Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) and Christian Missions

“I hate traveling and explorers.” Claude Lévi-Strauss in “Tristes Tropiques”, NYTimes

claude levi-strauss

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss passed away on October 30 at the age of 100. He was one of the greatest thinkers of last century in regards to mythology, anthropology and understanding culture. His bias towards structuralism led him towards universal patterns rather than local particulars so he was at odds with later [post-structural] thinkers like Derrida, Lacan and Foucault but I would imagine that one day we will see it all from a wider perspective and not as incompatible as we now see. In fact, I see in Ferdinand de Saussure the origins of both schools of thought, and many of the influential friends of Lévi-Strauss included people influenced by Saussure.

Since Lévi-Strauss was considered the “father of modern anthropology” I was curious as to what extent he had impacted the cultural anthropology taught in Christian seminaries and mission training institutions. I had already encountered Lévi-Strauss briefly in Paul Hiebert’s “Cultural Anthropology”, which I studied at Western Seminary. Hiebert’s influence on the anthropological training of missionaries was huge, but perhaps more so in USA than other countries

A few years ago, during the final days of Dr. Hieberts life, I was asking how much Hiebert was influence by Levi-Strauss, as well as Saussure, and a blog reader passed on my question to him. Tenny Farnen responded:

“Since I called him up everyday, in the midst of finishing my dissertation with him, I did asked him this afternoon about some of the questions you raised up in the article. With regards to your query whether he is influenced by the anthropology of Claude Levi-Straus, the answer is no. He said that he is more influenced by the classic anthropologists like Hoebel, Spencer, Cliff Browne, and read a lot of Malinowski’s writings. Moreover, he says he has no direct connection with Ferdinand de Saussure. In Hiebert’s book, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Post Modern World (1999, Morehouse Pub. Co), he rejects de Saussure’s structuralism which to Hiebert does create real problem that leads to relativism.”

But my curiosity continues. Can anyone else tell me, perhaps from their countries’ point of view, what impact the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss had on the training of their overseas Christian missionaries?

HT: Society of Biblical Literature, who btw are hosting a ‘Forum on Missional Hermeneutics’ on Nov 21 in New Orleans.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.

1 Comment

  • Jon Reid says:

    When I was little, my family spent a year in France while my father, on his sabbatical, studied under Lévi-Strauss. So I passed along this link. He replied,
    “I looked up the kiwi article and read it all, but since he is asking about the influence of Lévi-Strauss’s writings on the training of missionaries, and since I read him long after I had been ‘trained,’ I don’t have anything useful to suggest to him. His impact on me, despite the time I spent listening to his lectures and reading his books, was slight — not because of some implied cultural relativism but because I couldn’t find any way to make use of his structuralism. But I did write an article about structuralism in Japanese which I’m sure you’re dying to read.”
    (I just teased him over the phone, “A year in France and that’s all you have to say for it?”)

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