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The Limits of Meaning

The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity

Matthew Engelke
Matt Tomlinson
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    The Limits of Meaning
    Book Description:

    Too often, anthropological accounts of ritual leave readers with the impression that everything goes smoothly, that rituals are "meaningful events." But what happens when rituals fail, or when they seem "meaningless"? Drawing on research in the anthropology of Christianity from around the globe, the authors in this volume suggest that in order to analyze meaning productively, we need to consider its limits. This collection is a welcome new addition to the anthropology of religion, offering fresh debates on a classic topic and drawing attention to meaning in a way that other volumes have for key terms like "culture" and "fieldwork.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-709-7
    Subjects: Religion, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    ME and MT
  4. 1 Meaning, Anthropology, Christianity
    (pp. 1-38)
    Matt Tomlinson and Matthew Engelke

    As Stanley Tambiah once said, “the various ways ‘meaning’ is conceived in anthropology are a deadly source of confusion” (1985: 138). There is certainly no end, however, to the ways in which anthropologists claim to unearth meaning through ethnographic work. There have been disagreements over why Bororo call themselves red macaws, arguments over the subjectivity of Captain Cook, and thick descriptions of Balinese cocks.¹ All of these discussions have focused in one way or another on meaning. Indeed, for an anthropologist to say that an event is “meaningful” might well sound banal. Yet to deny the importance of this claim,...

  5. 2 When Silence isn’t Golden: Charismatic Speech and the Limits of Literalism
    (pp. 39-62)
    Simon Coleman

    The scene is a large hall—part of a warehouse-like building located in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Uppsala, Sweden. The time is 9 p.m. on a September evening, in the late 1980s.¹ Hundreds of people, many of them under thirty, have gathered for the midweek service run by the “Word of Life” Christian ministry (Livets Ord). Of those present, some belong to the group’s congregation, which has been in existence for four years and is on its way to attracting a membership of over 2,000;² others are studying at its Bible school, which is itself gaining an...

  6. 3 Clarity and Charisma: On the Uses of Ambiguity in Ritual Life
    (pp. 63-84)
    Matthew Engelke

    In his work of the problem of meaning, Max Weber focused on how such religious figures as prophets and priests help people make sense of the world. Although Weber said both are committed to metaphysical questions of order, prophets occupy a special place in his discussions. Whereas the priest is a source of stability, “of special knowledge, fixed doctrines, and vocational qualifications” (1963: 29), the prophet is a source of creativity, someone who presents “a unified view of the world derived from a consciously integrated and meaningful attitude toward life” (1963: 59). How this meaningful attitude is structured will vary...

  7. 4 Rituals without Final Acts: Prayer and Success in World Vision Zimbabwe’s Humanitarian Work
    (pp. 85-104)
    Erica Bornstein

    It was a special Friday in the Harare office of World Vision Zimbabwe, an international Christian, nongovernmental organization (NGO). The director had convened his staff for the weekly prayer meeting, where on that particular day there was a visiting guest from the United States. This visitor, a member of the international board of directors, had come to the national office of World Vision Zimbabwe to lead a prayer meeting on the subject of success. It was a Bible study and an office politic.

    The workers were accustomed to such weekly meetings. The preceding week I had witnessed one with a...

  8. 5 Nationalism and Millenarianism in West Papua: Institutional Power, Interpretive Practice, and the Pursuit of Christian Truth
    (pp. 105-128)
    Danilyn Rutherford

    What is the relationship between people’s experience of Christian institutions and the meanings they attribute to Christian texts? Anthropologists have offered a straightforward answer to this question. Christian missions, schools, and churches promote particular interpretations of scripture and ritual in an effort to produce particular kinds of believers (see Asad 1993; Rafael 1993 [1988]; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1997; Cannell 1999; Schrauwers 2000; Aragon 2000; cf. Bowen 1993, Foucault 1979). Christian institutions achieve this “disciplinary” outcome because they are dense sites of power, “the effect of a network of motivated practices” ranging from brute force to spiritual and material sanctions...

  9. 6 The Limits of Meaning in Fijian Methodist Sermons
    (pp. 129-146)
    Matt Tomlinson

    In this chapter, I examine Fijian Methodist sermons as meaning-making performances, and argue that by emphasizing the generation of meaning, preachers also create a chaotic space of potential meaninglessness that is realized in failed performances. This argument is inspired partly by Talal Asad’s well-known criticism of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion—that it derives from “a view that has a specific Christian history” (1993: 42; cf. Keyes 2002; see also chapter one of this volume). Asad’s charge—that Geertz “insists on the primacy of meaning without regard to the processes by which meanings are constructed” (1993: 43)—is perhaps overstated,...

  10. 7 Converting Meanings and the Meanings of Conversion in Samoan Moral Economies
    (pp. 147-164)
    Ilana Gershon

    Samoans are no innocents to the experience of conversion. Samoans have both been converted and converted others to Christianity since 1830. That year John Williams of the London Missionary Society began formal conversions after he landed felicitously (guided by a Tongan follower) in the harbor of Malietoa, the next titular head of Samoa. He brought Christianity to his host, and through Malietoa to Samoans in general. Samoans then became missionaries themselves, traveling under the aegis of the London Missionary Society or the Methodist church to Tuvalu, Rotuma, Niue, many parts of the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and other parts...

  11. 8 Dusty Signs and Roots of Faith: The Limits of Christian Meaning in Highland Bolivia
    (pp. 165-188)
    Andrew Orta

    “We don’t yet know what people really understand by the customs that they do.Theydon’t know.” So suggested William, a Catholic missionary from the United States, who has been active since the 1960s in indigenous parishes of the Bolivian highlands. Father William was referring to what he saw as a “mixture” of Christian and indigenous practices found in rural and peri-urban communities in the Bolivianaltiplano(highlands). He explained: in contrast with Catholicism in the United States, which, as an immigrant offshoot of European Catholic traditions, benefited from those “roots of faith” sunk “deep” in the European past, the...

  12. 9 Paranomics: On the Semiotics of Sacral Action
    (pp. 189-210)
    James D. Faubion

    Since 1985, Amo Paul Bishop Roden has declared herself a Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist. She has always rejected the teachings of the man who, even after his death in 1993, remains her more famous and (even after his death) more successful rival in prophetic authority, the man known as David Koresh. Like Mr. Koresh, however, she accepts the authority of five precursors whose messages jointly constitute the distinctive doctrinal heritage of her church, even if she must regard their messages jointly and severally as incomplete. Hence, she recognizes her distant debt to William Miller, a millenarian and evangelist of the...

  13. Afterword: On Limits, Ruptures, Meaning, and Meaninglessness
    (pp. 211-224)
    Joel Robbins

    Throughout his bookEmpire of Signs, first published in French in 1970, Roland Barthes sustains a comparison between a place he calls “Japan” and one he calls “the West.” The comparison turns on “the possibility of a difference … in the propriety of symbolic systems” between the two places (Barthes 1982: 3–4). His point is not to show that symbolic systems in the two places are different in the sense that they are possessed of different meanings—in a scholarly world punch-drunk on Saussurean insights and Levi-Straus’s anthropological appropriation of them, that would not have been news. Rather, what...

  14. List of Contributors
    (pp. 225-226)
  15. Index
    (pp. 227-239)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 240-240)