Matt Tomlinson on his book, God is Samoan

God Is Samoan: Dialogues between Culture and Theology in the Pacific

Interview by Jon Bialecki

Jon Bialecki: I want to start this interview by saying that God Is Samoan is a great book, but it is also a surprising one. True, there are a lot of continuities with your previous work: Oceania as a region, Christianity as an ethnographic object, tensions between dialogue and monologue. And in your earlier material, you’ve also discussed contemporary and historical missionary material, for instance, in your last book, Ritual Textuality. But the turn to studying autochthonous theology, theologians, and the production and pedagogy of theological knowledge caught my attention. This was not just because this was a different kind of project from you, but also because I have a hard time thinking of any similar study. Could you say something about how you came to this project, and also a little about what fieldwork was like, since I imagine the actual field methodologies must have been quite different from your previous work as well?

Matt Tomlinson: Thanks, Jon. The project began with two failures which shaped the way everything unfolded.

The first was back in 2008-2009, when I had gone to Suva, Fiji’s capital city, to do a study of Christian institutions. Fiji had suffered its most recent coup (its fourth) late in 2006, and I had naively not realized how difficult this would make the research. For example, talking with people in the Methodist Church potentially endangered them, as the government was suspicious of politics within the church and watched its leaders closely, and a foreign researcher chatting with church leaders could get them in trouble. In addition, the Fiji Council of Churches had mysteriously shut down.

As it happened, I was living on the campus of the Pacific Theological College (PTC). PTC trains people from all over Oceania in academic theology, many of them already ordained ministers in mainline Protestant congregations. So, because research was problematic elsewhere, I spent more time actually studying PTC than I had expected to–and became fascinated. The teachers and students work in a field known as “contextual theology,” which places culture and personal experience at the heart of theological thinking.

I wanted to learn more about how contextual theologians draw on anthropological concepts of culture. I was able to get research funding to spend time at the University of Auckland’s School of Theology and church seminaries in Samoa and American Samoa. Early in the project, though, it became clear how much reading I needed to do, as I didn’t have enough grounding in theology of any sort. This was the second failure: I sat there in Auckland and thought, “How can I write about practitioners of another academic discipline when I don’t know quite what that discipline is?”

So, the project became heavily text-based: an anthropological reading of contextual theology. I did participate in daily life at the different sites, but as you can tell, the book is more of an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts than a deep ethnography.

Jon Bialecki: Presenting your project as “an anthropological engagement with contextual-theological thought and texts” brings me to the next question I wanted to ask. As you point out in your book, some anthropologists have lately become quite interested in theology. For example, Joel Robbins recently wrote a book that outlines how theology might help anthropologists of Christianity theorize the social and cultural life of the people they study, and Khaled Furani has a new book that critiques anthropology from a theological perspective. Then there is Derrick Lemon’s omnibus-grade edited volume on what he calls “theologically engaged anthropology,” which features both anthropologists and theologians. All these books came out in the last two or so years, so one could almost say “anthropology-and-theology” is having a bit of a moment. I want to ask where you would situate your book in this literature, but I also want to sort of fold-in the larger question two subsidiary queries. First, text-heavy as it is, this is an ethnographic project; what difference does that make? And second, this is the only book to be specifically engaged with Oceania as a region and contextual-theology as a subject. How does that distinguish your work from the broader field?

Matt Tomlinson: Robbins’ work is a major influence on my own, and I’ve participated in and learned from Lemons’ project, although I’m not in the volume you mention. I haven’t read Khaled Furani’s book yet.

For God Is Samoan, a key source of inspiration was Robbins’ 2006 article on the “awkward relationship” between anthropology and theology. In it, he suggests that anthropologists might engage with theology in several ways. The first two are modest: one can study how theology helped shape anthropology’s development as a discipline, or one can treat theology as ethnographic data. The third is more ambitious: to allow theology to genuinely destabilize anthropology, to open us up to fresh theoretical transformation.

My book will probably be read as taking the second option: drawing on theology for anthropological analysis. After all, I take up theological discussions in order to make sense of Oceanic cultural dynamics, including people’s critical reevaluations of local Christian histories and their understandings of intrinsic connections between land, sea, and spiritual presence. But I’d like to think that my conversations with theologians pushed me toward the third option to an extent, too, because engaging with theologians made me rethink my core topic. In brief, I started out interested in culture and ended up interested in dialogue.

Not only do contextual theologians talk a lot about culture, they routinely call for more dialogue on any subject. Many people do this, including anthropologists. During fieldwork, I came to see how theologians draw on concepts of culture in order to motivate specific kinds of dialogue. Yet sometimes dialogue, as an ideal, seems almost utopian–the perfect method and best result in any situation. Calls for more dialogue can be almost monologic in their insistence, which has led me to try to think in new ways about the relationship between dialogism and monologism. For me, there is a deep tension between Bakhtin’s characterization of language as inherently dialogic, and the monologic ideologies authoritarian speakers tend to employ. When Donald Trump speaks, for example, he does not imagine that he lives in a world of other’s words.

One of the most interesting things about central Oceania–and something that can only be apprehended ethnographically–is how dialogic and monologic ideals coexist and indeed work together. For dialogue, there is the valorization of talanoa, open-ended and interactive conversation. For monologue, there is the speech of high chiefs and church ministers, which is meant to express unanswerable truth in a single voice.

Jon Bialecki: Mentioning Joel Robbins brings up another issue. Robbins is also well known for his calls for anthropologists to be suspicious of claims of hidden continuity in moments of purported change, and to be more open to the possibility of sharp cultural and social disruption and discontinuity. And for Robbins, the paradigmatic case of that is collective conversions to Christianity in Papua New Guinea, which often involves some rather serious transvaluations in a society. This claim regarding rupture, which echoes a similar observation that Birgit Meyer has made regarding Pentecostalism in Africa, has not gone unchallenged. Liana Chua, for instance, has suggested that there might be places where there are different intensities to change, often divided up along denominational lines. And Mark Mosko has suggested that the underlying structure of personhood and exchange goes unchanged by conversion, at least in Melanesia, though he has at times suggested this is a part of a broader pattern in the Christian structure of selfhood. Even more recently, Devaka Premawardhana has been arguing for a more fluid ethnographic sensibility, where converts in places such as Mozambique do not go through such sharp discontinuities in their commitments and practices.

Of course, flattening Christian senses of temporality into “rupture: yes or no” is perhaps a little too simple; Robbins obviously meant to make something more of an intervention in a discussion about cultural change rather than to create some hard-and-fast-rule. And you yourself have played with creating more finely patterned senses of temporality; I’m thinking here of a discussion you had elsewhere of Kierkegaardian repetition in Fijian ideas of time, especially when it comes to the interactions between Christianity and curses. So, you’re willing to play with sensibilities about continuity and change.

All this is by way of saying that what you present in God Is Samoan is something that seems to defy any easy pigeonholing into some of the preexisting camps on this issue. The theologians you engage with want to express Christianity through explicitly Oceanian metaphors and similes, and sometimes even argue for strong continuity with pre-Christian tradition. But at the same time, they seem to sense that the arrival of Christianity marked a significant break of some kind, and they also appear to be offering their theological concepts in the interest of creating further change through dialogue. Could you say something about how you see God Is Samoan fitting into – or perhaps, not fitting into – these anthropological disputes over rupture and continuity? And are there lessons here for thinking about temporality and change that could be picked up by people working outside of religion in Oceania?

Matt Tomlinson: Right, the continuity-and-change debate has motivated a lot of work in the anthropology of Christianity–but as you say, Robbins was not proposing any hard-and-fast rule, but rather (I think) calling for a new kind of culture theory which, among other things, does not overlook Christianity’s profound cultural force.

As you note, contextual theologians make claims about both continuity and rupture. Because they tend to draw on older anthropological models of culture–structural-functionalist and cognitivist ones, in which culture is a unified system of rules and relations you inherit–their goal in putting culture at the center of their theology is often to argue for deep continuity between local traditions and Christian truths. Interestingly enough, in making this move, it’s missionary Christianity that is framed as rupture, but often in a negative way. For example, missionary Bible translations are criticized for not using locally appropriate linguistic/cultural referents, and imposing less appropriate foreign ones.

My favorite example of a continuity-and-change argument in contextual theology is found in the work of Ama’amalele Tofaeono. For him, the Samoan creator Tagaloa was, in fact, the spirit of Christ, because obviously the spirit of Christ is not limited to the physical existence of Jesus. Because traditional Samoan lifeways recognized the divinity of Tagaloa, they were thoroughly Christian. What broke this system? European missionaries coming in with the model of God as essentially a white man, separate from the natural order. In taking up mission Christianity, for Tofaeono, Samoa got less Christian.

Yet the field of contextual theology itself is seen, by some of its authors, as disruptive in the positive sense of giving voice to those who would never be heard in old-fashioned systematic theology. The career (so far) of one Tongan theologian, Nasili Vaka’uta, shows a kind of push-and-pull between understandings of continuity and change in this regard. When he began his theological studies, he was interested in Bakhtin, but his supervisor encouraged him to explore his Tongan heritage as a theological resource instead. Yet this was not an easy thing to do for several reasons, as Vaka’uta points out. For one, he is not from the noble class, and only nobles are supposed to represent Tongan culture and society. In other words, it made him vulnerable to criticism from a Tongan audience. For another, writing a dissertation based on European theological sources is a safe bet for getting your degree, whereas putting forth a distinctively Tongan argument is a riskier bet. So he was also vulnerable to a non-Tongan audience. Ultimately, he has succeeded brilliantly. But asking whether his work foregrounds continuity or rupture, in either his subjects or his methods, becomes a misleading question. He does both.

Stepping back a bit, I do think it’s important to distinguish between change as an objective fact and change as ideology. This might be obvious, but it needs saying. The authors in the anthropology of Christianity get this point really well, but outside of the subdiscipline, I am often frustrated by arguments that take loss or brokenness as an obvious or natural condition of our present moment. The loss of linguistic diversity in the world, and the extinction of species, are really happening and we can count the specific losses. But so much human energy gets poured into ideologically framing things as continuation or novelty, or for that matter gain or loss, that we need to draw back and ask what gets counted as evidence for any of these processes, and why.

Jon Bialecki: Culture plays a vital role in your book – but not as an analytic; rather, local concepts of culture are the primary key that contextual theology operates. But as you just stated, this is a version of culture that is very antiquated to contemporary anthropological eyes. The power of this version of ‘culture’ is apparent throughout God Is Samoan; I think that there were only one or two theological voices that questioned it in the entire volume. The fascination that this version of culture has is not limited to either theology or Oceania, however. This image of culture seems to be all over the place – including in certain right-wing movements in Europe, though I wouldn’t want to put your theologians in the same basket as those European nativist movements! Given the breadth of this vision of culture, I was hoping that you could say something about what it is that makes it so compelling, at least in Oceania. As an anthropologist who has worked with culture as an analytic in other places, I was also hoping that you could say something about how one can work with the idea of culture without accidentally reinforcing these much more procrustean public understandings of the idea.

Matt Tomlinson: Culture theory is in an odd place in 2020, isn’t it? Some of us still think the term “culture” is worth foregrounding theoretically. For example, I often assign Ira Bashkow’s 2004 article “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries” to students because it shows the vitality and flexibility of understandings of culture before structural functionalism. Many authors are happy to use the adjective “cultural” but suspicious of the noun “culture.” And some scholars, like the host of this forum, Ilana Gershon, do what I consider culture theory but are skeptical of the term itself. Personally, I don’t mind “culture” as a noun denoting process, and am fine with any anthropological use of it that makes visible the interactive social work that goes into claiming relations of similarity and difference.

But, yeah: this is not how most contextual theologians write about culture. The culture concept many contextual theologians draw on is useful, for them, for the same reason many anthropologists distrust it: its stability. It’s a referent for which there seems to be a built-in agreement about its significance. In other words, although Samoan intellectuals may disagree about what is fa’aSamoa (the “Samoan way,” a gloss for Samoan culture), I can’t imagine anyone saying that there is no such thing as fa’aSamoa–that would seem absurd. Referring to it gives people apparent common ground, and enables speakers to make connections with other referents: God, biblical texts, church policies, and so forth. (There are connections here with the way you write about virtual Christianity with reference to Deleuze, I think.)

As I mentioned before, discussing the work of Nasili Vaka’uta–and he is one of the voices who does critique the culture concept–a model of culture gives him a position from which to make a distinctive contribution to knowledge. For him, knowing Tongan culture enables him to speak to other biblical scholars and theologians in new ways. But speaking isn’t enough, because you need to know who’s listening. And he puts the question pointedly: Can a Tongan reading of the Bible “make a difference in biblical scholarship” generally?

Jon Bialecki: Now, normally, the format here is to close the interview with a sort of ‘coming attractions’ reel, where the interviewee talks about future projects, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But I also want to stick with the theme of dialogue. So, I’ll ask the classical question this way: in what ways has the dialogue you’ve had with these Oceanian Conxtextual theologians changed the way you think, and how will this conversation shape your future projects?

Matt Tomlinson: The work for God Is Samoan, as well as more recent work I’ve been doing with Spiritualists in Australia, has led me to focus on the relationships between dialogism and monologism as ideologies and dialogue and monologue as formats. What drives me is the question of how we really engage with others’ words, especially when words are credited to extrahuman speakers or authors.

As I’ve seen and heard contextual theologians construct different kinds of dialogue, and as I’ve seen and heard Spiritualist mediums work to bring dialogues with spirits into conjunction with dialogues with human audiences, I continually want to know what the limits to these dialogues are. I don’t think it makes sense to study dialogues or dialogism without studying monologues and monologism.

To finish on a note of thanks: I appreciate the chance for this exchange. Real dialogues can happen. But they’re hard work!