Book Review: Rynkiewich, Michael A. 2011. Soul, Self, and Society

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Prof. Michael Rynkiewich is an anthropologist at the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary and the E. Stanley Jones School of Mission and Evangelism. His scholarly anthropological activities in the context of Christian Development Assistance go back well into the 1970s.

In this publication, Rynkiewich processes his observations on the application of anthropology as an auxiliary discipline of missiology. He works slowly through an overview of anthropology before venturing into a “Christian anthropology” (chapter 13; pp. 243-250). His assessment is self-critical and reflects on the current state of anthropological (in German-speaking countries: ethnology) research in missiology. In his opinion, a deep gap opens up, with regard to the scientific discipline of anthropology and the application of the auxiliary discipline of anthropology in the context of missiology. But more on this later. How it came to this and what ways out are provided, he presents a historical review and short overview of anthropology.

In his introduction (Chapter 1; Anthropology, Theology and Missiology), Rynkiewich describes the life of a worker named Lakan from Papua New Guinea and his economic migration. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Lakan, like most modern people, is a member of many different social networks. With regard to these developments, the concepts of culture, “mother” language, diaspora, and religion become relative in the anthropological context. In what Rynkiewich calls the “standard model of anthropology” in missiology, the above terms are assumed to be static (p. 65). This corresponds to the state of anthropology in the 1950-1960s, but since then humanity has changed significantly due to migration, diaspora, transnationalism, urbanization, and globalization. As human societies have changed, anthropological research has also evolved. However, this development did not find its way into missiology. Rather, it stuck to the static image of the family, the individual versus collective society, and the people as a homogeneous unit (common origin, common language, and homeland).

In 12 chapters, Rynkiewich works his way through the areas of culture, ethnocentrism, and contextualization (chapter 2; pp. 11-44); language, symbols, and intercultural communication (chapter 3; pp. 45-63); the self, society, and behavior (chapter 4; pp. 64-77); marriage, family, and kinship (chapter 5; pp. 78-99); economics, development, and mission (chapter 6; pp. 100-120); politics, power, and law (chapter 7; pp. 121-133); religion, faith, and ritual (chapter 8; pp. 134-154); caste, class, and ethnicity (chapter 9; pp. 155-168); colonialism, neocolonialism, and post colonialism (chapter 10; 169-197); migration, diaspora, and transnationalism (chapter 11; pp. 198-213); urbanization and globalization (chapter 12; pp. 214-242); and a Christian anthropology (chapter 13; pp. 243 – 250). With this outline, Rynkiewich embarks on a journey through the history of the fledgling scientific discipline of anthropology.

Chapter 2 begins with the self-image of a society and how it is reflected externally as “culture”. In ethnography, cultures are described externally, in ethnology (comparative anthropology; not to be confused with the German term Ethnologie) they are compared with each other. In the course of the developments of cultural descriptions (ethnographies) a “cultural relativism” has formed. This assumes that a “culture” would be unique, delimitable and homogeneous in itself (p. 27). The basis of such assumption is ethnocentrism. Such thinking led in its consequence to racism and the racial ideological expression of anthropological ways of thinking. As a result, parts of anthropology came to a dead end with the racial ideological accompaniments of both world wars. At this point, Rynkiewich interpolates a somewhat off-kilter section on “culture shock” that describes the challenges of the anthropologist and missiologist in foreign environments. He then examines the relationship of biblical message (gospel) to “culture” within the framework of contextualization (Niebuhr, Carson, Menuge, Yoder). He contrasts contextualization with ethnocentrism. His result, the message must be brought to the people in their context, that is, one’s own ethnocentrism must be broken through in favor of an enculturation of the message. The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the theological basis for this. Unfortunately, he does not explain this thesis in more detail, which would be very welcome missiologically (p. 41).

In the third chapter Rynkiewich gives an overview of linguistics in anthropology and missiology. The most important insight is, the ever faster progressing linguistic extinction of languages, which are exposed to dominant national and lingua franca. Otherwise, it is a general overview of the disciplines of linguistics and their importance for intercultural communication [this would have been better studied separately. EW.).

In the fourth chapter, Rynkiewich then breaks down the static understanding of culture within the framework of deconstructuralism (p. 65). He shows that “culture” is a product of human enculturation by means of the different and multifaceted roles and the associated status that an individual holds in different social contexts. The construct “culture” is a relative and not fixable concept, even less are “cultures” comparable with each other. Similarly, he also negates the distinction of a cultural orientation to honor and shame or sin and guilt as introduced by Ruth Fulton Benedict (1946). Nevertheless, he uses the image of the “theory to the face” (p. 74; also “name”) and describes it in the categories he criticizes (!). He therefore recommends in his summary (p. 77) that a description of society should be made from cultural, social, ecological, and historical perspectives.

In the fifth chapter on marriage, family and kinship, Rynkiewich describes various family and kinship systems that have been extensively studied around the world (Iroquois, Hawaiians, Marshallese, Americans). Polygamy, as polygyny (man – several women) and polyandry (woman – several men), he devotes to the church in the contexts where few men are accessible and where women are oppressed. He concludes that the church has developed different strategies to deal with this form of human cohabitation. The motivation for the church is purely practical. He sees a theological defense of a monogamy-heterosexual relationship anchored in the Western cultural context and not as a generally valid postulate in view of the many different social systems (pp. 95-97).

At this point, for reasons of space, we turn to the seventh chapter on politics. In this chapter, the normal zeitgeist influence in anthropology is particularly evident. The interaction of law and politics is usually treated from the inadequate viewpoint of better or less developed “public institutions” (p. 129). However, every society has effective systems to regulate dispute and conflict and thus to guarantee internal and external order (Hoebel). These institutions and their interactions should be the subject of contextualization when biblical legal systems are introduced into a new cultural context in Christian Development (p. 130). Moreover, this process is in itself deeply political and must be seen as such by the church as well.

In the tenth chapter on colonialism, neo- and post colonialism, Rynkiewich points to the close and indissoluble interlocking of anthropology and missiology as colonialist activity in history and the present (p. 169). Whether one would want to go so far with him as to accept the Western creation narrative – the search for Eden and the Promised Land – as the cause of colonialism remains to be questioned. He makes clear, however, that Christian biblical hermeneutics have been consistently flexible over the centuries in justifying colonialism (pp. 186-188). Political and ecclesiastical interests can hardly be separated in retrospect. A kenotic (kenosis = self-emptying) approach seems to him a means out of the dilemma (p. 197). As mentioned in the beginning, due to the urbanization of mankind, the globalization due to the swelling mobility and the increasing nor-mal case of the “diaspora” that goes along with it, some things become questionable. Whether people migrate within a country or worldwide (who still lives in his “homeland”), “diaspora” now describes people outside their ancestral “homeland”. A static understanding of “culture”, “mother tongue”, the individual as a “person” and even objectivity in the science of anthropology is no longer tenable today. Rather, intersubjective and deconstructive features come to the fore in describing society. First, one’s subjectivity must be named, then the object of inquiry deconstructed, and then constructed again in terms of anthropological description (Derrida).

In conclusion, the criticisms of the misuse of anthropology within missiology touched upon here are very central but not new. It weighs heavily that, against better judgment, missiology does not move here and dissolve its static view. Rynkiewich in this short outline on the coexistence of anthropology and missiology has touched on problems, but in my opinion has not pointed out alternative methods that enable the missiologist now to work anthropologically. Here anthropology itself is already quite a bit further, as the approaches of intersubjectivism and deconstructivism show. Bernard in Research Methods in Anthropology (2006) and Barnard in History and Theory in Anthropology (2000) are approaching missiology more closely in their accounts. It is the practice-based “applied anthropology” that thrives on the comparison of social and cultural idiosyncrasies, for which a structuralist perspective is necessary.