The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., $45.00
Purity and Danger
Larsen proves decisively that one needs to know these anthropologists from such a religious angle if one wants to know them at all. He does this by recovering all manner of details that have either been unknown before or have been scattered throughout the literature, mostly in places where they have received little emphasis.
In the first category—that of new material that has never seen print before—Larsen shares a moving poem in which Evans-Pritchard, writing on his 42nd birthday, just days before he was received into the Catholic Church, regrets much of how he has lived his life to this point and longs to put his hand into God's own and feel "a child again." Larsen also presents quotations from a fascinating if rather intellectually convoluted letter in which the formerly Marxist Victor Turner endeavors to explain his conversion to his solidly leftist and not notably religious graduate advisor, the immensely important anthropologist Max Gluckman. Such discoveries are thrilling for those who care about the history of the discipline, and they provide the reader with a sense of almost illicit intimacy with Larsen's subjects. But even more persuasive than his use of these new sources is the way Larsen weaves the other kinds of details he marshals—the ones that have always been around in the record, sometimes hiding in plain sight in the writings of the anthropologists involved—into lives that make sense in religious terms. It is the cumulative weight of this evidence that makes his point about needing to study these anthropologists as religious people so convincing.
All of this is unsettling for a reader like me because Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, and Victor Turner are not just important anthropologists of religion. They are easily three of the six or seven most important figures the field has ever known (Levi-Strauss and Geertz would come to mind as the next two to add to the list). Larsen is at pains to make this point (and to indicate Tylor's and Frazer's great stature in their own times), and he does so in appropriate ways, such as by citing encomiums from their peers, listing awards won, and detailing honorary degrees received. For my part as a native informant in this matter, I can say that I was trained in the 1980s to regard them as the geniuses who gave the anthropology of religion its shape and made it an intellectually compelling field of study. To discover that their own lives found their coherence as much in their Catholicism as in their profound systems of anthropological theory forces one to think in new ways about how they became the towering figures they already were when I first came across them. It is for the way it opens up this question that this book will be greeted as something of a bombshell amongst anthropologists of religion.
At least as an anthropologist of religion, it is impossible to read Larsen's book without being led to the question I just set out: how did the faith commitments of Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner contribute to their intellectual creativity and success as scholars of religion? This is not, however, a question upon which Larsen is inclined to dwell. He does observe that all three of them railed against reductionist accounts of religion, the kind that would explain it away as a simple reflection of social structure, for example, or as nothing more than false consciousness. And he does discuss, at least briefly, most of the intellectual contributions that made these scholars famous. But this is primarily a work of religious biography, not of intellectual biography or history, so the question of how these scholars became the intellectual giants they were in their prime does not stay in focus.