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Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics

Christian Scharen and Aana Marie Vigen
Published by Continuum in 2011

It is always with excitement and trepidation that I approach a description of my discipline from those in other fields. Technically, as a cultural anthropologist, ethnography is not my “discipline,” as other social sciences, such as sociology, political science, and even economics, have adopted and adapted ethnographic methods to great effect, but it is definitive of what we anthropologists do. As such, I take any foray into ethnography very seriously. My excitement is always premised on the belief that ethnography provides a powerful epistemology for social life and theological action. My trepidation stems from experiences in which ethnography is done “thinly,” often with little of the self-awareness of representation and authority that have become standard in cultural anthropology.

In this book, Christian Scharen, a professor of worship and practical theology at Luther Seminary, and Aana Marie Vigen, a professor of social ethics at Loyola University in Chicago, have brought together a group of Christian ethicists and theologians from Catholic and Protestant traditions to consider how the practice and theory of ethnography intersects with Christian theology and ethics. Carefully laying out the theoretical and practical issues of ethnography, alongside diverse and careful ethnographic data, this book calms my trepidation while raising the excitement for this novel and fruitful use of ethnography as a context for Christian theology and ethics. By crossing traditional disciplinary lines, this book opens up normative questions of analysis that should be read in theology, anthropology, and by anyone interested in the ways people live out faith in diverse contexts.

The book opens with a forward by professor of theology Mary McClintock Fulkerson that succinctly states a key strength of the volume.

[Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics] surfaces the value-oriented dimensions of social scientific research and the intersections between social science, both quantitative and qualitative, and the “theo-logical.” Furthermore, it illustrates rather than simply asserts their resonances and similarities. (xiii, emphasis in original)

Through the chapters, the editors push against a normatively universalist tradition of theology, arguing and illustrating the process and payoff of using ethnography as a theological method. At the same time, it follows in the recent traditions of positioned ethnography, but this time with an avowedly theological position, rather than (only) a social subject position as the relevant variable in ethnographic practice and product.

The editors begin with four chapters to define and explain the idea of ethnography. In a powerful example of why it can be thrilling to see one’s discipline described by those outside its conventional orbit, this section provides one of the most succinct and compelling apologies for ethnographic methods I have read anywhere. Writing to audiences across disciplines, the editors assume that many readers will be unfamiliar with the history, theory, and development of ethnography. The first chapter, “What is Ethnography?,” opens the book by tracing the historical and contemporary epistemological assumptions and assertions of ethnography. The next three chapters move into recent developments in practical theology and Christian ethics, in particular noting where ethnography has come into the theological and ethical project. Together, the four chapters link ethnographic epistemology to the work of theology and ethics in a compelling and accessible way. The authors frame this more as a challenge for conventional theology than for anthropology, which has been working out questions of representational authority and epistemology in ethnography for more than two decades. But this does not mean these chapters are only, or primarily, of use to theologians and ethicists. Anthropologists will be intrigued, and even challenged, to consider the theoretical and theological implications of a normative ethnography in which theologically positioned work relies on the real-world experiences of theology and ethics in community.

Following the introductory chapters, the editors provide seven “exemplars,” chapters illustrating how ethicists and theologians working in various Christian traditions employ ethnography in constructing and representing theology. The seven chapters reflect a variety of contexts in which the authors worked: African-American congregations in the United States; HIV positive people in urban Chicago and Kenya; Oregon communities debating the morality of physician-assisted suicide; street children in Nairobi, Kenya; indigenous communities in Southern Mexico; refugee settlements and other communities among the Acoli of Northern Uganda; and a homeless shelter in Atlanta. These are primarily reflections by the authors on how they used ethnographic methods, or came to understand their work as ethnography in the cause of theology or faithful witness. At the same time, several authors also provide fascinating accounts of social life, history, and narrative that illustrate the power of anthropology and theology to come together in understandings of other worlds.

As an anthropologist, I found the focus on ethnographic methods invigorating. As the editors say in chapter 3, they are seeking to push theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank (two prominent theologians who have criticized the “uncritical” use of social scientific theory and method in theological context) to engage the ethnographic reality of churches and the church, and the ethnographic method itself. In every exemplar, and in the editors’ own reflections on fieldwork, the contributors succeed in drawing out far more of the complexity from ethnographic method than have those theologians most critical of social science. At the same time, I should note that not all the exemplars displayed the kind of methodological rigor for which I hoped. Several were largely “ethnography by interview,” or stints of three weeks in a particular field site. In these cases, while certainly appropri-ate to speak of qualitative methods, it is questionable whether the term “ethnography” is quite the right label for the work. Two of the exemplar chapters stood out, however: Todd Whitmore’s work among the Acoli and Andrea Vincini’s chapter covering his extended time among indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico both beautifully conveyed the complexity and dynamism of prolonged field work. In their cases, classic anthropological ethnography involving cross-cultural interpretation, language learning, insider/outsider dynamics, and power differentials are brought together with the analytical and theological questions of understanding and ministry. This is not to minimize the “nativist” ethnography and interview techniques exemplified in several of the other chapters, but in a work such as this, in which ethnographic field work is foregrounded for theory and theology in the church, it was gratifying to see those chapters representing the mainstay of ethnographic methods.

As might be expected from works focused on ethnography, the theology of ecclesiology was the most prominent. Theologies of justice, mercy, ministry, and, of course, ethics also emerged throughout the chapters. I was a bit disappointed that in the theological work being done, scripture was not employed extensively. Partly, this reflected the ethnographic realities of people who did not invoke scripture in the normal course of life. In the analysis, however, it would have been interesting for the authors to bring some of the data into conversation with scripture more explicitly. This is not to say that the theological reflection was incompatible with biblical theology, but some readers may be left wondering if scripture could be brought more helpfully into the theological conversations.

Personally, I look forward to using this book in courses on ethnographic method and theory in my Christian college setting. It is unique among works bringing together ethnography and theology in a theoretically and theologically sophisticated way. I can certainly imagine Christian ethicists and practical theologians finding this book a terrific boon to the literature, spurring their students to consider the lived realities of religion, not simply as the precursor to theology, but as the site of theology itself. I could complain that in a book bringing together ethnography and theology, it is a lacuna to have no Christian anthropologists or sociologists contributing, but I may need to point fingers elsewhere for that. Several years ago Todd Whitmore contacted me and other anthropologists working on Christianity to pursue a project within the American Anthropological Association bringing together ethnography and theology. I certainly saw the value in the proposal, but I cannot say I pursued it vigorously or followed up well. That Whitmore’s work has found a home in this volume is a testament to the creativity and persistence of these editors and contributors to push through with the sort of interdisciplinary work that too often fails to find a home. I sincerely hope this work makes an impact on a variety of disciplines. It speaks to several disciplines in stimulating and even prophetic ways. Theology, anthropology, ethics, philosophy, and social theory would all do well to make a home for this impressive work in their canon of contemporary publications.

Cite this article
Brian M. Howell, “Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 334-337

Brian M. Howell

Wheaton College
Brian Howell is a Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College where he writes and researches global Christianity, short term missions, and the intersection of theology and anthropology.