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.

Handman, “Walking Like a Christian”

Handman, Courtney.  2017. Walking like a Christian: Roads, translation, and gendered bodies as religious infrastructure in Papua New Guinea.  American Ethnologist.  Early online publication.

Abstract: Homologies between so-called soft infrastructures like language and hard ones like roads depend on ethnographically variable metaphors of circulation. In these homologies, speakers understand language to propel or inhibit forms of physical movement, affecting the embodied experiences of transportation or locomotion. In the case of Guhu-Samane Christians in Papua New Guinea, people focus on language as a kind of infrastructure as they grapple with postcolonial feelings of disconnection from divine powers that were once manifest in a New Testament translation. They channel this sense of disconnection into ongoing complaints about their lack of a vehicular road and the pain of walking, particularly walking like a heavily burdened woman. If a road were built into their valley, this would signal the New Testament’s transformation into Christian infrastructure.

Handman, “Figures of history: Interpreting Jewish pasts in Christian Papua New Guinea”

Handman, Courtney. 2016. Interpreting Jewish pasts in Christian Papua New Guinea. HAU 6(1):237-260. 

Abstract: This article examines two competing historical formations that expatriate missionaries and Papua New Guineans respectively have used to create connections between local ethnic groups and “the ancient Jews” of the Bible. In part through 1970s publications analyzed here, missionaries introduced redemptive and repetitive historicist models that established Melanesian ethnic groups as generically and iconically Jewish. The article then examines the ways in which Guhu-Samane Christians in rural Papua New Guinea take up these missionary narratives in order to produce indexical, genealogical connections to biblical Jews. Ancient Jews have become “figures” of Guhu-Samane history through interpretive discourses in which local people discover the prophetic revelations of their Jewishness that anticipate a future Christianity. Guhu-Samane Christians thus particularize their relationship to Christianity by taking up the history of another group, a Christian historical imagination that runs counter to secular forms of history that orient around issues of autonomous identity.

Barker and Hermkens, “The Mothers’ Union goes on strike”

Barker, John and Anna-Karina Hermkens. 2016. The Mothers’ Union goes on strike: Women, tapa cloth and Christianity in a Papua New Guinea society. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. Early online publication.

Abstract: This paper explores the story of the formation and subsequent activities of a church women’s group in Maisin villages and women’s experiences of Christianity more broadly, in relation to the changing production and uses of traditional bark cloth (tapa), a signature women’s product which has become a marker of Maisin identity. While the influence of the local Mothers’ Union has waxed and waned over the past 60 years, tapa cloth has had a continuing influence upon its fortunes. Tapa cloth has been the chief means for church women to raise funds to support their activities and the local church. However, we argue that, more fundamentally, tapa has shaped women’s gendered Christian identities, experiences and history, mediating relationships with men, between generations of women, and with various sorts of ‘missionaries’ who have often justified their intrusions in terms of improving women’s lives.

Bonnemère, “Church presence and gender relations”

Bonnemère, Pascale.  2016. Church presence and gender relations in the Wonenara valley (Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea). The Australian Journal of Anthropology. Early online publication.

Abstract: Since 1951, date of the First contact, the Baruya of the Wonenara valley have twice been a pioneering frontline for Protestant missions. First in the 1960s, when several Lutheran and SDA pastors moved in, and the second time at the beginning of the 2000s, when three ‘New Evangelical Churches’ settled in the valley. After presenting the history of the presence of these five Churches, I analyse the pastors’ ideas, as expressed during services or in informal discussions, about the place of women in daily life and in church, and about gender relations more generally. The observation of church services reveals a possibility of women speaking in public that was hitherto unknown. Moreover, the pastors’ origins (Baruya or non Baruya) seem to play a role in the way they talk about women during their services, whatever their Church may say.

Eves, “Reforming Men”

Eves, Richard.  2016. Reforming men: Pentecostalism and masculinity in Papua New Guinea.  The Australian Journal of Anthropology.  Early online publication.

Abstract: The basic premise of this paper is that oppressive and violent behaviour is not an essential aspect of the male identity. Seeking to comprehend the underlying causes of violence, specifically against women but also more generally, this paper examines some of the alternative ways of being a man that have accompanied Christianity. Through observation of some Pentecostals from New Ireland, I have concluded that new ways of being a man that are less oppressive and dominating for women are emerging. This phenomenon I argue is a step towards gender equality, since it involves creating more caring and equitable relationships and a step towards reducing violence both against women and in the community, since it embraces non-violent ways of being a man. Particularly useful in analysing the process of reforming men is Foucault’s work on governmentality since it relates well to the Pentecostal emphasis on radical change in being ‘born again’. Conversion for born-again Christians is more than simply abandoning sin; rather it involves the creation of a new self and becoming a new person. Similarly, Foucault argues that the individual practises the art of self-governance in re-forming her or himself as she or he desires.

van Heekeren, “Hiding Behind the Church”

van Heekeren, Deborah.  2016. Hiding Behind the Church: Towards an Understanding of Sorcery in Christian Papua New Guinea. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 17(1): 1-16.

Abstract: This paper considers the assumption that the long-term success of the Christian Churches in some parts of Papua New Guinea (PNG) will eliminate or even regulate the magical practices that are nowadays commonly described as ‘sorcery’. Among the Vula’a of PNG men seeking prestige and influence turn to the Church, and some of them are said to be sorcerers who ‘hide behind it’. Most deaths continue to be attributed to sorcery, and fear of sorcery and the need to counter it with other sorcery eclipses Christian proscriptions. It is power – rather than the introduced concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ brought by Christian colonizers that dominates current discourse – that contributes to the persistence of sorcery albeit in a variety of new and introduced forms. Sorcery is effective because it creates a culture of fear. I conclude, then, by applying Heidegger’s analysis of fear to Vula’a sorcery to suggest that an anthropology of fear will contribute to a better understanding of sorcery in contemporary PNG.

Mosko, “The Christian Dividual and Sacrifice: Personal Partibility and the Paradox of Modern Religious Efflorescence among North Mekeo”

Mosko, Mark. 2015. The Christian Dividual and Sacrifice: Personal Partibility and the Paradox of Modern Religious Efflorescence among North Mekeo. In Josephides, Lisette (editor) Knowledge and ethics in anthropology: obligations and requirements. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 95-121.

Excerpt: This chapter explores the paradox of modern religion’s efflorescence as exemplified in North Mekeo peoples’ encounter with Christianity. It argues that certain critical compatibilities between the pre-existing religion and notions of Christian personhood and agency have facilitated villagers’ conscous conversion. The North Mekeo experence of conversion thus can be regarded as owing as much to the centrality of transcendence in the two religions as to the continuity of Mekeo attitudes and actions towards the sacred. My argument conjoins two strands of anthropological theorizing: ethnographic treatments of distinctively Melanesian personhood and sociality as exemplified in works by Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner and dubbed ‘the New Melanesian Ethnography’, and classical treaties on the logic of sacrifice beginning with Hubert and Mauss. While neither the NME nor the anthropological theory of sacrifice was desgined expressly for the study of change, I hope to show that through the modifications proposed here they enable the delineation of key processes of social and religious transformation. I argue that this reorientation of the NME and sacrifice theory to North Mekeo expereinces of religious change offer new answers to the paradox of modern religion’s effervescence in Melanesia and the Christian world beyond.

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.