Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture

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Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture

Postby Anonymous » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:08 pm

The subject heading is the title of an article in the February 2007 issue (volume 48, number 1) of the journal Current Anthropology

The url for CA is ... s?CA+v48n1

The article:
Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity
Joel Robbins
Page 5 [ ... e?CA200102 ]

The abstract:
To this point, the anthropology of Christianity has largely failed to develop. When anthropologists study Christians, they do not see themselves as contributing to a broad comparative enterprise in the way those studying other world religions do. A close reading of the Comaroffs' Of Revelation and Revolution illustrates the ways in which anthropologists sideline Christianity and leads to a discussion of reasons the anthropology of Christianity has languished. While it is possible to locate the cause in part in the culture of anthropology, with its emphasis on difference, problems also exist at the theoretical level. Most anthropological theories emphasize cultural continuity as opposed to discontinuity and change. This emphasis becomes problematic where Christianity is concerned, because many kinds of Christianity stress radical change and expect it to occur. Confronted by people claiming that radical Christian change has occurred in their lives, anthropologists become suspicious and often explain away the Christian elements of their cultures. Christian assertions about change are hard for anthropologists to credit because anthropological and Christian models of change are based on different models of time and belief. Unless anthropologists reconsider their nearly exclusive commitment to continuity thinking and the models of time and belief that ground it, the anthropology of Christianity will continue to face handicaps to its development.

Postby tubataxidriver » Fri Jan 19, 2007 5:27 pm

Good. At least some people are taking up Daniel Dennett's suggestion to scrutinise religion scientifically, but worrying that anthropologists find Christianity rather intractable.

Thanks for the abstract. It's a shame that most good journals are subscription only (unless, presumably, you have the right IP address).

However, shouldnt this thread be in Science rather than Scripture?
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Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture

Postby Anonymous » Fri Jan 19, 2007 6:45 pm

The conclusion of the paper reads as follows:


I have tried in this paper to work toward an anthropology of
Christianity by examining some of the impediments that the
deep structure of anthropological thinking puts in the way of
our calling convert cultures Christian. Foremost among these
impediments is what I have called the anthropological commitment
to continuity thinking—the kind of thinking that
sees change as slow and conservative of the past and rewards
those who claim to be examining the complexities of people’s
enduring cultures. As Palmie´ (1995, 92) notes: “Our public
identity (as well as our careers) in no small measure hinges
upon our ability to represent certain social realities as ‘authentically
different’ (and, if possible, traditionally so).” I have
tried to show that we are aided in our efforts to live up to
this standard by a view of time and a conception of belief
that lend themselves to arguments for cultural continuity, and
I have suggested some alternative ways of looking at these
matters that are better fitted to helping us determine when
it might be interesting to identify people as Christian and
also (more generally and in this paper mostly by implication)
when it might be most interesting to look at a culture as one
that has changed.
Before concluding, it might be useful to consider three objections
to the argument of this paper that, I would submit,
somewhat miss its point. The first objection has to do with the
propriety of working with an ideal-typical version of Christianity
such as the one I presented when looking at the difference
between Christian and anthropological notions of discontinuity
and belief. This ideal-typical version of Christianity is one that
stresses discontinuity and the importance of belief,
and, as I noted in a footnote above, it is a model that in its
entirety is most closely approached in reality by some kinds of
Protestantism. It is in Protestantism, and particularly in various
strands of evangelical Protestantism, that one finds the greatest
valuation of discontinuity in all three domains I discussed (history,
conversion, eschatology).Were one to turn to Catholicism,
Eastern Orthodoxy, or Mormonism one would see a greater
emphasis on continuity in many domains, though the interest
in discontinuity would not be absent (see Burdick 1993; Csordas
2002, 34; Lester 2003; McGuire 1982, 50; and Greeley 2004 on
Catholicism; Forbess n.d. on Orthodoxy; and Cannell 2005,
349–50 on Mormonism). And again, it is Protestantism that
tends to most forcefully define religious adherence primarily
as a matter of believing things (albeit using “belief” in the
“believe in” rather than the “believe that” sense), while other
branches of Christianity often give ritual participation a greater
role in this regard.
My point in constructing this Protestant-inflected ideal type
is not to suggest that it represents the “essence” of Christianity;
even as regards Protestantism, it does not begin to
capture the variety of conceptions that exist among different
denominations. In the context of this paper, I have deployed
it because I think that something like such a Protestant modelrepresents
the most general one anthropologists have in mind
when they think about Christianity (cf. Cannell 2005) and
that one reason the anthropology of Christianity has had such
trouble getting off the ground is that ideas about time and
belief that are important in this model are so foreign to anthropological
assumptions about these phenomena. Furthermore,
I have wanted to suggest that it is when anthropologists
encounter convert cultures whose religion most closely approximates
this model that they have had the hardest time
studying people as Christians.
Beyond justifying the use of an ideal-typical notion of Christianity
in terms of its value in relation to my argument about
why the anthropology of Christianity has been so late to develop,
I would note that such a model might also be considered
useful in framing exactly the kinds of comparative questions
such an anthropology ought to address. If readers find this
model foreign to the kinds of Christianity they know best, this
is a good indication that variation in ideas of discontinuity and
belief across various kinds of Christianity would repay comparative
study. They are not the only areas in which such study
would be relevant, of course, and some recent work has shaped
up other comparative issues, such as the varied relations between
the transcendental and the mundane (Robbins 2003a,
196–97; Cannell 2005), the kinds of semiotic ideologies different
kinds of Christianity have developed in order to comprehendcommunication
across those domains (Keane n.d.; Engelke
n.d.), and the nature of conversion in different Christian
traditions and situations (Hefner 1993; Buckser and Glazier
2003). Discontinuity and belief might well invite similar comparative
work. The purpose of this paper, however, has been
not to carry out such comparative analyses but rather, with the
use of an ideal-typical construction of Christianity, to clear
some anthropological ground upon which they might flourish.
A second objection to my argument might be that, as Tiedemann
(1983–84, 92) puts it, “history always encompasses
both continuity and discontinuity” and that each requires the
existence of the other to have any meaning. Given these points,
unimpeachable on a general level, my emphasis on discontinuity
alone in this paper might appear to be at best one-sided
and perhaps even simpleminded. But I have chosen such an
extreme emphasis only in the face of what I am claiming is an
equally extreme emphasis on continuity in the work of most
anthropologists. In the face of the existing disciplinary bias in
favor of continuity, a simple call for balance would be unlikely
to dislodge old habits. It is these habits that lead anthropologists
to discount Christian converts’ claims to have experienced radical
discontinuity as an overheated rhetoric that tells us little
about the reality of their lives or cultures. Only by developing
models of what cultural discontinuity might be—models that
in their fullest development will need to acknowledge continuity
in its place but not allow it in all cases to stand as the dominant
tendency—will anthropologists be able to reckon with kinds
of cultural change that at present remain largely invisible to
the discipline.
A third critical response might be that in this virtually
postcultural era talk of defining a culture as Christian is a
little beside the point. The very idea of trying to identify a
culture as one thing or another is sure to sound misguided
to ears trained on talk of flow and hybridity and societies
without boundaries. It is also likely to sound naively essentialist.
And if this were not enough to make the question of
whether a particular culture is Christian a bad one to ask,
then one might add the charge that the answer it seeks should
be one for theologians, not anthropologists, to deliver (cf.
MacMullen 1984, 3). All of this would be true if anthropologists,
even some who hardly believe in the notion of culture
any more, did not persist in asserting that the people they
study are not Christian because they still live their lives in
something akin to traditional terms. In other words, as long
as anthropologists claim that some people are only nominal
Christians and that this is so because of the influence their
traditions have on them, then the question of when a culture
might be called “Christian” will perforce remain an anthropological
one. Getting beyond this question is something I
hope a thriving anthropology of Christianity might achieve,
but it appears that in order to launch that project this question
of when a culture is Christian has to be raised. It has been
the burden of this paper to raise it in what I hope will be an
ethnographically and theoretically productive way.

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