Thursday, January 15, 2009

Around the World in 80 Faiths, Part 2

Already falling behind with this religious travelogue - episode 3 (Africa) is tomorrow and I've only just watched no.2 on Iplayer (where you can still watch it for another 43 days from today). Rev. 'Indiana' Peter Owen Jones tours the Far East in search of exotic religion, taking in Taoism, Confucianism, Korean Pentecostalism, and a very strange 'all in one' Vietnamese religion which seems to centre around a giant bauble with a single eye in the middle of it.

It's still a fascinating programme, Jones contrasting the orderliness of some Far Eastern societies with the chaos of some of the rituals - one which involves lots of men dressing up in white, getting hopelessly drunk, lighting hand-held firebrands, and then racing one another down a flight of stone steps in the dark. Health and Safety it was not.

It hardly seems to have set the BBC message board buzzing: perhaps that's because there isn't very long spent with each faith, and there isn't the time to really see a practitioner in action. There was a lot of interest in Father Lazarus, the monk featured in the final episode of Extreme Pilgrim last year, but we got to see and hear him at length. With 6 minutes per religion, it's hard to get that kind of acquaintance here. It's also quite hard to see the distinctives, though POJ does his best to sketch out the core beliefs of Taoism, Confucianism etc.

The other frustration I have is that most of the appraisal is aesthetic: apart from applauding the inclusivity of the Vietnamese eye religion (CaoDao I think it was called, they have statues of the prophets of every major religion in their main temple), most of Owens comments were about how beautiful, peaceful etc. something was. At prayer mountain, standing in front of hundreds of prayer cells built by Paul Yonggi Cho's church in Seoul, he remarked on how beautiful it was to hear people praying, and about how you could get yourself sorted out with God in one of the prayer cells. My understanding of Prayer Mountain was that the focus was more on intercession, asking God to move in Korea, North and South.

That avenue doesn't seem to be one which the programme explores: instead it's the direct mystical experience of God, and the meaningfulness or otherwise of rituals. It's quite privatised, and in a sense quite touristy - to evaluate things on how much they appeal to us, whether we enjoy them, and whether they give us that sense of the exotic that a far-flung foreign trip is supposed to impart.

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