- Beyond Conversion and Syncretism: Indigenous encounters with missionary Christianity, 1800-2000
For the most part, scholarship on the encounter between Indigenous peoples and Christian missions has shed its focus on the image of the dominant missionary and pliable Indigenous respondent. In its stead, historians, anthropologists and scholars of religion now emphasize the complex nature of the encounter between missionary and Indigenous community, seeing the encounter as a dynamic interchange producing new hybrid forms of religious and cultural experience. The collection of essays reviewed here, the product of a workshop at Georgetown University in 2008, tries to move this scholarship in yet another new direction. Not content to simply show that the mission encounter was "complex," the collection brings together case studies from across modern history to make broad observations about the reasons Indigenous peoples converted to Christianity and the meaning of the hybridized religious expressions created through these conversions.
The book opens with an introductory chapter by the editors. The bulk of the chapter focuses on the two terms holding the volume together: "conversion"—the reasons and ways Indigenous peoples chose to identify with Christianity; and "syncretism"—the blending or hybdridity involved when Indigenous peoples adopt and adapt Christianity into their own lives. As the editors argue, not only are these concepts central to understanding the mission encounter, they are also the focus of much scholarly and public debate. Their chapter does an excellent job of outlining some of these debates, particularly showing how different disciplines (history, anthropology and religious studies) use, or critique, the concept of "syncretism." Unfortunately, other parts of the introduction do not always reflect on the way authors in the volume understand these terms. Most problematic, the introduction seems to suggest that both conversion and syncretism were processes that occurred in a kind of vacuum. In their push to make generalizations about conversion and syncretism, the editors seem to place too much emphasis on the intellectual forces leading to conversion and syncretism, and in the process give short shrift to the role played by material and political forces and the very important differences between sites of encounter (both points made by multiple authors in the volume).
Several of the chapters do present cutting edge discussions on the way Indigenous peoples have interacted with Christianity. The strongest chapters do push beyond straightforward discussions of why Indigenous peoples converted to or interacted with Christianity. In the first section of essays on conversion, pieces by C. Matthew Samson on the relationship between conversion and the renewal of ethnic identity in Guatemala, Elizabeth Elbourne on the link between religious conversion and military alliances among Indigenous groups in southern Africa and northeast North America, and Richard Fox Young's inventive discussion of theories of conversion in Africa and South Asia, are richly textured and highly focused. As a group, these pieces reveal the broad reasons for conversion, stretching from the intellectual, in Fox Young's discussion, to the slightly more material and political forces in the other pieces. More importantly, these pieces point out the mixed implications of the missionary encounter for Indigenous peoples, and particularly the unpredictable and often political outcomes of the Christian encounter for Indigenous communities. In Elbourne's chapter, for instance, we see that for both the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) of North America and the Khoekhoe of southern Africa, the meaning of Christianity was prone to change as the colonial world around them shifted: at times the new religion could be a powerful tool to bolster Indigenous fortunes in colonial society or on a fractious frontier, while at other moments, there was an element of danger attached to Christianity, pushing many Indigenous peoples away from the religion and towards other sources of spiritual power. This fluctuating meaning and relevance of Christianity, and especially the changing degrees of power attached to the religion, is something that is an important and recurring theme throughout this book.
Joseph M. Murphy's chapter on the blending of Catholic and African religious symbols in Cuba opens the second section of the book, on syncretism. This is...