Book Review – The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies (James Cox)

The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies. James Cox, 2014. Acumen, London. Reviewed for the RSP by Chirs Duncan. Published 5th May 2014. An audio version of this book review appeared alongside two other reviews in our May 2014 Book Reviews Podcast – see the podcast page for author information.

Jacket image for The Invention of God in Indigenous SocietiesThe Invention of God in Indigenous Societies is the latest text by Professor James Cox. In the book Cox aims to use a handful of case studies from his fieldwork with indigenous groups in Zimbabwe, Alaska, New Zealand, and Australia to unpack his primary target, a process he calls “cultural hybridization”.

Following the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin, Cox identifies two forms of cultural mixing, or hybridization, “organic” and “intentional”. By digging into the processes and intentions of both missionary and local actors in colonized societies and how these influences altered the (re)creation of the identity and attributes of local deities vis-à-vis the European Christian God, Cox uses his case studies to show that cultures and societies are (of course) invented. Further, that this invention, particularly in the colonial setting, is not unidirectional, flowing only from the colonizer to the colonized. Thus, he aims to present the second-order, etic concept ‘cultural hybridization’ as a useful tool for Religious Studies scholars who might be interested in forms of globalization, migration, etc.

Writing in an organized, easily readable style Cox succeeds at showing how elements of cultures can be dialectically exchanged, in some instances to the satisfaction of the colonizers and sometimes to their chagrin. The book is very much a theoretical piece with case studies adding substance and real-world impact to the theoretical discussion. The Invention of God in Indigenous Societies is broken up into six relatively short chapters, beginning with an introduction to colonial missionary debates about the posited existence of local equivalents to the Christian God. Continuing from this early theoretical location Cox takes the reader around the world to examine in some admirable detail the work done by primarily British and Russian (in the case of Alaska) missionaries in relation to their goal of deciphering whether their newly conquered peoples already have a Christian-like Creator God and/or how the Christian God could be imported to these peoples in the absence of such a preexisting deity.

Cox ends his book by returning to the modern reader and engaging once again with cultural hybridization, showing how in each location the alert scholar could identity either a form of organic or intentional hybridization in each respective indigenous society’s relationship to their posited supramundane worldview; and further, how this tool might be efficacious to social scientists from several fields.

While I would argue for a renaming from organic/intentional to passive/active hybridity due to what I see as the more accurate connotations of the hybridization process that are possessed by the latter, one must stretch to find much else to critique. Written in an eloquent yet modern style, Cox ticks every box of a good analysis; though it should be noted that while elementary enough to be useful to researchers who are not specialists in indigenous cultures there is a certain Religious Studies/Social Science baseline knowledge that the reader must have to fully appreciate this text.

Chris Duncan
University of Edinburgh

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