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Negotiated identities: Christianity and ethnicity in a diasporic Cambodian church

As a global religious movement, Christianity has throughout history come into conflict with the traditional cosmologies of those who choose to convert, drastically changing the ways in which people express their spirituality. While much work within anthropology has focused on the cultural rupture that inevitably comes with conversion to Christianity, in this thesis I contribute to a growing body of work that understands conversion as incorporating both the changing and continuation of culture. This thesis is an ethnography of a Khmer language church in Aotearoa/New Zealand that provides a unique opportunity to examine a faith community embodying both radical change and strong connections to tradition. My investigation into the lived experiences of Cambodian Christians in the diaspora explores how initial decisions to convert, as well as church members’ engagements with society in both Aotearoa/New Zealand and Cambodia reflect both rupture and continuity. As evidence of this I show that Khmer migrants’ decisions to convert to Christianity have been heavily impacted by their ethnic identity, as they, like most Cambodians, look to religion as a way to establish order in a chaotic world. Alongside this, I examine ways in which Cambodian Christians relate to both their own cultural heritage and the wider religious landscape of Aotearoa/New Zealand, showing that the Christian life of CCF members is heavily influenced by both aspects of their Khmer identity and a desire to faithfully worship the Christian God. In exploring these aspects of Christian conversion, I join others in arguing for the need to view conversion as a dynamic and multifaceted process involving more than just rupture or simple syncretism.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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