Friday, October 17, 2008

Christians, Anthropology, and Cultural Difference

The following was originally written in February 2007. It is posted here for the first time:

One of the primary things that anthropology offers to the Christian liberal arts student is ways of learning to listen to socially and culturally different others, even when disagreeing with some or all of what the others are saying. Not only are such skills useful in conventionally “cross-cultural” settings, but in our increasingly multicultural and globalized world they are foundational (even prior) to being able to formulate and voice a Christian perspective likely to influence cultural discourse and public policy over the long term.

I would argue that such perspectives (the practical outcomes of the anthropological perspective of “cultural relativism”) are fundamentally biblical. Consider the Lord’s widely quoted statement in Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together” (not “Come and let me preach at you,” although he does plenty of that in adjoining verses). Read out of context, which is how most evangelicals appropriate this passage, the appeal suggests a privileging of inter-cultural dialogue, as the “reasoning together” dialogue between God and man is the most profoundly “cross-cultural” one that can be imagined.

Consider as well the Apostle Paul’s efforts—in the face of often strident opposition from Jewish cultural homogenizers—in formulating the approach to law, culture, and grace (e.g., Galatians 2-5) that informs our understanding and practice of Christianity today (it probably helped that he was raised in a multicultural city and was commissioned for his missions by a multicultural church – see Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3). Consider also the Old Testament admonition (Leviticus 19:33-34; Ezekiel 47:22-23) to treat foreigners with the same love, respect, and rights as if they were native-born members of one’s own people (which, of course, did not mean taking on their religion – one can certainly be cultural relativist without being panreligious!).

[I realize my citation of such Old Testament passages is undermined by their insistence that sojourning foreigners follow Jewish law with the same rigor as the Jews do. In response, staying true to the hermeneutics of my evangelical upbringing, I would argue that the multiculturally-oriented grace preached in Paul’s epistles supersedes the letter of this particular aspect of the Old Testament law (see Galatians 3:23-28, 4:21-31, 5:1-6). ]

Buttressed by even stronger material in the New Testament, such passages parallel Jenell Paris’s recent argument that cultural anthropology can and should be an expression of Christian love for others, particularly (as I understand it) facilitating empathetic cross-cultural exchanges grounded not in pity or paternalism but rather in respect and empathetic curiosity about the others’ perspectives, felt needs, and experiences (see Jenell Paris, 2006, “A Pietist Perspective on Love and Learning in Cultural Anthropology, Christian Scholar’s Review, 35 (3): 371-385).

Overall, as a Christian trained in anthropology who studies other Christians (among other things), I find myself increasingly drawn to Paul’s metaphor of the “body of Christ” (I Cor. 12), with Christ (and nobody else) portrayed as the head of a trans-cultural, multidimensional Christian community in which all the parts are to interact supportively (Col. 1:18, 2:10; Eph. 1-22-23; 4:15-16; 5:23). Paul uses this metaphor not only to urge peace and humility within particular congregations but also to suggest how we should treat one another across cultural and national boundaries. The metaphor is cited in enough disparate contexts as to suggest that Paul intended it to apply not only within particular congregations, denominations, or cultural communities, but also to the trans-cultural church as a whole, making his metaphor the ultimate charter for cross-cultural respect among Christians.

I am also attracted to Paul’s widely quoted Galatians 5:13-26 passage on the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit, which even more directly argues for cross-cultural respect. This passage comes at the close of an extended argument addressing a fundamentally cultural conflict between Judaizing Christians and Christians who were not conforming to Jewish law. Paul’s response, here as elsewhere in his letters, was to preach cross-cultural tolerance within the framework of faith in and obedience to Christ. Read in this context, the passage even goes so far to suggest that the Judaizers’s cultural intolerance was directly opposed to the Spirit of God, a suggestion that has important implications for our understanding of similar intolerance today. There could hardly be a stronger argument for the importance of judiciously applied cultural relativism—and for the cognitive-relational tools taught in cultural anthropology courses.

If I may be allowed to preach a bit, for many years North American Christians have tended to act as if they were the hands, feet, heart, head, and brains of the international body of Christ. Today many North American evangelicals realize that such attitudes are not appropriate, but they may not be clear on how to avoid expressing them in practice. Anthropology, particularly in its contemporary critiques of power, discursive structures, and ethnocentrism, has a role to play in equipping evangelical Christians for more faithful adherence to Paul’s model, while also giving them skills and perspectives sure to be practically useful in fields as diverse as missions, community development, peacemaking, social services, and, yes, even politics, literature, and cultural criticism.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

About the Cultural Mandate

The term “the Cultural Mandate” has been used to refer to God’s command to Adam and Eve to “tend and keep the Garden.” This has been extended to refer to the work that humans do on earth to care for the physical needs of one another and creation generally. (This is often juxtaposed to the “evangelistic mandate” or the call to share the gospel.)

This notion of the Cultural Mandate, however, has a double meaning for this blog. As anthropologists committed to living out the Gospel, we understand that “culture” is not an enemy of spiritual life, but the only means by which we can live it out. We believe that while the Gospel has a message for the whole world (including anthropology), so to can anthropology provide resources, concepts and tools for Christians seeking to live faithful lives.

Thus, just as we have a mandate from God to care for one another and creation, so too do we, as anthropologists, have a mandate to understand, teach, and communicate about culture in ways that encourage the church, enlighten the seeker, and faithfully serve God. This is our Cultural Mandate.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Needs Who Here?

Five years ago, Nicholas Kristof called Evangelical Christians "the newest internationalists." In his travels he'd seen Christians in places previously reserved for nomadic herders and a few intrepid anthropologists, working for the good of people the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten.

His piece prompted a few letters in response, at least one pointing out the problems perceived when U.S. Evangelicals engage in well-meaning, but perhaps less-than-productive work abroad.

A number of anthropologists have taken up the challenge of bringing anthropological knowledge to bear on these sorts of trips, notably Robert Priest of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Even while he pursues his work, I know he continues to run up against the problems of those training for church work and those setting curriculum in his school believing that anthropology has little to contribute to the overall life of the church. Some helpful tools, perhaps. Some interesting examples of diversity possibly, but the heart of theological education remains, well, theology.

I would not suggest that theology is not at the heart of ministerial training, but perhaps the definition of "theology" is problematic. "Theology" remains, in the minds of most, simply philosophy about God. That is, it is a systematic and biblically based system of thought. Practice - or praxis - remains secondary to the logic and content of theology.

Setting aside all the biblical problems with this view, I would point out that anyone in the pastorate knows that orthodoxy does not lead automatically to orthopraxy. All the theological knowledge in the world does not lead to automatically to ethical and righteous behavior. (Satan surely has, in one sense, proper theology.)

In working out the Christian life, it is critical to have an understanding of God in practice, humanity in community and theology as lived reality. In other words, the church needs ethnographic theology.

This blog (and its concomitant discussion on the Fishnet listserv) has so far concentrated on the relationship of Christians to the anthropological academy. I do not want that conversation to stop or suggest I do not hold the issues as extremely important. However, I would also suggest that my calling has been to bring anthropology to the church as much as to bring the Church to anthropology.

Missiologist-anthropologists have certainly done this and continue to do so in important ways. However, I would suggest that "missions" remains largely a professionalized and distinct subset of Christian practice for most Christians. Short-term missions is beginning to complicate that distinction, although many missionaries do not accept these short forays as "missions" and even the short-term volunteers themselves often make distinctions between what they do and what "real" missionaries are all about.

I would encourage anthropologists to continue to think about how we can create a public anthropology for the church that goes beyond missiology. A few recent books, such as Miranda Hassett's The Anglican Communion in Crisis, Marla Frederick's Between Sundays, Eloise Meneses' Love and Revolutions and several chapters of Priest and Nieves' edited volume This Side of Heaven have brought anthropology to bear on non-mission-related topics with Christian themes. (OK, it's self-serving, but I will include my own Christianity in Local Context in this list.)

We must not abandon our effort to represent the Kingdom in anthropology, but we should simultaneously redouble our efforts within the church. The World needs Jesus, but sometimes the followers of Jesus need something of the world.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A little history

It seems useful to me to review something of the history of organizations and gatherings of Christians in anthropology.

Bob Priest (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) gave a short history of the Network of Chrisitian Anthropologists on the listserv Fishnet recently. (excerpted here with permission)

“In the very first 1976 mtg at Wheaton College which produced the Network of Christian anthropologists, with 55 in attendance (including between 30 and 35 anthropologists), many of the same themes we're discussing now were discussed. Claude Stipe gave a presentation (later reworked and published in Current Anthropology) which raised questions about just how objective the field of anthropology was. Donald Larson summarized some key views expressed that "we are not ready to talk to AAA or contribute to periodicals 'as Christian anthropologists' until we are ready to talk to each other about our own paradigms." And it was suggested that people avoid titles like "A Christian View of . . ." but to recognize rather "a plurality of views even among Christian anthropologists.’”

Bob goes on in his post to note a gathering at Biola in 2000 (I think) at which about 30 anthropologists, along with several linguists and mission scholars, gathered to survey anthropological theory.

In addition, I would note that in 2003 I organized a gathering of Christians at Wheaton College in conjunction with the AAA meetings in Chicago. We had 40+ people in attendance and a good discussion similar to that on Fishnet at the moment.

Anthropologists have been part of several other organizations and gatherings, of course (Evangelical Missiological Society, Association of Professors of Mission, and various other topically oriented groups), but as far as I know, the Network is the most consistent and formalized gathering of Christian anthropologists we have.

Bob also wrote in his Fishnet post:

"I am encouraged by the energy and interest in having a more visible Christian presence, although my inclination is to think [Kevin] Birth is correct that the most important thing would be to become more active in planning and organizing and presenting at the AAA in ways and on themes that might allow presenters' Christian identities to be evident, should presenters wish to have this (as some of us, but probably not all, would wish)."

My question would be whether we can facilitate this by a stronger organizational presence.

Sociology has two Christian organizations, Christian Sociological Society (CSS) and the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology (ACTS). They hold meetings or conferences (with their main meetings in the case of CSS and separately in the case of ACTS), collect dues, publish newsletters and generally coordinate more than the Network. Perhaps an extra-AAA organization such as this would be more appropriate for anthropologists as well.

So the question remains: is there a next step for our organization? If so, what is it?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Cultural Mandate: A View from the Field

In general, I support the idea of a kind of society or group or formally recognized body of self-identified "Christian Anthropologists" and those sympathetic to its interests. I don't intend to debate definitions of or threshold criteria for membership with this posting. Rather, I aim to bring about a bit of discussion about some other reasons in support of this group, as opposed to the informal Fishnet or Network that we have going. From my perspective, there are three additional reasons not yet discussed:
1. As a someday-PhD holder, in the midst of fieldwork, I have come to realize several of the ways that I could benefit from this group. Fieldwork - particularly in a setting where other people are actively trying to convert the researcher out of Christianity - can have some very alienating moments. I remember in a previous Fishnet posting someone mentioned that Christian PhD students struggle to maintain a personal faith, particularly during the fieldwork period. Given that I am set in the heart of the Muslim Middle East and travel within some of the most religiously disputed spaces in the world, I can appreciate how that happens. If it's all socially constructed around me, then how is what I believe any different from what those around me believe? A group of Christian Anthropologists could serve as a group of people who actively dialogue, share experiences, and engage the question of working in a profession that - at times - makes personal faith and professional activities difficult to reconcile or even antithetical.
2. A fellow PhD student and good friend involved in fieldwork in South Africa was struggling with how to make sense, theoretically speaking, of the intersections between discourses of hope in communities with high rates of HIV/AIDS and their testaments of personal faith. She sought out assistance from her advisors. Much to her disappointment, her committee members insisted that testaments of faith in her fieldwork communities need not enter her theoretical orientation. This group of Christian Anthropologists could help identify new theoretical possibilities for the place of religion more generally, and for Christianity specifically. I envision an ecumenical approach that could be adopted by Jewish or Muslim anthropologists (among other religious adherents) who seek to identify the theoretical possibilities for the religious life that they live and work in, balancing it with the idea that they themselves may be adherents of the same religion. I realize that we are not all oriented towards Anthro of Religion. However, a group that shares an openness to the possibilities for faith in anthropology would be welcomed by some who find the academy rather unsympathetic towards religious orientations more generally.
3. Finally, I believe that a group of Anthropologists Who Also Happen to be Christians or Sympathizers (which is a definition I prefer; although the acronym "AWAHCS" is more than a bit awkward...) could provide some of the kinds of networking and exposure for students and new PhDs that we are all striving for, as well as match faculty postings with a wider applicant pool. Some of this happens on Fishnet; I am grateful to have heard and be in dialogue with several of you (and needing to reply to emails from even more...). Where are some new opportunities for publishing? For jobs? And furthermore ... treading lightly here ... what about the kinds of challenges that arise when working in a Christian college or setting? How might one teach evolution - a vital aspect of anthropology - if the institution bars or restricts it's teaching? A society could be a strong forum for boosting the professional caliber of Christian anthropologists as well as a forum for collectively discussing ways to address the unique issues that I do believe we have.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Christian's Anthropology?

Yesterday I said that I expected there would be as many Christian anthropologies as there are Christian anthropologists. I firmly believe this, even though I expect there will be many overlaps among those anthropologies.

Lately, as a "Christian anthropologist," by which I mean an anthropologist who happens to be a Christian, and also vice-versa, I've found it useful to think of Christianity in my professional identity less as a set of moralities to be taught (while being violated almost daily by yours truly), than as an additional set of languages that I speak (in dialect, no less). Or as one of the palettes from which I paint. Or perhaps an additional set of fonts and symbols from which I can draw in addition to the sets I share with other anthropologists (and with educated people in general).

The former approach tends to intimidate, while often making us seem hypocritical (for we often fail to practice what we preach). But the latter seems to fascinate, and the resulting engagements encourage me to continue exploring my own cultural resources"cultural" in the fullest set of the term. Yet, while drawing on these shared resources, the products of my work remain uniquely mine. In their uniqueness, they are not really determined by those resources, but are rather enabled by them. In other words, like any other cultural resource, they give me additional ways to speak in a voice that nevertheless remains my own.

Does this approach resonate with others?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who Are We and Why Do We Need This?

I’m pleased with the discussion this proposal has already been receiving on Fishnet, a listserv closely associated with the Network (Fishnet signup information is at: Major questions have included: Who are we? Why do we need this? and What should the group do? This post addresses the first two questions. The third will be reserved for a later post.

WHO ARE WE: My impression, somewhat confirmed by today’s discussions, has been that the Network is formed around a core of practicing anthropologists that most would call “evangelicals,” while also including many others who also share what the Fishnet signup page calls “a faith commitment to Jesus Christ.” In practice, the Network has also invited participation by others who do not consider themselves Christians at all, but who share or at least respect the Network’s goals and reason for being. I think all those practices should continue.

Some might question why there should be a distinctive “core” at all, while others might question the inclusiveness (though at the moment the latter is either a minority voice or else is deciding whether it is safe to speak). I personally favor both.

In favor of highlighting the core, my perception is that the experience of growing up in (or converting into) a Baptist church and attending a conservative Christian college and attempting to remain in community with people of similar background while practicing mainstream anthropology of high quality presents members of that core with a very real and personal set of social, cultural, psychological, and even political issues that is very different (though not entirely so) from those experienced by the graduates of a Jesuit seminary or the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

At the same time, in favor of a degree of inclusiveness, I (along with many other members of that core) feel great affinity with fellow Christians who, like us, appreciate C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the symbolic resources of the Bible, and the varied ways that deeper questions of the faith have been explored across Christian traditions both historically and currently. In addition, as a student of twentieth-century evangelical Christianity, I am cognizant of its origins as an interrelated set of movements shaped by responses to particular, fairly recent moments in North American church history, especially in the late nineteenth century and after, though having roots in earlier times and traditions. For me, this gives rise to concern that over-sensitivity to the essentially North American issues that have shaped and continue to shape the movements' origins, development, and contemporary manifestations might inadvertently exclude like-minded Christians from abroad.

Thus, I favor a self-definition similar to the one used by Fishnet, while recognizing that some of the issues to be addressed by the group’s existence may be felt especially strongly by the “core,” while also recognizing that other issues —perhaps all of them—are shared by a much broader group of people.

WHY WE NEED THIS: A fuller set of purposes will be proposed in a later post. But the following seem to be primary and immediate needs:

1) To increase the number of Christians (especially “evangelical” Christians) who are trained in anthropology and operating at the highest professional standards. To do so requires addressing both (a) the mindsets and institutional constraints within evangelical Christianity that have discouraged many from pursuing mainstream anthropological training and interests, and (b) the mindsets and stereotypes that have caused many professional anthropologists to assume that committed Christians cannot or should not succeed. My personal perception is that both barriers have considerably lowered in recent years. I would hope that with sufficiently supportive mentoring, more people of committed Christian background will be able to proceed through the professional preparation process without feeling the need to abandon their identities. And I hope the increased visibility brought by this initiative, and perhaps by this blog, will challenge the exclusionary stereotypes that can still be found among some members of the discipline.

2) To increase the amount and the quality of anthropology being taught at Christian colleges and universities, including an appreciation for the full range of the discipline’s offerings and concerns. Given the percentage of evangelicals—and evangelical leaders—who are educated at such schools, this initiative is essential if the first goal is to be achieved, even as the first goal is essential if we are to achieve the second.

3) To encourage and congratulate increased anthropological and ethnographic attention to Christian communities in North America and abroad, especially works taking a respectful attitude toward evangelicals and other theologically conservative groups (indeed, such respect would seem to be required by the AAA ethics statement), yet without abandoning critical distance. In my opinion, the group should especially encourage such works from outside the community because, quite frankly, it’s awfully hard to see ourselves clearly on our own.

4) To encourage increased participation by Christians (especially evangelical Christians) who are female, of color, and/or born and raised outside the United States. Though the majority of professional anthropologists are now female (or so I hear), the majority of participants on Fishnet are still white males, and the proportions are even worse for Christian anthropologists in tenure-track positions, whether at Christian colleges or at secular ones.

At the same time, I feel very strongly that the group should not favor any one theoretical, methodological, philosophical, or political stance. If asked “What would a Christian anthropology look like,” my response would be that the answer should be as diverse as is the population of Christian anthropologists. The topics and approaches are wide open. Our contributions and orientations are already diverse, and I hope to see even greater diversity in the coming months and years. I hope that this initiative, if it moves forward, can be a significant contribution to that end.

What is a Christian?

There have been several comments on Fishnet today about who gets to be a Christian for the purposes of the interest group.

In this, I would hope that we would continue the tradition of the Network (not to imply the IG is replacing the Network, but simply to make the analogy) of being open to all who find the conversation interesting.

That is, I think it imperative that "Evangelical Christian" (a difficult term in any circumstances as the recent Evangelical Manifesto demonstrates) not be the focus of the group. Rather, it is about the notion of a Christian subjectivity - a subject position that actually relates to a Christian view of the world - and how that intersects with the professional and scholarly work of anthropology.

This conversation is not even limited to confessing Christians, but clearly confessions Christians of all stripes would have a stake in the conversation.

I sat in with the Quakers' group two years back. It was a very interesting gathering of mainly those who had no particular theological commitments, but only historical/cultural ones. I don't know that Catholics have officially represented themselves at a meeting before, but I would hope they would feel included in this one. I think it would only enrich the group to have such traditions and perspectives part of the conversation.

I, personally, agree with Tom Love's tendency to go for the "Big Tent." But does that pose any problems I can't forsee?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


For years the Network of Christian Anthropologists has been meeting at the American Anthropological Association meetings as an informal way to get Christian Anthropologists together. For the years I have been attending, this has been an important source of contacts (very much living up to the idea of a "network"). Now Ed Zehner has proposed the idea of going legit and gaining more official recognition from the AAA by forming an official interest group. This need not replace the Network nor the various fora the Network has spawned (e.g., the Fishnet listserv), but this interest group would provide a more professionalized forum for discussing the questions of Christian identity, subjectivity and perspective within the practice and profession of anthropology.

With sufficient support, the group could eventually gain the right to propose panels or other events at the annual meetings. Our existence would provide greater legitimacy to the Christian voice as a voice in the professional world.

At one time it made sense to keep a low profile. Hostility towards Christians ran high and most Christian anthropologists were closely associated with mission organizations whose work could be compromised by drawing attention to their presence in the field. Now, however, we see a moment for change. Articles by scholars such as Robert Priest have appeared in top journals from Christian scholars promoting their views (see also my article here). Secular scholars (e.g. Joel Robbins and Fenella Cannell) have begun to take the study of Christianity (and thus Christians) more seriously. Momentum is on the side of speaking out with a Christian voice that engages the issues important to anthropologists more widely (such as secularism, belief, religious experience, and ethnographic representation.)

We hope many will post and comment here as topics arise.

Soli Deo Gloria.