I wonder, if someone were to describe my life, what they would say about my values. Would they list the same values as I would? Would they graciously point out that it is obviously complicated to try to put values into practice? Would they suggest that they can discern values driving my life that are hidden to me?
The anthropology of values / of morality / of ethics / of the good has received much attention recently (e.g. Hau, Anthropological Theory, the upcoming SAR meeting, James Laidlaw, Joel Robbins, etc). The anthropology of values / of morality / of ethics / of the good are not necessarily the same, and there are no agreed-upon definitions (shocking, I know). Ton Otto and Rane Willerslev helpfully point out that questions of value are elusive, both in the sense of what we are referring to as well as how we know about them. I wanted to sort through this some more. I’m interested in what it means to say that a particular group of Christians “value” something, and how anthropologists know what that “value” is.
In Annelin Eriksen’s article “The pastor and the prophetess: Gender and Christianity in Vanuatu” (JRAI, 2012), she presents two different church contexts in the South Pacific island state of Vanuatu:
Presbyterian: “the Presbyterian Church in Vanuatu has remained quite unchanged over the last hundred years in terms of social structure” (p 117)
Charismatic Pentecostal: “The [charismatic] Bible Church was itself founded by a breakout faction from the New Covenant Church. The New Covenant Church again was a breakaway faction from a church called the Revival Church. Another well-established lay church in Port Vila, the Healing Ministry, was also a breakaway church from the Revival Church. Later, fractions from the Healing Ministry established the Glorious Church, and another fraction established the Life Revelation Church. From the New Covenant Church several churches have been established in addition to the Bible Church: Priesthood, Tabernacle Fellowship, Christian Renewal Centre, and so on.” (p 118)
Why, Eriksen asks, are these two church contexts organized so differently? Why does the Presbyterian church remain a stable institution, while the new charismatic Pentecostal churches continuously break up and reform? She argues that the reason is something she terms “gendered values,” which she explains as follows: “In my use of the concept ‘gendered values’ I imply the process wherein masculinity and femininity are moral ideals which most women and men seek to achieve” (p 104).
Eriksen suggests that these gendered values are rooted in people’s ideas of pre-Christian times. The pre-mission age is remembered as one in which individual men could achieve elevated status in a hierarchy (specifically, in a ceremonial institution called “the graded society”). The more elevated they were, the larger the number of people who stood in a binding relationship with them; they served as representations of social relations. This, Eriksen argues, was perceived as a male form of relation-making, or a “male-gendered value.”
When the Presbyterian church was established by missionaries in Vanuatu in the nineteenth century, it challenged this form of relations. It aligned itself with female practices: cooperation and community. Everyone was invited to attend church. Strong gender differentiation was downplayed. During the colonial period the church took over as the most important local institution. Eriksen says that the Presbyterian church during her fieldwork still upheld the values of egalitarian social relations, which were still “female-gendered values,” and that there was little tension around these values.
Eriksen then contrasts the Presbyterian values with the values of the new charismatic churches, which have experienced recent growth. These new churches, Eriksen argues, advocate a strong sense of the difference between male-gendered values and female-gendered values, rooted in pre-Christian understandings.
For example, the new churches emphasize hierarchical male leadership. The male pastor (especially the founding pastor) is in many ways the personification of the church, and so the charismatic churches reinvent the male form of making relations (male church leaders serve as individual representations of social relations). Most founding pastors are chosen as church founders through a powerful, one-on-one encounter with the Holy Spirit, e.g. in a dream. This provides an image of the Holy Spirit as a centrifugal force, concentrated in an individual. The emphasis on the individual is partially carried over to the congregants, who are encouraged to emphasize their own individualism by breaking with their old life, being born again, and cultivating individual sincerity. Eriksen identifies this individualism as a male-gendered value.
Female-gendered values in the charismatic churches, on the other hand, are associated with the opposites of individualism. Women are typically thought to have “soft” hearts, as opposed to the “hard” hearts of most men. This provides a “female advantage” (p 117) in conversion because soft hearts are more likely to be penetrated by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, any open soft heart might be penetrated at any time, thus giving an image of the Holy Spirit as a centripetal force. Some women who are especially open become prophetesses and receive visions from the Spirit. The visions do not concern them personally (unlike the Spirit’s encounters with male pastors). Instead, the prophetesses receive messages that they must communicate to the congregation. In other words, they function as mediums. When the prophetesses perform healings they work in small groups, not individually.
In sum, Eriksen draws up a binary structure:
Male-gendered values <> Female-gendered values
“The male” <> “The female”
Male form <> Female form
Male qualities <> Female qualities
Male imaginary <> Female imaginary
Masculine ideal <> Feminine ideal
Hierarchy <> Egalitarianism
Competition <> Cooperation
Individual (as representation of relations) <> Communal (unmediated relations)
Hard (heart) <> Soft (heart)
Holy Spirit as centripetal force <> Holy Spirit as centrifugal force
So why then do the new charismatic churches continuously break up and reform? Eriksen suggests that it is because the male-gendered and female-gendered values become increasingly polarized, causing growing tension. The tension soon becomes so great that the church splits. In other words, Eriksen argues that in this case values have a direct impact on Christian organizational form.
Let me mention a few interpretive challenges here, since Eriksen is thorough and mentions them in her article, and they help to complicate the picture (there’s one of our academic values).
A first challenge concerns how to decide what to call different values. Eriksen argues that the most important value in the Presbyterian church she studied was egalitarianism. But she also mentions that there were more men than women among the elders of the congregation, and only men (as far as I can tell) become pastors. This raises the question of what these particular Presbyterians value when they speak of egalitarianism, and how this is shaped by other values, such as hierarchy. The congregants do not seem to hold the value of egalitarianism in a completely straightforward way.
Similarly, Eriksen points to the prophetesses in the charismatic churches as concrete manifestations of communitarian values. But when a prophetess receives a vision in church, she stands up by herself to tell the congregation about the vision, even interrupting the pastor in the middle of his sermon. The prophetesses are regarded as persons of high status in the congregation who are able to wield some power. It seems a small interpretive step to see their role as a bridge toward the values of individualism and hierarchy.
A second interpretive challenge is how to make use of what people say when they speak of values. When Eriksen spoke with people about why they left an established church for a charismatic church, or one charismatic church for another, they might explain that their old church was “not really Christian” and that the new church demands “greater sincerity” (p 111); that “[t]he Spirit is stronger in the new church” (p118); or that “it is always in the initial stage of church formation that the true miracles are performed” (p 119). These comments point to a concern with the Christian problematics of sincerity and charismatic experience, which are posited as the drivers of new church formation. This raises the question of how to align such comments with an anthropological analysis that is built around the binary structure of gendered values. As we will see below, Joel Robbins points out the same interpretive tension between what people say on the one hand, and the underlying pattern discerned by the anthropologist on the other.
While Annelin Eriksen asks how gender impacts Christianity, Joel Robbins turns the question around and asks how the arrival of Christianity in Melanesia has impacted gender relations. In “Spirit women, church women, and passenger women: Christianity, gender and cultural change in Melanesia” (Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 2012), he discusses three new female roles: Spirit women among the Urapmin in Papua New Guinea (drawing on his own research), church women in Vanuatu (drawing on Annelin Eriksen’s research on the Presbyterian church), and “passenger women” among the Huli in Papua New Guinea (drawing on the research of Holly Wardlow). I will restrict my focus here to the Spirit women.
Before the Urapmin adopted Christianity, the role of ritual specialist among them was mainly reserved for men. Following their conversion to charismatic Christianity in the 1970s, the leadership positions in church were dominated by male leaders. However, a new development also occurred: some women started taking on the role of “Spirit women,” or women who can become possessed by the Holy Spirit. People today consult with Spirit women for healing or for help with indigenous spirits. They are prominent local figures.
Why, Robbins asks, did the Urapmin’s adoption of Christianity produce a new ritual specialist role for women? He argues that the cause can be found by examining values – “cultural values” and “Christian values” – and how these change. Specifically, he discerns three reasons. First, the emergence of female roles that draw authority from charisma – such as mediums, healers, evangelists, prophetesses – is a common occurrence in many groups that have converted to charismatic Christianity (including, as we have seen, in the charismatic churches described by Annelin Eriksen). Second, the strand of Christian discourse that concerns the value of equality has made it more possible for women to claim public space in Urapmin.
Third, when the Urapmin converted to Christianity, their emphasis on maintaining relationships (relationalism as a value) was replaced by an emphasis on individuals (individualism as a value). They understood Christian salvation to be attained by individuals, based on that individual’s own faith. The Spirit women function to uphold this value of Christian individualism by working against the traditional spirits, who represent the lingering hold of the value of relationalism. The Spirit women are also in themselves clear examples of the individual, sincere speaking subject (an important figure in Urapmin Christianity, as in Protestantism more broadly). When the Spirit women are possessed and speak, they speak truthfully and in complete accord with their inner thoughts and feelings. In these ways they realize the value of individualism. Since individualism is the dominant value of Urapmin Christian life, they are thus able to “move themselves to the center of Christianity in Urapmin” (p 124).
In sum, Robbins draws up a conflict between two cultural spheres:
Indigenous spirits <> Christianity
Relationalism <> Individualism
Ideological push for gender differentiation <> Ideological push for gender equality
Women cannot be ritual specialists <> Women can be ritual specialists
Important to create successful relationships <> Important to create successful (i.e. saved) individuals
Not important to speak sincerely <> Important to speak sincerely
Spirits own the land <> God created the land
Spirits can make legitimate relational claims <> Spirits cannot make legitimate relational claims
Spirits make people ill by clutching them <> Spirit women break the hold of the spirits
Important to repair relationships (with spirits/people) <> Important to heal individuals
Relationships give strength <> Being an individual gives strength
Again, there are some interpretive challenges involved in arguing that the charismatic Urapmin hold certain values.
First, again, the question of how to decide what to call different values. Robbins, building on the Dumontian theory of a hierarchy of values, argues for individualism as the “dominant” or “paramount” value in Urapmin charismatic Christianity. At the same time he includes ethnographic material which suggests that the value of individualism is often modified by the importance of relations. Urapmin Christians, for instance, think it is important to strengthen each other’s faith through preaching. As Christians they value the creation of successful intra-church relationships, because relationships give strength. They think that one way in which to do so is to encourage several different people from the congregation to preach (not just one individual pastor), including young people and women. Robbins observed one discussion (p 119n4) in which congregants lamented the fact that common gendered behavior patterns, especially that women commonly speak less in public than men, frequently keep women from preaching in church. This was felt to be to the detriment of the Christian community. Their concern for the importance of preaching in church in order to strengthen each other’s faith may, from one angle, be taken to support individualism, while from another angle it may be taken to underscore the importance of relationalism. The individualism that the Urapmin Christians value is not a straightforward one.
Second, the question of how to incorporate what people say. When Robbins asked his Urapmin interlocutors why women were now able to be ritual specialists, he did not receive very elaborated answers. He was told that “the first Spirit woman they knew of was the wife of the principal at a local Bible college in another part of the Min region” (p 116), and “several people also suggested that God has given special powers to women because he favors the ‘weak.’ This was meant, I think, primarily in a physical sense” (p 117). As Robbins points out, these are different answers than an anthropological analysis revolving around the value of individualism. While it is difficult to integrate such comments into the analysis, he includes them in the article in the interest of being thorough.
As I worked through these two articles, I noticed that they disturbed the ways in which I have become accustomed to thinking (there’s another of our academic values). They bring something distinct to the table. Joel Robbins explicitly builds on the analytical approaches of two French theorists, Emile Durkheim and Louis Dumont. Being more familiar with the tradition of British social anthropology, my own thoughts kept returning to early/mid-century authors such as Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes – those whom Edmund Leach skeptically lumped together as the “Oxford structuralists” or “Oxford idealists” (retold by Adam Kuper in Anthropology and Anthropologists). I am over-simplifying. But the hint of resemblance made me ask: What does this analytical approach bring to the table today?
Robbins and Eriksen’s articles do something that few other anthropologists are doing today: they draw up schematic models at a high level of abstraction. In other words, they contribute a willingness to think in structures. Structures provide a different refraction of the problem than a primary focus on what people do or on what they say; on the mess of everyday practices or on taking people’s own terms seriously. Structures are the anthropologist’s attempt to discern patterns that are mostly hidden to the people concerned, and that are therefore not necessarily articulated in people’s comments.
This brings specific strengths. It forces us to distill (“There is a clear difference between female-gendered and male-gendered values in Vanuatu”; “Individualism is the dominant value of Urapmin Christianity”), rather than hide in descriptions of infinitely ambiguous everyday life (“There is a constructed-but-contested-and-quite-murky difference between female- gendered-values-that-do-not-map-neatly-onto-female-actions and male-gendered-values-that-can-be-observed-among-some-women in Vanuatu”; “A not-quite-individualism-co-constituted-with-relationalism is the sometimes-dominant-often-splintered-and-compromised value of Urapmin Christianity”). In other words, it avoids an “endless swallowing-up” (as Matt Tomlinson puts it).
It also lifts our gaze to the level of a larger context. While acknowledging the specific things people say (“We joined the new church because the Spirit is stronger there”; “Women can become possessed by the Spirit because they are weak”), the anthropologist has a much larger picture in mind (“Actually they joined a new church because the old church split as a result of tension between male and female-gendered values”; “Actually women can become possessed by the Spirit because in this way they realize the value of individualism”). Many anthropologists today tend to be wary of this kind of description of a larger context with a high degree of uniformity. But, as Les Beldo has pointed out (in "The unconditional 'ought'," p 272), moral sentiment can only be moral sentiment as part of a larger context, and he argues that we must acknowledge that systematicity.
Eriksen and Robbins’ articles also contribute a focus on the force of ideas. They fall into the camp of anthropologists who (in Otto and Willerslev’s terms) examine values as shorthands for cultural systems. They focus on how values define a cultural/Christian context and serve as drivers for cultural/Christian change. Eriksen does briefly mention other possible causes for Christian change in Vanuatu, such as the effects of financial and other types of insecurity; the new charismatic churches experience most growth in urban squatter settlements. But these socioeconomic and material factors are left for others to explore, in order to retain a strong focus on idealistic factors.
Finally, Robbins and Eriksen both work with the concept of “culture” as a fairly robust, identifiable notion (including the way in which gender is perceived within a culture). In Robbins’ case, this aligns with his building on Durkheim and Dumont. He offers a concise explanation of his view in his article “Between reproduction and freedom” (on p 295):
“I think even the most sophisticated discussions of morality in anthropology can, by virtue of emphasizing ideas like freedom, choice, and creativity, give up on any strong model of culture in the Durkheimian vein. […][The risk is that] culture comes to be so fluid and ever-changing, so open to the impress of invention and resourceful use, that it seems to cease to have any properties of its own or any power to shape action. Such a move is certainly attractive in the current theoretical climate […] but I want to resist throwing out the Durkheimian baby with the bathwater of too rigid models of cultural reproduction as the price to be paid for securing an anthropological concept of freedom.”
So here’s the Durkheimian baby that Robbins argues we should pay attention to: culture is something. It is a thing that has properties and power. As he also alludes to, this view is often taken to be problematic in anthropological discussions today. It is worth noting, of course, that neither Robbins nor Eriksen regard their own models as overly rigid. They zoom in on points of tension and change. But overall I think it is fair to say that they would both position themselves closer to the end of the theoretical spectrum where culture is viewed as something that is, rather than closer toward the other end where culture is viewed as something that happens (using terms from Henrietta Moore & Todd Sanders’ introduction to Anthropology in Theory). This gives a distinctive theoretical tone to their work.
It’s been a valuable (yes) process to read through Eriksen and Robbins’ articles together. This is not to say that I agree with them. They have not yet managed to convince me to adopt their approach to values in Christian communities; I still hesitate to think in terms of schemas of values in my own work and wouldn’t go quite so far in suggesting values as hidden determinants of Christians’ behavior. But the anthropology of Christianity needs to actively include a variety of approaches. Values are not simple, and neither is Christianity, and we can profit as a group from thinking through Christian values in several different forms. One important form is found in Annelin Eriksen and Joel Robbins’ structures and the distinct analytical contributions they bring to the table: clarity, context, the force of ideas, and the strength of culture.