Saturday, 10 January 2009

Format and Content

I'm keeping an open mind two programmes in about Around the World in 80 Faiths presented by the Anglican priest at Firle, of Chichester Diocese, Peter Owen Jones.

The problem with the series, as it bashes away through ten (branches of) faiths per programme, is that of format over content, that it is too quick.

Nevertheless there may be a theme growing, and it is that some faiths are clearly narratives in process, and are as much new and present as old and ancient. Whether in some islands or peninsulas, huge disturbing events have the consequence of shifting the religious landscape. Thus there is the John Frum cult in Tanna that responds to the American impact on the island in the Second World War, and the South Korean growth in Pentecostal Christianity that is both a response to the huge events there that left original faith approaches moribund and now almost a factory faith responds to the mindset of individualist capitalism and prosperity.

When it came to urban witchcraft, however, he responded to his own longer prejedices despite learning by his participation, raising issues that should never have been raised in a more objective view. The issue was never 'devil worship' in the first place, but what he never mentioned - that this faith is not ancient witchcraft but another recreation based on what witchcraft might have been. It is a different mentality from a science educated urban living largely middle class membership. It's another sense of being cut off from a past as aboriginal ritual is now dislodged from original beliefs.

Another theme seems to be syncretisim in the newer emerging faiths. A late friend of mine, a Unitarian, was fascinated by Cao Dai (High Place, of Vietnam, that started with a seance in 1925 and now has two million followers), but I wonder if the details and rules Peter Owen Jones discovered and its actuality would have impressed my friend the same. Some syncretism is simply an attempt at reconciliation in a formal belief and rituals structure after disturbance, in this case French Colonial rule. Some look back to deeper cultural and anciently co-ordinated principles in attempting to access what loosely (must be loosely) called the divine (from spirits to further interpretations). Sometimes less formality and rule making allows for more space and exploration.

Some news journalists say if you can't say it briefly it may not be worth saying, and on that basis of summarising the series is worthwhile: but there are thousands not eighty branches of faiths and there are aspects common worth studying in depth - as anthropology, as religious studies.

Peter Owen Jones's approach seems to be a combination of religious phenomenology (description of the religion in essentials) and quick anthropology and occasional critical comment from his own perspective. This itself is rather loose. I suppose you watch and take what is of benefit.


Erika Baker said...

I agree with what you say.
But I would add that Peter Owen's approach includes a genuine deep and almost child-like interest in learning about other people's faiths. His search isn't purely academic or journalistic, he is fascinated by the spirituality of other faiths and genuinely seeking new insights for his own life. And he shows genuine respect for what he encounters even where it doesn't speak to him personally.

I find him absolutely compelling viewing.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

He was, of course, more engaged as an Extreme Pilgrim. Now he is in the business of brief encounter and explanation and off he goes. Obviously he spent different amounts of time with each that go unstated and unreported, and I wonder if he did more than eighty to cut some out. In the end the format forces short comments and pieces to camera on location may reduce what is said. Still it is worth hearing, and I'm more positive about this series than a number of comments around and about seem to be.