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.

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