From Mission to Movement: The Impact of Christianity on Patterns on Political Association in Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

In a recent contribution Harvey Whitehouse suggests that studies of Christianity in Melanesia are in sorry shape. Scholars have, by and large, 'bought' an old missionary argument that the missionization of Melanesia helped to transform tribal fragmentation and localism through the dogma that humans are all God's children (Whitehouse 1998: 43). Whitehouse argues that Christian ideology, which was initially inscrutable to Melanesians, could not have inspired the transcendence of tribal divisions. Instead, it was the distinctive way that Christianity encodes and transmits its dogma that provided Melanesians with the cognitive tools to imagine and create regional communities. Once they became familiar with the doctrinal mode of religiosity in the hot-house conditions of mission stations, some Melanesian converts were able to transfer forms of organization and dissemination of knowledge, shorn of most of their purely Christian ideological elements, and create their own distinctive religious movements.

Although he draws upon the language of cognitive psychology, Whitehouse's argument will be quite familiar to most students of religious transformation in Melanesia and elsewhere. His imagistic and doctrinal modes of religion owe an unacknowledged debt to Weber's classic distinction between traditional and world religions. Whitehouse presents a variation on the shattered microcosm model of religious change whose best known proponent is Robin Horton (1971; 1975; Ranger 1993) in which Christianity is seen as a catalyst but not as a necessary element in the transition from local to regional society. Many scholars have also written on the hegemonic influence of mission routines, particularly in the controlled environment of stations, upon indigenous understandings of space, time, authority and society, most notably Michael French Smith (1982) in Melanesia and Jean and John Comaroff (1991) in southern Africa. These are hardly obscure writers, yet Whitehouse fails to mention their work. Instead, he presents his analysis of conversion as a new argument to counter scholars who argue that 'the enlargement of indigenous conceptions of community was a result of encountering the universalistic themes of Christian ideology' (Whitehouse 1998: 54, emphasis added). Whitehouse's characterization of the scholarly consensus, however, has even less substance than his claim to theoretical novelty.

I confess that I have a personal stake here. The only evidence Whitehouse produces to illustrate the scholarly consensus he opposes is drawn from a single page of an essay I wrote some years ago on Christianity in Oceania. Whitehouse reproduces part of a quote from Ian Hogbin's Social change (1958) that I discuss at some length. I can see how someone unfamiliar with Hogbin's meticulous ethnography and hard-headed assessments of the interactions between missionaries and converts could read this statement as a naive assertion that belief in God the Father in itself could work political miracles, although the possibility did not occur to me at the time I used the quote. Whitehouse's editing of my words to make it appear that I merely endorse Hogbin's statement is another matter. Here is what I wrote, with the passage expurgated by Whitehouse in italics:

Christianity, particularly in the early missionary stages, introduced its followers to an enlarged and vastly complicated world - indeed cosmos. The introduction was both practical and ideological. Through schooling and the application of imported practical arts, missionaries began to familiarize islanders with the orientations and organization of the hegemonic colonial system the Europeans were then building. And, through the provision of the Bible and church liturgies and traditions, they introduced islanders to a language within which Christians could speak about their enlarged social and spiritual community (Barker 1990: 16; cf. Whitehouse 1998: 54).

I cannot think of a single anthropologist or historian who subscribes to the view that Christian dogma alone or even in major part compelled Melanesians to overlook tribal divisions and form larger groups. …