Missionary Christianity and Local Religion

American Evangelicalism in North India, 1836-1870

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Arun W. Jones
Studies in World Christianity
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     2017.
     344 pages.
     $59.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781602584327.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Arun Jones has written an insightful analysis of the beginnings of evangelical Protestantism in what is today Uttar Pradesh state in north India. In a summary statement Jones writes: “From from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, bhakti had created what Edward Soja has termed social and ideological Thirdspaces in Hindi North India, places where reigning orthodoxies and orthopraxis could be subjected to rigorous critique, and new ideas for human community could be imagined and developed, discussed and debated, and put into practice” (276).

Jones is careful to state that evangelicalism was not presented as (and was not) another type of bhakti movement. There were similarities, particularly that of authoritative spiritual figures critiquing the traditional religiosity and teachings of established faiths, including a call to “conversion” to the alternative teaching. This similarity allowed for an initial recognition of Christianity as viable in the alien world of north Indian society: “Indians influenced by low-caste bhakti sects knew that ideas of equality across social and religious strata based on devotion to a particular deity had been promulgated for centuries by certain bhakti saints and gurus” (271).

Jones suggests that by the 1870s there was a change, and this particular expression of north Indian evangelical Protestantism ceased to fit in the conceptual Thirdspace of the bhakti movements, and instead became institutionalized as part of a pan-Indian Protestant movement, “to form a theologically and socially broader and more inclusive church” (277). Jones brings his study up to the present time by suggesting that numerous expressions of north India Christianity today are moving outside traditional Christian power structures into specifically Christian Thirdspaces: “In these marginal Thirdspaces, religiously active Protestants are borrowing from, criticizing, refining and reshaping the Christian tradition they grew up with….Yet even in this markedly Christian Thirdspace, the religious terrain cultivated by bhakti and used by early Evangelicalism is palpable and discernible” (284).

These insights need to impact the way Christianity is perceived in India. It is disappointing, however, that Jones does not compare his analysis with the now standard recognition that Protestant Christianity took root in India as an alternative patronage system. Are these mutually exclusive paradigms, or can they be seen as complementary? There is a lot of work to be done in fitting Jones’s work into broader understandings of the development of Indian Protestantism, and at least some hints from Jones regarding how he sees this would have been appreciated.

There are a number of other problems with Jones’s text, only some of which will be noted here. The Studies in World Christianity series wants to appeal to “the thoughtful general reader” and so not be pedantic, so dropping diacritical marks is acceptable. But what sense can a general reader make of a word like matrkas (24)? A blatant error related to transliteration appears when Brahmā of the famous Pushkar temple in Rajasthan is confused with Brahma of the Brahmo Samaj (23-24). Antiquated spellings—for example “Benares” (28, etc.)—and the highly misleading “Chumars” where Chamars was intended, are inexplicably used. There is an odd reference to three sacred rivers in Allahabad (79, where the Magh Mela is referenced but the Kumbh Mela oddly ignored), and Ravidas and Raidas are referenced in adjoining pages (180, 181) without any indication that these are alternative names for the same person.

Students of north Indian Protestantism are indebted to Arun Jones, but also have challenging new work to integrate his perspective into a wider understanding of Christian movements in India.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. L. Richard is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arun W. Jones is the Dan and Lillian Hankey associate professor of world evangelism at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

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