Cultural Anthropology– A Christian Perspective?


A book I like, and have used before in my classes on Cultural Anthropology is “Cultural Anthropology– A Christian Perspective” by Stephen A. Grunlan and Marvin K. Mayers (1988). You can find it by CLICKING HERE.

I decided to do something yesterday that I pretty much never do— read the reader comments (in this case on the Amazon page for this book).

  1. The most thorough reviewer gave the book a 3 out of 5. It seems that the thing the reviewer was concerned about was that the authors may not be strong enough on “Biblical Absolutism.” The book deals considerably on the issue of Biblical Absolutism versus Cultural Relativism. I felt authors did an admirable job in this task. Perhaps there was a concern on the reviewers part not about Biblical Absolutism but rather Bibical Cultural Absolutism. A lot of Christian conservatives struggle with this. For example, if women are supposed to express a submissive attitude and demonstrate this, in part, by wearing a head covering in 1st century Hellenized churches, does that mean that all churches in all cultures at all points in history must do likewise? Anyway, the reviewer noted how difficult it is to have a good balance between these concepts, and that good people can disagree somewhat. Overall, I thought it a pretty good review.
  2. There are several that are of the sort, “I really liked the book, and you should buy it.” Nothing wrong with these, but they are not hugely informative.
  3. An interesting one is a 1 out of 5 score post that starts out “This book is a horrible, almost criminal, misuse of anthropology.” It ends with “This book disgusts me, like all missionization.” Of course, the last statement explains the first statement (except for the expression “almost criminal” which I suppose is used for rhetorical effect). In the middle, the writer condemns the authors (conflated into the singular), “If the author understood anything about the discipline, he would know that it is about relativism and respect for differences” I don’t really have a problem with review. It expresses his understanding of (presumably cultural) anthropology. I am a bit curious about the purpose of the review, however. If the reviewer really does embrace relativism and respect for differences, why does the review appear to be rather disrespectful of a difference of perspective, and quite non-relativistic. I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that it is of the sort, “I am tolerant of everyone except the intolerant.” The curious thing, however, is that the book is trying to right the wrongs of the past where missional zeal often mixed the sharing of the gospel with cultural imperialism. The books seeks to find ways to find a balance between sharing one’s faith with respecting culture. I think the idea that the book is utilizing the tools of anthropology to support “cultural genocide” is a bit extreme. The truth is that cultures are constantly interacting with other cultures and cultures are constantly changing. Cultural anthropology respects all cultures, but does not (should not at least) support an artificial static idea of culture. Rather than seeing interaction as bad, it should see how such interaction can be good. I am reminded of talking to Brazilian Christians who expressed unhappiness with the government for making it illegal to share the gospel with the isolated native groups that dot the Amazon basin. In the minds of the Brazilian Christians, these isolated groups are not generally isolated anyway. They do interact with illegal loggers, drug groups, land speculators and more. These groups will (and do) interact with outsiders— the question is whether they will be interacting with those that help or those that hurt.
  4. The last one I will note is another 1 out of 5 score. The person complains about the title of the book, nothing that there are 3 perspectives for cultural anthropology— “(1) cross-cultural, or looking at other cultures than our own, (2) holistic, or looking at all parts of culture in relation to each other, and (3) relativistic, or looking at each culture as its own standard of values and meaning. Notice there is no “Christian perspective.”” For some reason, I actually took the statement positively. Somehow I thought the writer was saying, “There is no one single ‘Christian perspective;’ but there are in fact many different Christian perspectives.” And that would be true. The perspective of the book is “Conservative, evangelical, mission-forward, Christian” perspective. There is no doubt, it is not the only perspective that could be called Christian. Of course, I should not have jumped into this benefit of the doubt, because there was really no doubt. The reviewer was saying that there are only 3 valid perspectives, and none of them is “Christian.” That, as you probably figured out for yourself, is non-sense. First of all, a study of culture through the lens of a different culture (perspective #1, cross-cultural) is common… perhaps the most common. And a lens of culture can be Christian just as much as it can be Buddhist, or Serbian, or Zulu, or anything else. However, this book is not about studying cultures through the cross-cultural lens of Christianity, technically speaking. Christian perspective is not so much about cultures abut about cultural anthropology. In line with that, the term has more to do with theories of cultural anthropology (of which there are MANY) as well as theories of applied anthropology. The reviewer suggested two titles as more appropriate— “Destroying Other Cultures with Your Culture” or “Destroying Anthropology by Misusing It.” Again, since the book was written to try to counteract unhealthy forms of cultural imperialism while still being true to the mandate to share God’s message to the world, I feel that the first title is off-base. As far as the second title, I feel nothing much one way or another about it. A tool can be used in many ways. I am not sure that using it in a way that one doesn’t like should automatically be considered “misuse.” I mean, the reviewer calls himself (presumably not herself), Franz Boas. Since Franz Boas, a great mind in cultural anthropology, has been dead since 1942, it could be argued that he is misusing that name. Or maybe not. Misuse is awfully subjective.

I would say, read it for yourself. It is now getting to be a bit ‘long in the tooth’ but I feel it has aged better than many from the same period.

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