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.
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.
Publisher’s Description: Praying and Preying offers one of the rare anthropological monographs on the Christian experience of contemporary Amazonian indigenous peoples, based on an ethnographic study of the relationship between the Wari’, inhabitants of Brazilian Amazonia, and the Evangelical missionaries of the New Tribes Mission. Vilaça turns to a vast range of historical, ethnographic and mythological material related to both the Wari’ and missionaries perspectives and the author’s own ethnographic field notes from her more than 30-year involvement with the Wari’ community. Developing a close dialogue between the Melanesian literature, which informs much of the recent work in the Anthropology of Christianity, and the concepts and theories deriving from Amazonian ethnology, in particular the notions of openness to the other, unstable dualism, and perspectivism, the author provides a fine-grained analysis of the equivocations and paradoxes that underlie the translation processes performed by the different agents involved and their implications for the transformation of the native notion of personhood.
[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.
Part IV: Review Forum, The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions
Christianity in a world of normative entanglements: reflexivity, conversion, and materiality
By Bruno Reinhardt (Utrecht University)
The three articles here under review are part of the subsection entitled “Key topics” of the recently released special issue of Current Anthropology – “The Anthropology of Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions” – edited by Joel Robbins and Naomi Haynes. More than extensive overviews of some of the central themes animating the Anthropology of Christianity since its inception – reflexivity, conversion, and materiality – these articles allow three leading scholars in this field to clarify and produce new input into their long-term research projects. Albeit challenging, the very possibility of producing a joint review of such rich and singular works by unearthing not only disagreements, but also potential complementarities, testifies to the success and vitality of the Anthropology of Christianity as a comparative field of inquiry whose questions have resonated across highly diverse theoretical canons, scholarly trajectories, and field sites.
Robbins, Joel, Bambi B, Schieffelin, and Aparecida Vilaça. 2014. Evangelical Conversion and the Transformation of the Self in Amazonia and Melanesia: Christianity and the Revival of Anthropological Comparison. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56(3):559–590.
Abstract: The last several decades have seen both a renewed anthropological interest in the possibility of cross-cultural comparison and the rapid rise of the anthropology of Christianity. These two trends should be mutually supportive. One of the promises of the anthropology of Christianity from the outset has been that it will allow people to compare how processes of Christianization have unfolded in different parts of the world and to consider how the resulting Christian configurations are similar to and different from one another. But to this point, relatively little detailed comparative empirical work on Christianity has appeared. Our aim here is to contribute to remedying this situation. Drawing on recent theoretical work on comparison, we set comparative work on Christianity on a new footing. Empirically, we examine how processes of Evangelical Christianization have transformed notions of the self in one Amazonian society (Wari’) and two unrelated societies in Melanesia (Bosavi and Urapmin). We define the self for comparative purposes as composed of ideas of the mind or inner self, the body, and relations between people. In our three cases, Christianization has radically transformed these ideas, emphasizing the inner self and downplaying the importance of the body and of social relations. While our empirical conclusions are not wholly unexpected, the extent to which the details of our three cases speak comparatively to one another, and the extent to which the broad processes of Christian transformation they involve are similar, are surprising and lay a promising foundation for future comparative work in the anthropology of Christianity.
Excerpt: When God talks back is a book about how intimacy is produced between members of Vineyard, an American neo-Pentecostal Evangelical church, and God, who they learn to experience as a friend, indeed their best friend (Luhrmann 2012: 5), someone with whom they go out walking, have dinner, and chat. The presentation of an enormous wealth of data—the outcome of long-term, intensive field research— in the form of dialogues, statements, and testimonies from these believers, combined
with the decision to leave the more arid aspects of anthropological discussion to the footnotes, produces a clear and agile text, allowing readers, whatever their background, to immerse themselves in the presented universe.
Abstract: This article explores the Christian experience of the Wari’, an Amazonian native group, in light of a central feature of their personhood: its dual composition, both human and animal. Arguing that the centrality of the relation with God has resulted in a more stable human person, the article provides an ethnographic examination of how this relation is produced and maintained. Analytic categories derived from the New Melanesian Ethnography – the notions of the ‘dividual’ and the ‘partible person’– are applied to the Amazonian context, enabling a particular description of the Wari’ person and the Christian God, and the subsequent visualization of some key aspects of the relationship between God and humans. Through this comparative exercise, the article looks to contribute to the dialogue between Amazonianists and Melanesianists that has been unfolding over the past decade or so. It also aims to insert Amazonian ethnography into the anthropological debate on Christianity, today strongly anchored in data and conceptual tools derived from Pacific societies in general and Melanesia in particular.