Globalization and Ritual

May 11, 2006 | 24 comments
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Maybe we should spend more time thinking about how the ancient Romans dealt with the problem of globalization. As I understand it one of the key objections to globalization is that it tends to increase wealth and homogenize societies. The result is that older ways of life are trampled under foot by the newer and less authentic cultures. This is a problem that the ancient Romans dealt with. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Ancient Near East (and long before that) Greek culture spread around the Mediterranean world. In the wake of the Punic Wars the Roman Republic found itself at the center of this Hellenized world. New ideas and new wealth rolled in to Rome.

The Romans dealt with the pressure that the global culture placed upon it with ritual. If you look at the various rituals of the Roman Republic, what one finds is that they consist of re-enactments of cultural practices from the earliest days of the Republic. Some examples: carrying a new wife across the threshold re-enacted the practice of carrying off the women of neighboring settlements as captive wives, marriage ceremonies involved the symbolic eating a very plain and ancient kind of bread, certain contracts required the presence of scales long after coinage made scales commercially irrelevant, certain priests of the state religion were hedged about with taboos that in effect required that they live as the Romans of a much earlier time lived, parades and festivals involved the images of Roman heroes from the pristine Roman past, and so on and so on. To be sure, some of the public rituals and spectacles of the Roman Republic also celebrated the new global culture, such as the triumphs of victorious generals, which involved long parades of spoils from foreign lands. Still, Romans used ritual as a way of preserving their ancient cultural ways in the face of an attractive, homogenized, Hellenistic global culture.

The Roman example suggests that ritual is about preserving ancient cultural identity in the face of innovation. In a sense, Mormons have engaged in these sorts of rituals as well, the most dramatic examples being various pioneer-related activities like 24th of July Parades and pioneer trek outings for the youth. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which these sorts of history-affirming rituals have increasingly been abandoned, or at least deemphasized as the Church has grown globally. Rather, we prefer the rituals of religious ordinances. Of course our ordinances also consist in the re-enactment of ancient stories: the baptism of Christ, the last supper, the fall and redemption of Adam and Eve, etc. These stories, however, are ultimately about placing Latter-day Saints in cosmic rather than civic history. In that sense, they surf along the crest of globalization offering universal relevance, rather than standing as islands of cultural integrity against its corrosive force.

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24 Responses to Globalization and Ritual

  1. Jonathan Green on May 11, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Nate, did you mean “one of the key objections to globalization is that it tends to increase [disparities in] wealth”?

  2. MikeInWeHo on May 11, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    The LDS might be uniquely situated to help provide new rituals of globalization. As the quintessential indigenous American religion, Mormonism has unfolded as a global faith parallel to the rise of the U.S. cultural and economic empire. I have no idea what those rituals might be or what benefit they could provide humanity, however.

  3. Nate Oman on May 11, 2006 at 1:06 pm

    Jonathan: No. I think that the cultural objection to globalization amounts to the claim that folks get more money and want to go to McDonalds. McDonalds, Starbucks, and the rest of the homogenizing forces of global culture don’t enter an area unless their are consumers there to buy their product. The consumers, in turn, have the money to buy the product precisely because of the increase in global trade that makes it possible for McDonalds and Starbucks to replicate themselves over seas.

    The inequality-and-sweat-shops objection to globalization strikes me as a different issue. I am talking here about the problem of Taco Bells in Bangor…

  4. Kevin Barney on May 11, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Is anyone else a fan of the HBO series Rome? They must have excellent consultants for that show. When the next season starts take a look if you want to see some of the ritual to which Nate alludes.

  5. gst on May 11, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Kevin, that is a great show.

  6. Jonathan Green on May 11, 2006 at 4:08 pm

    Nate: I’ll grant that there is fear of homogenization, and a recognition that increased wealth can have unwanted or unforeseen consequences, but fear of increased wealth per se? It’s not directly related to the main point of your post, but I think you’re jousting at straw here. Anti-globalization is not my schtick, but I believe the concern, whether misplaced or not, is that workers in developing nations won’t be able to compete with cheap imports from international corporations, and will then end up impoverished. Maybe they’re suffering from bad economics, but I don’t think anyone is so naive as to idealize international poverty as an end in itself.

    Anyway, about those rituals, it seems to me that the church also has rituals of globalization, for example in General Conference (broadcast in X languages to Y nations) and in all things related to missionaries.

  7. greenman on May 11, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    This process of globalization that we are all witnessing is simply one more crucial step in the succession of events that will ultimately culminate in a unified humanity. The entire momentum of human history is leading up to this point. This is the dispensation of the fulness of times. The time is nearing that the pure in heart must move beyond national interests and unite under the banner of heaven. This banner could best be portrayed as the rainbow, which God revealed unto Enoch and Noah as a token of the covenant that Zion will return (JST Gen 9). What an appropriate symbol the rainbow is, bringing together all variety and color into one grand, harmonious display of God’s glory. Regardless of cultural background or upbringing, there is a common formula for perfection that all people can adhere to. To those whose eye is single to the glory of God, the entire spectrum of the light of Christ is manifested.

  8. Ryan on May 11, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    Nate, did you mean “don’t enter an area unless there are consumers there to buy their product.�?

    Just kidding :)

    Seriously though. You say:

    The Roman example suggests that ritual is about preserving ancient cultural identity in the face of innovation.

    What about the idea that much of ritual, folklore, etc.. was a response to the concept that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it? (see: That little tribe that survived the tsunami because of the folklore of their fathers)

    If this really is the reason for ritual, well, the tools of today for being conscious of the errors of history are readily available in a much more accurate form. Ritual then loses much of it’s practical application.

  9. Ryan on May 11, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    wow. apparently I suck at closing html tags. sorry.

  10. Mark B. on May 11, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    I don’t know why anyone would care if Bangor has a Taco Bell. If the Down Easters can’t eat fast faux Mexican, they’ll be stuck with lobster and crab year round.

  11. Clark on May 11, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    Great post Nate.

  12. MikeInWeHo on May 11, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    re: 7 Hate to tell you, but the rainbow has been used as the symbol of the gay community globally for almost 40 years now. Perhaps after the un-chaste are all cast out of this upcoming unified kingdom, you can reclaim it. But seriously, visions of some future society “under the banner of heaven” can be quite terrifying to outsiders. Might sound fine if you’re LDS and dreaming of Zion, but Osama has a similar vision too. The notion of globalization under a specific religion is not necessarily a pleasant prospect.

    10: LOL, I was thinking the same thing, but didn’t want to be snarky by pointing out the error. As for Taco Bell in Bangalore, I suspect the locals are quite happy to have them. Wonder what they grind up into taco meat there? Come to think of it, wonder what they’re grinding up into it over here!

  13. Kimball L. Hunt on May 11, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    Technically didn’t Alexander not spread Hellenic culture so much as a Hellenized Macedonian culture which nonetheless used Greece as its lingua franca? As Greece was still rightfully considered a rebellious and untrustworthy province of conquest throughout Alexander’s conquest of Persia and beyond.

    Also: If there could be such a thing as a “cult” of our culture’s modern secularism, with whatever its attendant rituals, couldn’t it be said that Nietzsche role would be that of one of its harbingers or prophets, with his statement “God is dead,” regarding of course the shared cultural European belief in God, being a part of its holy writ?

  14. Nate Oman on May 12, 2006 at 10:50 am

    Jonathan: I am not trying to suggest that anyone is in favor of global poverty. My point is that some people find the particular kind of prosperity brought by globalization very threatening. There is another line of argument about repressing and impovershing the workers. These two lines are critique are not entirely consistent with one another, but as you say that is a seperate issue.

  15. John T. on May 12, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    An idea: Persuade Blake Nordstrom for reduced rent at Crossroads plaza to have a mid-July display featuring denim jumpers and dutch ovens. Include inside the dutch oven a link to web pages at LDS.org with recipes.

    Oh, and garrison Mormon battalions near various temples around the world to *remind* the locals about the importance of ritual.

  16. Nate Oman on May 12, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    John T.: What??

  17. Boris Max on May 12, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Nate–

    While the Romans tried to maintain their Romanitas at home, they were pretty flexible about letting the provincials worship whoever they wanted to. The Romans didn’t, as a rule, make the conquered people bow down to Roman gods. This variation of cultural “globalism” made it easier for them to control their empire.

    If we look at something like the 24th of July parade as a cultural expression of something equivalent to Romanitas–Nauvoo-itas? Salt Lake–itas?–then the Church is coming around to a more Roman way of thinking. Why make the provincials in a small branch in, say, Wisconsin bow down and worship the household gods of the Smiths and the Tanners and the Fieldings and–please don’t personalize this–the Mc Kays if it is going to make them feel slighted? If it will challenge their Mormanitas?

    In my congregation, there is a woman who has an old Mormon name and pedigree. Most of us do not. She likes to ascend the pulpit on fast Sunday in July and remind all of us of the great sacrifices her ancestors made. Those in the congregation who have made great sacrifices to join the church within the last few years roll their eyes and shake their heads.

  18. Kimball L. Hunt on May 12, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    John T., I understood your every word! (don’t know how that reflects on me– lol)

  19. Carolyn on May 12, 2006 at 6:58 pm

    Nate,

    “In a sense, Mormons have engaged in these sorts of rituals as well, the most dramatic examples being various pioneer-related activities like 24th of July Parades and pioneer trek outings for the youth. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which these sorts of history-affirming rituals have increasingly been abandoned, or at least deemphasized as the Church has grown globally. Rather, we prefer the rituals of religious ordinances.”

    As well we should. I agree with Boris in # 17. The cultural pioneer history is not what defines us as a people. This is increasingly true as more and more people with no pioneer ancestry join the church. On the other hand, the rituals and ordinances are accessible to every member, deeply profound, and of far greater significance. In terms of creating/preserving our identity they are the things that count.

    When we send out missionaries we are not sending them out to preach the culture. We are sending them out to give people a chance to hear about the soul saving ordinances. On judgement day we are not going to be asked if we know when the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. We are going to be asked if we kept the commandments and if we received the ordinances.

    There are plenty of places in the world where living as a latter days saint, making and keeping covenants, is plenty enough to set us apart and define us as a people whatever our culture of origin.

  20. El Jefe on May 12, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Perhaps some of the surface trappings can be viewed as icing on the cake. But the message of the Gospel is the message of the Restoration. And if we ever lose the message of the Restoration we will have lost our raison d’etre. The Church is not some successful organization with good management principles and an efficient way of doing things, with a feel good message for sinners. It is the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.

    All great organizations have a central Myth (I am not using this in the sense of being untrue, but in the sense of a binding core or belief). What the dictionary defines as a “traditional story of historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people.”

    So, we do have Pioneer Treks around the world (I have seen them in the Northern and Soputher hemispheres). And we do conmemorate the Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. And the sisters remember the organization of the Relief Society. And we remember the martyrdom of the Prophet and the sacrifices of those who came across the plains.

    I am a convert, and not from the USA. But those pioneers are MINE.

  21. Jonathan Green on May 12, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    (Nate: Ah, OK, I understand what you meant now.)

  22. Sarah on May 13, 2006 at 12:20 am

    For what it’s worth, my students are of 50/50 recent pioneer ancestry (their parents joined the Church for the first time) and historic pioneer ancestry (their great-great-great-great-great-grandparents joined the Church in 1700, or you’d think so given the way some folks talk [not necessarily in my ward -- I'm actually thinking of one man who I heard speak while on vacation in California]) and it works perfectly for my lessons. We’re doing a Sharing Time presentation in August in which we compare ourselves to the Stripling Warriors, and our parents/ancestors to the Anti-Nephi-Lehis. *Our* story is about what happens after those pioneerish sacrifices are over with, and now we have to take responsibility for things ourselves. The fact that so many of the kids are the children of 5th generation Utah natives who moved to Ohio in the 1990s, to find themselves not all that far from where the parents of those 1st generation Utahans were born, only helps for our presentation.

    I’ve never given much of a hoot for the pioneer stuff; I’m more attached to my grandfather’s exploits in the Spanish Civil War to be honest. But I’m going on my first trip to Palmyra, and first trip to Kirtland since they touristified and LDSified the place, this July, so perhaps I’ll be all eager to go on cross-country hikes with a handcart next year. I doubt it, though; I’ve already done regular non-religious reenator stuff, and the costumes are really not suited to walking any distance. If anything, I’d rather pay more attention to Purim, Passover, etc. than Pioneer Day, which holiday I have never actually managed to observe at all, regardless of the state I was in on the date in question. I didn’t even know it existed until 5 years ago; our branch had a big party every year in June because it’s summer but not too hot (yet) then.

  23. Kimball L. Hunt on May 13, 2006 at 1:41 am

    Purim rocks. There’s an actual mitzvah to get drunk! I don’t really drink — and in any case never to get drunk — but still I think it’s cool!

  24. greenman on May 13, 2006 at 7:49 am

    #12: Clearly you don’t grasp at all what I wrote so I’ll just say that you should read the JST reference that I cited, at least one more time.

    Globalization is a fascinating issue. As humankind digresses towards an unhealthy state of cultural homogeneity, it is marvelous to consider that God has provided His children with an alternative means whereby the pure in heart from all four quarters of the earth may join the revolution to build the one Kingdom that is not of this world. By my reckoning, the most beautiful thing about the Gospel is apparent in its simplicity. Anyone with ears to hear can relate to and understand the message contained therein. The common threads of truth that run through the mythologies of all societies are incorporated into this one Word made flesh. May the pure in heart prevail in establishing Zion! Revolution!