On being an anthropological subject

Reflections on “The Christianity of Anthropology” by Fenella Cannell, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 11 (2), 335-356, 2005.

“This article critiques the way in which the discipline of anthropology has construed Christianity, arguing that too narrow and ascetic a model of Christianity has become standard…” (p335)

So begins Cannell’s article (based on her Malinowski Memorial Lecture) in which she seeks to explore how Mormonism presents an alternative model of Christianity in which the physical and the spiritual are closely related and interdependent, and in which kinship plays an important role in eternity.

I’m totally on board with the project she proposes in the quote above and find her reflections on Mormonism really fascinating. This is really stimulating research. However, I reckon there’s a lot more to be done than simply broadening the scope of reflection to more marginal denominations.

You see, the way she describes how mainstream anthropology understands Christianity is totally at odds with what I thought was my very orthodox, mainstream Christian upbringing. For example, according to Cannell, anthropologists represent Christianity and Christian theology in some of the following ways:

“Christianity…insists on the opposition between this world and the next world – the material and the spiritual…” (p338)

“the idea of the withdrawal of God from the world” (p340)

“Where Christianity was theorised, I found the approach tended to stress its ascetic components above all else and to assume that it would be premised on an antagonism between body and spirit” (p340)

“…Parry…failed to foreground the inevitable ambivalence towards the body which this doctrine [the resurrection] establishes in Christianity. The Christian body cannot be all bad, even for ascetics for it will be returned to us in heaven, although in fixed and incorruptible form” (p342)

“The undoubtedly powerful ascetic current in Christianity has generally been accompanied by an attitude to ordinary family life and kinship which regards it as, at most, a kind of second best to spiritual life” (p342)

So, while Cannell doesn’t think this is necessarily a true representation of Christian thought, she thinks other anthropologists do. I’m sure there are some Christians for whom it is true, but it’s missing out on a massive chunk of quite orthodox believers who are deeply concerned with this world and what happens in it because they believe God is still intimately involved in it and cares for it deeply.

I need to get a handle on this field of work for myself!

h/t to Tracey for sending me this article (and a bunch of others I haven’t read yet!). Thanks!


4 responses to “On being an anthropological subject

  1. Interesting!!!

  2. Hi Nat, Bron I here, Fi sent me the link to your blog a little bit back and excited to be reading it now.
    Yes, I think you’ve touched on something kinda crazy about the theoretical understating of Christianity in anthropology here. I’ve often been shocked, (open mouth, fish like) in readings or seminars where the presumption is that Christianity = mind/body split and negativity towards the body. As you say, this is not at all the case even in the most mainstream, orthodox evangelicalism! Of course the body is a fundamental to our identity- in creation, curse and future resurrection. And we base our spiritual freedom and significance on the physical suffering in the body of a person. Not on a concept or idea!
    I often think what happens in the Anthropology of Christianity is that Western Culture gets confused with christianity. This seems crazy in a discipline which is all about problemtising culture. Of course, not everyone makes the same mistakes but I’m often surprised at the way that christianity in the developing world is discussed in terms of re-invention in order to escape western power without actually looking at the historical path of christianity in middle eastern culture.

  3. Natalie Swann

    Welcome! Great to have you here, Bron. I’m glad my experience is not new or unique. I’m finding two challenges as I have those moments of shock about what others think of Christianity. First, I’m finding it a challenge to make sure I acknowledge the truth in what they’re saying — there are certainly people in particular times and places who have been Christian and thought that there’s a big mind/body split. And second, related to the first, it’s a challenge to make sure I don’t set out to ‘correct’ their understanding so that it totally reflects my own experience, since my experience is pretty limited too.

    But I hear you! I’m having lots of open-mouthed fish-like moments! I’m glad most of them happen in the privacy of solitary study…

  4. Hey Hey!
    Yes, wow, I love your response! Absolutely! I think being a Christian and being an anthropologist is a really tricky balancing act. (Albeit a really interesting and fun one). Its very easy to react defensively out of your own experience and thus become the prejudiced person you are trying not to be. I see this sometimes with Christian anthropologists claiming that they are being “attacked” by anthropology, when really their perception comes out of hyper-sensitivity about the self.
    And as you say, there are plenty who have thought about the mind/body as very separate and some of them were Christian. And if people are attacking Christianity for some fault there is probably a very interesting engagement at the root of it, no doubt one where Christians seriously stuffed up!
    I can’t imagine you telling other anthro’s where to go! I have rarely been brave enough to say anything (just rant about it to my poor friends…)

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