Monday, April 15, 2024

THE BIG PICTURE: Sacred and profane


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THE CROP OVER SEASON always brings out a blatant contradiction in Barbadian culture. It is a contradiction that is latent in most cultures…. the antithesis between the sacred-reverential and the profane secular unhallowed elements in human nature.

​Culture simply defined is the way of life of a people. That culture is not monolithic or static; it is fluid and dynamic, particularly in a rapidly changing world. There are always some degrees of contestation, polarisation and reversal in any culture, between the old and the young, the material and the spiritual, the progressive and the conservative.

Our collective way of life runs the gamut from the obscene to the sublime and in our individual lives it may not be all that different.

In the Christian mythology we are said to be made in the image of God and just a little lower than the angels. Steven Pinker talks about appeals to “the better angels of our nature”. But the “natural man” is also capable of unimaginable depravity.

We could reject the religious superstition about angels and demons and see human conduct as a consequence of biologically determined and constrained adaptations. In either case, humans reflect a duality. Thus it is not difficult to indict any individual and society of hypocrisy and double standards.

Culture as product or artefact also reflects that dichotomy of the sacred coexisting with the profane. Dance, for example is a universal artefact of culture, but there is liturgical dance and then, there is twerking and hypa-dawgery.

This duality of sacred and profane was very evident in one newspaper of August. Several pages showed vivid pictures of persons in varying stages of dress or undress, wukking-up, invariably on each other, waving and holding their hands in the air. On other pages there were other folk holding their hands aloft in praise to their God.

The newspaper also announced that on Kadooment Day the men at one Pentecostal Assembly held a day of worship with the emphasis on “purity”. We do not all inhabit the same culture. We see and exhibit culture through the prism of our particular experiences.

In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer notes that the way we individually define culture says more about us than about what exists objectively out there in the culture. I have always felt that Barbadian culture in terms of the prevailing values and sensibilities reflected a Protestant ethic arising from an evangelical Christianity that fostered a puritan ethos that was widely diffused throughout the culture.

This was transmitted in large by our older womenfolk particularly the grandmothers. Most Barbadian males did not darken the inside of a church until the onset of low testosterone.

Since the 1970s, Barbadian cultural sensibilities have significantly changed. Much of the old sacred-reverential values have been diluted or replaced by a more secular paradigm reflecting an invasive cultural penetration. But Barbadian culture was never pure.

Brass-bowls were manufactured long ago, but their use was less in use and less publicly proclaimed. We capriciously and insidiously surrendered and reversed the more reverential aspects of national life, the reverence for Sunday, for the Lenten season, the shame at public obscenity and the more meditative sacred forms of musical expression.

Part of the cultural shift may have been ideological. In his book The Clash of Civilisations, Samuel Huntingdon notes that in defining identity, who we are, we tend to stress who we are not and who or what we are against. In the search for identity and iconographic reconstruction we rejected much of the reverential ostensibly Eurocentric elements in the culture.

Regrettably in the production of the “we culture”, we chose to promote the facets that had the taint of profanity rather than those that spoke to the hallowed and sacred. The more profane aspects have come to constitute a negative counterculture although it assumes the halo of authenticity and Africanity.

At the funeral service for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Rev. Al Sharpton opined that: “Some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low we can go.”

Huntingdon suggests that in debating issues of culture, peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? He opines that they reply with reference to the things that mean most to them in relation to ancestry, religion, history, values and customs.

Barbadians too are asking these questions. Are Barbadians the ostensibly highly educated, religious, conservative, cautious, level-headed people we supposedly used to be or have we now become a modestly schooled, disordered, undisciplined, secular-minded and irrational.

The big question is, does it all matter, and the answer is, of course, it does. It is suggested that religion, the celebration of the sacred, is man’s attempt to transcend his biological nature.

To diminish or pre-empt the sacred-reverential leads us to fall back on our animalism and the baser behaviours to which it is otherwise inclined. Hence the decay in Barbadian society.

Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.


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