A Virtuous Village, a Pure Voice: The Moralization of Semiotic Form in the Christian Pacific – Webb Keane

Webb Keane reviews Handman’s Critical Christianity and Harkness’s Songs of Seoul

Courtney Handman, Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea, University of California Press, 2014, 328pp., $29.95
Courtney Handman, Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea, University of California Press, 2014, 328pp., $29.95
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What does being a Christian guarantee? For many empirical observers, theology will not secure the answer, given the variety and fecundity of indigenous Christianities, for societies around the world have made Christianity their own. Moreover, beyond the Euro-American North, they have commonly done so with an open and undefensive enthusiasm markedly different from what we see in societies in which the supposed triumph of secularism forms part of the background against which they must define themselves. No doubt it is the case everywhere that religious faith today is, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has put it, just one option among many. But there is a triumphalism in Christianity in many parts of the world that belies this relativizing framework. Christianity is a burgeoning enterprise, a distinctive feature of globalization in the early twenty-first century. The question remains, as it was posed by anthropologist Fenella Cannell a decade ago, “what difference does Christianity make?” This question has two sides to it: for the people anthropologists study, what difference does it make to them that they have become Christian? For the anthropologists, in turn, we can ask: what difference does it make to our grasp of things that we focus on Christianity, what questions does doing so raise that we have not grappled with before, what does this problematic make visible that was not noticed before?

Here are some of the more prominent answers that have been put in play. Anthropological writing on the uptake of Christianity by formerly colonized peoples has tended to focus on one of two things, namely, the transformation of subjectivities, and the relations between religion and Western political and economic orders. These are often linked. Christianity is commonly seen to produce individualism and a new emphasis on interiority. The breaking of kinship and other forms of social relations, the ontological reconfiguration of subjects and objects, and the resulting new forms of materialism and property relations are often seen as products of, or preconditions for, capitalism. Christianity became one of the solvents in the more general mix that should be covered by Karl Marx’s characterization of capitalist modernity, “all that is solid melts into air.” Along with these go new kinds of historical awareness and the sense of historical agency.

One of the debates that has loomed large in the anthropology of Christianity — as it has often dominated local debates in the societies with which we are concerned — has been about the degree to which the new faith involves rupture or continuity from the past. I won’t rehearse that argument here, but it is certainly the case that Christianity is often seen to be a core component of modernity, and that it can foster the sense that people can take their own worlds in hand and purposefully transform them. For the rupture is not just in social bonds and ritual practices. Some converts might say that with Christianity we see the dawn of an entirely new reality altogether.

I am not going to talk about these debates on Christianity, modernity, and rupture, which have been so well covered already — or at least, I will not address them directly. Rather, I am interested in looking more closely at some dimensions of local Christianities that have not been as thoroughly discussed, using two recent ethnographies of Christianity in the Pacific Rim. Taking on quite distinct social worlds, they exemplify the extraordinary range that is encompassed by the expression “indigenous Christianity in the Pacific.” But by looking at them side by side, we can more clearly see some core themes they share. These themes may help us grasp some of the dynamism that is so characteristic of Christianity beyond the Euro-American homelands of the original missionary movements. Among these are problems centering on the relations between locality and universality, of institutional life and transcendent reality, and the moral and ethical issues these involve.

Now morality has always been a central topic in the anthropology of religion. It lies at the juncture of empirical and theological concerns. But it is more often taken as a given than reflected on critically. What I want to present here is an approach to the ethnographies through the process of moralization — of making certain aspects of life objects of moral concern that might not have been so before. I will argue that in places where Christianity brings with it a new concept, that of religion, it often results in a moralization of semiotic forms. But first, let us take a look at what the two ethnographies in hand have to show us.

Nicolas Harkness, Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea, University of California Press, 2013, 320pp., $34.95
Nicolas Harkness, Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea, University of California Press, 2013, 320pp., $34.95
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Courtney Handman’s Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea and Nicolas Harkness’s Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea display some of the best work being done right now in the anthropology of Christianity. Both can plausibly be said to be about “indigenous Christianity in the Pacific.” But the worlds they describe could hardly be more different. The Guhu-Samane discussed by Handman are some ten thousand swidden agriculturalists, living a few days’ walk away from the nearest vehicular road in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Their world is relatively self-contained economically, and the Papua New Guinean state is distant and weak. Harkness’s South Korean Presbyterians, meanwhile, number in the millions, are urban cosmopolitans, and are strongly identified with their nation-state. What does it mean to call these both “Christian societies” and to identify them with the Pacific?

The Guhu-Samane were missionized by German Lutherans in the early twentieth century. Beginning with a revival movement in the late 1970s, they have been regularly splitting into competing denominations. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, in addition to the Lutherans, there were two competing Pentecostal groups, Reformed Gospel and New Life. Handman points out that the splitting up of churches into competing denominations is often seen not only as dividing communities that should be unified, but also as betraying an excessive interest in the this-worldly politics of faction. Against this view, she argues that denominationalism is the vehicle for “critique,” the ethics of moral and social reform. They all identify themselves as Christians, in a country itself identified as a Christian nation. For them, there is no significant “others” beyond Christianity, no non-Christian “outside,” but, at most, only other Christians who are (temporarily) misguided or even bad.

Harkness writes about South Korean Presbyterians. Like the Guhu-Samane, they have been missionized by Euro-Americans since the late nineteenth century, so they are not first-generation converts. Like the Guhu-Samane, they have undergone a more recent upsurge in religious enthusiasm. But the differences between the two cases are more obvious than their similarities. Korean Christians are part of a nation of over fifty million — and scale has to matter in our analysis. Beyond dramatic differences of scale, Korea is also highly urban, economically thriving, technologically cutting-edge, and globally plugged-in. Indeed, most of the individuals Harkness describes have spent years being trained in Western classical singing overseas. Korean Christians, while vast in numbers and powerful in influence, are still only twenty-nine percent of the overall population. Indeed, in Korea religion as such has become “one option among many.” Both Guhu-Samane and Koreans clearly participate in what I have called the moral narrative of modernity, albeit in quite distinct ways. To be Christian is to participate in the moral progress of individual subjects and of entire nations, mapped onto secular time.

The Bible has been translated into one of the Guhu-Samane dialects by the Summer Institute of Linguistic Bible translators, whose founding premise is that each society must receive scripture in their own “heart language” of moral subjectivity. This has enabled both Pentecostal groups to treat their own language as sacred, not only allowing them to hear God but also allowing God to hear them. But whereas the New Life translation practices domesticate the scripture, the Reformed Gospel translations are less idiomatic, stressing the foreignness of the source text, and thus emphasizing for the reader the great distances the religion had to conquer in order to reach them. These differences in language use reinforce and naturalize the distinctive trajectories of the denominations’ respective moral narratives. The two Pentecostal groups have distinct views of their agency and position within historical time. Whereas the New Life Church sees the original revival as a one-time matter, the Reformed Gospel Church sees revival as a never-ending project.

The Korean Presbyterians perceive a clear moral contrast between past and present. More than just a story Koreans tell themselves, the moral narrative of history is palpable. It is something they can experience with the senses. Indeed, to an important extent, it is something that is produced through disciplined work on the senses. Within the lifetimes of older Koreans, they have moved from suffering to a state of grace. The past was marked by hunger, demoralization, harshness, and material deprivation. In the future people will be joyful, wealthy, and clean. Present-day prosperity, even the transition from dictatorship to democracy, is evidence of God’s grace. This contrast is materialized in the qualities of the singing voice. What Korean Presbyterians hear in traditional Korean singing styles is the harshness of the past; it is the sound of suffering. The very qualities of the sound manifest physical damage and anger. By contrast, the voice of Presbyterian singing is “clean,” free of wobbly vibrato and a raspy sound. The clean voice must be acquired through difficult training in the styles of Western art music. This is part of a more general ambivalent association of Christianity with the foreign. On the one hand, to sound properly modern and Christian is to sound Western. On the other hand, Christianity is also taken to be a core element of local identity. Here we see a very specific version of the more general problem of any religion that makes transcendental claims for itself: how does it reconcile universality of scope and ambition with the concrete, the specific, and the historically local nature of its empirical manifestations? Moral progress in this version entails a radical (re)localization of Christianity from the West to Korea.

Handman’s primary interest through much of her book is denominationalism. It is evident that Guhu-Samane have a very active sense of their own possession of Christianity, because of their intense and ongoing factionalism. Until the Holy Spirit revival that swept the region in 1977, they had been rather lukewarm Lutherans. The revival spurred both divisions and fervor, as members of each group defined themselves in contrast to the others. Handman suggests the process of fissioning will not stop with Reformed Gospel and New Life but is likely to continue indefinitely; in Luther’s words “once reformed, always reforming.” Handman pits her thesis against the claim, which she finds running through much current anthropology of Christianity, that social existence poses a fundamental problem for Protestantism. For example, my own work with Calvinists in Sumba, Indonesia, has found that their worries about insincere language and fixed prayers are grounded, in part, in the intuition that these external forms of language, being social facts, inevitably entangle the self with others. If any given verbal formulation verges on the citation of words that others have already said, then one is always at risk of mere mimicry, rather than sincere self-expression. Handman links this to the strain in modern liberalism that sees society as a constraint on the autonomy required by moral agency. Social life is portrayed in classical liberal thought as a constraint on freedom, and thus on the attributable responsibility needed for true morality. The originality of Handman’s argument lies in the reversal of this seemingly unexceptional claim. She writes that “The acts of schism and denominational division, far from the surfeit of the social as it encroaches on the sacred, constitute practices of Christian critique and collectivity. This social field is an essential part of Christian becoming.” This situates the idea of historical agency in collective life, not just in subjective transformations or ethical work upon the self. And it moralizes social form itself.

At the heart of this moralization of social form is the idea of the remnant, “a group that exists in the aftermath of critique and one that looks forward to the horizon of final redemption.” It is a fragment of a social whole, the rest of which will not be saved. This double sense of retaining a social identity while ultimately transcending it provides the perspective from which people can criticize their own traditions and culture, offering a “third-person point of view” on the context in which one is otherwise thoroughly embedded. Social form — a denominationally unified village, for example — makes possible a moral Christian life, in contrast to the social majority surrounding it. In this respect, social form itself is subject to moralization.

Social form also constrains the dangers of individuality. According to older Guhu-Samane, “Today, with each person a prime minister of his or her own salvation and licensed to be a speaker of his or her own voice, the contemporary Christian world … is a world of disorderly and ungovernable speech. … denominational disputes would seem to be the sociological recognition of the need to contain the multiplying speakers.” The problem of the sincerely speaking individual can threaten chaos: “there are too many speakers and not enough listeners.” The Reformed Gospel Church tries to contain this in church services where the solo voice of the minister brackets cacophonous explosions of group prayer in which each person speaks at the same time. Thus Guhu-Samane confront the dilemmas of Protestant salvation through their moralization of semiotic form at several levels, from the denominational constitution of villages to the sounds of the church service.

According to Handman this moralization is a vehicle for social and cultural critique. Here she is arguing against the common assumption that so-called traditional societies lack the self-critical resources on which Euro-Americans pride themselves. Critique presupposes an external point of view, the third-person point of view, which takes up the position of someone outside the action. In Handman’s ethnography, the critique of culture focuses on things that are experientially available, like ritual and traditional practices. Moreover, those practices are indexical of sheer difference and iconic of the moral content that define denominations. That is, the formal character of particular religious practices both points to the existence of the schisms, and is taken by believers to depict why their distinctions matter. For example, Lutherans and New Life use traditional drums, Reform only western instruments; Lutheran and Reform prayers are unified, New Life’s are individualized. It is this iconicity that lends itself to moralization, foregrounding certain qualities of things so they are available for the taking of evaluative stances. In semiotic terms, this involves a specific kind of framing. When you hear a voice, it is not an objective sound you are perceiving, but a person, who is performing a certain kind of action (yelling, cajoling, speaking), which entails an evaluation. This very propensity to evaluate people’s voices in distinctively moral terms provides Harkness with his central theme in approaching Korean Christianity.

Harkness’s account trades on the polysemic character of the word “voice” in English, which refers both to the body’s physical production of sound and the social identity of the speaking person. Since sonic production is not just an objective fact, but what you hear is shaped by local norms and expectations of vocal sound, what you hear, and who you hear come together as social alignments. It is on the basis of this semiotic model that Harkness places the singing voice at the heart of his account of the Korean Presbyterian experience of modernity and spiritual salvation. The qualities of the voice make perceptible to listeners what they take to be the bodily experience of a distinctive spiritual condition. On this basis, people come to share a stance or orientation to the world. This stance is necessarily evaluative: “people orient to the different qualities of the voice and in so doing orient to one another in terms of these qualities.” Harkness summarizes the point, “just as Christians in church should strive to clean their imperfect voices, they also should strive to clean their imperfect maŭm [heart-mind] as well as their imperfect social relations.” This is what I call the moralization of semiotic form.

In this way, various qualities seem to converge as objects of a single evaluation. The sound of the voice, the feelings of the body, and emotional response of the listener, and the historical memories and projected future come to seem consistent with, and reinforce, one another, and to be imbued with clear, unified values. Christians who hear the traditional singing style are prone to feel that the rough vocalization and the physical pain it seems to express manifest a wounded body, which in turn is evocative of the sorrow of the historical past. The supposedly clean voice of Christian singing embodies an orientation toward the future and all its promises.

Now the moralization of semiotic form in this case does not work with sonic qualities alone. The metasemiotic organization to which Harkness refers contributes to the process of typification, that is, the production of socially recognized types or categories of things. It aligns the sonic qualities of speech and song with other linguistic variations to produce indexical icons of moral character, “organized by what is perceived as a difference between a Christian moral position and an un-Christian moral position” which “can be heard in the voice itself.” It is this metasemiotic organization of sonic and other variables that renders voices iconic of particular moral qualities — it endows them with palpable substance. In this respect, sound is an “affordance” for the business of moralization. By affordance, I refer to the ways that the objective qualities of sound (or any other aspect of experience) are available for appropriation within particular interpretive and evaluative projects. But it’s important to bear in mind that those qualities do not determine in advance what anyone will make of them, or even whether they will be noticed at all. In conclusion, let us think more carefully about what such affordances might mean.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Moralization characteristically works on participation roles, in motivating, directing, and organizing actions oriented to the future. A change in religious stance may involve a change in speaking or “voicing” roles, a shift from being one who hears others testify, witness, preach, or sing, to becoming one who does it oneself. When Korean Presbyterians sing “cleanly” they are striving to appear cleaner before God. When Guhu-Samane obtained the scripture in their own language, they said that “God could finally hear us and we could finally hear God.” Being implicated in dialogue can have strong ethical implications. It usually involves some kind of stance-taking toward one another, and toward that which is being talked about. In Handman’s words, “In a kind of Christian linguistic individualism, the participants in the revival became morally responsible for themselves through individual speech and a linguistic subjectivity based on speaking.”

Speaking, then, is a crucial component of the process of moralization. Christianity provides a position from which to see and criticize or celebrate one’s own society and its culture. By providing a transcendental standpoint, it affords a third-person point of view. This perspective is that of one who is standing outside the action, seeing it all not from the stance of someone embroiled in the midst of things, but from afar, and in terms of relatively general categories of judgment. But the third-person perspective remains merely notional until it can re-enter the dialogic form of first- and second-person stance-taking, where the critical perspective has consequences. For it to have social consequences, the categories of the outside point of view have to be taken on board by a “me” who uses them in addressing a “you” as I give an account of myself so you will recognize it. In this way, the first- and second-person are continuously informed by that third-person perspective — each of us draws on conceptual resources, ideas like “nation” or “salvation.” People become recognizable as ethical types of person — Gentiles, Sinners, the Born Again — as understood from that external view. Guhu-Samane become Christians of a particular kind, and Koreans take their place on a scale of degrees of relative salvation.

Ethical evaluations that are grounded in semiotic form can seem to emerge directly from your own experience, for instance the vocal qualities of a singer, or the words of a scriptural translation, or the familiar faces around you during a church service. These qualities of organized bodily and social experience are affordances that have been taken up by Koreans and Guhu-Samane respectively. By ethical affordance I mean any objective aspects of people’s experiences and perceptions which they might draw on in the process of making ethical evaluations and decisions. Affordances are objective features in contingent combinations, but only exist as affordances relative to the properties of some other perceiving and acting entity. What is crucial here is the fact of (mere) potentiality: a chair may invite you to sit but it does not determine that you will sit. You may instead use it as a stepladder, a desk, a paperweight, a lion tamer’s prop, to prop up an artwork, to burn as firewood, to block a door, to hurl at someone. Or you may not use it at all. Affordances are properties of the chair vis-a-vis a particular human activity. As such they are real, and exist in a world of natural causality, but they do not induce people to respond to them in any particular way.

Metasemiotic processes of moralization play a critical role in the production of indigenous Christianities. The more instrumental aspects of religion, such as healing or the quest for wealth, do not seem to play a major role in these accounts. The problem for Guhu-Samane and Koreans is how to make life moral, and in a particular place, rural Papua New Guinea or metropolitan Seoul. The means are denominational distinctions, translation choices, and the role of music in church. None of these is essentially moral in its own right, but they have become moralized, organized as indexical icons for a future to which they aspire: moral life in this particular place, for these particular people. They offer a basis for judgment and direction for action by linking both to concrete perceptual experience. In both cases, the moralization process takes up the affordances of semiotic form in order to make a moral Christian life an inhabitable possibility in this world. But precisely because the moralization takes up affordances, the raw materials — speech, song, drums, church attendance, village layouts — can never determine what is to be done with them. By virtue of their very palpability, their availability to sensual experience, they open up to an indefinite number of unknowable possible futures. This indeterminacy contributes to the historical dynamism of indigenous Christianity. For at the limits it aspires to an unattainable ideal: a moral village, a pure voice, each of which involves confrontation between the ideal of a semiotic form and the socio-material constraints on its potential to be realized.