Friday, October 3, 2008

Toward an anthropology of Christianity

I've just read and enjoyed John Barker's recent book review essay in the latest issue of American Anthropologist (vol 110, no 3), "Toward an anthropology of Christianity". He reviews three books: Fenella Cannell's edited volume The Anthropology of Christianity, Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson's edited volume The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, and Webb Keane's monograph Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter.



As John Barker says:

"The three volumes under consideration here, along with a symposium edited by Joel Robbins (2003) [in Religion vol 33], have a more ambitious aim: the development of an anthropology of Christianity. This is a significant move, not so much because it legitimates the historical and ethnographic study of Christianity within the discipline - that battle has largely been won - but because it suggests that anthropology can provide a unique perspective." (377)
In other words, the authors combine ethnographic study of Christian communities, practices and meanings with larger questions.

In Cannell's edited volume, the larger questions circle around themes such as conversion, words and things. I especially liked the chapters by Simon Coleman and Fenella Cannell on the use of words (recitation, speaking, reading, writing), combined with the use of material things in the process (notes, books, gifts). Their focus is on Christian communities in Sweden and the Philippines respectively. David Mosse's chapter combines words and bodies among Catholics in South India, Eva Keller looks at words and the process of exploration among Seventh-Day Adventists in Madagascar.

I've already written a post on Engelke and Tomlinson's edited volume. The themes that come out strongly in their volume are meaning and ritual.

And at some point I should write a separate post on Webb Keane. His work examines the relationship between subjects, objects, and language. In particular he looks at how Protestant Christians in Indonesia draw moral boundaries around themselves (as modern subjects) through constructing proper relationships to language and to objects around them. It gets complicated. But intriguing...

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