Thursday, June 26, 2008

Inhabiting Christian spaces

I have been thinking about how to turn (parts of) my PhD dissertation into a book manuscript. I think I finally have a complete draft outline with chapter headings and topics, etc. There is still a lot of thinking and reading and rewriting that needs to be done, but all in all it feels great to have a complete outline. I will leave it to one side for a while now and ask a few people for feedback.

The working title is Inhabiting Christian Spaces, and in general it is about how we shape the spaces that we inhabit, and how those spaces then in turn shape us. In particular it is about how Norwegian missionaries who went to Natal and Zululand in Southern Africa in the nineteenth century tried to shape certain spaces (the "mission stations"), and how these Christianized spaces in turn came to shape the missionaries' Christianity.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the (draft) introduction:
Umpumulo is the most beautiful place I know. Not because of any particular splendor, though the warm, hard-packed red earth, the hundreds of shades of encapsulating green, and the tall blue sky do something to your senses. I lived at Umpumulo in the late 1980s because my parents were missionaries for the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS), working at the Lutheran Theological College at Umpumulo, near Maphumulo in the so-called “homeland” of KwaZulu, South Africa. The students at the college, most of them black, were monitored by the apartheid government. At one point my father was ordered to leave the country by the government because of his work at Umpumulo. The order was later withdrawn, though for us it lingered in the air. Umpumulo was a contested space and had been for a long time – since around 1850, to be exact.  
In 1850, Umpumulo was set up as the first Norwegian mission station among the Zulus. Its history, like that of the other Norwegian mission stations among the Zulus, is filled with contradictions. The Christian faith tradition of NMS, which in the late 1980s was underlining that the gospel held a message of racial equality, had a century earlier made an unresolved shift toward developing a theological justification for colonialism and racial inequality.  
In fact, two subtle shifts in emphases occurred among the first missionaries for NMS in Natal and Zululand from 1850-1890. The first was their shift from being in agreement with an abstract idea of equality between all Christians, whether European or African, toward developing practices that facilitated European rule over African converts, and putting forward a theological justification for European political rule over African people. The second was their shift from an abstract idea that it would be desirable to travel among the Zulus in order to reach as many as possible with the gospel, toward a firmly established “station strategy” (Simensen et al. 1986:230), that is, a strategy of building up and residing on permanent and physical mission stations on the African landscape. This book considers the connection between these two shifts. In short, how did the mission stations produce difference? And how did the act of inhabiting these Christian spaces influence the missionaries’ Christianity?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

As on a darkling plain

I like this nineteenth-century poem by Matthew Arnold, which Ian McEwan uses in the novel Saturday.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

By Matthew Arnold (1867)

Friday, June 20, 2008

There is grandeur in this view of life (Ian McEwan's "Saturday")

"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet." (Opening sentence)
A couple of people have told me they didn't get excited about Saturday. But London (where the novel is set) is one of my favourite cities, and Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. I especially like the way he is able to pose moral questions - what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be human towards others - within an explicitly secular frame of reference.

In Saturday, the main character Henry Perowne is preparing for a normal Saturday, squash game, grocery shopping, seeing his mother, and a visit home from his daughter, when his car scrapes along another car and he encounters Baxter. Through the remainder of the day he comes up against many questions. Most of them concern how we live in the West today, with the knowledge of scientific, medical advances, and a so-called war on terror. Our genotype has become "the modern variant of a soul." If we were to see a burning plane descending towards a city, one thought would inevitably spring to mind.

What does it mean to be a person in this world? I was struck by a couple of the thoughts that Henry Perowne had during the course of the Saturday. He has read a biography of Darwin and is "faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages - bottled, like homemade chutney." At another point he remembers clearing out his mother's house: "It took a day to dismantle Lily's existence [...] her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked." Although these thoughts were laced with sadness for Perowne, there is something very down to earth and true about them as well.

In this context, it is all the more noteworthy that Perowne knows, when he encounters Baxter, that it matters how he behaves towards him.

And without giving too much away, the book ends with an image of Henry Perowne kissing the nape of his wife's neck, and the scent and warmth of another body, and what it means, come to stand side by side with the bleaker thoughts. Which I like.

I noted down the phrase "There is grandeur in this way of life" because it seemed to capture some of the book's question as well - it is a phrase that repeats itself in Henry Perowne's early drowsiness on the Saturday morning, before everything starts to happen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Blessinz. Srsl. (LOL Bible)

Believe it or not I have been delighted to discover the Bible in kitty pidgin. Here is the beginning of Genesis 1:
Boreded Ceiling Cat makinkgz Urf n stuffs
1 Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.
2 Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz. 3 At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. 4 An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin. 5 An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!1
6 An Ceiling Cat sayed, im in ur waterz makin a ceiling. But he no yet make a ur. An he maded a hole in teh Ceiling. 7 An Ceiling Cat doed teh skiez with waterz down An waterz up. It happen. 8 An Ceiling Cat sayed, i can has teh firmmint wich iz funny bibel naim 4 ceiling, so wuz teh twoth day.
9 An Ceiling Cat gotted all teh waterz in ur base, An Ceiling Cat hadz dry placez cuz kittehs DO NOT WANT get wet. 10 An Ceiling Cat called no waterz urth and waters oshun. Iz good. Read more...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Christians who don't read the Bible (Matthew Engelke's "A Problem of Presence")

I took Matthew Engelke's book A Problem of Presence with me on holiday. He writes about a congregation known as the Friday Apostolics in Zimbabwe. The most striking thing about this Christian group is that they refuse to read the Bible. In their view, the Bible is a material object that eventually falls apart, like other material objects. It seems "stale" to them. Above all, it doesn't communicate "live and direct" with God, which is what they are looking for. Since it is seen as a sort of physical obstacle for their faith, they have dispensed with it.

Engelke presents a very nuanced and perceptive reading of how the Bible has become this kind of thing - "a mere thing" - for the Friday Apostolics. He touches on how this is in many ways an apt response to the way that Biblical literacy was introduced to Southern Africa in tandem with colonialism and the wish to replace African cosmologies with a European world view. While other African groups have chosen to claim the Bible and make it their own in the struggle against colonialism, the Friday Apostolics chose to remain suspicious of it. But more importantly, Engelke argues, they have at the same time chosen to re-interpret the theological "problem of presence." All Christian groups in some way have to come to terms with the question of how to relate to a God who is simultaneously present and absent - an invisible, intangible God whom believers have to relate to through more tangible words, images, objects, actions. The Friday Apostolics have concluded that the material book known as the Bible - and many other material objects - do not "work" when they seek to establish God's presence. They don't want a "thingified faith" built on things that fall apart. They want something more solid than that.

Engelke has found a fascinating case study. But what really makes it interesting to read is how he ties it into broader issues that are so important in Christianity, and in the anthropology of Christianity - issues such as materiality, presence, representation. The book made me think again about the fact that "what things mean, and what they can be used for, is neither settled nor certain" (p 33).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Remembering idle pleasures

So we're back from holiday. I bought both Saturday and Beloved on our trip and enjoyed them both very much (posts in due course...). I also bought another more random and whimsical book entitled The Book of Idle Pleasures, edited by Dan Keiran and Tom Hodgkinson, which basically has short paragraphs on 100 idle pleasures - such as taking a bath, poking the fire, waiting for the tea to brew, not opening letters, autumnal sneezing, and so on.

I had a great time browsing through it while on holiday. Now that I'm back home and have sat down to catch up with Anthropology Matters correspondence, consultancy project, translation, paper I need to revise, etc, the idea of idle pleasures seems a little farther off... But nevertheless here is an idle pleasure that I do like:

Waiting for the Tea to Brew
"Enforced idleness is a rare treat. Those brief moments in life where for one reason or another you are forced to just stop and think. In waiting rooms, queuing, for example, or even just sitting on a train. Waiting for the tea to brew is one of such moments. It doesn't offer enough time to 'do' anything else so you just have to sit and wait, salivating at the prospect of your golden brew. If you do attempt to do anything in the time it takes tea to brew you always take too long or too short a time to do it, leaving the tea too strong or too weak. The teapot is fully aware of this fact. The only way to gauge the time perfectly is to sit, do nothing and watch." (Dan Kieran, p.12)