The Anthropology of Christianity

The Anthropology of Christianity

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 5 illustrations Published: November 2006

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Religious Studies

This collection provides vivid ethnographic explorations of particular, local Christianities as they are experienced by different groups around the world. At the same time, the contributors, all anthropologists, rethink the vexed relationship between anthropology and Christianity. As Fenella Cannell contends in her powerful introduction, Christianity is the critical “repressed” of anthropology. To a great extent, anthropology first defined itself as a rational, empirically based enterprise quite different from theology. The theology it repudiated was, for the most part, Christian. Cannell asserts that anthropological theory carries within it ideas profoundly shaped by this rejection. Because of this, anthropology has been less successful in considering Christianity as an ethnographic object than it has in considering other religions. This collection is designed to advance a more subtle and less self-limiting anthropological study of Christianity.

The contributors examine the contours of Christianity among diverse groups: Catholics in India, the Philippines, and Bolivia, and Seventh-Day Adventists in Madagascar; the Swedish branch of Word of Life, a charismatic church based in the United States; and Protestants in Amazonia, Melanesia, and Indonesia. Highlighting the wide variation in what it means to be Christian, the contributors reveal vastly different understandings and valuations of conversion, orthodoxy, Scripture, the inspired word, ritual, gifts, and the concept of heaven. In the process they bring to light how local Christian practices and beliefs are affected by encounters with colonialism and modernity, by the opposition between Catholicism and Protestantism, and by the proximity of other religions and belief systems. Together the contributors show that it not sufficient for anthropologists to assume that they know in advance what the Christian experience is; each local variation must be encountered on its own terms.

Contributors. Cecilia Busby, Fenella Cannell, Simon Coleman, Peter Gow, Olivia Harris, Webb Keane, Eva Keller, David Mosse, Danilyn Rutherford, Christina Toren, Harvey Whitehouse


The Anthropology of Christianity is a remarkable collection of consistently insightful discussions and analyses, and merits shelf space alongside classics in the anthropology of religion. However, it would be something of an intellectual tragedy if the book were consigned solely to anthropologists who specialise in religion. This volume demands attention not just for what it says about Christianity, but also for what it illuminates about the nature of anthropology itself. As such, it deserves to be read widely within the discipline. . . .” — Philip M. Fountain, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“[T]his collection of studies exemplifies a new and promising turn in the anthropology of Christianity.” — Andrew Orta, Journal of Anthropological Research

“This is an excellent volume of essays that vividly demonstrates the vitality of this growing area of anthropological research and writing.” — Paul-Francois Tremlett, Culture & Religion

“A book of many merits, providing insights into the enormous variety of themes and problems the anthropology of Christianity has to address. . . . Cannell’s collection is a valuable contribution to an anthropological field gaining momentum.” — Friedegard Tomasetti, Journal of Religious History

“It is a rare book that not only contributes to existing scholarship but succeeds in removing a serious blind spot from that scholarship, and Fenella Cannell’s edited volume The Anthropology of Christianity does just that. . . . This volume is poised to become required reading for anyone interested in the variation of Christian practice and belief, the relationship between Christianity and modernity, and the intellectual-cum-theological history of anthropological thought. . . . This is a marvelous collection that should inspire readers not only to rethink Christianity but also to reckon with the vestiges of theology that remain in our disciplines.” — Deirdre de la Cruz, Journal of Asian Studies

“Lucid and masterly. . . .” — David Martin, Books & Culture

“Theoretically provocative and ethnographically rich, this book will deeply and positively influence the development of its title subject. In her introductory chapter, Cannell writes, ‘For many anthropologists, it seems that, unless special circumstances bring it into view, Christianity is still an occluded object’ (11). To anthropology’s benefit, this is becoming less and less the case thanks to works like this one.” — Matt Tomlinson, Anthropological Quarterly

“This collection, edited by anthropologist Cannell, presents engaging case studies that illustrate how putatively universal faith is localized in specific contexts: Protestants in Indonesia, Sweden, Melanesia, Amazonia, and Madagascar; Catholics in India, Bolivia, and the Philippines. At the same time, the authors in different ways critically evaluate the relationship between anthropology and Christianity.” — C. J. MacKenzie, Choice

“This is an elegantly written and thoughtfully put-together volume that highlights the potential of ‘local’ ethnography as a source of metatheoretical insight into the discipline, rather than just offering empirical validation of preexisting (Western) theories and methodologies. . . . This volume is valuable because it encourages local anthropologists to consider the breadth of the Freudian metaphor, which is central to Cannell’s argument. . . . The Anthropology of Christianity serves to encourage anthropologists to consider ethnography as a vehicle toward reconsidering the often taken-for-granted concepts of the discipline, rather than merely as a presentation of empirical data.” — Julius J. Bautista, Philippine Studies

The Anthropology of Christianity is a very fine and stimulating set of essays, framed elegantly by a terrific introductory piece by Fenella Cannell and a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and stylish essay by Webb Keane. One of the collection’s great virtues is that the essays are quite diverse in the interpretive directions they pursue even as they unanimously, and quite compellingly, make the case for rethinking the anthropology of Christianity.” — Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz

“The anthropology of Christianity comes of age in this book. Fenella Cannell’s astute depiction of the paradoxes of religious transcendence and her acute analysis of the obstacles in shifting Christianity from predecessor, opponent, or silent partner of social science to full object of anthropological inquiry find fruition in eleven exemplary studies of local formations of Christianity from around the world. No student of religion will want to miss this timely work.” — Michael Lambek, editor of A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Fenella Cannell is Lecturer in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines.

Table of Contents Back to Top
1. The Eternal Return of Conversion: Christianity as Contested Domain in Highland Bolivia / Olivia Harris 51

2. Renewable Icons: Concepts of Religious Power in a Fishing Village in South India / Cecilia Busby 77

3. Possession and Confession: Affliction and Sacred Power in Colonial and Contemporary Catholic South India / David Mosse 99

4. Reading as Gift and Writing as Theft / Fenella Cannell 134

5. Materializing the Self: Words and Gifts in the Construction of Charismatic Protestant Identity / Simon Coleman 163

6. The Effectiveness of Ritual / Christina Toren 185

7. Forgetting Conversion: The Summer Institute of Linguistics Mission in the Piro Lived World / Peter Gow 211

8. The Bible Meets the Idol: Writing and Conversion in Biak, Irian Jaya, Indonesia / Danilyn Rutherford 240

9. Scripture Study as Normal Science: Seventh-Day Adventist Practice on the East Coast of Madagascar / Eva Keller 273

10. Appropriated and Monolithic Christianity in Melanesia / Harvey Whitehouse 295

Epilogue: Anxious Transcendence / Webb Keane 308

References 325

Contributors 353

Index 355

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. The Anthropology of Christianity / Fenella Cannell 1
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3646-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3608-2
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