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The Limits of Meaning: case studies in the anthropology of Christianity

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Matthew Engelke|, Matt Tomlinson
Berghahn Books, (2006)

Anthropologists often claim to unearth 'meaning' through their work, and none more so than anthropologists of religion. Even studies that are sensitive to questions of power - which is often cast as an alternative focus - do not deny the existence of meaningful events in religious practice. But what happens when case studies confound the coherence of the meaning approach, or even the meaning vs power model? What happens when rituals 'fail' because a preacher cannot remember what to say, or refuses to speak? What happens when the audience gets bored, or is left perplexed and discomforted? And why might some people choose to describe the religious practices of others as 'meaningless'?

Drawing on research in the anthropology of Christianity from around the world, the authors in this volume suggest that in order to analyse meaning productively, we need to consider cases that challenge its theoretical and practical relevance. We need to look, in other words, at 'the limits of meaning'. Chapters explore these 'limits' through ethnographically grounded examples, and are framed by an introduction that offers one of the most comprehensive overviews of theories of meaning published in anthropology. This collection is a welcome addition to the anthropology of religion, offering fresh insights on a classic topic and drawing attention to meaning in a way that other volumes have for key terms like 'culture' and 'fieldwork'.

  • Matthew Engelke is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at LSE.
  • Matt Tomlinson is an assistant lecturer in anthropology at Monash University.


'The best instance I've seen of the fresh and powerful insights anthropologists are bringing to the study of Christianity....Extremely readable while advancing a sophisticated theoretical argument that links the deeper dynamics of Christianity with its local manifestations, this book challenges conventional understandings and opens new avenues of research. It deserves to be on the bookshelves of all serious students of contemporary world Christianity.'
John Barker, University of British Columbia

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