Thursday, May 03, 2007

Festivals and Festivity

In a previous post I noted the signfiicance of play theology to Western Christianity, particularly in reflection on how this is expressed as a major facet of alternative cultural events and intentional communties like Burning Man Festival. Play takes on special significance when connected to the issue of festivals and sacred festivity.

Festivals present specific challenges to Protestantism. While Roman Catholic and secular scholars have devoted serious attention to festivity, this is not the case with Protestants. Festivity is not taken seriously either as a cultural phenomenon or as a topic for scholarly exploration by most Protestants, and yet Catholic scholars have argued “that festivals belong by rights among the greatest topics of philosophical discussion” (Pieper 1999, back cover).

In the work of Yinger on countercultures, he includes a chapter on symbolic countercultures which use rituals of inversion that reverse and mock the established order. These countercultures have existed in the past and the present, and Yinger says that “such activities can be matched in the medieval and contemporary worlds” (1982, 154). Peter Burke discusses such phenomena in his book on popular culture in early modern Europe. He says that, “[c]arnival was, in short, a time of institutionalized disorder, a set of rituals of reversal” (1990, 190). Duvignaud references the same thing in his comment that “festival involves a powerful denial of the established order” (1976, 19). In the context of early modern Europe, this celebration of social inversion involved a number of phenomena, including dressing in costumes, cross-dressing, intense sexual activity, as well as weddings and mock weddings (Burke 1990, 186). Burke sees these activities as fulfilling an important social function as ritual regardless of “whether participants are aware of this or not” (ibid., 199).

Here we might note the connection of the festive and ritual expression of acts of social inversion to Burning Man. First, individuals come to the festival in order to carve out their own place in space and time which includes acts of creativity as well as social inversion. Second, the activities of social inversion at Burning Man exactly parallel those expressed in carnival and festival in early modern Europe, including costuming, cross-dressing, sexual activity, weddings, and mock weddings. Thus, the activities at Burning Man may be understood as a contemporary expression of festival with historical and cross-cultural precedents.

But an aspect of festival that may not be familiar to evangelicals is its connection in the past to the life of the church. As Bakhtin reminds us, carnival and festival provided a “second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance” (1984, 9), and further “[a]ll forms of carnival were linked externally to the feasts of the church” (ibid., 8). Harris notes a similar historic connection between the church and festival and states that, “[a] good case can be made, however, for the argument that Carnival developed within the Christian community from the topsy-turveydom of Christmas” (2003, 140). Festivals thus have a historic connection to Christianity, both through Christmas celebrations as well as the connection between Carnival and Lent. Carnival is a Roman Catholic celebration with the carnival season being a holiday period that is celebrated during the two weeks before the traditional Christian fasting of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week, and its forty days of observance are symbolic of forty day periods of religious significance found in the Judeo-Christian narrative, most especially Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness for a time of fasting and temptation.

Yet even in this ecclesiastical context the social inversion of festivity was still present. Harris notes that carnival celebration in connection with Christmas in medieval and early modern Europe involved “[c]ross-dressing, masking as animals, wafting foul-smelling incense, and electing burlesque bishops, popes, and patriarchs [that] mocked conventional human pretensions” (ibid.).

If festival was connected at one point in history with the church’s sacred calendar, why did it disappear? At least two reasons seem likely. The first is that such festive play is perceived as dangerous in ecclesiastical contexts. As Manning states, “[p]lay theology, it seems, is frightened of sensuality, excess and ambiguity which all reside in the body and are unleashed in play process – as if it is frightened of the carnality of birth and death itself” (1983, 369). Krondorfer develops this idea further when he states that,

[p]lay processes (such as dance, festivals or ceremonies) are often excessive, transgressive, inversive and passionate. They can be carnivalesque in structure and ‘anti-theological’, as Julia Kristeva explains. They challenge ‘God, authority and social law’.

A few play theologians are aware of the fact that actual play processes, including religious rituals (such as the medieval Feast of Fools), are transgressive, subversive and dangerous; but they do not fully integrate this knowledge in their theological thinking’”
(1993, 368).

Krondorfer’s analysis converges with Miller’s in that he later states that, “[p]lay theology, it seems, is frightened of sensuality, excess and ambiguity” (ibid., 369), and this frightening and dangerous form of expression and theologizing apparently proved threatening to the church.

The second reason why festivity has lots its connection to the church and its sacred calendar of celebrations may be connected to the Protestant Reformation. The celebration of certain holidays in the church calendar “diminished in importance” with the Reformation (Santino 1994, xvi), and further, some seem to have been expunged as a reaction against aspects of Roman Catholicism. As an example, Hutton comments on contemporary Protestant concerns over Halloween and its connection to All Saints and All Souls Day from the past:

Such an attitude could be most sympathetically portrayed as a logical development of radical Protestant hostility to the holy days of All Saints and All Souls; having abolished the medieval rites associated with them and attempted to remove the feast altogether, evangelical Protestants are historically quite consistent in trying to eradicate any traditions surviving from them. If so many of those traditions appear now to be divorced from Christianity, this is precisely because of the success of earlier reformers in driving them out of the churches and away from clerics… (1996, 384).

I suggest that despite the potential danger that festival celebration poses to the church with all of its rituals of social inversion, that the vacuum created in Western culture as a result of a lack of sacred festivity that includes social inversion has resulted in the creation of new forms of sacred festivity that are interpreted outside the Christian context through alternative cultural events such as Burning Man. Thus, festivals and festivity represent another “unpaid bill of the church.”

I argue that festivity need not be divorced from the context of Protestant community and church life. Indeed, the rediscovery and experimentation with festivity will play an essential part of the church’s engagement with Burning Man as well as other facets of postmodern spirituality. I believe that the church can benefit from fresh exploration of festivity in three areas, that of festivity serving as a reminder of the biblical teaching on social inversion, festivity as a tool for theological reflection, and as a source for fresh ritual in the church.

First, festivity reminds the church of it own traditions on social inversion. A number of biblical passages touch on this topic, with the “Magnificat” from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel being one of the most relevant with its discussion of the raising of the humble and the bringing down of rulers from their thrones (verse 53). Harris discusses the connection between the social inversion of festival and the Judeo-Christian scriptural narratives in this area:

The Feast of Fools, with its explicit justification in the Magnificat, noisily proclaimed the Christian basis for festive roles of reversal…. [This is echoed in] Christ’s utterances about children and the Kingdom of Heaven, Isaiah’s prophecy that a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6), and the theme of inversion and the world turned upside-down found in texts like the ‘Magnificat’.. (2003, 141).

Second, festivals provide the church with another tool for theological reflection. Once again Harris’s comments are helpful:

The popular elements in patronal saints’ day festivals, like Carnival, have often been demonized as pagan or heretical...Could it be that popular religious festivals offer a source of theological wisdom, otherwise unarticulated and therefore unnoticed by formal theology, that is worthy of a place alongside sacred text, reason, and ecclesiastical tradition? Such a perspective would partly balance the standard sources of theology, which privilege clerical exegesis, educated reason, and authoritative legitimation of tradition (ibid., 28).

Third, festivity provides a source for fresh ritual in the church. Chad Martin has written an intriguing paper that explores the potential for carnival as a form of ritual that holds great promise for the church (1999). In his view, “Carnival is the necessary Dionysian expression that counter-balances the church’s otherwise Apollonian heady approach to religion” (ibid., 35). He draws attention to the “ecclesiastical symbolism” of festivals, including Mardi Gras (ibid., 36), and sets forth a case for the possibility of “ritual transformation” that takes place through Carnival and festival with its “precarious social inversion” (ibid., 37). Like Harris, he draws a connection between festive social inversion and biblical themes, and then makes a case for the necessity of the chaos and revelry of carnival for Christian worship (ibid., 40). In his view, festivity is important for Christian worship for two reasons: “first, the glorification of the humorous, light-hearted side of human experience; and second, the inversion of social standards (in the biblical settings this means the opportunity for social change)” (ibid.). Martin’s discussion then moves from the theological exploration of festival to its implementation and exploration in his local church setting, which involved the creation of carnival themes, reflection on biblical stories, costuming, music, “dancing, eating and laughing,” and carrying the festival out into the community through a “closing parade” (ibid., 39). For Martin, carnival involves an important theological message: “God’s kingdom is for the oppressed, and it can come surrounded with laughter, irony, celebration and freedom. ‘The chief attitude of [carnival] is one of peaceful revolution. When the spirit rules, the kingdoms of this world are overturned’” (ibid., 42). Through his discussion and example, Martin provides a way “for developing a meaningful carnival ritual” (ibid., 45) for church and community.

References Cited

Bakhtin, Michail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Burke, Peter. 1990. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, rev. ed. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Duvignaud, Jean. 1976. “Festivals: a sociological approach,” Cultures 3/1: 13-25.

Harris, Max. 2003. Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Hutton, Ronald. 1996. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Krondorfer, Bjorn. 1993. “Play Theology as Discourses of Disguise,” Journal of Literature & Theology 7/4 (December): 365-380.

Manning, Frank E. 1983. “Cosmos and chaos: celebration in the modern world,” in Frank E. Manning, ed., The Celebration of Society: Perspectives on Contemporary Cultural Performance. Bowling Green, OH: Bowing Green University Press.

Martin, Chad. 1999. “Carnival: A Theology of Laughter And a Ritual for Social Change.” Worship 73/1 (January): 33-45.

Pieper, Josef. 1999. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Santino, Jack, ed. 1994. Halloween and Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Yinger, J. 1982. Countercultures: The Promise and the Peril of a World Turned Upside Down. New York: The Free Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi John-
reading with interest your Burning Man Chronicles-

I think the Reformation Protestants wanted to expunge anything remotely "Catholic", and in doing so they not only forsook healthy play, but also healthy Jesus-connected Symbol (which I think is connected). Suddenly, Symbol was there no more. And because humans need Symbol to make sense of reality, the need expressed itself in the rise of the "secret" fraternal orders such as Masons particularly, which came to prominence in the Enlightenment, and the Odd Fellows, etc.- and even the Grange in the US and the Rosicrucians - which rely heavily upon Symbol in their rites.

Thanks for all your work.

Dana Ames