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.

Telban, “The power of place: Spatio-temporality of a Melanesian religious movement”

Telban, Borut. 2013.  The power of place: Spatio-temporality of a Melanesian religious movement. Anthropological Notebooks 19(3):81–100.

Abstract: Over the years, several different renewal movements within Christianity have had a significant impact on Melanesian societies and cultures. In people’s aspirations for total transformation, however, there has often appeared one insurmountable obstacle: a firm bond between being and place. The Ambonwari people of the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea have faced the same problem since the Catholic charismatic movement reached the village in December 1994. Their cosmology and social organization have always been inseparable from their paths (journeys, marriages, exchanges, adoptions) and places (places of mythological ancestors, old and new villages, places of other groups, places for processing sago, fishing places, taboo places, camps), and their historicity was primarily perceived and defined in terms of place. The adherents of the Catholic charismatic movement attempt to abolish their emplaced past, transcend their territorial boundaries, and simultaneously modify their places. Because Ambonwari cosmology dealt with multiple spatio-temporalities, however, Catholic charismatic leaders find it difficult to undermine this diversity. It is this multiplicity of emplaced historicities that troubles them most and not simply time per se.

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.

Kelly-Hanku et al., “‘We call it a virus, but I want to say it’s the devil inside'”

Kelly-Hanku, Angela, Peter Aggleton, and Patti Shih.  2014.  ‘We call it a virus but I want to say it’s the devil inside’: Redemption, moral reform and relationships with God among people living with HIV in Papua New Guinea.  Social Science & Medicine 119: 106-113.

Abstract: There is growing recognition of the importance of religion and religious beliefs as they relate to the experience of HIV, globally and in Papua New Guinea in particular. Based on 36 in-depth qualitative interviews conducted with people living with HIV receiving HIV antiretroviral therapy in 2008, this paper examines the cultural aetiology of HIV of in Papua New Guinea, the country with the highest reported burden of HIV in the Pacific. Narratives provided drew upon a largely moral framework, which viewed HIV acquisition as a consequence of moral failing and living an un-Christian life. This explanation for suffering viewed the individual as responsible for their condition in much the same way that neo-liberal biomedical discourses do. Moral reform and re-establishing a relationship with God were seen as key actions necessary to effect healing on the material body infected with HIV. Religious understandings of HIV drew upon a pre-existing cultural aetiology of dis-ease and misfortune widespread in Papua New Guinea. Understanding the centrality of Christianity to explanations of disease, and subsequently the actions necessary to bring about health, is essential in order to understand how people with HIV in receipt of antiretroviral therapies internalise biomedical perspectives and reconcile these with Christian beliefs.


Cox and Macintyre, “Christian Marriage, Money Scams, and Melanesian Social Imaginaries”

Cox, John and Martha Macintyre.  2014.  “Christian Marriage, Money Scams, and Melanesian Social Imaginaries.”  Oceania 84(2): 138-157.

Abstract: In this paper, we draw on fieldwork with middle-class investors in ‘fast money schemes’ (Ponzi scams) to consider how Neo-Pentecostal Christianity may be mediating social and economic change in Papua New Guinea, particularly in relation to gender equality. Ideas of companionate marriage and the cultivation of an affective self imply masculinities that are more sensitive and less domineering. As these images of fulfilled modernity flow out from Pentecostal churches into broader Papua New Guinean society, they corroborate Taylor’s theory of how change occurs within the modern social imaginary.

Macdonald, “Always Been Christian”

Fraser Macdonald. 2014.. ‘Always been Christian’: Mythic Conflation among the Oksapmin of Papua New Guinea, Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/00664677.2014.886997. Early Online Publication.

Abstract:  Across the world and throughout history, people have negotiated religious and social change by marshalling the mythological resources at their disposal. In cases of conversion to Christianity, this dynamic has often taken the form of constructing an isomorphism between traditional mythical narratives and those learned from the Bible, a manifestation of the process I here call ‘mythic conflation’. In this article I explore how the Oksapmin of the West Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea, have conflated aspects of Bible stories with two of their traditional narratives in an attempt to overcome cosmological contradiction. From the etic perspective, this has partially collapsed difference in the construction of syncretic religious forms. From the emic perspective, by constructing for themselves an ancestral precedent of this kind, the Oksapmin support a claim of having revealed the mystery of Christianity’s local origin.

Stornig, “Sisters Crossing Boundaries”

Stornig, Katharina.  2013.  Sisters Crossing Boundaries: German Missionary Nuns in Colonial Togo and New Guinea, 1897–1960.  Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Publisher’s Description: The last third of the 19th century witnessed a considerable increase in the active participation of women in the various Christian missions. Katharina Stornig focusses onthe Catholic case, and particularly explores the activities and experiences of German missionary nuns, the so-called Servants of the Holy Spirit,in colonial Togo and New Guinea in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Introducing the nuns’ ambiguous roles as travelers, evangelists, believers, domestic workers, farmers, teachers, and nurses, Stornig highlights the ways in which these women shaped and were shaped by the missionary encounter and how they affected colonial societies more generally. Privileging the sources produced by nuns (i.e. letters, chronicles and reports) and emphasizing their activities, Sisters Crossing Boundaries profoundly challenges the frequent depiction of women and particularly nuns as the largely passive observers of the missionizing and colonizing activities of men. Stornig does not stop at adding women to the existing historical narrative of mission in Togo and New Guinea, but presents the hopes and strategies that German nuns related to the imagination and practice of empire. She also discusses the effects of boundary-crossing, both real and imagined, in the context of religion, gender and race.

Robbins, “Beyond the suffering subject”

Robbins, Joel. 2013. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462.

Abstract: In the 1980s, anthropology set aside a focus on societies defined as radically ‘other’ to the anthropologists’ own. There was little consensus at the time, however, about who might replace the other as the primary object of anthropological attention. In important respects, I argue, its replacement has been the suffering subject. Tracing this change, I consider how it addressed key problems of the anthropology of the other, but I also suggest that some strengths of earlier work – particularly some of its unique critical capacities – were lost in the transition. The conclusion considers how recent trends in anthropology might coalesce in a further shift, this one toward an anthropology of the good capable of recovering some of the critical force of an earlier anthropology without taking on its weaknesses.