The Anthropology of Protestantism: Book Review

Webster, Joseph. 2013. The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Matt Tomlinson (Australian National University)

This book is an innovative attempt to understand the relationship between language and materiality in terms of the Protestant doctrine of consubstantiation, “that view of the Christian Eucharist that attempts to explain the real (material and spiritual) presence of the body and blood of Jesus as existing alongside the real material presence of the bread and the wine” (208). It is anthropology with a theological aura, but also a skillfully crafted ethnography that will appeal to scholars who don’t normally mix the anthro- and the theo-.

Webster’s ethnographic subjects are elderly fishermen and their wives in the northeast Scottish village of Gamrie. They provide a boatload of evidence that they live in a world that is, as the author puts it, both modern and enchanted. Many are members of Brethren churches and radical individualists as well as strict fundamentalists. As individualists, they distrust any authority except their own, leading one critic to characterize their attitude as “every man is his own skipper and he can go wherever he likes” (59; n.b., as they go wherever they like, they are likely to be watched by their neighbors, who keep binoculars at home “to see what others were up to further down the brae” [6]). As fundamentalists, they hold the Bible to be literally true, and they enthusiastically track signs of the end of the world.

The Brethren also create signs of the end of the world: for example, they support a program called “Million Trees” which aims to plant trees in Israel in order to fulfill statements in the Book of Isaiah that it will “blossom” in the end times. Part of their work is defensive, too, as they fight off supposedly satanic attacks. One of the book’s many vivid stories concerns a man who decides that he must burn a boxful of Seventh-day Adventist videotapes because he fears they are “full of false teaching” and could serve as a devilish conduit (167). The fishers of Gamrie are continually engaged in such compulsive projects. They act authoritatively (preaching, planting trees, burning videotapes) while displacing their own agency (assigning ultimate causality to either God or the devil), feeling that they must do something but cannot really control things that matter dearly to them. Webster describes the tense, sad situations they find themselves in as a result: “The pressure my Christian friends felt to ‘witness’ to ‘the need to be born-again’ was enormous.… The weight of sorrow…on elderly Christians whose families were not ‘saved’ was heartbreaking to witness” (70).

The Brethren are also frustrated to find economic and demographic power slipping out of their control. The fishing industry is changing in unwelcome ways as the EU imposes its regulations, competition grows, and the price of new, economically viable boats rises out of reach for all but the wealthiest skippers. Each of these dynamics has its own religious associations. For example, the fishers see the EU as the Antichrist. Younger villagers leave the industry and also leave the Brethren, and the elderly churchgoers’ senses of decline resonate with their sense of the world’s slide toward its final days. Webster refers to the three pressures of economy, demography, and eschatalogy as a “triple pinch,” and he treats them as mutually reinforcing rather than hierarchically determinative.

Toward the end of the book, Webster mentions Max Weber’s discussion of the modern “alternative salvations” of politics, aesthetics, and eroticism (205-206). In many ways, the fishers of Gamrie seem anti-political, aesthetically grim, and necrotic rather than erotic. But Webster is a patient and profoundly sympathetic observer as well as a talented writer. He never rushes to make a point but lets it develop, and when stories arrive they feel well groomed and naturally fitting. He does not make fun of the more outlandish claims he hears, but does not hide behind false objectivity, either, admitting—in passages that manage to be honest, non-judgmental, and funny at the same time—his discomfort at his friends’ more extreme pronouncements. (After Kenneth, a boat’s skipper, explains to his non-Brethren crew members his views on the connections between sin, death, and herbivores’ teeth, “Kenneth looked triumphant. Brice looked unconvinced. Todd looked uninterested. I felt a bit embarrassed. Eventually we all fell back to tailing prawns.”) One of my favorite passages in the book was this description of preaching, which indicates Webster’s observational skills and authorial playfulness:

‘Thump it oot!!’ would be the (only half joking) advice given to preachers on the evening they were due to ‘take the gospel.’ Men’s faces often went puce as they shouted from their platform about the immediate imperative of being ‘born-again.’ ‘Man is lost! Guilty! Born in sin!’ Martin roared at us from the front of the hall with the occasional fleck of spittle shooting out of his mouth and catching the light as it descended on those sitting in the front row. (88)

Warning: the first few rows may get wet. The ethnography is deliciously salted with descriptions like this, as well as representations of the local dialect. “But that’s the problem,” one friend declares while criticizing a preacher who is all head and no heart, “…there’s nae love in it ataw you ken” (there’s no love in it at all, you know [96]).

Webster’s main theoretical move, made consistently throughout the book, is to argue for the co-construction of conventionally opposed categories such as linguistic and material, past and present, saved and damned, and immanent and transcendent. This move leads to fine observations such as this one about how preaching was really aimed at people who were not in the church: “It wasn’t the ‘soul state’ of the congregation that mattered, but the brute existence—‘out there’ in the world—of the category of the ‘unsaved’ that determined what and how and why men preached” (90). But this kind of argument can also overemphasize interconnectedness and give metaphors a gravity they can’t sustain. Here, the tension between secular anthropology and theology becomes acute. For a secular anthropologist, consubstantiation is a metaphor; for a Protestant theologian, it might begin as such, but must go beyond metaphor, combining the analogical connection into a full identification.

This theological move from metaphor to full identification colors Webster’s analysis of co-construction. His analysis is innovative and consistent, but might frustrate theologians and anthropologists alike. In a chapter on preaching, he develops the argument that sermons are sacrifices and feasts, and concludes that “The sacrificial outcome is both the immanence of transcendence and the transcendence of immanence” (85). But isn’t the point of “transcendence” as a concept—in some varieties of theology, anyway—that it ultimately escapes this kind of folding-in, this knowability? For semiotic anthropologists, by comparison, if transcendence and immanence are opposed but co-constitutive categories, then they are necessarily calibrated in fractally recursive relationships in which “the distinction can be reproduced repeatedly by projecting it onto narrower and broader comparisons” (Gal 2005: 26-27). Attention to fractally recursive relationships would have clarified distinctions between co-constitution and “conflation” (a term Webster uses frequently) and possibly between immateriality/materiality and transcendence/immanence as well. Without distinguishing these categories, the universe can seem like an endless swallowing-up in which symbols don’t just stand for themselves, they stand for everything else too.

So here is the stark question which should interest both anthropologists and theologians: can the Protestant model of consubstantiation offer new insights about semiosis? Webster’s book says yes; I am not convinced, but I admire this effort to mount the argument. The Anthropology of Protestantism enriches the engagement between anthropology and theology, and is a valuable contribution to the anthropology of Christianity and the study of language and materiality. It deserves to earn a wide readership.

Gal, Susan. 2005. Language Ideologies Compared: Metaphors of Public/Private. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 23-27.

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