Robbins, “Keeping God’s Distance”

Robbins, Joel. 2017. Keeping God’s Distance: Sacrifice, possession, and the problem of religious mediation. American Ethnologist 44(3): 464-475.

Abstract: Much contemporary work in the anthropology of religion explores how human experience of the divine is mediated. One question rarely asked, however, is why people distance the divine from themselves in the first place, such that complex practices of mediation are necessary to make it present. An answer to this question is provided by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss in their book Sacrifice, which I read as a key precursor to current work on religious mediation. Hubert and Mauss focus on how religious mediations model and shape social mediations. I demonstrate the usefulness of an approach to mediation that draws on their work by examining a shift from sacrifice to possession as forms of mediation among Pentecostal converts in Papua New Guinea. I also show that this approach can help us further develop broader anthropological theories of mediation and social life.

Tomlinson, “Christian Difference”

Tomlinson, Matt. 2017. “Christian Difference: A review essay.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 59(3):743-753.

Abstract: The discipline called the “anthropology of Christianity” began to gain traction in the early to mid-2000s when interested scholars focused on Christianity as an object of collaborative and comparative cross-cultural analysis. Along with several landmark works of Joel Robbins, one foundational text is Fenella Cannell’s edited volume The Anthropology of Christianity, published in 2006. In her introductory essay, Cannell poses a pointed question for the volume and the discipline itself: “What difference does Christianity make?” Bracketing the question of whether “difference” can or should be defined (Green 2014), several anthropologists have taken inspiration from Cannell, including Naomi Haynes (2014) in the concluding essay to a recent special issue of Current Anthropology, and myself and Debra McDougall (2013) in an edited volume on Christian politics in Oceania. Difference, as the criterion by which continuity and transformation are evaluated, is arguably the key concept for an effective anthropological engagement with Christianity.

Robbins, “Religious Pluralism and Values Pluralism”

Robbins, Joel. 2015 [2014]. Religious Pluralism and Values Pluralism: Ritual and the Management of Intercultural Diversity. Debates do NER 2(26): 15-41. [English Translation]

[Link to Original Portuguese Language Version, including responses by Aparecida Vilaça, Cecília L. Mariz, Johanna Sumiala, Luiz Fernando Diaz Duarte, Maria Laura Viveiros de Castro Cavalcanti, Pablo Semán, Thomas J. Csordas, & Ramon Sarro, and a reply by Joel Robbins] 

Excerpt: I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to present this talk at a meeting on the theme of “Pluralism and Interculturality: Flows and Religious Itineraries.” The topic is a timely and important one in a world where a heightened concern with the public role of religion is rooted in, among other things, a realization that almost everywhere more than one religion is vying for the chance to influence social and political life. But I should confess at the outset that where religious pluralism is concerned, I feel myself to be at something of a comparative disadvantage in present company. In the introduction to a 1995 volume of essays that took on the relationship between ritual and pluralism, one of my key themes here, Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn (1995: 10) note that Brazil “may serve, as perhaps no other [society], as a laboratory for the study of plurality and pluralism.” Discussions of the nature of religious pluralism, the way it is lived out by religious practitioners, and the problems it raises for social scientific analysis are arguably more developed in scholarship in and about Brazil than in any other body of literature. As a scholar of global Pentecostalism, I have been stimulated by a good deal of this scholarship, but I know that what I have read is only the tip of a huge iceberg of important literature, much of it more conceptually sharp than my own present work on this subject, which is at a very early stage of development. I fear, then, that in talking about religious pluralism here today, I run the risk of not only of carrying coals to Newcastle, but of carrying coals of a quality decidedly inferior to the local varieties as well.

Faced with what I am quite sure is a justified sense of inferiority in my understanding of the contemporary literature on religious diversity, I am going to rely on two time honored scholarly strategies for maneuvering out of tight spots of this kind. One of these is quite general in nature and involves somewhat subtly changing the subject in ways that bring it on to ground I have some experience in covering. I deploy this strategy here by shifting our focus first from religious pluralism as it is most often understood to value pluralism, which I want to suggest ought to be seen as a closely related issue, and also by directing our attention away from religion in general to ritual, which I will argue is an aspect of religion that is centrally involved in the expression of values. My second strategy is a more specialized anthropological one, and involves developing my theoretical argument about value pluralism and ritual not through an analysis of the religious situation in Brazil or in any other large, religiously and culturally diverse nation state, but rather in a very small Papua New Guinea community in which everyone insists that they are members of the same religion and where I happen to have carried out anthropological fieldwork. Toward the end of the paper, once I have worked through the kind of analysis of pluralism I am proposing in this Papua New Guinea setting, I will try to bring my account back to more familiar social terrain for the discussion of religious pluralism, but that is not where I will start.

My intention in implementing these two strategies – redefining the problem of religious pluralism and enlarging the range of places in which it might make sense to study it – is not to displace or discredit more usual ways of discussing this topic. I have no interest in doing this, nor would I have the expertise needed to bring it off successfully. I simply want to suggest another angle from which it might make sense to look at problems of pluralism. This is not, then, a critical intervention into the existing discussion of religious pluralism. At best, it hopes simply to be a suggestive and perhaps somewhat novel one. With this in mind, we can start with what it might mean to set aside religious pluralism as it is usually understood in favor of a focus on value pluralism.


Robbins, “Engaged Disbelief: Communities of Detachment in Christianity and in the Anthropology of Christianity”

Robbins, Joel. 2015. Engaged Disbelief: Communities of Detachment in Christianity and in the Anthropology of Christianity. In Thomas Yarrow; Matei Candea; Catherine Trundle; Jo Cook, eds., Detachment: essays on the limits of relational thinking. Manchester : Manchester University Press, p115-129. 

Excerpt: This chapter takes up some of these kinds of tasks in the realm of religion. It is worth noting at the outset that this realm is likely to be a hard case for theorists of detachment. At least in the Western (and in this respect profoundly Protestant) imagination, what is more given to forming bonds than faith or belief? To believe in some being, to have faith in that being, is to tie yourself to it in a highly committed way. If religion is a matter of belief, then it is nothing if not a matter of connection. This is surely yet another way to cash out the often proposed etymological root of the word ‘religion’ in *leig, ‘to bind’. For social theorists, the link between religion and connection has evidenced itself both in the assumption that relations of belief are strong ones, and in the claim from Durkheim forward that the bonds between people who share beliefs in the same things – for example, in gods, or ideas or values – are also unusually strong. And this double assumption of a link between religion and connection remains as true today as in the past. For example, some of the currently most important and influential work in the anthropology of religion is focused on religious mediation: the very problem of how to make the presence of deities evidence so that people can connect to them and can form communities around these connections. If religion is all about connections in the ways I have just listed, we might ask, what room can there be to introduce detachment into discussions on this subject?

I am going to approach the problem raised by the question of how to think about detachment in relation to religion in two ways here. I first want to go over some pretty well-known ground concerning Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity by means of a slightly different path than usual and to use the results of this exercise to make a point about the role of detachment in Christianity more generally and in other monotheistic faiths. I hope this part of the chapter helps us further the task of exploring differences between kinds of detachments and the social roles they can play by laying out one influential religious family of detachment dynamics in very clear terms. I then turn to the relationship between anthropologists who study Christians and the Christians that they study. As it happens, anthropologists often find this relationship somewhat fraught precisely because they worry over the way, as Elias would have it, involvement and detachment balance out on their side of these relationships. In conclusion, I suggest that the options I make about detachment in my discussion of Pentecostal Christianity can help us think through the problems of involvement and detachment anthropologists of Christianity experience in the field, and I will consider how both of these analyses of detachment can contribute to a broader theoretical investigation into the way social relations are constituted.

Macdonald, “‘Lucifer is Behind Me'”

Macdonald, Fraser.  2015. ‘Lucifer Is Behind Me’: The Diabolisation of Oksapmin Witchcraft as Negative Cosmological Integration.  The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 16(5): 464-480.

Abstract: This paper examines the diabolisation of Oksapmin tamam (here glossed as ‘witchcraft’) as an example of negative cosmological integration. The article takes as its point of departure Robbins’s model of cultural syncretism developed in a series of recent papers, wherein diabolisation occurs as people insert those aspects of their indigenous religion that do not contravene the Christian God’s paramount creative power into the Christian cosmos as representatives of the Devil. Through my own discussion of the diabolisation of Oksapmin witchcraft, I build upon the model in three main ways. First, I draw attention to the role of the mission in providing and enforcing these negative moral terms of reference. Second, the article highlights that in cases of negative cosmological integration, whether within or outside the frame of Pentecostalist Christianity, syncretic melding and mixing may occur, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary. Finally, I point out that the subordination of indigenous religious realities within the Christian cosmos does not necessarily entail their restriction or reduction of expression, as Robbins shows for the Urapmin nature spirits known as motobil. Indeed, in the case of witchcraft, integration into the Christian cosmos and related complexes of deliverance may actually serve to intensify and amplify their expression.

Lybarger, “How Far is too Far?”

Lybarger, Loren D.  2015. How Far is too Far? Defining Self and Other in Religious Studies and Christian Missiology.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion.  Early online publication. 

Abstract: This article explores the limits of the debate surrounding Robert A. Orsi’s call for a “third way” in scholar-practitioner encounters in religious studies research. It argues that the debate has reached an impasse and that, as Joel Robbins suggests, an alternative approach might exist within theology—particularly, theological discussions of how the Christian is to relate to the non-Christian other. The article tests this notion by probing the writings of A. Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican theologian and Islamic Studies specialist who proposed the possibility of expanding the Christian canon within the context of interfaith encounters. The article concludes that although religious studies remains, as a field, unprepared to countenance the kind of hybridization toward which Cragg’s conception of the interfaith situation leads, his notion of “bi-scripturalism” has the potential nevertheless of opening up new questions for religious studies scholars concerned with alterity.

Robbins, “Afterword”

Robbins, Joel. 2015. “Afterword: The Anthropology of Global Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism.” In The Anthropology of Global Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism. Simon Coleman and Rosalind I.J. Hackett, eds. 243-252. New York: NYU Press.

Robbins, “Ritual, value, and example”

Robbins, Joel. 2015. Ritual, value, and example: on the perfection of cultural representations. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(s1):18-29.

Abstract: For modes of thinking influenced by the fact/value distinction, values are often defined as in some sense unreal. Against this view, I argue that values exist in the form of socially concrete, enacted examples. In making this argument, I define examples as representations that model the realization of single values in full form – forms that are not common in daily life because most actions are driven by a mix of diverse value considerations. I further suggest that rituals are a key social form in which exemplary representations of values are made socially available. I illustrate this argument by analysing two important rituals among the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, and by exploring several innovative Urapmin rituals that have failed to become established because, I suggest, they do not provide examples of fully realized values.

Occasional Paper: Bialecki, “The Judgment of God and the Non-elephantine Zoo”

The Judgment of God and the Non-elephantine Zoo: Christian Dividualism, Individualism, and Ethical Freedom After the Mosko-Robbins Debate

Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)

Abstract: The recent debate between Joel Robbins and Mark Mosko regarding whether Melanesian and extra-Melanesian forms of Christianity should be considered “individual” or “dividual” gives us the opportunity to revisit the question of dividualisms, and to question the over one decade old “current anthropological wisdom” that “all persons are both dividuals and individuals.” (Englund and Leach 2000: 229; see also Lipuma 1998). Reading deployments of Mosko’s argument outside of Melanesia, in conjunction with careful attention to the works of Robbins and Webb Keane, as well as with fieldwork with American Charismatic Christians, this essay argues for a more complex analytic in which individualism as well as disparate dividualism form an economy, working at different scales and temporal frameworks, and at times toward unanticipated ends.

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Occasional Paper: Mikeshin, “Russian Evangelicalism Glocalized”

Russian Evangelicalism Glocalized
Igor Mikeshin (University of Helsinki)

This paper echoes the idea of glocalization of Evangelical Christianity, suggested by Joel Robbins (2004). Robbins marks two simultaneous processes in Pentecostalism and Charismatic (P/C) Christianity as Westernizing homogenization and indigenizing differentiation. I suggest that Russian Evangelicalism’s relation to the Russian culture is glocal in a similar way: “a relationship of both rejection and preservation.” (Robbins 2004: 137) Russian Evangelical congregations, as well as P/C, are also to a great extent autonomous, egalitarian, and focused on evangelism.

Although I place Russian Evangelicalism in the Robbins’ model, there are remarkable differences between those two phenomena, constructing a distinct narrative of glocalization. These differences go beyond denominational features, or even explicit display of the Holy Spirit by P/C, and they rise from the dogmatics. Firstly, the emphasis on the direct interaction with God was spread through the vast activity of P/C missionaries. Initially it took form of planting and growing churches by the Western ministers, which can be also seen in Russia after 1991. However, Russian Evangelical groups, even Pentecostals, originated from the spiritual endeavors of certain Russian intellectuals, most remarkably Ivan Voronaev (Pentecostal) and Ivan Prokhanov (Evangelical Christian). They brought Western teachings to Russia, interpreted and transformed them on the basis of the Russian Bible, and constructed the narrative of response to the Orthodox spiritual monopoly and Russian sociocultural context.

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