Eternal life thanks to religious conversion

Received: September 6, 2019

Acceptance: October 11, 2019

Ser testigo de Jehová. Una mirada antropológica a la vida en el paraíso terrenal

Antonio Higuera Bonfil, 2018 El Colegio de la Frontera Norte / UQROO / RIFREM, México, 355 pp.

WIn a classic format, logical because it is a book resulting from a doctoral thesis, the work of Antonio Higuera Bonfil lists three life stories of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group in El Palmar, a town in the state of Quintana Roo (Mexico ), an ejido that is described in profusion of detail, beyond its religious characteristics. In this sense, it should be noted that Quintana Roo, as has happened in other states in the Mexican southeast, such as Tabasco and Chiapas, shows a notable decrease in Catholic believers to the benefit of other religious affiliations. In addition, if at first the capital of Mexico and the north of the national territory, bordering the United States, were the places with the greatest presence and expansion of Jehovah's Witnesses, today they are visible throughout the country, with special development in those populations where Catholicism has lost ground according to the always controversial data collected by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (inegi).

Four chapters divide the text that begins with the theoretical debate to end with the discussion of the results, passing through the religious context of the studied state and the life stories that provide information about the subjects interviewed and that will confirm the analysis and proposals of the Author. Thus, in a total of 355 pages a long-term work is offered and that, along with other investigations, had its starting point for Antonio Higuera Bonfil when he arrived in 1985 in Chetumal, capital of that Caribbean state of Mexico, to develop studies inserts in the project Southern border of the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (ciesas), promoted by Andrés Fábregas Puig.

Ser testigo de Jehová. Una mirada antropológica a la vida en el paraíso terrenal faces one of the fundamental aspects, as well as complex, when analyzing religious diversity in contemporary Mexican society, and that is none other than the conversion of people to a religious creed different from the one they professed before. It is a priority issue, due to controversy, in the theoretical debates on contemporary religiosity characterized, in some states of the Mexican federation, by the pluralization of religious offerings. From classic texts (Berger, 2005; Hervieu-Léger, 2005; James, 2005; Rambo, 1999 and Wilson, 1970), to others from the Iberian Peninsula (Cantón, 2004 and Prat, 1997), in addition to those referring to Mexico , the author raises a state of the art that leads him to lean towards the proposal of Karla Covarrubias (2004), who prioritizes observing religious conversion as a way of modeling “a new appropriation of culture”, generating “a different conception of social practice ”and transforming“ the life model of the neoconvert ”(p. 12); a procedure that leads to identity modifications and others corresponding to the social affiliations of the converts, clearly observable in their daily lives, as indicated by the ethnographic information in the book.

To demonstrate the above, Antonio Higuera Bonfil builds a model that confirms the imprint of conversion in the individual and social life of the study subjects, supported by the proposals of the French sociologist Daniel Bertaux (1997). Based on this positioning for research, he adopts the concept of life stories to document, with their common denominators and differences, the variations inherent to the action of becoming: “Of course, individual experiences vary enormously; As a personal life, they have their own rhythm and direction, as well as their own particular blog, but in all cases the requirements set by the wtbts (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania) to attain royal membership ”(pp. 318-319).

In this context, life stories go beyond individual experience since Jehovah's Witnesses' conception of the family, surely the paradigmatic social support of this religious affiliation, stands as a way to enter into the relationships of power and the negotiations that take place within it. A biographical reconstruction that, in the same sense that Manuela Cantón (2004) applied to carry out the stories of gypsies converted to Pentecostalism in Andalusia, teaches the narrative flexibility or the dynamism of the social contexts of the converts, and all this in an environment that has been characterized as a “religious market” in the contemporary world, a proposal that was already clearly pointed out by Peter Berger (1977) in 1967 in his work El dosel sagrado. Para una teoría sociológica de la religión.

In this way, the direction of the research moves away from the ideas that treat the study subjects as socially isolated individuals, tending to guide personal crises towards the religious world, to understand conversion as a transformation in their individual and social living through the model of “cultural appropriation” (Ziff and Rao, 1997):

The contact between people and their cultures produces a communication in which cultural appropriation can occur, which takes from the other vital elements that can be incorporated into the daily relationships of individuals and social groups, or it can happen that this contact leads to the imposition culture on the part of a social group (p. 64).

That is to say, the proposed cultural absorption does not start from an essentialism that dichotomizes groups of human beings absolutized in their difference, protected in this case in institutions, but rather that such appropriation is a multidimensional phenomenon and that in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses is impossible to understand without assuming its institutional discourse with hegemonic purpose:

This model of cultural transfer, in combination with the proposal of the conversion process, allows one to get closer to the experience of the interlocutors who have joined the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. The idea is to make an approach to two dimensions: the individual, as a process of change, and the social, as a medium in which said change occurs (p. 69).

If in previous studies the change of religious affiliation referring to Jehovah's Witnesses had focused his interest on the “baptism”, Antonio Higuera observes the individual and social aspects of the converts through their life stories, at the same time that he has an impact on the “institutional channel” that characterizes and defines Jehovah's Witnesses. A crossroads between the institutional requirements and the steps taken for the conversion of individuals, essential to understand mutual approval. Acceptance, always voluntary for converts, and that involves "a new system of symbolic representations to conceive the world, and implies that the convert modifies his behavior patterns" (p. 42). This particularity leads him to structure in the text the life experience of those who contribute their history, their conversion process, through different “states and transitions”. Consequently, this religious change is conceptualized as a mutation experienced as “a journey with different stages, in which the individual receives and assimilates information” (pp. 294-295). A conversion divided by the author into three stages: "i) initial contact, ii) indoctrination and formation and iii) incorporation into the congregation" (p. 296). It is there where states are manifested, as objectives achieved, and transitions as part of the steps that lead to the achievement of the next state. A process that must end with baptism, whose value among Jehovah's Witnesses represents a “temporary and experiential mark of a profound change in life” (pp. 84-88). It is about verifying that the baptism, "symbol of dedication to God" (pp. 328-329), is the last step in a series of vital changes necessary to seal the arrival of the new creed, the final signature of the real integration to the Jehovah's Witness community. A model under the incontestable supervision of said religious institution:

In this way, it can be affirmed that religious conversion is understood by Jehovah's Witnesses as a process of change with various stages, in which the individual receives and assimilates information through the activity of preachers. In this journey, the individual reviews their way of living in the light of a specific interpretation of the Bible, knows the guidelines for daily life and, finally, adjusts their behavior to certain institutionally established guidelines, which is sanctioned on a daily basis by the congregation ( pp. 330-331).

Therefore, the biographical account is essential and becomes a dialogical narrative, and not necessarily chronologically ordered, which the author establishes following Bertaux (1993). Record of subjective experience in four stages: exploratory, analytical, verifying and, finally, expressive as a synthesis of its precedents (p. 35). Tools for anthropological work complemented with other classics of the discipline, such as the realization of genealogies that facilitate discerning the parental structures of the interlocutors, which show the religious mobility of the extended and nuclear family. A family turned into the guiding axis of the social guidelines of Jehovah's Witnesses, and a recreation of the classic patriarchal model to subject women to decisions and masculine power. This fact is ratified by the essential role of marriage as a pristine social institution conceived by God, and that today many of Jehovah's Witnesses wish to see ritually ratified in their congregations, according to the author. This situation joins the creationist conception of religious grouping and also links believers with submission to earthly power, awaiting eternal life in paradise reinstated by God.

It should be noted that the convert's acceptance of the proposals of their new religious affiliation and the consent of the Jehovah's Witnesses institution to their incorporation also mean for them the condition of “other”, that of being part of a social minority, an element addressed by Antonio Higuera and that it deserves exploration by future investigations that affect heteroperception towards religious congregations that have become socially exotic. Discarding the individual crisis model, and opting for conversion as cultural and institutional appropriation, the new converts, in a kind of introjection, acquire doctrinal knowledge that influences the vital changes that will mark their individual and social behavior.

Likewise, Jehovah's Witnesses are assumed to be the only true religion, a sentence that, as Higuera Bonfil points out, denies any possibility of ecumenism and that derives towards a collective, community sense of living in society and that is only structured from the religious institution to which they are attached. A brotherhood not by blood, but imagined in faith.

Field work, interviews, the aforementioned life stories, and the review of the literature that emerged from the same religious denomination, wide-ranging through publications such as The watchtower and Wake up! they are rounded off with figures that complement, in the form of a diagram, the exposition of the research content, also supported by a glossary that supports the neophyte reader in the religious group studied.

Definitely, Ser testigo de Jehová. Una mirada antropológica a la vida en el paraíso terrenal It is a work that is overflowing with ethnographic information, a fundamental basis for structuring a theoretical and methodological model aimed at understanding and analyzing religious conversion. In the same way, his proposal is separated from the statements that they have placed in the individual crisis, a consequence of the integrative deficiencies of society and that Emile Durkheim (1998a and 1998b) condensed in his concept of anomie, the only explanation for the change of ascription religious, to be closer to the model of multifactoriality to interpret religious change. Multiple causes shown through life stories and that are made visible in the idea of "communicating vessels", expressed by Antonio Higuera to intersect family life and the personal experiences of the study subjects with the process of religious metamorphosis directed and sanctioned by the Jehovah's Witnesses institution.

A way of entering into the change of the believer that reaffirms the function of religious institutions, questioned by authors who have become classics, such as Danièle Hervieu-Léger (1996 and 2004), who, by referring the individual to a religious market in constant recomposition, As a result of current modernity and blurred beliefs and in a possible combination, it diminishes the relevance and power of religious organizations. Thus, Antonio Higuera distances himself both from the secularization exposed as inevitable by Max Weber (1987), who condemned the religious fact to the disappearance or marginalization, at the same time that it does not diminish the power or magnitude of the role of the religious institution, in this case of Jehovah's Witnesses. This position turns the religious change, as the arrival of a new creed or change of belief, into a break with the previous way of life to arrive at a new one, characterized by perceptible cultural and social modifications. In this way, the book is incorporated into a long-term debate in recent decades in Latin America, in which Mexico, probably together with Brazil, has become a clear example to show the decline of the Catholic Church. This circumstance has led to a constant analysis of the reasons for religious conversion thanks to controversies that, initially linked to the religious “conspiracy theory” and subsequently revised (Rivera, García, Lisbona et al., 2005), have traveled to various interpretive universes. Among them, Antonio Higuera Bonfil's book offers a highly proactive examination of a local reality, generalized in many American territories, the result of academic maturity and, above all, of extensive ethnographic knowledge.


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