The Parody of Paganism in the Postmodern World

21 06 2008

Part I- Prayer flags over Emeryville

Driving towards the lab that AG currently works at in Emeryville, if one looks up, one will behold a strange sight. Atop a somewhat tall building, one will see various colorful banners flowing in the wind. Unless you were to pay attention, you wouldn’t really notice what they are or what precisely they are doing there. Come closer to the building where AG actually works, and you will see these flags again, this time at ground level. Again, if you drive right past them, you will barely notice them. One day, when AG had to stop by her job to do something, I got out of the car and took a closer look at these banners. They were all sorts of colors, and they had a strange script and pictures of various Buddhas on them. I concluded then that they were Tibetan. Had the city of Emeryville, then, converted to Lamaist Buddhism, seeing as such religious symbols were on a public sidewalk, and were to be seen high aloft this industrial city by the bay?

But I also see these prayer flags in other places all around the Bay Area. My neighbors have them prominently diplayed from their balcony, and some houses down the block have them on their porch. Next to city hall in San Francisco, there is a fairly visible shrine bedecked with prayer flags next to the Asian Art Museum. So what precisely is the meaning of these flags, and why do these seemingly agnostic people fly them?

If we go to one advertisement for these flags on the Internet, this is what one person says while trying to hawk these religious artifacts:

For centuries, as a way to ensure peace, happiness, long life, and prosperity, Tibetan Buddhists have created and flown prayer flags. As the wind blows the banner, it carries the prayers through the home, the neighborhood, and even the countryside, spreading joy and harmony everywhere. With this beautiful pack—which features a 96-page, four-color book that’s rich in history, traditions, sample prayers, quotes, and affirmations—people everywhere can do the same to enhance and spiritually balance their lives. Also included are two eight-foot-long prayer flags—one inscribed with traditional Tibetan Buddhists prayers, the other blank, so the user can personalize it in any way he or she wishes. It’s a unique and innovative format that adds a contemporary touch to an age-old practice.

So while people here debate whether we can still have a cross displayed publicly as merely a symbol of cultural heritage, cities can put up these religious trinkets to assure “peace, happiness, long life, and prosperity”, insofar as they are from a completely foreign culture. In other words, what is at the heart of these debates over religious symbols is that one is an issue of an oppressive, medieval superstition that is judgmental and questions the “lifestyle” choices of many modern people, and the other is simply some “lucky mojo” that people put up for ambiance. Such is the state of religiosity in many parts of the Bay Area.

One can assume that such behavior fills in a void that the decline of Christianity as a public force has left in the heart of postmodern man. We as humans need symbols and assurances that the fate of the world is not entirely in our hands. If it were in our hands, our fate would be rather precarious. If the essence of the person is to be for the other, if he only obtains meaning insofar as he is in relationship to someone else, so mankind in general does not have any meaning if it does not have a relationship to the Other, that is, to that which (or rather He who) created it. These prayer flags, then, may be a veritable shot in the dark for many agnostic people: they want to believe in a transcendent, but can’t (unless they have accepted fully the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and the hierarchies of bodhisattvas, which I doubt they have).

Like many sophisticated ancient Romans who participated in the pagan cult but did not believe in it, so these public authorities and progressive Berkeley inhabitants can put up symbols of a religion that they respect out of sheer pity (if I had a nickle for every “Free Tibet” bumper sticker that I see on the streets, I could buy Tibet and then give it away for free). “What harm could it do?” is probably what they conclude. Tibetan prayer flags don’t make you feel guilty. They don’t conjure up images of the Inquisition or of nuns wrapping young boys on the knuckles for getting a Latin declension wrong. (Though the lamas of pre-communist Tibet committed a bunch of other atrocities, but we won’t go there since we can absolve the sins of people who aren’t “dead white males” quite easily.) These things are a polite bow to our “spiritual side” without committing anyone to anything. In the end, it is this attitude itself that is most worthy of pity.

Modern man is not pagan, for pagans have a nobility about them that he sorely lacks. He isn’t even an atheist anymore, since atheists have a conviction about the universe that is just as committed as those who believe in God. He is a spiritual worm, unable to reach for anything higher than his own sense of personal license and unable to be content in that state. The prayer flags fly as a symbol of an ideological stalemate, a religiosity of indecision and the spiritual twilight of our civilization. It is up to us as Christians to reverse these corrosive trends.

 


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7 responses

3 03 2012
maria jose

hola san cipriano hoy encendi una vela en peticion junto con nuestro señor pido por mi esposo favian por su vida te pido que lo hagas buno vive insultando a mi maria jose 22 año de matrimonio y el pelea nos trata mal y ha sido violento te clamo por su vida que se de a la flia tenemos 3 hijos matias 22 maxi 18 santi 12 y guada nieta 6 meses pelea por todo nos mdice es negativo yo quiero pedir perdon por el no los deja ser libres a la flia yo vengo de padres separados y mi papa es un doctor que no me reconocio yo no tengo la culpa me desmerece siempre por eso yo suplico que me escuches yo separararme no lo voy a hacer yo quiero que dios me bendiga con proteccion que tenga mucho trabajo tenemos una roticeria yo pido prosperidad pagar las cuentas pido por mi salud que decienda de peso tengo una valvula rota siempre tengo cansancio yo era trabajadora mucho y ahora no puedo pido que me restaure espiritualmente que me projas y nos cambie a todos para bien suplico proteccion a mi flia y los mios pido que favian sea mi compañero que nos amemos eternamente y que protejamos la flia que cambie favian la idea de dejar todo nos costo mucho para tirar todo por favor de la bendicion para la flia eternamente le voy a orar siempre en agradecimiento y cuando vaya al casino no pierda mas por favor que se pone re nervioso gracias maria jose

19 07 2008
Arturo Vasquez

That was my truck alright. My legacy for the Stacks.

19 07 2008
Cliff

I was dismayed to find that Cheeseboard was flying a Tibetan flag a few months back. I sympathize with the plight of the Tibetans under the Chinese as much as the next person, but it’s quite another thing to fly their flag.

I also loved the recent article in the Daily Cal about a Buddhist festival being celebrated in Berkeley. While Christian churches continue on in silence around the city, that particular Buddhist temple is celebrated for its mighty accomplishment of being a place where there are a growing number of mixed-race couples and children.

P.S. I was in the Stacks and I saw a truck with “The Sarabite” on it? I take it to be yours?

28 06 2008
diane

I saw Tibetan prayer flags for the first time earlier this monh (June). They were strung along the stairway leading into the venue of a Sacred Harp Sing. If y’all know anything about the Sacred Harp, you will appreciate the irony of this.

As we were driving to this sing (our first), I feared we’d be the only Catholics among a bunch of Primitive Baptists. Wrong. We were the only (still practicing) Catholics amid a bunch of aging hippes and New Age types. But they really knew their Sacred Harp, and they sang lustily and well. Go figure!

22 06 2008
Huw Richardson

In my senior class at college in SF, as we were presenting our final projects, I sat next to a Hindu woman. Actually, she was from Australia, but she was Indian. We listened to a presentation on “spiritual singing.”

The presenter suggested that, when teaching people music, you have them chant “Aum” which, she insisted, could be chanted without meaning anything.

The Hindu and I burst out laughing.

In one respect, the prayer flags of the bay are equally as meaningful as the cross on Mt Davidson: the theological content of both is nil. I think people are not reacting to the theology, so much, as the memories: the one raises bad memories, but the other has none attached. The problem is, of course, that both *do* have theological content and draining them of such dishonours them.

This is why I don’t much like religion in the American public square: it needs to be so drained of content as to be meaningless.

22 06 2008
David Alexander

Sad isn’t it? Those pagans put us to shame. In the words of Erasmus: “St. Socrates, pray for us.”

21 06 2008
Leah

In a graduate level class I took last semester, the professor told us of one of his peers who dressed up like a shaman (exactly which culture I forget) for the purpose of performance art and did seminars to teach others how to do the same. The guy didn’t actually believe in anything of the things he was doing, he just thought it was cool. I asked the instructor if this wasn’t cultural appropriation of the most egregious sort. He admitted that it was, but didn’t seem too worried about it. I imagine the people whom this academic is ripping off probably have different ideas. This professor was also an ex-postulant for a monastic order in New Mexico and we got into a 20 minute debate (during class time, I might add) on Vatican II and the real meaning of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Good times!

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