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Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands

Occasional Webdiary contributor, Dr Mark Hayes, is a close Pacific watcher and occasional traveller in the Region where Australia's the local superpower. His not so recent pieces for Webdiary were on Tonga and Fiji. This review of a major new study of religion in the Pacific was originally published on the subscription-only The Daily Briefing e-mail service, created, and edited, by Wayne Sanderson. Dr Hayes contributes a weekly Pacific News Wrap to The Daily Briefing, which is published on Mondays.

by Dr Mark Hayes

This week, we exchanged our journo's pork pie hat with the Press badge in the lining for our Doctor of Philosophy gown and reviewed a new book we mentioned last week, Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, which arrived with a loud thud on our doorstep during the week.

Christianity in its many forms, Hindu and Muslim faiths, and traditional religions or beliefs, are of enormous influence in the Pacific, and anybody seeking to really understand the Region who ignores or neglects the very strong religious currents Out There is making a category (fatal) error. One of those currents concerns the impacts of contemporary fundamentalist or pentecostal, often US-origin or influenced, globalizing, often direct satellite broadcast delivered, 'religious' operations. One only has to watch Fiji TV on Sundays, scan its Regional satellite service, Sky Pacific's, schedules, or keep one's eyes open when driving into Suva from Nausori airport past several large supermarket sized 'churches' to see this stuff.

If readers are not people of faith or religious belief, even if only very lapsed, think of 'religion' as another, and in the Pacific, extremely important, even crucial, social phenomenon or institution, which can be sociologically 'read' and analysed in the same ways as other social phenomena, like politics, economics, or sport. Though as far as I know, all but one of the authors, and the editor, of this massive work are theologians, pastors, or Christian anthropologists or sociologists, they all approach their terrains sociologically, and in theologically literate sociological ways. This is certainly not a book only for those with Christian commitments or beliefs.

Globalizing religion is a central focus of Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Theological College's Dr Manfred Ernst begins and ends the work with extremely insightful introductory overviews and concluding analysis, setting the context for the core of this genuinely monumental contribution to understanding the contemporary Pacific.

When he launched the book in mid-July, Fiji's Deputy-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, said of the opening section, which traces the history of Christianity in the Pacific from first contacts: "The scale and scope of the research is breathtaking in its scope and vision. It is a sweeping saga that recounts the conjunction of historical events and subsequent developments in a seamless manner, enabling the audience to make the connections between our far-flung islands, puissant Great Britain, Europe and fledging America".

Mainstream churches - Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Congregationalists, even Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists - and non-Western faiths too, are rightly concerned about newer religious, globalizing, imports, not only because they are eroding long-standing denomination's 'market shares', vigorously proselytizing, causing severe social problems such as amplifying poverty through extreme, parasitic, demands for ever larger financial contributions from their adherents, and breaking up families and even villages when some members defect to these new 'churches', often better described as sects, and some are even cults.

Dr Ernst also conclusively shows how globalizing, usually US-origin and influenced, 'churches' are Trojan horses, religious looking and sounding, but really freighting a peculiar, neo-liberal, even neo-con, world view. Though Dr Ernst does not use this term (and I've given it to him and colleagues at PTC, and they really like it), the new 'churches' and their rock star-like preachers, are religious pornographers, and money changers not just getting back inside the temples, but actually owning them and plying their usurious trades (Luke 19: 45 - 48). The very identities of Pacific peoples are under direct assault by globalization, and 'McChristianity' is a major vehicle of this insidious, culturally and spiritually, corrosive process.

There's really not all that much difference between the McDonald's franchises next to Sukuna Park in central Suva, or near the Fiji Post National Stadium on Laucala Bay Road across from USP, McDonald's ads on Fiji TV, and so-called 'revivalist' or pentecostal preachers and their activities in Sukuna Park and inside the Stadium on Sundays, or the 'religious pornography' on Fiji TV on Sunday mornings. I'm told these slots on television are actually paid for by their respective producers in the USA or Australia, or the 'programmes' are provided free to Regional and country-based stations. Same goes for similar radio shows as well.

This is not to say that mainstream churches are not without sin either (using sin in its strictly theological, as well as sociological, senses) witness, for example, Methodists in Fiji, whose financial demands on their people are also onerous and poverty amplifying, and some of whose pastors and members can accurately be described as the Taukei (extreme Indigenous Fijian nationalists, even racists, though Taukei in Fijian simply means 'landowner') movement 'at prayer'. In seeking to respond to the impacts of globalizing religion, many mainstream churches have retreated into their declining 'market shares' and failed to effectively respond by being truly prophetic, by speaking Truth to power, and genuinely seeking to minister to their people in both spiritual and material terms. Even more traditional Christian languages, usages, and imageries in English, French, or vernacular, fail to connect with younger parishioners who have ready access to television and even, particularly in more developed areas, mobile phones and the Internet. To be honest about it, most of this nauseating 'god blather' from mainstream evangelical churches makes me want to puke it's just so damned 'nice'.

To be sure, across the Region, there are peoples of faith, Christian ministers, pastors, and their families, Hindu priests, Muslim imams, missionaries of many callings, and congregations, who are faithful to their creeds, and who engage in the often unregarded but certainly not unacknowledged, if only by God, steadfast and quiet good and Godly works of faith, hope, and charity, living faith-informed lives and making real differences in their communities and societies. I've worshipped with, and seen these people in action, in Tuvalu and Fiji, and one of my Fijian friends is a deeply wise and spiritual Hindu priest and scholar. By no means does Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands neglect this continuing belief in, practical preaching, and everyday living of, the Gospel (good news) and, in largely similar ways, non-Western religions. Nor are ecumenical organisations and activities, and inter-faith dialogues, neglected. This work is nothing if not comprehensive and thorough, even as its primary focus is on Christianity.

The core of Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands is taken up with 15 detailed country case studies, arranged by Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, including French Polynesia, each giving a thorough country context overview, and then details of the religious geography and sociology of each country. Each country study is by an expert in that country, often a national and a local vernacular speaker. Even tiny Niue gets 10 detailed pages. Each study contains maps, tables, and graphs, and ends with extremely valuable references specific to that country.

These country case studies, in and of themselves, make the book an extremely valuable, as well as current, near-encyclopaedia of the Pacific, a Must Have on the shelves of anybody interested in the Region, into which we're going to put lots of Post-Its for ready access, and damage the book by continually accessing the exhaustive, 80 page, index. The Pacific's awash with Acronyms for Regional and specific country institutions, organisations, and NGOs (there's one already!), and following the excellent Contents pages are four pages of Acronym decoding; very handy indeed. The 30 page collected Bibliography just before the Index is a valuable source and reading guide in and of itself for anybody needing reliable entry points into the scholarly literature on Pacific religious activity.

There are 24 themed pages of colour photographs in the middle of this tome, which help the text really come alive, though the format mitigates against allowing the small pictures to really 'breathe'. Having been to church in Tuvalu, Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa - going to church being good for one's soul, is considered good manners, and you often learn or see things you'd never come across anywhere else in these countries - seeing some of those churches and congregations brought back very pleasurable memories.

I'm still reading Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands in detail, which is probably a bad move because you really shouldn't try reading an encyclopaedia from beginning to end, rather dip into it, carefully studying parts or articles of immediate interest, and promising one's self to get back to the other bits later. Yeah, sure.

In a physically massive, 866 page, 1.25 kg weight, volume, there have to be some nits to pick, but I've only found a couple so far. They're rather important and, yes, they concern Tuvalu, which is discussed in the Micronesian section. The country's a Polynesian country and its people are Polynesians, with the exception of the Nui people, who are i-Kiribati. The reason why Tuvalu (Ellice Islands) separated from Kiribati (Gilbert Islands) in 1978 (somebody got the date wrong in this book too) was precisely over cultural differences between Polynesian Tuvalu and Micronesian Kiribati. No doubt other nits will surface once I get deeper into the book, and specialists in other parts of the Region might well pick their own nits. But if we know our stuff sufficiently to pick nits, we're certainly sufficiently knowledgeable to make our own mental corrections when we find them. In no wise should such lapses detract from what is a truly monumental achievement in Regional scholarship.

Few works of scholarship deserve the description of 'monumental', but Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands most certainly does. I'll quote again from Fiji's Deputy-President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi , who, as he launched the book on July 13, said: "It is an impressive piece of meticulous scholarship. In time to come, it will be an invaluable reference for all influences in the region". Amen!

Globalization and the Re-Shaping of Christianity in the Pacific Islands is an essential addition for every Library, and an absolutely Must Have for anybody seriously interested in the Pacific Region. Order yours now from the USP Book Centre.

Unreservedly and Very Strongly Recommended.

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