Part of IRCPL’s Rethinking Public Religion Project
Tom Boylston – Religion as a Problem of Attention: Asceticism and Spectacle in Orthodox Ethiopia
In this lecture, Dr. Tom Boylston will discuss contemporary Orthodox Christian revival in Ethiopia from two perspectives: the ascetic cultivation of attention to God through fasting, and the capture of public attention through preaching movements, public exorcisms, and educational drives. Orthodox Christians in Addis Ababa agree that it is acceptable and necessary to use media for the promotion of religion. But they have intense debates on how to use media correctly: How to promote asceticism, humility, and attention to God, but avoid pride, showmanship, and attention to the spectacle? And how to ensure Church control over an increasingly diverse ecology of religious information?
Orthodox solutions to these problems revolve around attention. We are all worldly beings, but our attention may be directed in worldly or spiritual ways. Sin is understood above all as a product of distraction; the only way to avoid it is to regulate the body and to submit to the saints. These techniques remain the province of the Orthodox Church. Boylston therefore suggests that the management of attention is crucial both to the understanding of religious publics, and to the broader issues of social control that surround them.
Tom Boylston is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of The Stranger at the Feast: Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community (University of California Press, 2018). His current research focuses on play, science, and public cosmology.