Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A New Island Religion

"In 1964 there appeared a celebrated documentary movie called Mondo Cane, or "the world of the dog", in which the directors captured numerous human cruelties and illusions. This was the first occasion on which one could see a new religion being assembled, in plain view, on camera. The inhabitants of the Pacific islands may have been separated for centuries from the more economically developed world, but when visited by the fatal impact many of them were shrewd enough to get the point immediately. Here were great vessels with billowing sails, bearing treasures and weapons and devices that were beyond any compare. Some of the more untutored islanders did what many people do when confronted with a new phenomenon, and tried to translate it into a discourse that they could themselves understand (not unlike those fearful Aztecs who, first seeing mounted Spanish soldiers in Mesoamerica, concluded that they had a centaur for an enemy). These poor souls decided that the westerners were their long-mourned ancestors, come back at last with goods from beyond the grave. That illusion cannot long have survived the encounter with the colonists, but later it was observed in several places that the brighter islanders had a better idea. Docks and jetties were built, they noticed, after which more ships came and unloaded more goods. Acting by analogy and mimesis, the locals constructed their own jetties and waited for these, too, to attract some ships. Futile as this proceeding was, it badly retarded the advance of later Christian missionaries. When they made their appearance, they were asked where the gifts were (and soon came up with some trinkets).

In the twentieth century the "cargo cult" revived in an even more impressive and touching form. Units of the United States armed forces, arriving in the Pacific to build airfields for the war on Japan, found that they were the objects of slavish emulation. Local enthusiasts abandoned their lightly worn Christian observances and devoted all their energies to the construction of landing strips that might attract loaded airplanes. They made simulated antennae out of bamboos. They built and lit fires, to simulate the flares that guided the American planes to land. This still goes on, which is the saddest but of the Mondo Cane sequence. On the island of Tana, an American GI was declared to be the redeemer. His name, John Frum, seems to have been an invention too. But even after the last serviceman flew or sailed away after 1945, the eventual return of the saviour Frum was preached and predicted, and an annual ceremony still bears his name. On another island named New Britain, adjacent to Papua New Guinea, the cult is even more strikingly analogous. It has ten commandments (the "Ten Laws"), a trinity that has one presence in heaven and another on earth, and a ritual system of paying tributes in the hope of propitiating these authorities. If the ritual is performed with sufficient purity and fervor, so its adherants believe, then an age of milk and honey will be ushered in. This radiant future, sad to say, is known as the "Period of the Companies", and will cause New Britain to flourish and prosper as if it were a multinational corporation."

- Christopher Hitchens, 'God is Not Great'

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