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Maisin Christianity : an ethnography of the contemporary religion of a seaboard Melanesian people Barker, John


This dissertation examines the ways in which a Papua New Guinean people, the Maisin of Collingwood Bay in Oro Province, have over the years responded to and appropriated a version of Christianity brought to them by Anglican missionaries. The Maisin treat Christianity not as a foreign imposition, but as an integral part of their total religious conceptions, activities and experiences. Almost a century of documented Maisin history reveals a consistency related to what is here called a "social ideology": a complex formed by idioms of asymmetry between senior and junior kin and allies, equivalence in exchanges between a range of social categories of persons, and complementarity between the sexes. Extensions of the social ideology to the developments of the post-contact society are explored in the contexts of a growing dependence on money and commodities, unequal access to education and jobs, large-scale out-migration, the material requirements of the local church, and church regulations concerning social behaviour. The social ideology is also extended to sorcerers, ancestral ghosts, bush spirits, and Christian divinities. The analysis shows that Maisin experience indigenous and Christian elements as realities that exist within a single religious field. Working from the premise that religion is an aspect of the people's total experience and not a separate cultural institution or sub-system, the thesis explores the modes by which the Maisin create and discover coherence between the various elements within the religious field. The most important points and occasions of religious coherence are those in which the moral precepts of the social ideology are joined with conceptions of spiritual entities towards the explanation and resolution of problems. Three "religious precipitates", as these moments of coherence are termed, are analysed: the village church, healing practices, and death rites. A major finding of this study is that Maisin articulate their assumptions about local sorcerers, ghosts, and spirits within idioms of conflict between kin and affinal groupings, but speak of God, Christ and the church as symbols of community solidarity. The village church is analysed as a point of convergence of the social ideology, economic aspirations, memories of past interactions with missionaries, and Christian teachings and forms. The primary religious importance of the church is as a condensed symbol of communitas that transcends the inherited divisions of the social order and the contradictions of present political and economic conditions.

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