Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch

Indian American Christianity in Motion

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Prema Ann Kurien
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , June
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479826377.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch is, on the face of it, about a generational split among diasporic Syrian Christians from southern India in the US. A growing number of second-generation Indians belonging to the Syrian Christian Mar Thoma denomination are choosing to worship instead in non-denominational evangelical churches. In order to unpack this contemporary puzzle, Kurien lays out the longue dureé of transregional religious encounter in which this community’s history is enmeshed. The book stages flashpoints in the Syrian Christian community’s early modern and recent history: 15th century encounters with Portuguese Catholics on India’s Western coast, entanglements with 19th century Anglican missionaries, and contemporary engagements with non-denominational evangelicalism in North America. In this, it sets out global Christianity as a field that is imbricated with the transregional histories of empire on the one hand, and with the problematics of schism, reform, and evangelization on the other.

Most compelling is the book’s contribution to the study of ethnicity as a site at which religious identity is troubled. In the 15th century, the Syrian Christian community struggled with the Jesuit compulsion of allegiance to a Roman Pope in return for their recognition as fellow Christians. In the 19th century they engaged with an Anglican attempt to purify their faith and thus mark them as untainted by Catholic intervention. And in the present, young Syrian Christians struggle with the question of how to be good Christians in multi-cultural America.

The book begins with two long chapters that focus on the history of Syrian Christian life in South India beginning in the 15th century. In these chapters, Kurien tells a story of this community as shaped by early modern histories of mobility across the Indian Ocean. The subsequent chapters explore the Mar Thoma Church’s more recent history of migration and diaspora formation in the US. Of these chapters, the ones on generation and gender are particularly compelling. In the third chapter—on generation—Kurien tells an illustrative story about a youth group that met to discuss reform in the Mar Thoma Church in 1998. When they presented their discussions to older congregants, particularly emphasizing their need for a more evangelical church, Kurien tells us that they were met with frustration, with one “uncle” in particular remarking: “We don’t need any evangelism. My father is a Christian, I am a Christian, and my son is a Christian.” To this, the leader of the youth group and Kurien’s informant responds, “You see, some of them don’t have the real knowledge of what Christianity is all about.” This story lays out in bare terms the stakes of the tension between “ethnic church” and “megachurch.”

I found this youth group’s experience particularly poignant in light of the historical background of missionary encounters in South Asia described in preceding chapters. As other historians of Christianity in South India have noted, the argument that Christianity was a religion that recognized no birth status, but instead accorded value to the individual was a central tenet of missionary work in this region. In what way does this 19th century history bear on the present? Does it matter that both emanate from particular locations within imperial worlds? Given that in the final chapter, Kurien discusses the role of US-funded evangelical churches in Kerala itself drawing away adherents from traditional denominations, these questions are particularly pertinent. Additionally, given the growing significance of questions about the endurance of imperial networks in the postcolonial world, the book begs questions on how the Syrian Christian community’s history of religious encounters within imperial worlds bears on their present.

Indeed, the one criticism that I might make of this book is that it left me wondering how its first two chapters—on the history of Syrian Christian life in South India—bear on the present that forms the ethnographic core of the book. While Kurien makes it clear that the present is located in a long history of encounter, schism, and reformation, the book’s lack of direct engagement with the past in its analysis of ethnographic material leaves this history somewhat flat. In particular, there is the story of capital that the book addresses on and off: the first half of the book locates transformations in the community in the 19th century within a network of Christian internationalist philanthropy and capital circulation; in the second half, we learn about a contemporary political economy of charity that undergirds the shift towards evangelical worship and away from traditional churches. The book however does not bring these histories together to flesh out the history of capital’s imbrication with religion and migration within imperial worlds that the book initially appears to approach.

This criticism notwithstanding, the book is a significant contribution, both to the study of race and religion in the US, as well as to the study of Christianity in the Global South.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sneha Krishnan is a junior research fellow in human geography at St. John's College, Oxford.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Prema A. Kurien is professor of sociology at Syracuse University and author of two award-winning books, Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity: International Migration and the Reconstruction of Community Identities in India, and A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism. She is currently working on her next book, Race, Religion, and Citizenship: the Political Mobilization of Indian Americans. 

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