Book review: Simon Coleman's POWERS OF PILGRIMAGE

Author: Melissa Coles

Coleman Bookcover Ftr1200

On October 13, 1990, hundreds of people prayed and sang outside a home in rural Conyers, Georgia, waiting to hear Mary’s message to the American people. Inside the house, Nancy Fowler saw “Our Loving Mother” in the “Apparition Room.” After Mary left, Fowler went outside and shared Her message to the crowd. News spread of the event and of the subsequent monthly apparitions, and by 1993, thousands of pilgrims, curiosity seekers, and skeptics came to hear, see, and judge Fowler and Our Loving Mother’s messages. When large groups of Hispanic pilgrims began regular trips from southern Florida, a priest started translating Mary’s messages into Spanish. The apparitions became yearly rather than monthly events, but their popularity swelled. Intense debates raged in religious and civic circles about religious authority, female mystics, and crowd control. For the final apparition on October 13, 1998, hundreds of thousands gathered. Through most of the 1990s, the apparitions shaped conversation and action in Georgia and beyond, part of global Marian networks. Other pilgrimages, though, can boast of larger numbers, longer histories, grander rituals, and ecclesiastical approval, and little scholarly attention has been paid to the Conyers Marian apparitions. Answering Simon Coleman’s call would change that. In Powers of Pilgrimage: Religion in a World of Movement (New York University Press, 2022), Coleman challenges readers to attend to pilgrimages throughout the world that have been under-represented in pilgrimage studies.

Powers of Pilgrimage makes an enormous contribution to studies of pilgrimage by reframing and expanding the field. In particular, Coleman argues for a spatial, methodological, and theoretical expansion, a three-pronged strategy intended “to widen the range of places and behaviors where pilgrimage presences, powers, and effects are acknowledged to exist” (237, 248–249). To begin this widening, Powers of Pilgrimage instructs scholars to assess and problematize “religion” and “pilgrimage,” to ask which pilgrimages merit study and which aspects are worth highlighting. Spatially, pilgrimage literature historically has highlighted ritual cores, routine actions, and religious versus secular space. Simultaneously complementing and challenging this focus, Coleman shifts readers’ attention to broader connections across the landscape, creative actions, and the entangled reality of “religious” and “secular” spaces. This broader spatial scope is complemented by a call for greater methodological flexibility, which includes increased appreciation for “the politics of attention surrounding the construction of knowledge about pilgrimage” (239). Theoretically, Coleman wants scholars of pilgrimage to “shift ethnographic attention sideways,” and he provides a lexicon of horizontally oriented, socio-spatial terms to assist in this shift (244). Coleman is expanding readers’ views of pilgrimage’s definition as well as its importance for academia and for contemporary society. While “acknowledg[ing] the importance of self-consciously exclusive examples of pious travel,” Powers of Pilgrimage “suggests how we can expand our ethnographic and analytical gaze in reconsidering the salience, scope, and scale of contemporary forms of pilgrimage-related activity” (5).

The book provides evidence for and examples of this expansion through a tripartite structure organized around themes. In part I, “Frames,” Coleman argues “against rigid characterizations of what is and is not genuine or authentic pilgrimage and contend[s] that we must widen our horizons in recognizing physical, cultural, and intellectual terrains of pilgrimage activity” (15). The section pushes back against pilgrimage parochialities—inflexible frameworks and scholarly cul-de-sacs that are limiting pilgrimage studies. Against the tendency to prioritize Euro-American scholarship written in English, Coleman implores readers to read global pilgrimage scholarship written in other languages. To answer the current problem of too much focus on Euro-American sites, Coleman advocates for highlighting pilgrimages throughout the rest of the worldas sites of primary study and of comparative analysis. And instead of focusing on Christian sites of high ritual activity, Coleman encourages scholars to look beyond Christian sites and to shift their attention to broader pilgrimage landscapes.

Moving beyond his framing arguments, part II, “Tropes,” focuses on three concepts that have gained traction in pilgrimage studies: communitas, contestation, and the Camino. This section features rich analysis of scholars who have used and responded to these terms. Coleman begins with communitas, a term introduced by anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner in the 1960s that centers the communal equality, unity, and possibility found during social experiences such as pilgrimages and rites of passage. To explain how communitas became a term and a trope, Coleman provides an intellectual and personal genealogy of the Turners. This is an important contribution of the book because their background and their complex use of communitas has been “often ignored within pilgrimage studies” (58). With communitas’ history in mind, Coleman then analyzes other scholars’ responses to the Turners’ work and to communitas in particular. For his part, Coleman is “appreciative but critical” of communitas because he argues it ultimately focuses attention “on actions separated from the everyday, highlighting points of peak intensity and concentration” and disconnects pilgrimage studies from wider scholarly conversations (85). 

Next, Coleman turns to another enduring trope in pilgrimage studies, one that many scholars embraced beginning in the 1980s—contestation. Responding to the Turners’ focus on anti-structure and communitas, Michael Sallnow and John Eade, two anthropologically informed scholars utilizing social scientific methods, popularized the focus on contestation. This approach highlights the conflict, competition, and differences that are experienced and amplified at intense events such as pilgrimages. Although drawing attention to real complexities at shrines, Coleman argues that communitas and contestation “focus too much attention on shrines themselves” and “downplay the significance of more ambivalent, hesitant, and even inconsistent associations within sacred sites” (107).

The final trope Coleman explores in part II is the Camino. This trope grew from the Camino de Santiago, European pilgrimage paths that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The Camino as a model of pilgrimage focuses on individualized experiences on the path to a ritual center. While these focuses are important perspectives for pilgrimage studies to examine, Coleman shows how they create and encourage harmful disconnections between path and shrine, informal and formal, individual and collective. Instead of limiting perspectives and creating barriers between spaces and experiences, Coleman wants to analyze expanded perspectives, articulations across spaces and experiences. After examining and critiquing the use of communitas, contestation, and the Camino in the social scientific study of pilgrimage, Coleman argues that they “have provided important insights yet limited our perspectives” by ignoring or under-analyzing pilgrimage’s “role as social and cultural phenomenon with influence over wider dimensions of society” (15).

In part III of the book, “Articulations,” Coleman provides readers with examples of how to answer this challenge. With the goal of creating generative lexicons and conversations, he introduces concepts that include penumbra, laterality, narratives, and mobility. Penumbra is “a zone of operation whose outer edges cannot be determined with any certainty,” and laterality “implies being located at one remove from ritual action while also being partially oriented toward—and sometimes inadvertently seduced by—such action” (139–140, 144). Penumbra and laterality can help scholars to answer Coleman’s call for expanded studies of pilgrimage by examining “frictional, strategic, spontaneous, and hapless engagement with sacred sites” (170). A focus on narratives also can move studies of pilgrimages beyond a narrow focus on shrines, high holy days, and “true” pilgrims because narratives are powerful articulations that move across zones of operation, “recall[ing], relocat[ing], and reconstruct[ing]” (170). Finally, with his focus on mobility, Coleman aims “to systematize understandings of dynamic ways in which pilgrimage practices are embedded within ramifying and often interrelated manifestations of movement” (235). Mobility, immobility, and articulation are powerful themes that connect all of the terms and examples that Coleman presents.

Drawing upon cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall’s work, Coleman’s use of articulation brings into focus the creation, breaking, and re-creation of connections. Coleman acknowledges that pilgrimage scholars have been noting these connections for several decades, but he wants them to go farther and examine “how and when links are made (or denied) and . . . develop a methodology as well as an analytical vocabulary to understand such processes and their sensitivities to social, spatial, and cultural context” (6, 13). Time will tell if the lexicon Coleman proposes has interpretive power for scholars of pilgrimage, but most specialists will welcome his assessment of guiding terms and his effort to nudge pilgrimage studies in new directions.  

Powers of Pilgrimage provides a clear-sighted example of how pilgrimage scholarship can cross disciplines, topics, and regions. One of the strengths—and challenges—of pilgrimage studies is its interdisciplinary nature, and although Powers of Pilgrimage is primarily an anthropological and ethnographic work, Coleman intentionally engages other disciplines throughout the book. For example, as “an act of articulation in itself . . . intended to illustrate something about the connective qualities of pilgrimage,” the terms Coleman promotes are drawn from disciplines that include anthropology, physics, architecture, chemistry, and geography (11). Another strength of the book is its utility as a model for how scholars who study Christianity, Europe, and the United States can expand the geographical, temporal, and topical scope of their analysis. Coleman addresses the issue by “investigating the intellectual origins of Anglophone studies of European pilgrimage, critically juxtaposing them with examples of pilgrimage drawn from elsewhere, and reframing them through theoretical perspectives often derived from discussions that have little to do with pilgrimage” (36). Rich ethnographic examples—drawn both from Coleman’s own work and from an impressive breadth of other scholars—are a key feature of Powers of Pilgrimage. Recurring examples include Walsingham, Shikoku, Mecca, the Camino, Israel-Palestine, and pilgrimages in eastern India. Another notable feature of the book is Coleman’s decision to put scholarship on Pentecostalism and scholarship on pilgrimage into dialogue with one another. The resulting conversation is fruitful and fresh. Scholars who wish to move beyond a narrow focus on Christianity and the North Atlantic World can follow both Coleman’s theoretical frame and his practical model.

Powers of Pilgrimage is an important book for scholars of pilgrimage and religion, but also for scholars of culture, mobility, economy, and geography. The book provides an impressive overview and analysis of the field as well as an impassioned call to expand the field’s approaches and subjects, including by rejecting false binaries between “religious” and “secular” spaces, peoples, and practices. Coleman reveals flexible, diffuse, powerful realities such as “lateral actions and penumbral spaces produced in and around shrines; narratives and social exchanges performed far from spiritual centers; politically loaded intersections of ritual rhythms and acts of civic engagement” (237). Powers of Pilgrimage would be a wonderful addition to courses for graduate students and upper level undergraduates. And scholars of pilgrimage will want to carefully consider Coleman’s call “to follow these connections still further in exploring and expanding the possibilities and powers of the field” (251).

Melissa Coles is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.

This book review appears in the fall 2022 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.