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Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea / Edition 1

Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea / Edition 1

by Courtney HandmanCourtney Handman
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In Critical Christianity, Courtney Handman analyzes the complex and conflicting forms of sociality that Guhu-Samane Christians of rural Papua New Guinea privilege and celebrate as “the body of Christ.” Within Guhu-Samane churches, processes of denominational schism—long relegated to the secular study of politics or identity—are moments of critique through which Christians constitute themselves and their social worlds. Far from being a practice of individualism, Protestantism offers local people ways to make social groups sacred units of critique. Bible translation, produced by members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is a crucial resource for these critical projects of religious formation. From early interaction with German Lutheran missionaries to engagements with the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the contemporary moment of conflict, Handman presents some of the many models of Christian sociality that are debated among Guhu-Samane Christians. Central to the study are Handman's rich analyses of the media through which this critical Christian sociality is practiced, including language, sound, bodily movement, and everyday objects. This original and thought-provoking book is essential reading for students and scholars of anthropology and religious studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283763
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/26/2014
Series: The Anthropology of Christianity , #16
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Courtney Handman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Critical Christianity

Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea

By Courtney Handman


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95951-4


Sacred Speakers or Sacred Groups

The Colonial Lutheran Mission in New Guinea

According to the secularization hypothesis developed by Max Weber (1957) and others, under conditions of modernity, religion was gradually supposed to become a private affair, moving further off the public stage and further into the minds of private individuals. Of course, predictions of the public death of religion have been proven wrong in recent years, as fundamentalisms of all stripes—or even just publically religious people—have emerged as major forces in contemporary life.

This much is almost a social-science truism at this point. But the terms of the secularization hypothesis still hold subtle sway in much current anthropological thinking about Christianity. In particular, the focus on the religious subject as the exclusive unit of Christian practice, belief, or salvation reinscribes the division of the world into a private, individual, religious domain and a public, group-based, political one. Groups—demographic, electoral, ethnic, but especially congregational—are either ignored in studies of Christianity or are seen as not Christian in any important sense.

One could argue that ignoring groups like churches and denominations reflects Protestant realities of the highly individualized practices of the people anthropologists of Christianity have studied. Certainly the almost exclusive orientation to the individualist sacred subject has been extremely productive for the anthropology of Christianity, producing with it models of transformation, personhood, materiality, temporality, value, agency, and more (Robbins 2004a; Keane 2007; Engelke 2007; Luhrmann 2001; Schieffelin 2002; Harding 2000; Coleman 2006; etc.). In one sense, the anthropology of Christianity came into its own when it landed on the individualist subject as its primary unit of analysis. In order to get out of the culturalist trap—in which the barest shred of cultural continuity could seem to negate arguments about the authenticity of conversions—the Protestant subject became the positive sign of cultural transformation. However, a rigid focus on the subject has meant ignoring other extremely common and striking realities of Christian lives worldwide: Protestants schism; they create ever newer denominations; and they worry about church organization. And yet these kinds of events and desires have mostly been neglected in the anthropology of Christianity. Though Protestantism has no major tradition of world-renouncing ascetics, the focus on sacred subjectivities almost makes it seem as if Protestants are nothing but desert fathers, searching for and talking to God all on their own.

When scholars see subjects forming into groups, a process of object-dissolving (Robbins 2003) starts to happen: Christian groups look too much like kinship groups, ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, or national groups to be Christian in a meaningful sense (that is, organized around practices and theologies of Christianity). H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) argued that any church is necessarily a non-Christian reduction of Christian universality organized around socioeconomic class, race, or nationality. More recently within the anthropology of Christianity, Werbner's (2011) discussion of a church schism in Botswana is mostly focused on power struggles between family members. Jebens (2006) analyses Seventh-day Adventist and Catholic denominational conflicts in Papua New Guinea as the repetition of power politics between big men (traditional leaders).

One of the most productive yet also group-renouncing veins of the anthropology of the Christian subject has been the work on the speaking subject and on Christian language use more generally. Protestants so want to lose track of the social world that they can even erase the distance between themselves and their divinities, having coffee with Jesus or engaging in other intimate moments (see especially Luhrmann 2001, 2012). Protestant talk—even Protestant ritual talk like prayer—is supposed to be direct, unadorned, natural, authentic, off-the-cuff, and without influence from others (Keane 2007; Shoaps 2002). The sacred speaking subject of Christianity is self-contained and self-referring, a native speaker voicing authentic prayers to a native God. It is a linguistic imminence that is readily parodied as religious solipsism.

I counterpose the sacred speaking subject with Protestant groups for a reason. Especially when viewed by church historians under Weberian influences (e.g., Troeltsch 1912; Niebuhr 1929), Protestantism was supposed to have replaced the authority and hierarchy of the church with the (individually read) Bible. That is, the opacity of institutionalism was supposed to be replaced by the transparency of Bible reading and biblically inspired individual speech. But the troubling fact of church organization never receded as much as modernist theologians like Niebuhr would have liked. The Bible—and the speaker-reader of it—wasn't able to do away with churches, denominations, and other forms of religious sociality. New churches are created by the thousands every year in the United States alone. Learning the alphabet soup of denominational acronyms is now a standard part of fieldwork for anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity.

From the perspective of the subject, much Protestant theology is expressed as a refusal of distance (Engelke 2007): of God, of a sacred but alien language, or of a hierarchical order. My own interest is instead with the ways in which mediations—social and semiotic projects of creating distance—are central to Christian worship. Without them, it is impossible to understand the recurrences of schism—of critical distance—that punctuate Christian lives in so many communities, or of the later struggle to produce unity in the wake of Christian criticism. As I argue below, the church as a Christian group mediates a temporary but theologically and socially important distance from God.

In this chapter, I argue for the central place of religious groups in studies of Christianity, and I want to raise a number of questions. To use some of the terminology of groupness that Christian theology provides, what does it mean to Protestants to be the Body of Christ? How does one do it? What is the relationship between the Body of Christ and the sacred speaking subject? Why is the Body of Christ, as instantiated in any one Protestant church or congregation, so seemingly unstable and prone to schism? While I approached some of these issues in general terms in the introduction, here I want to examine these issues in terms of the specific problems that Lutheran missionaries encountered in colonial New Guinea. Although they initially hoped to create sacred speakers by translating the Bible into vernacular languages, the extraordinary linguistic diversity of the north coast of New Guinea made that impossible. Soon a model of sacred church organization became the primary focus instead.

Although I use material from the Zaka circuit that Guhu-Samane communities were a part of in this chapter, this is not a history of early Guhu-Samane engagements with Lutheranism. Burce (1983) provides a detailed, rigorous account of that history, and I do not want to duplicate her work here. Instead, I use this as an opportunity to examine Lutheran mission strategies specifically in terms of regional and interethnic Christian interactions.


In the era of Protestantism, separation from God seems to demand both a militant critique of others through separation and a similarly militant union with others through worship. Paying attention to this moment of unity is important for differentiating Christian groups from other liberal forms of individualist selfhood, since schism and Christian group formation as described by Niebuhr (1929) looks very much like liberals dissolving and reconstituting the social contract. For example, Puritan and nonconformist debates about church structure focused on a congregation's freedom to dissent from larger Episcopal structures or freedom to choose its own pastor. As voluntary associations, Protestant churches are hard to disentangle from a liberal tradition in which groups, while important, do not detract from what Dumont (1986) calls the paramount value of individualism.

However, I argue that Christian practices can exhibit a more complex notion of groupness, particularly through models of the Christian remnant—the group that is partial but looks toward a horizon of eventual unity. Unlike the Old Testament remnant that was shattered by others, the Christian remnant, as I use it here, is the product of critique made possible by the ethical demands of Christianity. Robbins (2004b) and Meyer (1999) both discuss the ways in which Christian critique constitutes a social whole—"the past" or "tradition" or "our culture"—from which to engage in critique and form this remnant. Some of the most interesting anthropological work to date on the formation of Christian groups focuses on the ways in which the relationship of "church" to "society" is a product of critique (Barker 1993, 1996; Robbins 2004a, 2012). American evangelicals likewise emphasize Christian critiques of social forces, even if this leads to the failures, for example, of charity groups to maintain momentum or even organizational existence (Elisha 2011).

A tradition of critique does not, of course, separate Christian groups from liberal ones. However, critique and the regimentation of separateness through the differentiation of Christian groups is not the end of the story. Christian groups only become the Body of Christ in their enactment of Christian unity, a partial enactment of the unity imagined in the remnant made whole—the "church triumphant" in heaven. While certain elements of the liberal tradition have similarly positive models of incorporation (early Marx's image of "species being" to be realized in communist communities might be equivalent), political liberalism largely sees groups as instrumentalist means to individualist ends.

In the colonial New Guinea context, Christian group formation was a central part of missiological work. As I discuss below, the goal of Lutheran mission organization was to foster and then partly overcome acts of critical separation. Separation might first be from one's immediate intra-village neighbors, but then separation had to be suspended at the level of interethnic group relations. Unity—and Christianity—existed in Lutheran New Guinea only when ethnic-group animosity was suspended. This critique-separation-unification movement was supposed to be fostered by a complex organizational pattern of districts, circuits, and congregations that forced New Guinean Lutherans to walk across mountains, rivers, or valleys in order to become Christian. As I will discuss more in the second half of this chapter, the image of the separating remnant makes possible this positive formulation of Christian critique and groupness.


As I discussed above, native-language authenticity is one of the most important aspects of developing a "semiotic ideology" (Keane 2007) of immediacy in Protestant practice. In order to speak to God in the way many Protestants hope to do, one must speak as naturally and "freely" as possible. Missiological practice takes this model of freedom and fluency into spiritual territory by making native-language authenticity an attribute of true communion. Language is thus "the shrine of a people's soul" (B. Schieffelin 2007) or the "heart language" through which Christians' innermost selves can be addressed (Handman 2007). The Summer Institute of Linguistics (now known as SIL International) is a linguistics and literacy NGO that has brought this model of Christian linguistic immanence to most corners of the world. By placing teams in every extant language community in order to translate the New Testament (as well as other literature) into each person's heart language, SIL brings this model of sacred linguistic subjectivity to its methodological conclusion. Making the Gospel sound as natural as possible in the heart language in which a team works, SIL translators want to erase any sense of the translation's foreign origins. SIL teams want the New Testament to produce new Christian communities without the mediating influence of churches or organizations, and SIL as a whole has a policy against church planting.

As heirs to Luther's sanctification of vernacular languages, one might expect the Lutheran missionaries in New Guinea to give support to this sort of model of vernacular language sacredness and authenticity. And they do at certain moments, as when the 1948 Lutheran Mission New Guinea Conference Minutes includes a resolution from the executive committee affirming "the mission policy that a tribe be evangelized in its own language" (Conf Min 48, RES 48–71, emphasis in original). But Lutheran history in New Guinea does not always reflect this affirmation. Faced with the stunning linguistic diversity of the north coast of New Guinea (there were over two hundred languages spoken in Lutheran territory), Lutheran missionaries began promulgating lingua francas with which to evangelize local people. In comparison with standard models of Protestant language, non-sacredness—as opposed to linguistic sacredness—was the calling card of the church languages that the Lutheran Mission employed.

By "linguistic sacredness," I refer to the ways that divine revelations come in specific linguistic forms (e.g., Hebrew or Arabic) or the ways that linguistic subjectivities of sincerity and authenticity can be used to make the Word "real" or affectively powerful to specific kinds of speakers (one could say, following SIL, that as a native "heart language" speaker of English, the Gospel in English speaks to me in specific, sacred ways). By any of these means, some kind of specificity is given to the language or to a speaker's subjective orientation to the language. Without this kind of specificity of linguistic form or subjective orientation, communication with God is assumed to be either impossible or extremely difficult. "Linguistic non-sacredness," as I am calling it, thus would have to be seen in the non-specificity, the lack of particularism, of a language.

When the first Lutheran missionary, Johannes Flierl, arrived on the Huon Peninsula as a representative of the Neuendettelsau Mission from Bavaria in 1886, he began working with local languages. But as the mission grew and the missionaries learned more about the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the north coast, new Lutheran communities were slotted into one of two tracks: Austronesian or non-Austronesian. Speakers of Austronesian languages were missionized in the Austronesian church lingua franca Jabem (or Yabem); speakers of non-Austronesian languages were missionized in the non-Austronesian church lingua franca Kâte. The separate Rhennish Mission, also from Bavaria, worked largely out of Madang, starting in 1887, and its missionaries promulgated the local Gedaged (also called Bel or Graged) language as a church lingua franca. After World War II, during which the Lutheran groups lost a significant number of missionaries, American and some Australian Lutherans resuscitated the beleaguered organization. The Rhennish Mission was folded into the structure put in place by Flierl, and the language of mission memoranda and reports became English, even though many of the missionaries were more comfortable in German (for more on Lutheran Mission New Guinea history, see Frerichs 1959; Reitz 1975; and Wagner and Reiner 1986).


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Sacred Speakers or Sacred Groups: The Colonial Lutheran Church in New Guinea
2. Linguistic Locality and the Anti-Institutionalism of Evangelical Christianity: The Summer Institute of Linguistics
3. Translating Locality: The Ethno-Linguistics of Christian Critique

4. Revival Villages: Experiments in Christian Social and Spatial Groups
5. The Surprise of Speech: Disorder, Violence, and Christian Language after the Men’s House

6. Events of Translation: Intertextuality and Denominationalist Change
7. Mediating Denominational Disputes: Land Claims and the Sound of Christian Critique
8. Kinship, Christianity, and Culture Critique: Learning to Be a Lost Tribe of Israel in Papua New Guinea


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