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The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith.

THE SLAIN GOD: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith by Timothy Larsen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 256 pages. Hardcover; $45.00. ISBN: 9780199657872.

Throughout its history, anthropology has had an uneasy at best, hostile at worst, relationship with Christian faith. Most anthropologists have been atheists, and the discipline has forbade theological speculation in its discourse. Anthropology sees itself as the rational, secular, and natural science of people. The exclusion of religious thought from critical analysis has been far from a benign division of labor. Anthropologists have a reputation for being openly hostile to Christianity. Their antagonism is especially strong for missionaries, who are deemed agents of the West, destroying traditional cultures. But, more than this, anthropologists find it difficult to relate to and understand religion as a whole, even the religions of the cultures they are investigating. As a result they have developed theories of religion that reduce it to functions of cultural arenas they understand better: cognitive uncertainty, psychological need, social unity, political legitimacy, symbolic meaning, and so forth.

Timothy Larsen is a historian at Wheaton College who studies nineteenth- and twentieth-century British Christian faith and thought. In this book, he examines six well-known British anthropologists, intertwining biography with anthropological theory. The six anthropologists studied are ordered historically, but also form a "ring composition" with regard to their individual relations to Christian faith, from atheists to believers to animist.

First is Edward Tylor, the founding "father" of anthropology in England. Tylor was raised as a Quaker, but gave up his faith and became openly antagonistic especially to Catholicism. He denied the existence of the spiritual world entirely in his attempt to create a positive science of people that would be legitimate in the secular academy. Larsen says that Tylor had locked religion and science into a "zero-sum struggle" (p. 25), and that once he had allowed reason in, "there was no apparent way to stop scepticism from undermining religion as a whole thereafter" (p. 35).

Next is James Frazer, the author of the popular classic in comparative religions, The Golden Bough. Frazer too had come from a Christian home, but embraced skepticism, "rationalism," and science as the replacement for religion. Larsen suggests,
   While Frazer was ostensibly ... [making] savage
   practices more familiar and understandable, his
   covert intention was in all likelihood the reverse:
   to make familiar religious practices that his readers
   had always accepted as understandable come
   to appear strange and savage. (p. 48)


E. E. Evans-Pritchard, whom Larsen identifies as the center of the ring (p. 221), was a believing Christian throughout his adult life. He is a complex figure: the son of an Anglican clergyman who encountered real personal difficulties in adulthood (a drinking habit, a wife who committed suicide, and psychological war wounds), but who converted sincerely to Catholicism. His church attendance was not regular, but his faith included a strong personal devotional life and an intellectual defense of religious belief and practice. This defense was conducted, first, by a demonstration of the rationality of so-called "primitive" religions; next, by a challenge to anthropology to reject positive science in favor of a humanist approach to social history (p. 110); and then, by a rejection of the notion that religion can be reduced to other arenas of life. "He who accepts the reality of spiritual beings," stated Evans-Pritchard, "does not feel the same need for such explanations" (p. 99).

Mary Douglas, Larsen's next anthropologist, was raised and remained a practicing and devout Catholic for her entire life. She especially defended the church and wove her commitment to it into her theorizing about the nature of hierarchy and its necessity for social life. Douglas is followed by Victor and Edith Turner, who began their adult married life as atheists, but converted to Catholicism as a result of their anthropological work on ritual in Africa. Victor Turner openly defended Christianity when describing his conversion:
   It seemed more reasonable to hypothecate a purposive
   somebody behind the structure of the
   universe than a purposeless something ... if materialism
   be right, our thoughts are determined
   by irrational processes and therefore the thoughts
   which lead to the conclusion that materialism is
   right have no relation to reason. (p. 185)


Edith, however, wandered into quasi-animist thinking after Victor's death, and now defends the existence of the "supernatural" in ways that would have helped Tylor make his point that it is all nonsense. The ring is complete.

Larsen's book is helpful in providing background information for the history of the discipline and for demonstrating the complexity of its relation to Christian faith. The anthropologist La Fontaine had said, "Once you stop religious thought, you start thinking anthropologically" (p. 167). Yet, as Larsen points out, theology has been there all along as a conversation partner (p. 225). All of these anthropologists, whether hostile or friendly to faith, used biblical words, concepts, and analogies in their theorizing. Larsen concludes that "Christian thought continues to invite and repel anthropologists, to intrigue and to haunt them, even in the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium" (p. 226). Though a bit inclined to "purple prose," the book will be valuable to Christian students and scholars of anthropology who would like to find ways to incorporate faith into the discipline.

Reviewed by Eloise Meneses, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Director of the MA in Theological and Cultural Anthropology at Eastern University, St. Davids, PA 19087.
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Author:Meneses, Eloise
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2015
Words:898
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