Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective

Written by Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris Reviewed By Jason S. Sexton

Adding to the growing number of books seeking to understand “culture,” this highly readable work explores cultural anthropology from a distinctly Christian perspective. Not slack on academic rigor, this book surveys broad features of the field, journeying through the history, definitions and common descriptions of terms and ideas used by cultural anthropologists, and doing so in ways attempting to both educate and integrate a Christian understanding of the discipline.

The book begins by describing the four fields of anthropology, methods intrinsic to cultural anthropology, and how it differs from other disciplines (ch. 1). In ch. 2, recounting less adequate ways of defining “culture,” the authors provide their careful definition as “the total way of life of a group of people that is learned, adaptive, shared, and integrated” (p. 36), utilizing the concept of “conversation” as the preferred metaphor (p. 40).

Chapter 3 reckons with the phenomena of language and its relationship between culture and society before attempting to sketch a Christian understanding of the creation of meaning as reflected in God’s self-revelation. Chapter 4 considers social structures related to status, race, ethnicity, class, etc., while highlighting how cultural anthropology assists Christians in addressing inequality (p. 83). Further related to inequality, ch. 5 addresses gender and sexuality as understood by cultural anthropological lenses, and ch. 6 explores different modes of human subsistence, systems of exchange, and economic theories.

Concepts of power and political structures are taken up next (ch. 7), followed by the importance of kinship and marriage in particular societies (ch. 8). Religion, ritual, and myth are the subjects in ch. 9, while ch. 10 explores culture change in a globalized situation. The penultimate chapter presents the nature of anthropological “theory,” which, for Christians, the authors argue, “the various theoretical approaches can aid in understanding the data without contradicting or erasing faith commitments” (p. 244). And in the final chapter, the authors sketch practical ways how anthropology is vital to the Christian life, the life of the church, and missions.

As the subtitle renders, this book is written from a Christian perspective, casually observed by each chapter’s concluding devotions drawn from Scripture, reflecting further on the chapter’s theme(s). The text of each chapter also consists of at least one latter section seeking to synthesize or relate particular chapter content to either Christ, other biblical data, individual Christian, or the church’s involvement with the issues (present or historically). As such, their work overlaps somewhat with recent developments, not just in with missiology, but also in missional theology.

While the book suits as a perfect textbook for liberal arts courses on anthropology, these scholars are not just evangelical academics writing about anthropology. They are anthropologists, who have each conducted fieldwork in particular locations. Howell, associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, has conducted fieldwork in a small mountain village in the Northern Philippines. Paris, professor of anthropology and sociology at Messiah College, has intertwined her research with four years of ministry in the urban northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. The degree of rigor for their fieldwork is a question for their anthropological colleagues, and not for this review. However, despite being conversant with the field and being committed to a devotional, biblically considerate approach, the work seems to lack an overall depth, ethos, and gravity that some anthropology works might elicit. Admittedly, this is a textbook, not a monograph. But even the issues addressed, sometimes trivialized and sometimes creatively stretching compatibility with Christianity, the weightiness inherent to some issues is missing. For example, the 1994 Rwandan genocide is spoken of statistically (p. 210) in light of the colonial implications for the situation, rather than as a deeply moral and ethical issue in itself. Thus, the work seems to lack the “feeling” and “humanness” that cultural anthropology ought to evoke.

Not all evangelicals will be comfortable with some of their conclusions. For example, Paris argues that anthropological fieldwork “requires cultural relativism—a suspension of one’s own prejudgments for the sake of really understanding the perspective of the research informants” (p. 101). While this might have been stated more carefully as aspects of this demeanor are worth nothing, especially in cross-cultural ministry situations (her example is the LGBTQ community in D.C.), her statement goes too far.

This book also fails to reckon with the informing role theology ought to have in anthropological research, including the notion that some cultural practices will necessarily be deemed sinful if Jesus stands over all cultural reality and the Bible has spoken on certain matters under consideration. Every methodological approach to cultural anthropology [i.e., materialist, ecological, feminist, cultural Marxist, and other postmodern theories] cannot always be reconciled with Christianity (p. 244). In such case, it is unacceptable to suggest an absolving of tensions between cultural practices with the claim that these and faith commitments do not cancel each other out. The gospel is neither compatible with every empirical approach to research, nor compatible with all cultural practices.

Further, anthropology and theology are not mutually exclusive entities, since the latter claims to give account of the former, and the reverse undermines the gospel’s priority. Incidentally, the authors attribute a form of cultural relativism to a few evangelical theologians (pp. 60–61), claiming that they suggest cultures and language shape the creation of meaning. And yet, Howell and Paris completely overlook that these theologians have provided structures to deflect this very notion. Namely, they locate the meaning of “revelation” as something Spirit-determined and appropriated in particular cultural locations, rather than the much synthetically weaker “process” of being “guided by the Holy Spirit.” Theologians they cite had distinctly theological aims in their appropriation of various theories (e.g., linguistic), employing ranges of sources but building something much different than sociolinguistic theories, or modifications thereof, can build.

Frequent reference to the imago Dei might have also been aided by theology’s reflection nurturing something more than the static and functional view. The eschatological imago Dei offers much more to assist their anthropological work. This work would have also been enhanced in conversation with theologians working with cultural theories or towards theological anthropologies. For example, Vanhoozer’s work is never mentioned, nor is that of non-evangelical theologians like Tanner, Jenson, or Hauerwas. Thus they fail to account for well-developed conversations between systematic theologians, which could have lent a helping hand to some of the things they work towards articulating. This suggests that their work would have been well-served by borrowing more from Newbigin than Nida.

Accordingly, while a survey textbook cannot do everything, this book provides a delightful sketch through the field that will begin to see arguments for Christianity and cultural anthropology working together in mutually beneficial ways. And yet, any account of cultural anthropology deemed “Christian” ought to be concerned not merely to do anthropology as Christians, but rather to persist developing a distinctly Christian anthropology, concerned to account for the discipline as functionally significant while also subject to Jesus’ lordship. And while a solid argument is made for the relevancy of cultural anthropology to Christian missions, for a theologically robust cultural anthropology developed by Christians who share as much of a concern for a theological accounting for their discipline as they are competent with cultural anthropology, one must look elsewhere.

Jason S. Sexton

Jason Sexton is a licensed minister with the Evangelical Free Church of America and PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at The University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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