Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Mission Station Christianity: Book Review

June 6, 2014

Hovland, Ingie. 2013. Mission station Christianity: Norwegian missionaries in colonial Natal and Zululand, southern Africa 1850-1890. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

By: Casey Golomski (University of the Witwatersrand)


In Mission Station Christianity, Ingie Hovland gives religious studies scholars and anthropologists a concise and useful case study of the Norwegian Missionary Society’s (NMS) colonial encounters with Zulu peoples in nineteenth century Southern Africa. The book is part of Brill’s interdisciplinary Studies in Christian Mission series that presents historical, global case studies of transcultural missionary movements. This is her first book.  Read the rest of this entry »

Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe: Book Review

May 21, 2014

Mapril, José and Ruy Blanes (eds). 2013. Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe: The Best of All Gods. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

By: Kim Knibbe (University of Groningen)

The anthropology of religion in the South of Europe is alive and well. That is the resounding conclusion after reading this volume. Furthermore, it has stepped out well beyond the bounds of the classic ‘anthropology of the Mediterranean’. In an important sense, this volume also falls outside the scope of the anthropology of Christianity, since its subject is religious diversity, and it includes studies of Islam, Sikhism, Umbanda and Candomblé, New Age, and neo-paganism. In fact, only a small number of chapters deal with Christianity as their main subject matter. Nevertheless, the volume raises some important questions that are worth discussing in this forum.

The introduction by the editors does a good job of introducing the subject and providing a framework for the very diverse contributions to the volume. It starts out with the question of the religious heritage of Europe that emerged around the issue of a European constitution: can this be thought of only in terms of Christianity (in other discussions, ‘Judeo-’ is sometimes added in front of Christianity, still not self-evidently part of what is thought of as the European heritage)? This volume aims to show that the groups discussed here conceptualize Europe in quite different ways, and create new cartographies of this place called Europe. Each of these cartographies in their own right can be read as a challenge to the ‘secularist hegemony’ of public opinion and, one might add, of Eurocrats (1). Europe, even the south of Europe, which appeared so homogenously Christian in the anthropology of the Mediterranean, is quite diverse in terms of religion.

While religious diversity is not a new phenomenon, in the light of the ‘return of religion’ in public debate (if not in fact, since religion had never really gone away) the editors argue that it is something worth noting and exploring. How do different groups shape the relationship between religion and culture on the one hand, and place on the other hand? How are migrant groups subject to ‘double marginalization,’ as migrants and as ‘religiously other,’ and how do they resist this? The south of Europe is particularly interesting, they argue, because it is at the edges of the Schengen area, the place where boundary work is particularly urgent since it is a gateway for migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Read the rest of this entry »

When Diversity Drops: Book Review

April 8, 2014

Park, Julie J. 2013. When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

By: Jerry Park (Baylor University)


In 1998, the state of California’s Proposition 209 struck down affirmative action as a policy to effect greater inclusion of racial minorities in higher education. At a time when non-white racial minorities were growing, particularly among younger cohorts, this new legislation would have a devastating impact on enrollment diversity at the state’s most prestigious public universities. How did student groups respond to this change and the paradoxical call for greater inclusion of all minorities in higher education?

Julie J. Park’s When Diversity Drops investigates this question by chronicling the events that took place in an evangelical Protestant student group at one of the major California public universities in the mid-2000s, roughly 6-8 years from the passage of Proposition 209 (we might call this the post-9/11 and pre-Obama era). Specifically, Park’s examination focused on the consequences of decreasing racial diversity for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at a public university in southern California (hereafter CU). During the period of her investigation, the state of California’s African American population held steady at about 7.5 percent while the Asian American population increased from 12 to 13.5 percent. This is significant because Park showed that CU’s African American enrollment decreased from 7 percent down to 4 percent after Prop. 209, while the Asian American rate held steady at about 38 percent, over twice the proportional presence of Asian Americans in the state. Moreover, IVCF-CU saw its Asian American population fluctuate between 50 and 60 percent of the entire group’s membership during this period. By contrast, African American student participation steadily dwindled from 10 percent to less than 5 by the end of her study. In other words, as the social unit of analysis gets smaller from state to public university to student group, the presence of Asian Americans gets larger, while the presence of African Americans gets smaller. IVCF-CU was an interesting case where Asian Americans held the dominant numerical presence during a time when Proposition 209 saw a significant decline in African Americans present at that same university, and in the organization itself. This precipitous decline of African American participation in IVCF-CU somewhat mirrored the decreasing enrollment levels of African Americans, but it does not explain all of it. Apart from this demographic shift due to a statewide change in policy, what consequences did it hold for this religious student group? Read the rest of this entry »

Direct Sales and Direct Faith: Book Review

April 1, 2014

Cahn, Peter S. 2011. Direct Sales and Direct Faith in Latin America. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

By: Rebecca Bartel (University of Toronto)


In the first pages of this ethnography of direct faith and direct sales, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with Luisa and her family, perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of Cahn’s study. Cahn’s focus on one character gives an in-depth account of deeply imbedded positive thought practices, and the reader is quickly drawn into the life of Luisa and her unfaltering adherence to Omnilife, a direct sales company and, more important, a vehicle for transforming her life. Luisa, a Mexican Roman Catholic and Omnilife sales representative, embodies what Cahn defines as “direct faith”: a “kind of intimate relationship with the divine, unmediated by clergy, saints, or sin” (2). Direct faith is rooted in positive thought, the “innate ability to affect the material world through one’s mind” (3), and for Cahn this direct faith is most eloquently animated through Luisa and her family’s commitment to Omnilife. Direct sales, according to Cahn, provide a worldview that looks backwards to a time when prosperity came naturally (15). Read the rest of this entry »

Music in Kenyan Christianity: Book Review

March 11, 2014

Kidula, Jean Ngoya.  2013.  Music in Kenyan Christianity: Logooli Religious Song.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

By: Katrien Pype (Leuven University, University of Birmingham)

Christian music makes up one of the most flourishing music scenes on the African continent, populated by its own celebrities, aesthetics and marketing styles. A whole industry has now emerged around “the Christian musician”, whose presence not only enlivens the public and sacred spaces in various African cities, but also occupies a central role within the African diaspora. Scholars in African popular culture have only recently begun to study the musical forms that African Christians draw on to express their beliefs, instruct others and grow spiritually (Brennan 2010, 2012, Nadeau-Bernatchez 2012, Parsitau 2008, Pype 2006). And, recently, two monographs (Burdick 2013, Guadeloupe 2009) have been published on Christian music in South America and the Caribbean, thus suggesting the rapid emergence of Christian music outside of the African continent as well. With Music in Kenyan Christianity, Jean Ngoya Kidula provides us a historical overview of the various genres that Logooli Christians have sung since 1902 and still sing today. The beginnings of this Christian music reach back to the arrival of the Friends African Mission, a US based Quakers group, which missionized the Logooli population.

The focus of the book is on the song genres, and not so much on the religious groups as such or on their ideologies. Kidula sets out to study “contemporary African music through one ethnic group’s engagement of Christianity as a unifying ideology in the historical tide of modernity, nationalism, and globalization” (2). The main argument is that with all political, social, economic and cultural changes Logooli society has experienced in the last 100 years, Christianity is the most important integrative factor in Logooli villages, and it has come to constitute a part of national Kenyan identity (10). Here, Christian music is identified as the binding factor because, as Kidula writes, “perhaps the most stable Christian artifact is the music with its range of genres and styles, its possibilities for mutation and use, and also its accessibility and lack of particular ownership.” (10). Christian music is thus the cultural marker that is most important to the articulation of distinctive character, whether it is on the local or national level. The book is organized as follows: six chapters deal with abstract themes like assembly, encounter, consolidation, accommodation, syncretism, and invocation. These capture the main phases of indigenization of (various types of) Christianity among the Logooli. While the analysis is very technical and detailed, there is surprisingly no discussion of the grand concepts of nationalism, globalization and modernity, nor of aesthetic strategies such as syncretism, appropriation and adaptation. Kidula skillfully uses Small’s concept of musicking, though without defining it. Since Small’s monograph, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (1998), the term is used to refer to the activities surrounding music: composing, singing, discussing, listening, marketing, etc.

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“Ending a Conversation with System R”: Book Review of Nongbri’s “Before Religion.”

March 6, 2014

Nongbri, Brent. 2013. Before religion : a history of a modern concept. New Haven : Yale University Press.

By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)

On its face, Brent Nongbri’s book, Before Religion, is seemingly not about Christianity, but about religion more generally – or more specifically, about the category of religion more generally. Nongbri’s argument is that religion is not a human universal, but rather construction that has both a history and a genealogy (to the degree that those are two separate things).  To Nongbri, this is important because treating religion as a universal has costs in both how the thought of the analyst ends up structuring whatever object he or she is addressing, and in how work is presumably consumed by readers, many of which will come to the term with a lot of baggage attached.

Nongbri avers that religion as currently understood is marked by a set of invariant features: it is about internal experience, takes the individual as the primary unit, is oriented around ideas and sacred texts, is separate from institutions such as government, is effectively private, and is something that is a response to a universal human need – and is therefore presumably also universally present as well. Finally, religion forms identified bodies – the ‘world religions’ such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity – which are all fungible to the extent that they are formally homologous. Because of this common structure, the relation between religion in the abstract and religions in particular is equivalent to the genus/species formulation, or to put it in a metalanguage borrowed from linguistics, religion is the type, and various ‘religions’ are tokens.

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Short Term Missions: Book Review

November 12, 2013

Howell, Brian (2012) Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downers Groves, Illinois: IVP Academic Press.

By: Joshua Brahinsky (University of California, Santa Cruz)

While anthropology and religion have a checkered and ambivalent dynamic, relations between anthropology and missiology – Christian mission theory – are far more enmeshed and, perhaps, grating. This animates a sharp division between the two.  Anthropologists can imagine religion as out there, a behavior to study, more or less connected to transcendent reality. By contrast, missions, as many have noted, cut much closer to the bone (Priest 2001). Not only was the core anthropological notion of culture likely first articulated among missionaries, but also, by most accounts, missionaries surpass even the most assiduous anthropologist when it comes to their defining practice: ethnography (Herbert 1991). Even an exceptionally long three-year anthropological field stay cannot touch the decades common to missions.  This makes discussions of missions uncomfortable for anthropologists.  Further, simply noticing mission’s effects ties awkward knots within anthropological tales of the noble savage or those that valorize postcolonial agency, especially when that agency involves appropriating previously Western religions (Sanneh 2003). Finally, Short Term Missions (STM), are especially ephemeral phenomena, and as such, easily escape the anthropological eye.  In other words, aside from the significance of a project that involves 1.6 million US youth traveling the world each year, simply talking STM and anthropology together makes Brian Howell’s study of Short Term Missions worthwhile.
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Faith Based: Book Review

October 17, 2013

Hackworth, Jason. 2012: Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

By: Amy E. Fisher (University of Toronto)

Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States seeks to unravel the “synergies and tensions” (vii) between neoliberals and evangelical conservatives who are ostensibly different and yet mutually engaged in the project of minimizing and opposing the American welfare state. He claims to follow in the steps of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by exploring the ways in which a “secular” economic project is actualized and invigorated by certain Christian ideas. He charts the course of neoliberalism’s relationship to the Christian Right across a range of FBO’s, including Habitat for Humanity and Gospel Rescue Missions; in speeches and articles written by certain conservative Christian “ideologues” (7) and theologians; in official policy statements from the National Association of Evangelicals and articles in Christianity Today; and he looks for signs of its demise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. Read the rest of this entry »

Moral Minority: Book Review

September 3, 2013

Swartz, David R. 2012. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in the Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

By: Rebekka King (Middle Tennessee State University)

David R. Swartz has invited you to party. At first glance, the party appears to be a disparate group: the well-dressed Republican senator Mark Hatfield is engaged in a deep conversation with scraggly haired Jim Wallis. Indeed, the room is filled with politically progressive evangelical thinkers, authors and activists. It is a party that is captured in Swartz’s use of Richard Mouw’s phrase the “evangelical diaspora of the ‘60s,” a group which has been regathered with “renewed piety” and a “passion for social activism” (139). As Swartz wheels you around, he takes the time to provide you with the back-story of these important figures present. He tells you about their families, educational pedigree and the major turning points that lead to their lifetime involvement in social activism, theological discernment and political engagement. “This,” he begins, “is Carl Henry.” He goes on to tell you that “no figure embodied the vital shift to political engagement more than Carl Henry, a theologian, editor, and architect of neo-evangelicalism” (15). After Henry, Swartz moves on to other prominent figures who continue to animate neo-evangelical circles. In the corner of the room, Sharon Gallagher is speaking about authenticity in the context of Berkeley’s “Christian World Liberation Front” and Samuel Escobar is reminding the group of the importance of listening to Latin American theologies and politics in order to resist the infiltration of American imperialism. Read the rest of this entry »

Testing Prayer: Book Review

August 16, 2013

Brown, Candy Gunther. 2012. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

By: Anna I. Corwin (UCLA)

In 2010, Candy Gunther Brown and her research team published a compelling and controversial article in Southern Medical Journal arguing that proximate intercessory prayer, performed in their study by Pentecostals in Mozambique, significantly improved the hearing and vision of a number of prayer recipients.  This claim – that prayer can heal – has been a flash point, setting off debates and controversies about the nature of prayer for generations.  This article was no different.  Brown’s book Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, sets out to reconcile some of the interest as well as the controversy Brown faced following her team’s empirical study of intercessory prayer.  She grapples with questions of whether prayer should be studied, how, and by whom.  Drawing on her background as a historian and ethnographer, Testing Prayer uses an interdisciplinary approach to address the question of efficacy, focusing specifically on global practices of Pentecostal prayer, and ultimately leading to a proposal for a multi-pronged approach to the study of efficacy in healing prayer. Read the rest of this entry »

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