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Anthropology of Conversion edited by Andrew Buckser, Stephen D. Glazier (Rowman & Littlefield) paints a picture of conversion far more complex than its customary image in anthropology and religious studies. Conversion is very seldom simply a sudden moment of insight or inspiration; it is a change both of individual consciousness and of social belonging, of mental attitude and of physical experience, whose unfolding depends both on its cultural setting and on the distinct individuals who undergo it. This book explores religious conversion in a variety of cultural settings and considers how anthropological approaches can help us understand the phenomenon. Fourteen case studies span historical and geographical contexts, including the contemporary United States , modern and medieval Europe , and non-western societies in South Asia , Melanesia , and South America . Contributors discuss conversion to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Spiritualism. Combining ethnographic description with theoretical analysis, authors consider the nature and meaning of conversion, its social and political dimensions, and its relationship to individual religious experience. Highly recommended.

List of Contributors: Robert T. Anderson; Diane Austin-Broos; Thomas K. Brown; Andrew Buckser; Simon Coleman; Maria Pia Di Bella; Charles Farhadian; Stephen D. Glazier; Roger Ivar Lohmann; Marcela Mendoza; Kalyani Devaki Menon; Rebecca Sachs Norris; Robert J. Priest; Lewis R. Rambo; Mary Ann Reidhead; Van A. Reidhead; Don Seeman About The Editors: Andrew S. Buckser is an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. Stephen D. Glazier is a professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska , Lincoln .

The volume begins with a general introduction to the anthropological study of conversion by Diane Austin-Broos. Austin-Broos argues that conversion research raises issues of central importance to contemporary anthropological theory, especially its interaction with nationalism, state formation, and the construction of authority. Her discussion deftly positions the chapters in this volume and the field of conversion studies as a whole within a larger disci­plinary context. The book then turns to fourteen detailed case studies, each of which considers conversion in a distinct ethnographic setting. These studies have been divided into three sections according to their primary ethnographic emphases. These sections represent a rather artificial division, however, since common questions run through them all, and readers will find elements in many chapters that bridge all three sections.

The first section considers conversion and its relationship to social processes. Much of the literature on conversion has focused on its psycho-logical dimensions, the transformation in individual consciousness that a re­ligious change implies. That transformation takes place, however, within a social matrix, as converts detach themselves from one group of believers and affiliate with another. In many cases, that matrix has considerably more im­pact in motivating the conversion than any individual religious experience. In all cases, the social group structures the intellectual and experiential process through which conversion occurs. The papers in this section explore some of the questions that this social dimension of conversion implies. In what ways, for example, does conversion influence group identity and solidarity? How do the social and political divisions within groups affect the ways that partic­ular individuals convert? How does the individual agency so central to most conversions articulate with the authority of religious leaders and bureaucra­cies? And how do relationships of power more generally influence the under-standing and practice of conversion?

The papers in this section approach these issues from several different di­rections. Simon Coleman begins with a penetrating analysis of a charismatic Protestant church in Uppsala , Sweden . Known as the Word of Life, this con­gregation builds much of its rhetoric and outreach activity around the activ­ity of conversion, despite the fact that its efforts generate relatively few ac­tual converts. Coleman suggests that the significance of conversion for the group lays largely in its metaphorical qualities, in the paradigm it offers its members for understanding personal identities and social experience. Such continuous aspects of conversion, he argues, may mean as much as the radi­cal disjunctures upon which conversion studies have usually focused. Don Seeman's paper also explores the ongoing effects of conversion, this timeamong people for whom it has become enmeshed with bureaucracy and po­litical oppositions. The subjects of the study, known as Felashmura, have sought Israeli citizenship on the basis of their descent from Ethiopian Jews; since their ancestors converted to Christianity, however, the Felashmura must convert "back" to Judaism in order to qualify for admittance. As he follows converts through the disheartening and often humiliating bureaucratic maze involved, Seeman points out the multiple and often changing meanings of conversion for individual Felashmura. He urges anthropologists not to try to rationalize away such indeterminacy in their analyses of conversion, but rather to embrace it as a central feature of the phenomenon.

Seeman's case study underscores the political implications of conversion, a theme that also animates the chapters by Kalyani Menon and Charles Farha­dian. Menon analyzes understandings of conversion among Hindu national­ists in contemporary India . Hindutva activists have accused Christian mis­sionaries of using deception and bribery to attract converts, charges that have led to incendiary rhetoric and anti-Christian violence. As Menon demon­strates, however, Hindus employ nearly identical tactics when converting Christians "back" to Hinduism. She argues that the different valuations on these practices derive from Hindutva understandings of the relationship be­tween religious affiliation and individual nature; the actions of Christian mis­sionaries are threatening not because they involve any trickery, but because they contradict the assumptions about Hinduism and Indian identity central to the Hindutva movement. Farhadian examines two waves of conversion among the Dani of Irian Jaya. In the first, widespread conversion to Method-ism creates a new sense of intertribal identity among previously separated groups in Irian Jaya. This sense of identity then makes possible a second con-version, decades later, when new Christian movements became the basis of Papuan opposition to Indonesia 's New Order government. Farhadian's case illustrates the potential volatility of conversion as a political force; although the initial conversions in many ways served colonial purposes, they generated social solidarities and symbolic resources that made new forms of indigenous resistance possible.

The final two papers in this section explore the role of conversion in defin­ing boundaries, both within and among religious groups. For the Copenhagen Jews of Andrew Buckser's study, group boundaries are the subject of ongo­ing dispute among community factions. On a daily basis, the proprieties of community life paper over such differences; the process of conversion, how-ever, brings them vividly to the surface. Buckser discusses two typical cases of conversion to Judaism and the debates over the nature of Jewishness and rabbinical authority that accompany them. Although these debates can and do produce hard feelings—at times even schism—they also create opportunities for expressing family solidarity and consolidating political power. Marie Pia Di Bella's study focuses on the marginality involved in the boundary-crossing of conversion, suggesting that the marginal position of the convert can be crucial to understanding the linguistic and symbolic patterns associ­ated with the process. In one of her two case studies, marginality is essential to the conversion—the converts are convicts, living in jail cells for the short interval between their condemnations and their executions. In the other, mar­ginality derives from the requirements of group membership, as Pentecostal converts who have not experienced glossolalia find themselves excluded from the center of their new group. Di Bella explores the ritual and symbol-ism of conversion in both settings, highlighting the ways that marginality both informs and reflects the social experience of the converts.

Cross-cultural analyses of conversion inevitably encounter difficulties when they try to define their subject. Academic models of conversion tend to draw heavily on Christian imagery, particularly on such dramatic scenes as Paul's vision on the road to Damascus . These images construct conversion as a radical, sudden change of belief, one in which old ways and associations are left behind as a result of a new theological outlook. How can such models en-compass non-Christian religions, which often regard belief as less important than religious practice? How can they accommodate the slow and partial stages through which conversion often takes place? Even more difficult, how can they accurately describe cultures for which belief, practice, and member-ship have profoundly different meanings than they do in Western society? The papers in the second section explore this question directly, using four dif­ferent case studies. For each, they suggest an alternative way of conceptual­izing conversion, one based on the indigenous conceptions of religious trans-formation among the people under study.

Robert Priest, for example, looks at the transformation of the notion of sin among Aguaruna converts to Christianity in Brazil . Scholarly analysis has of-ten seen sin as a fundamentally Western concept that non-Westerners assimi­late and accept as part of the conversion process. The Aguaruna, however, have a complex traditional vocabulary for sin and wrongdoing, one that they retain even when they have "discovered their sin" as part of Christian conver­sion. What changes upon becoming Christian is not the notion of sin, but the direction of blame: converts see themselves as culpable for actions they would previously have attributed to witchcraft or spirits. This change produces per­sonal transformations of a rather different sort than those of Augustine and Paul. Roger Lohmann offers yet another variant in his analysis of the Asabano of Papua New Guinea. The Asabano conceive volition very differently than does the Western tradition: thoughts and desires come not from the head, but from the belly, and they are generated by two types of resident spirits.

Conversion, therefore, is not a matter of rethinking the nature of reality, but of "turning the belly," changing the individual's relationship with the spiritual beings who direct his or her volition. Lohmann presents a model of conver­sion based on relationships with spiritual beings, one that he finds truer not only to Asabano experience but to many facets of Western experience as well.

Robert Anderson and Thomas Brown focus on contexts much more famil­iar to American readers; Anderson discusses the history of Christian conver­sion in Iceland , and Brown explores Spiritualist congregations in California . Even here, however, local understandings of conversion suggest a rethinking of academic models. Anderson challenges the notion that conversion must in­volve a total movement from one pattern of religious practice to another. Such movements occur, he argues, only where church and state authorities have the power to demand exclusive religious affiliations. Where authorities lack such power—as in Iceland at the turn of the first millennium, and again at the turn of the second—conversion has involved the selective adoption of particular practices, rather than complete religious transformation. Anderson calls on anthropologists to recognize the structures of constraint that underlie their definitions of conversion. Brown, in his study, questions the notion of con-version as a discrete and clearly identifiable event. The Spiritualists he stud­ies do think of it that way, and many of them describe specific paranormal ex­periences as the occasions of their conversions. His interviews suggest, however, that for many the process actually takes much longer and, indeed, that transitions to Spiritualism are often conditional and incomplete. He con­cludes that the essence of conversion lies less in particular changes of belief than in more general changes in individual understandings of group member-ship and personal identity.

The third section of the book addresses the subject that has dominated most of the academic research on conversion: the place of conversion in personal experience. How does conversion make sense and feel to those who go through it? What motivates them to convert, and what sorts of emotional and cognitive changes does conversion involve? The chapters here take an an­thropological approach to these questions, asking how different cultural and historical settings shape the conversion experience. The answers are seldom simple. Steven Glazier, for example, finds conversion taking a variety of forms for Rastafarians and Spiritual Baptists on the island of Trinidad . These two movements share a number of features, including extensive African im­agery and an individualist orientation; their philosophies and ritual practice differ considerably, though, as do their norms of bodily comportment. Glazier follows a number of individuals who move back and forth between the groups, exploring both the motivations for their conversions and the social concomi­tants of their memberships. Rebecca Norris looks at converts to a variety of faiths in New England , focusing on the continuities between their old faiths and their new ones. She argues that conversion must always involve such con­tinuities. Not only must a new faith make sense in terms defined by a lifetime in the old one, but it must also work with the bodily attitudes and accustomed gestures with which the convert has grown up. Her case studies depict con-version as a gradual process for individuals, a matter not of sudden insight but of extended and often unconscious learning.

Mary Ann and Van Reidhead illustrate this process with an extended case study from the American Midwest. They follow a woman from her initial con-version to Catholicism to her subsequent decision to join a Benedictine monastic order. In both cases, her conversions (the first from Jehovah's Wit­ness to Roman Catholicism, and the second to Benedictine monasticism) in­volve the kinds of overpowering religious experiences that conversion studies have generally explored and that might seem to suggest a total transformation of worldview before and after. Yet even as a Benedictine postulant, the sub­ject of the study acknowledges the profound ongoing impact of her Jehovah's Witness upbringing on her understanding of religion. Despite changes in af­filiation and practice, her activist approach to religion and her personal rela­tionship with the Holy Spirit—the cornerstones of her childhood religion—have remained central to her experience. Marcela Mendoza describes a similar pattern on a broader scale in the final case study of the volume. Among the Western Toba of Argentina , converts to Christianity draw similarities be­tween the Christian conception of Heaven and the indigenous image of the House of God in the sky. These similarities produce an interesting effect. On the one hand, they make conversion easier by making Christian imagery more plausible to potential converts. On the other, they seem to confirm the image of the spiritual world advanced by traditional shamans. As a result, conversion can produce a kind of validation of the very religious tradition it rejects.

The book ends with an afterword by the eminent psychologist of religion Lewis Rambo, the only one of our contributors from outside anthropology. Rambo puts conversion studies in a broader context, suggesting ways in which anthropology can inform and learn from the other disciplines that have analyzed the subject. He calls strongly for more interdisciplinary work on conversion; the virtual blindness of academics to developments outside their fields, he suggests, has deprived anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and others of excellent methodological and theoretical resources. A concerted ef­fort to build bridges among these isolated disciplines could produce major ad­vances in conversion studies and a corresponding enrichment of each.

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