Academic journal article Ethnology

Introduced Writing and Christianity: Differential Access to Religious Knowledge among the Asabano(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Introduced Writing and Christianity: Differential Access to Religious Knowledge among the Asabano(1)

Article excerpt

Among the precontact Asabano of Duranmin, Papua New Guinea, older men kept secret myths revealed during initiations. Their religious knowledge gave them moral authority and privilege as enculturators. Since mass conversion to Christianity, the Bible is the new source of religious knowledge, and those able to read the Bible tell elders the myths written inside. Older men no longer function as experts of religious knowledge, which is now stored in books, to which only young people have direct access, resulting in a reversal of the age- and gender-based social structure. Scripture's ability to preserve and extend access to religious knowledge, combined with Christianity's doctrine of anti-secrecy, made this social change appealing because all sensed a net gain in access to religious power. (Writing technology, cultural transmission, literacy, authority, missionary, religion, Melanesia)

Writing is frequently associated with religion because it enables high-fidelity communications with people distant in space and time, with the long dead, and by implication with spiritual powers often believed to animate and inhabit the natural world. Like other technological devices, writing provides truly marvelous power that the human imagination easily extends beyond its natural capacities to supernatural ones. Indeed, any interaction between human and environment may produce a sense that the world is responsive and animate, and therefore humanlike. Anthropomorphic images of environmental components (e.g., spirits and gods) are at the core of religiosity (Guthrie 1997). Therefore, anything that makes the nonhuman world seem humanlike stirs religious thinking. As human actions are followed by changes in the environment, there is a sense of communication between person and cosmos. Just as learning a language enables children to elicit detailed and accurate responses from their parents, learning to use technologies promotes the impression that natural objects directly respond to signals and are therefore, perhaps, capable of human sociality. That is, as technologies enhance human abilities to project their desires upon and mold the natural world, they further humanize the cosmos and stimulate the religious imagination.

In myths, socialized universes in the form of supernatural beings understand human language and can communicate with people. Magic and prayer are essentially two-way communications people direct at humanlike forces of the supernatural realm that, according to religious believers, predicate the natural order (cf. Leach 1976:29-32). Writing is often seen as a way to improve the reception in such conversations with the supernatural, as Goody (1986:35, 38-39, 2000:87) documents. While writing can depersonalize face-to-face contacts among people as records replace relationships (Goody and Watt 1963), religious use of writing in scripture, magic, and prayer can also be understood to aid personalized relationships with the natural world that are the hallmark of religion.

In sum, writing enables verbatim communication across great expanses of space and time: a striking technical achievement that people easily associate with a spiritual realm. Scripture amplifies the human voices given to the cosmos by myth, as the exact words of deceased ancestors, place spirits, and creator gods can be heard by reading or listening to recitations of holy writings. The use of writing for magic and prayer allows people an appealing way to talk back to the deities.

This article traces effects of the introduction of Christian scripture upon religious enculturation among the Asabano, who are known to their Telefolmin neighbors and the government as the Duranmin. The Asabano are an ethnolinguistic group of about 200 residing in remote hamlets nestled among muddy, forested mountains and rushing rivers in Sandaun Province. They were first contacted by Australian government officials in 1963. As elders recall, immediately prior to Western contact, a male-focused initiatory religion maintained secret myths and rituals directed mainly at garden fertility and success in hunting and war. …

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