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The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Timothy Larsen
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., $45.00

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Joel Robbins


Purity and Danger

The curious case of Christianity in the history of anthropology.

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Setting matters of intellectual history to one side, Larsen's biographies do raise interesting questions about what should count as a religious life. Taking the bait set by those anthropological skeptics who took comfort in proclaiming that at the very least Evans-Pritchard, who was known to drink quite a lot and attend church very rarely, was a "bad Catholic," Larsen sets out to prove that all of his Catholic subjects really were or are religious. What might it mean to prove this for anyone, anthropologist or not? One metric Larson sometimes turns to is that of sincerity.

Thus we learn that one "would be quite mistaken to infer from 'bad Catholic' that Evans-Pritchard was not a sincere Catholic," and that Douglas "sincerely believed that anthropological theory and findings were compatible with the Christian faith." This focus on sincerity plays to Larsen's strengths as a writer with a gift for leading readers to feel they have grown close to those about whom he writes. But one wonders if there might be a hint here of what Douglas would have called a "Protestant bias" toward a focus on the individual and his or her inner states when it comes to defining the nature of religiosity (Larsen himself imagines Douglas might charge him with something similar in another connection).

There is more to this point than might first meet the eye, for in some ways this is a very Protestant book in large part about Catholic subjects. Or at the very least, it is an individualist book about scholars (once we get past Tylor and Frazer) whose greatest insights were about social structures and collective life (as Larsen himself shows, in his fine discussions of Evans-Pritchard's interest in social structures, Douglas' in hierarchy, and Turner's in communitas). It is also a set of historical narratives focused on remarkable individuals that pays some but mostly passing attention to the communities and institutions in which they were involved, and which paints their greatness as theirs alone. When it turns to explanation, it prefers to dwell on the psychological rather than any cultural or social factors that led to their preoccupations and their successes. It is also a book about the inner lives of specific individuals focused on scholars of humanity who very rarely wrote about the inner lives of any specific individuals.

Some anthropologists, and maybe even some historians, might see these mismatched emphases between the biographer and his subjects as a weakness of the book. I would argue instead that it is one of its great strengths. Larsen tells us important things about these important scholars that they could not have told us about themselves, and that their discipline-mates had missed for years and would probably have gone on missing. As Douglas taught us, different kinds of cultures have different kinds of strengths. Larsen, I am speculatively suggesting, has brought the strengths of his own culture (along with his own impressive skills as a scholar and as a writer of considerable charm) to bear on a group of scholars who brought their own quite different culturally rooted gifts to bear in making the anthropology of religion what it is today. The results are a highly original book that should be with us for a long time to come.

Joel Robbins is Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

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