Book Review: Larsen, Timothy 2014. The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith.

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Timothy Larsen teaches as professor of Christian philosophy (Christian thought) at Wheaton College. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Stirling (Scotland) in 1997. In this work, Larsen explores Christian thought in the burgeoning science of secular Anglophone anthropology (engl. ethnology). The basic scholarly tenor, whether this is true or not, is that anthropology is “anti-religious” and hence exhibits an “anti-faith” attitude (p. 9). With the title ” The Slain God” he shows which theoretical-philosophical worlds of thought developed among critics as well as among proponents of Christian-ethical values. Of interest to missiologists is the apologetic thrust as it emerges in the scientific discourse with the discipline of anthropology (ethnology).

The discipline of anthropology, which has been developing since the mid-19th century, is underestimated in its overall scientific influence and often reduced to evolutionary Darwinism and cultural anthropology. Larsen limits his study to British social anthropologists because, in his opinion, they exhibit the broadest diversity of thought (p. 2). Left untouched are the research fields of applied, biological-physical, evolutionist, sociocultural, or linguistic anthropology, as well as archaeology.

Larsen begins with a historical review, pointing to the early initial ethnographic research of C. Prichard (1786-1848). Also, explicitly Christian ethnographers, such as the method. Revd. Edwin William Smith (1876-1957), and also nonreligious freethinkers, such as Edmund Leach (1910-89), are mentioned. However, to give an overall outline of developments in anthropology, he chooses the following anthropologist/s: E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), James Frazer (1854-1941), E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973), Mary Douglas (1921-2007), Victor (1920-1983), and Edith Turner (1921- ).

The anthropological-scientific discourse leads through the initial social-evolutionist approach (Tylor, Frazer), to functionalism (Malinowski), from there to functional-structuralism (Radcliffe-Brown), and to modern approaches (p. 6).

“Religion” is often regarded as “superstition” in anthropology. Because of this critical-rejectionist attitude, it was negotiated from a sociological point of view as “projection” or “compensation,” at the level of “maintaining social solidarity” (p. 10; Evans-Pritchard). Personal faith or membership in a faith community was viewed critically, such as the charge to Mary Douglas that “No sincere anthropologist can be a Catholic” (2005:105). How did such thinking affect anthropology?

E. B. Tylor built his anthropological approach on August Comte (1798-1857). The latter, in turn, used an evolutionist approach and viewed all human processes under a higher evolving triad: theological-fictional, metaphysical-abstract, and scientific-positive (p. 21). Tylor introduced the “comparative method” based on “similar stages of development” in all peoples. “Primitive stages” were thereby already passed through by the “more highly developed” ethnic groups (p. 22). “Animism” is with him the “science of the savages” (savages), “magic” the “incomplete approach to science” and “religion” has the “aim to explain nature” (pp. 23-25).

James George Frazer introduces another evolutionary three-step, namely the socio-logical phases of “magic”, “religion”, and “science” (p. 41). Every culture passes through these. For him, this is also true of Judeo-Christian doctrine, as a transitional form, reflected in the biblical stories. Jesus Christ’s death becomes the later “Haman of the year.” A cycle that recurrently defines itself as either “salvation history” (believers) or “superstition” (critics) (ibid.). Nonetheless, he engages with theologians and later even fears that his views might strengthen the same in their beliefs (pp. 78-79, according to Larsen).

Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) brought ethnography to bear as a comparative or descriptive discipline. His goal was to trans-port “them” to “us” (English culture) (p. 84). At the same time, he went through personal experiences (2 world wars, death of parents, suicidal death of wife in 1959, early death of first son in 1941; pp. 115-16) that led him to the Catholic faith, but as a critical, but convinced, Bible-reading believer (1941; pp. 95, 102). With Franz Steiner, he calls for “religion” to be treated as an independent anthropological rather than an evolving object of research (p. 127). He was well aware of the anti-religious and anti-faith attitude of his discipline (1947; pp. 80, 96). Undeterred by this, he spiritually followed his father, who was a reverend in the Church of England (p. 82). His fame (chair of anthropology at Oxford University; honor of knighthood 1971; p. 82) is attested in the eulogy on him, as “the most brilliant anthropological thinker of us all” (Firth; p. 81).

Mary Douglas was overwhelmed by the impact of religious food rules and their implementation (p. 120). She studied spontaneous responses to rituals from the standpoint that formal, written, and structured “natural symbols” are better than informal, personal, and timeless ones (Purity and Danger; p. 135). In contrast to Evans-Pritchard, who calls “magic” flawed, Douglas equates “magic” with religious sacraments or basic Christian statements (pp. 144-145). Her studies of Leviticus, in Purity and Danger, show her openness to biblical content, which did not prevent her from interpreting the Bible allegorically (pp. 151-155). At the same time, she rejected the historical-critical approach of theologians to the Bible as inadmissible for anthropologists, since research material should not be arbitrarily dissected by the scientist (p. 153).

Victor Turner (1920-1983) and Edith Turner (1921- ; married 1943) are known for their atheistic beginnings and later conversion to Roman Catholicism (1958; p. 182). Negative childhood experiences pushed both of them out of the Christian space. Only “faith experiences” in Africa (initiation rites, religious rituals) brought them together anew with the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical “world of experience” (pp. 183-185). Her research on “pilgrimages,” based on her own religious experience, the infant death of her daughter in 1960, made her famous since 1968 (p. 194). Edith Turner continues to be active in anthropology today.

With this historical outline, Larsen offers a fascinating study of a human discipline that feels pressured to have to logically explain everything transcendent. As a result, it develops methods that approach transcendence only insofar as they displace it into the realm of experience. Larsen, as a convinced Christian, does not necessarily remain objective himself, which he should justify more clearly in the preface. For this reason, one gets an insight into the “how” of rejecting attitudes, but misses “objective” reasons of the “why”.


Anthropology ; Ethnology ; Apologetics ; Church criticism ; Faith ; Christianity