Academic journal article Oceania

Christian Marriage, Money Scams, and Melanesian Social Imaginaries

Academic journal article Oceania

Christian Marriage, Money Scams, and Melanesian Social Imaginaries

Article excerpt


In this paper, we draw on fieldwork with middle-class investors in 'fast money schemes' (Ponzi scams) to consider how Neo-Pentecostal Christianity may be mediating social and economic change in Papua New Guinea, particularly in relation to gender equality. Ideas of companionate marriage and the cultivation of an affective self imply masculinities that are more sensitive and less domineering. As these images of fulfilled modernity flow out from Pentecostal churches into broader Papua New Guinean society, they corroborate Taylor's theory of how change occurs within the modern social imaginary.

Keywords: marriage, Papua New Guinea, Christianity, gender, Charles Taylor.


How might gender be central to processes of social change? In Papua New Guinea (PNG) and beyond, gender equality is often derided as an externally imposed idea that has little resonance with local 'culture' (Macintyre 1998; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1998). Nevertheless, many other modern influences are embraced as highly desirable, such as the capitalist economy, or are readily naturalized into Melanesian society and tradition as is the case with Christianity. Indeed, Christianity can be considered as a site of rapid social and cultural change, even in relation to gender equality. Our research into Melanesian 'fast money schemes' (Ponzi or pyramid scams) explores some of these questions of social and economic change in relation to Christianity. In this paper, we illustrate how Charles Taylor's (2004) elaboration of 'the social imaginary' can be used to explain why it is that 'Born Again' Christianity might be more socially progressive than it initially seems in relation to gender equality.

Drawing on fieldwork among middle-class Pentecostal Christians seduced by the U-Vistract pyramid scam, we contribute evidence that supports Richard Eves's (2012) cautious optimism about the role of some churches in changing the dynamics of marital relationships. We examine the emergence of ideas of marriage and family and new ideals of gender harmony that are based on notions of equality between men and women. For many Papua New Guineans, these new iterations of personhood and social relations imply the mastery of modernity.

Conversion to Christianity during the colonial period had immediate effects on gender relations in PNG (Jolly and Macintyre 1989). Recently, as new evangelical churches have gained influence, the changes have taken on new characteristics, with companionate marriage becoming 'an important marker of Christian modern personhood' (Wardlow 2006a:73). There are ways in which Christianity legitimates violence, particularly within marriage (e.g., Hermkens 2012), and fundamentalist Christianity can disturb indigenous gender relations and create new divisions and inequalities (Minnegal and Dwyer 1997). Nevertheless, Christianity also promotes new ideas of personal responsibility and moral obligation that emphasize mutuality within marriage. Eves (2012) has argued that 'Bom Again' Christians in PNG are surprisingly progressive in relation to gender equality, particularly in relation to prohibitions of domestic violence. While there are certainly no unequivocal commitments to equality between men and women and there are notable inconsistencies in practice, Eves sees these churches as offering some positive models and pathways for reducing gender inequality and particularly gender-based violence.

Our purpose here is to show how these new evangelical churches mediate different aspects of modernity and how these may flow out into changes in the broader social imaginary of PNG in relation to gender. In a critique of aid programs dealing with gender inequality in PNG, Macintyre observed that 'the transformation of social and cultural values occurs in ways that are indirect and often tangential to the specific value privileged' (2012:260). We hope that this discussion will make visible some of these indirect and tangential spaces where social change may occur. …

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