The discipline of anthropology may be facing something of a paradigm shift as older models that neglected or disdained the importance of Christian beliefs are being challenged. The ferment can be seen in the February issue of Current Anthropology which features a special section on anthropologists and their problems in studying Christianity.
The lead article by Joel Robbins of the University of California at San Diego argues that until very recently there have been few studies on the religious lives of Christians and that anthropologists have often “airbrushed” Christianity out of their accounts of native cultures. Citing the work of prominent anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, Robbins writes that they discount Christianity by claiming that natives may accept the form of the colonizers’ dominant religion but not actually accept its content.
More importantly, anthropology has traditionally stressed that symbols, rituals and meaning have an enduring quality while Christianity preaches radical change, particularly leading converts to claim they have made a clean break with their pasts. Robbins concludes that even if traditional contexts play a role in conversion and subsequent Christian living, a small number of anthropologists are beginning to recognize that Christian beliefs are important to converts and have real implications that need to be studied.
In the magazine Books & Culture, sociologist David Martin writes that in his own work on global Pentecostalism, he encounters the anthropological criticism that such a form of Christianity is either an “archaic primitive religion in disguise,“ or a “colonial intrusion of American-inspired modernity.” But he notes that it is especially in studies on African Christianity and those on the role of women in Pentecostalism where Christian beliefs are now taken seriously.
Such new books as The Anthropology of Christianity (edited by Fenella Cannell) and Christian Moderns (by Webb Keane) also challenge the dominant anthropological models. They provide accounts of the “global reach of Christianity as a universal religion which is owned and propagated by non-Western peoples, and does indeed help bring about a shared modernity,“ Martin writes.
(Current Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, 142 E. 60th St, Chicago, IL 60637; Books & Culture, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)