Praying and Preying: Book Review

Vilaça, Aparecida. 2016.  Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia, translated by David Rodgers. Oakland: University of California Press.

Reviewed by G.E.R. Lloyd (Needham Research Institute, Cambridge UK)

This is a truly remarkable book.  In most anthropological monographs the reader is given a detailed analysis of one particular collectivity, the circumstances of their lives, their kinship relations, social structures, myths, rituals, ways of making sense of the world and of their place in it.  That is certainly what Vilaça here does for the society she has been studying for more than 30 years, the Wari’ who live in what is today the Rondônia province of Brazil.  But a principal theme of this book is the interactions between the Wari’ and the missionaries (Protestants and some Catholics) who have lived among them and attempted, with varying success, to convert them to Christianity.  The Evangelical New Tribes Mission in particular, whose activities date back to the 1940s, may be said to be the subject of a second interlocking ethnographic analysis.  This adds a new dimension to the study of mutual intelligibility with which Vilaça is centrally concerned.  First there is the missionaries’ understanding of the Wari’ (they are not particularly concerned to learn from them or even about them but they certainly wish to get their own message across).  Second there is the Wari’s understanding of the missionaries and of what the missionaries are trying to teach them.  Third there is Vilaça’s own understanding of those divergent understandings and her further entering into dialogue with her fellow anthropologists.  I shall come back to that.

The problem of translation thus takes centre stage, and that takes multiple forms.  This is not just a matter of finding particular terms in one language that will be adequate to convey what is meant by some word in another. This to be sure was a major preoccupation for the missionaries, for what they were hoping to achieve was a rendition of the Word of God, as contained in the Bible, itself interpreted literally.  But for the Wari’ translation was quite different.  Their starting point is that Wari’ is the language spoken by everyone, every living being (and not just humans).  But the same term, used by different agents, may and often does have quite different referents.  The plot thickens when the agents are non-human persons.  When the jaguar drinks the blood of its victims, what the Wari’ see as blood is, for the jaguar, beer.  Of course translating from jaguar perceptions to those of the Wari’ takes special skills, the province of expertise of shamans in particular (though with Christianisation their power has been on the decline).  But the Wari’ in general are used to calling upon what may be thought of as internal dictionaries facilitating translation between jaguars (for example) and the Wari’, and of course also between the missionaries and themselves.  The consequence for reference is radical.  We are used to recognising that for someone to be a ‘father’ implies a relationship with another person, a son or daughter, who makes the father what he is.  But that principle is applied quite generally.  So that ‘blood’ is (only) blood to some agent for whom it is blood.  Indeed, a ‘person’ is only a person in virtue of being seen as a person.

That of course was the central message of the perspectivism proposed by Viveiros de Castro, which the Wari’ instantiate particularly clearly.  But where does that leave Vilaça herself?  On the one hand, she evidently distances herself from the assumptions of the missionaries, that the Word of God sets out a definitive statement of how things are.  On the other, she resists the relativising conclusion that the different understandings of translation, and of terms across languages, effectively rule out any possibility of mutual intelligibility.  That is not a conclusion the Wari’ themselves draw.  On the contrary their perspectivism suggests a particular focus on the efforts needed, and the difficulties likely to be encountered, in the task of translation.

Vilaça, for her part, has a further target, of making sense of the very divergence in the understanding of ‘translation’ that she has uncovered – making sense, that is, to her fellow anthropologists and for a wider public.  The conclusion is not that translation is impossible, that we simply have no hope of understanding one another.  Rather, the very practice of the type of ethnographically sensitive analysis of divergent views undertaken in this book demonstrates how understanding is to be achieved, not perfect understanding to be sure – for that must always elude us – but enough to make a start.  There is, to be sure, no neutral language into which what has been understood can be parsed.  But non-neutral, that is natural, languages, when used with circumspection and carefully glossed, will, if we work at it, do a reasonable job at least to secure a provisional, always revisable, translation.

Of course sensibility to radically different attitudes and values has its limits.  An extreme relativist might be tempted to say that Vilaça had an obligation to show as much sympathy and fellow-feeling for the missionaries as she does for the Wari’.  She clearly succeeded pretty well there even if in practice it is not difficult to see where her deepest sympathies lie.  But an important distinction can and should be drawn.  On the one hand, anyone and everyone demands equal attention as an object of study.  On the other, where moral judgements are concerned, understanding does not imply agreement.  There must surely be limits to the tolerance of the intolerant.  To call the missionaries intolerant is to go too far.  But there is still the important difference I have noted, between their agenda (conversion) and the agenda of the Wari’ or that of their ethnographer.  The Wari’ are vitally concerned to make the right decision about how to live, whether by their traditional practices or those they were introduced to by the missionaries.  Their aim is somehow to resolve the existential dilemma they face, to achieve generalised siblinghood, the erasure of affinity, although they are well aware that affines are necessary for the reproduction of society.  Their ethnographer’s ultimate target may be to understand the conditions of possibility of any understanding of the other.   But on the way the understanding achieved of particular collectivities can and must be brought to bear to help them as they confront the increasingly difficult problems of the effects of their incorporation into modernity.  The book ends with a poignant plea from Vilaça’s Wari’ brother: “Our professor says that we are losing our culture.  Can you help us, older sister?”

The discussion of these fundamental cognitive and linguistic issues is set against the background of the extraordinary story of the Wari’ interaction with the Whites.  The first contacts, leading to terrible epidemics that decimated two-thirds of the Wari’ population and massacres by rubber tappers armed with machine guns, could not have been more tragic.  But with the work of the missionaries more positive results were eventually achieved.  The first wave of conversion began in the 1960s – the first baptisms occurred in 1969.  But this was succeeded by a period in the 1980s and 1990s when the Wari’ abandoned Christianity and reverted to their traditional beliefs and practices.  This was the time of Vilaça’s first extended periods of fieldwork each of several months between 1986 and 1990 and again between 1992 and 1996.  But by 2001 the Wari’ had mostly reconverted to Christianity.

In part these shifts were prompted by external events.  An earthquake in 1994 instilled a fear that the end of the world was imminent and there was a repetition of a similar reaction when the Wari’ witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 (they watched it on the communal television that they had by then and were profoundly affected).  However, their initial turning to Christianity stemmed in part from their exposure to the story of the creation of the world in Genesis.  Before Christianity what the Wari’ ate was controlled by strict prohibitions.  But the Bible story said that God had created every kind of animal for the benefit of humans.  The implication was that they could eat any of them, without fear that they would become sick, and when they did indeed do so without becoming diseased, they were convinced that that part of the Bible at least was correct.   That experience acted as a kind of experimental verification that Christianity was true.

Yet after the first conversions many Wari’ deconverted, in part because their becoming Christian did not put an end to the squabbling and fighting between individuals and whole groups.  Many then reverted to their traditional practices, relying on the interventions of shamans when faced with disease that they explained as the result of sorcery or the aggressive attacks of animal spirits.  The normal Wari’ experience is an alternation between the predator position (when they hunt and eat game) and that of prey (when they are subject to such attacks).  So escape from such instability and transformations is highly desirable – a major factor contributing to their adoption of Christianity, which offers the chance of a permanent escape from the alternation that leads to being transformed into prey.  Yet going to Heaven may suffer from one drawback, namely if some of their kin do not make it and find themselves burning in Hell, for separation from their kin is something the Wari’ find most upsetting.  And what do they imagine those in Heaven do?  They read and write, they do not eat but consume books, for the equation between food and words is one that the Wari’ themselves had traditionally made.

Sometimes the Wari’ language had no term for a concept that the missionaries wanted to convey, but sometimes an existing term was adapted to the purpose, with effects that could be unexpected.  Thus the missionaries were stumped for a translation of God.  The Wari’ have or had no divine demiurge and most of their mythical figures had characters that did not fit the Christian message of divine benevolence.  So they coined the term Iri’ Jam, which the missionaries translated ‘true Spirit’.  Yet Jam refers to what is invisible quite generally, for example someone who has left and not returned, so a more correct even if incongruous rendering would be the ‘true invisible’.  Of course the missionaries also had to explain the Trinity, how God was three persons in one: but there the Wari’ were well equipped with the conceptual apparatus of perspectivism, which allowed personhood to be multiple and relative to a perceiver.

When it came to translating the idea that God loved all that he had created the obstacle was that the Wari’ have no verb for ‘love’.  So to convey that idea they said ‘God does not dislike you, and you, and you’.  It is obvious however that when the starting point is not disliking and the assumption is that the default emotion is anger, the valence of the idea is quite different from the connotations when the starting point is love.  Further problems were encountered with the idea that God is incorporeal.  As noted the Wari’ have no difficulty with the idea of invisibility, though that is generally a temporary state, not a permanent one.  But to say that God has no body goes against their fundamental belief that everything has a body.  It is your body that is responsible for the way you are and that applies not just to humans and animals but also to other objects, the wind for example.  It blows as it does because that is the way it is, which they express by saying that that is the body it has.

There is thus an obvious tension between various items of belief, that God has no body and yet that to be alive He certainly must have one.  But the difficulties the Wari’ converts face are, it seems to me, no different in principle from those of the missionaries who are out to convert them.  If they were challenged to say how the Trinity can be true, how God can be both One and Three, they would no doubt take refuge in some notion that God, being quite special, is not subject to the rules that govern the existence of ordinary creatures.  If logic is suspended, that just confirms the mystery of His Being.  The Wari’ are not trained to test pairs of sentences for consistency.  But to accommodate the idea that a Being has no body evidently posed quite a problem for them.

Yet their adaptations to the new ideas they were exposed to are remarkable for one recurrent characteristic, the extent to which they could and did preserve their own traditional ideas even as they took on board the missionaries’ teaching.  The extent to which the missionaries themselves realised what was happening is not an issue on which Vilaça feels confident to pronounce.  But her observations of the subtle negotiations that Christianization involved suggest the extraordinary ability the Wari’ display in adapting the new without abandoning most aspects of the old.

Vilaça’s discussion is punctuated with references to other anthropologists who have reported on similar – or different – experiences, of more or less successful indigenous negotiation when they were faced with alien systems of thought and not just Christianity.  One might even compare the fortunes of the acceptance of anthropological neologisms such as ‘dividual’, ‘obviate’ and ‘perspectivism’ itself to those thrown up by the Wari’-missionary encounter.  Are not readers of Viveiros de Castro, Descola, Strathern, Wagner faced with problems that are strictly analogous to those of the Wari’ struggling with Iri’ Jam?  We all share, or should share, a recognition that there is so much to learn, even at the price of the tensions that such learning may throw up.  In every instance the interpreter has to make maximum use of whatever clues, whatever translation manual, is available, always accepting that no rendering is ever going to be better than approximate and will always stand in need of supplementing by sympathetic commentary.  Yet one message one might take away is that indigenous peoples are often just as good at such negotiations as those who report on them.  But that would only surprise us if we believed that we westerners have some monopoly of the ability to cross the borders set by alternative conceptual frameworks.  Such an idea is evidently absurd.  And this book, which is to be recommended not just to social anthropologists, but also to philosophers, not to mention theologians and missionaries themselves, is marvellous testimony to its absurdity.

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