Ola Gunhildrud Berta: "‘Because of the missionaries': The ambiguous presence of past missionaries in the Marshall Islands."

In this article in History and Anthropology Ola Gunhildrud Berta argues that cultural change is a discursive tool in which the people populating the ethnographic present use distinct representations of the past to address what is at stake here and now.

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Abstract

In this article Ola Gunhildrud Berta analyzes the contemporary presence of pioneering missionaries to the Marshall Islands by looking at how conventional conversion narratives construe them as agents of radical transformation. Ridden with ambiguity, conversion is a recursive factor in social and political life, a fact that point to the context-dependent nature of this specific narrative. While rupture often serves as a useful metaphor in folk-models of conversion, it reflects a perspective with a clear political goal and therefore glosses over its inherent ambiguity and dynamism.

In the Marshall Islands, the conversion narrative (where the past was horrid while the present is harmonious) is only one way of addressing contemporary challenges through the past. Running parallel to this is another narrative that speaks to a perceived moral degradation in the present, a discourse that relies on a harmonious rather than horrid past.

By contrasting the contemporary presence of past missionaries with a historical analysis of the conversion era, this article argues that, more than a moment in history, cultural change is a discursive tool in which the people populating the ethnographic present use distinct representations of the past to address what is at stake here and now.

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Published Sep. 29, 2021 2:35 PM - Last modified Sep. 30, 2021 7:14 PM