“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
The Anthropology of Christianityby Fenella Cannell
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
Read an Excerpt
The Anthropology of Christianity
Duke University PressCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Eternal Return of Conversion
Christianity as Contested Domain in Highland Bolivia
There is a recurrent moment in the ritual offerings of the peasants of Northern Potosí that expresses an ambiguity in their identity as Christians. It occurs during sacrifices to the spirits of the landscape who ensure fertility-the mountains, the earth, powerful places such as waterfalls, springs, or spots where lightning has killed a living creature. The offerings are prepared at night. All the ingredients are raw and no salt is used. After the night of ritual libations of rum and chewing coca leaf, the officiants sacrifice one or more animals from their flocks, then, at the first light of dawn, they hasten up the mountainside carrying the blood and other offerings to a designated spot and spread them out on the ground with more libations. Before the first rays of the sun appear above the horizon everybody runs away, leaving the powers of the landscape to come and enjoy their food. Nobody must look back. As the sun rises the celebrants offer each other a formal greeting, and then return to the village.
In an obvious sense, made familiar by Van Gennep'sand Leach's analysis of the time of ritual, the end of all ritual performances is marked by such a break, signaling a return to everyday life. But for indigenous peasants in Northern Potosí, the time of ritual is the time when humans enter into intense communication with spirits often known as "devils" (yawlu), in an Aymara version of the Spanish term diablo. The dilemma is, to what extent is this "devil worship" part of their Christianity, and to what extent is it antithetical, or at least incompatible? In fact, to write about practical Christianity is always to face a conundrum. What to include and what to exclude? This conundrum is of course nothing new. It lies, for example, at the heart of sixteenth-century debates about which aspects of native practice in the New World were harmless superstitions and which were idolatry, inspired by Satan himself (Cervantes 1994: 25-33, 57-62). In fact it is an inevitable consequence of a religious system that wishes to maintain clear boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. My uncertainty about what aspects of ritual practice in Northern Potosí should count as Christian therefore seems to me diagnostic of something important about Christianity in general, whatever the denomination, rather than the stumbling block it initially appeared to be.
The Scope of Christianity
Perhaps the least ambiguous place to begin a discussion of popular Christianity is with God himself, where the catechism and the creed begin. As all commentators on Andean religion have noted, God is the sun (father sun, tata inti), an identification that draws both on the solar imagery of Christian iconography, and on the sun deity at the heart of Inca statecraft and the imperial religion (Platt 1987). For the peasants of Northern Potosí, the sun has given humans everything that makes life possible, in particular the crops and livestock on which the peasant economy depends, and the minerals in the earth that are brought forth by the work of miners. He is "our father" (awksa), "little father" (tatituy), "our Lord father" (tata mustramu) or "the sovereign father" (tata suwirana), who protects people when they go on a journey, or when they fall ill, and he is normally the first to be honored whenever they make ritual offerings to the sources of power. Without him, I was told, we would have nothing. The dawn ritual of feeding the "devils," then, which ends with formal greetings as the sun's rays rise above the horizon, represents also a turning toward God.
But God is not eternal. He has not been there since the beginning of time. The present age is the time of the Christians (Kristiyanu timpu), but before the dawning of the Christian sun there was a previous, weaker sun that survives as the moon. That was the time of the chullpas, the remote ancestors whose monumental tombs mark today's landscapes, and whose remains are unearthed from time to time, reminding the living of their existence and their extraordinary powers. Known in other Andean regions literally as "gentiles" (gentiles), these ancestors from a previous age were destroyed by the rising of the Christian sun, which burned them dry. In some accounts from this region, the rising of the sun/God is recounted explicitly as a battle with the Devil (the term used is supay; see G. Taylor 1980; Dillon and Abercrombie 1988; Stobart 1995: 33-34). The moon today is part of God, a manifestation of his female aspect, his "wife."
This temporal scheme will frame my discussion of popular Christianity in Northern Potosí. As a conversion religion, Christianity creates an absolute break between a pre-Christian past and the present, with its hope of salvation. In the Andes, as in other American civilizations, the idea that time could be divided into distinct epochs separated by moments of violence or destruction was already well established before the coming of the Christians (Brotherston 1992). But the sixteenth-century missionaries demanded a denial of the past, and the pre-Christian ancestors, in more absolute terms than those that underwrote indigenous temporal schemes. Moreover, worship of the dead was central to pre-Columbian religious practice. Bodies were preserved by various techniques of mummification and dehydration and were located at all the nodes of power and significance, such as mountaintops, crossroads, and fields (Arriaga  1920; MacCormack 1991). Therefore, the relegation of the dead to purgatory, and the requirement that the newly baptized Christians reject their gentile ancestors, posed theological problems for which many of today's practices can be seen as an ongoing attempt at resolution.
One of the recurring themes in accounts of popular Christianity in the Andean region, from the sixteenth century to the present day, is whether the indigenous peasants can be called Christians at all (Mills 1997). The very phrase "popular Christianity" is oxymoronic, since it suggests deviation from a supposed orthodoxy, a contested domain. This is inevitable in so literate a religion, and one in which many denominations still require an exceptional level of education for the priesthood. But I suspect there is more at stake. Surely the very exalted conditions laid down for what constitutes a good Christian, or even a good enough Christian, mean that this state is almost unattainable. This may well be part of the reason for the schismatic and competitive tendencies within Christianity as a whole (Herrin 1987). In a situation of constitutive ambiguity, how better to confirm your own faith than by contrasting it with the lesser or misguided faith of others?
One of the best and earliest accounts of popular Christianity in the Bolivian Highlands, written by a Canadian Oblate missionary priest in the 1960s, is wryly titled On les croyait chrétiens (We Thought They Were Christians) (Monast 1969). Researchers, including myself, have often showed more interest in those aspects of Andean popular religion that seem like relics of paganism (from the perspective of the church), or continuities of pre-Colombian religious forms (from the perspective of historians and anthropologists). One of my aims here is therefore to explore what the indigenous peasants mean when they identify themselves as Christians, especially since there are many points of ambivalence where a unified religious system is hard to sustain and the objects of worship, the sources of power, and ritual practices seem to be duplicated to produce something approaching two parallel religious domains. I shall discuss this particularly in relation to ideas and practices concerning the dead, in order to bring out what seems to me to be a central dilemma in Christian conversion, whether Catholic or Protestant.
Communicating with God
God, the source of justice, of order, and of morality, oversees the world and the present Christian epoch. The peasants of Northern Potosí consider themselves to be good Christians, although they are aware that this view is rarely shared by outsiders. One of the main ways in which they celebrate their Christian devotion is by hearing Mass (mis isapaña) in one of the colonial pueblos with their vast churches and extensive ritual calendars, or alternatively in one of the newer churches in the mining regions. God's power is concentrated in churches that can be a distance from the rural communities, so in order to receive God's blessing people must travel, usually on foot, to the nearest church attended by a priest. But while Sunday is usually kept as a day of rest (warta), the peasants do not attend Mass every week. Especially for those who live a long way from the nearest priest, as is the case for all the communities in which I have lived, people go to hear Mass for particular reasons, articulating time both as a personal passage through the stages of life and death, and as the communal passage from one season to the next in the cycle of patronal feasts and saints' days. So both the time of the individual and the time of the community are structured by hearing the Mass and receiving blessing.
In the personal life cycle, a baby's entry into the community is confirmed when it is baptized in church with its "naming godparents" (sutiyir parinu/marina) standing by. Later in their lives, children acquire more godparents, both when their parents pay for a Mass for the child's health (misa de salud) in order to transfer some of the godparent's vitality to the child, and when they marry. After death the close kin offer a Mass for the dead person (the misa de nueve dias, supposedly celebrated nine days after the death, but often many months later). And at two successive feasts of the dead at All Saints in early November, the kin offer a Mass for the dead soul in order to settle it into its new afterlife. The second of these masses, the "Mass of the rug" (misa jant'aku), lays the Christian soul to rest.
In these sacraments that succor people through their life, God's blessing is received through hearing Mass. The performativity of the Mass is probably clearest in baptism. Even though the brief ritual of naming the child with salt and the sign of the cross is valid, it is essential that it be confirmed later by a full baptism in church, in order to incorporate the baby as part of God's order, part of human society. Before this it belongs to the domain of the wild and fertile mountain deities, associated with the pre-Christian ancestors (chullpas) who eat without salt. The term used to refer to babies who die before they are baptized-"little moor" (muru wawa)-is a clear indication that they do not belong to the Christian community. But in the other life-cycle rituals hearing Mass is also an essential element for the proper performance of passage from one state to another. In cases where people fail to do it, problems may arise, and on occasion the diviner may diagnose the cause of a problem (e.g., illness, loss) as the failure to hear Mass.
Since the peasants never take communion, hearing the words spoken by the priest is central to the significance of Mass. However, although the Aymara word used to express attendance at Mass is "to listen" (isapaña), I have not heard peasants emphasize the words of the Mass as such. According to Monast, for the Aymara of Carangas the Mass is a special form of long prayer (1969: 178-79). If this is correct, it is a communication to, rather than from God, and the blessing received in return is not materialized through sound. At the same time, people consider that through the Mass, God and the saints are "fed" with the bread and wine, just as the mountain and earth spirits are "fed" with blood sacrifice. From this perspective, the efficacious part of the Mass is the food that is offered, which satisfies God's hunger.
Moreover, paying for a mass is crucial for its efficacy. In giving money or gifts in kind, people make a reciprocal offering to God that ensures the success of their participation, and they require a receipt from the priest as material evidence that the proper transaction has taken place. During the patronal feast of Muruq'umarka, one of the Laymi hamlets in which I lived, I watched the Jesuit priest who had arrived from the mining town of Uncia spend several hours receiving requests for Mass. The payments were mainly in produce, since it was the height of the harvest season. By the time he left, his jeep was loaded high with sacks of potatoes, beans, and chickens. On this occasion Padre Jaime accepted to play the role the peasants required of him. However there were ongoing tensions. As a Spanish member of a missionary order, and moreover as an individual passionately committed to the service of the poor, he often refused to accept payment for masses and chose to finance his ministry by donations from Europe. The peasants resented this bitterly, and when they went to town to hear Mass, those from the Muruq'umarka region often made the much longer and less convenient journey to the colonial pueblo of Chayanta, where the priest was Bolivian, not from a religious order, and charged high rates for saying Mass since this was his main source of income. It is in paying for the Mass, then, that peasants participate in the feeding of God and the saints and are able to receive their blessing through hearing the holy words.
Padre Jaime exemplified other tensions, too. As a member of a sophisticated European order, he saw the Mass as an intensely personal and spiritual encounter with the deity. In his view, the peasants did not and could not understand the meaning of the Mass and used it as a magical instrument for gaining specific ends. As such he considered it a waste of time, if not downright superstitious, to say Mass in the Indian communities, and he avoided doing so whenever he could, preferring to preach about practical issues such as the need to build a medical post and send children to school, as well as basic Christian virtues. His reluctance to say Mass, let alone to receive money for doing so, was an ongoing source of friction which the peasants saw as a refusal to enter into normal reciprocal relationships, that was endangering their livelihood and well-being. So even attendance at Mass is a contested domain in which the authenticity of the peasants' faith may be called into question.
It is not just human beings themselves who depend on the blessing of their Sovereign Father through the Mass for their passage through life. It is equally important for the multiple sources of power associated with God (tyusa parti-God's sphere) in the Andean cosmos to hear Mass and be replenished by it. The household shrines (small domestic altarpieces-retablos-locally known as tiwishuna, from the Spanish devoción) lose their power to bless unless they are periodically regenerated through hearing Mass. The staff of office (vara, known locally as tata santo roma, holy father Rome) must also be taken to Mass each year by the community officer who holds it, in order to replenish its authority. Likewise the images of the saints, the banners (istantarti, standards) representing avocations of the virgin, and the shawls and other clothing of the miraculous saints from larger shrines that are kept in each community as a way of distributing the powers of the miracles. All these dwell in village churches and calvary chapels and must hear Mass regularly (usually once a year), or else they become angry and turn their powers against the community.
Excerpted from The Anthropology of Christianity Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Fenella Cannell is Lecturer in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >