Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of M. Rynkeiwich, *Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postmodern World*

Soul, Self, and Society: A Postmodern Anthropology for Mission in a Postmodern World
By Michael Rynkiewich. Eugene, OR.: Cascade Books, 2011. Pp. xi, 296. $33.

Michael Rynkiewich is one of the most insightful authors of missiological anthropology that many missiologists have never read. Until this book, Rynkiewich’s writing was notably found in two extraordinarily good articles appearing Missiology in 2002 and 2003, in which he critiqued common anthropological models and theories employed in missiology. In 2011, he published another excellent article in Mission Studies, addressing the importance of postmodern anthropology for contemporary missiology. Knowing these articles, I had high expectations coming to his book. Although Soul, Self, and Society did not meet all my hopes, it provides a helpful introductory textbook and a useful resource addressing the intersection of missiology and anthropology.

The book covers most of the concepts expected of an introduction to cultural anthropology – e.g., kinship, politics, economics – and several often not covered, such as transnationalism and diaspora. Accounts of his missionary work in Papua New Guinea make this a valuable introductory book for prospective missionaries. There are a few striking omissions, such as any discussion of gender, and a few bits that seem tacked on (such as two paragraphs on “business as mission” and a 6 ½ page final chapter on “The Anthropology of Christianity”), but overall the coverage is thorough.

As the author of an introductory anthropology textbook myself, I appreciated the practical help Rynkiewich provides those in mission work. Unfortunately, while he promises a “postmodern anthropology,” he does not interact with contemporary theory much. The most prominent theorists typically associated with postmodern culture theory appear briefly, if at all, and receive no sustained attention. More striking was the absence of any reference to the work of Robert Priest, a missiologist who has written prominent pieces on postmodernity and anthropology.  At several points it appeared that this text has been under construction for some time, and although published in 2011, already needs some updating. (E.g., on page 103, Rynkiewich refers to “recent work-time studies” published in 1974.)

There is a lot in this book the mission community would do well to absorb. Some may be frustrated that as Rynkiewich pulls missionary anthropology out of its orbit of 1960s functionalist anthropology, he sidelines anthropologically marginal concepts such as “worldview” and “syncretism.” Yet I agree with Rynkiewich that for missiology to maintain a vibrant conversation with anthropology, it must embrace contemporary theory where such concepts have little traction. Anyone studying anthropology for missionary purposes would do well to read this book.

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