An observant student from the USA in the Go-Ed program pointed to the bottom step leading up to a Buddhist temple building and asked, “Why is that snake coming out of the mouth of the other one?” It’s taken some study, but I hope he’s online because I have the answer now.
The multi-headed serpent was a naag. A naag is a mythological creature sometimes characterized as a cobra, sometimes a many-headed reptile, but usually as a dragon with one or multiple heads. The naag in Buddhist lore is venerated for several reasons, the chief one being that it was the naag who protected the Buddha when he was being attacked by demonic forces. Seeing the advancing army of evil, Mother Toranee (read: Mother Nature) wrung out her freshly shampooed hair causing a flood that delayed the demons long enough for the forces of good to counter-attack. The naag lifted the entranced Buddha upon her coils above the flood and covered him against the deluge with her hood (or her many heads).
Much less well-known is the identity of the other reptile out of whose mouth the venerable naag is emerging along the stairways of almost every temple in Thailand. That is Sheshanaag, also known as Anata Shesha or Makara. Sheshanaag was the couch or raft upon which Vishnu reclined on the cosmic sea of milk before the formation of the earth. Sometimes Makara is portrayed as a cobra, a crocodile, a fish with an elephant head, or a lizard-like dragon. In some temples, such as in the one pictured above of the long stairway leading up to Wat Doi Sutape here in Chiang Mai, there is a crocodile under the naag in addition to the dragon disgorging the naag. That underscores my contention that Sheshanaag and Makara are one and the same.
These sorts of investigations are intellectually stimulating, but what does it mean that Sheshanaag produced the naag? The main thing is the clear connection between Hinduism and Buddhism. The symbolism says Hinduism gave birth to Buddhism. Or, if you prefer, Buddhism emerged from Hinduism. This is not denied by anybody, but it seems well to reiterate it anyway. Nor, on the other hand, did this happen in some epic battle as Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian mythologies contend, whereby the previous generation was savagely defeated. The naag is a continuation of Sheshanaag, who can be seen rippling along the crest of the temple roof on the threshold between earth and heaven. In Thai Buddhism, statuary is one of the languages of the lore.
If we read it this way, Buddhism is proclaiming that the truth, the Dharma, is connected to, and to an extent emerges from, prior truth. Truth from truth all the way back to the cosmic sea of milk, or tohu-wa-bohu (Genesis 1:1-2), or whatever you prefer. I’ll go with big bang and a billion-degree sea of fire.
Dare to be ridiculed or you will never be able to get the Gospel into the heart of a culture. Being an inter-cultural Christian is not for the faint-hearted. But daring to make Christian applications of one’s own most venerable cultural treasures is risky, too.
The good news of Jesus Christ must be interpreted in order to make sense. First, the Gospel emerged in the Roman colony of Judea and it had to be interpreted for the wider culture which used Greek and Latin as well as a hundred other languages in Gaul, Germania, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Parthia and Persia and even China all within the lifetime of the first generation of Gospel-spreaders. Not only were there language barriers, but the cultures were diverse. The history of the Christian Church can be written as the story of accommodation to and domination (sometimes decimation) of cultures. The parallel history, of course, is about the evolution and preservation of doctrine. The Gospel that goes nowhere withers.
In Thailand one of the best known organizations working to interpret the Gospel in Thai cultural terms is the Christian Communications Institute of Payap University. The CCI has been a pioneer in the use of traditional Thai folk melodrama, called likay, to communicate Christian stories and Christian values related to moral and social issues. Likay is a South East Asian folk-art form using stylized costumes and dance movements, traditional music, set characters and melodramatic plot-lines.
In this era of information technology when even television is being challenged as the leading medium of mass communication, such highly personal and small scale approaches as likay are disappearing. Where there were hundreds of traveling likay troupes a few decades ago, now there are only a few scrambling for sponsors to bring them to fairs and festivals. But the mere appearance of a poster with likay characters, like the one at the top of this blog, still says “LIKAY” to every Thai person who sees it. A likay character has the power of an icon.
But “Christian” likay, is that possible? This was not an easy concept to establish. Cultural traditionalists scoffed that the CCI would erode the art form, ignoring the fact that all art forms are evolving if they are not dead. There was even the call for a royal investigation, which concluded by vindicating Christian likay. Christian traditionalists scolded the CCI for desecrating the Gospel by dressing it up in debauched and pagan attire. But the CCI has prevailed into its fourth decade, performed before audiences in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and is now embarking on its 15th international tour that will take a group to churches in California, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky during March. Google: CCI USA Tour or send an e-mail to email@example.com for details.
The purpose of performing Christian likay in Thailand is to communicate Gospel messages and show that the Gospel is not a foreigner’s dangerous faith. The purpose of performing Christian likay on international tours is to show that there are many ways to adapt the Christian message without imposing a homogenized “Christian sub-culture” where a vibrant culture already thrives, a concept that early missionaries rejected and current “One Country, One Language, One Culture” advocates seem in danger of forgetting.
The selfie fad is not as vapid as it appears to be, although it may be as narcissistic. It is an expression of a deep need, and an aspect of postmodernism, which is not a passing fad. Postmodernism has been criticized in the USA in particular, since the beginning of the 21st century, as being obscure, undefined and lacking in identifiable principles. Nevertheless, so-far no better term has become standard to describe the intellectual mindset of these times. Postmodernism is a description of contemporary culture. It is global. It is not limited to selfishness or egocentricity. It is a basic reality which cannot be understood and addressed by minimizing its nature as a character flaw. The selfie fad is a product of postmodernism, and not simply a fruit of modern public-hedonism.
Just to be sure we’re on the same page: a “selfie” is a picture one takes of one’s self, usually reflected in a mirror with a hand-held camera or with a more recent i-pad or phone that shows the photographer what the picture will be at the same time the picture is being taken – electronic mirrors that create the illusion of preserving the ephemeral.
Postmodernism is more difficult to explain.
In order to understand postmodernism let’s take a moment to consider modernism. Modernism was a movement in philosophy and the arts based on identifying basic structures and constructing design universals. Specific aspects or facets of things might be isolated, but they were reflective of mega-stories, universal truths and contiguousness. Before the modernists, romantics like Dostoevsky wrote about war and peace, but modernists like Joyce wrote about even larger entities by detailing the odyssey of one day in the life of an Irishman in Dublin. Postmodernists deconstruct stories and deny the fragments are less significant than an imaginary whole. Postmodernists think that there is much to be gained from ignoring the confinements of structure. An intellectual quest is never most usefully in search of an intellectual thread. There are greater challenges to the imagination.
When I was finishing my bachelor’s degree I had the good luck to fill in an elective slot with an art course taught by a young man who also drove formula-one race cars in Europe while he worked for the Doctor of Fine Arts degree in art history. One of the assignments he gave us was to produce a still life of bottles, then reverse the light values so the bottles were in silhouette, then take them apart and rearrange them. I did not know why we were doing that, but I was intrigued by the results. In fact, we were doing with pictures what William Burroughs had pioneered when he cut and shuffled paragraphs to produce his famous Naked Lunch. In the Beat Hotel in Paris, where Burroughs resided for a while, he met Brion Gysins and was inspired by his cutting up pictures and reassembling them in a random manner. It was what Mr. Scott had us doing.
Modernists, Picasso, Eliot, Sartre and Frank Lloyd Wright with all seriousness and Salvador Dali with a great deal more mirth, were trying to get to the bottom of reality. Modern art was avant garde. Reality was deeper than superficial appearances. Progress for civilization, in desperate need of progress, depended on starting with what is essential, permanent and below the surface. The hallmark of modernism we might say, borrowing from the art historian E. H. Gombrich, was the “rejection of the study of natural appearances” (p. 622).
As the term implies, postmodernism is a rejection of modernism which was a rejection of romanticism with all its Victorian gingerbread, knick-knacks and sentimental ultra-realism. Picasso isolated forms ruthlessly, as did Mondrian, Corbusier, Kandinsky, as well as John Cage with his
music and Kafka with his tales.
Postmodernism in art is not strictly a return to natural appearances, but to eclecticism. As John Russell Taylor put it in The Times 25 years ago, “…we live in a pluralist world where often the most advanced, being probably post-modern, is likely to look the most traditional and retrograde.” He seems to have been referring to such art as close-ups of flowers, whereas the modernists would have dissected and abstracted the flowers to get to their essence. The 80s was a time in arts and literature when anything goes, including fantasy as truth and reality as fiction. Since then it is pluralism that has flourished in modern culture.
Everybody prefaces their essays on postmodernism with the disclaimer that the movement is very hard to describe. But one thing all seem to agree is that it is about language and the use of words or at least signifiers.
Philosophically, postmodernism follows logical positivism as developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Austria a century ago. Wittgenstein pushed philosophers to admit that there is no reality they can talk about except the words they use. The words never quite assimilate the referents, but just “reach out” to them. This laid the foundation for postmodernism’s denial of realities that cannot be experienced.
The postmodern era is positioned to synthesize at…the level of experience, where the being of things and the activity of the finite knower compensate one another and provide the materials whence can be derived knowledge of nature and knowledge of culture in their full symbiosis…. [Deely]
This was a disavowal of most of philosophy since Immanuel Kant definitively explained how Descartes could account for the existence of things, rather than insist that their existence must ultimately be accepted on faith, which had been the position throughout the Middle Ages. The philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard “…argued that in our postmodern condition, … metanarratives no longer work to legitimize truth-claims. He suggested that…people are developing a ‘new language game’ [ala Wittgenstein] – one that does not make claims to absolute truth but rather celebrates a world of ever-changing relationships (among people and between people and the world).” [“Postmodern Philosophy”]
Whether in discussions of postmodern philosophy, architecture, religion or art, the rejection of “metanarratives” is key. Postmodern critics of culture argue forcefully that whoever controls the narratives controls the world, and postmodernists do not want that to happen.
A metanarrative is a grand story, held in common by an entire population that tells of a great hero taking a great voyage facing great dangers for a great enduring purpose, which inspires and incites the population to coalesce around and support that purpose. On the other hand a metanarrative can also be the narrative of a narrative, as in the case of telling stories about American free-market capitalism as proof of the superiority of the American form of civilization. Another and perhaps better example is the way some feminists assemble a large number of stories to conclude that patriarchy is about the oppression of women. Lyotard’s view was that “local stories” do not contribute to any large truth, and the insistence that they do is an attempt to obtain power over the people who believe in the conspiracy. The emergence of a conspiracy theory is nothing more than a power-grab by those who gather disparate and largely unrelated stories into a mega-story.
One of the more cogent interpreters of postmodernism is Dr. Mary Klages, Assoc. Prof., English Department, University of Colorado, Boulder. In an article on literary “Postmodernism” she explains:
Postmodernism is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. In other words, every attempt to create “order” always demands the creation of an equal amount of “disorder,” but a “grand narrative” masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that “disorder” REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that “order” REALLY IS rational and good. Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors “mini-narratives,” stories that explain local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern “mini-narratives” are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason or stability.
Mini-narratives abound. Facebook is rife with them. It is my contention, in fact, that mini-narratives can be the key to understanding modern culture and society. I will not try to account for exceptions, but the rule prevails in all of Europe, North America, urban South America, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and large parts of East Asia as well as wherever the Internet is informing youth about what life is all about.
Just to be sure we are clear about the impact of postmodernism and what it challenges (some of which we older residents in this changing world may hold dear), let Klages be heard:
In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational. Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. This is the ideal of the liberal arts education. In postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional – you learn things not to know them, but to use that knowledge. [Klages, ibid]
Postmodernism has manifested itself in religion, as well.
Postmodern religious systems of thought view realities as plural and subjective and dependent on the individual’s worldview. Postmodern interpretations of religion acknowledge and value a multiplicity of diverse interpretations of truth, being and ways of seeing. There is a rejection of sharp distinctions and global or dominant metanarratives in postmodern religion and this reflects one of the core principles of postmodern philosophy. A postmodern interpretation of religion emphasizes the key point that religious truth is highly individualistic, subjective and resides within the individual [“Postmodern Religion”].
Our thesis is that since postmodernism is the mentality of the modern world, it can be useful to help us understand popular culture. Let’s turn to that now.
I am grateful to Stephanie Sklar for her simplified list of characteristics of postmodernism. In my own words and with comments of my own, here is Sklar’s list:
Disillusionment with modernist thinking. Modernism did not make strides in achieving peace and progress in society. It was flawed. In other words, peace and progress in society are to be sought by postmodernists. Unlike religious fundamentalism, postmodernism is not simply a negative reaction to modernism.
Opposition to traditional authority. Authority is dangerous and untrustworthy. Authority figures are to be opposed. This opposition is valid wherever it happens even though it involves un-peaceful and destructive means in the short term. It is unnecessary to try to account for the apparently inevitable emergence of new authority figures whenever the old authority has been displaced; to try to do so would be tantamount to relying on some universal principle rather than living in the present.
Truth is relative. Truth has been defined by people and groups to obtain power. One’s perception of reality may not match another’s perception of the same thing. Truth is subjective. Even such an intimate statement as “he is my husband” is subject to interpretation and shifts of meaning.
Facts are useless. Facts can change. Facts may be lies. Facts are contingent upon factors that cannot be assessed; if we only know in part, the part we know is useless. All investigation is inductive but inconclusive.
Rationalization. Opinions are what matter, as long as they can be rationalized. Science is rejected since there is no objective reality. Discourse is a game even though the stakes are sometimes high. Beware those who insist that their ideas are more than opinions; they are trying to become your masters.
Morality is relative. There is no moral system that is right for everyone. You have the right to just say “no” and you have the right to suggest; infringing those rights is the only wrong. Whenever a religious or social entity stakes its legitimacy on mediating morality it endangers its viability in the postmodern world.
Each religion is legitimate. Faith based on personal experiences legitimizes religion for a person. Faith, by definition, involves a decision to embrace uncertainty but then to ignore it; institutional religion, by definition, involves denial of uncertainty. The evolution of every world religion involved the abnegation of the founder’s vision of freedom for believers in favor of the benefits of a mass movement.
Belief in internationalism. Nationalism drives nations into conflict with each other. Nations need metanarratives to coalesce adherence; without those grand stories there are no enduring nations. But when a metanarrative about internationalism develops, look behind it to find the puppeteer.
Collective ownership. Dividing and distributing goods as a group would be most fair. Left alone, individuals and groups would and always have operated this way; massification of society is the factor that opens the way for manipulation of needs and satisfactions. Given the reality of mass society, however, the collective ownership ideal is diverted and unfairness is rampant.
Equality. There isn’t one right way to live. It is a lie that one’s freedom to live according to one’s own vision somehow deprives others of that freedom; every freedom involves responsibilities, but these are realized and not imposed.
As I understand it, Sklar has summarized how postmodernism functions in popular culture. This is her sketch about how people operate these days. As a person of an older generation more in tune with James Joyce than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I am grateful for Sklar’s help in coming to terms with the confusion I feel when I confront the stuff that appears in pop culture and current political battles. As a teacher who believes in knowledge as a benefit, I have trouble with the current trend toward anti-intellectualism and can hardly make sense of it. As a Christian pastor I am convinced of something akin to eternal truth. But then I am a modernist who is frankly in awe of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Wolfe.
It is tempting, and perhaps even responsible, to criticize postmodernism, and popular manifestations of it in particular. Mary Klages concludes her lecture with an implied critique, when she calls postmodernism a “movement toward fragmentation, provisionality, performance and instability” and wonders (perhaps euphemistically) if it is good or bad. But if we propose to be responsibly critical of postmodernism we are confronted with two separate tasks: comprehension and critique. We need to conscientiously try to understand what motivates this generation who are now moving to take over the roles we are vacating, before we hasten to lambast it for being flawed and self-destructive. It is easy enough to lay into the contentions that “truth is entirely relative, facts are useless, and opinions are what matter”. It is enticing to rail against how that threatens chaos and anarchy, into which tyranny and totalitarianism are ever ready to move and take over. It is frightening to ponder the results of moral and ethical dissipation. But that sort of critique has gone on for a long time without coming to terms with the essential dynamics that drive popular postmodernism.
Postmodernism is what people in this generation are about. Even though they do not put it in so many words, they are individualists at heart. But I do not think that this individualism of the “me generation” completely accounts for the psycho-social dynamics of our times.
As Russell Taylor observed, “we live in a pluralist world.” Sometimes this pluralism has turned anti-intellectual as in the phrase “my opinion is just as good as yours.” These are hard times for rigorous studies. All academic endeavors must pass the test of practicality. Things, ideas and people are valid and valuable insofar as they are useful. But useful for what? Not for the great good. There is too much pluralism to assert a general value, or a universal truth. Business and technology, government and education all need people to fill particular functions. There’s nothing postmodern about that, except perhaps the extent that it is true. What is postmodern is that individuals are not dissolved in the process. They do not melt but maintain a natural diversity that refuses to yield to pressures to relinquish completely. They live for something else than the corporation, the nation or any metanarrative.
There is a stubbornness about this that screams out for explanation. Why is the selfie generation so fascinated with self-portraiture and “me” micro-culture? Why do people of this time need such constant reassurance?
I think the reason for this has to do with the socio-economic megaculture. This used to be called this the military-industrial complex, and we were warned against it before embracing it. What do young adults confront these days? Is it not a maze of barriers that serve more to block than to guide? This is a hi-tech electronic time, following an electric-industrial time, following a steam-mechanical time, and so forth. At the present time knowledge must be digitalized. Otherwise it is meaningless static. The opposite of knowledge these days is not ignorance (something to be defeated by education) but noise.
Within this context an individual is a cipher, a digit, a dot. Life in the pursuit of a living involves being submersed, indeed subsumed, in a massive enterprise, the nature and purpose of which are extremely unclear. One can only know a certain part of it; no one knows the whole. It is popular to account for the whole as part of some secret conspiracy, with a hidden manipulator at the controls. The truth, insofar as there is any truth about the phenomenon, is the far more ominous possibility that no one is in control. The parts of some entities that are under control are all parts of larger entities that probably move according to dynamics as inscrutable as the development of celestial galaxies.
Even the enterprise in which a young adult finds herself or himself employed is ultimately de-humanizing. The value of workers is measured by their productivity at their task. Were the task to change, as all of them do, a worker trained for the former task becomes extraneous or redundant. This is a constant specter beclouding the horizon toward which every worker moves. It leads to workers feeling tentative and constantly scurrying to avoid inexorable pendulums and dropping trapdoors. Meanwhile, the worker knows that the thing for which he or she is valued (and is being paid) is a minute part of the person’s whole and a fraction of the array of passions and abilities which she or he values. The more trivial the task, the more minimal it is as a measure of one’s life. Livelihood is in tension with life.
I will leave it at this for now: “When the context in which people find themselves is exploitative, only the strong survive.” Selfie kids are afraid. They are resisting. And maybe also they are blocking out the wider world by shoving these mirrors and pictures of their food in front of their eyes.
Deely, J. (2001). Four Ages of Understanding, Toronto: University of Toronto, downloaded Feb 8, 2014 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy
Gombrich, E. H. (1995). The Story of Art, 7th Ed. London: Phaidon Press, Ltd.
Klages, M. “Postmodernism” http:www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klagespomo.html downloaded on Feb 8, 2014 from www.bdavetian.com/Postmodernism.html
“Postmodern Philosophy” downloaded Feb 8, 2014 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_philosophy
“Postmodern Religion” downloaded Feb 8, 2014 from enwikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_Religion
Sklar, S. (Apr 25, 2011). “10 Key Characteristics of Postmodernism” downloaded Feb 8, 2014 from www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/8892593-10-key-characteristics-of-postmodernism
Taylor, J.R. (Oct 11, 1988) quoted in Gombrich
Many weddings are all about the photo album. Since they are supposed to be about something else we can say this is as case of diverted significance. Weddings have been occasions of significance in almost every culture and era that we know about, and pretty much all of them have distorted the significance and diverted the focus.
I’m thinking of creating one of those photo-montages popular on the Internet these days. “My Wedding” it would be entitled. “What I think it is” would be the caption for a picture down from the ceiling of the Salzburg Cathedral of Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. “What the pastor thinks it is” (God smiling down on the couple piously praying). “What my father thinks it is” (a little girl breaking out of her father’s grasp and running toward a runny-nosed little boy). “What the groom thinks it is” (a long line of people bringing presents). “What it is” (Cecil B De Mills commanding a team of technicians and photographers).
In India the wedding is so important to a family’s social standing that some families are bankrupted to put it on. In Japan an elaborate wedding day may involve as many as 10 costume changes.
The Northern Thai wedding itself begins with a groom and his supporters and family making a boisterous trip to a bride’s home. The short walk is blocked at several points by the bride’s kinfolks holding gold or silver chains or ropes across the path, demanding a toll. Finally, the bride and groom are together, usually seated behind a low, small table. A person of status gives them each a floral lei and ties their heads together with coronets of string. The elders come, led by someone who has prepared an exhortation in verse covering the main aspects and goals of married life. The couple then pays respect to their parents and the parents bless them, which is really the heart of the wedding. The grandparents and elders come forward and tie strings around the wrists of the couple while wishing them health, prosperity, offspring and happiness, sometimes in forms of a chant, always with hyperbole such as, “May you live a thousand years and see your great, great grand children….” Then the couple is escorted by their parents and elders to a bedroom specially decorated with flowers where they are symbolically bedded, before the wedding dinner and party begin.
But a casual observer would be forgiven for concluding that the main purpose of every aspect of the wedding is to create photographs. The project normally begins weeks ahead, when the couple spends a day or more and a lot of money having glamorous pictures taken in settings as spectacular and varied as the photography team and the couple can arrange.
The effect is entirely imaginative. The costumes for these pictures are usually rented. The venues are conjured up for their scenic value with no regard for relevance to the lives of the couple or their families. One of the photographs is then turned into a major wedding portrait to be displayed during the wedding and on invitations, booklets and, of course, on Facebook. Other photographs are used to produce a wedding album, which is the central relic from the wedding. As many snapshots as can be recovered from the couple’s past, as well as all the professional pictures, are converted into a romantic video that implies the couple were lovers and meant for each other since the dim past, perhaps even before either of them were aware of it.
This, as has been said, distracts from the wedding’s purported focus.
In North Thailand the reason for a wedding is to proclaim two clans’ decision about creating a family, and demonstrating agreement about this on the part of the larger society.
Why this photographic hijacking of such a solemn undertaking is tolerated and even encouraged is connected to the universal consensus that constitutes this individualist, post-modern age. To some extent postmodernism rejects the idea that there is a unifying theme or even strains of meaning more important than disparate perspectives of diverse individuals. In other words, the clans’ roll in the wedding is being subjugated. In Northern Thai society the marriage is still the union of two clans, but the wedding has been diverted to reflect wider cultural values. This opens the door for a woman to expand her wedding day into the greatest day of her life and to preserve it as her legacy for posterity.
Notes: thanks to our niece Aem and her husband Nat for the use of their wedding portrait and for giving us the honor of hosting their wedding at our house in 2012.
This is the third of four blogs on coming to terms with the ¨selfie¨ generation.
The costumes are astounding. That’s all there is to it. They are amazing, and they transform those who wear them into fantastic beings, quite above mere mortals. I admit I am impressed by the productions and fascinated by the cultural values that support them. I am delighted with the producer, too.
Wi, whose real name is Chanon, grew up nearby. He went to school here and then decided to turn his creative flair into a career. For a few years he and his partner manufactured terra cotta garden figurines that sold well in Europe until the EU had an economic stumble. Wi and Nick then turned to costumes. Five years on, the “Showtime Collection Costume Shop” has a stock of hundreds for rent with scores more sold around the world. For a farmer’s son who was too poor to finish school, Wi is doing well. There is competition, of course, among costume shops but Wi has cornered the high-end market. At the age of 31 Wi is modestly wealthy. The key to his success is his talent for designing glamorous fantasy ensembles. He is hired to provide attire and make-up for amateur groups performing at fund-raising events, music contests, festivals, and at high school and college parties and celebrations. These days the budgets for groups run into five figures and the costumes are often custom-made by teams of seamstresses Wi directs.
The question is “why?”
The simple answer is that the events are fun. It is fun to step outside ordinary affairs and into the spotlight. In Thailand “fun” (sanuk) is a compelling motive for every successful undertaking including physical labor and even funerals.
But there is a deeper level of satisfaction for the performers and their sponsors. What is the nearly universal drive of so many in this generation to acquire alternative characterizations? For some, these are occasional excursions into realms of fantasy. This aspect of Wi’s business is indicated by the word “showtime” in the name of his shop. The collection of costumes rival (or mimic) ideas from LasVegas and carnivals in Rio and New Orleans. They are creations of plumage and textiles attached to frameworks, exquisitely engineered. With the focus on the costumes, all that needs to be acquired by the performers is a degree of syncopation. For an easily distracted generation of young people this sort of temporary stardom is an agreeably short trip.
Sponsors expect a return for their investment. This is not like a contribution for blankets for villagers in the mountains or for refurbishing a temple, where helpfulness, compassion and merit are the pay-offs. The sponsors expect credit. They and the performers want pictures. Whether the event is a sales campaign or a centennial celebration, the photo-record needs glamour.
Post-modernism has deconstructed the big picture and serves it back as fragments in a random pattern. A connection is not implied. An attempt to reconstruct the “whole thing” is apt to be disappointing. The design needs care, but the content can be just about anything. In a photo-montage extra-close-ups and panoramas, garish colors and subdued hazy views coexist.
There is nothing inconsistent about Wi’s costumed dancers sharing the stage at a sports-medal award night. In the overall school experience being splendid for a night nicely complements whatever the main event may have been, and these days all those diverse efforts demand to be considered valid.
Graduations are surreal here in Thailand. On the whole, university commencements resemble a fair more than a solemn ceremony.
There is a core event that is fraught with solemnity, highly enhanced if the one presenting the diplomas is a member of royalty, as is generally the case. Every facet and movement is choreographed and rehearsed to perfection. Despite the number of participants, being in the thousands, there is a tiny moment, often literally one second long, when every individual is face to face with a Prince or Princess of the Kingdom. That moment must be preserved photographically. There is no chance for a repeat, so, just to be sure, two expert photographers take prized pictures of the diploma passing from the royal hand into the hand of the graduate. That picture is displayed forever-after in the graduate’s home in a place where it can’t be missed. That is the moment that validates all the expense and effort of going to university.
Commencement ceremonies to mark the culmination of successful educational undertakings are markers of real accomplishment by many stakeholders, including the graduate, the family, the faculty and the university. But there is something exaggerated about the celebration.
For days, a graduate dons the cap and gown that will be worn at the ceremony and sallies forth with a team of photographers and a bevy of well-wishers to take pictures for an album. It seems that quantity is what counts. First, of course, are the iconic places on the university campus. There must be pictures of the graduate, standing, sitting, lying down or even posing grotesquely in front of every one of those. The larger the campus, the more pictures there will be of this type. But the world is the campus at large, so the photographic expedition then moves to signature sites around town, whether they have any particular relevance to the graduate or not. On the day before commencement there will be a final dress rehearsal. That will also be an occasion for group photographs. Two pictures, at least, are necessary: one of the whole graduating class and another of the graduates from each college or faculty. But that’s just the beginning. For hours, each graduate corrals as many teachers and groups of friends as happen to be within range. On commencement day the carnival atmosphere is in full swing. Whole families and sometimes truck-loads from afar converge on the commencement arena. Picnics are everywhere. Booths near every avenue to the grounds sell bouquets of flowers, leis, wreaths and corsages, but also balloons, dolls and stuffed animals.
That is our main clue as to what this is all about, and what sets it apart from a commencement in Oxford or UCLA where the message the graduate wants to communicate is about completion, independence and setting forth. Thai commencements are about creating a fantasy. It is far more important than the silly frivolity it appears to be. A stuffed panda, a crown of daisies, and an armload of bouquets signify nothing about the meaning of the occasion except that “I am affirmed.” Each toy and blossom underscores that. Although there is no contest as such, one can take pride in the unwieldy volume of affirmations heaped on, and the stacks of photos recording evidence of at least as many momentary admirers.
We might wonder why this affirmation is so aggressively asserted if there is no doubt about it. Might there be something in Thai psycho-social reality that denies the significance of a young individual? Until recently (in historical terms) there were few, if any, avenues of upward social mobility. One was what one was born to be. Education is an escalator. But there are forces still powerful to reduce the affect and to restrain those who try to rise too high. Current social and political unrest, I am convinced, can be viewed through this lens.
Post-modernism is the philosophical equivalent of global warming. The frozen masses are thawing. This is an age of individualism in which every person is of ultimate significance, while collectively being insignificant. How significant is any single person to Mitsubishi world enterprises or Nestle S.A.? But the mega units of society and culture cannot contain and define the new generation.
A graduate may be subjected to the mass market before the roses in the graduation bouquets drop their petals, but the pictures fade slower. They attest: “Let the evidence show there was one day when I was inundated with affirmation. That day I was outstanding.”
Note: the picture accompanying this essay is from the Payap University website documenting commencement the last weekend of November 2013. For more pictures, access www.payap.ac.th
A Sagaw Karen boy up in the hills of Mae Hong Sorn Province, Thailand, on the border with Burma is carrying a Bible he cannot even begin to read, on his way to the first of three church services the Sunday after Christmas. Thanks to Dr. Prasit Pongudom for taking this picture and providing it. I was looking for a picture to commemorate Children’s Day (second Saturday of January) here in Thailand.
The picture drew my attention not only because the kid is cute, but because of what it suggests about why the Karen Baptist Church is arguably the largest Church in South East Asia (aside from the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines). In this era of secular erosion of all faith traditions, the Karen Baptist Church is stable and in its indigenous regions it is growing despite being in the vortex of nearly 50 years of war and internal displacement in Burma.
In that boy’s village everyone carries their Bibles to church. The boy is doing what he sees everyone doing. Bibles aren’t left at the church as if there’s no need of them anywhere else. So he is taking his role as part of the community. There is no hint in that village that faith is separated from life. Faith and life are twisted and braided.
Most significantly, Karen Baptist life is social. When a pig is killed everyone eats.
When the church gong sounds, everyone gathers. Things are expected to happen because it is the right time for them. According to Baptist tradition “believers” are baptized, but the boy will be baptized with a whole bunch of others when the time is right. “When bananas are ripe the whole stalk is brought home.” Karen life is not one banana or one bean at a time.
Theoretically, at some point they will have to explain to that little boy that confession of faith is an individual matter. The idea will not have occurred to him. Nor will it have occurred to him that there could be any doubt about faith. In fact, the concept of religious choice, doubt and agnosticism may never make much sense to him unless he is cast into the milieu of pluralism in the valley down below (as he may well be), where confusion about everything reigns until it has become the new normal.
Down in the valley there are towns with big markets and bigger towns with shopping malls. Choice abounds. Hardly any of the boys down below have red shirts hand-woven by their mothers with the unique threads of their home village running down the front. Not everybody down below eats much the same thing because it is in season. Not everybody hears the gong calling them to assemble on a Sunday morning.
Let me be clear: I am suggesting that social coherence is a key to understanding
religious bonding. Societies that are fragmenting will have trouble holding onto their children. Religious communities cannot survive that. Religion itself is another matter. For the most part religions evolve and renew themselves.
In Thailand there are countless ways to launch the New Year. In fact, there are at least 4 recognized New Year’s celebrations including the international New Year on January 1, and the Chinese New Year which comes this year on January 31. The Northern Thai (Lanna culture) New Year will be on the night of the full moon of the 12th with the national Loy Kratong festival of lights coming in 2014 on November 6, and the Central Thai traditional New Year which is a three day water-festival on April 13-15 every year.
Since this is Thailand, we celebrate them all.
There is no one way to observe the international New Year, but for those who are interested, which means countless thousands of people, the old year will be sent scurrying off by fire crackers and the new year launched, here in the North, by sending aloft tissue paper hot air balloons. Loy Kratong, the festival with the strongest emphasis on colored lights, is the night when most khom loy (hot air balloons) are sent into the sky. There are so many that some airlines have suspended flights that evening in and out of Chiang Mai. But a lot will be launched at midnight on December 31.
Countdown parties may not match the festivities at the Sidney Harbor Bridge or in Times Square in New York City, but the New Year gets a good send-off and anybody who tries to sleep early will be awakened at midnight. Since the official launching of the New Year is at midnight, it is for people young enough to like night-life who tend to be old enough to drink. The police have a grid of checkpoints on all highways to discourage drunk driving, although it seems that mayhem prevails for an hour or two. Parties are going on everywhere, with the biggest one in Chiang Mai at the plaza in front of the Ta Pae Gate.
Then on and about January 1 gift giving gets the year off to a good start. In Thai society with a strong “patron-client” tradition, the heads of schools, organizations and owners of businesses can count on being visited by their best clients, employees and students and prime customers by their grateful suppliers and merchants. It would be a good idea for children to remember their parents, too, because Thai Children’s Day is coming soon on the second Saturday of January.
Jesus is Thai in this Nativity scene by Thai Christian artist Sawai Chinawong. It is a pressing spiritual matter to install core religious icons and narratives in one’s own cultural matrix. If we are born in a culture that is overwhelmingly Christian that is done for us without our having to exert ourselves very much.
For Sawai easy access was not the case. Thai culture is predominantly Theravada Buddhist. Sawai had to imagine the Christmas story for himself, without much help. His painting is a bridge between the Christian Gospel and Thai culture. He chose the most direct route, using traditional temple fresco painting style. Anyone steeped in Thai classical culture, at a glance, will perceive that this is a Thai religious picture and it surely illustrates a religious narrative. When the story content makes it clear this is about the birth of Jesus, there is no need to explain that the artist is asserting that Jesus Christ is relevant to Thai people. The evangelical message is implicit in the image.
How religious images and stories function spiritually and formatively is a more complex matter. The Christmas Story of the Holy Family, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a seasonal adornment. For Christians it is more than “our story”. For each of us it is also “my story” because it has helped make me who I am. It has done that by giving us metaphors to nourish and fortify us. Recently, at this stage of my senior years, I tend to clutch at the Christmas Story as a witness that God has not and will not abandon us. During my younger years the Nativity picture meant something else. The Christmas Story gives us important sustenance at whatever stage or circumstance in life we access it.
A message that many young adolescents get from the Christmas Story is encouragement that things are not necessarily what they seem to be. The Christ-child in the cattle feeder had an identity the world barely perceived that silent, holy night, and kids grasp the insight that “I am not the mess people think I am, either.”
BONUS NOTE: click here on The Christmas Story for more about how children assimilate the Biblical Christmas narrative and images.
Santa is the most readily recognized icon in the world, researchers say. Children who know nothing about Christmas and have no expectation of Christmas presents from Santa still know who he is. Even where there is a rival, Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas, to name two, children know Santa Claus at sight. If you put any five images on a sheet of paper (Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, Doraemon, Santa, and Michael Jackson – for example) almost every child over the age of three here in Thailand can spot Santa.
That, however, is pretty much where the matter rests as far as Thai kids are concerned, whereas Santa-culture kids have more ideas.
Our photo downloaded from www.city-now.com entitled “Breakfast with Santa” shows the arrival of Santa by tuk-tuk at the Gymkhana Club in Chiang Mai. We can say this mode of transport would probably only happen in Thailand.
A public reception for Santa arriving by some culturally specific conveyance has become a modern custom over the past few decades. It tends to indicate that Santa is back among us, here, in the present, and the pre-Christmas season is now official.
Christmas as a seasonal concept is catching on in Thailand. December 25 is labeled “Christmas” on a calendar we got this year designating the Buddhist identifications of every day of the year. No shopping mall worth its salt is playing anything but Christmas background music, and there seems to be a contest to see who can construct the tallest, brightest tree-shape – the winner, of course being the mall with the tallest atrium.
Of the thousands of Christian missionaries in our town, it is safe to say a majority have misgivings about the way Santa has usurped the place of the Christ-child in the Christmas spotlight.
But I’m willing to give the jolly old elf his due. As I say in a book entitled Kiddy Lit I’ve just finished drafting, “Santa defies laws and expectations. That is the key to what Santa means subconsciously to children. There are elements of life that may be mysterious, predictable, relevant and unavoidable. They are not all threats, even though they come enshrouded in strangeness. …The future is fraught with the exciting possibility of the return of joy. What’s more, Santa is for kids. Kids are important no matter how powerless they are.” (Contact me if you want to know more about my progress in getting Kiddy Lit published or how to get a pre-publication copy.)
Finally, I would like to insist that Santa is no more a threat to Christ than is the Hobbit. The release of the second part of the Hobbit story this week is no form of robbery of “the true Christmas”. Our children can separate Christ from Bilbo Baggins into separate categories even if their parents are too sober-minded to want them to have to, because “serious Christians” prefer everything to be in the same, single realm of discourse.