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Christian Moderns

Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Christian Moderns
    Book Description:

    Across much of the postcolonial world, Christianity has often become inseparable from ideas and practices linking the concept of modernity to that of human emancipation. To explore these links, Webb Keane undertakes a rich ethnographic study of the century-long encounter, from the colonial Dutch East Indies to post-independence Indonesia, among Calvinist missionaries, their converts, and those who resist conversion. Keane's analysis of their struggles over such things as prayers, offerings, and the value of money challenges familiar notions about agency. Through its exploration of language, materiality, and morality, this book illuminates a wide range of debates in social and cultural theory. It demonstrates the crucial place of Christianity in semiotic ideologies of modernity and sheds new light on the importance of religion in colonial and postcolonial histories.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93921-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-34)

    In 1649, in the midst of one of the most violent periods in modern English history, a time of civil war and regicide, John Milton wrote a polemic against royal tyranny. CalledEikonoklastes,it was a response on behalf of the Parliamentarians toEikon Basilike,supposedly a posthumous publication by King Charles I, who had been executed a few months previously. The latter work, a royalist bid for sympathy, had portrayed the king as a pious man much given to prayer. In the course of his reply, Milton attacked the use of fixed, published prayers. Writing of verbal formulae, such...


    • 1 Religion’s Reach
      (pp. 37-58)

      Beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, militant Christianity’s dramatic emergence into public view, alongside politicized Islam, has had at least the virtue of upturning much conventional wisdom. It appears now that religion is no more likely to wither away than (contrary to Engel’s famous prediction) is the state. Nor is the march of history necessarily a triumph of technocratic rationality or cool utilitarian calculation. The resulting intellectual unsettlement is certainly useful, although a glance through the newspaper suggests it will rapidly give rise to yet more, newly revised, sorts of conventional wisdom. But the high visibility of...

    • 2 Beliefs, Words, and Selves
      (pp. 59-82)

      Concepts such as agency are rarely made explicit, but rather are presupposed by the ways people act and evaluate the actions of others. These presuppositions are not just a matter of private thought but are embedded in the public forms that actions take. This is one reason why reformers and other purifiers, when they try to sort out what is or is not an agent, often focus on semiotic forms. When they do so, they draw on the sets of assumptions I call semiotic ideology. By forging links among different ideas and values, semiotic ideology serves as a guide to...

    • 3 Religion, Culture, and the Colonies
      (pp. 83-112)

      I suggested in the previous chapter that some of the roots of the drive to purification inherent in certain moral narratives of modernity reach into the history of religious reform. Religious arguments that demand the spiritualization of humans, and that insist souls are distinct from their physical embodiments, can also encourage less specifically religious worries about the materiality of objects and the human agency of subjects. In many cases, the efforts of religious reformers and evangelists propel these demands and worries into the smallest capillaries of everyday life and commonplace habits. One of my major purposes in the second part...

    • 4 Conversion’s Histories
      (pp. 113-146)

      Even for those who insist that divine truth is eternal, radical conversion can foster a heightened sense of history. But this sense of history can take as many forms as there are kinds of Christianity. Some people, like Urapmin Pentecostalists, may experience the rush of events as a “sloping temporal order in which people are forever pitched forward” (Robbins 2004a: 164). That rush may be bearing them to the imminent end of time itself (Schieffelin 2002: S5). Others may constantly seek evidence in the world around them of the eternal iteration of biblical events (Crapanzano 2000; Frei 1974;...


    • 5 Umbu Neka’s Conversion
      (pp. 149-175)

      The Pauline model of conversion takes the ultimate unit of Christian salvation to be the individual.¹ From this perspective, the conversion of nations depends, in the end, on the multiplied capacity of the individual to step outside of certain demands of kinship and aspects of custom, to elude the hand of the past. However much the ultimate source of such acts is divine in origin, and the final outcome takes place at the level of sweeping historical forces, it is most often understood in some version of personal choice. As a scholar of Dutch Calvinist missionaries puts it: “[T]he possibility...

    • 6 Fetishism and the Word
      (pp. 176-196)

      In the previous chapter I gave one example of how words and things serve as media for action yet also resist people’s efforts to master and transform them. There are many ways to understand that resistance to human efforts. A Calvinist might see the ultimate source of resistance to human agency to be the will of God. From this perspective, the limits to human capacities are inseparable from the very sources of human freedom, since both have roots in the Creation, Temptation, and Fall. One way this postlapsarian condition is experienced is in the problems that words and things pose...

    • 7 Modern Sincerity
      (pp. 197-222)

      The purposeful effort to become “modern,” as a moral project, can resemble that of religious conversion in certain respects. Both projects often propose to transform people by disabusing them of earlier errors and abstracting them from the constraints of former social entanglements. An examination of how this is supposed to happen, and the risks this project may involve, offers insights into some of the practices by which human subjects are, and are not, constituted. In this chapter I look at the subject proposed by conversion to Calvinism from the perspective of the norm of sincerity. I situate this norm within...

    • 8 Materialism, Missionaries, and Modern Subjects
      (pp. 223-252)

      When Calvinists encounter ancestral ritual in eastern Indonesia, they recurrently wrestle with problems of material value and that which is “above price,” the human subject. The dilemmas posed for Calvinists by sacrifice, sacralia, and other forms of “idolatry” cast into sharp relief the ambivalent relations between Protestant spirit and material economy. As I argued in chapter 4, since overseas evangelization often overlays a contrast of present and past upon a parallel contrast of here and there, it also introduces a historical dimension into the relations of spirit and matter. The comparisons induced by religious conversion—like those arising in other...


    • 9 Text, Act, Objectifications
      (pp. 255-269)

      In part 2 of this book, I showed how Calvinist missionaries tried to draw the boundaries between subject and object. I argued that missionary encounters like these, and the cluster of anxieties and accusations to which they give rise, the discourse of fetishism, can be understood as part of the work of purification. With this chapter and the next, I turn to some contemporary outcomes of the process beyond the immediate concerns of the mission. These concern areas of Sumbanese life—poetic performance and financial transactions—that were not at the heart of the evangelizing effort. They do, however, show...

    • 10 Money Is No Object
      (pp. 270-284)

      The work of purification seeks to draw clear boundaries between persons and things. Distinctions among kinds of objects and the ways they circulate are consequential, in part because they have profound implications for the character of the humans who possess the objects and carry out transactions with them. One of the crucial points of ontological distinction is expressed in the relative political economic status of subject and object. Kant (1956) defined the human as that which has no price. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most inhabitants of even the freest of market economies are still likely to feel...

  9. Afterword
    (pp. 285-290)

    Through much of this book, despite occasional qualifications, I have found it useful to speak of an encounter between two sides. On one side the Dutch, on the other the Sumbanese; on one side Calvinists, on the other marapu followers; on one side a representational economy governed by a semiotic ideology identified with modernity and purification, and on the other economies and ideologies that are quite distinct. This dichotomization is a conscious strategy of exposition rather than a reflection of the world. But in some important respects, this parsing out is right. First, in historical terms, the Dutch appeared on...

  10. References
    (pp. 291-314)
  11. Index
    (pp. 315-323)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-324)