latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Jonathon O’Donnell’s book, Passing Orders: Demonology and Sovereignty in American Spiritual Warfare, concerns neo-charismatic imaginings of the world full of demons and who’s American and God-given sovereignty orchestrates, mobilizes, and legitimates orders of empire and neoliberal capitalism. But more than an expose on dark lords and evil spirits, O’Donnell writes of them sympathetically, as a heuristic and analogy to the asymmetric power relations between the cis-gendered white Christian elite and those they demonize: queer, black, and colonized bodies. In O’Donnell’s words, “spiritual warfare conceptualizes the demonic as a means of managing territories and populations, of how ‘demonology’ as a rubric operates to categorize, comprehend, and control wilful peoples and places, and—equally central—how the very demons conjured by that demonology consistently exceed its capacity to constrain and command them” (139).
Neo-Charismatics (a mix of Calvinist Presbyterianism and non-denominational Evangelicalism that borrows Pentecostal practices) is a post-biblical belief in the reception of gifts of the Holy Spirit, everyday miracles, and a supernatural haunting of evil demons on Earth, where God directly intervenes in both their personal lives and immanent world affairs. They practice faith-healing, glossolalia, and the power to fight demons on Earth or “spiritual warfare”. Charismatic evangelicalism (‘third wave’ evangelicalism) is fast becoming the norm among evangelicals and dominant among the “Christian Right”, with 54% of Americans ‘absolutely’ believed demons existed and have powerful assemblages among far-right populist figures like Donald Trump, where the figure of ‘demons’ is used to reproduce forms of anti-Blackness and anti-LGBTQ+ (Durbin 2020; O’Donnell 2020). The white Protestant Charismatics that O’Donnell explores are not the same Charismatics of the Black Pentecostal Charismatic churches beginning in Los Angeles in 1906 at the Azusa Street Revival, which was resistant to the denominational exclusion of white churches (Cox 1995). While undeniably having its foundations here, O’Donnell’s subjects are “Neo”-Charismatics in part because of their conservative politics and specifically because of their belief and import of an apocalyptic or “End Times” theology. Indeed many of these adherents have imported Charismatic practices into the structure of their non-denominational evangelical apocalyptic geopolitics (Dittmer and Sturm 2010; Sturm 2021a; Sturm 2021b).
What might be called an “apocalyptic turn” in Geography among geo-humanities scholars (Ginn 2015; Gergan, Smith, and Vasudevan 2020; Menga and Davies 2020; Schlosser 2015), political geographers (Dittmer and Sturm 2016; Sturm 2021a), and radical geographers (Swyngedouw 2013; Sturm and Lustig 2021) attempting to revive the radical and progressive potential of apocalypse (which means “to reveal”), can learn from the oppressive potential of apocalyptic demonologies, and how this frame, as O’Donnell points out, has justified the further marginalization and violence of gay, Black, trans, global precariat, and indigenous communities.
Pushing the boundaries of a growing field of demonology (Runions 2014; McCloud 2015; Kotsko 2018), O’Donnell’s use of queer, critical race, and post-colonial theory and the re-application of sovereignty, ontology, and futurity (Edleman 2004; Ahmed 2014; Schotten 2018) sets the book apart as a work of critical theory, driven by resistance to sovereign systems of power and oppressions that structure and limit everyday lives through queerphobia and antiblackness. The book, along with an introduction and conclusion, consists of four chapters. The first, “Nations unto Light,” sets the theoretical stage for the book, illustrating the normative order and foreclosure of things/demons to American neo-charismatic Christians via three analytical attributes: integrity, incontestability, and inevitability. Here demons are the antithesis and justification of mastering space and time (more on this below).
The last three chapters, “Jezbel Assemblages,” “The Islamic Antichrist,” and “Leviathan’s Wake” are case studies, analysing the depth, complexity, and variability of neo-charismatic imaginaries. The first of these case study chapters focuses on Queen Jezebel who is imaged as a threat to gender normativity, patriarchy, and individuality. Jezebel is a transnational demonic spirit that transgresses everyday American life and the proper ordering of sexual-racial life, the reproduction of life, and therefore comes to represent the anxieties of borders, others, and the foreign.
Chapter 3 outlines a more common demonization, that of Islam and antiblackness, and demonology, of the Antichrist. In a 2014 police report, officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown as a “demon” as a justification for killing him (Halpern 2015). O’Donnell opens chapter 3 with an interview between the Charismatic evangelical Joel Richardson and disgraced minister Jim Bakker on the topic of the Ferguson protests. Richardson states, the “Ferguson [uprising]” is a “spiritual rage” where “Satan comes along and he subverts it” via “a single government: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Here a confluence of forces exist among the Christian Right, both the apocalyptic threat of the “Islamic Antichrist” and Black Lives Matter. O’Donnell describes Richardson’s relationality, he “Imagines as behind Black Lives Matter as much as al-Qaeda and in the Ferguson uprising as much as the 9/11 attacks, both his summoning and exorcism expose the interdependency of America’s inner and outer wars, linking militarisation at home to imperialism abroad and incarnating a spirit of (anticolonial, antiracist) ‘rage’ that US power must quell in its realization of Paradise” (82). Drawing on critical race and postcolonial theory, the Antichrist is discursively marked as the antipode of American imperialism in a battle between white and black, Christian and Muslim, and is scripted by O’Donnell as that which challenges these demonologies and demonisations through decolonial violence and the fragile passing of their ontotheological order.
The fourth and final chapter, “Leviathan’s Wake”, drafts the genealogy of the Leviathan spirit as the ultimate sovereign power. Inspired by Hobbes and biblical narrative, the Leviathan spirit stands in as the disrupter of temporal politics, that which disrupts truth claims for which the demonological apparatus is founded. Here Leviathan threatens to “usurp the ‘proper’ temporal sovereignty of Christian America, foremost of which are resurgent revolutionary politics, secular state apparatuses, and revitalized Indigenous traditions” (21).
Passing Orders, is erudite, shall we say learned, all of these formalistic, platitudinous, terms come to mind. But to use another, what it is most is poetic and as a result, not an easy book, but rather a rewarding book that is infinitely citable, each sentence carefully crafted, each idea carefully embedded in relevant queer, critical race, indigenous, and decolonial theory—from every discipline the left side of the STEM disciplines—all challenging the boundaries of these theories and disciplines, which is the overarching point of the book: to challenge boundaries, passing orders, the flow of all things and their resistance to capture, categorization, conclusion, and shall we say, conservativism. Excuse me if I lay praise on thick, this is an excellent book. Such books deserve praise.
O’Donnell is challenging boundaries in other ways as well. Centrally, O’Donnell questions sovereignty, nationalism, mapping, geopolitics, scale, territory, borders, the urban, while not the exclusive purview of geographers, these concepts are the bread-and-butter of critical human geographical inquiry. This is a work empirically about the territory and territoriality of demons or as O’Donnell put it, “territories of darkness.” Indeed more than terminology, they use feminist geographers like Katherine McKittrick whose work O’Donnell draws on systematically and foundationally.
Neo-charismatics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, all of these categories themselves resist borders, themselves passing orders. A common structuring eschatology among them is apocalypse. And in many ways, O’Donnell’s book should be applauded for resisting the reductionist writing of these groupings as merely apocalyptic. To rephrase Derrida, O’Donnell resists the “apocalyptic tone recently adopted in” critical theory and evangelical studies, which would have been an easy set of conclusions for Passing Orders: these are apocalyptic imaginaries that are attempting to remake the world in the image of their apocalyptic cartographies.
But of these groups and their ontotheologies, is the construction of vast worlds. Nothing short of a complete, reconstruction and understanding of geopolitics defined, driven, and dominated by demons. Such demonology and eschatology is part of the history of ideas. They are cosmogonaughts (world builders), with parallel universes and cultures, with geographic imaginations of complex invisible demon structures undergirding the world and their own self-described superpowers they anoint themselves. As O’Donnell puts it, there is a “superstructure to demons, where our material world is understood as built atop a spiritual base” (32). They are geopoliticans, in O’Donnell’s words, who “write the cartographies of their own world” (46) and their “geographies of sovereignty” (42).
These believers are part of a vast history of ideas, a vibrant and rich set of ideas. Federico Campagna’s (2021) forthcoming book, Prophetic Culture, has eloquently described humans as world builders, what O’Donnell refers to, using Heidegger, as “worlding”, in the constant making and remaking of worlds through categorization of the everyday and reckoning our own identities. Here they revision apocalypse, not as revealing, but ending and becoming, apocalypse and millennium, two sides of the same coin as Stewart and Harding (1999) once put it. Apocalypse is not necessarily at the scale of the globe, but has happened in colonized spaces and the colonial present, gendered and racial oppressions and violence, all of which, to Campagna are apocalypse, a movement from one life to another. And for O’Donnell these are “passing orders”. For them, an apocalypse is “a once-and-for-all advent of truth that ends any and all possibility of being or seeming otherwise” (137).
The Apocalypse, or passing orders, is also revealing, revealing of the fluidity of life, indeed in some ways illustrating the demonic fears the groups they write of: demons are everywhere, flowing through our spaces, transgressing sovereign boundaries, resisting identification, and emplacement. Using post-colonial, queer, and critical race theory, O’Donnell reveals that those boundaries—put up to get an handle on the world, to limit and delimit it—are easily revealed as nothing more than an imposition of passing ideas, worlds, and orders.
With this cosmogony come a series of social, political, and religious orders, what O’Donnell calls “orthotaxies” –orthodox taxonomies, or right orders, that rule the meaning of the worlds. As O’Donnell states, “spiritual warfare interpellates wilful subjects—conjured through patterns of misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, antiblackness, and (settler) colonialism—as differing but commensurate modalities of the demonic” (142). And their apocalypse is worlding by foreclosing futures, “all that is unruly is tamed, all the willful subjected to sovereign will, and all the base matter of creation has at last been properly, absolutely worlded” (113).
So, while their dense cosmogony is imaginative, it is also absolutely oppressive. But importantly, and like Campagna, such worlds give us the possibility to think about alternative futures and alternative social orders, ones that do not demonize difference, but more open worlds of solidarity and resistance. And therein is the philosophical and practical thrust of O’Donnell’s book: How do we, as O’Donnell puts it, “uninscribe earth” (114) unworld it, create different unfoldings, and how might we use the imaginative power of apocalypse and even demons as generative forces for transformative revolutionary action?
O’Donnell’s brilliant suggestion is “thinking with demons”: “demons are forced to join together in complex, uneasy alliances against the fulfilment of a future that offers all of them only perdition” (155). Demons here are, and are productive of, Black, Queer, and colonized subjects, and all those that challenge the normative sovereign boundaries of their imaginings—imaginings that conclude poverty or racism (“territorial spirits of poverty” as one spiritual warrior put it) is the result of territorial spirits rather than colonialism or capitalism, or that such oppressions are of their own discursive and material making.
But rather than create a new liberally “equal” cosmos, O’Donnell asks us to think of an open polycentric world, where many worlds and imaginations may freely exist outside the constraints of sovereignty, or in O’Donnell’s words, one where we are joined in mutual “passing and precarity, as fragile and fractious communities bound together by strategies of subversion, solidarity, and survival.” One that is earthly, immanent, contingent, conjunctural, and recognizes and challenges the sexual-racial asymmetry.
Ahmed S (2014) Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.
Campagna F (2021) Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents. London: Bloomsbury.
Cox H (1995) Fire from Heaven: The rise of Pentecostal spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty‐First Century. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
Derrida J (1984) Of an apocalyptic tone recently adopted in philosophy. The Oxford Literary Review 6(2): 3-37.
Dittmer J and Sturm T (eds.) (2016) Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions. Abingdon: Routledge
Durbin S (2020) From King Cyrus to Queen Esther: Christian Zionists’ discursive construction of Donald Trump as God’s instrument. Critical Research on Religion. 8(2): 115-137.
Edleman L (2004) No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gergan M, Smith S & Vasudevan, P. (2020) Earth beyond repair: Race and apocalypse in collective imagination. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 38(1): 91–110.
Ginn F (2015) When horses won’t eat: Apocalypse and the Anthropocene. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105 (2): 351–359.
Halpern J (2015) The cop. (Aug 3). New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/the-cop
Kotsko A (2018) Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
McCloud S (2015) American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
McKittrick K (2006) Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Menga F and Davies D (2020) Apocalypse yesterday: Posthumanism and comics in the Anthropocene. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 3(3): 663-687.
O'Donnell SJ (2020) The deliverance of the administrative state: Deep state conspiracism, charismatic demonology, and the post-truth politics of American Christian nationalism. Religion 50(4): 696-719.
Runions E (2014) The Babylon Complex: Theopolitical Fantasies of War, Sex, and Sovereignty. New York: Fordham University Press.
Schlosser K (2015) Apocalyptic imaginaries, Gramsci, and the last man on Earth. GeoHumanities 1 (2): 307-20.
Schotten CH (2018) Queer Terror: Life, Death, and Desire in the Settler Colony. New York: Columbia University Press.
Stewart K and Harding S (1999) Bad endings: American apocalypsis. Annual Review of Anthropology 28: 285-310.
Sturm T (2021a) God’s Just Gaza War: Futurity foreclosed through Evangelical apocalypse as orthogonal promise of Eretz Israel. Geografiska Annaler: Series B. DOI: 10.1080/04353684.2021.1891557
Sturm T (2021b) Hal Lindsey’s geopolitical future: Towards a cartographic theory of anticipatory arrows. Journal of Maps 17(1): 39-45.
Sturm T and Lustig N (2021) Variegated environmental apocalypses: Post-politics, the contestatory, and an eco-precariat manifesto for a radical apocalyptics. In E. Harper and D. Specht (eds) Imagining Apocalyptic Politics in the Anthropocene. Abingdon: Routledge.
Swyngedouw E (2013) Apocalypse now! Fear and doomsday pleasures. Capitalism Nature Socialism 24(1): 9-18.
Tristan Sturm is Senior Lecturer in Geography at Queen’s University Belfast. He writes on apocalypses related to Christian Zionists, climate, and health. He is currently finishing a book entitled, The Future is a Foreign Country: Christian Zionists and Landscapes of the Apocalypse in Israel/Palestine.