"Make a complete break with the past" - Christianity, Morality and Radical Cultural Change

Term Paper, 2012

23 Pages, Grade: 6 (entspricht 1 in Dtschld.)



1. Introduction

2. The Urapmin- a case study

3. Theorizing cultural change
3.1 Robbins’ reading of Sahlins and Dumont
3.2 Develop-man versus Development
3.3 The concept of humiliation

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

According to a census carried out in 2000 around 96% of the Papua New Guinean citizens identify themselves as members of a Christian church.1Although Christianity is not the official state religion, the preamble of the Papua New Guinean Constitution states that: “We, the people of Papua New Guinea […] pledge ourselves to guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now.”2The predominance of Christianity in the lives of the indigenous people in Papua New Guinea raises questions about how Christianity could be adopted in such a successful way. On a more general level, it leads us to think about the structures of cultural transformation processes and how empirical findings from field research can be assessed into a more comprehensive theoretical framework on cultural change.

In this paper, I take up Joel Robbins′3anthropological approach towards a general theory on cultural change. For this I will focus on the key issues and main concepts of his work, which he mainly derives from Marshall Sahlins and Louis Dumont4. Robbins argues that we should replace our traditional models of syncretism with a model based on an understanding of the roles that values play in structuring the relations between cultural elements. Such a model allows for the analysis of both new and old elements in the cultures of converts, but does not assume that older elements are always more fundamental. This approach takes seriously, how indigenous people comprehend and construct their cultural and historical identities themselves and attributes an active role to indigenous societies in the process of change. Further, it recognizes that cultural transformation processes can lead to radical discontinuities within a cultural system and thus can create “an entirely new culture in its own terms” (Robbins 2004a.: 10).

The following paper is organized as follows.: To start off, I will give a short summary on Robbins′ ethnographical work on the Urapmin people in West Papua New Guinea. The Urapmin case will serve as an illustration for Robbins′ more general theory of radical cultural change, which will be elaborated in chapter three in three steps. Firstly, I will focus on Robbins′ definition on culture and how it is related with his reading of Marshall Sahlins and Louis Dumont. In a second step, I will elaborate Sahlins′ model of cultural change, emphasizing on his concept ofdevelop-mananddevelopment.This will lead me to another idea of Sahlins that plays an important role in Robbins′ theory, namely the experience of humiliation and with it Christianity, as a motor for cultural change. In my conclusion, I will sum up the main points of this paper and give some critical thoughts on my part.

2. The Urapmin- a case study

Robbins conducted his field research between 1991 and 1993 among the Urapmin community in the Min region, which is situated in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea. In order to understand the background of cultural transformation among the Urapmin, Robbins (2004a) provides in the first part of “Becoming Sinners” a detailed ethnographical history of their colonization and Christianization. Before going into a more comprehensive analysis of Robbins theory about cultural change I will first give a short summary of his ethnography on the Urapmin.

The Urapmin people are a small endogamous group of about 390 Mountain OK speakers in the remote West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea and have had minimal contact with the world outside their region of settlement. Before the colonial period, the Urapmin held a central position within the regional indigenous ritual system among the Min groups.5During the colonial era, however, this constellation changed. Australian colonization in the Min region began in the late 1940s, followed by Christian missionaries from the Australian Baptist Missionary Society (ABMS) in the 1950s. With the establishment of Christian mission stations and colonial administration outposts, a new regional hierarchy emerged. While several Min groups in the Mountain OK region benefited from the growing market economy and converted to Christianity, the Urapmin were left out in this socio-religious and economic development. Because of their geographical isolation, the political and economic action concentrated elsewhere in the region, where economic and infrastructural projects (like building airstrips or mining ventures) were easier to realize.

As Christianity entered local communities, traditional rituals ceased to be performed in the region. This led to the loss of the prominent role the Urapmin had played within the local ritual system. The decay of the traditional socio-religious structure in the Min region, along with their growing economic marginalization had a demeaning effect on the Urapmin. Further humiliation was experienced through moral oppression imposed by the colonial officials and Baptist missionaries. Although the moral domain in pre-contact Urapmin culture was highly elaborated, they were condemned as being morally backward and ethically ignorant. As such they were subjected to “the legalistic rhetoric of the colonial officers and the moralistic one of the missionaries and evangelists” (Robbins 2004a:15). In order to gain salvation and live lawful lives they were further told, […] that they needed moral improvement and such improvement would not come until they put aside their traditional culture, learned to follow the colonial law, and began to obey the dictates of Christianity (ibid.).

According to Robbins, it was precisely this experience of humiliation that facilitated the desire of the Urapmin for change.

In sum, the early period of colonization had a great impact on the Urapmin people. Economic development bypassed them and relegated them to peripheral insignificance. To change this unsatisfying situation, the Urapmin saw a need for change and thus embraced Christianity. Referring to Robbins (2004a: 88) this first stage of conversion can be called “utilitarian”.6This means that the Urapmin became Christians on purpose, in order to escape their social and economic isolation. As Robbins puts it :”If they could not be workers or business men […] they could become students of Christianity and eventually evangelists and pastors in the employ of the mission” (2004a: 102). For the further development of my argument, it is important to keep in mind that the initial disappointments and humiliations of the colonial era did not affect the central institutions of Urapmin culture in total. The bulk of Urapmin continued to practice their traditional religion (Robbins 2009: 70). Christian values and legal ideas of colonial administrators were rather integrated into the pre-existing cultural system and thus did not lead to a radical break with tradition as was the case later.

However, Christianity was not brought to the Urapmin. They were never evangelized directly by Christian missionaries nor had ever an expatriate missionary lived among them. Instead, they actively reached out for it by sending some of their teenage sons to Baptist mission schools in other parts of the region during the 1960s. As more young Urapmin men attended the mission schools and eventually became Christians, they took over the Baptist notion of the incompatibility between Christianity and their ancestral religion. Returning to the community they thus broke with the traditional initiation ritual system and encouraged others to follow the Christian way. Significantly this led to the conversion of two former ritual leaders who are now two of the three leading Urapmin big men.7The members of the community became well acquainted with the Bible and developed a Christian ritual repertoire, which replaced their traditional religious practices. By the end of the 1960s the Urapmin had established an own Bible school, managed to build up a pastorate and engaged in paid mission work. Through embracing Christianity and eventually proselytizing other Min groups that were even more marginal than themselves, the Urapmin people were able to assuage their humiliation.

These developments can be described as a transitional phase in which the basis for a second stage of conversion was laid out. This second stage, which Robbins calls “intellectual”, was mainly induced by a charismatic revival movement8that had spread through the highlands of Papua New Guinea and reached the Urapmin in the late 1970s. The experience of Christian revivalism led the entire community to convert to Christianity by 1977. Further, the Urapmin church became fully localized “in the sense that the sources of religious authority came to rest entirely among the Urapmin” (Rumsey 2004a: 588).


1See US Dpartment of State, International Religious Freedom Report .URL: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2010_5/168371.htm [Retrieved 01/02/2012]

2Constitution of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, 1975, 1.

3Joel Robbins is an anthropologist who has studied conversion and Christianity in Papua New Guinea intensively for two decades. Building on this background, he has focused on the general social and cultural processes that have shaped the rapid globalization of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity.

4In this paper I take most of Robbins′ thoughts on cultural change from his monographBecomingSinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

5For more details on the complex structure of regional relations among the Min groups see Robbins (2004a: 88- 97).

6Robbins elaborates a two-stage model of conversion in order to explain how conversion processes are structured. The utilitarian approach as a first stage explains the initial impetus towards conversion.

7Big men in Urapmin society are seen as moral exemplars and thus have an important status within the community. For a more detailed discussion about Urapmin big men and the role of morality see Robbins (2007b).

8Christian revivalism is a charismatic movement that stresses the need for a “true” commitment to Christ (a second conversion; hence the expression “to be born again”) in order to overcome human sinfulness. Its main focus lies on themes such as the role of the Holy Spirit in helping converts to address their sinful nature as well as the anticipation of a Second Coming of Christ (Robbins 2004a:2).

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"Make a complete break with the past" - Christianity, Morality and Radical Cultural Change
University of Bern
6 (entspricht 1 in Dtschld.)
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cultural change, Christianity
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Matthias Deininger (Author), 2012, "Make a complete break with the past" - Christianity, Morality and Radical Cultural Change, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/202799


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