Accepted paper:

Power encounters: or, wonder as an animate object


Matt Tomlinson (CHL/CAP, Australian Natl Uni)

Paper short abstract:

Missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries engaged in contests to prove Jehovah’s power and local gods’ weakness. These ‘power encounters’ depended on a dialogical relationship between wonder and anti-wonder. I analyze power encounters in Oceania, focusing on trees as sites of wonder in Fiji.

Paper long abstract:

Missionaries who attempted to convert Pacific Islanders to Protestant Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries often engaged in public contests meant to demonstrate the power of Jehovah and the weakness of indigenous gods. These 'power encounters', as they came to be called, often depended on a dialogical relationship between wonder and anti-wonder: missionaries were fully invested in the concept of wonder as radical alterity, as the success of their efforts depended on local populations' willingness and capacity to imagine the previously unimaginable; but to make new encounters with wonder possible, missionaries had to challenge local expectations of spiritual efficacy, draining local sites of their own original wonder. In this paper, I begin by examining several cases of power encounters in Oceania, including Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Solomon Islands. I then turn specifically to trees as spiritual sites that were prominent in old Fiji--and therefore the target of ax-wielding missionaries--but remain today as sites of a perceived fundamental, indigenous, land-based spiritual efficacy.

panel Rel01
The social formation of wonder