Sunday, August 31, 2008

AAA News - Business Meeting and Sponsored Session Cultures of Christian Conversion

The Melanesian Interest Group (MIG) business meeting will be held on Friday the 21st of November from 6 - 7.30 pm in a location to be announced in the San Francisco Hilton and Towers.We will be discussing the topic for the next AAA sponsored session and receiving nominations for the next convener-elect.

Please let Jamon or myself know if you would like to raise any issues for the meeting.

In anticipation of people registering for the AAA and renewing their AAA membership - we kindly ask that you tick off (or write in) your belonging to the MIG. This way we can continue to have a presence in the AAA.

The MIG invited session, co-sponsored by the AAA Executive Program Committee, for 2008 is entitled The Cultures of Christian Conversion. Organised and chaired by John Barker (UBC) the session will take place on Sunday 23 November from 8 to 11.45am. Dan Jorgenson (UWO) and Rita S. Kipp (Kenyon) will be discussants for what promises to be an excellent session.
The Cultures of Christian Conversion

The expansion of Christianity across the globe over the past two centuries constitutes one of the most remarkable cultural transformations in the history of humanity. Most secular historians and anthropologists long understood that expansion as a reflex of political and economic imperialism. When considered at all, conversion appeared largely as the religious expression of a process of colonial incorporation and, more generally, the transition from “traditional” to “modern” forms of society. Over the past thirty years, anthropologists have played a significant part in revolutionizing this conception through fine-grained studies of both missionaries and converts across the globe. Not only has this significantly elevated the subject of Christian expansion amongst students of colonial and post-colonial societies, it has greatly complicated the former consensus on the reasons and implications of Christian conversion. In particular, the focus upon diversity within mission organizations and the exercise of agency on the part of converts as they interpret, appropriate, and otherwise “localize” mission Christianity—these and related factors have tended to obscure or displace conversion as a central organizing theme. Our main purpose in this session is to bring conversion back into the discussion, particularly of the types of local “christianities” typically studied by anthropologists. Through a variety of case studies stretching from the Arctic to the tropics and from Amazonia to Melanesia, we ask whether the concept of conversion can provide a useful framework for comparison and, if so, what are the best ways to construct or construe it.

John Barker (UBC)
Modeling Christian Conversion in Melanesia

Drawing upon case studies from Melanesia, this paper contrasts four powerful models of religious conversion in the anthropological literature: (1) as a colonization of consciousness (Comaroff and Comaroff); (2) as the acquisition of a new locus of self-identity (Hefner); (3) as a transformation in morally defining values (Robbins); and (4) as a shift in semantic ideologies (Keane). Rather than considering these as alternatives, I suggest that they are best thought of as facets of a single complex process of confrontation and transformation. The degree to which one or another appears to characterize the experience of conversion in a locality depends, among other things, upon the ways missionaries and converts conceive of redemption, upon indigenous orientations to history, and upon the degree and nature of incorporation of local communities into wider social systems. The time factor also greatly complicates our perceptions of conversion. Changes brought about by acceptance of Christianity may appear to anthropologists as far more radical in newly converted communities as opposed to those where churches have formed part of the social landscape for generations.

Robert L. Welsch (Franklin Pearce)
Is It Conversion?: Religious Tensions after the Aitape Tsunami of 1998.

SVD Catholic missionaries arrived in the Aitape region of Papua New Guinea in 1896 and by 1920s had converted nearly everyone along the coast and offshore islands. After WWII the Franciscans took charge of this mission field and Catholicism was unambiguously the dominant church in the area until the 1980s. By 1990 missionaries from other churches had begun working in the district and in most communities the Assembly of God was beginning to make inroads, challenging the entrenched Catholic church. Then in July 1998 a tsunami with 45-foot waves destroyed four communities, killing 2200 people. Many NGOs—including a number of religious organizations—rushed to the region to help rebuild these communities. Two years after the disaster most of the communities were beginning to recover. This paper examines what was happening in Arop, one of these communities, where eleven different churches were operating where two years earlier there was only the Catholic church and two competing protestant groups. Why this sudden interest in non-Catholic churches in an area that had been devoutly Catholic since 1920? Some of these churches had only one or two families, while others were thriving religious organizations with hundreds of members. Nearly all of the new churches had sprung up at the expense of the Catholic church. But while some of the members of the smaller churches had clearly done so because they were promised funding and building materials, in other cases it seems that villagers were making sense of the tsunami through religious conversion.

Courtney Handman (Chicago)
Denominational CONVERSION in Christian histories: continuities and gaps in serial conversion among the Guhu-Samane, Papua New Guinea

The objects of study of much work in the growing field of the anthropology of Christianity are groups of people who are trying to sort out their relationship to Christianity while they are also practicing it at the same time. For these groups and for the anthropologists who write about them, the meat of the problem is not in getting to conversion, but in trying to live as Christians in the moments after they have taken the plunge into this new kind of affiliation. However, being committed to Christianity does not mean that an interest in conversion is necessarily over. This is especially true for many Guhu-Samane people, a Papua New Guinean group that has been engaging with Christianity for about 100 years. Guhu-Samane are working their way through Christianity by working their way through denominations, for them institutionalized experiments and reforms of Christian churches. Each new denomination that one becomes a member of requires a new baptism and conversion. But at least for members of one very prominent church, the kind of conversion narrative one tells is not so much a story of the process of coming to take on a Christian identity, but of proving that one has been a stalwart Christian throughout a series of apparent denominational changes. Conversion is, in that sense, about being Christian, rather than about becoming Christian. Looked at in this light, inter-denominational conversion becomes a part of local Christianity, rather than its precursor.

Laurie Zadnik (Toronto)
Maintaining Beliefs and Values, Changing Lives: Stories of Becoming Mormon in Madang, Papua New Guinea

Research on the relatively recent spread of Mormonism in Papua New Guinea highlights an interesting paradox. My informants would explicitly reject the use of idioms of conversion to explain their “joining” (their preferred expression) the Mormon Church. Many informants found the idiom of conversion so distasteful that not only would they avoid using the term themselves, but they would also correct my wording if I used such related terms or phrases. Yet these same informants would typically go to great lengths to emphasize dramatic changes in their lives since having become members of this particular denomination. How should this seemingly contradictory emphasis on life-altering change and explicit rejection of the concept of conversion be handled? Does this belie the possibility of using conversion as an analytical construct to understand these particular processes in their lives? This paper discusses the particular meanings these Mormon Church members attributed to “conversion” which for them served as the basis for its rejection. These informants rejected conversion as an idiom because they felt it depicted an abandonment of prior beliefs and values which they viewed themselves as continuing and/or strengthening by participating in Mormon Church activities. This case example shows that it is important to deal with transformation and continuity simultaneously when the significant transformations we seek to understand and explain ultimately arise because of the values and beliefs that people seek to maintain or uphold.

Sandra Widmer (York)
Politicizing Subjects, Contesting Therapies: Christian Conversion and the Struggle for Health, Souls and Meaning in Vanuatu

Following violence after a woman’s death and sorcery accusations in Port Vila in early 2007, J. Issac, wrote a letter to the editor in the Vanuatu Daily Post. “People must put their trust in the hospital. Together we can stop problems from the past so that they don’t happen any more and people can live with trust, respect and harmony. We must stop talking about black magic, it doesn’t have meaning. We can’t go back to 1700 or 1800. Christianity is today and the right arm of Christianity is the hospital.” For over a century, the use of sorcery has been a source of consternation for a variety of reasons. For the Presbyterian missionaries, it symbolized a subject’s unstable conversion to Christianity. Using contemporary and archival material, I discuss what debates over sorcery and the cause of death reveal about Christian forms of subjectivity and conversion. I argue they show what Asad identifies as the politicization of consciousness and the centrality of that consciousness for modern Christian subjects. The conversion process compels subjects to view their options for living as ethical choices. The way this aspect of Christianity has been taken up in ni-Vanuatu experience of modern subjectivity means that ni-Vanuatu are compelled into a reified awareness of their “culture” as something that they can have a politicized relationship with. Like Robbins, I examine how Christianity, in the process of conversion and the formation of new subjects, compels a moralized awareness of personal and cultural lives.

Kun-hui Ku (National Tsing Hua University)
Continuity or Discontinuity: Religious Processes embedded in Christian conversion movements among Austroneisan Paiwan in Taiwan

The literature on anthropological studies of Christian conversion movements has hinged on two divided camps: first, emphasis on the continuity with traditional cosmology in the face of Christian appearance, and second, strong emphasis on the rupture from the past and the new life. This paper intends to examine the multiple narratives from the first generation Paiwan converts and second generation converts to consider how converts' conceptions of "tradition" and Christianity gradually shift over time. The mass conversion to Christianity among the indigenous peoples of Taiwan after War World II, "The Twentieth Century Miracle," as it was called by Canadian Presbyterian missionaries to Taiwan then, was characterized as "people's movement without missionaries." Indigenous evangelists were trained to send messages to remote parts of the island and the translation of Bible was the urging yet time-consuming task that could not catch up with the speed of conversion. Within twenty years, 80 percent of indigenous population claimed to be Christians, either Presbyterian or Catholics. This paper will rethink how the concept of conversion can enhance or hinder our understanding of the long term processes.

Yannick Fer (CNRS)
Culture as an individual freedom? The ambiguities of cultural “new birth” in Charismatic Protestantism in Polynesia

From its origin, the history of Protestantism in Polynesia has been influenced by missionaries’ will to domesticate indigenous bodies, especially female bodies, in order to contain the impulses of a “pagan nature” that seemed to lead Polynesians to idleness and lasciviousness. Conversion thus implied turning away from some cultural expressions such as traditional dance forms. The subsequent integration of Christianity as a contemporary pillar of a Polynesian “tradition” on the one hand, and the rise of contextual Oceania theologies on the other hand contributed to an evolution in the relationship between Christianity and local cultures. Reformulated in Christian terms, these cultures became viewed in many places as the way to a collective salvation. This inspired anti-colonial struggles: a duty to be fully Polynesians in order to be as God wants us. Recently arrived Charismatic Protestantism and more specifically networks like Island Breeze (YWAM) today challenge this “Christian tradition”. Influenced by the touristic displays of Polynesian cultures and an Evangelical credo based on both the individualization of salvation and the rejection of any secular/religious distinction, these networks tend to reverse the perspective: they redeem the body by claiming dances as a mean to express the Christian faith and opposing the “traditional” Puritanism inherited from the early missionaries. They offer the younger generations – especially those born in migrant communities in places like New Zealand – a “double conversion”, both religious and cultural, through a voluntary re-appropriation of Polynesian identities understood as a matter of personal choice and individual freedom.

Aparecida Vilaça (Museu National, Rido De Janeiro)
The Bible as read by the Wari' (Rondônia, Brazil)

Across the world, the learning of reading skills by native peoples has been enabled by the work of missionaries, whose own aim has been to provide the former with access to the Bible or religious teachings. Even today, the Bible is identified by ethnographers as the primary text of interest for many literate native peoples, although most have access to a wide range of alternative reading material, including school books and documentation of their ‘culture.’ Ethnographers typically report that only the Bible is read outside of the school context, whether in Christian religious services or in the context of day-to-day family relations. My aim in this paper is to consider this phenomenon on the basis of my ethnography of the Wari’, a group speaking a language of the Txapakura family, living in the southwest of Amazonia. Taught to read and write since the 1960s by fundamentalist Protestant missionaries from the New Tribes Mission, and included in the Brazilian school education system since the 1980s, the Wari’ display the same disinterest for all reading matter apart from the Bible (and the exegeses of Biblical sources produced by the missionaries), which is read out loud, either at home by parents to their children, or in the Church services by native pastors. Based on an analysis of the contexts and forms of reading the Bible and related texts, I look to comprehend the reasons for the Wari’ interest in this specific reading material. What does reading the Bible mean to them? What is revealed to them by the words they can read? What social relations are established through this reading?

Aristoteles Barcelos Neto (UEA)
Touching God in the Peruvian Andes: senses, images and the conflicts over re-conversion

This paper aims to analyze Andean thoughts and practices towards the embodiments of divinities and how these bodies are sensorially perceived and experienced. In the Peruvian Andes there are at least four highly miraculous giant stones, which are fully recognized as embodiments of Christ. Looking at the anthropological history of the Andes, one might suppose that these stone Christs are the ancient lithomorphosis of the ancestors (Duviols, 1977) deeply re-signified. These re-significations seem to be a contingent response to the “extirpation of idolatries”, a response that in Wagner terms (1981) should be seen as a counter-invention of Spanish Christianity. Andeans travel large distances and up to 5000 meters above sea level to see and touch these stone Christs. Seeing and touching are exceptional spiritual experiences that put Eucharist aside. In certain rituals, the message is clear: the body of Christ is to be touched not to be eaten. Other important aspect of the cult of seeing and touching is art restoration. Following worshipers statements, an outstanding restoration inspires faith and consequently empowers the ancient image. The second aim of this paper is to discuss the ongoing Catholic missionary effort to reshape Andean (Indian) Christianity within contemporary Roman orthodoxy. This new mission, which is a kind of re-conversion of Andeans to Catholicism, is a fertile ground to discus the religious nature of Andean socialities and the conflicts between the “religion of the images” (animist/multinaturalist) and the “religion of the text” (i.e. post Vatican Council).

Andrew Orta (Urbana-Champaign)

Vulgar Citizenship: Conversion, Local Christianity and the Repertoires of Neoliberalism

Christian conversion entails a reorientation of processes of selfhood, entangling the production of local frames of social life with encompassing networks of meaning and action. As a process at once local and global, one profoundly micro-level and universal, conversion collapses and cuts across multiple scales of phenomena. In this regard, the comparative ethnography of Christian conversion can be a powerful starting point for the description and analysis of other regimes of transformation and alignment. This paper examines a case from the Andean highlands, where the repertoires of local Christianity intersect with a remaking of the texture of civic life through processes of administrative decentralization provoked by globally operative ideals of neoliberal governance.

Frédéric Laugrand (Université Laval)
From Fidji to Nunavut: Conversion and Healing the Land in Inuit Pentecostal and Evangelical movements

This paper deals with the rapid development of Pentecostal and Evangelical movements in the Canadian Eastern Arctic. Using traditional ethnographical material, interviews with elders conducted in the past ten years as well as information and photographs collected in the internet, I first present and contextualize the various movements and analyze how they conceive Christian conversion. Then I examine the case of the healing the land rituals developed by the Canada Awakening Ministries with the collaboration of a group from Fiji. The healing rituals conducted in Baffin Island and in the Kivalliq communities evoke traditional rituals as well as Western traditions. Rituals of cleansing the land appear to already have existed before the coming of Christianity. Finally, I explore how these movements claim to introduce discontinuity with the past as well as new forms of solidarity integrating modern ideologies in a Christian perspective but that the relation to land as well as connections to shamanism remains central issues in modern Inuit discourses and practices of Pentecostalism. Therefore although all these religious movements are quite modern, they combine old and new features in a variety of ways. They provide a recognizable idiom that allows for the transition to a modern political structure. In their emphasis on global relationships they connect Inuit to Fijians testifying to a new order of mobility where all nations meet in the context of this new transcendent order.


Bot said...

The comment about the Mormon Church is correct. Converts don't reject the Christian teachings they had in their prior denomination, they simply add "the fullness of the Gospel", which gives them additional insight into where they were prior to this earth, their purpose here on earth, and where they have the potential to go in the next life. The Church answers life's great questions.

ldsneighbor said...

I would like to echo was bot said above. The Mormon Church does not deny Christianity, it fulfills it. For example, the New Testament of the Bible does not detract from the Old Testament. The Book of Mormon does not diminish the New Testament. This is illustrated well in these words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: