|Samson's Book Explores Dual Identity of Protestant Mayans
August 01, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
by Rachel Andoga
Visiting Professor of Anthropology C. Mathews Samson thinks of his new book, Re-enchanting the World: Maya Protestantism in the Guatemalan Highlands, “as a kind of life project.” More than just an exercise in academic research, the book combines his religious background as a Presbyterian minister with his scholarly role as an anthropologist with a passion for Mesoamerican culture.
|This is Samson's first book-length publication.|
Re-enchanting the World seeks to demonstrate how Mesoamerican cultures have adapted and incorporated the Protestant religion imposed by missionaries into their lives. The book focuses on the dual identities of residents of the Guatemalan Highlands who are both Maya and Protestant. Samson said, “Religion provides a lens through which collective social experience can be read in relation to issues such as the reconstruction of civil society after a brutal war, and discrimination against the indigenous Maya, who make up at least fifty percent of the country’s population. Anthropology allowed me the opportunity to ask different kinds of questions about human experience.”
From early in his life, Samson developed an interest in other cultures that was linked to his faith. “My favorite time of the year in our small church was when the missionary would make an annual visit and show slides of places like Japan and Brazil,” Samson said. “For years, I thought the church connection was the important part of that, but now I realize I was as interested in hearing about the different cultures, and the projects of the missionaries.”
At age 14, Samson spent three weeks in Guatemala on a Jaycee Club exchange program. “I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and we had hardly even heard of Guatemala when a family friend asked if I wanted to go,” he said.
His trip was sponsored by prisoners in Angola, Louisiana’s State Penitentiary and the setting for Sister Helen Prejean’s novel Dead Man Walking. “I had to make two trips to the prison—one to meet the people who were sponsoring me and another later to tell them what my time in Guatemala was like,” he said.
Samson attended seminary at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in 1987. He turned to anthropology as a complement to his theological training. “Both ministry and anthropology are concerned with the human condition writ large, and anthropology provided me another window into the human experience. The discipline’s emphasis on fieldwork and requirement to engage people on the ground was an added attraction.”
Re-enchanting the World is Samson’s first book-length publication. The historical backdrop for the work is post-conflict Guatemala. When the thirty-six-year civil conflict ended in 1996, a Maya movement emerged that pressed for respect and political recognition for Maya cultural and religious tradition. The Maya make up at least half of Guatemala’s population while also comprising some twenty-two groups identified by their language.
“In the largest frame, Guatemala is an important case within Latin America for understanding the cultural and religious pluralism extant through the region,” Samson said. “Up to thirty percent of Guatemalans are now said to be Protestant, and despite the notion that Latin America is a Catholic continent, some fifteen percent of the population is now said to be evangelical and largely Pentecostal.”
|Samson is continuing his research this summer in Guatemala.|
Through participant observation and interviews, Samson explores the interplay between Maya ethnic identity and Protestantism by comparing the religious practices of two groups of Maya Protestants.
Samson is currently spending his summer in Guatemala, continuing his work in religion, ethnicity, and the post-conflict political situation. “A lot of long-term ethnographic work in the same place involves listening and relating new insights to what one has done before,” he said.
Re-enchanting the World is available for purchase through the University of Alabama Press or at Amazon.com.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment by Presbyterians in 1837, the college has graduated twenty-three Rhodes Scholars, and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News & World Report magazine.
Posted By: Bill Giduz