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Naomi Haynes

A New Perspective on Schism

Church conflict in Papua New Guinea.

That Protestants are prone to schism is no surprise—it's in the name, for heaven's sake. However, just what causes schism is not always obvious, apocryphal stories of congregations that split over the color of the new fellowship hall carpet notwithstanding. The driving forces behind schism are a complex tangle of historical, relational, theological, and practical concerns. This means that schism is a kind of knot that social science is especially good at unravelling. Toward this end, Courtney Handman offers us a sophisticated look at denominational conflict in a place many of us would not necessarily think to look for it: the Waria Valley in northern Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Despite its remoteness, the Waria Valley is a highly appropriate location for this study because of PNG's position in both missionary and anthropoligical thought. Over the last several decades, PNG has attracted scores of missionaries and anthropologists, thanks primarily to its historic cultural isolation and staggering linguistic diversity—more than 800 languages spoken by a population of fewer than eight million people. The result has been a tremendous amount of ethnography, a great deal of which has explored the consequences of Christian missionization. The most prominent argument to emerge from anthropological treatments of Melanesian Christianity is that conversion requires individualism. Perhaps because this line of analysis has been so central, anthropologists have largely ignored the study of Christian social groups, whether churches or denominations, and it is this lacuna that Handman seeks to address. She argues that schism is a natural part of Christian, and especially Protestant, life: "not the failure of Christianity, but its very practice."

Handman argues that schism is a natural part of Christian, and especially Protestant, life: "not the failure of Christianity, but its very practice."

The first Christian missionaries to the Waria Valley were Lutherans, whose greatest challenge was the numerous languages spoken in the region. Their response was to develop a local lingua franca that would enable leaders and laypeople to move throughout the region with greater ease. The mission church would therefore be a church for all people. Just as Lutheran missionaries were not concerned with protecting the boundaries of "every little tribe," as one missionary brief quoted by Handman puts it, they were likewise not all that interested in maintaining local cultural traditions, much less employing them in Christian worship. While, as we will see, this approach differed markedly from that of subsequent missionaries, it solidified the church as the key Christian group, the social form through which Christian religious life was experienced.

The Lutheran mission was succeeded by Bible translators affiliated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), whose work in the Waria Valley was shaped by a unique form of what anthropologists call "language ideology." SIL was founded on the belief that each person needed to hear the Christian message in his or her mother tongue or "heart language." The latter is an affectively charged term in which the core of a person's being—the heart—is inextricably tied to a particular set of linguistic conventions, apart from which understanding will likely, perhaps necessarily, be superficial. SIL translators have historically relied on what in their organization is known as the "dynamic equivalence" model. In this approach, the goal of translation is not to match the text word-for-word but rather to get the message across through an extensive use of local idioms. So for example, a translator might have Jesus proclaiming that he was the yam or taro of life, thereby communicating the message of his sufficiency without the hassle of having to teach people what bread is and what role it had in the 1st-century Palestinian diet. These twin emphases on heart language and dynamic equivalence guided the American missionary who translated the New Testament into Guhu-Samane, a language spoken by 13,000 people across the Waria Valley. The volume was dedicated in 1975. Two years later there was a charismatic revival that eventually resulted in schism with the Lutheran church and the formation of a new congregation that Handman calls New Life.

Whether or not this turn of events would have been viewed as a success in the eyes of the SIL missionaries, who by that time had left PNG, Handman does not say, but she does note that the revival fit within the evangelistic ethos of SIL, such as it is. On principle, SIL does not plant churches; their only objective is to make the Bible available in a community's heart language, teach people to read it, and encourage them to think through the implications of the text for their community. Put differently, what translation was meant to accomplish was a rigorous and ongoing process of critique through which Guhu-Samane Christians would decide, based on Scripture, which elements of their culture needed to change if they were to follow Jesus. The paradox of SIL's dynamic equivalence model was therefore that it placed a premium on local cultural knowledge, such as idioms, in order to encourage people to call that knowledge into question. For members of the revival church, New Life, the schism had followed from a critical engagement with the missionary-established Lutheran church, which had not assigned the same value to language and culture that SIL did. In contrast to the Lutheran model, New Life church services featured traditional drums and readings from the Guhu-Samane New Testament, rather than the old hymns and the missionary-established lingua franca.

Once this process of Christian cultural critique was set in motion, it was impossible to stop. In time, New Life came under the same type of scrutiny that the Lutheran church had faced. Amidst criticisms that the group had been too accommodating to traditional and revivalist practices, a third congregation, which Handman calls Reformed Gospel, broke away from the original schismatic denomination. While New Life church members refused to use any text apart from the original Guhu-Samane New Testament, Reformed Gospel leaders used this text alongside Bibles in English and Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. While leadership in New Life followed only from charismatic authority, Reformed Gospel pastors were required to have formal training before entering the ministry. Reformed Gospel services employed acoustic guitars rather than the traditional drums used at New Life. In short, the process of critical engagement facilitated by translation produced a church that was, as Handman notes, "always reforming" in the way that Luther himself advocated.

What are the implications of Handman's analysis? First I should say what I do not think she has done (or intended to do), namely criticize the efforts of SIL, or the Lutheran mission for that matter. The historical enmity between anthropologists and missionaries is something of a trope in both circles, though in my observation the feelings of animosity are not what they were a generation or two ago. In any case, it is not the role of the anthropologist to make judgments about what has happened in a particular place as much as it is to figure out how it happened. What has made Protestantism, at least in the Waria Valley, so schismatic? In this task Handman succeeds, and we come away from her rich and detailed analysis with a much greater appreciation for the complex social processes that undergird schism, which I have only begun to outline here.

This leads me to what is perhaps the most important accomplishment of Handman's study. Just as the focus on the individualizing effects of conversion kept anthropologists of Christianity from paying sufficient attention to Christian communities, the tendency among social scientists to view churches as indistinguishable from other social groups resulted in a kind of reductivism when it came to understanding schism. If Christian groups were really just the same as other groups, then the things that caused Christian groups to break apart were no different from the things that caused other groups to fracture. In other words, a schism was just another word for an interpersonal conflict or a political struggle that happened to take place among Christians. Handman argues convincingly that this is not the case. Christian groups are not like other groups because they are sites of mediation, communities that are meant to present Jesus and allow his presence to be experienced. If Christian groups are indeed different from other social groups, then schism is also a different form of social breakdown. Rather than mere politics, schism results from debates about how to mediate the presence of God—how he ought to be best represented and experienced. We should be careful, then, before we resort to common explanations for why churches split, whether the ego of a new leader, the politics of a church budget, or yes, even personal preferences about the new fellowship hall carpet. Schism may be about all these things, but it is not reducible to them. And, if Handman is right in her treatment of Protestantism, it is a necessary fact of life for those who would represent Jesus to the world.

Naomi Haynes is a Chancellor's Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. Her monograph Moving by the Spirit: Pentecostal Social Life on the Zambian Copperbelt is forthcoming from University of California Press. She is a co-curator for anthrocybib, the Anthropology of Christianity Bibliographic Blog.

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