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Brian Howell

Conviction of Sin, Hope for Redemption

Conversion in a Papua New Guinea community.

There are two big questions for anthropologists examining widespread conversion to Christianity: why and how? Why do people abandon coherent religious systems they have practiced for centuries in favor of a new—often radically new—way of thought? Then, even after people decide to accept the new religious framework, how does that happen? How do people apprehend these entirely new forms of thought if, as so many anthropologists argue, new concepts can only be grasped in terms of a pre-existing cultural framework? And for Christian anthropologists, there may be a third question: how might our interaction with these questions within the disciplinary framework of anthropology be distinctively informed by a theological understanding of the human person and the overarching story of creation, sin, and redemption?

In answer to the first question, some have pointed to social disruption—colonialism, capitalism and globalization—as the reason people are abandoning traditional beliefs on a massive scale and turning toward Christianity or other non-local religions. Others argue that there are clear material advantages for those who adopt these widespread religions. Both these explanations falter, however, in the face of ethnographic evidence. First, traditional religions are often very capable of adapting to contemporary capitalism and modern citizenship. Just look at what Shirley MacLaine and New Age spirituality did for old-fashioned animism. Second, people frequently sacrifice material or social benefits in joining non-local religions such as Christianity. There is little economic or political incentive for Chinese citizens to join the house church movement, yet it is thought that 100 million may have done so.

Answers to the second question—how people convert—have been even more elusive and unsatisfying. One popular anthropological answer is that, in truth, traditionalists don't really convert at all. Instances of "conversion" are largely cosmetic changes ...

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