The Anthropology of Christianity

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This article surveys the literature that constitutes the newly emergent anthropology of Christianity. Arguing that the development of this sub-discipline was impeded until recently by anthropology's theoretical framing and empirical interests,
  © 2008 The AuthorsJournal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Religion Compass  2/6 (2008): 1139–1158, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.x The Anthropology of Christianity Jon Bialecki * Reed College Naomi Haynes and Joel Robbins University of California, San Diego Abstract This article surveys the literature that constitutes the newly emergent anthropologyof Christianity. Arguing that the development of this sub-discipline was impededuntil recently by anthropology’s theoretical framing and empirical interests, thisarticle explains that demographic and world-historical forces have made it such thatanthropology has had to recently come to terms with Christianity as an ethnographicobject. In doing so, anthropology also has had to address its problematic relationship withChristianity, either in the religion’s direct effect on the formation of the discipline,or as reflected by Christianity’s influence on modernity itself, which has been vitalfor anthropology as both a category and as a style of cognition. In addition to thesemeta-theoretical questions, the anthropology of Christianity has become a space inwhich anthropology has been able to re-examine issues of social and cultural con-tinuity and discontinuity in light of conversion to Christianity. Specifically, the issueof social change (often thought through or against the issue of ‘modernity’) hasinvolved specific ethnographic examinations of fields, such as the relation betweenlinguistic ideology and language use, economic practice, changing formations of gender and race, and the modes through which the person is culturally structured,and how that category of the person stands in relation to the social. Rather thanpresenting an overarching theoretical narrative, however, this review notes that theseissues play out in divergent ways in differently situated communities, especially whereChristianity’s individuating effect may be muted where is it functions as an anti- or counter-modern force; this dynamic and contingent nature of Christianity under-scores that Christianity itself is a heterogeneous object, and thus promises to be anarea of rich empirical research and theoretical focus that should be beneficial notonly for this sub-discipline, but also for the field of anthropology as a whole. Within the past decade, a comparative, self-conscious anthropology of Chris-tianity has begun to come into its own. This claim is of course subject tosome qualification; it would be incorrect to say that prior to this time therehad been no works treating Christianity in descriptive, ethnographic terms,and some have taken it up as a regional challenge (Glazier 1980; Barker 1990) or as a comparative thematic (Saunders 1988). Moreover, institutions  1140Jon Bialecki, Naomi Haynes and Joel Robbins © 2008 The Authors Religion Compass  2/6 (2008): 1139–1158, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.xJournal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd central to many Christian traditions, such as conversion (Hefner 1993) andmissionization (e.g. Hvalkof & Aaby 1981; Huber 1988; Comoraff & Comar-off 1991, 1997; Rafael 1992), have in the past attracted some anthropologicalattention. However, only recently has there been a concerted call fromanthropologists for their discipline to consider seriously the possibility of routinely putting the religion of Christian populations at the centre of eth-nographic accounts. This call has been accompanied by an emerging com-mitment to thinking comparatively and theoretically about similarities anddifferences in the shapes and histories of Christianity in various Christianpopulations (Robbins 2003a, 2007a; Scott 2005; Cannell 2006; Engelke &Tomlinson 2006; Keane 2007). While not everyone who is a part of thisemerging conversation would necessarily recognize themselves in the descrip-tor of ‘Anthropologist of Christianity’, and several important contributionsregarding the relationship between Christianity and anthropological knowl-edge predated the subfield’s establishment, it is fair to say that the anthro-pology of Christianity is finally receiving a degree of anthropological attentionthat has previously escaped it.To say that the anthropology of Christianity has only emerged in the lastdecade is also to say that until that time anthropologists had, despite thefew kinds of exceptions noted above, largely neglected the study of this worldreligion. The reasons for the srcinal anthropological rejection of Christi-anity as an object of research are numerous, and many of them are relatedto fundamental disciplinary tendencies. Most obvious in this regard is theway the seemingly ‘ready-at-hand’, familiar nature of the religion for mostAmerican and European anthropologists has led to a sense among them thatChristianity lacks the degree of cultural alterity that has until quite recentlybeen definitional of an apt disciplinary object. In more complex terms, onecan argue that it is not so much Christian familiarity that accounts for thishistory of avoidance, as it is that for secular anthropologists Christians appear confusingly to be at once too similar and too different to be easily amenableto study (Robbins 2003a). Taking their similarity as a given, any enumerationof the ways in which Christians are considered to be too different has toinclude the conservatism or political quietism of so many of the Christiancommunities anthropologists encounter in the Global South. Anthropolo-gists often find such Christians to be ‘disappointing subalterns’ (Maxwell 2006,p. 10), who vote for the wrong parties and seem more concerned withprivate devotion than public engagement. By virtue of their political views(and in some cases what anthropologists take to be their anti-modernism),anthropologists have often defined them as, to use Harding’s terms froman important article that anticipated the new wave of interest Christianity,culturally repugnant others whom it is best to avoid (Harding 1991). Afinal deep seated disciplinary reason for the anthropological resistance tostudying Christianity, particularly among populations of recent coverts,may be found in the tendency within cultural anthropology to foregroundlong-standing cultural continuities over recent cultural changes, thus  © 2008 The Authors Religion Compass  2/6 (2008): 1139–1158, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.xJournal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd The Anthropology of Christianity1141 rendering anthropologists suspicious of the claims converts make to haveradically transformed their lives and societies. From this vantage point, theChristianity of converts is often treated as epiphenomenal, merely a thinveneer laid over an enduring prior culture and as such not worthy of research (Robbins 2007a; cf. Barker 1992).Given these disciplinary barriers to the study of Christianity, the questionarises as to what has changed in recent years to allow anthropologists toovercome them. Perhaps the most important change has been the extentto which fieldworkers have come to confront devout Christian populationsin the field. The past century – and particularly the last 50 years – has seena tremendous expansion of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, andOceania (see Barker 1990; Brouwer etal. 1996; Walls 1996; Jenkins 2002),and a parallel explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Martin 1990).Much of this growth has been of Pentecostal and charismatic groups whosemembers practice their faith in ways that make their commitments hard toignore, and whose frank supernaturalism aligns them more closely to the kindsof religions anthropologists more often study (Douglas 2001). Furthermore,the return of various forms of Christianity into the public sphere during thelast quarter of the twentieth century (Casanova 1994), both in the West andelsewhere, has had an effect on the anthropological imagination that shouldnot be underestimated. The combined force of political prominence, demo-graphic growth, and visible piety has made Christianity unavoidable in manyethnographic settings, as well as newly important at home, and has thereforemade the development of the anthropology of Christianity not only possible,but also something many anthropologists have come to see as necessary.We devote the remainder of this review to a survey of some key concernsof this emerging sub-discipline. Although too new to have produced muchin the way of settled traditions of research, we hope to show that a decade’sworth of work has already begun to uncover important trends that will shapethis area of study into the future. Specifically, this review will highlight thecommon claim that in cultures that have recently adopted Christianity, conver-sion often triggers a partial abandonment of social and cultural forms orientedtoward the collective in favor of individualist models of social organiza-tion. This transformation from quintessentially traditional models of socialembeddedness towards individualism is in turn often interpreted as a steptowards modernity or towards globalization. Debates about the accuracy of these claims regarding the individualizing and modernizing force of Chris-tianity have been important in much of the contemporary anthropologicalliterature on Christianity. So too have discussions of the possible mechanismsbehind, and limits to, the transformations ascribed to Christian conversion.This review will highlight some of the areas in which these debates aboutthe influence of Christianity have been most fully developed. First, however,we will briefly examine another important feature of the anthropology of Christianity literature: reflexive discussions concerned with the ways Chris-tianity has shaped the discipline of anthropology.  1142Jon Bialecki, Naomi Haynes and Joel Robbins © 2008 The Authors Religion Compass  2/6 (2008): 1139–1158, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.xJournal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Christianity, Anthropology, and Modernity Anthropology has long had a commitment to exploring the way its ownwestern background has shaped its concepts, and in many cases shaped themin ways that make them inapplicable in the cross-cultural contexts in whichthey are used. Since the late 1970s, this impulse has seen practices of disci-plinary self-reflection becoming routine, and this in turn has helped open thedoor to the anthropology of Christianity in two ways. First, as we demon-strated by our own way of approaching matters in the last section, it hasencouraged anthropologists to be willing to ask questions about their ownpractice, such as why they have for so long ignored the presence of a major world religion in the areas they study. Second, and this point provides thefocus of this section, the reflexive turn has given the cultural study of aspectsof the Western tradition either in the West or abroad a new relevance to thediscipline at large. In this spirit, one of the anthropology of Christianity’sfirst successes has been in initiating widely read debates about both theChristian influence on anthropological thought itself – what Cannell (2005)has called ‘The Christianity of Anthropology’ – and, more broadly, about theChristian contribution to the formations of Western modernity that haveshaped the discipline.One of the key themes in the discussion of the links between Christianityand anthropological thought has been the claim Christian ideas have con-strained anthropological conceptions of religion more generally, and evenof Christianity as it is practiced outside the liberal tradition in the West.The key voice in this discussion has been Asad (1993), who has argued thatthe anthropological view of religion has been colored in particular by thepeculiar nature of post-Enlightenment Christianity. In comparison to earlier (especially medieval) forms of the religion, post-Enlightenment Christianityis characterized, Asad argues, by an at best limited role in the public sphereand a lack of access to police powers to enforce proper disciplinary modesof subject formation that were formerly particular to the religion. Banishedfrom these larger social arenas, Christianity ceased to be defined by formalexterior practices, and instead became concerned with the internal, privateassent to particular propositions understood as ‘belief’. This emphasis has,in turn, been absorbed by anthropology, most notably for Asad in Geertz’s(1973) famous definition of religion, and has resulted in a disciplinarydefinition of ritual in terms of subjective meaning and of religion in termsof adherence to internalized representations. This argument has been takenup by others studying the anthropology of Christianity, and has led to theclaim that modern Protestant definitions of religion as primarily a matter of belief can lead anthropologists to misrepresent not only the lives of peoplewho practice other religions, but even those of many Christians whoseengagement with their faith is not matched by an equal immersion inother facets of Western modern culture (Kirsch 2004; Keller 2005; Robbins2007a).  © 2008 The Authors Religion Compass  2/6 (2008): 1139–1158, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00116.xJournal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd The Anthropology of Christianity1143 A second hypothesis concerning the relation between anthropology andChristianity holds that the link is less direct, having been mediated byWestern modernity, itself shaped by Christianity. The result of this indirectconnection is a crypto-Christian influence in contemporary Western formsof knowledge, including the social sciences. Within anthropology, perhapsthe greatest contemporary exponent of a connection between Christianity,social science, and modernity is Sahlins (1996), who argues that many of modernity’s most distinctive traits, such as the nature-culture divide, thevalorization of economistic reasoning, the sense of society as an external,coercive force that is counter-posed against a natural, free individual, and theimagination of selfish desire as the animating force behind human action,all have their roots in the Biblical narrative of the Fall.Contrary to Asad and Sahlins, who see internalized forms of Christianityas a hindrance to proper concept formation in anthropology, Burridge (1973)suggests that Christianity had provided necessary (though not sufficient)prerequisites for the formation of the discipline. For Burridge, the importanceof Christianity extends beyond the mere establishment of social institutions,such as missions, which engaged with cultural others. The religious contentof Christianity was essential for the reflexivity and sociological perceptionthat stand at the heart of anthropology, as Christianity ‘insisted that manstep outside himself and view himself dispassionately (as God might) at thesame time as it has decidedly affirmed the participatory life of interrelated-ness in community’ (1973, p. 12). Even in an era of anthropological suspi-cion of Christianity, the Christian trace continued in Burridge’s eyes, becauseanthropologists ‘have been and are imbued with missionary purpose’ aimedat highlighting a shared humanity and promoting intercultural exchange(1973, p. 18). Burridge’s argument is idiosyncratic and has had little uptakein current debates. We note it here nonetheless, because it deserves tobe seen as an early entrant into the field of reflexive study of the Chris-tian influence on anthropology, and indeed as one that grounds the veryreflexivity upon which it depends on Christian ways of thinking aboutself-formation. Christians qua Christians – Problems in the Ethnography of Christian Populations CONVERSION : CONTINUITY   AND   DISCONTINUITY The observation that Christian conversion is often tightly linked to changingforms of sociality is not limited to anthropological discussions of Christianity.Those groups who have converted to this religion during the last centuryhave also been quick to note that this process has brought about a trans-formation in social relations – a ‘complete break with the past’ (Meyer 1998) – that they find impossible to ignore. It is this local sense of social discon-tinuity after the adoption of Christianity that this section will address.
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