Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Oceania

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In 1601, after a Spanish historian published a map showing the islands of the Carolines and the Marianas, north New Guinea, and most of the Solomon Islands, Pacific Island peoples became part of the general history of humankind. Even before geographers accepted French savant Dumont d'Urville's 1832 classification of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, the islands entered the European imagination. Polynesia, largely through voyagers' experiences at Tahiti, evoked a new kind of paradise, one including sexual freedom as well as escape from social restrictions in the Old World; to a large extent, the region remains a "legend that sells" for pleasure-seeking holiday-makers. Melanesia, in contrast, has always presented ambiguityhome of untold treasures accompanied by frightful, perhaps monstrous dangers. For example, the world's largest gold and copper mine at Freeport, on the south coast of Irian Jaya, coexists with tourists' common anxiety about law-and-order issues, especially in nearby Papua New Guinea and the Solomons. Significantly, the European explorers who discovered Micronesian and Polynesian (sometimes referred to as "Austronesian") peoples viewed their lighter skins, more "welcoming" approach, and "recognizable" social structures (even kingship) as corresponding to the Enlightenment's (1780s1840s) popular notions of "the noble savage." Conversely, the Europeans placed the "black islanders" of the southwest Pacific near the bottom of the evolutionary scale and often saw them as ignoble, miserable, and treacherous. These biased images affected transcultural outcomes.

For their part, the indigenous islanders had to make sense of these highly mysterious newcomers, whose dress and accouterments were utterly alien and whose vessels were significantly larger than and different from their own. Each island culture had its own postures of response and interaction, and in this vast region, which contains twenty-five percent of the known discrete languages and religions, this complexity is daunting. In general, however, each society had periods of initial contact, longer periods of adjustment to serious intrusions into its local ways of life, and the increasingly more common, yet nonetheless creative, absorption of modernity.

In terms of religious change, the Pacific Islands are noted for a massive shift towards Christianity (with over 90% nominal adherence for the whole region). This general change has entailed varying consequences for the myriad of isolated, small-scale, and survivalist cultures, some of which have been so accommodating to the new faith that their traditions have become highly muted, and others which have been highly resistant to conversion. Typically, Christianity has provided a window of opportunity for very localized peoples to participate in modernity, with all its accompanying bewilderments that in turn have occasionally subverted the religious life.

Pacific "contact scenarios" with outsiders can be plotted from the sixteenth century to the early twenty-first, since some mountain cultures in easternmost Irian Jaya have yet to interact with the outside world. When their content can be (re)constructed, most indigenous responses to external contacts appear "religious," in that newcomers are taken to be deities, strange and powerful spirits, or returning ancestors. On Hawai'i Island, in 1779, the "natives" thought Captain James Cook was the long-awaited, returning fertility god Lono, and he was feted by Chief Koah at much cost to the locals. After Cook's departure, however, when a storm forced him to return to the island, the natives killed him because of what they saw as his deception. Over half a century earlier, Rapanui, or Easter Islanders, apparently reacted to the enigma of passing vessels (before Jacob Roggeveen's landfall of 1722) by feverishly erecting many of their great statues to face the sea at Rano Rarukua most untraditional act, considering that the effigies of chiefs were meant to gaze over their ancestral lands. In Polynesia, with its more vertically oriented cosmologies (sky/earth/underworld), the newcomers were often thought to have arrived from above: the Samoan term papala[n]gi (sky people), for instance, is used to describe the white visitors. Later on, as in Papua New Guinea, where a horizontal view of the cosmos prevailed, the first appearances of outsiders mostly suggested the return of the dead. In 1877, for example, the Papuan Koitabu thought Ruatoka, a Rarotongan co-worker of missionary James Chalmer, was an ancestral spirit because of his ghostly white suit; in 1946, isolated Ke'efu highlanders who stumbled upon thirteen dead white people in a strange sheltera crashed planeburied their bodies and offered sacrifices to them as "new beings" who could die like themselves.

Once interaction with outsiders continued, however sporadic, islanders had to decide whether to resist them or trade with them. Epidemic diseases caused by contact often stalled the progress of possible relationships, but the islanders also found the newcomers themselves to be vulnerable to trouble, sickness, and death. Once their weaknesses were known, the outsiders were classified as strangers, and thus became worth attacking. Spirit power would be needed to hold back the intruder; for example, patrol officer Jack Hides remembers a day in 1935 on the Papuan Plateau when a swaying Etoro medium, playing a drum while perched on another's shoulders, sang a repelling clan into action.

Although the islanders killed various newcomers, many of whom were unarmed missionaries, the superior weapons of whites and their parties eventually subdued any reprisals. In any case, trade offered a popular and profitable way of dealing with the new uncertainty. Seafarers usually bore attractive items for exchange, and they were soon considered as possible prizes of (group) possession. Sometimes exchange activity was not satisfying, however; Tongans, as a result, would pirate visiting vessels, such as the Port-au-Prince in 1806. The more hierarchical (mostly Polynesian) societies, though, were in the best position to negotiate a high-level, stable rapprochement with European officialdom. Tonga, after all, had held together a far-flung island empire, from as far west as the Isle of Pines (in southern New Caledonia) to Samoa. Other, smaller societies had to capitalize on their limited opportunities. Theft often occurred, explaining how so many steel axes filtered into the Papuan Highlands years before European miners did. Sometimes individuals got lucky without having to resort to stealing. The earliest Catholic missionaries to the New Guinea highland Chimbu, for instance, gave tools to the local people to help them establish an outpost in 1936. When the fortunate recipients arrived back in their hamlets, however, news of their prizes had preceded them; the missionaries then found queues of people, with gifts to trade in order to acquire the new instruments.

Outsiders often selected relatively safe locations to begin trading or mission work, and as a consequence, some groups earned privilege over others. Since inter-tribal hostilities had long been endemic to the region, recipients of new weapons could use them to create havoc among their enemies. For example, Maori tribes procured muskets from the 1810s, convincing even missionaries to trade them for hunting purposes. In Fiji, the European Charles Savage, remaining out of the range of traditional weaponry, was "employed" by Naulivou, chief of Mbau, to shoot down his foes at the forefront of inter-tribal battles (18081809).

Even during peacetime, however, the new religion could be manipulated to secure special advantages and keep up old enmities. Christianity came in more than one guise, and if one tribe was benefiting from the presence of a mission station, another might be tempted to invite in the representative of a different denomination. Before the 1950s, Catholic/Protestant missionary competition made possible the local politics of playing one against the other. Sectarian Protestant elements also competed for loyalties. In Papua after 1908, for example, dissident families or clans often achieved social separation as a means of satisfying their local grievances by becoming Seventh-day Adventists. In Polynesia, Mormonism grew rapidly at the expense of more mainstream churches, partly because of the material benefits it offered such as superior housing and medical services. In fact, the Mormons had established their small "kingdom" in the Tuamotos as early as 1844even before the founding of Salt Lake City.

With the establishment of towns, missions, trading posts, and plantations, there arose the possibility of access to increased power and new goods. Traditionally, wealth was not only a mark of social status (of nobility in Polynesia, and often of successful management in Melanesia), but it was also a sign of blessing from the spirit order. In smaller societies, moreover, prosperity was cherished by the group; the common people looked to their chiefs for magnanimity, and a Melanesian big-man achieved his leadership through generous relinquishmentgiving gifts so that many were put in his debt. Now, however, since the longest-staying possessors of the new goods were missionaries, the indigenous people deduced that special material blessings would flow through practicing the new religion. Ships' cargo was already mysterious in origin, and the connection of the strange goods with the availability of new spiritual power heightened expectations of collective well-being. This notion, called "cargoism," led people to try worshiping in the churches. Especially in Melanesia, though, where traditional rituals focused on the tangible fecundity of plants and animals, group agitations occurred, sparked by local prophesiers filled with hope that "cargo" (European-style trade goods invested with a religious aura) would arrive in abundance. The bearers of cargo were often thought to be returning ancestors, but also possibly the "Jesus" spoken of by the evangelists. Makeshift wharves, even airstrips, were erected to receive the marvels. What had been almost exclusively directed to the expatriate strangers would now come to the local peoples. Such "cargo cults," as they have been dubbed, expressed frustration that indigenes had only limited access to these wonderful items, an inequity that seemed to contradict values of reciprocity and sharing.

Acculturative activity surrounding the introduced, internationally marketed commodities has a complex history of its own. It has often involved mimicry, yet with suggestions of ritual. Closer to contact, for instance, isolated villagers began setting their own imitation tables with wooden copies of knives and forks. In later colonial times, with new jobs available and liquor restrictions removed, islander office workers could put on the airs of sophisticated white drinkers in hotels, uncharacteristically sitting with crossed legs and drooping cigarettes. Experimentalism abounded. Setting up a store to become wealthy enticed many, yet businesses commonly failed because the owners expected magical results, and their relatives quickly absorbed the earnings. Islanders often combined the new technology with traditional causal beliefs. For instance, Melpa highlanders have been known to sacrifice chickens when their trucks break down, and some bureaucrats have become convinced they have been bewitched through their computers.

The remarkable effect of Christian missions in Oceania influenced the transculturative processes involved in the massive shift to a universal religion. A number of transformations deserve special recognition. One is epistemictraditionalist islanders and incoming Christians shared a general worldview in terms of retributive (or "payback") logic, but each supposed their grasp of its operations was correct. Indigenes supposed, for example, that trespassing into spirits' sacred groves and lairs would mean certain death; when missionaries, without this fear, did trespass without dire consequence, they were taken to possess a superior understanding of how the world worked, even while they had their own assumptions about sacrilege. Again, islanders explained most sicknesses and deaths in terms of spiritual causes and damaged relationships with deities that provoked ancestral punishments. Results of the missions' modern health services, however, often defied such expectations, even while Christians taught that bodily blessings derived from relying on "the true God." Consequently, knowledge passed on at initiations could not compete with a mission education.

In some earlier civilizations in Polynesia with kings as rulers, the long-term establishment of Christianity followed the dénouements of major wars. In Tahiti in 1815, Pomare II, who had lost power because of the emergent cult of the war god Oro, regained it in a holy war with the backing of the London Missionary Society (LMS) from the Leeward Islands. In Tonga, the powerful, pro-Christian secular chief Taufa'ahau, who dominated the Ha'apai, subdued his enemies by 1837. He unified the conquered peoples by first assuming the role of the supreme sacral kingship of Tu'i Tonga (1852), and then by attempting to place the Wesleyan Mission under his divine rule (although he had only partially succeeded by 1875).

Conversion to the new religion mandated by high-level, local decision-makers also occurred in other places: in Hawai'i under Kaahumanu in 1822, for example, and in Fiji under Cakabao in 1854). Legitimatization of local rule by missionaries prior to colonization was often marked by the acceptance of royal insignia (e.g., whales' teeth on Fiji), signs of authority which became very important when royal courts and councils of chiefs had to negotiate European annexations. Although missionaries disdained beliefs and rites that appeared to contradict their faith, they sometimes worked to save the culture by solidifying a weakened traditional government, as did Benjamin and Lydia Snow in the Marshall Islands in the 1860s.

More generally, religious change occurred through evangelically charged, politically disengaged individuals. Many pioneer "European" missionaries have stolen the historical limelight, but an immense unknown number of islanders also chose to participate in the evangelizing process. Important centers sprang up for the training of islander evangelists; with the eastern Pacific being evangelized first, the emissaries have generally moved westward. Thus, Takamoa and Malua Theological Colleges, established by the LMS on Rarotonga (Cook Islands) in 1839 and Apia (Western Samoa) in 1844, respectively, have produced both preachers and teachers that exposed Melanesia to the new faith. Many of these evangelists103 out of 203 of the pioneer Polynesian LMS personneldied in dangerous and malaria-ridden places, unfortunate deaths that were taken as signs of spiritual vulnerability in Melanesian cultures. Methodist Fijians were prominent among the earliest Melanesians to work among their fellow black islanders to the west (notably in New Britain and Bougainville).

These islander missionaries on Melanesia created a three-tiered chain of "pastoral power," which was comparable to colonial military structures. The religious hierarchy, however, set an example for ways that people other than the "white masters" could lead congregations. In western Melanesia, Indonesians filled these mediating roles; the Dutch Reformed missionaries typically deployed Ambonese, and the Catholics sent Flores Islanders. Melanesia did experience a time lag, however, before the highly populous and volatile highlands received missionaries in 1920; various coastal Melanesians were entrusted with this "frontier" activity. Devout Lutheran converts from the Huon Peninsula became the first native evangelists to the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, and rather aggressive Gogodala preachers were sent by the Unevangelized Fields Mission into the southern highlands. Throughout Catholic mission history in Melanesia, many catechists were trained to perform non-clerical religious duties in dispersed villages that were visited infrequently by expatriate missionaries. As celibacy was required of its religious, though, the Catholic Church always dawdled in the creation of indigenous clergyin a world of island societies that expected everyone to marry. Nevertheless, new orders have been created in the region, such as the 1935 founding of a sisterhood called The Handmaids of our Lord in Papua. And in 1925, the Anglicans founded the Melanesian Brotherhood in the eastern Solomon Islands.

Overall, the European and American overseas missions have established mainstream Christian denominations throughout the Pacific Islands. Historical circumstances usually caused different church traditions to predominate in different areas. Once a given mission gained a foothold in a particular region, not even colonial shifts could readily change it. France, for example, which generally favored Catholic mission activity, did not deter LMS-originated Protestantism in Tahiti (with its famous "Temple," famous for choral competitions, in Papeete) or in the Loyalty Islands (part of France's Oceanic province of New Caledonia). Germany's takeover of New Guinea in 1885 resulted in strong Lutheran and Catholic missions, especially on the mainland, but did not prevent the growth of Methodism (after the pioneering work of Australian George Brown) on the islands of New Britain and New Ireland. How these missions established themselves sometimes depended on formal agreements. At a time of comity between missions in the British Empire, for example, the Governor of British New Guinea (or Papua) Sir William McGregor negotiated spheres of influence for missions within his jurisdiction in 1890. As a result, the LMS work expanded along the southern coast where Catholic missions were not already established, while the Anglicans consolidated in the northeast and the Methodists further east again, in the Trobriand Islands. Not being party to this agreement, and with a lot of non-British personnel, the Catholics managed to evade this arrangement to their advantage, however, as did the Adventists.

Each mission's presence in a given region generated group loyalties, which are often reflected in the provincial organizations of the newly independent Pacific nations; the groundwork of new social strata was laid through mission schooling and indigenous ministries; and distinctive expressions of Christianity arose that often reflected the primacy of the first cultures affected in a given region. In the Papua, for instance, annual ceremonies of LMS-originated churches along the coast are largely modeled on the Motu traditional exchange ceremonycalled bobo because the Motu were the first converts. In Catholic areas, the short, less schooled, and more aggressive Papuan Highlanders, called "bush kanakas," have often suffered in comparison to the tall, educated, coastal Mekeo, who have had a longer experience with the outside world and who dominate the betel-nut market in the capital city of Port Moresby.

All throughout the Pacific, distinctive regional expressions of mainstream Christianity abound. What would a Samoan or Tongan Christian funeral be without the proverbial exchange of woven mats? How would agreements between secular and ecclesiastical leadership be achieved in central Polynesia and much of eastern Melanesia without sharing the common cup of pressed kava root? Dramatic reenactments of tensions upon the arrival of the first missionariesof Methodist minister Dr. Bromilow on Dobu Island in east Papua in 1891, or of Anglican bishop George Selwyn on Santa Ysabel in the central Solomons in 1862become annual celebrations in particular places.

Moreover, local rituals have become complicated due to varying limitations placed on the interaction between gospel and culture. In the central New Guinea Highlands, for instance, at the Wahgi people's great pig-killing festivals, in which a host tribe gives with astounding generosity to non-hostile tribes around it, a wooden cross will often be planted on the dance ground and a Catholic priest will open proceedings with a blessing. Members of the Swiss Brethren's mission, on the other hand, would prohibit their adherents from attending these ceremonies. Across the Pacific Islands, pork and crab have been familiar dietary components, yet the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which has proportionately its largest following in the Pacific, proscribes such food in accordance with the Levitical code. Consequently, the first outward sign of any Adventist village is the presence of foreign livestockespecially goats and cattle.

As the churches grew, the model of the Christian village usually prevailed. Both the government and the mission discouraged dispersed hamlets and encouraged larger communities, often nestling around well-kept places of worship. This proximity did not prevent various frictions, however. Sorcerers, especially in Melanesia, had once been accepted as useful agents to retaliate against enemies in other tribes; now, however, the new peace was disturbed by the unnerving possibility that the remaining sorcerers could be paid to perpetuate evil acts for jealous and disgruntled families within the same village. Similarly, denominational or sectarian differences and tensions often disrupted rural peace, occasionally dividing villages. Group reactions also arose from dissatisfaction with the outcomes of introduced religion. In Polynesia and Micronesia, where both hierarchical social structures and cosmologies pertained, unsatisfied groups often responded to dissident prophets who accentuated the lack of spirit power in ordinary church life. Thus, in these regions, missionaries could gain new followers on the pretext that a prophet has an extraordinary access to heaven's blessings. For example, between 1930 and 1932 on Onotoa (now part of Kiribati), the prophet Ten Naewa tried to outwit the LMS missionaries by announcing that God would descend in person, and he himself "fathered" the Father's arrival, as he led his waiting "Sheep." In Melanesia, however, where cargo cults were more prevalent, the common complaint was the churches did not bear material results (pidgin: kaikai, or food). In the Solomons before World War II, local prophets such as Sanop, on Bougainville, announced the arrival of rifles, motor cars, and aircraft that were delivered by ancestors, thus rendering the colonial authorities unnecessary.

Eventually, independent churches emergedmany with indigenous leaders who rejected the mainline forms of Christianity as foreign. In Melanesia, where over twenty such churches have emerged, a third of them originated in cargo movements. Others stress concrete experiences of faith, such as dreams, visions, or collective ecstasies; the latter are notable among members of the Christian Fellowship Church, in New Georgia, the Solomons. This church was once led by the white-robed "Holy Mama." In Polynesia, independent church leaders are commonly believed to have direct access to heaven or to have come down from the heavens. The Maori church, founded by Ratana in 1928, accepted him as God's "mouthpiece"; prominent in this church's iconography is a ladder linking an airplane (representing heaven) with a car (representing Earth). In 1985, the LMS Cook Islands Christian Church began to attempt to heal a long-standing internal rift, caused by a remarkable female healer named Apii Piho and her followers, who believed her claim that she was Jesus.

The resilience of traditions in certain pockets of the Pacific has sometimes kept Christian influences at bay. Virtually all the strong neo-traditionalist movements are in Melanesia, and some of these are cargo cults. Latter-day followers of the large movement in Madang (north-coastal New Guinea) during the 1950s and 1960s maintained that the indigenes should be left to develop their own salvation stories, in which the ancestors and cult founder Yali are the heroes, rather than the Biblical prophets and Jesus. In the Solomons, on the western and southern parts of Guadalcanal, one Moro sect has created a movementcomplete with its own schoolsthat is deliberately designed to preserve tribal culture and keep out Western influences. Not far to the north, the mountainous center of Malaita is home to the Kwaio, who reject any "Christian interference."

All these expressions of independence, as well as the many different varieties of indigenously generated new religious movements in the Pacific, have shown that islanders believe in expressing religiosity in their own cultural terms. Tensions and altercations at the village level have inevitably served to instruct churches in the Oceanic region, preparing them for their own self-determination. In intercultural relations, the balance of forces until the end of the twentieth century favored preserving sound beliefs and practices borne by the West. Religious leaders wanted to ensure that the different peoples receiving the Christian message were properly acculturated and did not lapse into the curious misunderstandings that had produced "cargo cults." They made some concessions, however, in terms of sculpture (of crucifixes, for instance) and architecture (Port Moresby's handsome Catholic cathedral, designed in the shape of a Sepik haus tambaran [spirit house] in 1967). A few missionaries, such as Maurice LeenhardtProtestant pastor to the Houailou on eastern New Caledonian mainland in the 1930sasked themselves whether they had learned more from "the natives" than they taught them. Others, such as Percy Chatterton, submitted to the spirit of independence arising from local congregations; he quietly facilitated the post-LMS Papua Ekalesia (Church of Papua), the first independent church of mainstream background in Melanesia formed between 1963 and 1968. The local people's confidence in their own leadership eventually caused a decisive shift away from church communities operating under mission control toward regionally autonomous ecclesiastical structures, or separate Catholic episcopies, under islander supervision. By the early twenty-first century, the prevailing missiological discourse stressed inculturation, or the advisability of imbedding the gospel into the local culture, both honoring the latter's pre-existing values while also transforming and redeeming its weaknesses from within.

The general movement towards national ecclesial emancipationor, rarely, transnational status, as with the United Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands after 1968proceeded with the emergence of new political independencies in the region. Excluding New Zealand (1947), the newly decolonized nationsWestern Samoa (1962), Nauru (1968), Fiji (1970), Papua New Guinea (1975), Solomons, (1978), Kiribati (1979), and Vanuatu (1980)have been governed by indigenous leaders. Even where independence has not been achieved (with France and the United States as the two notable powers prolonging their possession of Pacific islands), national churches have been created, such as the l'Église évangelique in France's New Caledonia or the United Church in the Marshall Island in American Micronesia. Whether politically autonomous or not, the whole region has increasingly become affected by monetarization, foreign investment, and transnational companies' pursuit of opportunities in the metal, oil, gas, and timber industries. For example, one of the world's richest copper deposits is on Bougainville; natural gas is now piped out of the Lake Kutubu area in Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands; while New Caledonia has become well known for its extensive nickel deposits.

Pacific islanders have embraced modernity in highly varying ways. Money has become the medium of exchange in towns and cities, but is still used in tandem with traditional valuable items (such as mats, shells, feathers) in villages and in rites (especially marriages and funerals). In rural areas, money can therefore be incorporated into ritual life and suggest new ritual forms. Old coins seem to circulate forever within single villages through ritualized gambling games. Money can now be pinned on a branch by New Guinea highlanders and paraded as a "money tree" to apologize for a killing or a road accident in a specific tribal areaquite an innovation, since compensation payments in kind were traditionally exchanged between allies, not adversaries. Some late-twentieth-century cargo cults were actually money cults; the followers were persuaded that the money that was already in the red boxes held by the leaders would multiply through weekly rituals. Overall, the islanders' quest to make money has been strong, however. Sepik craftsmen have sold traditional effigies of the dead for money and have carved spirit figures for the tourist market. Hula dancing to entertain tourists in Hawai'i exemplifies adaptation of local dance forms in order to earn money from visitors. Even in rural areas, today's leading dance performers in traditional ceremonies would compete for prizes at town shows or the privilege to represent their nation at Pacific arts festivals.

Success in business and in the modern economy, although reserved for the few, has had religious consequences. Protestant Tongans employed in Honolulu or Sydney, for example, or Cook Islanders in Auckland, have started important diaspora congregations, importing their pastors from their home regions. In Melanesia, capitalist success may sometimes cause a business leader to develop political aspirations, yet those ambitions inevitably lead him or her to the traditional cultivation of dependents through the practice of generous gift-giving as a neo-traditional "big-man." Wealthy people may build large new houses in their home villages, only to find themselves the objects of jealousy and thus of paid sorcery attacks. In this context, the persistence of sorcery can be defended ideologically as a social equalizer to counter the inequities that threaten old reciprocities and village values.

Religious factors also influence modern Pacific politics. National constitutions typically invoke the supreme God, sometimes along with a worthy customary inheritance. Clergy have also achieved political prominence, such as Anglican Fr. Walter Lini, first Prime Minister of Vanuatu, or Catholic Fr. John Momis, the foundation Minister for Decentralization in Papua, New Guinea. Furthermore, internal military conflicts have sought religious inspiration. The Papuan Liberation Army (OPM) partly legitimates itself as a defense of Christianity against what is perceived as Indonesia's neo-colonial promotion of Islam, and its members look to the collective martyrdom of followers of the prophetess Angganita under the Japanese in 1943 as an inspiring precedent for their actions. In the Solomon Islands, civil strife in the late twentieth century, as well as religious differences between largely Anglican Malaitans and mostly Catholic Guadalcanalese, exacerbated the clash. In such post-colonial conflicts, political slogans have carried neo-traditional religious import. From 1990 to 2003, ideologues for the Bougainville Liberation Army, for example, fought for the independence of Bougainville as Mekamui (the Sacred Island). More generally, throughout what is a predominantly peaceful region, thinly disguised appeals to Christian principles often lurk behind the apparently secular political agendas of new national parliaments promoting better health, education, and social security.

Despite frustrating realities sometimes experienced by many outsider investigators, especially anthropologists, the Pacific Islands are remarkable for their strengthening indigenous Christianity. As a result, traditional cultures are being transformed, and, rather than being devastated, showing their resilience in change. Contrary to some historians, outsiders did not destroy Pacific cultures. While terrible epidemics did make many island communities very vulnerable, by and large, the missionaries did not impose religious change by force, and the islanders can no longer be preconceived as credulous, lacking any ability to make sensible decisions of their own. In fact, cultural relinquishments sometimes occurred spontaneously. LMS personnel, for instance, encouraged the preservation of the Motu people's harvest festival, during which worshipers wore extraordinary fifteen-foot high masks. When the Japanese unexpectedly bombed Port Moresby in 1942, however, the Motu never celebrated the festival againnot because they were forced to give it up, but because it had somehow lost relevance in a changing world.

Oceania's religious scene in the early twenty-first century should be assessed for what it has become. Anthropologists can now begin evaluating specific congregations; observing sociological differences in the region, such as the sedate, hierarchical Polynesian churches compared to the dynamic congregations of Melanesia, with their spiritistic and charismatic worship; and studying indigenous theological endeavors and liturgical innovations, appreciating them as important new developments within the wider world of religious affairs.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in the Pacific Islands; Politics and Religion, article on Politics and Oceanic Religions.


Barker, John, ed. "Christianity in Oceania: Ethnographic Perspectives." In ASAO Monographs 12. Lanham, Md., 1990.

Garrett, John. To Live among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania. Geneva, 1982.

Siikala, Jukka. Cult and Conflict in Tropical Polynesia. Academia Scientarum Fennica, FF Communications 99/2. Helsinki, 1982.

Smith, Bernard. European Vision and the South Pacific: 17681850. Oxford, 1960.

Swain, Tony, and Garry Trompf. The Religions of Oceania. New York, 1995.

Trompf, Garry. Payback: The Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Religions. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Garry W. Trompf (2005)

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Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Oceania

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