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  • What Difference Does Christianity Make?
  • Matt Tomlinson
Fenella Cannell , ed. The Anthropology of Christianity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 384 pp.

Anthropologists have recently paid increasing attention to Christianity as a domain worthy of its own disciplinary study. Ethnographically and theoretically, it is a fruitful subject not only because it is a global institution with apparently incommensurate local forms, but also because, as Webb Keane puts it in his epilogue to this forthcoming collection, "Christianity…lurks as the suppressed core of much of what goes under the name Western Culture. Indeed, this suppression may have been necessary for the emerging self-understanding of modernist art and science" (308). To study Christianity, then, is at least partly a self-reflexive enterprise in terms of anthropology's intellectual history.

But the question of how to study Christianity most effectively is a difficult one. For many anthropologists, the usual ethnographic challenges of self-positioning and empathy are magnified when studying members of Christian denominations. Moreover, as Joel Robbins has written recently, anthropologists who are not Christian often have difficulty engaging with committed Christians' universalist epistemologies and their positions on the limits (and consequences) of tolerance. To engage with such challenges, Fenella Cannell begins her introductory essay in this volume with a broad but provocative [End Page 749] question: "What difference does Christianity make?" To the book's credit, the chapters that follow answer this question in radically different—and always illuminating—ways.

For example, one of the strongest chapters in the collection, Danilyn Rutherford's on Biak Protestants of Papua, gives a partially negative response. Rutherford describes the Biaks, missionized by Pietists from the Utrecht Mission Society, as holding firm expectations of the power of foreign signs. Such foreign signs can be raided, taken from their sources, and appropriated for local benefit. Whereas missionaries believed that the Bible could unite "a universal congregation of souls," Biaks saw the Bible as a mediation "between local communities and a dangerous and alluring outside world" (243), another species of "fetishistic, uncanny, alien" object (251). Thus, in answer to Cannell's question, Christianity did not make a great difference: "Instead of adopting the perspective of foreign evangelists, Biaks seem to have incorporated their signs" (248).

In contrast, for a group like the Malagasy Seventh-day Adventists described by Eva Keller, Christianity has made a profound difference—so profound, she argues, that their religion can be seen as a kind of "normal science" per Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm in which all new data are either made to conform or are rejected. Energetically attempting to reconcile emerging scientific knowledge with Biblical texts, they are glad to hear that the sun is getting hotter, because this accords with the Book of Revelation's (20: 14–15) description of an apocalyptic "lake of fire"; and one man, hearing of the discovery of a new interstellar black hole, "explained to me with shining eyes that it would be through this hole that Christ would descend to earth at the time of his Second Coming" (284). As Kuhn showed, paradigms are inherently limiting. Some things simply cannot be brought into acceptable purview—for SDAs, Darwinian evolution is beyond belief—although Keller does an excellent job of showing how widely the intellectual latitude can be stretched. After a cyclone, the Malagasy SDAs see spiritual evidence everywhere: their destroyed church shows Satan's anger, and their intact homes show God's blessing. As Keller summarizes, "In short: everything, good and bad luck, is a manifestation of biblical truth" (285). For them, in contrast to the Papuan Biaks, Christianity makes all the difference in the world, intellectually speaking.

Christina Toren also argues that Christianity makes a profound difference; her argument is presented in terms of ritual's formative effectiveness. Those familiar with her work will recognize how Toren advances her ongoing project of theorizing "mind" through analyzing the coproduction of apparently [End Page 750] opposed tendencies—equality and hierarchy, conservation and transformation. What makes her chapter notable within the present collection is its analysis of "the day-to-day pervasiveness of ritualized behavior" (195) and its attention to children's understandings of Christianity, specifically, Fijian Methodism. For Toren, death ceremonies are key sites at which indigenous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1518
Print ISSN
0003-5491
Pages
pp. 749-754
Launched on MUSE
2006-12-07
Open Access
No
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