Religion, Culture and Tradition in the Caribbean – Book Reviews
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo
Religion, Culture and Tradition in the Caribbean, HEMCHAND GOSSAI AND NATHANIEL SAMUEL MURRELL, (eds.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, 320 pp. $49.95 (cloth).
In addressing the dynamics of religion in the Caribbean, this anthology has surpassed the usual limitations of many anthologies. More than a collection of monographs related only by theme, this book offers a multileveled analysis of important events and factors that shape religion among some of the peoples of the Caribbean. The selections treat both mainstream denominations and specialized religions such as the Rastafarian. The book resulted from projects undertaken with the sponsorship of the Society of Biblical Literature and was facilitated in panel presentations at sessions held by the American Academy of Religion. As such, the volume offers testimony to the importance of professional societies in developing new scholars and new topics for systematic analysis. The published versions of the papers demonstrate the advantages of putting contributors into a collaborative project.
This is one of those rare book on religion that incorporates theology as a subject of analysis. More than half of the book traces the evolution of theology arid biblical study (Chapters 1, 4, 6, 8,10, and 13), including one (Chapter 9) that analyzes the songs of reggae singers Bob Marley and the Wailers for theological content, and another (Chapter 12) that examines the poetry of Ras Benjamin Zephaniah for biblical allusions. There are two chapters that employ an anthropological approach (Chapters 2 and 3), while three are historical in nature (Chapters 5, 7, and 11). The last chapter (13) is notable for providing the contents of a Rastafarian text, The Holy Piby, which reads like scripture.
There is no central argument addressed in this volume, but it offers rich examples of the dynamism of Caribbean religion, particularly in the Anglophone islands of Jamaica and Trinidad. On balance, most of the articles provide empirical references that make the book useful to social scientists.
However, there is an uneven quality in this multidisciplinary effort. For instance, the case studies of the Rasta in Brazil and the biblical analysis of the Book of Ruth for its meaning to Hindu Indo-Guyanese Women were far narrower in scope than the majority of selections. As well, the introduction to the work of the poet Zephaniah was written as a magazine interview and lacked the academic rigor of most of the other contributions. I hasten to add that these were well-done monographs, but they did not match the methodological richness of the other articles. The treatment of Cuban theology by Miguel A. De La Torre, on the other hand, provided a satisfying mix of the theological and empirical, even if it was a bit out of place as the only piece on the Hispanic Caribbean. The focus for this text is clearly on the Anglophone Caribbean and the authors afford considerable attention to independence politics, popular culture, Marcus Garvey and the Rastafari as key contributors to the shaping of contemporary Caribbea n religion.
The value of this book lies in its treatment of the role of faith in the British abolition movement, the challenge presented to the colonial churches by slavery (particularly the Baptist tradition), and the contemporary impact of Afrocentrism on Christianity. One soon realizes that the Caribbean possesses a legacy of religious leadership that is different from — and often superior to — similar trends in the United States. The article by Leslie James, “Text and the Rhetoric of Change,” was particularly rewarding for its use of historical sources that demonstrate the biblical imagery of leaders such as Michael Manley of Jamaica and Maurice Bishop of Grenada. Moreover, here as with other authors, the writer injects a critical stance that awards due respect for achievements but does not descend into partisan cheerleading of the Caribbean’s leaders.
I highly recommend this book to scholars who are interested in expanding the repertoire of readings on African-American religion to include Caribbean voices. The book also recommends itself to religious studies courses that employ a multidisciplinary approach. Most of the chapters here provide useful examples of how popular culture, theology, politics, the bible, theological reflection, revolution, protest, Afrocentrism and Caribbean history intersect. As such, the book provides a powerful antidote to sociocultural and political science works on the Caribbean that ignore religion. Finally, for those studying the impact of culture on what has been called “local theologies,” this book becomes a model for successful integration of diverse topics in a single work.
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