By Muna Dahir
In North America today, the push for secular attitudes catalyzed by the amalgamative nature of America’s cultural and ethnic landscape has prompted recent studies about the politics of religious identities and the ways in which many Christians living in such diverse environments now navigate these public and private spaces while maintaining and expressing their faith. The topic of religion within popular media has recently been polarized and the source of much controversy and hot takes; many people affiliate religiosity specifically tied to Western religions as being more ‘uncompromising’ and less progressive. With that being said, this movement towards secularization has reduced Christian knowledge to an abstract system of beliefs, with no bearing on everyday life. Moreover, this call for secular identities has prompted the question of what constitutes a Christian identity. Can a Christian be described as a singular object, or does the pluralities of different localities make it hard to position one’s Christianness on a scale? If we are able to denote what a Christian is not, than what are the definitive factors that lead to the formation of an ‘authentic’ Christian in this increasingly globalized world. With that being said, this idea of measurable validity and authenticity seems fitting to deconstruct through the lens of the newly emergent discipline of the anthropology of Christianity because it has been recently used in order to address this line of questioning through the deconstruction of the notion of 100% Christianity and notions of unequivocal authenticity; but contrastingly has done little to address the actual question of what it is that makes a Christian a Christian, and what the embodiment of this religion looks like.
In this paper I will be examining different ways in which Christianity orients a particular way of being. I argue that anyone can be 100% Christian, as Christianity exists in multiple different contexts and takes shape in a multitude of different ways depending on the body of the individual practicing the religion. I aim to deconstruct the popular notion of a singular ‘Christian identity’ and address how these conflicting imaginations and incongruencies within the religion affect etiological discussions about authenticity and correct embodiment of Christianity in conversion discourses within the realm of anthropology. Furthermore, I will attempt to analyze this question of Christian Identity in the plural, by drawing parallels between the work of Melissa Hackman, Retief Muller, Amalendu Misra and Gauri Viswanathan, while reflecting on the themes of citizenship, gender, politics, and nationalism.
In order to deconstruct these notions of a singular Christian identity we must look at from where this notion has stemmed. In the history of the study of Christianity, there has been a homogenous depiction of the ‘Christian’, who that is and what that looks like. More often than not this concept of the ‘Christian’ is derived from euro-centric notions of Christianness and mainstream historical texts centered on Europe’s relationship with Christianity. Furthermore, the knowledge being produced about Christianity has portrayed Europe as the primary example of Christianity, whereas other contexts begin to look like the secondary, tertiary, etc. European identities become synonymous or interchangeable with Christian identities, and thus homogenous constructions of a singular Christian identity, contingent on proximity to ‘Europeanness’, begin to permeate through contemporary discourse around Christianity. Furthermore, with the push to decolonize academia where modern discourses are formed and knowledge is (re)produced has prompted more scholars to begin to deconstruct from where these mainstream associations derive. Judith Gruber’s essay, Christian Identities: An imaginative and Innovative Quest for Heterogeneous Unity, she critically engages with identity discourses and current problems existing within this realm of academia. She states, “Postmodern and postcolonial concepts of identity undermine traditional hermeneutical models of the history of Christianity. Essentialist teleological paradigms are replaced by approaches which stress the unstable, inconclusive and hybrid character of all identity constructions” (Gruber, 23). An example of this type of essentializing gaze within the anthropology of Christianity that exemplifies what Gruber is suggesting is presented in Erica Bornstein’s ethnographic paper about her observations working in a NGO in Zimbabwe. Bornstein observes the relationship between NGOs and Christianity that contributed to the dichotomous nature of ‘the West’ versus ‘the rest’ conceptualization of Christian embodiment. This highlights the growing need to decolonize academia and break away from normative discourses surrounding what correct Christian embodiment looks like. Bornstein focuses her work on the NGO World Vision and how deeply interwoven it is to Christianity. With that being said, Bornstein centers her construction of a Christian on acts of ‘Christian’ behavior such as prayer, ritual, benevolence, and so forth. Bornstein continues to describe how prayer is an integral part of solidarity and membership into Christianity and explicates the performative nature of Christianity by extension. She states,
“If, as my informants told me, the weekly prayer meetings were places where problems and grievances aired, in some ways it did resemble Turner’s model of social drama among the Ndembu, however the actors (the sleeping and waning audience included) were not necessarily in a generative process of world making. The silence, helplessness, apathy that the audience exhibited, spoke to cosmic dissonance instead of harmony…the social drama of the Zimbabwean prayer meeting was one where actors did not have agency.” (Bornstein, 2006).
What Bornstein is demonstrating is the overarching theme of questioning the validity of ‘Others’ Christianity or the ability to embody and appreciate it. What this Bornstein excerpt demonstrates is not only her suspicions about the relevance of these prayer meetings to the Zimbabwean NGO workers and how much it means to them, but underscores how current works in academia begin to make meaning of people’s lives and measure the validity or authenticity of their experiences. This will be valuable as I develop the idea of Other Christianities and the binary nature of mainstream Christianity and subsequently Christian identities within the global religion itself.
Additionally, the question of what an authentic Christian is able to look like also creates the illusion of a singular Christian context; being 100% Christian in itself insinuates a singular Christianity. More often than not, the inferred type of Christianity that is automatically placed at the forefront of this question is that which is practiced by Western Christians. These types of homogenous and reductive ideologies create a multitude of different implications supported by popular media and mainstream religious discourse together insinuate the authenticity of a Christian is based on its proximity to the West. This highlights the concept of ‘Other Christianities’, as explained by anthropologist Retief Muller. Retief Muller’s essay, The Zion Christian Church and Global Christianity: negotiating a tightrope between localization and globalization, provides a long critical analysis about normative discourses surrounding Christianity and the Global South. Muller emphasizes the long-standing and pre-colonial presence of Christianity in South Africa and provides a critique on how globalization might have lead to these linear ideas of Christianity as a single Global Christianity. Muller investigates the Zion Christian Church’s (ZCC) as a historically indigenous Christianity within South Africa and works towards moving away from the dichotomous nature of the West versus the Rest. Muller suggests that the existing binaries within academia that present Christianity in Africa as Other forms of Christianity further prompts us to question what an authentic Christian looks like if Christianity can exist within many different contexts. Muller also suggests that by creating this concept of Western Christianity as the main point of reference for teleological conversations about religiosity and authenticity, we are employing an essentialist rhetoric within anthropology that consciously erases the histories of indigenous and non Euro/American forms of Christianity (Muller,2015: 175). Moreover, Muller states, “The shelving together of a number of different theologians and historians of Christianity in a single category for the purposes of debunking that very same category is perhaps a questionable academic practice” (Muller, 2015:177). Muller’s exploration of this ‘Global Christianity Paradigm’ demonstrates how the practice of assigning the labels of ‘Other Christianities’ against the backdrop of Western Christianity creates this homogenous and static depiction of a Global Christianity. With that being said, Muller’s analysis of the dangers of a Global Christianity within academia marginalizes and erases many groups of Christians within academia and also does little to create a broader, more productive conversation on the construction of Christian identities.
The question of an authentic Christian, or the measure of how Christian one can be is often directed towards converts who had previously been aligned with a different religion or none at all. Throughout mainstream media and conversations concerning conversion, many people often acquire this inherent suspicion of backsliding, or call upon the question of motivations for conversion. Is this conversion a means of economic gains? Has this community converted in order to access resources and education? These are many of the questions that permeate through conversion discourse that create these homogenous ideologies surrounding authenticity and validity of the conversion. It is often a question rooted in morality and also wields a certain privilege that often goes unaddressed. Moreover, many of these types of questions involving motivations for conversions are directed towards communities or groups of people who have converted to Christianity in the Global South. This often includes countries across sub-Saharan Africa and East/South Asia. To refer back to the idea of the question of authenticity embodying privilege complicates conventional understandings of conversion practices and explores how different cultural contexts affect the ways in which Christianity is expressed and experienced. Gauri Viswanathan’s Religious Conversion and the Politics of Dissent: Religious Minorities and Citizenship aptly portrays the social and political landscape in India and the ramifications of a post-colonial society on the politics of conversion. Viswanathan’s historical analysis of a post-colonial India and the interwoven nature of religious and national identities, pertinently sheds light on why the question of 100% Christianity erases political, cultural and social contexts. Viswanathan gives a brief history of India’s relationship to Christianity via colonialism and how this confounds the relationship between Indian Christian converts and the state. Viswanathan explores how people maneuver the religion in order to fit their personal context and align themselves such that they are able to serve their own purpose. Viswanathan critically discusses how Christianity had become a minority religion within India, and converts were met with much contempt, given the historical context of the religion’s inhabitance of the land. Moreover, Viswananathan writes,
“In much the same way that religious tolerance and emancipation were inevitable secular trends that grudgingly won acceptance even by the most diehard Tories and Anglicans, with the expectation that if it was not possible to have a nation of good Anglicans, at least it was worthwhile to aim for a nation of good Englishmen, it was deemed profitable to make good Englishmen of colonial subjects—even if it was unlikely or even undesirable for them to be good Christians.” (Viswanathan, 1996: 91).
What Viswanathan presents is the complex nature of having a Christian identity within this historical context and how it is produced by a multitude of different factors. Furthermore, many Indians of a lower caste under Hinduism would transform their religious affiliations to Christianity and other religions in order to escape the socio-economic, political and cultural constraints of their Hindu-ascribed castes. Similarly, Amalendu Misra, a well-known scholar in the field of politics, philosophy and religion, also investigates the varying structural and institutional difficulties that complicate normative conversion discourses. Misra’s The missionary Position: Christianity and Politics of Religious Conversion in India also provides a rich historical analysis of Christian conversion in India that may help to broaden mainstream understandings of political, social and cultural ramifications of Christian expression within a given context. Misra examines the religious conversion practices in India and its consequence on identity politics and citizenship. Misra explores radical Hindu nationalism as a contingency of Indian nationalism, post-independence (Misra, 2011: 364). With that being said, Hinduism and Indian national identity is deeply interwoven and often interchangeable at the demographic level. Like Viswanathan, Misra states, “In India, where religious conversion is primarily undertaken as a form of social revolt (against Hindu caste hierarchy), the convertee apart from assuming the two standard identity markers belonging to the spiritual and the cultural also find himself/herself in the midst of a third narrative linked to the political” (Misra, 2011: 367). What Misra presents is how deeply interwoven religious identity is with the political and how in many ways, conversion may be used as a tool of resistance. This is not to say that this makes the conversion to Christianity any more authentic or the motivation any less valid than an individual decision to convert by personal revelation. What this means is that there is a multiplicity of different contexts in which conversion occurs, which in turn leads to Christianity taking many different forms, and assuming many different roles in the lives of Christians. What Viswanathan and Misra are portraying is the global context of Christianity and how it does not have a singular context or ubiquitous conversion stories. This complicates one-dimensional conceptualizations of Christianity that question the motivation or validity of converts. Furthermore, both Misra and Viswanathan urges us to analyze various supportive and conflicting cultural, political, economic factors and different localities in which conversion occurs in order to move away from normative conversion discourses. By using a wider lens to examine conversion and acknowledging different contexts we may then begin to see that the idea of authenticity is not so black and white.
Lastly, the idea of the authentic Christian embodiment perpetuates the idea of a singular expression, and subsequently alludes to a singular body that can most appropriately demonstrate this expression. The politics of identity of a Christian identity is neglectful to address the differences of embodiment based on the body that it inhabits. This further complicates the idea of a singular embodiment of Christianity that is insinuated. In order to deconstruct this question of an authentic Christian, it is imperative to address how structuring the question of authenticity often erases the structures of power and privilege that affect those practicing the religion. The question insinuates the idea that everybody practicing the religion is on a level playing field and has the ability to exemplify and express these ‘universal’ characteristics equally. Additionally, by not addressing the idea that there is a multitude of different personifications of Christianity, we neglect to examine how there are structural forces that affect the way it is practiced and exemplified. This means that embodiment is dependent on socio-economic status, race, gender, nationalism and varying cultural contexts. Diane Austin-Broos, Pentecostal Experience and Embodied Rite, is a good example of how the physical embodiment of Christianity varies between men and women. She provides an ethnographic look at the differences between how Christianity is imbued and experienced by both genders and how this complicates our understanding of a Christian identity, in the context of Pentecostalism in Kingston, Jamaica. She demonstrates the significance of these differences as being symbolic through her analysis of physical embodiment. For example, Austin-Broos explores the Holy Ghost possession and the implications it has on the person and their ability to be a good Christian. She states,
“…Holy Ghost possession can even re-arrange gender relations is taken as further evidence of the fact that this is a change from God. The ambivalence also reflects that Pentecostal Holy Ghost in-filling is a process closely associated with women. Their bodies are more readily seen as vessels defiled by fornication that the Holy Ghost must cleanse.” (Austin-Broos, 1997:140).
This exemplifies the gendered differences in practicing Christianity and the structures that prevent one from being able to fully embodying it due to their gender. What Austin-Broos’ discussion of gendered embodiment of Christianity does is further propel the conversation of what makes an authentic Christian into a more complex framework of understanding. This idea of a singular Christian identity is non-existent as Christianity is exemplified in a cornucopia of distinctive ways and is experienced and imbued entirely differently based on the body the person inhabits.
In essence, when analyzing what makes an authentic Christian, we must pose the question of who gets to dictate what the measurement of authenticity is? What is the point of reference and from where is it derived? What explanatory models are being used in order to justify this linear and homogenous understanding of how Christianity is able to be experienced and able to exist? This paper aimed to critically discuss the dangers of the ahistorical and orientalist nature of Othering all those who do not fit into a western conceptualization of Christian behavior and physical embodiment. It also investigated from where these questions derive and how knowledge is being produced by those who wield power in order to dictate whether motivations are disingenuous or not. Through broadening our lens of analysis and complicating our understanding of Christianity in the Global and local context, we can see that there is no black and white answer about motivations of conversion and authenticity of the body practicing the religion. Additionally, by examining how political, national, economic and cultural factors influence the person that practices Christianity, we create a multidimensional understanding of religious conversion not happening inside a vacuum, but alongside rapidly changing social and political landscapes. Lastly, through the anthropology of Christianity we learn that a Christian identity does not exist singularly but in the plural form, therefore it is simply counterproductive and ahistorical to quantify authenticity and vacuously employ the construction of a homogenous identity.
Austin Broos, Dianne 1997. Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 133-157 (Chapter 7)
Bornstein, Erica 2006. Rituals without Final Acts: Prayer and Success in World Vision Zimbabwe’s Humanitarian Work. In The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity. New York, NY: Berghahn Books. Pp. 85-104.
Gruber, Judith 2009. Christian Identities: An Imaginative and Innovative Quest for Heterogeneous unity. eSharp, Issue 14: Imagination and Innovation pp. 23-38
Misra, Amalendu 2011. The Missionary Position: Christianity and the Politics of Religious Conversion in India. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 17:361-381.
Muller, Retief 2015. The Zion Christian Church and Global Christianity: Negotiating a Tightrope between Localisation and Globalisation. Religion 45(2):174-190.
Viswanathan, Gauri 1996. Religious Conversion and the Politics of Dissent. In Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity. Peter van der Veer, ed. New York: Routledge.
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Muna is a fourth year Anthropology student at UofT Scarborough, interested in creating content relating to themes of identity, migration, gender and youth. Muna likes Dave Chapelle and the artist formerly known as Prince.