A Matter of Belief: Book Review

Joshi, Vibha. 2012. A Matter of Belief: Christian Conversion and Healing in North-East India. New York: Berghahn Books.

Reviewed by Jessica Hardin (Pacific University)

This is a book about how animism and Christianity are practiced together among Angami people in Nagaland in North-East India. Vibha Joshi provides a wide overview of indigenous religious practices, the contemporary Christian landscape, and colonial/missionary history building on fieldwork spanning from 1985 through to 2011. Most broadly, the book aims to show how Christianity provides a framework for political peace for conflict arising between Naga nationalist groups and the Indian government. Specifically, Joshi argues that Christianity provides a language and organization for reconciliation, even if she remains skeptical of its capacities to truly “heal society.” The motivation for this book is to provide a deep overview of the historical complexity of the emergence of Christianity and the ways Christianity is intertwined with nationalism in North-East India. The book provides a wide scope of historical, political, and geographic context and, as such, is less a book about Christianity per se and more about (1) the relationship between indigenous religions and Christianity in beliefs and practice and (2) the political uses of Christianity from colonialism through to contemporary calls for peace, reconciliation, and unity.

The book is explicitly situated in conversation with the Anthropology of Christianity (5-11). Joshi writes that she did not start this project as a study of Christianity, but instead came to study Christianity through her work with Angami healers. She writes, “one could say that my research at the outset and throughout has focused on Naga as a people, including its healers, some of whom are Christian” (6). Nonetheless, Joshi frames the book as about conversion to Christianity. She explores both “the pragmatic” and “the passionate” (3) dimensions of large-scale conversion and aims to draw attention to the contradictions and tensions that arise when Christianity is put to the work of nationalism, calls for cultural homogeneity, and peace. One of the contradictions that Joshi highlights is that the rituals, attire, and art that expresses Naga-ness, which were originally discouraged by missionaries in the early phases of evangelism, are now taking center stage at public Christian celebrations. Joshi does not expand on how this tension is experienced by her interlocutors as much as suggests points of interaction between indigenous religion, Christianity, and historical context. Overall Joshi asks, “what, then, can a new religion offer, and what is appropriated by the converts?” (7).

Overall, this is a descriptive account that is wide in its scope, outlining educational and medical evangelism, healing in both animism and Christianity, and diverse Christianities, with a thorough description of the contemporary Christian landscape. The author proposes that the persistence of animistic beliefs, rituals, and healing in Christian and non-Christian everyday practice cannot be wholly explained from the perspective of religious syncretism. Joshi suggests instead to view the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian beliefs, rituals and healing as “streams of discourse, one masking the other but at different times and in different gestures” (3).

The co-existence of animism and Christianity leads Joshi to critique the now foundational concept in the Anthropology of Christianity, that Christianity often creates radical discontinuity and rupture as a fundamental trope of conversion (citing Cannell 2006; Bialecki, Haynes, and Robbins 2008; Robbins 2004). Joshi explains that in some ways this idea applies, as two to three generations ago few Naga were Christian. The book sets out to trace how this conversion, two to three generations ago, was a “historical break with the past at a certain level of abstraction” (9). Following this line of inquiry, Joshi focuses on how conversion was “also, and more immediately from the viewpoint of people who interact with each other, a series of overlapping acts of conversion and changing church membership, of competition between churches, and of conflict between burgeoning Christianity as a whole and important remaining aspects of animism” (9). The book thus explores the ways Christianity has not “snuffed out all lines of animistic explanation and practice” (9). In tracing how, “the Christianizing process as such was…far from smooth,” the book is part archaeology of animism, and part exploration of particular dimensions of Christianity that are politically and culturally salient in the wake of conflict.

Politically, the Naga are part of India yet are ethno-linguistically and culturally closer to South-East Asians. However, Nagaland is a culturally diverse region with people speaking distinct Tibeto-Burman languages and dialects. With colonialism people in Nagaland, Joshi argues, developed a “greater sense of ethnic self-consciousness through the interventions of British colonialism” (11). The preface outlines the author’s long-term engagement with the Angami, a Naga group. Joshi has worked in Nagaland since 1985, carrying out fieldwork periodically in the 1990s and again in 2001, and later visiting from 2005-2011. Joshi does a good job situating herself in the field both reflexively, as an Indian and Hindu woman, and also by outlining the ways that conflict broadly––specifically encounters with the Indian army and paramilitary personnel––shaped her experiences. Joshi, however, does not provide a thick description of her methods beyond a mention of in-depth interviews and participant observation in a general way. This long-term engagement provided the author with a detailed and deep knowledge of everyday life among Angami people, which she notes was essential “to discuss sensitive matters frankly and honestly” because of the political situation in Nagaland (xvi). However, some data, particularly in Chapter 2-4 focused on animism, is presented without reference to when data was collected or if ethical concerns for animosity were a concern. Given the ways that the author aims to trace historical complexity, more engagement with the particulars of data collection in time would have been helpful. Joshi does provide rich historical analysis in the form of comparing her own data with that of ethnographers in the 1920s as well as archival research on colonial administration in the region, particularly focusing on political conflict, education, and medical missions.

The chapters move from descriptions of the geo-political location of Angami (Chapter One) to a broad overview of the classification of spirits and sicknesses (Chapter Two) followed by a chapter outlining rituals and rites spanning from pregnancy and birth, rituals for epidemics, how to address bad dreams, and calendrical rituals (Chapter Three). Chapter Four, presents case studies of particular healers ranging from divination healers, necromancers, non-divinational healers, and herbalists and masseurs. From Chapter Five to Seven the book explores more explicitly Christian practices and rituals. Chapter Five details three historical events that have shaped Angami life since the mid-nineteenth century: the annexation of the area by the British, the arrival of the American Baptist missionaries, and the Battle of Kohima during World War II.

The following chapter outlines contemporary Christianity by providing a detailed description the various churches in Nagaland. While both Chapter Six and Seven suggest that Christianity is regarded as a “religion of healing” (220) more detailed first person evidence of this association would have strengthened this particular aspect of her argument. Chapter Seven explores healing across various Christian organizations and churches. The chapter spans pentecostal healing in healing camps to church medical dispensaries, church supported drug retaliation to prayer groups as well as large-scale faith healing events. The chapter ends with a description of two events (a football match and a healing festival) that built upon Christian notions of healing, peace, and reconciliation in order to “rebuild a mutually beneficial and cooperative civil society, and to reconcile violent divineness” (241).

In the conclusion, Joshi writes: “There is a division between those who remain committed to the animistic mode of healing, which is a way of expressing fundamental indigeneity, and those who adopted the Christian ‘healing spirit.’ It is a division that then becomes complicated by the nationalist movement itself heavily adopting Christianity as its justification for autonomy or severity from a mainly non-Christian India” (247). In addition to exploring the plurality of non-Christian and Christian healing practices, Joshi also intermittently explores the plurality of medical practice where healers draw techniques and materials from biomedicine. Joshi focuses on the “reconciliation of difference” in both dimensions of pluralistic practice (247). She ends the book by exploring the limits of Christian nationalism to “heal internal factions and local divisions” (254).

The strength of this book lies in its scope, providing an overview of both animistic religious ideas and practices as well as outlining the Christian landscape in Nagaland. The book is strongest when presenting life-history details, most clearly in Chapter Four focused on particular healers. Early in the introduction Joshi explains that she sympathizes with a scholarly call for an exploration of “adherents interpretation of their experiences” in Christianity, so as not to reduce these experiences to “politico-economic explanation” (10). However, she goes on to write “but we do need to identify those situations, as among the Naga, where political and economic factors are strongly associated both with widespread Christian conversion and with a kind of rewriting of indigenous theological ideas and practices seen as sometimes antithetical to Christianity, but increasingly seen as complementary” (10). I quote Joshi at length here because my overall critique of the book is that there is little first-person narrative data, which would provide a sense of how Angami interpret the historical change and contemporary pluralism that Joshi describes. This may not have been the aim of the book, which seems to be to trace the wider political, economic, and historical context for the emergence of Christianity. Nonetheless, and especially given Joshi’s long-term engagement with the region and the framing argument about streams of discourse, more interactive and narrative data and analysis of how Agami themselves understand pluralism, historicity, and sociocultural change would have been valuable.

Regarding Joshi’s engagement with the Anthropology of Christianity, she suggests that a focus on rupture “may not be helpful to view conversion… It is not that the idea is necessarily wrong but that it does not tell us much and, moreover, diverts focus away from the very present conflicts of affiliation, loyalty, and interpretation between which people navigate” (10). Instead, she suggests “phenomenologically, this is the experience of patchy continuity more than a clean rupture, of everyday struggle against the broad sweep of history too remote to be immediately visible. That is to say, that some religious ideas are discarded while others accommodate each other and sometimes overlap in indigenous theological analysis, doing so not in any linear sequence but through forward and backward loops and at different times from each other” (9). At the conceptual level of the blending of ideas, animistic and Christian, biomedical and Agami medicine, Joshi does write a story of “patchy continuity.” However, the everyday experience of this “patchy continuity,” local interpretations of “patchy continuity,” and the interpretive dilemmas and conflicts that arise from pluralism are not as explicitly articulated.

The book is expansive in its scope and will be a resource for scholars working in the region, including those interested in colonialism and its aftermath, nationalist movements, religion, and medicine. For scholars of Christianity, this book may be of particular interest to those working in areas that have seen relatively recent conversion to Christianity. The book would also be a necessary addition for libraries with South Asian or Tibetan collections.


Works Cited
Bialecki, Jon, Naomi Haynes, and Joel Robbins
2008   The Anthropology of Christianity. Religion Compass 2(6): 1139–1158.
Cannell, Fenella
2006   The Anthropology of Christianity. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Robbins, Joel
2004   Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society. Berkeley, Los Angles & London: University of California Press.

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