Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective Textbook Review

Author: Dr. Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Wellesley College, United States. Her work focuses on religious experience and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams. Holly is a regular contributor to TFS. Find more about Dr. Walters’ work on Shaligrams and especially her upcoming book on her blog, Peregrination.

I’m not a Christian but I bought myself a copy of this book.

Now, let me explain why.

I was raised in a Fundamentalist Christian household and, for most of my childhood, was a believer in the Calvinist doctrines of WELS Lutheranism. Not to be confused with many of the charismatic Evangelical churches of the American South, my home congregation was not a “mega-church,” didn’t televise its services, and wasn’t keen on faith healing in the literal sense. They are, however, literal in their Biblical interpretations, espouse traditional gender roles and the submission of women, are anti-LGBTQ, and understand sin and Satan to be physical, corruptive, forces in the world today. While my personal history with the faith has always been fraught (resulting in my excommunication from the church in 2004), I did once seriously consider attending a Christian high school as a teen and then a Christian college afterwards.

As such, I was precisely the kind of person, as a young undergraduate, that this book was meant for.

This is why my initial reaction to this textbook was, admittedly, visceral. I immediately interrogated, not just the potential content of the book, but the apparent “need” for it in the first place. As some of my colleagues pointed out, however, the motivations were likely to be multi-faceted. Perhaps a work like this was the only way for a professor to secure a place for anthropological teaching at a Christian college. Perhaps it was anthropology aimed at getting a bit of cultural relativism and introspection into missionary work; which has its own historical problems with colonialism and white supremacy. Or maybe it was just watered-down social theory for a Creationist palate. I would need to read it to find out.

Turning the first page

The book’s preface begins with a fairly straightforward explanation of its intent and imagined audience. In this case, two authors looking to merge their anthropological training with their faith and a desire to speak to undergraduates at Christian universities or young people seeking to do mission work. The framework is broadly Christian, located solidly in North America, but hardly specific; though geared unreservedly towards those traditions that engage in evangelization and conversion outside of the United States even if none of them are mentioned by name. The aims are then put forward thusly:

“Although it [this book] is primarily geared to an undergraduate course in introductory anthropology, the book also may contribute to mission courses about the history of mission, practical ministry, and ministry in both cross-cultural and domestic contexts. With devotional materials and Christian theology integrated throughout it, it could serve as a helpful text for short-term mission preparation courses and cross-cultural ministry classes at local churches.” (p. X)

This book is an anthropological toolkit for the missionary’s toolbox. Full stop.

Even the reviews of this textbook publicly available are generally by Christian scholars who, unsurprisingly, forefront the work’s religious framework but who also tend to justify their use of the text as a method of integrating cultural theory with their mission work. They do this, however, without any real interrogations regarding the colonialist history of missions or as to whether or not the assumed mission work (as cultural and religious conversion) should be carried out in the first place. As one reviewer put it:

“I agree with the non-Christian Anthropologists who criticize the work of the missionaries as an activity to destroy the local culture. However, the gospel of Jesus needs to bring changes in our practices, otherwise Christ’s sacrifice will be in vain and the process of sanctification will be ignored. In fact, the culture of sin must be replaced by a culture based on biblical principles that are eternal which is the criteria through which all people from all times will be judged by God” (Cruz 2012).

I’m not even going to try to unpack the problematic use of “culture” here, so let’s move on.

Another reviewer, Douglas Hayward (2017), goes on to say:

Introducing Cultural Anthropology covers the full range of subjects normally associated with the study of cultural anthropology and does so in a manner that intentionally seeks to integrate a Christian faith perspective with an academic discipline. Indeed, here is a textbook Christian professors can use without fear of having to confront hostile or offensive assaults on Christian beliefs or values.”

He never goes on to enumerate what exactly these “hostile or offensive assaults” might be in regards to anthropology and Christianity, but he does continue by stating:

“Throughout the text, the authors have studiously presented anthropological concepts free from ideological biases. They have sought to avoid promoting one perspective over another in controversial topics and speak generally in regard to Christian and biblical differences of opinions.”

Christian but not ideological? Doesn’t promote perspectives in controversy but centers theological devotion? Biblical differences of opinion, but not anthropological ones? The centrality of “belief” as both a core concept and as a linguistic turn of phrase (i.e., “anthropologists believe…” which appears all over the text) is also telling. This isn’t just a Christian perspective, it’s an unexamined recapitulation of Euro-American religious concepts (like “belief”) that formed the Eurocentric academic study of culture two centuries ago and that modern anthropologists have spent a fair amount of time deeply critical of. This is echoed, for example, in the book’s discussions of evolution and paleoanthropology; where everything is framed as simply differences in beliefs about human origins, either scientific or theological, and not about how inquiry or evidence works.

Overall, I would agree with Hayward that the text clearly and intentionally seeks to integrate anthropological teachings with Christian faith and, as a result, is designed for use at a Christian college. So, where we really diverge here is in the unstated and largely unrevealed reasoning the authors have for doing so.

Core concepts

In general, the textbook does its best to stick to key concepts. What is ethnography? What is culture? What is cultural relativism? How does structure work? And how do anthropologists approach the study of things like language, gender, exchange, kinship, and power? In much the way I have seen other introductory texts do, it largely ignores the proliferation of area studies, Feminist or Critical Race Theory, or even theological “worldviews” (à la Kraft). But it also tends to treat cultural variations as brief and broadly superficial.

In the Gender and Sexuality chapter, for example, much space is taken up with concerns about how challenging Christians will find the topic and how it shouldn’t be a barrier for them to engage with the principles of anthropology. But the mixed bag of third-gender and queer categories used to demonstrate cross-cultural variation, for example, Indigenous American two-spirit, bakla in the Philippines, purdah (veiling of women) and FGM, seem to exist as lines on a check-list. A little like James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890), the inclusion of so many examples of gendered difference (from Wodaabe male beauty standards to sexual identity among the Sambia) as short tidbits breezes past many of the underlying cultural processes at work in favor of overwhelming the reader with an understanding that different people who live in different places are different from one another. The rest is left to the reader to decide how they want to deal with that information. Ostensibly, this might be pedagogically useful in upending students’ taken-for-granted notions about what is “normal” or “natural” (and the authors are explicit about no superior versus inferior cultures) but the chapter ends with a reasonably lengthy pivot into how this all relates to the “curse” of Genesis 3 and the division of men and women after the Fall of Adam and Eve.

A line from the introduction summed up quite a lot for me.

“The anthropological perspective, as we stated earlier, refers to the attempt by anthropologists to explain cultural context from the inside, understanding the motives, actions, and beliefs of others on their own terms. This does not mean anthropologists are trying to become different kinds of people, to “go native” and be completely submerged in a new culture. Rather, it means they learn the context and culture to a point that they can explain how the people of a particular culture or context understand the world…” (p.13)

The audience for this explanation is, of course, unstated.

Whether the authors intended it or not, this sounds very much like a return to the “savage slot” of Victorian Anthropology and later. This knowledge is extractive, not collaborative. The central figure here is the (presumably white) Western ethnographer (missionary) whose job it is to “explain” what “other” people are doing. Sure, this is done under a quiet presumption of “and all those differences are OK” from a culturally relativist standpoint, but the moral relativism of conversion through ministry feels as though it is simply lying in wait: unmentioned but assumed. In the end, this is all a long way of saying that there is a whole lot of “what” in this book and not a lot of “why”; either in terms of human action and behavior or in terms of the motivations behind mission work.

What not to do

As a tool for teaching intercultural skills for Christian ministry, this book is big on concepts, short on details, which is likely intentional in that teachers or pastors can easily adapt it to work for a specific missionary or business context without worrying about whether their students will get bogged down with specifics. Cruz’s review fundamentally solidifies that effect when he says:

“As minister in a multicultural district, I need to understand the meanings behind all the forms and allow the Holy Spirit to transform the culture from within (Rom. 12:2). Jesus’ ministry is the best example on how to encourage people to follow God’s will and abandon their sinful cultural customs.”

The “Jesus as God Doing Participant-Observation” devotional exercise at the end of Chapter 1 even goes so far as to equate the ethnographer (missionary) with Jesus ministering to the crowds in the Gospel of Matthew and ends with

“…like Jesus, anyone can draw closer in understanding and love through participating as fully as possible in another’s world. Jesus’s life and ministry provides wonderful inspiration for anthropologists doing fieldwork.”

I was surprised, however, that the book didn’t seem to really engage with ethnographic research principles, given how many times ethnography was mentioned as central to anthropological practice. To wit, there’s no actual chapter about ethnography or how it’s done. But perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. Talking about ethnographic research means talking about why you are asking the questions that you do and how those questions result in certain kinds of answers; which I suppose one could see as undermining the whole witness endeavor. As a result, the Goodreads reviews are positively filled with praise at how this textbook “doesn’t fall into Liberalism”, “doesn’t make me memorize quaint people groups and concepts last hot in the 1950s,” and “doesn’t lose objectivity”.

Frankly, there’s a lot that this book doesn’t do.

References / further reading

Cruz, Dioi. 2012. Book Review: Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective by Jenell Williams Paris & Brian M. Howell. Andrews University, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Reading Report.

Hayward, Douglas. 2017. Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective Reviewed. Missio-Nexus. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

Howell, Brian M. and Jenell Williams Paris. 2010. Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective. Baker Academic.

[Image of the book and glasses is by Kate Hliznitsova sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the opened book is by Sinziana Susa sourced from Unsplash.]

[Image of the colorful lights is by Sharon McCutcheon sourced from Unsplash.]

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