Monday, July 24, 2006

Grave Robbing and "Cult"ural Assumptions

In the Nurel list Dr. Steven Hayes, a missiologist in South Africa, posted a story on the corpse of a boy that was stolen in Florida. The story was reported by the Associated Press and in The St. Petersburg Times. The fascinating aspect of the story is not so much the tragedy that the corpse of a boy who passed away in the 1970s was stolen, but that Tampa law enforcement commented on the case speculating that "We are just leaning toward it being cult related or involving Santeria or some voodoo because we don't have any other reasonable explanation." The article continues by stating that, "This is a loaded statement, one worth considering carefully. It offers an example of how religion in America can be defined starkly along lines ofwho is and who is not accepted as part of the cultural mainstream."

Two other sections of the article are worth citing. The first follows immediately from the sentence quoted above, and the next comes from its conclusion:

No evidence of anything "cult related" was found at the scene of the robbery, nor does either religion (Santeria or Voodoo) ritually engage in such criminal action. Their being named, however, speaks to the power of popular conceptions, shaped in no small part by a history of horror movies in which race fear is an underlying dynamic.

Thus, the publicly voiced suspicion of "Santeria or some voodoo" expresses a great deal about fear of the (religious) other in American culture. Two reprehensible acts happened in Tampa: A body was stolen from its tomb, and the police further marginalized these religious groups.

At the risk of being further labeled a "cult apologist" by some conservative evangelicals, I must state that I agree with this article's assessment, and I find it troubling. The general public is often quick to blame certain religious and spiritual groups for acts for which it cannot find a "reasonable explanation," and sadly, evangelicals often follow suit. (See a previous blog post on Santeria and the work of Miguel de la Torre that touched on misunderstandings and misepresentations.)

In addition to Santeria and voodoo we portray other new religions in problematic fashion. Consider the recent post at the Tall Skinny Kiwi blog concerning the animation segment of the 1980s Godmakers film as "Mormon theology in 6 minutes." As I commented in response, the use of animation to portray some of the theology and sacred history of the LDS is questionable at best. While animation is respected as a serious art form and means of communication in some cultures, in the U.S. it tends to be associated with children's entertainment, and would seem to be a culturally inappropriate medium for communicating the sacred for LDS.

Perhaps these two examples indicate that we still have a long way to go as American evangelicals in accurately and empathetically understanding and describing "religious others" in our pluralistic environment. Surely missional Christians will feel a responsibility to do better.

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