Christian Interculture

Texts and Voices from Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds

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Editor(s): 
Arun W. Jones
  • State College: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , February
     2021.
     260 pages.
     $99.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780271087795.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The time has long come for the undermining of histories propagated and maintained by Western narratives, and Arun Jones responsibly grapples with issues of representation in Western academic writings in the edited volume Christian Interculture: Texts and Voices from Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds. One problem scholars of religion today must address is that so much of what they know about Christian communities outside the West comes from materials produced by Westerners. However, the idea that indigenous Christians have been unable to leave a historical record of their voices is simply not true, as is the assumption that indigenous Christians have been in the position of dependence with respect to European power. As a step toward engaging these pitfalls, Jones draws together academic pursuits in the study of intercultural processes involved in the expansion of Christianity into non-Western cultural areas. A collection of papers from a 2014 Emory University conference, this is a necessary book that invites further research.

Jones has edited the nine essays of this volume into three sections. The first three essays engage in methodological issues: Paul Kollman discusses strategies for weighing historical evidence, Mrinalini Sebastian highlights the importance of knowing the frameworks of missionary authors, and Esther Mombo explores the difficulties of writing African Christian women’s histories. The second set of three essays takes readers to the first generation of Roman Catholics in Latin America and Asia: Haruko Ward argues that Japanese translations of European Catholic source materials give insight into the communal mindset of Japanese Christian women working with Jesuit missionaries, Yanna Yannakakis demonstrates how translations were manipulated by political actors in Mexico, and Kenneth Mills examines the unreliable accounts of a Spanish visitor to South America to explore indigenous Christianity in Peru.

The third set of three essays reaches the 19th and 20th centuries, as formerly colonized Christians struggled to liberate themselves from European control. Christopher Vecsey details the difficulty Native Christians faced in getting European Christians to take seriously their articulations of Native Christianity, Adrian Hermann investigates the publishing activities of Catholics in the Philippines seeking independence from Spain and Rome, and Jay Carney narrates the life of a Rwandan Roman Catholic bishop to reveal how the late 20th-century genocide was not an inevitable trajectory of the country’s history.

Jones has edited a superb contribution to the broader field of postcolonial scholarship. While Western Christianity is challenged for the atrocities committed by practitioners, this volume invites critical engagement with religion as resistance. How can believers acknowledge a history fraught with harms, while also undermining power structures? Is there potential for a redemptive corrective? What’s more, this volume points toward real-world implications today: Kollman notes the number of efforts underway to preserve the history of native Christians, in Africa and elsewhere. The most important rely on what might be called crowdsourcing. Data collection efforts such as the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (Center for Global Christianity & Mission, 2021) or the Documentation, Archives, Bibliography, and Oral History Group seek to work together to catalog records of Christians around the world. Vecsey affirms Native American Christians as exponents of native Christianity whose testimonies are worth our heed. Jones’ work highlights the ability of minority cultures to confront dominant ones with authority, resulting in critiques of the dominant culture (234). Finally, Jones highlights the contingent nature of intercultural exchange as calling into question the conceptual order not only of the historical societies being studied but also of the historians who study them.

Three criticisms of this book might be made. The first is a caution against reading something into historical peoples that might not be there. Kollman rightfully cites Gayatri Spivak in his work: “In their efforts to represent the experiences of those overlooked in the past—subalterns—Spivak detected in subalternist historians’ efforts paternalistically unhelpful projections from well-meaning but inextricably clouded, presentist vantages” (18). One wonders whether the heavy reliance on the written words of historical peoples—be it in their own writings or through the lenses of Westerners—is a symptom of a larger academy too deeply entrenched in calcified, paternalistically unhelpful methodologies. By relying on word alone, Western scholars are trained to overlook legitimate forms of cultural communications by indigenous communities—the spoken word, story, song, art, or dance, to name a few. Jones addresses this when he writes: “While materiality is being studied in new and exciting ways by historians, music and poetry also need to be investigated for our reconstructions of the past” (239). One wonders whether the contributors to this text missed an opportunity to expand on their source materials.

The second criticism cautions against the elevation of Christianity. Sebastian notes that some became Christians not just because of material benefits but because they were searching for an alternative vision that was premised on an understanding of equality before God—as though Christianity were the superior ideology? Ward claims that during Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier’s stay in Japan in 1549, he recognized the potential for evangelization by communicating Catholic concepts using Buddhist ones, and under these conditions, the Jesuit mission practiced a policy of cultural accommodation rather than proselytization. There is a fine line between cultural exchange and bait-and-switch, and Western academics might be too forgiving of historical attempts by Western missionaries to attempt “conversations” while ultimately patronizingly elevating their self-proclaimed superior worldview. Vecsey describes how Ojibwa George Copway became an evangelist in reverse: preaching to white Americans about their Christian duties to American Indians, as though it is surprising that Westerners should be taught by indigenous peoples?

The third criticism stems from the first two: in cautioning against patronizingly paternalistic readings into the past that elevate Christianity over indigenous worldviews, scholars today have the opportunity to push against Western worldviews in ways that erode Westerners as gatekeepers and welcome opportunities to be epistemologically changed. Vecsey beautifully summarizes his work when he writes: “If I may say so, it disappoints me to read so many books and articles about Indian responses to Christianity, which end in the faraway, without concern for Native Christians of the present day. Some authors seem too timid or circumscribed to go beyond the archives and engage living Indians. Native Christians are our neighbors, they can speak. We should be listening” (178). Indeed, scholars should be changed.

Withstanding the above-referenced criticisms, Jones has edited a work that is a meaningful addition to the postcolonial conversation, and this book invites a continuation of the dialogue by way of research opportunities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Millicent H. Haase is assistant instructor at the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2022
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Arun W. Jones is associate professor of world evangelism and director of the Master of Theology Program at Emory University. He is the author of Missionary Christianity and Local Religion: American Evangelicalism in North India, 1836–1870, and Christian Missions in the American Empire: Episcopalians in Northern Luzon, the Philippines, 1902–1946.

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