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Theory, concepts and operationalisation

The project combines work on narrativity and emotion in order to analyse total devotion. Recent work sees emotion and narrative as fundamentally entwined, and both play a role in religious identity formation and in how religions train devotion via narratives in order to retain an effective hold on the participants. Our common point of observation – total devotion – is formulated theoretically in dialogue with research on radical religion, and strategically on the basis of one of our vital texts, namely Deuteronomy 6,4-9 from the Jewish Torah. This text, with its famous command to love Yahweh, focuses on devotion as total in several ways: it stipulates total love for the deity with all of one’s heart, all of one’s being, and with all of one’s strength, and total devotion in keeping the deity and his commandments in mind everywhere and at all times. Our term “total devotion” signals the intensity of the loyalty-relation between the deity and the devotee/s, the emphasis on emotionality, and its all-encompassing quality. Our project thus centres on total devotion as an intense, all-encompassing emotional and binding relation between a deity and a devotee or group, fostered via narrative. This is our common point of observation as we analyse emic narratives about total devotion. We focus on in-group dynamics and what the ancient sources say about the intense, emotional, total relationship between the deity and the devotee/s and how this relationship is formatted narratively. Our hypothesis is that the nexus of emotions, narrativity and in-group emic perfection ideals and practices are key factors that contribute to the pull of radical religion. With our historical, comparative case studies we trace decisive historical developments in the emergence of total devotion plots in ancient forms of Judaism and Christianity.

A predominant trend in studies of radical religion is to focus on violence (Juergensmeyer 2013; Ward&Sherlock 2013; Kaplan 2015; Assmann 2016; Kühle 2018;  but see Bayat 2007 and Pedersen et al. 2018) and the relations to others, whether the societal environment or competing religious groups (Asad 1993, Juergensmeyer 2013, etc.), i.e., on radicalisation (Sedgwick 2010). While these are important questions, focusing on exterior relations does leave crucial parts of total devotion un-analysed and less adequately understood and the attractors / pull factors are less well accounted for. Important perspectives on contemporary forms of radical religion, however, have suggested that emic understandings and performances of high-intensity religiosity deserve more attention (Aran 2013), and that pull factors should be studied more closely (Nanninga 2013).  Thus, beliefs/ideas may not be the decisive aspect in the pull of radical religion, because the pull is more about the performance of the self and the group (Roy 2017, 2014; Aran 2013; Nanninga 2013, cf. Asad 1993), and it is more about inward-facing religious performances and competitions over religious excellence (Aran 2013; Juergensmeyer and Sheikh 2013; Nanninga 2013 ) than about exterior relations. To such perspectives, we wish to add a theorization, a set of strategies of analysis and empirical analyses of the emotio-narrative practices of radical religiosity in ancient forms of Judaism and Christianity. Analysing total devotion plots and their transformation over time, we aim to build an emotio-narrative perspective on total devotion as a contribution to the study of radical religion, emphasizing a differentiation of intensity in religion that is often left out in belief-oriented measures of religiosity, and moving beyond organisational and spatial differentiations (church vs sect, locative vs utopian, etc.).  We theorise all kinds of total devotion together – law abidance, martyrdom, asceticism, sainthood, etc. - rather than seeing them as separate phenomena. We view total devotion formats as endeavours to excel in religion, for which emic perfection ideals and practices are key; ideals and practices that hinge on narrative imaginations and emotional practices. In studies of ancient religions, martyrdom and asceticism have been given much attention (Droge and Tabor 1992, Boyarin 1999, Van Henten and Avemarie 2002, Salisbury 2004, Cook 2007, Valantasis 2008, Rousseau 2010, Middleton 2020 etc.), although rarely studied as radical religion (but see Bremmer 2004). The role of emotions and narrativity as pull-factors in radical forms of Judaism and Christianity has (strangely) not been studied much at all.

Narratives are among the most suitable tools for processing emotions (Frink 2015; Feldt 2020).  Stories stimulate emotions in their audiences through characters, narrators, and events, and they may comment on affective processes on a meta-level.  We approach emotions as bodily processes that are historically and culturally variable and that need to be studied in their historical and philological contexts (Eidinow 2016, 81-102). Relying on common somatic foundations, we understand affects/emotions only when we verbalise or narrate them (Greenberg and Angus 2011), or in an interplay with a verbalised/narrated form (Simecek 2015: 497-500; Johansen 2015; Bourke 2014; Scheer 2012; Hogan 2011; Keen 2011; Rosenwein 2010; Hogan 2003: 239-264; Goldie 2000), which is why we find it crucial to combine an attention to emotions with narrativity. The role of narrativity in religious identity formation processes has been amply demonstrated (e.g., Geertz and Jensen 2011; Butler 2005). Individuals in a group understand themselves as emplotted in large- and small-scale narratives, seeing other individuals and groups as characters in such narratives, playing roles according to themes and plots (Sizgorich 2009, 8-9; Somers 1994). Through stories and narrative framings, we make sense of emotions, and through narrative we access the emotions of others; emotions connect groups in affective economies (Ahmed 2004). The narrative contexts we analyse all involve an endeavour to increase and intensify the religiosity of the practitioners; they form part of religious milieu that strive for perfection, stipulate and stimulate high-intensity emotional devotion. The interest in ancient emotions is growing (see e.g., work by Cairns, Caston & Kaster, Chaniotis, Crislip, Kaster, Kuuttila, Papadogiannikis, Reif and Egger-Wenzel), but not tightly connected to the study of radical religion and a narrativity and emotionality approach has not been used on ancient forms of radical religion. The project builds on previous work by the PI on how religious narratives affect senses and emotions and on narrative and narratological approaches in the study of religion (Feldt submitted; 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017; 2016; 2013, 2011, 2011a, 2010, 2006).

Operationalisation of the research questions: a) which emotion expressions are used of the binding and emotional relation between deity and devotee/s, b) in which ways do the narratives stimulate emotions and move the devotees in their relationship to the deity, c) when do total devotion scripts emerge in ancient Judaisms and Christianities and in which contexts; how do they transform over time, and why? Operationalising emotionality in narrative includes analysing emotion expressions, emotional story composition effects (a+b, above), and total devotion scripts across a set of narratives, contextualising the functions of total devotion narratives comparatively and assessing devotional practices and training (c).

Last Updated 07.06.2020