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The Anthropology of Christianity
The Anthropology of Christianity

Duke University Press Books, 2006
384 pp., $26.95

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David Martin


Anthropology's "Other"

The reformation of a scholarly discipline.

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What Cannell does include is a highly insightful study by Simon Coleman of the "Faith" Church in Uppsala, Sweden. According to this particular "Faith Teaching," the body is "put under subjection" only to build it up, bigger and better, in the image of Jesus Christ Superman. Money is donated not in emulation of the selfless gift of God in the person of his Son but as an investment looped through a divine stock exchange guaranteeing returns, perhaps ten-fold, even a hundred-fold. Of course, Protestantism has always been disposed to regard the parable of the talents as an incentive to invest courageously, but the principle of do ut des as promoted in Uppsala offers a rather striking reversal of the image of a Suffering Savior central to Lutheran Christianity. Unsurprisingly Swedish Lutherans, however secular they may be, dismiss the Uppsala Church as not really Christian, and even more obviously not really Swedish. On the other hand I recollect a friend in Uppsala pointing out that city's magnificent hospital as the site of the real religion of the Swedes, rather than the cathedral. Maybe the logic of a body-building church, architecturally not like a church at all, is another expression of that.

In her critique of the inherited model of an ascetic Christianity based on an acute sense of transcendence far beyond the human, and inimical to the body understood as "the flesh," Cannell points to much in mainstream Christianity that does not fit. A broadly Catholic Christianity understands the body and matter as bearing the divine presence through the action of the sacraments. God was incarnate in the body, and faith looks for the resurrection of the body. One might add that transcendence in the Old Testament does indeed reject tangible, material expressions of the divine as idolatry (in a way Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not), but it does not follow that the natural body and its instincts, or the natural creation, are rejected as such. The Muslim heaven as imaged in the architecture of Andalusia might suit the Mormons very well.

To reinforce her argument about the protean variety of the Christian repertoire, Cannell turns to the treatment of conversion to Christianity, not in the contemporary developing world but in the classical world. That is also a contested field, but at least the "unstable synthesis" of early Christianity as treated by Peter Brown is not bedeviled by a model derived from Calvinism. Cannell also cites Edmund Leach on the oscillation in Christianity between a faith mediated through the priesthood and tangible, material forms, such as icons, relics, sacred places, and sacrifices, and direct access to God available to the individual heart and/or expectation of a kingdom come "on earth as it is in heaven." It is shared points of reference that make the Christian repertoire recognizable, not a particular privileged model.

There are two aspects to Cannell's reformation of anthropology. It is not just that anthropology needs to relax its attachment to a model of the transition to Western modernity whereby a particular version of Christianity plays an essentially instrumental role. It also needs to relax its attachment to a model of its non-Western reception whereby it plays an instrumental role as a response to dislocation rather than providing attractive ways of thinking dislocation through. One might even entertain the possibility that people are really interested in Christianity itself. You find an example of how that might be done in Joel Robbins' Becoming Sinners (2004), where he analyses conversion in Papua New Guinea. Faiths don't merely function: they are, they appeal.

The eleven studies in The Anthropology of Christianity show that even the same form of Christianity engenders varied consequences when the receiving culture is different. The idea of conversion may not "take" in some societies, or may be treated as forgettable rather than a once-for-all change, or embraced as already prefigured and only to be expected. For example the Piro people in Peruvian Amazonia recognized that the arrival of evangelical missionaries had brought a major change in settlement but forgot about conversion to the point where they maintained they had always been Christian. The Bilak of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, confounded missionaries by suddenly turning to Christianity (and embracing its work ethic) after years of indifference, but did so because they recognized the Bible as magic booty, temporarily lost but returned to them as promised. In South India conversion to Catholicism over four centuries involved varying degrees of assimilation to the immanent energies of Indian religion and cults of possession and exorcism, depending on which religious order was operating at this or that period, under or beyond Portuguese control.

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