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  • Critical Christianity: Translation and denominational conflict in Papua New Guinea by Courtney Handman
  • Joel Bradshaw
Courtney Handman. 2015. Critical Christianity: Translation and denominational conflict in Papua New Guinea. Anthropology of Christianity, 16. Oakland: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520283763. $26.95. xiv + 307 pp. Softcover.

It all started in 1956, when SIL's Ernie and Marjorie Richert arrived at the Kipu Lutheran station in the Waria River valley in southern Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and began to translate the New Testament and promote literacy in a newly unified language based on the central Kipu dialect that came to be called Guhu-Samane (GS). The translation was finished in 1974, and they returned to the United States in 1976, having planted the seeds for a revival in 1977 that culminated in two breakaway denominations, the New Life Bible Church and the Reformed Gospel Church, which destroyed the longtime Lutheran monopoly in the area. It was a tiny, distant echo of the role of vernacular languages in the Protestant Reformation.

Language plays a major role in this story. During her 16 months of fieldwork between 2005 and 2007, Courtney Handman (H) apparently learned the language well enough to delve into such issues as the ethnogenesis of the language-defined community, the usage and mixing of languages in religious settings, and some of the grammatical inadequacies in the Guhu-Samane [End Page 147] translation of the New Testament. This book contains a lot more linguistic analysis than its title might suggest, although it is scattered throughout the discussion and not very easy to extract. Part One (3 chapters) focuses on the role of the missions, Part Two (2 chapters) on Christian village life, and Part Three (3 chapters) on denominational conflict.

Chapter 1, "Sacred Speakers or Sacred Groups" (41–63), describes the approach of the colonial Lutheran mission in New Guinea. The Waria River valley was pacified before 1914, mostly to protect gold prospectors (93), and therefore was evangelized early as well. The Lutherans focused their efforts on groups, not individuals, and built large-scale church organizations using regional lingua francas. In Papuan-speaking areas of Morobe Province, the Lutherans adopted Kâte, a Trans–New Guinea family language originally spoken on the Huon Peninsula just inland of Jabêm, an Oceanic language adopted for Austronesian-speaking areas (47).

Chapter 2, "Linguistic Locality and the Anti-Institutionalism of Evangelical Christianity" (64–89), presents the SIL policy "that a tribe be evangelized in its own language" (46; emphasis in original), in the belief that ideas presented in one's "heart language" more effectively reach one's innermost self (45). I remain very skeptical of that belief, because it seems to assume that every innermost self is essentially monolingual, and that every human can be assigned to one language-defined tribe. My impression is that in traditional New Guinea—as in many other thoroughly multilingual regions—language, culture, and community boundaries rarely coincide. Nowadays, however, "people speaking mutually intelligible varieties of speech constitute a single market for vernacular literacy and Bible-translation efforts" (Bradshaw 2001:299). H makes a similar point (170–171):

While it is impossible to get a sense of precolonial language ideologies, it is unlikely that something approaching German Romantic linguistic identity was a particularly important component of social life in the past. … Guhu-Samane communities were more likely multiethnic and multilingual, with fluid boundaries and overlapping cultural traditions.

Chapter 3, "Translating Locality" (90–119), chronicles how Ernie Richert managed to create a newly language-defined community under a new language name, Guhu-Samane, meaning 'many men's houses', the men's house being the center of traditional initiation rituals, called poro. The German Lutheran missionaries attempted to suppress all such heathen rituals, which they called Balumskulten (from the Jabêm word balôm 'ghost, spirit, bullroarer', equivalent to poro) and considered their main spiritual rivals (149). Richert created his new ethnolinguistic entity by recruiting men who represented each of the dialects (which differ mostly in lexicon and the articulation of a few phonemes), by conducting literacy seminars just among speakers of GS dialects, by publishing a vernacular language newspaper, and by collecting poro guhu artifacts that had...


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