Cultural Anthropology is getting more popular these days, especially as globalism prompts the Western world to open up more to the Non-west. We are getting to be smarter world citizens, and seeing that very important histories parallel our own. And not only are there good stories, but there are tragic ones too… stories of people who have been exploited, enslaved, or just forgotten by the industrialized world. Cultural anthropology aims to insert some justice into this situation, and bring world cultures to light in a more fair way.
This is a noble goal for many reasons. If we are to know the truth about history–even who we are–we need to know what has happened in the whole earth. As Christians, we want to have God’s perspective on the world, which includes the Third World and forgotten peoples. For no people group is beyond His knowledge or His touch. As we have learned about them, we have cared about them. And the world missionary movement has exploded like never before because we feel a burden to reach out to others far from us. No longer afraid of foreign looks or ways, Christians can partner with cultural anthropology to learn more about the people they are trying to help. We can be better “salt and light” if we know who it is we are reaching, and what their needs and beliefs are.
That said, cultural anthropology from an academic standpoint is a tricky endeavor. It is tricky because most of cultural anthropology is anti-Western and anti-Christian. Many of the founders of the field and activists today are looking to propagate Western guilt and overturn Western ways—whether in parenting, gender, polity, or other codes of conduct. It can be difficult to separate the facts from the interpretations.
Take Margaret Mead’s foundational work on the Samoans, for example. Mead was dedicated to her profession and had a real love for the Samoans. But she was decidedly anti-West and interpreted all her data (mostly qualitatively gathered) to say that Samoan ways were better than American ways. She based her conclusion on a Freudian worldview which condemned Western parenting for creating neurotic children. Today, Jean Liedloff is the baton-carrier for Mead’s work, basically propagating the same ideas. The respect for Bali and the native cultures she studies is tarnished by the political import she brings in to interpret. While personally appealing, her work has turned the parenting literature in Western society upside-down. And it has misleadingly led people away from helpful Western values.
The Freudian paradigm is one of two deceptive worldviews within academic cultural anthropology. If you do not want to be Freudian (or neo-Freudian, more accurately), your other choice is social constructionism. Social constructionism asserts that people are the way they are because of culturally constructed values, such as education or peer pressure. Cultures are not innately anything, or the result of psychologically innate needs (as Freud said); instead they are relative, indeterminate, changeable. This “nurture” side of the spectrum gets off into the weeds too, however, because it provokes you to think that everything about culture is just smoke and mirrors—it looks like the customs, taboos, and roles are meaningful, but they really aren’t. Change a couple variables in the equation, and the outcome is different. The scary conclusion to this paradigm is that cultures can be changed, even engineered—so perhaps we should take advantage of that. Whereas Freudians see value (sometimes too much) in a culture’s original state, Social Constructionists are progressive and want to see everyone come to a common, global, advanced image. Individual anthropologists may nuance their perspectives along this line, but the spectrum is accurate, generally speaking, and the two camps are the only real options the Academy recognizes at this time.
As a Christian then, cultural anthropology is a fun but tricky field. As a social science, there is not as much pressure to quantitatively prove your theories. (Although statistics and data analysis are required). Much research is based on qualitative methods such as surveys, anecdotes, and existing icons/artifacts. But there is still pressure to interpret data in one of two ways, both of which can be pretty extreme, and neither of which is particularly appealing. Biblically, God portrays cultures as being originally fragmented by the Dispersion at Babel, and polluted or corrupted by sin. Romans 1 is a brief overview of the fallen process, and why cultural degradation including sexual perversion and idol worship is so common in unevangelized nations. This “big picture” explanation throws much light on why we see what we see when we study ancient or native cultures, but it is entirely left out of the academic picture because it is politically incorrect. Also, God paints cultures as unegalitarian—different cultures contribute different things to the world scene, and not all are equally favorable or helpful. In fact, both Old Testament and New Testament use strong language concerning the believer’s distance from irreligious practices/beliefs. This is not an excuse for personal prejudice or stereotype (since God’s Word also condemns partiality and discrimination, even against aliens or unevangelized people). But it does mean we should weigh carefully the beliefs and practices of others, not equating them as all equally believable, good, or beautiful. Discernment should be tactful but firm.
With these things in mind, a Christian can find much worth in cultural anthropology. Your professors will may be more conforming in their anti-conformity than they think: the non-western dress and shoes, native jewelry, masks and totems in their office, etc. But not disclaiming what they have found, the Christian can gain a knowledge and respect for other cultures that the general populace is not privy to. And this knowledge can be constructively used for the Kingdom as long as one is so inclined. It is certainly of God that we open our eyes to one another, globally, and see what He has always seen.
We recommend reading “Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief” for a serious academic treatment of comparative religion. Stark is one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion, and has written a heavily researched book which will give you a strong background in different kinds of religion, areas where the atheistic presuppositions have biased the science, and the forgotten history of the subject of anthropology. A much lighter treatment of the subject which would still give you ideas to work with would be “Eternity in their Hearts” by missionary Don Richardson. Richardson touches briefly on theory, but spends most of his time looking at a number of tribes and how their view of religion may have been more than just “mythology.”