Becoming Sinners

Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society

Joel Robbins
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 410
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp8f0
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  • Book Info
    Becoming Sinners
    Book Description:

    In a world of swift and sweeping cultural transformations, few have seen changes as rapid and dramatic as those experienced by the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea in the last four decades. A remote people never directly "missionized," the Urapmin began in the 1960s to send young men to study with Baptist missionaries living among neighboring communities. By the late 1970s, the Urapmin had undergone a charismatic revival, abandoning their traditional religion for a Christianity intensely focused on human sinfulness and driven by a constant sense of millennial expectation. Exploring the Christian culture of the Urapmin, Joel Robbins shows how its preoccupations provide keys to understanding the nature of cultural change more generally. In so doing, he offers one of the richest available anthropological accounts of Christianity as a lived religion. Theoretically ambitious and engagingly written, his book opens a unique perspective on a Melanesian society, religious experience, and the very nature of rapid cultural change.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93708-6
    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-xvi)
  5. Prologue: A Heavy Christmas and a Pig Law for People
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    The Christmas season of 1991 was a hard one in Urapmin. The Urapmin community, situated in the remote West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, is divided socially and geographically into a top group (dang kasel) and a bottom group (kalang kasel).¹ This division is not ancient, dating only to the time in historical memory when the Urapmin moved to their present location, and as the Urapmin think about it, it structures very little of their social life. Each group has its own church building, but that is only so no one has to walk far to services. Each also...

  6. Introduction: Christianity and Cultural Change
    (pp. 1-42)

    Despite the impression the preceding prologue might have left one with, the Urapmin have not been Christian for very long. They are a small group of roughly 390 people living in a remote part of the far western highlands of Papua New Guinea. With their territory situated in the Sandaun Province, the Urapmin are linguistically and culturally part of the Mountain Ok or Min group of cultures, a group that has become well known in anthropological circles for the mythical and ritual complexity of its traditional religions. As recently as the early 1970s, anthropologists who studied traditional religions in the...

  7. PART ONE The Making of a Christian Community
    • CHAPTER 1 From Salt to the Law: Contact and the Early Colonial Period
      (pp. 45-83)

      In 1984 a seminar was held in Papua New Guinea that was later published under the titlePapua New Guinea: A Century of Colonial Impact, 1884–1984 (Latukefu 1989). As Latukefu (1989: ix) reports in his introduction to that volume, the seminar was initiated by a committee “set up to organize activities to commemorate the entry of colonial powers in 1884, into what is now the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.” Here, then, we have the elite of a recently independent nation celebrating the centennial of their colonization. Even before readers have a chance to reflect on this, the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Christianity and the Colonial Transformation of Regional Relations
      (pp. 84-121)

      From the early 1960s on, Christianity loomed larger and larger in the Urapmin experience of the colonial order. Examining how its role in their lives evolved and expanded, and how it ultimately came to provide them with a privileged idiom for discussing the colonial and postcolonial orders, takes us to the heart of the influence their colonial history has had on contemporary Urapmin culture. This examination also allows us to consider what is in comparative terms the most distinctive aspect of contemporary Urapmin life: their intense commitment to a culturally sophisticated version of the colonists’ religion.

      The first question outsiders...

    • CHAPTER 3 Revival, Second-Stage Conversion, and the Localization of the Urapmin Church
      (pp. 122-154)

      The 1970s and early 1980s were a period of intense revival activity throughout many parts of Melanesia. Numerous communities were swept by waves of healing, prophecy, visions, tongue speaking, and other ecstatic phenomena that their members interpreted as outpourings of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In retrospect, this era might well be seen as something of a Melanesian “great awakening.” For although the historic and ethnographic materials are still not sufficient to prove such a claim conclusively, enough has already been written to allow us to state with confidence that this series of revivals made Christianity important in many...

  8. PART TWO Living in Sin
    • CHAPTER 4 Contemporary Urapmin in Millennial Time and Space
      (pp. 157-181)

      All cultures situate people in time and space. The point is elementary, but in Melanesia the study of this aspect of culture only really came into its own with Munn’s (1986, 1990) work on the spatiotemporal world of the Gawa. In that work, she demonstrates that Gawan projects of value creation not only presuppose a spatiotemporal order but also make positioning oneself favorably in that order part of their very definition of success. The spatiotemporal order also plays a substantial role in the projects of Christian Urapmin. Through their religious ideas and practices, they work to resituate themselves within the...

    • CHAPTER 5 Willfulness, Lawfulness, and Urapmin Morality
      (pp. 182-214)

      Within the millennial space-time they inhabit, the Urapmin struggle for moral perfection and the salvation they hope it will bring. Despite the energy they put into accomplishing their moral goals, however, they find them hard to reach. No doubt this is true on some level for everyone we might want to call Christian, but for different groups of Christians it is true in different ways. In the Urapmin case, their moral difficulties are rooted both in their changing conceptions of morality and in the way these changing conceptions relate to what we might call their indigenous conceptions of “social interaction”...

    • CHAPTER 6 Desire and Its Discontents: Free Time and Christian Morality
      (pp. 215-252)

      Issues of Christian morality—what it demands, the difficulty of meeting those demands, and the consequences of failing to do so—are consuming topics of conversation in contemporary Urapmin. People are preoccupied with their own sinfulness, and they take it up not only in church but also in private conversations, in village meetings, and in quiet personal reflections on their lives. What I want to consider here is how the Urapmin came to experience themselves as sinners. What, as they see it, is the nature of their sinfulness, and how have they become convinced that they possess it as a...

    • CHAPTER 7 Rituals of Redemption and Technologies of the Self
      (pp. 253-288)

      To an observer, one of the most striking aspects of contemporary Urapmin life is the density of ritual behavior that marks it. Christian ritual activity is omnipresent; people are engaged in it from morning to night, in the village and in the bush. Never a day goes by when one does not at least hear someone performing a prayer healing ceremony in a house or a Spirit woman at work, and I reckon that on at least a third of the days I was in Urapmin people attended one if not two church services. If to this list of collective...

    • CHAPTER 8 Millennialism and the Contest of Values
      (pp. 289-312)

      Urapmin Christian rituals go a long way toward helping people face the moral challenges of day-to-day living and assuage their guilt over the sins they commit. These rituals do not, however, attenuate in the least the Urapmin sense that they are by nature sinful. This sense, as we have seen, is a product not only of Christian ideas about the fallenness of humanity. It is also a product of the contradiction between a traditional morality that values the will when it is deployed to create or positively transform social relationships and a Christian morality that categorically condemns it. It is...

  9. Conclusion: Christianity, Cultural Change, and the Moral Life of the Hybrid
    (pp. 313-334)

    Most Urapmin are troubled. Not broken, paralyzed, or without moments of relative comfort—but troubled. More than anything else, they are troubled. The heavy Christmas with which I began should have been enough to intimate this. For in its awkward way, as an inverse celebration, the heavy Christmas represented a sort of luxuriating in trouble; an elaborate text of trouble that no one who was not already troubled would struggle to read over the shoulder of his or her fellows, much less stick around to write. And the solution to heavy Christmas, the Kaunsil’s inflationary innovation on the old dispute-resolving...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 335-350)
  11. References
    (pp. 351-376)
  12. Index
    (pp. 377-383)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 384-384)