Religion and revolution

8 06 2011

I recently saw a report from the BBC a couple of years ago on a shrine dedicated to St. Lazarus in Cuba. The report brings up again the rumor that many of the people who fought in the revolution were also believers in santeria. That is not surprising, as even in the films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of the fathers of Cuban cinema, one often sees portrayals of popular and African religiosity, as in the montage above from his last film, Guantanamera.
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St. Expedite

26 05 2011

More on the saint via the Lonely Goth blog:

“In the same family, you can find a Chinese Taoist, an Indian Muslim, a metropolitan Catholic, an African witch doctor and a Tamil Hindu,” I was told by a Tamil Catholic priest. “It all makes a lot of work for the priesthood: we are continually having to explain to our parishioners what is and is not Christianity.”…

In 1931 a box of sacred relics arrived from the Vatican. Somewhere in transit the label detailing the saint’s name had been lost, and the only indication as to its contents was a stamp on the side reading, in Italian, “ESPEDITO” (expedited). So began the cult of St Expedit, whose popularity grew year by year, until what had started as a clerical error ended with St Expedit becoming Réunion’s unofficial patron saint, a saint whose unwritten biography has come to crystallise the most profound hopes and fears of the island’s multiple ethnicities.

There are now about 350 shrines on Réunion dedicated to St Expedit. They sit beside every road junction, crown every hilltop, lie deep in the bottom of the island’s wildest ravines.

The local Catholic Church has given the saint the trappings of an early Christian martyr, with a silver breastplate and a red tunic. Hindus treat St Expedit as an unofficial incarnation of Vishnu; those wanting children come to his shrine and tie saffron cloths to the grilles.

More exotic still, some of the island’s sorcerers have given the cult a slightly sinister aspect by decapitating the saint’s image, either to neutralise his power or to use the head in their own incantations. According to Loulou, the sorcerer at Ilet des Trois Salazes had a small oratory in which he kept several heads of St Expedit.

“He used them to cast spells,” said Loulou. “We were all terrified of him: everyone believed he had very strong powers. But in the end the people kicked him out because he began to demand bribes not to cast spells on us all.”

“Weren’t you frightened that he would take revenge on you?”

“We took precautions,” replied Loulou. “We used stronger magic. We sent someone to the grave of La Sitarane in Saint-Pierre. It is the most powerful grave on the island. With La Sitarane on your side, no one can harm you at all.”





Maria Lionza and the future of religion

15 12 2010

Many thanks to this blog for linking to one of my articles on Maria Lionza, the nationalist syncretic cult of Venezuela. And thanks to its further research, I found two more links to be taken into consideration regarding this phenomenon:

A Blood-Spattered Interview with a Viking

The Cult of Maria Lionza: Summoning the Spirit of Venezuela

Both center on the bloody happenings at Sorte Mountain, the legendary home of the indigenous mother goddess, Maria Lionza. The most fascinating thing I learned was concerning the strangest group in the pantheon of this modern religion: the Viking Court. Apparently, there was a Viking-oriented television show in Venezuela in the 1970’s, and in a sort of cargo-cult transformation, these Vikings, including Erik the Red, regularly take possession of mediums to cure people and expel their demons. (This is somewhat similar to the possession of mediums by Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in the 1950’s, who would regularly expel demons by shouting obscenities at them.) The cult to the Vikings is by far the most bloody, resembling the painful bloody rituals of Voudoun and of various holy places of India. It is also indicative of my positing of the divine as completely contingent. “Incarnation” is not the Ideal manifesting itself in the contingency of history, but the means by which the contingent becomes the Ideal. In this process, a head of garlic, a statue of the Grim Reaper, a card game, or a television program can become the center of the sacred; the embodiment of god itself. More on that a little later.
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Old school syncretism

27 10 2010

See link here. (“Copyright issues”, apparently)





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.
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New film on Venezuelan spiritism

31 08 2010

You can watch the whole film in Spanish starting with the above video.

When watching this, I cannot help but think that the surge of spiritism in Latin America, tied in intimately with the emergence of “folk saints”, has to do with the growth of secularism in the discourse of civil society. Practices and attitudes that always existed in the Catholic framework detach themselves and become “separate religions”. In most places, the hegemony of the Church was challenged with the independence movements in the 19th century. By the 20th century, the elites were often secular positivists or even spiritists in one form or another (Allan Kardec making spiritism seem to be a “science of the soul”). The first president during the Mexican Revolution, Francisco Madero, was a devout spiritist.

The syncretism seen above often is the result of these beliefs trickling down to the “lower classes”. Catholic figures and symbols, being part of the communal and national consciousness, are effortlessly grafted onto spiritist beliefs, and vice versa. With the invasion of other sects and forms of religiosity, it is easier for these tendencies to identify themselves as other religions altogether separate from “official” Catholicism. Curanderos become priests, “superstitions” become dogma, and religious identity becomes less complex for some people, while more complicated for others.





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

source

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.”
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Fundamentalism and modernity

14 06 2010

Editorial note: I’m unavailable until Thursday. Posts will continue to appear, but this blog is on auto-pilot

I highly recommend the article, Rush Hour of the Gods by William Dalrymple (found via the Western Confucian blog). The article makes many counterintuitive points that I think any student of modern religion needs to take into consideration. While his analysis of Islam in south Asia was known to me, his analysis of modern Hinduism was particularly informative. Such an “ancient religion” is really not so ancient all things considered, and modernity has come to shape it just as much as it has contemporary Christianity.

My own exercise here is to compare and contrast what is going on with Hinduism and Islam in India with the long evolution of Catholicism in Latin America. In both cases, nationality, technology, scholarship, and the media are striving to define what Catholicism, Islam, and Hinduism are on a national and international scale, often in contrast with more local manifestations of these faiths.
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Your daily dose of syncretism

28 04 2010

This time from Cuba.

Somewhat related to my latest article for Inside Catholic





Blog happenings

6 02 2010

The first is Rod Dreher’s assertion that Voudou in Haiti is the worship of demons (found in this post). I am all for the whole idea of “omnes dii gentium daemonia”, but why stop there? Indeed, I described once how Tommaso Campanella (no paragon of “orthodoxy” himself) thought that Calvinism was the result of demonic influences. So why is it that we are so disturbed at people being ridden by the loa and eating glass when, in reality, heretics and schismatics should be just as repulsive to us. Is your Presbyterian neighbor who mows his lawn every Saturday and pays his taxes on time every year on par with a Voudou priest? According to your Catholic Faith, he is. And so is Rod Dreher, who abandoned the bark of Peter for the Eastern schismatics. If we are going to speak of demonic influences, let us at least be even handed about it.

For me, there is no bourgeois uber-religion of decency that transcends what’s true and what isn’t true. That is a modern invention based on disordered sensibilities, and to say we “good Christians” all worship the same god is an insult to God. For it would mean that we worship a schizophrenic god with various personalities for various kinds of “decent” people. If that is the case, I would rather worship a god who could manifest himself in the Haitian loa as well. That seems a lot fairer.
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