Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Book Review

Guadeloupe, Francio. 2009. Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and Capitalism in the Caribbean. Berkeley: University of California Press.

By: Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

Beautiful islands of beaches, colorful and fascinating cultures, and delicious tropical cuisine, it is no wonder the economies of the tiny island nations of the Caribbean have become dominated by tourism in their postcolonial history.  At the same time, reading about Caribbean history and politics may produce conflicted feelings about benefiting from the exploitation of the people and their land.  It’s hard to enjoy your Piña Colada if you’re too aware of the colonial history of exploitation behind the excellent service at Club Med.

But are the excellent service, the friendly smiles, and warm welcome just a cover for deep-seated resentment and cultural tension?  As Francio Guadeloupe notes in the conclusion of Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity and Capitalism in the Caribbean, the Caribbean generally is often portrayed in terms of these contrasts: the Caribbean downtrodden and their Western exploiters; neocolonial nationalists struggling against European empire; local religious movements against Christian hegemony; men versus women; Black against White; in short, a “Caribbean that has become paradigmatic for students of Caribbean studies” (206).

Guadeloupe’s study of the binational island of Saint Martin/Sant Maarten (French and Dutch West Indies respectively, known collectively by the moniker SXM, the code for its international airport) presents a culture that is animated not by oppositions, but inclusions.  Seeking to create a place where the multicultural Caribbean can welcome global tourists, the people of SXM are less concerned with creating a national identity to distinguish insiders from outsiders, as opposed to one where “history functions as a commodity that allows tourism workers to perform the role of historically oppressed people who hold no grudges, and openly welcome visitors who benefited from the exploitation of their grandmothers and grandfathers” (9).

Working at the anthropologically popular intersection of language, culture, and identity, Guadeloupe explores this politics of belonging expressed in everyday interactions of SXM-ers. In light of the economic realities of a capitalistic system, these politics are promoted through a “metalanguage of Christianity,” skillfully presented by prominent DJs of SXM’s influential radio stations strategically mixing “pan-Caribbean” music to develop the public culture of inclusivity.  It’s a fascinating study that puts the reader in situ, experiencing this backstage world of Caribbean tourism in vivid terms.  Those particularly interested in Christianity may find some analysis of the religion lacking, as this is first a study of SXM culture generally developing in a contemporary global economy of tourism, but any disappointment should be more than offset by what is so good about this book.

Francio Guadeloupe himself is an intriguing figure; a citizen of the Netherlands who now teaches at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who also holds the enviable title of “Extraordinary Research Fellow” at the University of Saint Martin.  Having lived in SXM for several years as a teenager, Guadeloupe’s afro-caribbean ancestry and colonial metropole training make him an astute observer in the tradition of nativist anthropology. But on this island that the local inhabitants themselves say has “no indigenous history and no indigenous culture” (15), he becomes one more participant in the project to create “an all-inclusive national politics of belonging” (47) where “the other ceases to be that different” (213).

In the first two chapters, we learn something of the history and economics of the island.  The discussion of an inclusive capitalism is particularly interesting in the face of the wider body of Caribbean studies that makes class division the dominant marker of identity.  From the colonial division of masters and slaves, to the postcolonial oligarchies of ruling families and economic elites, many studying Caribbean cultures cannot help but place these profound economic divisions at the center of their analyses.  Guadeloupe does not deny the power or prevalence of economic inequality, but SXM seems to provide a rather different case, where the tourist economy has been able to provide a stable economic base for all.  Disrupting the tourist trade through divisive talk, or threats of enforcing immigration laws and cutting off labor supplies, or even nationalist movements that would undermine support from Europe comes across to most of SXM as foolishly undermining their own lives. Through what they call the “money tie” system; they’re all tied to the same money.

For this reason, the public culture of SXM – and the use of Christian language in particular – supports a happy inclusivity.  It is this construction of inclusion, framed in terms of a potentially exclusive religion that forms the heart of the argument.  Chanting Down the New Jerusalem is volume four in a series on “The Anthropology of Christianity,” and Christianity is a central feature in Guadeloupe’s study.  Depending on the reader, it may also be the most disappointing part of the book.

Rather than a study of Christianity in the Caribbean, the book reads something like an old-fashioned ethnography.  While the theory and form reflects anthropology’s contemporary aesthetics (with many personal stories, reflexive turns, and engaging narrative qualities), it is centrally a study of ‘a people,’ their daily lives, and how they view themselves and the world.

In this way, some features of Christianity that many Christians hold as fairly central to an understanding of the faith – beliefs, doctrines, theology – is a bit more incidental than central.  This is, of course, his point.  On SXM, he argues, those aspects of Christianity are downplayed in public in order to create a public face that is Christian without being exclusive.

As an anthropologist of Christianity myself, what I appreciate is his insistence that Christianity studied only in the chapel, church or monastery misses the living faith and pragmatic concerns in which Christianity truly takes shape in any society.  But what I missed was some more exploration of Christianity in the chapel, church and monastery. In one humorous scene, Guadeloupe describes a Baptist missionary boarding a bus, seeking to engage the driver and passengers in a theological discussion about the importance of being morally devout and pietistic. As Guadeloupe observed, the bus driver and several passengers jumped on the unsuspecting missionary with a retelling of the Genesis account in which Eve has sex with the snake, Adam has an affair with one of the cows, and the infidelity of men and women, rich and poor, of every ethnicity, could be explained from the sexual lives of the first humans, all in an effort to head off any divisive moralizing by the missionary. “In public,” Guadeloupe concludes, “there was little space for issues of belief or conversion” (107).

In the same chapter, however, we also get a brief account of a Puerto Rican Pentecostal minister who led a church on SXM.  In one of the few scenes from inside a church, Guadeloupe notes the pastor’s injunction to new members that their conversion did not tie them to one particular congregation, and that their salvation does not come from membership, but from the grace of God.  Like the exclusion of pietism and belief from public space, Guadeloupe takes this as evidence of Christianity being conformed to the “creole” SXM version of an inclusivist faith.  Yet I think many evangelicals in the United States and elsewhere have heard Christianity presented in similar ways, as transcending denominational or geographic boundaries.  It made me wonder if the pastor he cites in this case would agree with some of the more radical views of inclusiveness, or the denials of Christian ethics, offered by his informants on the bus, in the bars, and at the boarding houses.  The Puerto Rican pastor sounded theologically familiar to my non-creolized ears, which makes me suspect there’s more complexity to the interplay of belief and inclusion (or exclusion?) than can come out in public exchanges on public transportation.

This is not to say that there is nothing interesting or unusual about the way Christianity plays in the public culture of SXM, but the book as a whole is far less about Christianity and much more about, as Guadeloupe asserts, the politics of belonging in SXM generally.  Christianity as a metalanguage (or perhaps more aptly, a metaculture, as it includes a wider spectrum of movement, values, and actions) is woven throughout the lives of the figures that we meet in Guadeloupe’s compelling ethnography.  Perhaps in a series about Caribbean studies, or identity and subjectivity, I wouldn’t have had the expectations to learn about Christianity in a more fully orbed way.  As it was, I felt I’d received a brilliant introduction to the people and culture of SXM, but not much about the Christianity (or Christianities) I might find there.

If it was a disappointment, it was compensated through the fascinating and eminently readable prose exploring tourism, culture, and globalization in this small place.  While I wouldn’t send someone seeking to understand global Christianity to this book first, it’s quickly risen to the top of my favorite ethnographies of Caribbean tourism, alongside Steven Gregory’s study in the Dominican Republic, The Devil Behind the Mirror.  What Guadeloupe reveals through his portrait of tiny SXM is that attending to complexity of life in small places can have big payoff as we seek to understand the worlds that many encounter, but few enter.

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