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.

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Henn, “Kristapurāṇa: Translating the Name of God in Early Modern Goa”

Henn, Alexander. 2015. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 12 [Online Journal]

Abstract: In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jesuit missionaries began to translate Christian doctrine and mythology into Indian languages. Most critical became the question how the very name(s) of God and gods can be translated. Artfully composed texts known as Christian Purāṇas borrowed from the religious terminology and literary styles of Indian devotional literature and are praised today for mediating between the cultures of Christians and Hindus (the latter called ‘gentiles’ in the contemporary sources). At the same time, the Portuguese-Catholic regime in India launched a ruthless iconoclastic campaign against the culture of the Indian gentiles, destroying their temples and images and denigrating their allegedly ‘false gods.’ Against this background, the article addresses the questions of what the relation was between translation and violence; how hermeneutics and destruction coexisted; and how the idea that the translations facilitated the modern emergence of religious pluralism is to be qualified.

Penner, The Ojibwe Renaissance

Penner, Robert. 2015. The Ojibwe Renaissance: Transnational Evangelicalism and the Making of an Algonquian Intelligentsia, 1812–1867. American Review of Canadian Studies [pre-print digital release]

Abstract: Between the War of 1812 and the emergence of a self-sufficient Canadian Methodism in the 1850s, the combination of geopolitical instability, transatlantic evangelicalism, indigenous and settler enthusiasm for religious revival, and the ideas of romantic nationalism produced a distinctly Ojibwe Christianity. This Christianity is known to us primarily through the letters, journals, and publications of a small group of Algonquian-speaking intellectuals educated in American colleges who mobilized the ideology and institutional networks of the Protestant missionary project to mount a vigorous challenge to the encroachments of settler colonialism occurring on both sides of the Great Lakes. Ojibwe Christians participated in a movement to transform the world into a multiracial Christian commonwealth, a movement within which they could remain committed to a historiographical and nation-building project meant to establish an autonomous, or at least semi-autonomous, Indian polity within the imperialist state.

Napolitano, “Anthropology and traces”

Napolitano, Valentina. 2015. Anthropology and traces. Anthropological Theory 15(1): 47–67.

Abstract: This article explores the trace as a methodological tool and theoretical pathway in anthropology and beyond. Traces signal the limits of representation; they are the mater- ials of knots of histories at the margins, as well as auratic presences. Through a critical reading of key ethnographic works, including an analysis of a Casa del Popolo in Rome which has been turned into a squat by Peruvian migrants, this article argues that the study of traces has an important genealogy in anthropology. This study invites us to explore the mattering of things (as forms becoming of importance), new ways of conjuring and operationalizing ethnographic ‘details’ and to broaden our debate of an anthropology beyond the subject, in the light of the mattering of histories.

Vallikivi, “On the Edge of Space and Time”

Vallikivi, Laur. 2014. On the Edge of Space and Time: Evangelical Missionaries in the Post-Soviet Arctic. Journal of Ethnology and Folklorisitics 8(2): 95-120.

Abstract: Evangelical missionaries have missionised pretty much throughout Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among their favourite targets are the small-numbered indigenous groups in the Russian Arctic, where the numbers of converts are steadily growing. One particular denomination, known as the Unregistered Baptists, are among the leading agents of religious change in the North today. They are driven by the promise of the return of Christ after the gospel is preached “at the ends of the earth”. I suggest that the Baptists’ agenda is shaped, on the one hand, by the literal reading of the Bible, which allows them to be the divine instruments at the end times and, on the other hand, by the idea of Russia’s special role in God’s salvation plan. I shall analyse the Baptists’ ideas and practices, using among others Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope in order to demonstrate how powerful narratives are created and lived.

Handman, “Becoming the Body of Christ”

Handman, Courtney. 2014. Becoming the Body of Christ: Sacrificing the Speaking Subject in the Making of the Colonial Lutheran Church in New Guinea. Current Anthropology DOI:10.1086/678283

Abstract: In this paper I argue for the important role of churches and denominations in anthropological analyses of Protestant Christianity. While many authors have emphasized subjects and subjectivity in their discussions of Protestant individualism, I argue that Protestant individualism puts greater, not less, emphasis on Christian social groups as moral formations. Denominationalism cannot be reduced to the intrusion of politics into religious practice without repeating the structures that underscore the secularization hypothesis. In order to explore this issue, I analyze the missiological theories and strategies behind the colonial Lutheran Mission New Guinea’s attempts to constitute Christian institutions of sacred unity while also confronting the problem of New Guinea’s extraordinary linguistic diversity. In opting to evangelize in church languages that they would teach to potential converts rather than in using local vernacular languages, the mission began to equate real Christian conversion with the capacity of local people to overcome ethnic or linguistic differences. Contrary to analyses that identify sincere speakerhood as the crucial component of Protestant practice, I argue that the Lutheran Mission sacrificed sacred speaking for the creation of sacred Christian groups as remnant churches.

Barker, “The One and the Many”

Barker, John. 2014. The One and the Many: Church-Centered Innovations in a Papua New Guinean Community. Current Anthropology DOI: 10.1086/678291

Abstract: The emerging field of the anthropology of Christianity appears suspended between two poles: a concern with understanding the continuous and relatively coherent traits of the religious tradition as a whole (the “One”), and the documentation of the highly contingent forms found in local communities (the “Many”). This tension, in turn, feeds sometimes intense debates about whether conversion to Christianity along the modern missionary frontier is best understood as rupture from or continuity with indigenous cultural forms and understandings. While such binaries have been highly productive, they are still misleading, because many if not most Christians do not experience the religion in such terms but rather largely in the context of institutionalized rituals, dogmas, and church organizations. I illustrate this point by examining the ways the Maisin people of Papua New Guinea have both adjusted and adapted to Anglicanism over the past century through three modes I describe as “accommodations,” “repurposings,” and “spandrels.” Studying such institutional configurations, I suggest, provides anthropologists a strategic point to consider local versions of Christianity as both One and Many.

Handman, “Critical Christianity”

Handman, Courtney. 2015. Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea (The Anthropology of Christianity). Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Publisher’s Description: In Critical Christianity, Courtney Handman analyzes the complex and conflicting forms of sociality that Guhu-Samane Christians of rural Papua New Guinea privilege and celebrate as “the body of Christ.” Within Guhu-Samane churches, processes of denominational schism – long relegated to the secular study of politics or identity – are moments of critique through which Christians constitute themselves and their social worlds. Far from being a practice of individualism, Protestantism offers local people ways to make social groups sacred units of critique. Bible translation, produced by members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is a crucial resource for these critical projects of religious formation. From early interaction with German Lutheran missionaries to engagements with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the contemporary moment of conflict, Handman presents some of the many models of Christian sociality that are debated among Guhu-Samane Christians. Central to the study are Handman’s rich analyses of the media through which this critical Christian sociality is practiced, including language, sound, bodily movement, and everyday objects. This original and thought-provoking book is essential reading for students and scholars of anthropology and religious studies.

Hovland, “Mission Station Christianity”

Publisher’s Description: In Mission Station Christianity, Ingie Hovland presents an anthropological history of the ideas and practices that evolved among Norwegian missionaries in nineteenth-century colonial Natal and Zululand (Southern Africa). She examines how their mission station spaces influenced their daily Christianity, and vice versa, drawing on the anthropology of Christianity. Words and objects, missionary bodies, problematic converts, and the utopian imagination are discussed, as well as how the Zulus made use of (and ignored) the stations. The majority of the Norwegian missionaries had become theological cheerleaders of British colonialism by the 1880s, and Ingie Hovland argues that this was made possible by the everyday patterns of Christianity they had set up and become familiar with on the mission stations since the 1850s.

Crossland, “Signs of Mission: Material Semeiosis and Nineteenth-Century Tswana Architecture”

Crossland, Zoë.  2013.  “Signs of Mission: Material Semeiosis and Nineteenth-Century Tswana Architecture.” Signs and Society 1(1):79-113.

Abstract: The missionary encounter between the London Missionary Society and Sotho-Tswana communities of southern Africa has been explored by Jean and John Comaroff as work that took place at the level of both signs and practices. In this article, I consider what a Peircean semeiotic might offer to this narrative. I argue that it provides ways to disrupt the sometimes binary relationship of signs and practices while also providing opportunities for productive interdisciplinary conversations about the affective, material, and processual nature of changes in belief and practice.