I traveled to Mua Mission this past weekend, a large Catholic Parish about 40 kilometers to the south of Salima. The KuNgoni Cultural Center at Mua is one of the coolest things I've seen in Malawi. It was established by Father Boucher (pronounced 'Boo-Shay') back in the late '60s as a project that would 'inculturate' the gospel. I actually got a chance to interview Father Boucher for a good two hours (!) about his work in Malawi and the process of incarnational ministry to the people groups of Malawi including most prominently the Ngoni (an offshoot of the well-known Zulu nation) and the Chewa. The mission is a grand encampment of nice buildings and attractive gardens all lushly decorated with art and carvings. The center is a school for Malawian artists to practice and develop their skills in the making of their own traditional art.
Boucher cleared up a lot of questions I had regarding traditional Chewa culture. Under the influence of more conservative missionaries from several of the more conservative denominations (the most prominent one starts with a 'P' and rhymes with 'Shmesbyterian') many Christians have turned from the traditional ways and are now following a more Western mode of worship. Mua mission is an interesting contrast. The cultural dances called 'gule wamkulu' are still upheld as valuable and Father Boucher, the main priest has actually been a member of their secret society for thirty-five years! Sometimes people have told me that the members of these ceremonies promote witchcraft and erroneous cultural beliefs that conflict with Biblical teaching.
Boucher, however, explained to me that the gule wamkulu is more like a drama with many different characters that, through acting, serve to outline the moral and social structure of the tribe and what it means to be a good Chewa. Naturally, the morality falls into the lines of "Honor father and mother", "Serve your community", "don't have sex before marriage" and all those good values. Boucher told me that many of the values fall in line with Biblical teachings and they certainly don't condone witchcraft (which is seen by the Chewa as a severance with the community). "Why should this ceremony be rejected?" He asked. He went on to say that the way they teach, say to not use bad language is to have a character who always uses bad language, so in a sense one commits the sin dramatically to show the consequences. It's comedic (dramaturgy anyone?). Father Boucher also told me that the gule wamkulu is not an inherently Christian thing. There is no Christ character (there is Mary, however) There are many Christians involved in it (like Boucher himself) but it is not in essence 'Christian'. With the prevalence of churches taking over the mainstream the members have been pressured to treat and organize the society more like a church (sometimes calling it the Church of Aaron since Aaron was the one who fashioned the Golden Calf, likewise the gule wamkulu use pictures to teach people. "But wasn't God displeased with that?" I asked. "Yes but they don't pay attention to little details like that"), but in effect it remains a ritual for moral instruction. Boucher, being a Catholic priest went on to say that a Christian member of the gule wamkulu would ideally grow up and begin to question some of the values that it teaches, cross-checking them against the teaching of Jesus, saying "well this one is in line, this one not so much" and adjust one's behavior accordingly, but to rid a culture of their entire moral grounding and start afresh is to impoverish them greatly. "Let them grow into a good Chewa and then they will grow into a good Christian". He used the example of that the gule wamkulu might teach someone to love their neighbor just like the Bible does but it does not teach loving one's enemy. That's something that only the call of Jesus can effect in someone's life. Just like we as kids had morality taught to us by TV shows like "Arthur", "Sesame Street" so does the gule wamkulu teach young Chewa. But it goes further than just an infantile level. The gule wamkulu is a complex series of characters and plays more artistic than simple didacticism (one might describe it as sacramental) and, here's the coolest part, it's always changing. Father Boucher told me how the dramas evolve and react to the historical events and cultural change that has happened in Malawi. They have plays that have reacted and commented on the three presidential regimes that Malawi has had, they've reacted to the presence of the whites, etc. all based around the goal of how to act in the world. As the world changes so does the gule wamkulu revolving around the central themes that make up Chewa values. I guess I thought of such rituals as static and set in stone and by contrast that the enlightened age of technology and science was the dynamic one. Boucher was quick to point out that their ritual is not 'fossilized' but always moving around a core set of values and principles.
It makes me think of the popularity of the American film scene. Maybe we look to films to inform our existence in the same way. It's relegated to the 'artistic' scene (which in our day and age means 'extra' or 'ignorable' when compared to the all-important priesthood of science) but its popularity bespeaks our desire for information through drama. Of course, the morals transmitted through this medium are hardly anything to structure a society around. I've often seen Malawians be openly disgusted when they see our impressive special effects that seem to have no purpose. "Lies" they call them. In the gule wamkulu people dress up like cows and other characters but it's for a purpose, to send a message through visuals. What would it be like if we could use our capabilities for special effects as visual/artistic tools in order to communicate messages through symbol instead of continuing in the recent trend of recreating reality or rendering unreality believable? We often confine 'theme' and 'message' to the realm of the writers but what if images could be used to communicate meaning? These days special effects maintain a more Protestant placement: to clothe and decorate the inferred abstract meaning found in the script (Think Blade Runner versus Children of Men). But what if directors could take a cue from the Catholic side and actually construct 'semiotic meaning' through visual cues? It's surprising to me that more popular films haven't employed this tactic. Yes, yes there are plenty of brilliant (yet nigh unwatchable) arthouse movies that do it but there aren't really any mainline films that have effectively channeled special effects technology out of the realm of 'making possible the impossible' and into the realm of meaning. I think The Fountain may be one exception. Another good example is the comic book Watchmen which is currently being made into a film. Wanna see what modern semiotic storytelling can be? Read Watchmen. The film version looks like it's interested in preserving much of the imagery of the comic which (if it's good) could begin to propel special effects out of 'realism' and into a more meaningful style of semiotic imagery (I always said comics would save the entertainment industry) BUT I DIGRESS (as usual).
It also raises questions about our gospel. Why do Church people freak out when we see stuff like this? All this ceremony and the wild costumes tend to confuse us bookish Protestants, but for the Catholic, someone presumably used to a more visual and artistic view of the liturgy it is seen as an opportunity. What Boucher and his colleagues have done is 'inculturate' the Catholic liturgy into Chewa society using more tangible means, images and music. Just as the language is translated so are the images and the traditions of the people brought into continuity using art and music. No, it's not syncretism. It's like putting culture and the gospel into the same world, like Santa Claus showing up in "Narnia" (So is Chris Rice's "What if Cartoons got Saved?" song is more progressive than we think? Heavens forbid!).
As cool as Mua was, I gotta shout out to my homies: CCAP, I love you guys. I grew up in a conservative church too. Stick with it, really. You're doing great things for the Kingdom. But hey, maybe we could learn from stuff like this. Maybe taking this stuff could help us take a break from our abstracted minds and exercise our senses through more tangible ways of experiencing truth.