of publicity and privacy. As
taken to the near exclusion of others, especially in semiotic an aspect of social life, cassette sermons help set the am-
studies. My interest in ambience is part of a broader effort bience of the Cairene streets; as Hirschkind tells readers at
to encourage attention to the sensual (Meyer 2006, 2009) various points in his book, it was sometimes difficult during
and material (Keane 2007) aspects of social analysis, espe- fieldwork to escape the sounds of sermonizing—the words
cially when it comes to semiotic modalities and forms. The of preachers could seep out of various private or otherwise
question of the ambient background to any social situation, nonpublic spaces and fill the air. State secular efforts to

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render faith a private matter have been met by a robust even though Christmas is a Christian holiday, representa-
Islamic counterpublic discourse. There are, of course, many tives from other faiths were firmly behind its promotion; as
aspects to Hirschkind’s case in showing this, but the point far as they were concerned, any holiday or public project
I want to highlight here is that the ambient qualities of a that could be cast in faith terms was a good thing: no fans of
public—he calls it the “sensory environment” (2006:125)— “winterval” among them.
are indispensable to its constitution.3 Within the context of broader debates about religion
Of recent anthropological work on conceptions of pub- and multiculturalism in Britain, it is worth noting the in-
lic and private, Susan Gal’s (2002) on the semiotics of the terfaith agreement on this occasion in Swindon, especially
public–private distinction is particularly helpful for the in light of earlier points made about the self-perception
kinds of points I want to make (see also Tomlinson 2007). among some Christians that they are an embattled minor-
Her basic argument is a simple one but often gets lost in the ity. To be sure, the sense of embattlement for Christians can-
objectivizing tendencies of social action and social analysis not be reasonably compared with that felt by those of other
alike: As Gal notes, public and private are relative and index- faiths in Britain, especially Islam; the claim that it might—
ically linked terms. They are “dependent for part of their ref- which has been increasingly made in recent years—has led
erential meaning on the interactional context in which they some prominent Christians in the public sphere, such as the
are used” (2002:80). The distinction, then, is, as she puts Times’s religion correspondent, to express a mixture of sur-
it, “fractal”—part of an internally recurrent pattern. One of prise and shame.4 As in many other European contexts, the
the examples she provides is the publicity and privacy of a idea of Britain as a “Christian nation” is prevalent among
middle-class U.S. household. The house is a private space, a some quarters of the far Right, and Islamophobia is a press-
family space, in contrast to the public space of the street, the ing issue (Bunzl 2007). At the same time, what Luke experi-
neighborhood, the town, and so on. Yet, within the house, enced in Swindon is another part of the story, and an impor-
certain spaces are private, such as the bedroom, and certain tant one to recognize. Interfaith dialogue in Britain is not as
spaces are public, such as the living room. And yet, even strong as it might be; for Luke and many of his colleagues,
within public spaces like the living room privacy can be though, the hope is that it develops as ecumenism has since
created. the 1980s.
What I want to add here is a more explicit emphasis on When it came to business sponsorship, representatives
the extent to which sensuality can matter in the analysis of to the interfaith group were less united. Some saw the com-
publicity and privacy. Inasmuch as Gal takes her cues from mercial side of Christmas as an inevitable component they
the semiotic models of Charles Sanders Peirce, this move to might as well work with, especially if it injected a sem-
the sensual is a natural consideration; more than any other blance of something spiritual back into the holiday. Oth-
comparable figure, it was Peirce who insisted that a theory ers expressed a concern that including businesses in the
of signs had to include attention to questions of history and sponsorship only fostered commercialization of what they
materiality (Engelke 2007:28–33; Irvine 1989; Keane 2007). wanted to hold out—at least among themselves—as a sa-
In this tradition, ambience can thus supplement a fractal cred commemoration. From the very start of the project,
model of the public–private split, especially when the ma- then, Luke found himself walking a fine line between (for
teriality of specific signs is integral to their effect, as I now lack of better terms) religion and the marketplace.
illustrate by turning to the angels in Swindon. To design the angels, Luke approached Carl
Robertshaw, whose London-based company, Kite Related
Design, is one of the most respected in the business,
The angels
having produced kites and banners for such clients as the
Luke needed two things to make his idea work: some an- pop star Björk and major London cultural venues such
gels and some money to sponsor them. On the money front, as Somerset House. Robertshaw is not a Christian. This
thus began a series of conversations with the council, local did not matter as far as Luke and Bible Society were con-
businesses, the Swindon interfaith group, schools, and even cerned. In fact, Bible Society often seeks out relationships
the Great Western Hospital that extended throughout most with non-Christian and even more generally nonreligious
of the calendar year. The council was open to the society’s professionals because it wants to work with the best of
idea because it would not have to pay for the project; in- the best and not restrict itself to what some of the staff
deed, in the end, Bible Society covered the costs itself along refer to as “the Church ghetto” (organizations and indi-
with support from several businesses, a primary school, and viduals who cater specifically to Christian customers).
the hospital. According to Luke, the interfaith group was Working with “unchurched” people, as the staff refer to
also very keen on the overall idea: One of the attractions of non-Christians, is also seen as a good way to ensure their
angels, of course, is that they are common to many religious projects are as accessible as possible; the society wants to
traditions; in this sense, they successfully indexed an appeal reach wide audiences and, sometimes, specifically non-
to something “spiritual” that Luke had hoped for. Moreover, Christian audiences. Given that, in any case, the angels

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were supposed to be “spiritual,” Robertshaw’s profile was


perfect.
Luke met with Robertshaw to talk through some bib-
lical passages about angels, to give him a sense of what
the society was looking for. But they also spoke about an-
gels more generally, and it turned out Robertshaw had
an interest in the style of angels depicted in Japanese
manga (comics). It is from this genre that Robertshaw drew
inspiration for the Swindon kites. Discussions about the an-
gels project and the promotional materials that Bible So-
ciety produced almost always emphasized that the Swin-
don angels were inspired by a Japanese design, as it was
an excellent way of appealing to and even helping cre-
ate the “common domain” of which Luke spoke. I never
heard staff at the society relate much detail about manga;
the important point was that, coming from Japan, it was
clearly non-Christian and non-Western. However, to those
who knew something about the history of manga, the style’s
roots in the work of a 12th-century Buddhist monk (Allison
2006:52; Ito 2005:458) served to reinforce further the con-
ceptual point of the project’s generic spirituality. Manga is,
moreover, a style marked by its “plasticity” and a marriage
of “the mundane with the fantastic” (Allison 2006:53)—
exactly what angels perched above a shopping center in
a postindustrial English town were meant to invoke. What
Robertshaw came up with in the end was a pure white an-
gel, rather angular, with an overall wing span of four me-
ters. The society had 12 of these made and also produced
smaller versions that people could purchase and fly as kites
themselves.
The 12 showcase angels were a productive design for Figure 1. One of the angels, by night. All photos courtesy of Bible Society.
the space of the Parade. The fabrics that Robertshaw used
combined the senses of strong-and-stiff and light-and-
flexible to good effect, with the Swindon wind that had so One Wednesday morning in September 2006, at an all-
struck Luke—both literally and figuratively—becoming in- staff meeting at Bible House, Luke gave an update on the an-
tegral to the angels’ effect (although a few of the angels were gels project. Staff meetings always involve showcasing peo-
located inside part of the shopping center).5 Like the sails ple’s work for the society, because not everyone knows what
on a ship, the angels could also convey a paradoxical mix of everyone else is up to. Luke was, as I often found, an upbeat
movement and groundedness. The whiteness of the angels and compelling speaker, and it was clear that he had cap-
was likewise motivated, being both meaningful (certainly in tured the attention of his colleagues—all the more so, I sus-
Christian traditions) and unmemorable (in the sense that pect, because he was talking about something that would
the viewer is more likely to remember, say, hot pink). In a be happening in Swindon, and so most of the staff could
similar way, the genericness of the angels’ anthropocentric take advantage of it as Christian–consumer citizens. Luke
form—no marks on the bodies, no facial features—provided began by telling everyone how important it had been to
an open invitation to the onlooker to fill in the blank, to him to make use of the local environment—to incorporate
appropriate the object into one’s own life or story. Or not. that strong, cold wind he had felt on his first visit to the Pa-
As objects, then, the angels were semiotic bundles of de- rade some eight months before. The angels were going to
termined underdeterminedness. As emplaced objects, they be “quite physical,” he said—sensual art that played on the
were meant to be ambient actors yet, again, hard to pin surroundings. Luke also expressed his hope that the angels
down. What was at work here? Kite? Wind? Maybe some- might instill some “civic pride.” Swindon has a reputation
thing more? Maybe the spirit of Christmas; maybe an angel? in Britain as a “national laughingstock” and suffers an “un-
These were the kinds of questions and associations Luke fair share of slurs and sneers.”6 As Luke put it, perhaps the
hoped to provoke. society’s angels could be “angels of the south”—a reference

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to the sculptor Antony Gormley’s famous installation “An- meanings of the term, meanings that are often entangled
gel of the North,” which sits atop a hill overlooking the town and left purposefully so. In one sense, referring to “secular
of Gateshead, the A1 (the major north–south road that runs authorities” meant simply those who work in government
near it), and the east-coast rail line (which runs between roles, not church roles. Any individual person who is a sec-
London and Edinburgh). In the eyes of many commenta- ular authority might well have “private” or “personal” re-
tors, Gormley’s Angel had come to stand for Gateshead’s ligious commitments but is expected to keep these sepa-
economic and cultural regeneration in the late 1990s, a sign rate from the work of the state—to maintain the sense of
of public art’s ability to stir the spirit of capitalism. The differentiation that is central to the normative version of a
Angel also gave Gateshead and the north a sense of re- post-Enlightenment political settlement (Casanova 1994:5).
spectability, for that region too has been laughed at in the The secular, in this sense, is cast as a kind of political and
past. As the Guardian (2008) editorialized, “Whether viewed social neutrality, and the chief commitment is to notions
as a spiritually uplifting icon or a phoenix rising from the of tolerance, fairness, and equality of access and opportu-
ashes of the abandoned coal mine beneath it, the Angel of nity. In another sense, though, secular serves many of the
the North has been a joyous addition to the northern land- Christians in Bible Society (and, indeed, more widely, on
scape.” Going on in this vein, the Guardian emphasized the basis of what I observed during my fieldwork) as a code
how, after the Angel’s arrival, Gateshead was the beneficiary word for “antireligious” and thus invokes the figure of the
of much else besides—not least, readers are informed, “a aggressor to whom I have referred at several points. The sec-
fine restaurant.” ular in this sense is not a neutral descriptive but part of an
There had been some contention, Luke went on to ideological agenda—a secularist position that is perceived
tell his colleagues, about how the project was being “mes- as hostile to the very existence of faith. In this second use, a
saged.” The borough council had proposed calling the dis- secularist is presumed to be an atheist as well—and an an-
play “Swindon’s Mythical Christmas,” said Luke, in a delib- titheist atheist at that.
erate tone of disappointment. A wave of sympathetic sighs It is important not to conclude that secular is a bad
rolled through the room: Ooh, that wouldn’t do. The society word for the staff at Bible Society—something to revile and
needs to build relationships in the wider community, but resist in favor of such presumed opposites as religion, spir-
it ought not surrender principles; implying that angels are ituality, or the sacred (see Engelke 2010). Indeed, Luke and
“mythical” would be implying that they are make-believe his colleagues often embrace what they perceive to be sec-
and might end up serving as fodder for the aggressive sec- ular; moreover, as I go on to discuss, references to religion
ularists and atheists out there.7 So Luke pushed back a bit can, in some contexts, invite opprobrium, for not all staff
and was able to get the council to agree to call the project are entirely happy with that term either.
“Swindon’s Angelic Christmas.” In this sense, and despite the initial impulse to tag the
The messaging also involved designing posters to pro- promotional posters for the angels with “purely” biblical
mote the project, and, on this front, the society wanted to language, the council’s unease with the line “Good News!
keep a bit closer to its biblical focus. The first suggested Hope!” turned out to be unintentionally helpful. The coun-
text for the poster was “Good News! Hope!” Very biblical, cil had been quite right to want to tone the “religion” down.
indeed. But the council did not like this. “The secular au- The poster ended up with a more appropriate amalgama-
thorities want to reduce everything to a muddle to not of- tion of old and new, sacred and secular. The text read: “The
fend anyone,” as Luke put it on another occasion—a “Bible Angel Said Unto Them: Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Here, the
and Culture” seminar held in Swindon just a few weeks be- King James Bible—“And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
fore Christmas Day. “‘We don’t do religion,’” Luke said, af- for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall
fecting the voice of one of the local councilors with whom be to all people” (Luke 2:10)—meets Bobby McFerrin (1988):
he had worked and invoking the figure and language of “Here is a little song I wrote / You might want to sing it note
Campbell. “That’s the extreme secular line,” Luke contin- for note / Don’t worry, be happy / In every life we have some
ued, switching back to speaking as himself: “Their religion trouble / When you worry you make it double / Don’t worry,
is no religion.” All the same, of course, he went on, the so- be happy.”8
ciety did not want to “do religion.” That is not what an- Several months after Christmas 2006, Luke and I sat
gels are about. But in the context of the Bible and Cul- down for an interview in one of the small meeting rooms
ture seminar, Luke could speak freely to the audience of at Bible House to reflect on the angels project, now that
visitors (mostly from Scandinavia, on this occasion) about it was over. I asked Luke what he had hoped the project
the tension the council’s attitude created for him and his would provoke. What kind of question did he want Christ-
colleagues. mas shoppers to have asked? “Gosh, is the Christmas story
At this point it is helpful to clarify the ways in which a spiritual one?” he replied. “Or, is the Bible a spiritual
Luke and other staff at Bible Society use the term secular. story?” It was pretty basic, then, I said. “Totally basic,” he
In the December 2006 seminar, Luke was appealing to two confirmed:

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Really way back there, I think. I didn’t have great


hopes that they would wander along and suddenly
fall on their knees and go, “Oh yes, angels: they must
be all around me.” . . . It was as basic as that. And it
goes back to the insight that Yvonne Richmond and
Steve Hollinghurst had had—that there was something
deeply spiritual in the recognition that there are spiri-
tual beings. And therefore, where can we build bridges?
. . . I was trying to be in the place with the person who
hasn’t considered a spiritual dimension to life, [yet]
who is, apparently, quite spiritual . . . I’m trying to earth
it, make it very real, very tangible. So, the angels weren’t
effete or ethereal. They were quite tough images; they
were angular. They give a great sense of speed when
they’re turning in the wind, they were really quite vig-
orous and active—living.

If the angels and the promotional posters were not


meant to be too in-your-face—determinedly underdeter-
mined, as I put it above—there were still ways in which the
society wanted to push the envelope of what to expect. Per-
haps their most provocative idea was to have the angels
mounted as if they were heading to the end of the shop-
ping Parade, where the public toilets are located. The so-
ciety wanted to put up a nativity scene at the toilets, mak-
ing the point that, when Jesus came, he came not to the
center of society but the margins. As best the Bible Society
could figure, a public toilet in Swindon was the modern-day
equivalent of a manger in Bethlehem. The borough council
would not go for this at all, much to the amusement and
annoyance of Luke and his colleagues. Luke’s immediate
boss, Ann Holt, who runs the society’s Bible Advocacy Team Figure 2. An angel in the mall.
(more on which below), was particularly exercised. The na-
tivity itself was not the problem; what the council said
was that putting a nativity so close to the toilets might be Reception of the angels in Swindon was mixed, in
offensive to Christians. But here they were, of course, as Luke’s view, and in our interview he was eager to stress it
I was told again and again, telling this to an organization was his first major project in the arts job. There were in-
of Christians. Luke, Ann, and others cast this as evidence deed no people dropping to their knees and praising the
of political correctness gone mad and of the knots that a angels around them, as predicted. At the same time, the
“secular authority” committed to “neutrality” can tie itself angels got a bigger holiday crowd than the stars of Harry
up in. Potter had the year before: over 1,000 people turned out for
All the same, and incredulity aside, the society knew the town-center launch event in 2006. There was no evi-
such a move would be offensive to some Christians. That dence from the merchants that business had picked up be-
is precisely why they wanted to do it. Indeed, the staff at cause of an angelic presence, although here too Luke never
Bible Society are often more vexed by their brothers and seriously thought the angels could lead to that. “There are
sisters in faith than by the unchurched public; these fel- many more things,” he said, “like mortgage rates, interest
lows, the staff feel, often need some shaking up—some rates, and the state of the economy that build traffic into
prompts to connect with the more uncomfortable aspects shops at Christmas time.”
of the Gospel message (and even, as I come to below, The angels did make it into the regional news. BBC
to connect with any aspects of the Gospel whatsoever). Wiltshire featured a slide show of pictures of the angels
As one member of the staff often told me, the society on its “Wiltshire Life” website and moderated a com-
wants to cause “good trouble” for Christians. Ironically, per- ment board. There were 13 posts by 12 people, eight of
haps, the council was fulfilling its mandate for tolerance whom could be said to have been positive, and of the four
on the streets: The Parade needed to remain a “neutral” who were negative, two berated the council for what they
space. assumed was its frittering away of money, and another

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criticized Swindon in general for trying to be “cultured,” of inspiration and ideas that are not necessarily tied to the
playing quite deliberately on the town’s abject image. There Gospel—a good book, rather than the Good Book, if you
was only one negative comment about the angels them- will. For the angels project, as I have shown, this involved
selves: one man thought they looked like the prototype for meeting the shopping public on what Luke hoped to be
a new version of the Concorde. For him, it seems, they were a spiritual middle ground—trying to entice this public, in
perhaps too underdetermined as signs, calling to mind not a roundabout way, to make links between the angel kites
heaven but what many Britons consider its hellish inverse: swaying in the air and their own nascent or florescent faith
Heathrow Airport. in spirits. As he explained it to me, Luke sees his particular
Two of the positive reactions on the BBC Wiltshire web- part of Bible Advocacy as “working alongside those in the
site stand out in relation to my argument about ambience. visual arts—both of faith and no faith—to see the Bible as
One person, identified as Steve, wrote, “I think they are a place of inspiration for creativity and communication.” If
beautiful! A real change to the normal lights and a won- Bible Advocacy is successful, it will effect a shift in what the
derful change to the environment. My 4 year-old was fas- society understands to be widespread attitudes toward the
cinated by them!” And another, identified as Amanda Hull, Bible as irrelevant, out of date, or the preserve of “fanati-
wrote, “I passed one on the street today and it was swaying cal” Christians who spend most of their time telling other
in the wind beautifully—what a clever idea! Well done Bible people what they should or should not be doing. This is part
Society and Mr Robertshaw.” of why Luke and his colleagues came around to the idea of
What interests me in these comments, and gave some referencing Bobby McFerrin in the angels poster: It was an
encouragement to the society, is the hint of the angels’ am- injection of contemporaneity and a helpful push from the
bient effect—the extent to which their physicality and sen- “secular authorities.”
suality became affective. The Christmas season, of course, The perceived need for Bible advocacy of this sort is
is often drenched with mood. The Christmas season is pro- relatively new to the agenda of Bible Society. For much of
duced through ambient media—the music in stores and its 200-year history, the society focused on printing Bibles
piped into the streets, the lights, the decorations. Indeed, and selling them at heavily subsidized prices, made pos-
certainly in a place like England, Christmas is arguably the sible by charitable subventions. Throughout the Victorian
single most effective day of the year for driving home the era, this was often complemented by funding large-scale
power and importance of ambience. The angels, swaying in translation projects; the society spread with the empire.9
the wind, producing a great sense of speed, were being put In its domestic market, which covers England and Wales,
forward as indexes of ambient faith—a sensual invitation to the society does similar things, albeit under very different
“do spiritual.” circumstances than are found in, say, Ethiopia. The main
It is not enough to conclude, however, that the angels difference between the work in England and Wales and the
were successfully ambient on the basis of a few comments international work is that, in the domestic market, the big
on a website forum. And I found it unproductive, stand- problem the society perceives is the lack of any real de-
ing out on the Parade, to ask passersby what they thought, sire to read the Bible in the first place. This perception
as calling attention to an ambient effect is a surefire way is reinforced by the unfamiliarity of the society itself to
of dispelling it. Ambience is successful mostly in this con- the general public and its uneven recognition within the
text through its nonrecognition. And yet the success of this churches. The society’s patron is the queen, but this re-
project is, it ought to go without saying, somewhat beside flects its onetime standing more than its contemporary
the point. I am not arguing on the basis of results but, rather, position.
intention. Bible Advocacy is a strategy for sparking or resparking
an appreciation of the Bible within England and Wales. It is
not a sales technique; success is not understood in terms
Bible Advocacy and Lyfe: “Getting it out in
of the trading arm’s balance sheets. Staff on the Bible Ad-
public”
vocacy Team do not want people to go out and buy Bibles:
Luke’s effort to bring angels to Swindon is part of a larger They want people to open the copies they have, handed
program at Bible Society known as Bible Advocacy. To help down from their grandparents or kept from a religious ed-
further situate his work, and transition to my second main ucation class in school.
example of how ambient faith is envisioned and enacted, it In addition to Luke’s work in the arts world, the Advo-
is useful to say more about Bible Advocacy. cacy Team includes a media officer, who liaises with jour-
A major part of Bible Advocacy is about getting the so- nalists in an effort to get the Bible good press, and a par-
called unchurched person to take a second look at faith is- liamentary liaison officer, who works with MPs and others
sues, especially as found in and through the Bible. It is not in Westminster in an effort to support a place for faith in
supposed to be about proselytizing. Indeed, the society of- public service (pace Campbell’s diktat). In 2006, the society
ten goes to some length to message the Bible as a source also founded Theos, which it tags as “the Public Theology

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Think Tank,” whose small, London-based staff produce and


commission both polemical and research-based pieces on
politics and current events. All of these team members fo-
cus at least in part on the unchurched public and “public
square.” As with Luke’s angels project, some of what they do
has only oblique or partial connection to the biblical text.
Some of their projects are also about the production of am-
bient faith—a background effect that can be engaged with
or go unconsidered by turn.10
The team does more than ambient work. Not every
project is about a background effect. One of Luke’s other
projects, for example, was running a short film competition,
“Big Story, Little Film,” in which amateurs were asked to
relate a story from the Bible in five minutes. The film com-
petition was about sensuality, reinforcing the society’s com- Figure 3. Getting it out in public! A Lyfe promotional shot, here in a pub
rather than a café.
mitment to moving beyond the text. But it was not about
ambience; here, the Bible was the central focus of attention.
“Big Story, Little Film” was different as well in that it
focused more specifically on Christians and Christian au- and, as I now suggest, is supposed to help set the ambience
diences. (The winning entry was a Lego animation, “Jesus of the public square—to be literally part of the “background
Calms the Storm,” produced by a father and his primary- noise” of daily life. As Rob put it to me, “I mean, that is a
school-age son, with the boy reading the text from Mark huge leap. When I talk to people about Lyfe and they go, ‘Oh,
4:35–41.) Most of this work is straightforwardly connected we have to go to Starbucks?’ I say, ‘Yeah, go to Starbucks. Get
to the Bible. It is to one of Luke’s colleagues, and the work this thing we call the Bible. Get our Christian faith outside
he has been doing in this vein to promote Bible reading “in of our comfortable homes and go somewhere public.’”
public,” that I now turn in an effort to round out an under- To encourage this “leap,” Bible Society has produced
standing of ambience as both a social concern and analytic a short promotional video about Lyfe, which Rob shows to
tool. I have chosen this second extended example because various church groups and which can be played on Lyfe’s
of how it both reinforces and resituates the conceptual web and Facebook pages. The video opens with catchy
issues raised thus far. music (modern, upbeat), carried throughout, before cut-
Rob Hare was hired by Bible Society to develop Lyfe ting to a statement that flashes up against a white back-
(short for Life, your faith encounters), a project aimed at ground: “WE USED TO HIDE IT.” Then the video cuts to a young
getting Christians to start Bible reading groups with their woman. “I have to say sometimes I feel quite embarrassed,”
friends and colleagues. As mentioned in passing in relation she says, hand on chest. Then back to another statement:
to the nativity scene that Luke and Ann Holt had pushed “WE USED TO BE ASHAMED OF IT.” Then another woman: “It’s
for in Swindon, one of the perceptions within Bible So- open in my handbag and you can’t tell what it is,” she says,
ciety is that, even as the unchurched public needs en- hands on her Bible, which flops open easily from so much
couragement to engage the Bible, many Christians do too. use. “BUT NOW WE’RE GETTING IT OUT IN PUBLIC,” flashes the
Bible Advocacy is thus also about building confidence in next message, and then the video cuts to footage of a cof-
Christians who might feel intimidated about reading the fee shop. “Aw, shucks,” says the second woman in a voice-
Bible for themselves. over, “if it can’t happen in Café Nero, then where’s it gonna
Lyfe is run virtually: Anyone can register on the website happen?” (Café Nero is an Italian-style coffee-shop chain in
and download the materials themselves as PDF files, which Britain.) More messages appear: “SHARING IT WITH OTHERS.”
are organized around particular themes (hope, money, jus- “ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, ANYHOW.” “What’s great about being in
tice, etc.) and related to a set of passages from both tes- a pub is, it’s a relaxed atmosphere,” says one man. Another
taments. Rob does give presentations on Lyfe to churches message: “UNLEASHING ITS POWER.” “It’s saying that the Word
and at Christian festivals, but the society’s hope is that the of God is relevant irrespective of where we are,” says an-
project will spread virally. Lyfe is not pitched as a “Bible other man. “Bookshop, pub, someone’s kitchen table, wher-
study,” which, the staff think, would come across as too in- ever it might be,” says a third man. “You and your mates in a
timidating and formal. But there is one aspect of the pro- normal setting,” he later adds. “It starts conversations with
gram that Rob and his colleagues realize may be intimidat- people sometimes. That’s a bit surprising. You’re in a pub
ing: When the society has its way, Lyfe groups meet not in with a Bible. I mean, [someone asks] ‘Jesus didn’t drink, did
church halls or people’s living rooms but in local pubs and he?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, of course, yes, he did.’” “It doesn’t
coffee shops. Lyfe is supposed to be “public” in this sense, feel like doing church or doing religion.”

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Angels in Swindon ! American Ethnologist

In just under four minutes, this promotional video aims As in the angels project, the production of ambient
to convey a sense of understanding the embarrassment that faith in a Lyfe group depends on at least two refusals: the
Christians might feel about “being Christian” in public— refusal to accept the distinction between public and pri-
especially about reading the Bible. By playing on a language vate when applied to religion and the refusal to be satisfied
with sexual undertones, complete with a transgressive sug- with the very idea of “religion” itself. In many ways the argu-
gestion of “getting it out in public,” the society is situating ment about public and private here simply reinforces what
the Bible at the heart of debates about public mores and I considered in relation to the angels project: Ambience be-
manners. Is this something that should take place outside comes a way of undercutting the distinction between them,
the home? Simultaneously, the video provides reflections of, in the Lyfe case, allowing for the possibility of a “private”
from Lyfe participants who can attest to the program’s value. conversation to be overheard. Not unlike what Hirschkind
The comments throughout by Lyfe participants first rein- (2006:125–128) found in Cairo, here a “public noise” of faith
force and then challenge what is perceived to constitute a can sometimes push, or be pushed, to the foreground.
“normal setting” for engaging with Scripture: the privacy, as In Lyfe, however, the paradoxical way in which this “re-
nested fractally within this instance, of one’s church life. In fusal” becomes possible is better evident than in the an-
the process, they testify to the potential for both outreach— gels project: Bible Society undercuts one normative public–
“it starts conversations”—and an inner experience of faith private contract (the religious one) by undertaking another
and what it should be—“it doesn’t feel like doing church or (the commercial one). Getting it out in public is made pos-
doing religion.” sible, in other words, as much by the cappuccino on the ta-
During the spring of 2008, I joined Rob’s Lyfe group, ble as by the Bible or piece of paper in one’s hand. What
which he ran with some friends from the Baptist church he the cappuccino stands for is the commercial transaction
attended in suburban Surrey. Dutifully, we met not in the that has taken place between the store and the customer.
church hall but in a nearby Café Nero. Sometimes my fel- Lyfe members, are, in effect, buying the right to subvert the
low group members brought a pocket Bible, but more often public–private iteration of religion, but only by acknowledg-
than not we worked from nondescript PDF printouts. Each ing that Café Nero constitutes a public space for its paying
Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m., we gathered in the café’s spa- customers. It is, in this sense, the kind of private public-
cious seating area, settling into the fake leather armchairs. ity that does not obtain in the space of a shopping mall or
There were usually four or five of us, and we met for about high street. As can now be further appreciated, it matters
an hour, competing for space with young mothers meeting that the angels were not mounted in the Parade’s shops but,
up for chats and the occasional pair or trio of office work- rather, in the more public spaces that connected them. All
ers on a late lunch or early afternoon break. As in many the same, there is a difference between the joyful noise of
such situations—when one is asked to put one’s thoughts Lyfe and that of, say, Cairo’s streets. It goes back to some-
on the line, in front of others—the sessions began some- thing of the theological commitment that undergirds the
what slowly. No one ever wanted to be the first to speak up society’s historically important theological “no comment.”
on whatever theme we were addressing, and we only eased In both the Parade and the coffee shop or pub, it is up to
into discussion of the Lyfe materials after casual chitchat. the other—pedestrian or patron—to engage. On the basis
But, eventually, everyone unwound, and some quite ani- of what Hirschkind describes, that engagement is often not
mated discussions could ensue. It did not happen on ev- negotiable. Bible Society does not do megaphoned mes-
ery occasion, but there were at least regular moments when sages, and that matters in terms of how the link between
the conversations went above the decibel level normally sensuality and faith gets cast.
deemed appropriate by the English—and especially the There is one more comparison to draw. For Luke, the
English of a well-heeled county such as Surrey. Again, the refusal of religion played out in the main by his appeal to
details of these conversations are not central here; what I a broader discourse on the spiritual; in Lyfe, the intention
want to remark on is the sense in which the awkwardness is somewhat different and best captured in one of the final
of the whole exercise slowly transformed itself into a “joyful remarks in the promotional video, emphasized above in my
noise” of sorts—not the noise of song as expressed in Psalm reading of what I called the “inner experience” of partici-
100, from which the phrase comes, but a heartfelt exchange pants: “It doesn’t feel like doing church or doing religion.”
that helped shape the ambience of the café floor. If we were For many of the Christians who work for Bible Society, or
not quite reconstituting the public sphere that emerged involve themselves in Bible Society projects, the very idea
out of London’s coffee houses in the 18th century (see of “religion” itself is, indeed, often spoken of as an impo-
Habermas 1989:27–42), we were nevertheless, in our own, sition. For the members of Rob’s Lyfe group, for instance,
ambient way, “getting it out in public.” No one from nearby participation was not about being “religious” or “spiritual”
tables ever stopped what they were doing to ask us what at all; they spoke about what they were doing as “biblical”
kind of coffee Jesus drank, but we were an undoubted sen- and “Christian.” Staff at the society often spoke in this way
sual presence that, for the members of the group, served as too, especially when I tried to frame questions in relation
an important sign of faith and act of public engagement. to “religion.” Recall here as well that staff often express an

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ambivalence toward the church, at least part of which needs public and private. Another kind of study might well high-
to be understood in light of this reluctance to support “insti- light others: faith–knowledge, passion–reason, and more.
tutional religion.” Many staff, in fact, are influenced by fig- In the examples of Bible Society projects presented here,
ures in the “Emerging Church” movement, which places a this master story of differentiation is very much part of the
strong emphasis on postinstitutional modes of sociality and background—a kind of conceptual ambience in itself. What
in which the very kind of small-group, nonhierarchical in- this background provides is a way to foreground another el-
teractions encouraged by Lyfe become the norm.11 “I mean, ement of the story, however. For, one thing that the society’s
I would love for there to be an established church that was projects make clear is that questions of public religion are
of some use,” one staff member once said to me. “And if I also often questions of religion’s publicity—of its manifesta-
thought for a moment that I could influence it to be that, I tions not in politics per se but, rather, the market. As shown
would go.” In the meantime, she never went to services, and in other studies of religion and modernity, not least those
did not belong to a church. On Sunday mornings she stayed that focus on shifts to “spirituality” (Bender 2010; Carrette
in bed, at most switching on the radio to have a church and King 2005; Heelas 2008), the market square becomes
service playing in the background. as important as the public square for articulating positions
on public–private divides (see also Casanova 1994:63–65).
The Bible Society’s focus on Christmas, on a shopping mall,
Conclusion
and on coffee shop chains is not a contingent choice of sea-
Gal emphasizes that every recalibration of the public and sons and sites through which to advance its agendas. By
private is something new: You cannot transpose their way of conclusion, then, it might be productive to move the
relation from one scale to another and preserve their mean- discussion beyond a focus on religious projects to sug-
ings in every respect. Although a dichotomy, then, “the gest how an interest in ambience has been taken up
semiotic logic forms a scaffolding for possibilities of em- elsewhere.
bedding and thus for change, creativity and argument” (Gal In 1978, Brian Eno released his path-breaking record,
2002:85). Thus, combining a concern for the structural with Music for Airports. This was the first self-consciously pro-
the historical, Gal refers to her position as metastructural: duced “ambient music”; the term itself was coined by Eno.
“an attempt to sketch the semiotic conditions for making His motivation was to counter what he saw as the leveling
a structuralist argument” (2002: 92, n. 2). And yet, for all effects of the by-then ubiquitous muzak, which he defined
the dynamism in a fractal semiotic model—for all the pos- as “familiar tunes arranged in a lightweight and derivative
sible changes it allows—even a metastructural position is, manner” (Eno 1978). Rather than beginning with mass pro-
by definition, grounded in a certain immutability of the duction, then, and making an environment fit the product,
terms. It suggests that change can never be total. When Eno wanted to turn things around, to celebrate the speci-
all is said and done, one is still talking about public and ficities of a space and time—or, as he put it, “acoustic and
private. atmospheric idiosyncrasies.” Such site-specific composi-
It is here that the Bible Society’s strategy of “public en- tions should contain within themselves a whole series of
gagement,” in which a harnessing of the ambient plays a possible levels of engagement. At its best, ambient music
key role, can serve as an illustrative case for the analyst. It should be capable both of stirring thought and sweeping
is here that a metastructuralist semiotics benefits from at- it away: “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting” (Eno
tention to materiality and sensuality, because the produc- 1978).
tion of ambient faith is not only an effort to foster change, There is a danger in Eno’s approach of making a mis-
creativity, and argument in relation to the public–private take highlighted by Walter Benjamin (1968): insisting on the
distinction: It is about obviating the need for such a dis- connection between an original work of art and its aura.
tinction altogether. What the society’s staff would like is for There is nothing inherent in muzak that prevents it from
Christianity to be above qualification—they wish for a world being “interesting.” And the more general point that any
in which there is nothing to be gained by referring to re- music can be ambient music also holds, at least in what
ligion as public or private in the first place. This is the might be called a weak sense of the term. If music is part
kind of public religion, in other words, that offers “coun- of the background noise, it is ambient. What this highlights
terfactual normative critiques of dominant historical trends is how, for Eno, ambient music in his sense of the term—the
. . . by crossing boundaries [and] by raising questions pub- “strong” sense, if you will—is an intentional creation. It is
licly about the autonomous pretensions of the differenti- supposed to be in the background, created as such. If this
ated spheres” (Casanova 1994:43). is the case, ambient music also relies on a paradox, for it
Secularization as a theory of differentiation is primar- is intentionally nonintentional. What it “does” to or for the
ily told as a story of the separation of religion from politics. listener is supposed to be up to the listener. It tries to be
I have considered in this article how that differentiation is nothing or, perhaps more accurately, anything. Eno’s mu-
brought about by a further nesting of differentiations—of sic, then, also raises important questions about the extent

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to which a sensual form can be intentionally produced— ing a major challenge to the subject–object distinction—yet
or controlled. Likewise, ambient music can also be related another fractal at work.
back to Gal’s model of public and private as nested and frac- These two brief examples of ambient music and ambi-
tal. For one function of ambient music, whether in the weak ent media are only indicative. But I hope they are enough
or strong sense, is to allow people to have privacy in public. to highlight that the question of “differentiation” stands at
Eno’s ambient projects are a critique of music’s mar- the heart of a range of contemporary projects and concerns
ketization, its mass commodification. Yet is should proba- with the constitution of public–private divides. “Ambience”
bly come as no surprise that the concept of “ambience” has is a useful mediating concept in these various projects, a
been equally well harnessed by those who want to extend, way of challenging the sufficiency or aptness of a fractal.
rather than restrict, the reach of the market. The emergence Throughout this article, I have suggested how the sense
of what is known as ambient media advertising demon- of ambience gets imagined as the background for a fractally
strates this extension. recursive conception of publicity and privacy in the work of
In the context of advertising, ambient media refers to one Christian organization. As I hope to have shown, Bible
the promotion of a product in site- and material-specific Society’s appeal to ambience can be good to think. With a
forms, most of which will never have been previously rec- sensual semiotics, scholars can better understand, and even
ognized as appropriate spaces for advertising purposes. So push beyond, both the metastructure and metaphysics of
this promotion is “ambient” because it foregrounds what the public–private distinction. The society’s ambient faith
would normally be understood as the background to a tra- is supposed to be “interesting,” as Eno might have it. Yet,
ditional advertising space or medium. If one thinks of the as I have also suggested, by linking this move to longer-
cars and taxis passing a billboard on the road as part of the term commitments to producing and circulating texts as if
expected “background” to the context of “billboard adver- “without comment,” the potential to be interesting is de-
tising,” then taxis that are painted with ads, or as ads, can pendent on what Eno might also recognize as the potential
be understood as ambient media. to be ignored. The theology behind the society’s not having
Most people are now so used to taxis-as-ads that the a theology hinges on choice, a value central to the mind-
ambient move will have lost its intended effect, which is set of the marketeer and evangelical alike. What is being
to prompt a kind of figure–ground reversal that challenges played out here, through the ambient, is a tension between
understandings of the organization of public space. Even the material, as a bathos of modernity, and the spiritual, as
though, these days, taxis may not be particularly controver- an equally modern lure.
sial platforms, it is not unusual for forms of ambient adver-
tising to cause a stir and, in some cases, disapproval. One
campaign that generated ire was the decision of the CBS
television network to promote its programs on the shells of Notes
35 million eggs (New York Times 2006). Most of the ads were Acknowledgments. Research for this article was funded by a New
pitched as puns, as in a “hard-boiled drama,” “leave the Researcher Award from the Annual Fund of the London School
yokes to us,” and so forth. Disagreement over this campaign of Economics and the Suntory and Toyota Centres for Economics
hinged in part on whether and to what extent this should and Related Disciplines (STICERD) as well as a British Academy
Small Research Grant (SG-47097). A version was first delivered as
be seen as an invasion of privacy—a battle cry of “Eggs are a keynote to a workshop on the Anthropology of Christianity at
not public!” Of course the specificity of the product and its the University of Copenhagen in April 2009 and subsequently to
packaging was itself an intentional provocation, because, the Porticus Foundation Global Seminar on Religion, Media, and
before buying eggs, people open the cartons to make sure Culture in Accra, Ghana, as well as at Durham University, Birk-
they are not broken. The consumer thus becomes impli- beck College, the University of Virginia, and Cornell University. I
would like to thank the organizers and participants in these venues
cated in the process of bringing the ad concept to fruition, for feedback on those occasions, including particular comments
and much was also made about breakfast time becoming a from Andreas Bandak, Jonas Adelin Jørgensen, Anthony Shenoda,
commercial event. Such implications are also pronounced Birgit Meyer, David Howes, Michael Carrithers, Gordon Lynch,
in ambient media campaigns in which potential consumers Magnus Fiskesjö, Terence Turner, Susan McKinnon, and Eve
are interpolated into the ads themselves—when one’s body Danziger. Above all I would like to thank Bible Society for hosting
my research and, for their comments, Luke Walton, Rob Hare, and
becomes part of the media message. One increasingly com- the anonymous peer reviewers.
mon ad type in London, for example (and likely elsewhere), 1. My fieldwork on Bible Society ran from July 2006 to
has been to emplace headless bodies on the sides of buses, December 2009. I conducted an institutional ethnography, with a
such that the heads of actual passengers complete an ad- focus on particular individuals and projects. Other than the revela-
vertisement image. Another is to incorporate a mirror into tory moment Luke experienced on Swindon’s shopping Parade—
which happened before I arrived and is based on his account
an ad so that someone’s reflection becomes part of the ad. to me—I collected the material on his project by following him
These ambient campaigns are a metacomment on what in his weekly work routine, much of which was devoted to de-
viewers already know, which is that the market is mount- veloping the shopping center’s Christmas display, during the late

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summer of 2006 (August and September). More generally, from July 6. As put in this case by the travel writer Paul Torpey (2007).
2006 to October 2007, I spent part of each week at the society’s 7. One such well-known perceived aggressor, the philosopher
head office in Swindon or meeting with staff in London or Greater A. C. Grayling, has, indeed, been known to mock a belief in angels;
Manchester (where another major project was underway), attend- see, for example, Grayling 2007:28.
ing staff meetings and team meetings as well as interacting with 8. The aptness of Bobby McFerrin being spliced into the Gospel
staff more casually in the Swindon office’s canteen. I conducted of Luke was reinforced for several of the staff at Bible Society be-
74 tape-recorded interviews with Bible Society staff, trustees, sup- cause, throughout 2006, politicians, pundits, and even academics
porters, and colleagues or opposites in other institutions. In ad- were declaring the importance of happiness and well-being as
dition to the projects discussed in this article, I followed a major the best measures of a successful society. The economist Richard
advertising campaign in Greater Manchester, the development and Layard helped set the grounds for discussion in his best-selling
launch of the society’s think tank (Theos) in London, and the work book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005). What most in-
of the society’s liaison officer in the Houses of Parliament. I also at- terested the staff at Bible Society was Layard’s argument that money
tended dozens of society-sponsored events (workshops, public lec- cannot buy happiness—an old adage, of course, but one that
tures, staff away days) and equal numbers of events and Christian Layard set out, in his “new science,” in what many readers appar-
festivals in which various staff participated. Although most of the ently found a particularly compelling portrait, on the basis of an
research took place in Swindon, London, and Greater Manchester, analysis of “happiness levels” in industrialized countries since the
the project also took me from churches and fairs and vicars’ living 1950s. This economist was not the only one to weigh in on the
rooms in rural and suburban England and Wales to the environs of matter. Conservative Party leader Cameron told the Google Zeit-
Cape Town, South Africa, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I ob- geist Europe conference that “there’s more to life than money” and
served the society’s international work. that “improving our society’s sense of well-being is . . . the central
2. For the full census results, see Office for National Statistics n.d. political challenge of our time” (BBC News 2006). Cameron even
Although the figure of 72 percent has been contested as an indi- got the Conservatives talking about GWB: “general well-being”—
cation of “belief,” the census is often cited by Christians in pol- a clear contrast to GDP (gross domestic product), which is what
itics, policy circles, and the churches when it comes to making voters might expect Conservatives to be more interested in. Staff at
arguments about the character of the nation and the importance of Bible Society were reading Layard and other happiologists—such as
supporting religious institutions. See Day 2009 for a discussion of Oliver James—and they were listening to the political parties trade
the concept of “belief” and the figures on religion in the 2001 cen- platitudes about well-being. What they felt was missing from these
sus. Some researchers and social campaigners prefer the figures on discussions was a faith element—a sense of how spirituality could
religion in the annual British Social Attitudes surveys, which con- serve as a counterbalance to the demands of the 21st-century rat
sistently suggest that approximately 50 percent of the British pop- race. The angels project was part of their effort to put it into the
ulation should be labeled “Christian;” see Day 2009 and Voas and equation. The groundwork set by Layard, Cameron, and others was
Crockett 2005 for discussion of the surveys and how to gauge “be- ripe for the cultivation of life’s “spiritual” dimensions.
lief” vis-à-vis “cultural affiliation.” 9. Indeed, the official name of the society is the British and For-
3. This example of an “Islamic” ambience is also, of course, rele- eign Bible Society, but this is never used by staff in the domestic
vant to debates in Europe and various anxieties about certain kinds context and appears these days only in such contexts as the annual
of religious presence, more specifically Muslim presences. Laı̈cité accounts; it sounds very colonial.
in France, as inscribed in and through the controversy of wear- 10. One example of this is a Pentecostal-style prayer session I at-
ing the veil in schools, is a well-known recent example (see Bowen tended in the Houses of Parliament in June 2008; the pastor leading
2008); perhaps less well known but certainly apt given this article’s the session, who had been invited by the parliamentary liaison, fell
focus, was the refusal by King’s College, London, in October 2002, to into tongues, as did several of the other 20 participants. We were in
sell the site of St. Thomas’s Hospital, which is located directly across a meeting room, and the door was closed, but the session was very
from the Houses of Parliament, to Aga Khan, who wanted to turn it loud, and we could certainly be heard in the hallway and adjacent
into an Islamic cultural center. The Aga Khan Foundation had bid meeting rooms.
£24 million for the site—more than twice the bid of the hospital’s 11. See Bielo 2009 for an account of the Emerging Church in the
Charitable Foundation. Two years earlier, the Ministry of Defence United States; in the context of the focus here on sensual engage-
had similarly rejected an offer from the Aga Khan to purchase the ments, note that Bielo recounts one Emerging Church–style service
Royal Army Medical College at Millbank—also quite close to Parlia- he attended during which bread was baked, so that the congrega-
ment. See London Evening Standard 2002. It is worth noting, how- tion could appreciate and savor the smell. More generally, there has
ever, that the lines being drawn in this case did not necessarily con- been of late renewed attention to the senses in Protestant traditions
form to a stereotypical “Christendom versus Caliphate” model; the of Christianity; see Meyer 2010 and Pickstock 2010.
Guardian reported on “suggestions” that the outgoing archbishop
of Canterbury, George Carey, “had been supporting the Aga Khan
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