It all began when James Kapaló got a hangover the night after a wedding in October 2005. He was living in a Gagauz village in southern Moldova, which is renowned for the quality of the local wine. His landlady refused to believe that his headache and vomiting were the wine’s fault, and blamed the fact that Kapaló had danced too well at the wedding: “So many eyes were on you; you have surely been given the evil eye.” The Gagauz speak a dialect of Turkish but are Orthodox Christians. Their religion makes them somewhat unique in this part of the world, where Turks are supposed to be Muslims and Christianity is a Russian or Romanian religion. But unlike most of the anthropologists who visit the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia, Kapaló wasn’t interested in trying to find out whether the Gagauz people were really Turks who converted to Orthodoxy or Christians who had been “Turkishized.” He wanted to learn about Gagauz “folk religion,” an analytical category that is out of vogue in Religious Studies departments these days, but which Kapaló spends most of Text, Context, and Performance (2011) trying to resuscitate.
Few people study folk religion because we have come to realize that the whole idea of the “folk” was invented by nineteenth century ethnographers and missionaries. They used folk religion to refer to “pre-Christian” elements in peasant religion, and tried to artificially separate “true religion” from magic and superstition. These days scholars prefer to talk about “vernacular religion” or “lived religion,” but Kapaló argues that the idea of the folk is still useful because it alerts us to the relationship between the religious practitioner and the scholar. Discussing folk religion lets us talk about how the categories of religious studies are constructed and how both scholars and practitioners are complicit in creating a religion as soon as they start trying the define it. “This is the paradox at the heart of the folk religious field of practice,” he writes,” a struggle for unity, by lay and clerical actors and by scholars of religion that is condemned to produce and reproduce the very dichotomies against which they struggle. In this sense, folk religion is far better approached as a process, a relational series of practices, episodes or narratives, than as a thing.”
Kapaló’s illness was thus quite fortuitous, because it gave him a good excuse to meet with local healers, who laid hands on him (stroked his forehead) and eased his pains. Later, when he hurt his ankle one healer stepped on his foot repeatedly while he recited “I don’t want anything!” in Gagauz. Just in case that didn’t work, Kapaló visited another healer who rubbed baby lotion on his ankle while chanting a charm that ended with “The charm comes from me, the cure comes from Allah!” Most ethnographers have interviewed these people in Russian, and Kapaló is unique in being able to carry out his research using the local dialect. This gave him access to the homes of many of his informants, who were sometimes willing to let him participate in quite private rituals.
Text, Context, and Performance is structured around two major themes. The first concerns the way that language defines ethnicity, making it inseparable from religion. Gagauz national identity first emerged when a priest named Mihail Mihailovich Çakir translated the liturgy into the Gagauz language, thus giving them a national literature. This means that Gagauz nationalism comes out of its Orthodoxy. The irony, of course, is that there is no autocephalous Gagauz Orthodox Church and that neither the Russian or Romanian Churches recognize Çakir’s Bible or the two recent Protestant translations, leaving Orthodox Gagauz still without a Bible in their own language. But if they don’t have a Bible they do have what they call epistoliyas, or “letters from heaven.” These are apocryphal letters dating back centuries that became very popular throughout the region in the early twentieth century. Reading these letters is a daily practice for pious believers, and doing so can protect one from illness or bad luck.
Having their own liturgy was initially somewhat unfortunate for many peasants, who now had no good excuse not to go to church. So long as the service was in a language they couldn’t understand, Gagauz peasants were happy to let the priest perform the service on their behalf, while they went fishing or worked in their gardens. Now most men send their wives to church and hope that this is enough for the whole family. How people perform their religion constitutes the second pillar of this book. Kapaló is much more interested in what religious people do than in what they say they think. He focuses on healing rituals, charms, toasts, and private prayers, showing that “the power to institute, and therefore also to constitute, religious facts is dependent on the ‘texts’ of practices, irrespective of their origin, the power of language to be a ‘vehicle’ of divine agency, and the agency of the actors. … Religious institutions, in this case the healing system, are constituted between the heavily regulated institutional systems of the Church and the institutionalising ‘performance’ activities of lay practitioners; religious facts generated between and amongst these actors are ‘common goods’ that traverse categorical distinctions and emerge from a ‘relational’ dynamic.”