Review: Joseph Webster on “The Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond”

Part II: Review Forum, “The Anthropology Christianity: Unity, Diversity, New Directions”

The Anthropology of Christianity at the Boundaries of Christianity and Beyond

Coleman, Simon. 2014. Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s281-s291.

Engelke, Matthew. 2014. Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular Humanism. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s292-s301.

Hoskins, Janet Alison. 2014. An Unjealous God? Christian Elements in a Vietnamese Syncretistic Religion. Current Anthropology 55(s10): s302-s311.

By: Joseph Webster (Queens University, Belfast)

The Special Issue of Current Anthropology under review seeks, as its title states, to push the anthropology of Christianity in ‘new directions’ – and it is the third section of the SI, it seems, where this effort is pursued most vigorously. Indeed, as its title states, this section does not limit itself to Christianity – however (generously) one defines it – but instead approaches its ‘boundaries’ by offering papers from Coleman, Engelke and Hoskins who discuss, respectively, the evanescence of pilgrimage as ‘ritual semiengagement’ (Coleman: 24: 288), the ‘not Christianity’ of secular humanism (Engelke 2014: 299), and the ‘counter Orientalism’ of Caodaism (Hoskins 2014: 310). Yet, the question remains – and this is the question with which I want to frame my review – do these papers successfully manage to go ‘beyond’ Christianity, or do they still find themselves stuck in its orbit? The authors themselves appear to have this same question in mind – albeit approaching it differently and with different conclusions – when presenting their own ethnographic and theoretical commentary. The question is important because it goes to the heart of what the anthropology of Christianity must be if it is to be ‘properly’ anthropological. Are we, then, in these three essays, presented with a comparative project that is equally concerned with ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’, both within and outwith religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular)? Put another way, where is the anthropology of Christianity, and where are these essays in relation to it? In an attempt to suggest some possible answers, I want to discuss each piece in turn before making some more speculative comments regarding what they might collectively tell us about the present location of this most prolific (if not yet particularly promiscuous) anthropological sub-discipline.  Continue reading