As someone who regularly teaches short bursts of St. Paul’s theology—but rightly feels no expertise in the subject—and then also teaches, with more (perhaps misplaced) confidence, on world, or global, Christianity, I found myself intrigued by the Fall 2010 South Atlantic Quarterly issue’s goal of bringing recent writings about the two topics together for the purpose of “cross-fertilization,” as stated by Joel Robbins and Matthew Engelke in their introductory essay. And reading through the multi-faceted articles that followed—by scholars whose work I’ve admired—was most certainly worth the effort.
Much as I enjoyed the individual pieces, however, I was left with the feeling that the connection between certain recent approaches to Paul and aspects of the current global Christian situation was more gestured at than developed, for the most part. The difficulty of the cross-fertilization, in my opinion, derives in part from the disjuncture between how Paul has been invoked by most of those discussed in the SAQ issue, on the one hand, and trends in studies of Paul more generally, on the other. Recent scholarship on Paul from theologians and exegetes, in a move opposite that of the Continental philosophers foregrounded in the SAQ issue, has actually tried to relativize the supposedly hyper-individualistic Paul once favored by Christian theology—for instance, as some would have it, in the works of Augustine and Luther. Since the mid-twentieth century, there has a been a move away from the image of Paul as someone who claimed Christ in a deeply individualized choice motivated by guilt—that is, as a forerunner of “the introspective conscience of the West,” as a famous article by Krister Stendahl once put it—and a deeper appreciation, via Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, and many others, of Paul’s profound and, at the time of his conversion, ongoing shaping by a rabbinical Jewish self-understanding in the midst of a Hellenized world.
My sense is that the most important cross-fertilization between contemporary Pauline scholarship and trends, like the so-called anthropology of Christianity, that seek to appreciate salient aspects of the unfolding of global Christianity would not be through the new insights, via Paul, into the supposedly Promethean self of modernity, secularism, and its many post-prefixed after-runners. This seems to be the Paul celebrated by Badiou, Agamben, and Žižek—a Paul that, as Elizabeth Castelli notes, is decidedly not one that biblical scholars today emphasize. Instead, for my money, the more fruitful approach lies in the way Paul’s writings can disclose how a distinct experience of a profoundly personal and even intra-psychic sort was dialectically related to the interpersonal relations he had, including those with a Christian movement first envisaged by him as an enemy to be destroyed, and then as a way to—tentatively, at least—call all people into a single family via faith in Christ. This complex mutual interaction between an array of social and personal experiences—admittedly very hard to unravel in Paul’s case, due partially to the disparity between the accounts of Paul’s life found in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own more oblique self-references in his letters—is something that the anthropology of Christianity often does seek to understand. The distinct ways that persons come to consider themselves Christian via a bewildering array of social experiences, and the consequences of such self-identifications—these are among the primary goals of works by Engelke and Robbins, as well as those of Webb Keane, Frederick Klaits, and others. It is not only Paul who, in his relationship to Christianity, moved from indifference to enmity, and then to personal embrace and finally missionary enthusiasm.
I have long tried to understand how Africans who consider themselves Christians change over time, both as individuals and as self-conscious communities. What I have appreciated from the anthropology of Christianity has been the development of concepts that allow and encourage fruitful comparison between and among different modes of being Christian across space, time, and culture. Hence my appreciation, for example, for the notion of semiotic ideology, developed in recent works by Webb Keane and Matthew Engelke, and for what Keane, borrowing from Bruno Latour, calls “the work of purification,” which is so often at work in missionary evangelization. In the recent issue, several pieces developed ideas with similar promise. For example, I was glad to see Joel Robbins’s valiant effort to use Badiou’s categories to make sense of Urapmin Christian dynamics. I look forward to thinking with the notions of “event” and “forcing” in my own research. I feel the same about the two types of critique developed by James Smith, as well as Birgit Meyer’s ideas of “sensational form” and “aesthetics of persuasion,” which seem to me to have great potential for comparative application. Simon Coleman’s call for attention to the immanent in anthropology and Engelke’s invitation to ponder mediation and its perceived limits work differently, but they, too, I believe, could become productive in comparative work. Such concepts help describe, explain, and analyze social processes that historical and anthropological research uncovers, processes that provide insight into modes of belonging, believing, and behaving that mark changes in self-understanding and social ascription.
Work like this has relevance beyond its specific application to the study of global Christianity. In a review of Martin Marty’s 2008 The Christian World: A Global History that appeared in the journal Books and Culture, Philip Jenkins concluded with this line: “Let me then offer a modest proposal for the creation of a non-Eurocentric humanities curriculum that is at once global, diverse, polycentric, multicultural and multiracial, one that incidentally tells the story of the wretched of the earth in terms of their deepest aspirations, and in their own voices. Let us study Christianity.” Jenkins’s ironic proposal—designed, of course, to tweak not a few noses—suggests that the study of Christianity can generate insights into all sorts of human realities. Thanks to the SAQ contributors for their inspiring efforts in such a direction.