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.

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