Courtney Handman on her book, Critical Christianity

Interview by Dan Jorgensen

Dan Jorgensen: Critical Christianity is a book filled with ideas – it feels as though there is an argument on nearly every page. If you had to summarize the overall argument for, say, an audience of grad students, what would you say?

Courtney Handman: Overall the book looks at two main issues: how a global phenomenon like Christianity changes the kinds of social groups that people form, and how translation works within that process, using the case of Guhu-Samane experiences of Christianization to demonstrate this. So I argue that Protestant Christianities (especially in the kinds of convert cultures that are common in Papua New Guinea and across the global south) are often practiced as projects of critique, and often critiques of what get called “traditional cultures.” These kinds of critical discourses do not just produce the ideological individualism that is usually associated with Protestantism, but they also produce a very intense focus on the social groups in which Christians live, in particular an intense focus on denominations and denominational schism. Guhu-Samane Christians are extremely engaged in the arguments that have produced a number of local denominational schisms, as much as (or even more than) they are engaged in thinking about the ways that their lives have changed since they stopped being “traditional.”

Translation is an essential part of my argument not only because missionary translations are crucial sites for reifying “traditional culture,” but also because I argue for the importance of looking at translation as a form of circulation and not just as a form of comparison. An incredible amount of work looks at translations by comparing texts, languages, or cultures (and I do some of this as well). Yet what was especially important in Guhu-Samane contexts was not just this comparison, but also the fact that New Testament had circulated through a really specific network of people, institutions, and divine entities. Translation was important, then, because they produced these events of circulation and these events of circulation are often the crucial sites for Guhu-Samane Christians to form new denominations.

Dan Jorgensen: Your book looks closely at the history of the Lutheran Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics and their projects – to a much greater degree, in fact, than is usual in Papua New Guinea (PNG) work. Was this part of your strategy from the inception, or did your approach emerge over the course of your work in PNG?

Courtney Handman: Unsurprisingly, the answer is both yes and no. I went to graduate school wanting to work on Christianity in PNG, which was a relatively novel topic at the time. I also knew that I wanted to look at missionaries as actors who shape the way Christianity circulates locally, but didn’t have much of a sense of which missionaries. On my first trip to PNG I spent time at a Christian Bible College and it just so happened that members of SIL (what used to be called the Summer Institute of Linguistics) were teaching a class on Bible translation to the PNG students. I spent much of the time that I was sitting in on that class thinking about what a dissertation project on Bible translation might look like (and also spent much of that summer feeling very claustrophobic on the fenced-in Bible College campus). Perhaps because of this roundabout start, I was interested in translation from the get go as a process that manages to get texts in circulation. I was not especially interested in looking at the impossibilities of translation – that is something that a number of other anthropologists have already done very well – but instead at the changes that translations help produce regardless of their seeming impossibility. By the time my second short trip to PNG rolled around I was pretty well set on looking at some aspect of SIL’s work in PNG, with the hopes of working in a PNG community that was either in the process of getting a translation or had had one already produced. The Guhu-Samane community was unique for both having had an American Bible translator produce the New Testament and for having local people currently in charge of an Old Testament translation project. (The focus on the Lutherans was much more accidental, and only came about because I worked in a community that had been missionized by them, although they have become the central focus of my current research and I’m enjoying learning more about them.)

Dan Jorgensen: An even more striking feature of your work is the use you make of theological debates in Protestant Christianity. It seems clear that these are not merely sources of information or “data,” and instead play an important role in shaping some of the terms of your argument. Can you say something about how you embarked on this route, and whether it offered you any surprises along the way?

Courtney Handman: One of the most surprising and frustrating things about working on denominationalism is how little has been written about it, and how unremarkable much of what has been written is. Usually, if people talk about denominationalism they do so as proxies for other kinds of social groups. Denominations get reduced to being other names for villages or political factions, and denominational competition is usually just seen as politics by another name. In Guhu-Samane communities, there is some of that: denominations are sometimes regionally specific, and competitions among denominations can look like contests among important men. But there seemed to be more animating the denominational conflicts, and I spent a while casting around for authors who didn’t completely reduce denominations (or other religious groups) to political, economic, or geographical explanations. Richard Niebuhr wrote an important text about denominationalism that gets discussed in a wide range of disciplines. Although he is an American theologian, you can trace a scholarly genealogy from Max Weber to Ernst Troelsch to Niebuhr, so he is still within a recognizable social science orbit.

But to speak more broadly to your question, there are a number of anthropologists working on religion who are engaging to one extent or another with texts written about or within religious traditions. This has a lot to do with the realization that secularism didn’t quite take hold as Weber and others had predicted, yet much of the theoretical apparatus of the social sciences assumes that religion is explainable in – and reducible to – sociological or political or economic terms. So while people across the global south have been taking up global religions, the explanations for this often don’t have much to do with the religions as such. Theological texts can be useful texts to think with and think against, even if one doesn’t use concepts in the texts in ways their authors intended, because they do assume that what people are interested in or thinking about has something to do with ideas and practices in Christianity or Islam, for example.

Dan Jorgensen: An important point that could easily get lost in substantive discussions is your perspective on events, and “event-based sociality.” Where do you think we can (or should) go with this? Can you say a little more about the prospects (and difficulties) this orientation offers for anthropologists in general?

Courtney Handman: One of the most compelling models of social groups for anthropological thinking has been nationalism, where the nationalist group is formed as an imagined unity that reaches back into the past. But social groups aren’t all organized like that, and a focus on events is just one way to make that difference clear. I see the focus on events as coming out of Melanesianist anthropology, where people like Marilyn Strathern or Roy Wagner realized a long time ago that the social groups that make up everyday life in places like Papua New Guinea are themselves outcomes of specific events of opposition or engagement. And just like other anthropologists have taken Melanesianist models of “dividual” personhood and applied them well outside Melanesia, I take this point about event-based sociality to address Protestant denominationalism and questions of linguistic circulation. If groups are organized around events, then what makes them important is their capacity to create hierarchies and differences rather than their capacity to be enduring, stable, identity-producing categories. Denominational oppositions within Protestantism seem to work the same way. Schisms can be analyzed as events of critique, where what is important for Protestants is that the denominational split is the evidence of transformation (or reformation, to use a Protestant term). What my Guhu-Samane interlocutors kept emphasizing in the histories of their experiences of Christianization is that it is the events of critique that are especially important to these histories, even if these critical events produce short-lived denominations.

I make the same point in terms of translation by emphasizing translation as linked events of circulation rather than (or in addition to) analyzing translation as the comparison between two stable languages and cultures. This is largely an extension of the kind of analyses that linguistic anthropologists do under the headings of “entextualization” and “recontextualization,” where the focus is on how people understand the process of de-linking a segment of talk or text from its context and bringing it into a new one. In that sense, the focus on events is well underway within linguistic anthropology!