Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bible reading as reading

Cribbed from the scholars (the link is gated so no point posting):
Book review of
The road to clarity: Seventh-Day Adventism in Madagascar – By Eva Keller Basingstoke: Palgrave 2005.
Michael Lambek London School of Economics and Political Science/University of Toronto
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol 13(3) Pages 774-775 2007

The road to clarity is itself a model of clarity. With lucid writing and direct argument, Keller draws us to a small number of Seventh-Day Adventists in the remote town of Maroantsetra and surrounding villages of northeastern Madagascar. Established in the United States by 1860, Adventism has been only modestly successful in Madagascar (slightly under 1 per cent of the population in the district are members; this is higher than the national average and lower than neighbouring countries) but reasonably effective. In particular, the church's ability to manage the regular circulation of their quarterly Bible Study Guide with its daily lessons printed in Malagasy suggests a remarkable level of organization that is beyond the scope of Keller's study. It is the written publications that account for the success of Adventism in this part of Madagascar. They enjoin people to read and study the Bible, offering daily topics and questions with associated verses from the Old and New Testaments. Keller offers a compelling description of the intellectual pleasure gained from reading, studying, and conversing together. Interpretation is collective and democratic; Keller describes the method as Socratic and makes an interesting comparison with science. It is the process of study rather than any specific results which the Adventists enjoy, as well as the sense of potency that promises them the complete clarity of divine vision in the afterlife.

One could see this as a purely intellectualist account but insofar as one accepts Keller's observation that 'Bible study is not a means to an end, but an exciting and attractive activity in and of itself' (p. 242), so one must also acknowledge (at least from an Aristotelian perspective) the ethical dimension. Indeed, a chief strength of this book is Keller's strong rebuttal of the various utilitarian arguments so frequently made to explain conversion. Keller shows that Adventism is not practised in order to wriggle out of obligations to kin and take the short cut to middle-class life, and she shows the strong and selfless commitments that continue to be made to relatives across the denominational boundary.

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