Across the Boundaries of Belief. (Book Reviews: Anthropology of Religion)

By Woodman, Justin | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Across the Boundaries of Belief. (Book Reviews: Anthropology of Religion)


Woodman, Justin, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


KLASS, MORTON & MAXINE K. WEISGRAU (eds). Across the boundaries of belief (Contemp. issues in anthr. relig.). viii, 416 pp., bibliogrs. Boulder: Westview Press/HarperCollins, 1999. $30.00 (paper)

Klass and Weisengrau's collection represents an attempt to update themes and topics relevant to undergraduates studying the anthropology of religion. The volume is divided thematically into five sections: colonialism and postcolonial legacies; gender and sexuality; healing and altered states; religion and the state; changes and continuities.

The first section offers a welcome corrective to the narrow view of missionaries as colonizers and 'polluters' of indigenous culture. Contributions by Claude Stipe, Judith Shapiro and Sergei Kan consider the ambiguous role of missionaries in re-shaping religious beliefs and power relations. Shapiro and Kan both examine, in different contexts, ways in which the cross-fertilization of Christianity with indigenous belief has more recently been utilized as a symbolic reservoir of anticolonialist rhetoric. Stipe's article also crystallizes some of the ambivalence of the relativistic turn in Western anthropology, namely the moral double standards which on occasion lead anthropologists to equate Christianity with colonialization, whilst uncritically lionizing the beliefs of the 'other'.

However, here the book encounters a problem of representation -- at least as far as the world religions are concerned: JudaeoChristian traditions occupy a central position in eight of the articles, Islam in only two; Hinduism and Buddhism are only noticeable by their virtual absence.

The section on gender and religion ably avoids oversimplifying debates in terms of male oppression/female resistance. In an important study of Oglala ritual attitudes towards menstruation, Marla Powers reconsiders the universality of the menstrual taboo; her own findings suggest that the ritual separation of Oglala women during menstruation emphasizes the sacredness of female reproductive power, rather than reiterating a condition of uncleanliness. Deborah Elliston also raises important questions concerning the role of Western homophobic biases in categorizing Melanesian 'ritualized homosexuality' as 'perversion'. However, in failing clearly to disaggregate culture-bound concepts of sexual 'abnormality' from the realities of sexual violence, she is in danger of treating apparent acts of sexual abuse as some sort of ideational, cultural 'discourse' (or, as the author has it, a 'meaning system').

The introduction to the section on healing and altered states problematizes the conflict between Western biomedical/psychiatric interpretations and indigenous categories. …

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