The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen by Joseph Webster. 244 pages. Palgrave Macmillan, Contemporary Anthropology of Religion Series, 2013
It can hardly be exaggerated how dramatically the anthropology of Christianity has grown in the past 15 years. “Christianity” did not appear in the index of the AAA program guide in 1996. For the program in 2013, Christianity not only appeared, it also represented one of the larger entries, on par with “gender” and “capitalism.” Today, there are a dozen titles in SAR’s Contemporary Anthropology of Religion series addressing Christianity. To this booming literature can be added Joseph Webster’s sharp new book, The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen. Webster has written a provocative study that draws on the traditional strengths of our discipline: village community, reflexive ethnography, ritual and everyday life. Webster’s larger theoretical argument also addresses venerable conversations in the study of Christianity: secularization, disenchantment and Weberian relations of subjectivity and society. At the same time, Webster picks up fresh, important themes that have become widespread in the anthropology of Christianity – materiality, transcendence and immanence, language and meaning – and engages with some of the prominent voices making significant theoretical contributions to the anthropology of Christianity (and anthropology as a whole). Although the theoretical argument of the book gets a bit dense at the end, by reading Christianity through the contemporary anxieties of fundamentalist Scottish churchgoers, Webster has produced a compelling account of a local-global faith and the “enskilled” or practical aspects of how these Scottish Christians engage the enchantment of a world felt to be at risk.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Gamrie,” provides much of the historical and contextual frame for the discussion of Christianity and life among the community. It is here that Webster introduces the notion of the “triple pinch,” the demographic, religious and economic changes putting stress on the Christian communities. The second section, “Words,” explores the ways that forms of speaking and listening are understood as spiritually significant, or “enchanted,” in the sociality created through Christian life. The third section, “Signs,” takes up the embodiment of faith among the Scottish fishermen and congregation members, developing Webster’s work on the understandings of spiritual “immanence” (physical closeness) and “imminence” (temporal nearness).
Webster engaged his field site, the small coastal fishing village of Gamrie, with a classic anthropological approach. Webster spent 15 months in this small village with “an awful lot of religion,” attending multiple congregations, Bible studies, prayer meetings and the occasional conference. He goes beyond “religious” life by working on several fishing trawlers and engaging some economic dimensions of the community’s life. These accounts provide some of the most engaging ethnography of the book.
One aspect of his fieldwork that sets Webster’s work apart is his self-consciously engaged subject position as a Christian studying Christians. At numerous points in the ethnography, Webster notes how his identity as a Christian made him a particular part of the religious context (though not necessarily an “insider”). Webster links this form of engagement to a concept drawn from Charles Taylor, the “language of perspicuous contrast,” in which he tries to highlight the differences between subject positions, rather than attempt a “neutral” voice or viewpoint. I would argue that this device is inconsistently applied, at times submerging while reappearing in another setting (such as among the fishermen during his stints as a crewmember), but his willingness to foreground this ethnographic voice is unusual and at turns challenging and illuminating.
As Webster lives life in Gamrie, we accompany him through his occasionally awkward, but delightfully personal interactions with the collaborators inside and outside the churches of the village. For example, when Webster joins the crews of two trawlers pulling prawns from the North Sea, we learn a great deal from the intimacy forced by such close quarters. It is some of the most illustrative ethnography (along with his discussion of “God-incidences” replacing coincidences) for connecting the “enchantment” of everyday life as these Christians make sense of the world that is “pinching” their lives in an out-of-the-way place.
Theoretically, it is refreshing to see Weber doing some heavy lifting in the anthropology of Christianity again. Although many scholars have made various strands of structuralism and post-structuralism the scaffolding on which they build arguments, Webster’s Weberianism allows him to bring out the interpretive frames that are animating the lives of these Christians in social and theological terms that are locally meaningful and analytically fruitful. Materiality and language do not constitute mere signs pointing to God’s (or the devil’s) work in the world. Instead, he persuasively argues, the words and things of the world are constituted by a “dual nature” in which the spirit of God is “physically present” alongside the objects and words at play. Webster brings in the theological term “consubstantiation” to develop this point. Much of the development of this discussion is packed into the conclusion, when it might have been profitably elaborated more directly in conjunction with the ethnography throughout the text, but it is a well-supported and engaging argument that makes a fresh and interesting contribution.
The general packaging of this volume could have improved access in various ways. For example, the title (chosen by the press) is both bland and misleading. Lumping this ethnography under the heading of “Protestantism” does not reflect the theological and cultural specificity that is at the heart of this book. Small copy errors in the text (eg, missing quotation marks on one end of a citation) distract at a few points. And the cost of the hardback (the book is not available in paperback) makes it inaccessible for general student use. E-copies may be available through library subscriptions, though this is typically not a good option for a general class text.
In addition to scholars of Christianity, anthropologists of Europe, and those interested in the globalization of religion generally, this book could make a good pairing with other works on religious life taking different theoretical turns and engaging distinct ethnographic settings. The book would make a good assignment for those teaching ethnographic methods, particularly those who want to consider how the commitments of the ethnographer might interpolate with the work itself. Webster’s work makes an excellent contribution to the Contemporary Anthropology of Religion series and portends more good things to come from this young scholar.
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