Saturday, January 03, 2009

Around the World in 80 Faiths

After winning an award for 2007s 'Extreme Pilgrim', Rev. Peter 'Indiana' Owen-Jones gets 8 one-hour programmes to explore 80 religions around the world. Around the World in 80 Faiths is part travelogue, part comparative religion, the first episode was eminently watchable, provocative, and fascinating.

The blurb says: Peter's mission is to witness and take part in rites rarely filmed before, to learn about how humankind practices religion. As an Anglican priest, Peter witnesses cultures and behaviours that challenge his values and prejudices. At times he's surprised, even offended, but at others he finds the experience enlightening. And amidst the baffling and the bizarre, he finds moments of great human warmth and serenity.

Episode 1 took in SW Asia, from Indonesia to Australia and on into the S Pacific. On the way the 10 faiths encountered included a traditional burial ceremony (the body is kept embalmed for years at the family home), an Iraqi sect who follow John the Baptist but live in Australia, Wiccans from Sydney, Aboriginal 'baby smoking', traditional tribal religion on a Pacific Islands and 2 groups which have emerged from it - one a charistmatic Christian healing sect, the other a peculiar cult based on the US flag.

Jones deals with both the various faiths themselves, as well as the legacy of Christian missions. In some places local customs and rituals have been destroyed, in others creatively integrated into Christian practice, whilst one group in Indonesia (I think) had just stuck a couple of hymns onto it's basically pagan burial ceremony to keep the church happy, but otherwise carried on regardless. Lots of interesting lessons about how well, or otherwise, mission has really engaged with local culture. Where the missionaries simply trampled all over it, and said 'our faith is better', Christianity doesn't seem to have taken root. One Aboriginal said they'd got 'too much' Christianity, and went on to list the various denominations which her people had. Point taken!

It was quite challenging to watch a fellow vicar join with a coven of 'urban witches' in Sydney: it exploded the myth that pagan wiccans worship the devil, but at the same time there's a difference between observing something and taking part in it. I'd have been deeply uncomfortable taking part - verbally or physically - in anything which invoked spirits and powers other than that of Jesus. Jones struggled with whether to take part, but decided he needed to see and experience what went on, to find out as much as he could.

Jones is clear that he believes in God rather than nature, so at least there is some discernment going on, but there's was also a bit of an English Heritage flavour: if something is ancient, it is therefore good, and needs to be preserved at all costs. Jones attended an aboriginal 'baby smoking' (not quite as bad as it sounds, but not much fun for the babies), and was disappointed to find that there was no deep meaning to it - he suggested this was because the Aborigines had forgotten their ancient faith (having become Christians) and so had kept the ritual but lost the meaning. If I were the babies, I'd have them lose the ritual too: having to sit naked on smouldering shrubs isn't anyone's idea of fun.

Other reviews:
Barbaras Republic (not impressed)
Chris at the CARM discussion forum (very positive)
and a couple more:
TvScoop (liked it)
Lapis Lazuli (jury's out, runs the risk of being superficial)

oh yes, and there's a book of the series too, I'm guessing the publication will be straight after the end of episode 8.

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