0149 | Becoming Sinners – Joel Robbins

Context: Read this as part of my preparation for language survey in PNG this summer.

Robbins has written a fascinating insight into the cultural mindset of the Urapmin people in western Papua New Guinea. It’s obvious that he cares deeply about finding out how they view their world and making sure that we understand that too. This is a Good Thing and what I appreciate most about anthropology. So, it was a good read despite some weaknesses.

Robbins’ main point is that the Urapmin are a deeply troubled people because they are caught between two cultures: their traditional one and their new Christian one. He illustrates in many ways how the Urapmin have shed aspects of their pre-Christian culture and adopted new aspects. The resulting tension between the old and new has given rise to a number of practices which cause the Urapmin difficulty in living out their lives now.

While I totally agree with this assessment of the Urapmin, believing Robbins to have written a superlatively objective anthropology, it’s obvious to me that he’s not a Christian although he nowhere in the book declares his own views. This non-declaration is, I must state, a major weakness of anthropology and ethnographies. Without a clear understanding of what we bring to the observer’s role, we won’t be able to either assess our own subjectivity or enable the reader to be aware of it.

But the fact that Robbins doesn’t know what living the Christian life means in daily practical experience, he inadvertently thinks that what the Urapmin are going through in their problematic cultural shift is unique to them. Not so. In fact, I related a lot to the Urapmin as I myself am ‘troubled’ by having to shed my old culture in order to take on the new one that Christ requires of me. The tension, in fact, is perfectly natural part of any true Christian experience. In fact, I’d say that if a Christian doesn’t experience this tension, they’re probably not living the Christian life at all.

Of course, the Urapmin’s Christian experience, like all denominations, is filtered by particular aspects of focus. They’re heavily into millenial thinking, presuming Christ will return in the next five minutes. This makes them desperately worried that they will miss out and be caught with their pants down so to speak. As a result, they’re also heavily into confession and detailed accounting of sin.

As with all of us, we can take everything too far, and turn even stuff that’s supposed to liberate us into a ball and chain. It seems that no one thought to tell the Urapmin much about the fact that they are never right with God through confession of sin but through grace alone. Nor that God will work on our behalf to make sure that when he does return, we’ll be ready.

But through all this, I got a great insight into just how easy it is to make cultural mistakes through ignorance of local culture. This was very helpful. It was passages like this that were very good food for thought:

as Urapmin are quick to point out, Christianity was originally practiced only by white people. It was white people who brought it to PNG, and their missions are all housed in white countries. Second, its central figure, Jesus, is white. This is true in a mundane sense; as I was told many times and in many ways, Jesus is white like me. This much, they say, is obvious from the pictures they have seen, ones they take to be actual photographs of Jesus. Further proof follows from the fact that Jesus was born in a white country. As one man explained when I asked about the colour of Jesus’ skin, “He is not from here, is he?” – the implication being that Jesus was born in a white country and was thus white. Another person put it more plainly, telling me that Jesus “was born in Bethlehem, that is a white place.” With Jesus figured as white, Christianity becomes white not only in its primary following but also in its cosmological makeup.

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