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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Burning Cultural Artifacts: A Biblical Mandate?

In one of the panels on "Cultural Heritage" during the First International Conference on Cordillera Studies held at the University of the Philippines Baguio on 7-9 February 2008, a very articulate participant lamented the destruction of cultural artifacts by members of certain Christian sects.

Months after that session, I continued to ponder upon the issue both as a professed Christian and as an Indigenous Person.

I recall that in my sectarian zeal I once burned a colorful headdress and a black snakelike walking stick I had bought in Ifugao, being convinced that destroying those "symbols of paganism" was a dramatic expression of my faith in God and of my defiance against Satan. I believed then that such an act was in accordance with a Biblical precedent -- the public burning of scrolls of magical incantations by Ephesians who had converted to Christianity (see Acts 19.19-20).

As I read the text now, however, I have come to see that the passage has been misused in an effort by well-meaning religionists to legitimize their destruction of cultural treasures today.  First, the passage is part of a historical account which is clearly descriptive, not prescriptive. Second, for the text to be prescriptive, one would have to infer from it that it is of universal application (for all time, and in all places).  But inferences made of texts can be as varied as the tinted lenses with which different readers interpret the text , each of which could be justified depending on one's assumptions or preconceptions that are brought to bear upon the text.  Inferences are opinions which may be held as true to the interpreter or to the interpretive community to which s/he belongs, but cannot be  held as a totalizing dogma. Third, inferences may carry much weight only if these are supported by related texts, per the hermeneutical principle called "Synthesis." In Pauline writings, however, one finds an array of passages that promotes respect or tolerance for culture, Pagan or Jewish (cf. Acts 15.19-21, Rom 14, I Cor 8.1-13; 10.14-32; Acts 21.20-26; Acts 16.1-3, Gal 2.3).

The Ephesian "bonfire of vanities"  must therefore be seen as a spontaneous expression of zealous new converts the evangelistic value of which was specific to the condition of that particular culture or locality.  For while at that time the public burning of a set of cultural artifacts led to the spread of the Word, today the same act could only spread resistance among those who have been working so hard to recover and preserve the cultural heritage they have almost totally lost due to the hegemony of imperialist projects and institutions.

Cultural artifacts thrown into a modern-day bonfire of vanities may light up some sectas' passions for a time , but when preserved in cultural treasurehouses like museums and talked about or taught in "schools of living traditions" they can enlighten the world for generations to come.

And a handful of preachers who are more passionate about impressing their financial supporters, rousing the prejudices of their groups, and imposing their foreign theology on native cultures than in finding ways to make their preachments connect effectively with their target cultures can  cause many to lose faith in Christianity more than a multitude of skeptics can.


florence said...


this is my first time to read an explanation about such reality that had been haunting me for years. your topic on this commentary is one of the reasons why most cultural practices and cultural artifacts of a certain barangay in Mountain Province were discarded.


scott saboy said...

one thing i've learned in my spiritual quest is that a religion that tells you to forget your roots is not of God. sure, our traditional culture is not without blemishes, but much of it need not be discarded when one embraces Christianity. one reason i left my former church is that, like so many other religious groups, its rigid doctrinal system does not permit meaningful contextualization of the Christian faith. it does not show much respect for indigenous culture because it is a borrowed, western religious system that presumes all its nuts and bolts and metal sheet are divinely packaged. may more and more kakailyan join this growing movement to preserve, promote and even refine our indigenous knowledge systems and practices that have been under the sustained attacks of modernity and hegemonic religious projects.

Virgil J. Mayor Apostol said...

It is so nice to come across a like-minded individual whom has an evolved consciousness on such topics. I, too, have gone through a period of identity crisis and ended up throwing a very unique silver anib medallion into the ocean. That evening, the medallion haunted me in a dream. What's ironic is that even though the symbols are connected to Christian esoteric teachings, it was a born-again - a former practitioner of these arts - who told me to throw it away.

scott saboy said...

Deconverting from a sectarian faith system has been a painful process for me, but it's thrilling to have finally extricated myself out of the clutches of pharisaism and to finally reconnect with my indigenous roots. Thanks manong for sharing your thoughts. Naragsak nga aldaw kadakayo amin! :)