Latin American Spiritism in context

14 02 2011

One could make the argument that the soul of religiosity in Latin America is ten percent Catholic and ninety percent Spiritist. That is an exaggeration to be sure, but it can go far in explaining the shape of Catholicism as it has developed in the past two hundred years. Raquel Romberg’s book, Witchcraft and Welfare: Spiritual Capital and the Business of Magic in Modern Puerto Rico, concerns the development of modern religious consciousness in the face of an emerging capitalist economy and its accompanying state. Romberg shows how witchcraft, espiritismo, and brujería, have all been grafted into contemporary conditions of life on all socio-economic levels. These practices are both preserving traditional spirituality and transforming themselves to meet the needs of believers in a constantly changing society.
Read the rest of this entry »

The bewitched automobile

29 09 2010

Well, now, I’ll tell a story what happened to an old lady and her husband down close Hanover. They decided they’d buy themselves a new car – so they did. Well, when Saturday evening come, why, the old gentleman said to his wife, “Now, let’s take a ride in the new car, this evening.” “All right.” They started off and they got in as fer as Hanover. And right at the square in Hanover the care stopped. Nobody could start it. They done everything they knowed, got garage fellows there to look at it, nobody could find anything wrong. Car wouldn’t move. Somebody said, “Well, you go out to Mrs. K. and tell her about this.”

Went out to Mrs. K and told her, and Mrs. K said, “Well, I’ll write you a piece of paper here and you don’t – you’re not to read it. You take it back to the car and put it on the starter and put your foot on this paper, on the starter, and,” she said, “your car will go.” And so they did. Went back a whole crowd around the car. They put this piece of paper on the starter and he put his foot on it, and the car started right off, and away they went. Didn’t have no more trouble that evening with the car.

So the next morning some time, why, they got someone come and said, “Well, the neighbor woman over there is awful sick.” “Well,” they said, “what’s wrong with her?” Said, “She’s in bed, she’s jist that sick she can’t be up.” And this was the woman that put the spell on the automobile. And Mrs. K. fixed her business fer her that she didn’t bother nobody around there fer awhile.

-Text from Don Yoder, “Witch tales from Adams County”, from south-central Pennsylvannia, found in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States.

Our disfigured image

9 09 2010

The reassuring myth amongst Western Christians is that our historical legacy will be continued on in Africa and other places where we once carried the white man’s burden. Even if our religion is proving to be a spectacular failure in many places on the “home front”, the fact that it is prospering elsewhere signifies that we were right all along. Though bittersweet, the increase in numbers in the Church in places like Africa seems like a vindication of those ideologies that once governed our society. Perhaps, we think, they will come again to evangelize us. In many places, it already seems to be happening.

Far be it from me to rain on other people’s parade, but in the contemporary Christian consciousness, the Church in Africa seems to be the church over there. It is the Other par excellence. It doesn’t really matter how they are really like, since their denominations carry the same names, and they are under the same ecclesiastical authority. One should just assume that they are just like us, even if a little backward. The fact is that they are a new church, and are experiencing some “growing pains”, but soon they will shake off all of those evil superstitions and become the legion of traditional conservative Christians that we could never be. Or so we hope.
Read the rest of this entry »

On credulity

26 08 2010

I just watched a film on Slavoj Zizek, who I will no doubt comment on in the future. (The above has nothing to do with the film, but was an interesting clip from another source.) One point that Zizek made was that we live in a much more credulous age than our ancestors (just as we live in a more restrictive age). He made the point by saying that a deconstructionist will never say that “this is a glass of water”, but rather something like, “if we are to accept the dominant discourse wherein we can assert that words can indicate the presence of objects, and if we are to trust our sensory perception, etc. etc., then one could assert that this is a glass of water”. For me such an illustration sort of alludes to various issues of assent that I have been speaking of recently. Zizek also draws a line between culture and religion. When religion is not taken seriously, it is known as culture. It exists in the social space, but without much “moral impact” (like existence of Santa Claus for adults). When people begin to take it seriously, it becomes religion as modern people know it.

When the friars first encountered Mexican neophytes at the beginning of the conquest in the sixteenth century, the indigenous people were taught the Credo, the Pater Noster, and the Ave Maria, and that was pretty much it. Within at least a generation or so, one of them would be able to say that he believed in every aspect of the creed, but would he believe in the same way as a modern person? Modern religiosity across the board has always meant “interiorization”. It is not enough to “follow the rules” or to do something “out of obedience”. Like the hypothetical child in the second video, you have to want to believe in the absolute sense, and will every article of your creed. It has to consume and define you.

This sort of goes with my comment on Stockholm syndrome religiosity: if I am not being treated like shit in terms of my most profound beliefs, the experience must somehow be inauthentic. Everyone wants to be a Kierkegaard with their own Abrahamic leap of faith.

The crossroads

19 07 2010

From the blues to Brazil and beyond

If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there be sure to get there just a little ‘ fore 12 that night so you know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want


This vignette was told in conjunction with the story of bluesman, Robert Johnson, who according to another site, “claims he sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest musician ever. He is — and was dead at 27.”
Read the rest of this entry »

The Primitive Mentality

14 07 2010

image credit

There is, perhaps, no subject that has been more extensively investigated and more prejudicially misunderstood by the modern scientist than that of folklore. By “folklore” we mean that whole and consistent body of culture which has been handed down, not in books but by word of mouth and in practice, from time beyond the reach of historical research, in the form of legends, fairy tales, ballads, games, toys, crafts, medicine, agriculture, and other rites, and forms of social organization, especially those that we call “tribal.” This is a cultural complex independent of national and even racial boundaries, and of remarkably similarity through the world; in other words, a culture of extraordinary vitality. The material of folklore differs from that of exoteric “religion”, to which it may be in a kind of opposition – as it is in a quite different way to “science” – by its more intellectual and less moralistic content, and more obviously and essentially by its adaptation to vernacular transmission: on the one hand, as cited above, “the myth is not my own, I had it from my mother” (Euripedes), and on the other, “the passage from a traditional mythology to ‘religion’ is a humanistic decadence.” (Evola)
Read the rest of this entry »

More on modern fundamentalism

7 07 2010

National Geographic does it again

The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship. Late on a Thursday night hundreds of mostly young men gathered at the tomb of a 17th-century Sufi spiritual leader, or saint, named Shah Jamal. They formed a tight circle around a trio of drummers and a pair of long-haired dervishes, who whirled at dizzying speeds on a tiled courtyard slick from rain showers and crushed rose petals. Hashish smoke drifted over the crowd, along with chants of “Allah! Allah-u!” and the names of various saints. The dervishes collided, and a shoving match erupted. “It’s our version of rave,” a Punjabi friend later explained.

Actually there’s a bit more to it than that. Sufism has flourished in the subcontinent since its arrival centuries ago in the wake of Turkish armies. It centers on the veneration of saints, often with help from qawwals—singers of devo­tional songs whose mesmeric rhythms are said to induce spiritual ecstasy. Famous saints such as the 18th-century poet Bulleh Shah were once persecuted for their liberal and iconoclastic views. Today their graves are pilgrimage sites for millions of steadfast followers…
Read the rest of this entry »

Snake handling in theory and practice

31 05 2010

America never was America to me.

-Langston Hughes

There are those who would portray America as an offshoot of the former theologies of the Protestant mainline churches. Everybody came from nuclear families where Puritan decency and hard-work were the dominating forces in life. Church consisted of semons and hymns; God was a benovolent if distant figure who showed his disposition towards belivers through the “blessings” he shed upon or withheld from them. In other words, God is the painter and viewer of a Norman Rockwell painting. If we have deviated from that, it is because we have broken from a pristine past where everyone knew his place and appreciated Christianity as the foundation of all civilization.

If that is one’s vision of America, it is not the vision shown by Dennis Covington in his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. That which conservative white intellectuals portray as the norm of “white Protestantism” was never really normative. The idea of a tightly-wound, buttoned-up congregation of decent Puritans who devoted themselves chastely to commerce has nothing to do with the reality of American religiosity. Covington writes of hard-drinking “bush Baptists” who would preach and sing well into the night and then brawl and drink until morning. The snake handling churches spead throughout Appalachia are the extreme version of this religion. Like popular Protestantism today, blessings here were thought to be immediate and tanglible, often to the point of putting oneself in life-endangering situations.
Read the rest of this entry »

Root work

19 04 2010

image credit

I thought that this was an interesting article:


Practitioners claim to offer supernatural help,
but often at steep prices

When drug agents kicked in the door of Minnie Pearl Thomas’ trailer at 5 a.m. on March 12, 1999, in the tiny community of Allentown, they walked into an eerie scene.

On the dresser in her dimly lit bedroom they found an altar. On the altar burned several candles. And on the candles were fastened written notes, asking for the spirits’ help with love, money and protection from the law.

The agents were not surprised. They knew that Thomas had been to a root doctor.

It was root work. Since the earliest days of settlers and slaves in this country, the practice, which is akin to voodoo, has flourished in the South. Even in the year 2000, when modern technology has superseded the old ways and Southern culture is becoming more homogenized, root work still thrives out of view from mainstream society.

The candles were not the only root work in Thomas’ house.

Peppers were scattered in [the] space above the ceiling.

Powder was sprinkled around the door.

As they rousted the sleepy Thomas and arrested her for trafficking in crack cocaine, they learned about the powder.

“She said it was Law Stay Away powder,” said Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman.

Read the rest here

Hoodoo in America

6 04 2010

image credit

THE THREE sisters were on Interstate 20, just east of Dallas, in the early hours when it happened. Myra, who was driving, started to act strangely, trying to veer the car into oncoming traffic and off the sides of bridges.

Then the steering wheel squirmed into life and started to pummel her, before mutating into a monstrous demon. The apparition sprang from the dashboard, mounted the crazed Myra and began its possession of her.

It was exactly as the women had feared. The previous evening – 17 March, St Patrick’s Day – they had fled from their hometown of Arcadia in northwestern Lousiana, convinced that an evil spirit was pursuing them.

Most of what is known of their journey – including a decision, halfway, to abandon their terrified children with strangers – has been told by the women to lawyers, friends and the police.

But only one thing was recorded for certain: Myra’s admission, just after dawn, to a suburban Dallas hospital. Both her eyes were missing.

Four months on, the events of that night still haunt Arcadia, otherwise famous only as the place where Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down. It is a remote, neglected little town, population 3,000, where the racial divisions of Old South still linger. The Crawford sisters – Myra, 30, who will be blind for life, Doretha, 34 and Beverly, 35 – have retreated to a shuttered brick house on Evangeline Drive, a scrubby cul-de-sac on the black side of the railway tracks.

Neighbours, slumped in the boiling summer air on their porches, hesitate to talk of the affair. Some even run away, afraid, because this is hoodoo business. ‘I’m scared of them – the hoodoo, the Crawfords and all of it,’ says one young woman. ‘They might want pull my eyes out.’

Read the rest