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Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter / Edition 1

Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter / Edition 1

by Webb Keane


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Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter / Edition 1

Across much of the postcolonial world, Christianity has often become inseparable from ideas and practices linking the concept of modernity to that of human emancipation. To explore these links, Webb Keane undertakes a rich ethnographic study of the century-long encounter, from the colonial Dutch East Indies to post-independence Indonesia, among Calvinist missionaries, their converts, and those who resist conversion. Keane's analysis of their struggles over such things as prayers, offerings, and the value of money challenges familiar notions about agency. Through its exploration of language, materiality, and morality, this book illuminates a wide range of debates in social and cultural theory. It demonstrates the crucial place of Christianity in semiotic ideologies of modernity and sheds new light on the importance of religion in colonial and postcolonial histories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520246522
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/03/2007
Series: Anthropology of Christianity Series
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Webb Keane is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is author of Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an
Indonesian Society
(UC Press).

Read an Excerpt

Christian Moderns

Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter
By Webb Keane

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24652-2

Chapter One

Religion's Reach They trespass, Authors to themselves in all, Both what they judge and what they choose; for so I form'd them free, and free they must remain, Till they enthrall themselves. JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost, book 3, lines 122-25 You have no eyes for something that took two millennia to prevail? ... There is nothing strange about this: all long developments are difficult to see in the round. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Genealogy of Morals, first essay, no. VIII

Beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, militant Christianity's dramatic emergence into public view, alongside politicized Islam, has had at least the virtue of upturning much conventional wisdom. It appears now that religion is no more likely to wither away than (contrary to Engel's famous prediction) is the state. Nor is the march of history necessarily a triumph of technocratic rationality or cool utilitarian calculation. The resulting intellectual unsettlement is certainly useful, although a glance through the newspaper suggests it will rapidly give rise to yet more, newly revised, sorts of conventional wisdom. But the high visibility of the more flamboyant kinds of evangelical or charismatic religion may lead us to lose sight of other, perhaps morelastingly pervasive, aspects of Christianity. This book focuses on Dutch Calvinists to explore some long-running themes that run through Protestant Christianity in the forms that were, for much of its Euro-American history, mainstream. After all, well into the twentieth century, Protestantism was a thoroughly familiar part of the moral, political, and conceptual world in much of the Euro-American West, even for the most unreligious-or non-Christian-individuals; increasingly, this is true across much of the globe. Certain of the themes I explore within Protestantism, especially Calvinism, are also found in habits, practices, and ways of thinking not usually seen as religious. In fact, if the new role of so-called fundamentalist religion in the contemporary public world shocks some observers, this may be due in part to the ways it challenges their basic understandings about human freedom and its realization in history that, in certain respects, are found in other more or less self-consciously religious and secular discourses.

At the center of this book is the promulgation of Dutch Calvinism on a Southeast Asian island. The book is therefore necessarily also about colonialism and its postcolonial wake. And it speaks as well about the idea of becoming modern, with all the promises, threats, and paradoxes this involves. Immediately the reader may seek some assurance: I do not propose that we return to that well-trod narrative trail so brilliantly blazed by Max Weber (1946, 1958). In order to explain why, I begin by situating Calvinism and the mission movement within a larger frame. Often over the course of this book I treat Calvinism as expressing a general cluster of ideas, practices, and social forces. This treatment of what is, after all, not even the largest of Protestant, much less Christian, denominations today requires justification. For some time now, a host of evangelical and charismatic movements, including Pentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, and various sorts of televangelism, have been the fastest-growing and most visible kinds of Protestantism across much of the globe. These movements are hardly made up of austere followers of Calvinism; in many ways they may be seen as reactions against that austerity.

One classic justification for paying special attention to Calvinism lies in its peculiar position within the history of Euro-American capitalism or political thought. The former is most famously identified with Weber; the latter is exemplified by Michael Walzer's remark, directed especially, I imagine, to secular intellectuals, that "Calvinist saintliness, after all, has scarred us all" (1974: vii). Along with these authors, I do accept the basic thesis that Calvinism played a critical historical role in the Euro-American world, especially in the period before the pietistic and evangelical revivals, if not necessarily in the specific ways they have claimed. But this is not my main concern here. Although this book is about historical phenomena, it is not, except at moments, intended as a work of historical explanation as such.

In this chapter I take an approach to the importance of Calvinism somewhat distinct from those associated with Weber and Walzer. Through a look at Calvinism, I aim to clarify certain themes that recur in various ways in a number of different Protestant contexts. These themes concern the concept of agency and approaches to its exercise, the disciplining of interior belief, the work of purification, and the semiotic ideologies these presuppose. The themes are manifested especially in recurrent practical and theological questions about language, materiality, and their implications for humans. They are certainly not the only themes to be found in Christianity, Protestantism, or even Dutch Calvinism, nor do they rule out all sorts of contrary ones. But the moral and ontological problems I examine here do come into especially sharp focus in the missionary encounters that were characteristic of many colonial contexts. For one thing, these were often situations that seemed to call for radical conversion. By this I mean conversion between religions seen as vastly different-above all, the conversion of people who seemed to lack not just scriptures and monotheistic creeds but even a proper sense of the distinction between humans and inanimate things. Encounters such as these cast into deep relief some features of Protestant Christianity that might be found in more secular practices and discourses as well.

I am interested in these religious questions in particular for the ways they illuminate some widespread ideas about modernity, especially its moral dimensions, and for its associations with certain notions of freedom. Some of these themes are doctrinal: others are more tacitly embedded within practices. At some points in the discussion that follows, I speak of Calvinism as an exemplary case that helps us see certain things more clearly. Less frequently, I also suggest that Calvinism has directly helped to produce and circulate the ideas and practices by which these themes have become ubiquitous. The actual historical effects of Calvinism and other Protestant groups on realms beyond religion are, perhaps, most evident in the colonial missions. But I do not want to make strong causal claims about the historical role of Calvinism. To say that Calvinism helps us see some familiar aspects of the idea of agency more clearly is not to say that it is necessarily the source of this idea. Sometimes it is just an especially clear vehicle for it.

For very good reasons, anthropologists and historians have developed a scrupulously keen wariness about the perils of overgeneralization. What could invite those perils more than the effort to speak of something as vast and complex as "Protestantism" or "Christianity"? Given the tendentious and sometimes pernicious ends that such generalities can serve, the responsible procedure may be to confine oneself to the most carefully located and circumscribed claims. Yet this strategy too has its drawbacks. One is simply empirical: the circulation of church members, funds, institutional arrangements, scriptures, hymns, sermons, and practices means virtually no Christian community is purely local in nature. Another is doctrinal: most Christians surely claim at least some kind of commonality with other Christians, even if only far enough to assert that others have got it wrong and should know better. Behind this sense of potential commonality lies a long history of texts, doctrines, institutions, and practices in which as much is shared, circulated, or reinvented as is distinguished and differentiated. To focus entirely on the local case may lead us to miss some crucial aspects of the religion. These include the sense church members have of being part of something larger. They also include the fundamental, long-running conceptual and moral arguments, as well as the sociopolitical movements, out of which any specific church emerged. To speak only in local terms is to risk making it appear as if Christianity were created from scratch each time, or that each church exists in splendid isolation.

Before turning to the Dutch Calvinists of Sumba, then, I propose a series of contexts. I will tease out some of the themes that Calvinism shares with other kinds of Christianity, other modes of proselytization. This chapter begins by portraying Christianity as a global religion; from there I turn to Protestantism and then Calvinism. Of course this approach, directed as it is toward Calvinism, means that certain aspects of Protestantism and Christianity come to the fore while others remain in the background. Even something as widely shared as the Apostles' Creed, which I discuss in the next chapter, can produce consequences quite different in, say, colonial Spanish America than in twentieth-century northern Europe, and such pre-scripted, as opposed to spontaneous, forms are eschewed altogether by some evangelical groups.

The perspective on Christian globalization that I take in this chapter is determined by my interest in semiotic forms and the ideologies by which they are taken to have moral implications. This provides some of the background for my turn in the next chapter to the creed form, the idea of having mastery over one's thoughts, and the impetus to purify, which Bruno Latour (1993) claims is characteristic of modernity. I argue that the drive to purify the world of so-called hybrids, as he puts it, is best understood against the background of the religious themes I have been drawing out here.

Latour also says that purification never succeeds. Indeed, religious histories show that attempts at purification produce results that seem to be inherently unstable. In attempting to make sense of this failure, I introduce one of the central themes of this book. One source of the failure of purification is the inescapable materiality that semiotic form introduces into even the most transcendentalizing projects. With this point, in fact, my argument opens up again to find a place for those evangelical groups that eschew creeds, or faiths that favor communities and priestly authority over solitary introspection. It is not my purpose here to engage in a large-scale examination of history. But one might speculate that one factor that has entered into the production of Christianity's sheer complexity is precisely the recurrent conflict between purifying projects of transcendence and countermovements toward materialization, each provoking the other (see Klaniczay 1990).


When one of the first anthropologists to focus on globalization, Ulf Hannerz, wanted to designate the interconnectedness of today's world, he turned to Alfred Kroeber's appropriation of the classical Greek word ecumene, in its original sense of "the entire inhabited world" (Hannerz 1996: 6-7). But we may hear echoes of something else in this word, something at once more common and more specific. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ecumenical this way: "(1; Eccl.) Belonging to or representing the whole (Christian) world, or the universal church; general, universal, catholic; specifically, applied to the general councils of the early church, and (in modern use) of the Roman Catholic Church (and hence occasionally to a general assembly of some other ecclesiastical body); also assumed as a title by the Patriarch of Constantinople; formerly sometimes applied to the Pope of Rome" (1989: 64). This is followed by attestations dating from the mid-sixteenth century-precisely that moment when the presumed universality of the Roman Catholic Church was being thrown violently into doubt-and this, from the Daily Telegraph in 1970: "The cause of ecumenism has received no setback. It might indeed be enhanced, if the Archbishop [of Canterbury] were to receive and accept an invitation to be present in Rome at the canonisation ceremony."

As these definitions suggest, ecumene does not refer simply to a positive fact, an objective matter of scale. Rather, the word suggests that, when it came to naming the global as a unity, until recently a capacity to imagine totality was often inseparable from the expansive community, and perhaps the embracing ontology, of a given universalizing religion.

Of course globalization as a matter of circulating bodies and goods, economic forces, and cultural incitements does not depend on anyone's concept of the global. Yet, as Arjun Appadurai (1996) has argued, globalization is realized in the movement of persons, their ideas, and their desires in ways that cannot be reduced to either political economy or diaspora. Indeed, demography alone (even combined with economics) is surely insufficient to account for the power of globalization, without the ideas and images people bring with them. If globalization means more than the objective circulation of people and money, it is not merely a matter of imagination. Ideas, like everything else, circulate insofar as they have some medium. They are materialized in specific semiotic forms. Speech styles, financial instruments, televised performances, magazines, fashions in clothing or food, and institutional forms (from revolutionary cells to the most ordinary bureaucracies): each has its own temporality and its own distinct local and causal modality. It is by virtue of possessing semiotic form that ideas enter into the world of causes and consequences and thus can be set into motion.

To the extent that religious proselytizing is a globalizing force, the semiotic forms that religions produce are crucial to understanding that force. The globalization of Protestant Christianity was facilitated by the development of certain semiotic forms and ideologies. Some of these have become inseparable from even the purportedly secular narratives of modernity. In the next chapter I look closely at one set of semiotic ideologies and one particular practical form, the creed. But first, in this one, I sketch out the larger context of the global spread of Christianity and its relationship to the moral narrative of modernity.

Evangelizing religions have been crucial forces in the translocal circulation of people, practices, and ideas since Buddhism spread out of South Asia in the first century B.C.E. But full-fledged Christian globalization took form within colonialism. And conversely, colonialism was shaped by Christianity. Missionaries usually aspired to both a more far-reaching and a deeper transformation of colonized peoples than did either administrators or business interests (Beidelman 1982; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Huber and Lutkehaus 1999; Cooper and Stoler 1997). Given missionaries' greater commitments of time and attention to daily life, their effectiveness too was often much greater. The particular forms taken by colonialism's long-term influence in many parts of the postcolonial world are surely marked, in some way, by missionaries' moral impetus to improve the world.

That moral impetus is embodied in everyday practices-the stuff of Michel Foucault's "capillary power" (1980: 39). Potentially unlimited, these can include learning a creed and catechism, setting out on pilgrimages, reading and discussing scripture, praying, singing hymns, listening to sermons, attending regular church services, undergoing confession, even diary-keeping and the introspective probing of one's thoughts, desires, and motives. These practices are well suited for evangelism, since many of them can be so readily detached from particular social contexts and made available for universal circulation.

As a result, it should be no surprise that, at the beginning of the twenty- first century, one-third of the world's population is Christian, and that one-third of those Christians live in former colonies. The largest number of non-German missionary sisters in the sister order of the Society of the Divine Word is Indonesian-this organization is especially active in Brazil, Botswana, Ghana, and Europe (Huber and Lutkehaus 1999: 21-22). The looming schism within the Anglican Church over the appointment of a gay bishop in the United States is to a large degree being driven by African bishops. The largest Christian missionary movement in the world today comes out of Korea (Walls 2001: 25). Even where Christians are a minority, it was often Christian schools, or those modeled on them, that educated the first generations of nationalist elites in the early and mid-twentieth century (Comaroff 1985: 129; Keyes 1996: 284). In Indonesia, for instance, where Christians are about 9 percent of an otherwise largely Muslim population, the most powerful general of the last generation and the most influential newspaper editors were Christian.


Excerpted from Christian Moderns by Webb Keane Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Part I. Locating Protestantism
1. Religion’s Reach
2. Beliefs, Words, and Selves
3. Religion, Culture, and the Colonies
4. Conversion’s Histories
Part II. Fetishisms
5. Umbu Neka’s Conversion
6. Fetishism and the Word
7. Modern Sincerity
8. Materialism, Missionaries, and Modern Subjects
Part III. Purifications
9. Text, Act, Objectifications
10. Money Is No Object



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