The Anthropology of Christianity
The Anthropology of Christianity

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

Buy Now

David Martin

Anthropology's "Other"

The reformation of a scholarly discipline.

2 of 5view all

Cannell initially raised the theological ghost haunting anthropology by commenting in her Malinowski lecture on how shocked some colleagues were to hear of her scholarly interest in Mormonism. Not merely did they consider Mormonism boring and morally dubious, but not really Christian. No doubt orthodox Christians would agree, but the mysterious ability of anthropologists to intuit heresy suggests something interesting about their inherited model of Christianity.

According to Cannell, this model focuses on those versions of Protestantism implicated in the transition to secular modernity and disenchantment. Christianity was construed as "the impossible religion" on account of a transcendent God so far above humanity and the mundane world that the spirit warred against the flesh, which meant that conversion signaled a rupture with the past, both historically and in the biography of the convert. Christianity valued the inward above the outward, and the sacrificial gift offered without thought of any reward, and it saw death as the end or telos of life. The centrality of the gratuitous offering not only generated a Western estimate of exchange for profit as of inferior worth but also, for example, rendered suspect those ritual exchanges between families which in other cultures are built into marriage ceremonies. (In Christian Moderns, Keane points out that condemnation of this "traffic in women" may well bring together morally conservative missionaries and radical feminists.)

Of course, there are versions of Christianity which approximate the anthropological model, for example pietism, but the model's pervasive presence can mean that kinds of Christianity lacking a high tension between body and spirit, heaven and earth, are seen as instances of secularization. Cannell's strategic deployment of Mormonism in her Malinowski lecture makes the point very well because for Mormons "heaven" is bodily life on earth enhanced by steady progress: rapture without rupture. As heaven arrives on earth you will give birth without pain, and eat chocolate without getting fat. Heaven is just the best of all possible worlds.

Should Mormonism be discounted as para-Christian (or an instance of incipient secularization), one might follow Keane by citing Pentecostalism as a dramatic case of a holistic treatment of body and spirit, simultaneously very ancient and very modern, in which the body is treated as the pre-eminent site for the ecstatic expression of joy and praise. In Pentecostalism the energies of the Holy Spirit heal the body as well as exorcising the demonic, and make for betterment of every kind here and now. In my own writing about Pentecostalism I have been reprimanded in ways Cannell would recognize. I have been told that Pentecostalism is not really Protestant precisely because it does not conform to the ascetic Weberian model based on Calvinism seen as en route to modernity. Instead it represents rather an uprush of archaic "primitive" religion in disguise. This implies a restrictive concept not only of what it is to be Protestant but of what it is to be modern. On the other hand I have been told Pentecostalism represents a colonial intrusion of an American-inspired modernity, promising material rewards in return for faith in a way contrary to "the" authentic African spirit. Like Cannell when it comes to her Mormons, I have devised a (mildly provocative) response to all this by using the label "Afro-Jewish" to characterize the Pentecostal fusion of an Old Testament link between good things and a good life, and the effervescence of black revivalism. The shock effect is palpable.

It is a pity, as Cannell herself says, that the individual studies making up her eleven chapters do not include a contribution from continental Africa, because much recent research there, for instance by Birgit Meyer (in her Translating the Devil, 1999) as well as by others in her group (now) at the Free University of Amsterdam, would be highly congenial to Cannell's approach. The work of Africanists is also congenial and supportive, much of it profoundly informed by anthropology. One thinks of John Peel, a notable critic of the Comaroffs, of Terence Ranger, and—in the younger generation—of David Maxwell, whose splendid study African Gifts of the Spirit has just come out. In my own work I have found anthropological analyses of the role of women in Pentecostalism, even when Marxist, attractively indifferent to obsolete models, for example Diane Austen-Broos, Roger Lancaster, Salvatore Cucchiari, and Elisabeth Brusco.

icon2 of 5view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide