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God is Samoan: Dialogues between Culture and Theology in the Pacific

Matt Tomlinson
Published by University of Hawaii Press in 2020

Matt Tomlinson, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, has made a major contribution to missiology with this book, although he may not have set out to reach that particular crowd. Tomlinson is an anthropologist trained in linguistic anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent several decades researching Christianity in the South Pacific. This is his monograph, drawing on research he conducted at several seminaries in the South Pacific, interpreted through his long association with Christians and Christianity from his previous fieldwork in Fiji and Samoa. In this relatively short book, he packs in a variety of contexts and voices to explore the ways theologians and biblical scholars in the South Pacific “use the concept of culture to motivate dialogues of several kinds” (9). In developing his argument, Tomlinson brings together theologians from many theological traditions, personal perspectives, and his knowledge of cultural backgrounds in the South Pacific to demonstrate how complex the construction of “culture” is within these theological conversations. The result is a text that speaks to multiple audiences with an engaging and long-needed study of how contextualization is negotiated as a social and theological project in these spaces of intellectual life outside the historic European and North American centers of the Protestant church.

I first encountered the ideas of contextualization and contextual theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s. As a student in their School of Intercultural Studies (née School of World Mission), this approach was taken as something of a rebuke to our colleagues in the School of Theology, where we perceived a hubris of thinking that their brand of European, Western-based Christian theology was somehow neutral, unaffected by cultural location. Those of us studying missiology knew better, and “contextualization” was our rejoinder to that cultural myopia.

Yet, as a student of cultural anthropology, I always found the particular assertion of “culture,” as it appeared in the theological-missiological literature, to be too rigid and mechanized. The reason, I would come to learn, came from the same structural functionalist and cognitivist approach Tomlinson observed at work among the contextual theologies of the South Pacific. That is, he observed many of these scholars invoking a culture concept in which culture is depicted as “ordered, stable, and whole, with rules and values joined in an enduring system” (8). This often works, Tomlinson argues, against the grain of the dialogic and practical objectives of the professors and scholars working in these seminaries in New Zealand, Samoa, and Fiji where he did his field work. Contextual theology of the Pacific has the idea of developing theology rooted in the lives of real believers in real places, while reflecting the universal claims of the gospel. How “culture” is expressed, like so many things in our Christian lives, becomes, at times, an impediment, a tool, and even a “club” in both senses of that word. Unpacking the intersecting uses of culture, the dynamics of social life, changing and cross-cutting interests (including the feminist, ecological, and traditionalist emphases in these schools), gives us a deep dive into how contextualization truly works out on the ground.

Tomlinson develops his discussion through four chapters, each focused on the intersection of Christianity and local categories of practice and being that inform how various theologians and scholars ground their work. The first connects the Samoan/Tongan traditions of storytelling, conversation, or informal, interactive talk, known as talanoa, with the narratives of the Bible. Citing the words of Tongan Methodist biblical scholar Jione Havea, Tomlinson writes that “talanoa can be understood as both subject and method of theology, a kind of microcosm for understanding culture within cultural theology” (32). Chapter 2 looks more broadly at the state of contextual theology among a church that has a widespread presence throughout the South Pacific. Having been established throughout the region for many generations, several forms of Christianity, principally mainline Protestants, but also Pentecostals, Anglicans, and Catholics, have become deeply woven into the social, cultural, and political life of these island nations. Thus, contextual theologies often work at the intersections of change and growth, in tension with the prevailing view of culture often employed. Entitled “Weavers, Servants, and Prophets,” this chapter explores how Pacific theologians and church leaders address gender, feminism, service, and prophetic traditions as they lean into the changing role of the church as part of Pacific societies. In chapter 3, the book turns to the most famous example of a contextual Pacific theology, the “coconut theology” of Sione ‘Ananaki Havea. Havea developed his work in the late 1980s as part of a cooperative of Pacific theologians working on contextualizing the gospel for their churches. Calling Jesus the Coconut of Life, the theology draws on the image of the coconut as a staple of Pacific life to link the universal gospel with the daily life of Pacific peoples. Though not without critics, Tomlinson notes how influential this work has been in Pacific theological circles, even as some of the assumptions of (a stable, bounded) culture pose problems around the objectives of dialog and dynamic theological reflection. In the final chapter before the conclusion, Tomlinson turns to the ecological theologies that draw on the mythological accounts of Pacific seafaring, and the sort of indigenous identity the peoples of these island countries have developed. These eco-theologies of the Pacific assert the “totalizing holism” of Pacific life—land and sea, linking all life together in a generally implicit (but at times explicit) Edenic union with God (88).

These four chapters provide an unusual, if not unique, study of how theologians engage their own institutional, ecclesial, and conceptual frames as they work out what they assert is a contextual theology. Although Tomlinson does not make this study a critical assessment of contextual theology and contextualization per se, he gives us the ethnographic grounding to question the ways missiology (and, increasingly, theology) generally frames “culture” or “context” as the “ordered, stable, and whole” entities on which theology is built, rather than part of the contested framework whereby interests, power, interpretation, and sociality intersect as Christians work out their lives together.

In the conclusion, Tomlinson turns more directly to the question of theology and anthropology to go more deeply into the questions theologians themselves are asking. He refers to the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff when he asks, “What does it mean to say that God speaks, and how should this claim be understood in relation to claims that God reveals and inspires?” (103). The chapter moves to the heart of anthropology and theology, reflecting on the nature of otherness and ways both anthropology and theology conceive of what it means to engage, encounter, and/or learn from the other. Tomlinson identifies himself as standing between resolute secularism/atheism on the one hand, and in the fold of a specific tradition on the other. He is well situated to comment on both the projects of anthropology—understood as existing in a secular realm—and the work of theology to create dialog about, and with, God. He does not answer all the questions of either the Christian or the secular scholar, but he opens up the place of mystery where both might find a comfortable tension and productive dialog.

I noted in the opening of the review that Tomlinson likely did not intend this work to be directed to missiology. The intended audience is more likely the anthropologists of Christianity, those of us who are working at the intersection of theology and anthropology, and his colleagues in the studies of the South Pacific for whom this would be a welcome addition to the literature. I consider myself part of the first two of those groups, and, as such, found this book an excellent contribution to considering the lived realities of Christianity, as well as a fresh and engaging contribution to the growing dialog between the disciplines of anthropology and theology. But I would strongly commend this book to those in missiology and theology who, rightfully, are thinking at the intersection of cultural particularity and Christian universality. Indeed, for anyone interested in the global church, this book provides an ethnographically grounded study of how people come to this question in their own communities, in the maturing growth of the church. It is not a critique of contextualization as a concept, far from it. Rather, Tomlinson takes up the idea of contextualization as part of the ethnographic question to be answered: how do people who have been profoundly socialized into the project of relating culture and faith work out the grounds of the conversation? What is culture? How is the practice and idea of culture used in their theological work? These are questions that are often taken for granted in missiological circles, ones that this book serves to beautifully illustrate and complicate in productive ways.

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.  


  • Thank you, Brian, for this exceptional review. Through the International Network for Christian Higher Education (INCHE), I first encountered the depth of Tongan Christianity during a 2018 conference hosted by Bethlehem Tertiary Institute in New Zealand. A female plenary speaker from the Tongan Methodist church provided a thoughtful address about the foundations of Tongan Christianity as they intersect with education. I am eager to read this book probing the history of such theological/cultural developments in many Pacific Island cultures. This researcher and your review raise foundational questions about the intertwined nature of theology and culture.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    We only need to read Paul’s epistles to know how culturally “local” each church was, and that the practical theology he directed to each church had both local and global applications. This came out of his lengthy stays at the churches he founded, which allowed him to gain an understanding of the respective local cultures and to write letters with a “glocal” (simultaneously local and global) application. The people are the mission; our theology needs to be a glocal phenomenon that comes out of a deep understanding of the people we are ministering to, whether in Shanghai, a Moroccan village, or a fishing community on a Pacific island.