One aspect of my research on Burning Man Festival dealt with festival and folk performance. One of the helpful pieces of research I interacted with was done by Max Harris, Executive Director Emeritus of the Wisconsin Humanities Council. His first book, Theater and Incarnation was reissued as a paperback by Eerdmans in 2005. He spent Fall 2006 as a visiting professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School. He is now working on a book called The Feast of Fools: A History. Max is also a Presbyterian minister and has pastored churches in England, Virginia, Maryland, and Wisconsin.
Morehead's Musings: Max, I found your academic work very helpful in my reflections on Burning Man Festival as a form of festival and folk performance. One of your books that I found most interesting was Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance (University of Texas Press, 2003). I think most readers, particularly Protestants, would not think of the excess of Carnival and connect that with a Christian festival. In your book you point out that Carnival has "often been demonized as pagan or heretical." Can you sketch the contours of Carnival and its connection to Christianity?
Max Harris: First, it may be helpful to realize that Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which informs most American’s perceptions of the festival, is in many ways an exceptional rather than a typical Carnival. Carnivals worldwide display considerable variety and some are openly religious. Even in rural Cajun Louisiana, the Mardi Gras masqueraders are predominantly Catholic and go in faith to church on Ash Wednesday. In Oruro, Bolivia, the second largest Carnival in Latin America (after Rio de Janeiro) is held in honor of the Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). After the opening procession through town to the Virgin’s sanctuary, the masqueraders remove their masks and approach on their knees the sacred painting of the Virgin. There is, I believe (as I have set out in Carnival and Other Christian Festivals), a profound theological message about God’s acceptance of the marginalized at work in this Carnival. Historically, I believe Carnival had its origins in the traditional topsy-turvydom of the medieval Christmas season, which in turn was grounded in the doctrine of the Incarnation and expressed in Mary’s words in the Magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their seat and raised up the humble and meek. He has fed the poor with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1:52-53). During the Middle Ages, the Carnival season gradually expanded (especially in Italy) to fill the period from Christmas to the Tuesday before Lent. When those in authority wished to suppress Carnival’s critique of the powerful, they demonized Carnival by separating it from Christmas, confining it to the last few days before Lent, and then declaring it a last pagan fling before Lent. Specifically, they linked Carnival with ancient Roman festivals such as the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia. While good for hostile propaganda and, more recently, for attracting hedonistic tourists, this pedigree has no historical warrant. Whatever Carnival may now look like in some places, I believe its historical roots are Christian.
Morehead's Musings: One of the concerns if not fears of both Protestant and Catholic theologians is syncretism. After some discussion of Catholicism interacting with Aztec religion, and a few examples in the Old and New Testaments, you state that "festive syncretism is not..something to be feared by the Christian theologian," and your remind the reader that the "folk theology of fiesta is more likely to reside in its mixed, syncretic, or inclusive elements." Can you say a few words that addresses the fear of syncretism where cultural aspects like festival are involved, a fear that seems to be increasing in the Protestant Christian West in the context of a vibrant Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere and the shift to a global rather than Western Christianity?
Max Harris: It is important to realize that there is no such thing as a Christianity that is not already inculturated, i.e. that is not expressed in terms of a particular culture. God became flesh in Jesus Christ at a particular time and place and therefore in the midst of a particular culture. Jesus was (by divine intent!) not some kind of generic human being, transcending all cultural expression. He was Jewish, spoke Aramaic, knew Jewish songs, etc. Early Christians were hugely influenced, in their mode of articulating and practising their faith, by the Hellenistic culture in which they lived, and, in their way of organizing the church, by the Roman imperial model of hierarchical government. The church still bears strong marks (scars?) from this influence. And so on through history: the western European church expressed itself largely in terms of western European culture; the U.S. church is distinctively North American. Christianity is always and everywhere syncretistic, in the sense that it must express itself in terms of a particular culture. Our calling as Christians is to do our utmost to distinguish those aspects of our culture that are incompatible with the gospel from those that can contribute to legitimate forms of Christian expression. The most damaging example of Christian syncretism at the moment may well be the conservative American church’s embrace of a political and economic ideology that, to my mind, is incompatible with Christ’s call to care for the poor and the stranger and to begin the search for peace by turning the other cheek. Part of the problem is that we only see the other’s syncretism; we are blind to our own.
Morehead's Musings: In chapter 9 of your book you describe some interesting festive behavior from the 1400s that mocked the established civic and ecclesiastical order, including that involving the clergy, and then state that this is not associated with Carnival, but rather with early Christmas celebrations. I was struck by how much of this activity from a Christian festival in the past finds parallel expression in Burning Man Festival in the contemporary period in the U.S. Can you describe some of the mocking-type behaviors that took place in early Christmas "reversals of status" as you describe them, and how this might be connected to the Feast of Fools?
Max Harris: This is the part of my Carnival book that I would now most like to rewrite! What you find in that chapter is in line with conventional scholarship on the Feast of Fools, but I am now in the process of consulting the early sources themselves rather than the later secondary scholarship. As a result, I am writing a book on the Feast of Fools that will show that much (most?) of the conventional scholarship on the subject is inaccurate. To quote one of the few perceptive scholarly remarks on the topic: “Some of the wilder excesses said to have been committed [during the Feast of Fools] lay more in the wishful imagination of later commentators than in fact” (Nick Sandon, The Octave of the Nativity, London, 1984, p. 69). Some light-hearted “rites of reversal” remain, however: the repeated chanting of the Deposuit (the lines from the Magnificat that I quoted above) during Vespers at the feast of the Circumcision (January 1) in twelfth-century Notre-Dame de Paris; the orderly processional admission of an ass to Beauvais cathedral in the early twelfth century; and a procession through the streets of twelfth-century Chalons-sur-Marne (now Chalons-en-Champagne) during which clergy and townspeople joined in a round dance ahead of the procession. (You will notice that I’m still working on the early material, but I strongly suspect that the same will hold true when I reach 1400 and beyond.) So, there were small, merry festive rites of reversal, but they appear to have been surrounded by orderly liturgy and to have expressed joy in the good news of the Incarnation. They do not appear to have descended into disorderly, drunken revels, as so many scholars and clerical critics have assumed.
Morehead's Musings: While conservative Protestants and Catholics might be put off by such festive reversals, in your book you mention the connection between this and various biblical teachings, such as the Magnificat of Luke's gospel. Can you discuss the biblical materials on this and help readers make the connection to ancient, and possibly contemporary festivals of inversion?
Max Harris: In the Magnificat, Mary rejoices in a God who characteristically overturns privilege and favors the poor and the hungry. The church, whether Catholic, Presbyterian, or Baptist, has too often been supported by, sided with, and wanted to belong to the the rich and the well-fed. There have been wonderful exceptions: the early desert fathers, St. Francis of Assissi, Gustavo Gutierrez, to name just three. Many more are no doubt known only by God. But the Magnificat reminds us of our call to stand with God among the poor and the hungry. In chapter 3 of my Carnival book, I describe the Fiestas de Santiago Apostol en Loiza (Festivals of St. James the Apostle in Loiza), held each July in one of the most Afro-Caribbean communities of Puerto Rico. The fiestas enact a joyous exodus of the marginalized from the local seat of power in Loiza to the poorer neighboring community of Mediania, blessed especially by the presence of the smallest of three local statues of Santiago. In many ways, I see this festival as a folk mediation on Luke 14:21: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”
Morehead's Musings: You also discuss the Feast of Fools as more than "mere parody of conventional liturgy," stating that it "deserves respect as a genuine expression of liturgical drama." Can you help us understand this?
Max Harris: I would no longer even call it a parody. I would now argue that, at its best, the Feast of Fools was an integral part of the liturgy of the feast of the Circumcision (January 1), insisting on the astonishing truth that God not only became human in Jesus of Nazareth, but (perhaps sotto voce) that God became poor, homeless, and a victim of unjust social structures. What I will argue when my book is finished remains to be seen!
Morehead's Musings: Given the connections between Christmas and Carnival, how was it that the church suppressed "the ecclesiastical Feast of fools, but its counterparts survived"?
Max Harris: Beginning about 1400, for reasons that I have yet to establish but which I suspect have more to do with broader cultural trends than with any real fault in the feast itself, ecclesiastical reformers began to press for the suppression of the Feast of Fools. Local cathedral chapters, often with the support of local bishops and archbishops, resisted. As a result, the Feast of Fools was gradually transferred from church buildings to city streets, where its organization was eventually taken over by secular groups. The “fools” became part of such outdoor activities as the Procession of Our Lady of the Trellis in Lille and the incipient Carnival in Dijon.
Morehead's Musings: You state that festivals like Carnival "can display a creative folk theology in dialogue with the official dogma of the church." You also mention "the festive God of folk theology," a conception of God and a form of theology all too absent from both Catholic and Protestant theologies. How might we look more positively at "popular religious festivals ..as 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"?
Max Harris: It’s not a simple matter. First, there is the problem of miscommunication (or lack of communication) between scholars and folk performers. Scholars are, by and large, trained to read written texts or to interview informants. Folk performers express themselves with great sophistication, but they do so in performance rather than in text or spoken word. As I try to make clear in my Carnival book, anyone who is truly interested in what folk performers have to say must acquire a sensitivity to what I call “the signs visible only in performance.” I came to this with some advantage, having a background in theater, but it still took much practice. In my book, I’ve tried to set out some hermeneutic principles for understanding folk performance, but there is no substitute for close and patient observance. As for such festivals being a source of theological wisdom, I mean by this that the traditional sources of theological authority (sacred text, reason and ecclesiastical tradition) all privilege those in power in the church: the educated clergy and theologians are the ones who interpret the sacred text and establish/guard/reform the traditions. Voices from below are rarely included in the process. My own theological reflection over the last twenty years has been significantly influenced by my participant observation of folk festivals in Spain and Latin America. I’ve never had a theological conversation as such with a folk performer, but I’ve learned a great deal from watching folk performers in action. And, part of what I’ve learned is the blessing of an exuberant joy in God’s love even for me!
Morehead's Musings: After reflection on religious festivals and folk performance, its connection with the church, and its absence in America and the West with the strong influences and history of Protestantism, I wonder whether the rise and increasing popularity of festival alternative subcultures like Burning Man in the U.S. and ConFest in Australia might represent attempts by other subcultures to fill a void not addressed by the churches of Christendom in its various branches. Your thoughts?
Max Harris: I don’t know Burning Man or ConFest first hand, so I’m not really in a position to comment. They may well be evidence of a festive gap in American religion (both Protestant and Catholic), but I have no way of knowing whether they fill that gap in healthy or unhealthy ways. (My own town of Madison, WI, is famous for its annual Halloween festival, during which several thousand costumed students and out-of-town visitors take over the downtown area. I took part one year: it left me very disappointed.) This festive gap, by the way, is partly a byproduct of the separation of church and state, which, for other reasons, I favor strongly. It is effectively illegal in this country to hold large-scale outdoor communal religious celebrations. So we hold large-scale secular celebrations (e.g., July 4th, the Super Bowl), which are, to my mind, poor substitutes for real fiestas! Some comparatively small Native American, Hispanic, and Cajun communities in the Southwest do hold outdoor religious festivals, but that’s about it.
Morehead's Musings: Max, thanks again for these thoughts. As I said, I have benefited greatly from your work, and I hope this interview helps provide food for thought for others to look at festivals more positively and to see their significance for church and society.
Max and John, thank you for this. It's a great affirmation, as I have very strong intuitions about festival,and particularly John's "homo festivus" label.
Part of our problem has to do with our myths, concepts and vocabulary.
So I love these memes:
Feast of fools, rites of reversal, festivals of inversion, and folk performance. There are resonances in the idea of "reversal" with Walter Brueggemann's "The prophetic imagination", too.
I'm in the process of exploring similar concepts in my own community, bringing drumming, dance and drama to the forefront of liturgy.
Also you both may be interested in my recent exploration of shamanism, which serves as a sort of parallel to the "folk" orientation of festivity:
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