The Anthropology of Christianity: Continuity thinking and the problem of Christian culture

October 02, 2006

Anthropologists have almost no track record of studying Christianity, a religion they have generally treated as not exotic enough to be of interest. Now, a new paper by one of the leading scholars in the developing field of the anthropology of Christianity explores the deep theoretical biases that make Christians difficult for anthropologists to study. The article, forthcoming in Current Anthropology, focuses on the ways Christian ideas about time and belief differ from anthropological ones.

Joel Robbins (University of California, San Diego) argues that the study of anthropology relies on a basic theoretical assumption that is antithetical to Christian assumptions. "Anthropology," he writes, is "a science of continuity." Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes decisive breaks and the temporal ruptures that allow people to make claims of beginning anew after conversion.

"Christian ideas of time and belief emphasize radical discontinuities both in people's experience (at conversion) and in world history (at Jesus' birth and at his second coming), while anthropologists have always stressed the continuity of cultural traditions through time," Robbins explains. "Christian converts tend to represent the process of becoming a Christian as one of radical change. One does not evolve into a convert."

Scholars and others have recently become aware of the social importance of Christianity around the world. They have also realized that key developments in Christian doctrine and practice are currently being driven by the religion's explosive growth in Africa and Asia, and in the Pacific (where Robbins has conducted extensive research).

"Anthropologists, who are specialists in the study of religion outside the West, ought to be in the forefront of studying global Christianity and its impact," Robbins writes. "By denying Christian cultural status in the places [we] study - denying that it is a meaningful system like others and one with its own coherence and contradictions - anthropologists actively charter their own lack of interest in it."
Sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics. For more information, please see our Web site:

Joel Robbins. "Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity." Current Anthropology 47:6.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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