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.
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.
Barker, John. 2012. Secondary Conversion and the Anthropology of Christianity in Melanesia. Archives de sciences sociales des religions. 157(1):67-87.
Abstract: Anthropologists have in recent years turned their attention to Christianity in Melanesia. Much of this new work treats Melanesian Christianity in terms of the confrontation between indigenous “tradition” and global “modernity”. However useful for long-term analysis, such dualistic framing distorts our understanding of the present, which is instead characterized by growing sectarianism and secondary conversions. I call for three changes in the ways anthropologists typically approach contemporary Melanesian Christianity. First, we need to understand secondary conversion primarily in historical terms, as a shift from localized forms of Christianity to newly introduced ones. Second, more attention needs to be paid to the lively forms of Christianity emerging in urban areas. Finally, I suggest that the domination of anthropology in the social science of Melanesia creates its own distorting lens and other disciplinary viewpoints should be encouraged and incorporated.