Thursday, March 29, 2007

Symbolic Countercultures, Rituals of Opposition, and Inverted Beings

As I finally finish working through my bibliographical materials for my thesis and remaining project papers, one of the books I finished last night is J. Milton Yinger's Countercultures: The Promise and Peril of a World Turned Upside Down (New York: The Freee Press, 1982). In his chapter on symbolic countercultures he includes discussion on rituals of opposition and how these serve or function as countercultures. In this section he discusses the belief in "inverted beings" among the Lugbara in what is now known as Uganda. He states that these beings "behaved in ways 'the opposite of the ways expected of normal socialized persons in Lugbara society today.'"

He then moves to another example in modern society in regards to witches. I will include two relevant paragraphs for consideration by Christians, not only in historical reflection on the past, but also with relevance to the contemporary pluralistic and post-Christian West:

"Modern societies, perhaps no less in need of images of 'inverted beings,' create them out of 'witches' and other deviants who are seen as living inverted values. In the the late medieval and early modern period a purely negative image of witches emerged. Witchcraft was no longer seen simply as a supernatural technology, now malevolent, now beneficial, for dealing with day-by-day problems. Profound changes in the social order - expressed both in expanding opportunities and in a declining sense of a coherent moral universe - left both the leaders and the populace at large with great anxiety. Witchcraft came to be seen, as Ben-Yahuda observes, as an independent 'anti-religion,' a blend of sorcery and heresy. In Europe by the fifteenth century, 'The stories and myth of witches can be regarded as the exact qualitative opposite of what was supposed to be the true faith, Christianity.'

"However much the image of witches distorts reality, it can operate as a powerful symbol of feared and hated forces loose in an uncertain world. Contemporary malevolent witches, if I can stretch the meaning of the term somewhat, are not generally seen as possessed of supernatural power; but they are seen as inverted beings of enormous and mysterious influence, dedicated to the overthrow of the social order. The 'witchcraft trials' promoted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, for example, developed a powerful symbolism of a threatening counterculture. The United States was entering a bewildering time. In possession of weapons of incredible destructiveness, it faced the fact that a cultural adversary (as much as or more than a geopolitical adversary) had also created such weapons. The world was changing in many ways at unprecedented speed. Scarcely able to draw the line against such massive and impersonal changes as were occurring, some felt the need to personalize them, to lodge their sources in individuals whom one might hope to constrain."

For those interested in a further exploration of this idea of the social construction of inverted beings or the "evil other" I'd recommend the work of folklorist Bill Ellis in his fine books Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media (University of Kentucky Press, 2000) and Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture (University of Kentucky Press, 2004).

My point for critical reflection by evangelicals is to ask to what extent in a rapidly changing world wherein we have diminishing credibility, influence, and voice (thus resulting in our posture of defensiveness), are we unconsciously making inverted beings out of those in the new religions and world religions?


Steve Hayes said...

It sounds as though Yinger's book could be an interesting read, and I'd be interested in knowing more about these "inverted beings". They sound a bit like the fools for Christ (yurodivi, sali) in the Christian world, or people like Drukpa Kunley among the Buddhists.

Steve Hayes said...

I tried to use Blogger's "Link to this post" to create a link, but it didn't show up.

But in case you're interested, it's here Notes from underground: Morehead's Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition

Pastor Phil said...

What does Yinger state is the source of these inverted beings? Is it something he sees as culturally created, because we need to have our bad guys? or is this a phenomenon he sees rising as a kind of Hegelian transformation of societies?

Our response as evangelicals to these inverted beings is may be what creates the synthesis of change for the church, and the culture. I suppose on the other hand our inability to respond appropriately may leave the church unchanged through a time when change was most needed.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your comments and question, Phil. Yinger does not spend as much time addressing the issue of inverted beings in his discussion of counter-cultures, but like Ellis, his perspective would be that those in mainstream culture construct the evil social Other and react against this construction as a means of maintaining their worldview and social structure. Ellis goes into far more depth on this and in so doing provides a strong critique to evangelicals that is applicable in any number of areas, whether to Witch trials, anti-Catholicism, or the anti-cult crusade.