I was going to keep this a Christmas-free zone but the quiet here today is screaming at me to say something. I can understand atheists in Western countries who feel uncomfortable with Christmas. There it is closely tied up with religious associations.
The strength of these religious trappings varies, I am sure, with each cultural locale. There are many who can and do love Christmas without giving a thought to its religious origins.
While living in Asia I could not resist asking some Chinese whom I knew were either Buddhists or Taoists, if anything, why they were wearing Santa hats and wishing all and sundry Merry Christmas. Their answer: “It’s Christmas. Everyone loves Christmas.”
I even saw a Moslem girl happily wearing a Santa cap over her head-scarf.
But seeing Christmas being celebrated alongside the Chinese New Year alongside Deepavali alongside Hari Raya and a half dozen others it drove home to me that it just one of many social rituals that would have to be invented if it did not exist from time immemorial. Humans are social creatures and rituals are important to us as social creatures and that’s that. There’s always room for the odd individual to bow out for a time, shorter or longer.
The fact that it has religious associations probably has more to do with the centrality of religion in the lives of people than with the festival itself, if that makes sense.
I am fascinated by other “foreign” ceremonies. They invite comparisons with the ones with which we are familiar, and help grasp a bigger picture of what “it” is all about.
My days in Singapore are numbered as I look forward to a new position back in Australia, so I was very glad when some Chinese locals went out of their way to encourage me to attend the opening ceremony celebrating the birthday of one of their gods. This one happened to be at the Aljuneid locale (suburb? district?) of Singapore. (Aljuneid also happens to be an Arab name — Arabs, especially from Yemen, have a long history of ties with Singapore, and I happen to work with one of the Aljuneid descendants here.) I asked the local Chinese who encouraged me to attend the ceremony for the name of the god, but was met with uncertainty as to how to convey something apparently uniquely Chinese in a meaningful way to me in English. So I can’t say what god(s) the following videos depict.
It seems to me that somewhere in Singapore there are temporary marquees being set up every week for the purpose of celebrating a local society’s or community’s particular god’s birthday. One night is for the opening ceremony, another for a community meal, and yet another for entertainment. (The decorative detail — its colour and intricacy — of all the paraphernalia is astonishing. Maybe I can post some photos later.)
I have the impression that the community meal is also routinely accompanied by entertainment in the form of Chinese opera. But the Chinese audiences for this, from my few experiences, are far fewer than those for the modern pop entertainment on the final night. Some of my younger Chinese work colleagues have expressed some astonishment that anyone could sit through and enjoy a Chinese opera. I do have to admit the audiences to these that I have observed are a small number from the older generation, plus me. But the community meals also come with auctions and/or raffles that seem to keep the many scores of diners happily entertained.
But last night was the first time I had the experience of witnessing the opening night ceremonies of a local god’s birthday. It was a lengthy process, two and a half hours no less, but I enclose here only two of the videos/photos I captured.
The strangest thought hit me while sight-seeing yet another Buddhist shrine or worship area – this time in the Ancient Siam park (official site still calls it The Ancient City). Attached to (certainly nearby) probably every Buddhist public temple area is a place where one can buy appropriate offerings (such as flowers, prayer sticks, candles) to place around the statues. The people behind the tables selling these items are clearly not the main pillars of the establishment rituals. They are certainly not the clerics — whether monks, priests, or whatever. And they always convey the happy and peaceful spiritual demeanor appropriate to the place of worship.
I tried to imagine Jesus storming up, violently wrecking their stalls and roaring accusations of overpriced lotus petals.
The thought made so much sense of the argument of those scholars who have complained that Jesus’ supposed attack on those who sold offerings for the Jerusalem temple does not strike one as an action of the most rational of men. Why attack the “little guys”? What did this have to do with “the system” that he was supposedly seeking to address? Apart from those pressing around the immediate vicinity, who would have noticed, anyway, in such a crowded, noisy place that was off-centre stage anyway? And what would even those relative few have thought of someone committing such a destructive and out-of-control act?
Note the outrageous $6 price tag for a cheap lotus flower candle and fantasize Jesus descending to scare the daylights out of that greedy, money-hungry elderly lady lotus-candle-flower seller. Of course, it helps if you re-image the scene to anti-semitic stereotypes.
Story sense; historical nonsense
As Vardis Fisher remarked in relation to his novel, Jesus Came Again: A Parable, the story gospel makes no sense as history. It only works as a parable.
Even Jesus Seminar founder, Robert Funk, warned that any event that can be explained as a fulfillment of prophecy has its explanation. If there is no other evidential reason or support for the reality of an event, then it is simplest and most reasonable to accept that the author created the event to demonstrate the prophetic fulfillment.
Come to think of it, isn’t the very existence of Jesus told as a prophetic fulfillment? But consistency has rarely been a strong point among scholarly arguments relating to “explaining the history” behind the Bible.
King Arthur really does have a lot to say
Hector Avalos nearly hit the nail squarely on the head in The End of Biblical Studies when he drew detailed attention to the frequently made rhetorical case of the historicity of King Arthur as a comparison for evidence for the historical Jesus. Avalos showed that the fact that we have some of the most detailed narratives of King Arthur’s words and deeds means nothing against the other fact that there is squat evidence for the existence of Arthur himself.
Most of us are happy to credit “astonishingly” creative powers to the imaginations of authors of a medieval romance or a book of Mormon, but a significant number of biblical scholars seem to balk at the suggestion that a gospel author could write any of our stories of Jesus with anything but a “tradition” that can “only” have been derived ultimately from some “eyewitness report”. Not even similar miracle stories on the part of Elijah could be enough to stimulate any imagination to create a variant in a different setting.
I said Avalos “nearly” hit the nail on the head. He failed to address the simple logical fact that a single narrative can never be assumed to be either historical or fictional unless we have some reason that is external to the narrative itself to confirm it either way.
The simplest truth
Every parent finds some occasion to teach a child not to believe everything they hear or read. Legal systems are built around the testing of all witness claims and evidence. Elementary philosophical classes distinguish between what we can “know”, what we can “believe on reasonable grounds”, what we “believe on faith”, etc.
But when I quote the simplest and most obvious principle that historians need to be sure they corroborate a narrative before assuming it points to historical persons or events, a liberal Christian biblical scholar (James McGrath) objects that the particular historian I quote is “a communist” and therefore even his historical methods are not to be trusted. Another biblical scholar who boasts of methodological “independence” from faith or religious interests (James Crossley), but who nonetheless makes the same basic methodological error of assuming the historicity of the central character of a narrative without corroboration, complained that I had “spectacularly” misrepresented his work when I demonstrated his commission of the same fundamental error — despite using other work by the same historian. (I am still waiting for his reply to my request that he support his complaint.) Continue reading “Jesus and the lotus petals, and the missing dimension in historical Jesus studies”
I’ve been working in Singapore for a little over a year now, and recently moved into a more dominantly Chinese area. It’s Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations this month, and yesterday I was introduced to another little cultural difference from anything I’ve seen in Australia. Lion Dancers come to housing apartments and go door to door of Chinese units offering to do a Lion Dance for the occupants. Presumably for good luck for the tennants and a little profit for the dancers. Here’s a video of them leaving one unit and finding another more welcoming.
Not that they restrict themselves to their Chinese compatriots. When they saw me they asked if I wanted them to do a Lion Dance for me, too. I did not really understand what they were asking at the time — it was so unexpected, but by the time I understood I suppose questions about how much would be an appropriate remuneration confused me and I declined their offer.
To see the ‘everyday’ type of Lion Dance in action, here is another video I took at last year’s CNY in a food court.
Went walkabout through Singapore’s madly crowded Orchard Road on Christmas Eve and one of the most memorable images was this sign in a subway left over from promoting an art exhibition way back in January 2009 — I can understand why no-one had the heart to remove it: Continue reading “Music Families”
Lately I have seen many Chinese here in Singapore offering food and joss sticks and burning “ghost money” for hungry ghosts. It’s the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival — there are other specific Singapore explanations here and here. The ghosts come out every seventh lunar month. One Chinese colleague explained to me that it is believed there are more accidents than usual in this month. That would explain why so many offerings and joss sticks are placed at road intersections and stairways. When I mentioned this to some relatives back in Australia they thought the whole idea was “crazy” or “a bit peculiar”. And so it seems to westerners. But I could not help thinking of Christian Pentecost and western celebrations commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost and how churches also mark this day with fruit and candles, and some with babbling tongues.
So a Hungry Ghost is weird but a Holy Ghost is normal? One is superstition but the other is religious faith?
There has also been an unfortunate story of a Moslem woman in Malaysia being sentenced to caning for imbibing a drug (alcohol) in public. Another work colleague made the interesting observation that in some western countries individuals can suffer degrading treatment and even ruin through their legal systems for being caught with a different brand of drug.
Table of food for ghosts at a food court
Encouraging ghosts to be kind to people traversing the stairway
Making ghosts happy where the pedestrian pathway meets the road
Today in Singapore is a public holiday, Vesak Day. It’s a Buddhist festival. One positive about Singapore is that public holidays are officially sanctioned for each of the faiths in this multicultural city state: Buddhist (+Taoist), Christian, Moslem, Hindu (+Sikh).
I’m not a Buddhist and I shy away from its sermonizing about mind-control/thought stopping or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to “remove one’s mind from what might cause suffering”. Not that I’m against CBT. I’m sure it’s a great benefit to many people.
I’m not a fan of the Dalai Lama, either. I don’t like his politics and I especially don’t like his giggly way of justifying a report of poor villagers raising money for a local temple or statue when their health and lives remain at risk from a lack of basic sanitation. Nor do I keep my patience when monks pretend to be striking up a welcoming conversation only to lead the conversation to where they can try to bite me for money. But at least they do provide an alternative floor to sleep on for those who would rather not opt for the subway, so I believe.
But for all that, I do find all the colour and paraphernalia that comes with special Buddhist festivals (and even some of their less ostentatious temples) to convey a happy peacefulness and tranquility.
Sure there are the devotees who are there handing out literature. Maybe it’s my bias, but it does seem to me that they have a more laid-back attitude to their task than their Christian counterparts. These latter have generally come across to me as more intense in their desire to get you to take and read their tracts. (I cannot forget one extreme case of a Jehovah’s Witness looking frantic and fearful and crying out that God holds him accountable for my hearing his message — as I was closing the door on him. First time I ever had the guilt trip put on me in reverse in order to win me over.)
But a happy smiling Buddha, and lots of lotus flowers and tranquil pools of water and graceful statuettes is undeniably a far more positive, relaxing and happy image than the suffering figure of a crucified man. One focuses one’s thoughts on peace and wellbeing for “all sentient beings”, and the other on guilt, pain, suffering, horror, desolation, especially guilt and sin.
Is it surprising that Buddhists I know or know of seem so much more tolerant and at peace with difference, than so many Christians who, speaking generally certainly, at best, struggle with difference and “the other”?
A couple of pics from the opening night of Vesak right in the Aljunied area of Singapore — all recently set up for the coming weekend:
Josephus detested political dissidents. He saw nothing good in anyone going out of their way to protest against the government.
All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree . . . . This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; . . . . (Antiquities, 18.1)
The same meme that equates politial protest with selfishness is, of course, alive and well today. From a Singapore newspaper:
The timely enactment of the Public Order Act will be an effective legal tool to check groups out to disrupt the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit scheduled to be hosted in Singapore in November.
We should not allow others to hijack these pro-Singapore events to satisfy their own selfish political agendas.
In France new mothers can request the State public institutions for a free nanny to assist them with all the things that new mothers face — the need for someone to babysit, to do the cooking, buy the groceries, clean the house and do the washing, to give them time for needed breaks from the pressures that inevitably arise in modern environments when extended family assistance is not always easy to come by.
While I was in Singapore I read a horrific tragic news story of a stepfather who was to hang for drowning a baby that drove him mad with its incessant crying.
In France people get out into the streets to demand their rights and force the government to behave in the public interest. It is, after all, a publicly elected public body for the public interest. In Singapore and an many other places it works the other way around — governments keep themselves in power and free to do their own factional will by fanning fear among large sections of their citizenry or inculcating wherever possible a public fear of their governing power itself. And as Michael Moore points out in his new documentary, Sicko, no wonder some of those governments are happy to see a public suspicion of anything French. 🙂
Two unexpected sights have hit me since being here for a conference this week: a Gideon’s bible in the hotel room and a huge yellow banner on a gate advertizing a pentecostal church. The Gideons was sitting with another volume on the teachings of Buddha and the pentecostal church looks oddly out of place where I had quite liked the way one historic christian church compound has been converted into a centre for shops, restaurants, bars and clubs.
A few enquiries have led me to understand that it many of the youth from the Chinese population here that are the ones who are converting to this form of christianity. I wonder if that has to do with a price of cosmopolitanism. The Chinese are, I understand, more likely to be Buddhist or Taoist if anything, and it can be argued that these are more philosophical systems than religions. And living in a city that prides itself on its cosmopolitan ambience may not be particularly conducive to a strong sense of close community. Especially in a city-state that is only about 40 years old, with much of the now dominant Chinese population migrating there from as recently as the 60’s.
I have already addressed here the way I see certain forms of christian religion filling in a family-need gap in people’s lives.
I don’t know of course, but it seems reasonable to think that international flavours are best coupled with strong cultural traditions that are capable of serving one’s need to feel a meaningful part of a community. Much of Europe seems to have both.
On the other hand, many parents in computer-literate countries like ours (and Singapore) probably worry overmuch about the time their youngsters spend now on their computers talking with friends they have never met face to face. But these communications are enabling children (and not just children) to establish meaningful and confidence-building relationships. Sure it is not the environment that any other generation has ever known before. And it is easy to fear or assume the worst too quickly about the unknown, but researchers who have studied this new phenomenon of the “virtual world of friendships”– NOT “the world of virtual friends” – have noticed the confidence and meaningfulness it can bring to many people’s lives. (Links and refs will have to wait till I get back home.)
Wouldn’t it be nice to think that this Web 2.0 world of MySpace and FaceBook etc can fill a need of belonging that arises out of real relationships (mediated in the virtual world — as opposed to being virtual relationships) — can eventually offer something more real in people’s lives than ancient and medieval belief systems.
But back to the hotel room — I am no Buddhist, but I did read the first chapter of the Buddhist book left beside the bible in my room. It was so refreshingly light and positive in its inducements for readers to follow the way of eliminating suffering. It began with Buddha (or the one to become Buddha) feeling the pain of seeing a worm being taken by a bird. The appeals from then on are to the better nature in us all. So unlike the Sermon on the Mount that commands people to love one another and never get angy for fear they will be thrown in hell if they don’t.
Such a pity that Pentecostalism is drawing people away from such a gentle philosophy. Wouldn’t it be nice if Web 2.0 can offer more than just a technological change in the future.