Friday, October 7, 2011

Love it or Leave it

I received a grant to do some writing and study of an anthropological nature at Berkeley, a university with a great library of ethnographic documentaries. During the two-month grant period, I watched and discussed and wrote about a great variety of films, having viewed hours and hours of footage on various primitive people groups, from Eskimos, to South American Indians, to Bushmen of Africa. I learned a lot about myself and the human culture I live in by studying these basic human beings, benignly unexposed to the so called modern conveniences. I think I learned something about tolerance and about not thinking my way of life is so superior to another’s.

First of all, I observed that all these groups I studied on film have within them a connection to God, in whatever odd ways they may conceive of deity. Their cultural stories, their myths, include the supervision and intervention of God into what they perceive history to be. Interestingly, when a particular group fissions (that is, breaks up into smaller groups) and the groups stay apart for a number of years, perceptions of history change somewhat from one group to another.

For example, one film I watched on the Yanomamo in South America, had this scene: The anthropologist asks the chief of one group, “Where did fire come from?” The chief replies, “The caterpillar brought us fire.” The anthropologist says, “But the people in the group upriver told me the alligator brought fire to human beings.” The chief looks disgusted and replies, “Alligator my foot. It was the caterpillar that first brought us fire.”

Now, that is a very radical variation--from caterpillar to alligator, but the myth changed that much from one tribe to another in just a few years. It put me in mind of our denominational boundaries and variations on Christianity. Even in small communities, we have a significant range and mixture of fragmentation and interpretation concerning the reality of our faith. And, it would appear, the church in general is not finished with fissioning.

Similarly, one film when the anthropologist asked to be included in a ritual at a tribal ceremony, the chief and elders refused on the grounds that he was not a human being yet. Interestingly, the word Yanomamo actually means human being. Perhaps the anthropologist’s command of the Yanomamo language was still somewhat deficient, or maybe he spoke the language with a Yankee accent. In any event, the group leaders discerned something different in the way he presented himself and consequently something non-human about him.

That speaks to our human tendency toward exclusivity, doesn’t it? It is as if our communities have signs reading, “If you live here, you have to be like us.” Or, maybe it is as if individually we have bumper stickers recommending that those who read our bumpers love the way we live or leave it. Like the early Puritans of New England, many people still have such an attitude as, “We’d love to have you here, but you have to fit in and be like us; otherwise, you will have to live elsewhere.”

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