Nicholas Reid: Overturning arcadianism

Breath Becomes the Wind
Simon Rae
University of Otago Press, $39.95
Islands of the Dawn
Robert S Ellwood
University of Hawaii Press, $32.00

Permit me to remind you of two inane stereotypes, which lurk in the minds of secular liberals when their opinions are unguarded. On my left, the stereotypical christian missionary. Insensitive. Narrow‑minded. Trampling on indigenous cultures. Bible‑bashing roughshod over intricate webs of custom and tradition in a fanatical quest to impose Jesus and Western values. On my right, the stereotypical anthropologist. Impartial. Scientific. Sensitively observing kinship structures, honouring taboos and avoidance codes. Diligently leaving indigenous society undisturbed, and filing field‑reports that enrich our understanding of the “rainbow” nature of the human family.

Tenacious though their hold may be over sections of the popular imagination, both stereotypes are, of course, foolish and easily refuted. Notoriously, anthropologists carry their own cultural baggage into the field. Reports are frequently skewed on preconceived methodologies. Notoriously, too, any intrusion into an indigenous culture (even by a sensitive, alert, well‑informed anthropologist) will leave its permanent mark on that culture. In some sense, to intrude is always to transform.

As for christian missionaries, the obvious point could be made that many of the world’s foremost anthropologists are also christian missionaries. Among mainstream churches the idol‑smashing days of (catholic) Francis Xavier and the alcohol‑and‑trinket‑assisted “conversions” of the (protestant) London Missionary Society are now well in the past. True, scandal and alarm are still the appropriate responses to the missionary activity of some minority christian sects; and to the depredations of fundamentalist American Protestants in South America. But it would be fair to say that no major organisations interrogate their own motives and methods as scrupulously as mainstream christian churches now do with regard to their missionary effort.

“Inculturation” is the watchword ‑ christianity finding expression in forms that upset traditional cultures as little as possible. The concept is encapsulated in the title of a famous book by the South American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells.

Simon Rae’s Breath Becomes the Wind is in every respect a product of current cultural sensitivity and self‑interrogation by Christians. Subtitled “Old and New in Karo Religion”, it is a study of cultural and religious change among the Karo people of north‑east Sumatra, where Rae was resident for much of the 1970s. Simon Rae is principal of Knox Theological College in Dunedin. He wrote Breath Becomes the Wind partly at the suggestion of the moderator of the Karo Protestant Church and it is published with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. There is an (overt and declared) protestant emphasis to the book. Catholic ‑ and islamic ‑ missionary endeavours among the Karo receive only subordinate attention. Yet, save in the most incidental of details, this is not a work of christian apologetic. With sympathetic words for a wide variety of belief‑systems, Rae sets himself the task of observing the process of change.

Here the book may run up against what is widespread prejudice among non‑religious westerners. Back in the days of defunct European empires, some colonial administrators advocated “arcadianism” ‑ the policy that certain indigenous groups should be left entirely undisturbed by western values. Unacknowledged arcadianism (never identified as such) has had something of a revival among sections of the green movement. On Theme Park Earth, we want as many groups to be as unlike one another as possible. Therefore agents of change (including missionaries) are despised as possible homogenisers and westernisers.

Yet arcadianism is not and never was a realistic option. It was never a question of whether the western and “modern” world should intrude. It was always a question of how and when. A clever bumper‑sticker once averred that “Life is what happens while you are planning other things”. By analogy, we could say, “History is what happens while anthropologists are studying kinship structures”.

At all events the very structure of Breath Becomes the Wind reinforces the notion of the inevitability of change. In his first 70‑odd pages, Simon Rae gives a thoughtful account of pre‑colonial Karo society and its “primal religion” (he sedulously avoids loaded and potentially derogatory terms such as “paganism”, “animism” or “spirit‑worship”). His goal here, he says is to reproduce “the viewpoint of Karo participants and observers, not of theologians or religious experts”. But his account is, perforce (like all similar studies), a “frozen” account presenting us with a hypothetical ideal state. Ideally, these are the spirits in which the Karo people believe, and which they propitiate. Ideally, these are their strict rules of patrilinear descent. Ideally, kinship prohibitions are maintained thus. Ideally, this is how the Karo keep vigil over their dead and anoint the genitals of those who have died virgins. And ideally this is how the gedang karo, the traditional Karo orchestra, communes with the spirit world.

Ideally, in fact, many things. But (pace Plato) we human beings do not live ideally. We live in the medium of history and change ‑ and this is as true for the highlands of Sumatra as it is for Wellington or New York. So, unavoidably, in the central section of Breath Becomes the Wind, Rae has to rehearse the complexities of colonial life in “Netherlands India” (only English‑speakers ever called it “Dutch East Indies”). He leads us through the Indonesian independence struggle, decolonisation, postcolonial adjustments and pressures from Indonesia’s great muslim majority. For many pages indeed these large and general Indonesian historical matters take us far from the specific, regional concerns of the Karo people. And this is just as it should be.

By placing the ideal, hypothetical, unchanging “primal” state against the grind of history, Rae shows that in fact change is inevitable. It may not have been his conscious intention, but the whole organisation of Breath Becomes the Wind adds up to one of the most effective refutations of the arcadianist daydream that I have ever encountered. The Karo, in their beliefs and customs, do not stand still for the delighted gaze of Western romantics. They are not extras in a theme park, waiting to be filmed by TV cameras for “sensitive” wildlife programmes. Their culture is dynamic. It adapts and changes. Their culture is complex. Individuals adapt and change at different rates. Even to acknowledge that there are now traditionalist, christian, muslim and secular Karo does not cover the wide variety of world‑views and individual systems within this one ethnic group. Pluralism is the apt term.

In detailing this dynamic, evolving scene Rae shares many insights and (wittingly and unwittingly) reveals some ironies.

It is simply not true, for example, that indigenous christianity was merely a client of colonialism, bound to atrophy when the old European empires died. In fact, for the Karo, quite the reverse has been true. Christianity and islam both made little headway when the Dutch ruled. Both were perceived by the Karo as “the tribal religions of powerful and threatening neighbours” (Dutch Christians; Malay and Aceh Muslims). Only when the Dutch were gone did Karo membership of christian churches boom. This seems partly a function of the fact that only when the Dutch were gone did Karo churches become more “indigenised”, their personnel more sensitive to local custom and needs. Some 53% of Karo are now christian (protestant and catholic) and 20% muslim.

We drink from our own wells, indeed.

Yet while he records this phenomenon with understandable approval, Rae cannot avoid clear evidence that for many Karo, christianity is simply a means of “modernising”. Touching, well‑authenticated stories are told of Karo Christians whose forbearance under persecution inspired their kin to convert. At one point we learn of a whole army corps spontaneously adopting christianity. But this dramatic expansion brings with it nominalism, “census Christians” and “cemetery Christians” (that is, those who are christian only to the extent of gaining a christian burial). The point is, for many Karo who have abandoned the “primal religion”, christianity is simply the highroad to secularism.

After all the rejection of christianity when it seemed a colonial lackey; after all the current christian indigenisation and inculturation ‑ this is a powerful irony indeed.

But even in these circumstances it would be wrong to assume that it is christianity which has pitchforked the Karo into the world of entrepreneurship, individual property ownership and military service. Rae offers evidence that the “primal” custom of appeasing tendi (spirits) with wealth leads naturally to a cult of material prosperity. For many Karo, this attunes easily with western‑style business enterprise and acquisitiveness. In other words, even without the Cross, many Karo would now be driving automobiles. Once again, change and adaptation are inevitable.

Perhaps, in the end, for all the theses one may draw from a book like this, its prime value is as an indicator of common humanity across barriers of time, place and culture. In an admirably clear and uncluttered prose style, Simon Rae conveys many aspects of an alien culture that makes us shudder with recognition. Consider, for example, this extract from an account of funerary customs:

Close family sit about the body which is laid out on a straw mat, women wailing in a formalised minor‑key sing‑song rhythm, occasionally interrupted by the most mundane requests to [collateral relatives] who are seeing to the practical needs of the assembled people: “Aku teh sada!” – “I want a cup of tea”, and the like.

How many wakes or tangi does this oddly touching passage evoke for the distant New Zealand reader? Or again, how many will see something very familiar when, much later, Rae describes the actions of Karo christian ministers, carefully balancing adet (custom) against christian formalities at a public ceremony? Think of all the occasions in New Zealand when we have heard priests and ministers, at weddings and funerals carefully measuring their words in the full awareness that most of the assembly are christian in name only.

This barrier‑annihilating aspect of Breath Becomes the Wind is at its most potent when, in Rae’s account the Karo turn to face us and pronounce judgment on western culture. How little must be the love European husbands have for their wives. Why, they do not even pay the bride‑price for them! How little westerners value children. Do they not realise that the name of the high god and the name of the pregnant womb are one and the same?

Dim caricatures of christian missionaries and anthropologists evaporate before this revelation of the two‑way nature of any contact between cultures.

It remains only to add that Breath Becomes the Wind is an excellent piece of book‑production on the part of the University of Otago Press. Sturdily bound, cleanly printed, with attractively broad margins. And, as far as my proofreading eye could see, only one misprint, when the name of the commentator Panikkar transmutes to “Pannikkar” on the same page.

Robert S Ellwood, professor of religion at the University of Southern California, gives to Islands of the Dawn the subtitle “the story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand”. This is an efficient and scholarly survey of the Kiwi spiritual heirs to Swendenborg, Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Krishnamurti, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner and George Adamsky. Cults considered range from Spiritualists, the Golden Dawn Theosophists, ‘Liberal Catholics” and Anthroposophists to assorted UFO‑watchers and new age groupers.

If they have anything in common, it is a basic gnosticism (we are an élite group with a special and secret knowledge … ) and a curious snobbery. How often Theosophists, Spiritualists et al appeal to the refined, cultured nature of their group, in contrast to the coarseness of ordinary mainstream churchgoers. And how rarely they display anything like a social conscience. Huge cosmic claims are made, but salvation is personal, confined to this small circle seated at this séance; or we happy few who could afford this new age seminar.

The entertainment value of Islands of the Dawn is high, paradoxically increased by the impartial, cool and fair tone. Ellwood reports a Napier medium communing with the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle in terms as matter‑of‑fact as he would report a road accident. In fact, he’s quite non-judgmental, which puts him a few leagues away from me.

Compared to something as momentous as, say, the cultural upheaval of the Karo people, this collection of “lifestyle choices” is very small beer indeed. But I must admit it makes a darn good read.

Nicholas Reid is a critic and freelancewriter of long standing, currently completing a postgraduate degree in theology.

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