“Faith in Anthropology” Symposium

Howell, Brian, J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo, Tanya Luhrmann, and Timothy Larsen.  2016.  Faith in Anthropology: A Symposium on Timothy Larsen’s The Slain GodThe Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(2):140-152.

Abstract: Timothy Larsen is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois, and the author of The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), an intellectual history of the relationship between anthropology and Christianity. Here Brian Howell, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton, introduces comments on the book from J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo and Tanya Luhrmann, as well as a response from Larsen.

Occasional Paper: Howell, “19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency”

19 and Counting: Religion, Gender, and the Hermeneutics of Agency in Liberal America

Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

Editorial Note – This article was written prior to Josh Duggar’s recent admission to having molested unspecified minors twelve years ago, and also to his resignation from the Family Research Council. Points made herein about liberalism, agency, and coercion, though, have much to contribute to current debates regarding this issue. 

Abstract: TLC’s reality show “19 and Counting” (nee 18 and Counting; nee 17 and Counting) follows the Duggar family and their many children and grandchildren through “everyday life.” Described as “conservative Christians,” the show presents insights into the challenges of managing such a large family as well as extended coverage of the particular beliefs and practices of the family, such as the practice of “courtship,” a kind of arranged marriage, strictly limited physical contact prior to marriage, and the practice of rigid gender roles. While this form of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity fits within the scholarly orbit of what Susan Harding termed the “repugnant cultural other,” this reality show has consistently been one of the most popular TLC shows and generated wide-spread celebrity for the family. In this paper I argue that the network employs discourse of liberal freedom and autonomous moral choice to make the presence of an illiberal community in the midst of the United States acceptable, even attractive, to the wider audience. The audience of this TLC program learns very little about the sociality of this form of religion, even as they are inspired to accept and embrace the cultural others in their midst.

The Duggar family is nothing if not adorable. The 19 children of Michelle and “Jim Bob” (James Robert) Duggar are attractive, funny, and opinionated. The cameras of their TLC reality show, “19 Kids & Counting,” frequently turn to 9 year old Jackson and 8 year old Johanna, who offer their wisdom on everything from which of their older sisters will be the first to marry, to how many “bajillions of people” came to the family’s book signing in Harrisburg, PA, and whether their mother will have another baby. Just as frequently, the episodes feature matriarch Michelle calmly recounting the daily activities of homeschooling her large family, and patriarch Jim Bob often chimes in with the challenges of getting everyone to the airport on time to make their trip to New York, or organized for a mission trip to Central America. As a result of their reality-show fame, the Duggar parents have published two books and regularly appear on daytime shows such as Good Morning America and the Today Show. Now in its seventh season on air, 19 Kids and Counting has proven to be one of TLC’s most popular shows.

Although the extraordinary size of the clan is certainly one key to the show’s popularity, the producers highlight a second, and arguably more intriguing aspect of this family, the unusual theology and cultural practices they embody. In the first season of the show, the family self-described during the introduction as having “conservative values,” referring to the fundamentalist Christianity that is a regular feature of each episode. They are shown praying together, attending church, and visiting Christian conferences. Father Jim Bob makes frequent mention of his conviction against being in debt for any purchase, and it is a staple of the show that it is their faith that motivates their commitment to un-restrained fertility. Mother Michelle is very clear that she cedes authority in the family to her husband and views herself as “under his covering.” A popular story arc followed eldest son Josh through his “courtship,” engagement, and marriage to Anna, a young woman from a “like-minded family.” Their relationship and engagement was overseen, and largely arranged, by their fathers. What is remarkable about the popularity of this show is that this fringe theology is not portrayed, nor largely consumed, as a spectacle of a “repugnant” subculture (Harding 1991), but as a beloved and embraced family. How has a religious expression that seemingly runs counter to wider American views of gender, family, and social mores become a mainstream hit known not as a domestic train wreck but as a more fecund, real world Waltons? This article argues that despite the countercultural fundamentalism and conservative gender norms the family embraces, the show serves, through those who accept and those who critique the family, to reinforce the hegemonic ideology of liberal autonomy.[1]

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Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech: Book Review

Asad, Talal, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, & Saba Mahmood. 2013. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury & Free Speech. Second Revised Edition. New York: Fordham University Press.

By Brian Howell (Wheaton College)

This past summer began with a United States news cycle dominated by a single story. The U.S. Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and its evangelical owners, the Green Family, supporting their claim that to provide certain forms of contraception through their health insurance plan would violate their religious conscience. Conservatives and many religious groups declared the decision a victory for religious freedom. Progressives, many women’s advocacy groups, and many supporters of the Affordable Care Act decried this the inappropriate imposition of religious views on individuals, and a failure of the state to protect the rights of women to comprehensive health care.

While both sides generally argued their positions based on liberal principles of individual rights, there were more complex questions in the background: what is the legitimate role of religious views in the secular public sphere? What is properly a “religious” belief and what is its relationship to economic, social, and political actions? Where are the limits of religion in a secular state?

Working from a different set of conversations around global Islam and secular Europe, these questions are taken up in one of the more productive reads I have enjoyed this year. Beginning as a conference at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, Is Critique Secular? lived for a time as a publication of that conference. After some years of reaction and discussion, the authors decided to re-frame the collection with a new preface by the authors, and published as a mutli-authored book by Fordham University Press in 2013. The book now consists of chapters from two anthropologists – long-time scholar of secularism Talal Asad and comparatively more recent voice Saba Mahmood – paired with an introduction by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown, and response from Judith Butler, a prominent feminist scholar and social theorist. Asad and Mahmood each provide short replies to Butler’s discussion, constituting the last two chapter of the book. Although the entire volume comes in at a slim 145 pages, the format provides for vigorous interaction. Going far beyond the cases on which the authors primarily rely, the questions of secular society and its relation to religion as practice and concept are taken up with vibrancy that will make this volume a key conversation for anyone interested in the nature of secularism and liberal society in a rapidly changing global context.

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Meneses et. al., “Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue”

Meneses, Eloise, Lindy Backues, David Bronkema, Eric Flett, and Benjamin L. Hartley. 2014. Engaging the Religiously Committed Other: Anthropologists and Theologians in Dialogue. Current Anthropology. Preprint – issue, volume, page not available. 

Abstract: Anthropology has two tasks: the scientific task of studying human beings and the instrumental task of promoting human flourishing. To date, the scientific task has been constrained by secularism, and the instrumental task by the philosophy and values of liberalism. These constraints have caused religiously based scholarship to be excluded from anthropology’s discourse, to the detriment of both tasks. The call for papers for the 2009 meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) recognized the need to “push the field’s epistemological and presentational conventions” in order to reach anthropology’s various publics. Religious thought has much to say about the human condition. It can expand the discourse in ways that provide explanatory value as well as moral purpose and hope. We propose an epistemology of witness for dialogue between anthropologists and theologians, and we demonstrate the value added with an example: the problem of violence.

Brian Howell, interviewed by Joshua Brahinsky

The following is an interview with Brian Howell conducted by Josh Brahinsky in September 2013.

Josh: What motivated this book?

Brian: I would ask students at the beginning of an intro class and would hear about these really extraordinary travel opportunities that they had to places where people don’t normally go: northern Ghana and Mongolia and such places, but what was most striking about it was the ways that they talked about their trips, that they were similar to one another regardless of where they gone in the world including people who gone to Europe versus people who gone to Latin America or remote parts of Asia or Africa. I was struck that something was going on that either these trips had converged in some way, or had been produced in some way. The narratives about them were coming from somewhere, and I was really curious how that happened.

Josh: Was this one of the founding questions of the book? Narrative versus experience, or how was this made? How did this come to be spoken this way?

Brian: When I started doing research into the literature, particularly the anthropology of tourism, I could see that this was an idea many anthropologists have followed up on, looking at how the narratives of particular places shape those experiences of those places. So, what you could call my hypothesis was that the narratives produced around short-term missions were strongly influencing the experience people had of the places that they went when they were calling these short-term missions.
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Short Term Missions: Book Review

Howell, Brian (2012) Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic Press.

By: Joshua Brahinsky (University of California, Santa Cruz)

While anthropology and religion have a checkered and ambivalent dynamic, relations between anthropology and missiology – Christian mission theory – are far more enmeshed and, perhaps, grating. This animates a sharp division between the two.  Anthropologists can imagine religion as out there, a behavior to study, more or less connected to transcendent reality. By contrast, missions, as many have noted, cut much closer to the bone (Priest 2001). Not only was the core anthropological notion of culture likely first articulated among missionaries, but also, by most accounts, missionaries surpass even the most assiduous anthropologist when it comes to their defining practice: ethnography (Herbert 1991). Even an exceptionally long three-year anthropological field stay cannot touch the decades common to missions.  This makes discussions of missions uncomfortable for anthropologists.  Further, simply noticing mission’s effects ties awkward knots within anthropological tales of the noble savage or those that valorize postcolonial agency, especially when that agency involves appropriating previously Western religions (Sanneh 2003). Finally, Short Term Missions (STM), are especially ephemeral phenomena, and as such, easily escape the anthropological eye.  In other words, aside from the significance of a project that involves 1.6 million US youth traveling the world each year, simply talking STM and anthropology together makes Brian Howell’s study of Short Term Missions worthwhile.
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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).

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Priest and Howell, “Theme Issue on Short-Term Missions”

Priest, Robert J. and Brian M. Howell. 2013. Introduction: Theme Issue on Short-Term Missions. Missiology 41(2): 124-129.

Abstract: Like the anthropology of tourism, research on short-term missions has had to overcome a bias against what is often assumed to be a trivial phenomenon. As scholars in a variety of fields have encountered this growing, global phenomenon, they have begun to develop a vibrant and multifaceted research-based literature exploring its cultural, historic, economic, and political aspects. This introduction to a special issue of Missiology on short-term missions presents a brief overview of the development of this emerging literature, as well as synopses of the six articles advancing our understanding of short-term missions.

Howell, “Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience”

Howell, Brian (2012) Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic Press.

Publisher’s Description: Over the past few decades, short-term mission trips have exploded in popularity. With easy access to affordable air travel, millions of American Christians have journeyed internationally for ministry, service and evangelism. Short-term trips are praised for involving many in global mission but also critiqued for their limitations.

Despite the diversity of destinations, certain universal commonalities emerge in how mission trip participants describe their experiences: “My eyes were opened to the world’s needs.” “They ministered to us more than we ministered to them.” “It changed my life.”

Anthropologist Brian Howell explores the narrative shape of short-term mission (STM). Drawing on the anthropology of tourism and pilgrimage, he shows how STM combines these elements with Christian purposes of mission to create its own distinct narrative. He provides a careful historical survey of the development of STM and then offers an in-depth ethnographic study of a particular mission trip to the Dominican Republic. He explores how participants remember and interpret their experiences, and he unpacks the implications for how North American churches understand mission, grapple with poverty and relate to the larger global church.

A groundbreaking book for all who want to understand how and why American Christians undertake short-term mission.