Liana Chua, 2012, the Christianity of Culture: Conversion, Ethnic Citizenship, and the Matter of Religion in Malaysian Borneo

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Liana Chua, 2012, The Christianity of Culture: Conversion, Ethnic Citizenship, and the Matter of Religion in Malaysian Borneo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Map, figures, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-0-230-12046-4.

Liana Chua's lively and engaging The Christianity of Culture illuminates a story of conversion from Adat Gawai to diverse forms of Christianity: Anglican, Catholic, and Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB, formerly Borneo Evangelical Mission) within a Bidayuh community. It is not only a story of conversion, but also an analysis of ethnicity and the politics of citizenship in the wider Malaysian polity, situated within an overarching framework of the anthropology of religion. Chua sees the current discourse as framed in terms of rupture and discontinuity, whereas she wants to revive the issue of continuity and contiguity. She sees this as crucial to her thesis, arguing that any account of conversion and Christianity must also incorporate continuity, in order to give a fully nuanced view of the culture of Christianity and the Christianity of culture.

Chua was initially introduced to Sarawak by a family connection in Singapore and, through the Catholic network, was incorporated into village life with her adoptive family in Kampung Benuk, a village in the Penrissen area south of Kuching. With a deft hand and a good dose of self-deprecating wit Chua enlivens what might otherwise be a rather dense introduction. This encompasses an account of her original intention to examine Bidayuh "culture" and how Bidayuhs constructed cultural identity through such sites as the local museum. Within a month her plans were torpedoed with the death of her major informant. Like all good fieldworkers, however, she soldiered on and tailored her efforts to something which, in my view, is far more sophisticated, and actually manages to revive the culture side of the equation by linking it with Christianity.

Part 1 is a detailed ethnography of the salient features of Kampung Benuk and presents a view from below. The village is still very much in a state of transition between the old way of life and the new, and her analysis is informed by the relevant literature. The year 1963 saw the incorporation of Sarawak within the modern Malaysian state and the former Land Dayak, an ethnic label imposed from outside, officially became the Bidayuh, the fourth largest ethnic group in the State. Chua locates the Bidayuh within current bumiputera (indigenous or 'sons of soil') politics. In official discourse Bidayuhs and other indigenes are bumiputera, but the core ethnic remains the Malay, and the Bidayuhs are well aware of their second class status within the bumiputera category despite the nationwide promotion of development for all in the Vision 2020 program. While the Bidayuhs still consider themselves marginal and alienated in regard to many aspects of modernity, they have successfully been incorporated into other aspects of modernity through multiculturalism and the promotion of Bidayuh culture through tourism, cultural performance, homestays and the revival of the classic Bidayuh head-house (baruk/pangah) and Adat Gawai rituals.

In the succeeding chapter, an account of Adat Gawai, the indigenous religion, the rituals of which were closely linked to the rice cycle, Chua traces the changes from the pre-Christian past to the Christian present. This chapter is crucial to her argument about continuity and contiguity. The numbers adhering to the old religion are few and elderly and reliant on members of the Christian community to help them carry out the rituals and associated festivities. The succeeding chapters formulate a compelling argument, revolving around the politics of religion and ethnicity, to explain why this has been the case.

Early missionary activity in Sarawak, was associated with health care, education and welfare, and three Christian denominations play a part in Kampung Benuk's gradual and piecemeal conversion to various forms of Christianity: Anglican, Roman Catholic and SIB. …