Inculturation, superheroes and waterguns

This story from The Guardian invites a scornful pile-on, but I think it might also prompt thoughtful reflection on how we set limits to inculturation and how we adapt liturgy to circumstances.

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17 comments

  1. I give him credit for thinking outside the box. But gimmickry usually has a pretty short shelf life. I hope inculturation has more depth than a Batman logo or a super-soaker.

  2. I actually got into a pretty contentious FB argument over this … somebody referred to it as “invalid” … but when I asked exactly, how, it was invalid (is he not an ordained priest? did he not bless the water? was it not water?) the only responses I got were in the categories of taste, not validity. Which also could prompt some thoughtful reflection on why one would think of liturgical/ritual actions only in categories of validity, as well as those that Fritz suggests.

  3. Setting aside rubrical issues, the real problem is this: Fr. Alvarez may be engaging the youth (they certainly won’t be bored), but to what end? At the end of the day, I fear, they’ll remember that there was a supersoaker and Batman at Mass, and nothing more. I think it’s a kind of (unwitting) condescension to children to proceed from the premise that young children can only be engaged through games and fun.

    The question of inculturation is harder to get at in this episode, since it’s not clear what culture is being inculturated – unless it’s western popular culture. I’m not sure that I see anything distinctly Mexican in this liturgy. We can have a healthy debate about the merits of inculturation on PTB, but do we really want to contemplate extending it to popular mass-market consumer culture?

    1. @Richard Malcolm – comment #3:
      Exactly. I’ve just done some reading about comprehension, not entertainment, being the primary mode through which children are most successfully engaged in any kind of learning. Entertainment only activates what is already known (in this case, super-soaker and cartoon characters); some tools to comprehend what the rite and its texts and its actions (matter and form) are really about is much more in order.
      To the point of inculturation, I’m not sure that something more authentically Mexican – if it had been a water-drop from a piñata – would have legitimized it more.

      1. @Alan Hommerding – comment #5:

        Exactly. I’ve just done some reading about comprehension, not entertainment, being the primary mode through which children are most successfully engaged in any kind of learning.

        Excellent point, Alan.

    2. @Richard Malcolm – comment #3:
      “We can have a healthy debate about the merits of inculturation on PTB, but do we really want to contemplate extending it to popular mass-market consumer culture?”

      But isn’t that to what American culture has descended? American culture is either pop culture or folk culture for the most part. There really is nothing in between anymore, with the exception of recent immigrants and perhaps African Americans. That is to say, with white, average America, it seems your culture is either that of a secularist or a hick, at least where I live: South Carolina. Religious practice no longer typifies distinctly “American” culture.

      What, pray tell, is American culture now? It can really only be plausibly expressed solely in secular terms or in country-isms. I doubt we’d want to “inculturate” our Church with secularisms, and a countrified Catholicism really doesn’t make sense outside of certain groups. So again, how, precisely, do we “inculturate” in the US, excepting certain groups who have retained their cultures to some degree? There really is no such thing as American culture unless, again, you express this solely in secular terms, because “American culture” as a stand-alone thing is totally secular by it nature.

      American culture is synthetic, not in an organic way, but in a false, sleazy way. Its synthetic nature can be readily perceived and, I’d argue, an overtly and perceptibly synthetic character is, in itself, really the only overarching characteristic of average American culture. American culture is, by its very nature, acultural. There is no culture in the US, or at least, there isn’t one worth inculturating “into” the Church.

      1. @Cameron Neal – comment #7:
        America has no culture?

        An odd comment when viewed from outside (in Australia) seeing that amongst the detritus of popular culture that America exports (and all countries produce their own rubbish) there are such wonderful examples of culture produced by wonderful individuals and groups- Garrison Keillor, Stan Freberg, Steven Speilberg, Woody Allen and Pixar to pick at a tiny few popular culture icons.

        Australia has a multicultural society as well and it is often hard to know what distinguishes our culture in Australia and our churches. You can see it by what it isn’t (ie not Latin and not too comfortable with heirachical systems) and perhaps by our connection to landscape.

        Is it possible you don’t see the positive aspects of your culture because of immersion and over familiarity?

        Isolated in the Southern hemisphere and with no regional accents, many Australians grow up believing they have no accent, until they travel and can’t be understood overseas!

        I’d love to hear of positive American cultural features that inform your liturgies and especially those that contribute to noble simplicity.

  4. @Richard Malcolm – comment #3:
    “We can have a healthy debate about the merits of inculturation on PTB, but do we really want to contemplate extending it to popular mass-market consumer culture?”

    @Cameron Neal – comment # 7
    But isn’t that to what American culture has descended? American culture is either pop culture or folk culture for the most part.

    Popular culture and mass market culture are not the same thing. See, for example, Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult“:

    It is important to understand that the difference between Mr. Poe and Mr. Gardner, or between High Culture and Masscult, is not mere popularity. From Tom Jones to the films of Chaplin, some very good things have been popular; The Education of Henry Adams was the top non-fiction best seller of 1919. Nor is it that Poe’s detective stories are harder to read than Gardner’s, though I suppose they are for most people. The difference lies in the qualities of Masscult already noted: its impersonality and its lack of standards, and “total subjection to the spectator.”

  5. Thanks, Mr. Howard….and would add, nor is *enculturation* the same as poplar culture.

    It would be helpful to have VII thoughts/definitions that provided the background and context in which SC articles on enculturation were incorporated and thus, the ressourced history and legacy e.g. Chinese Rite controversy; writings of Bartolomeo de Colon about missionary activities in the Americas.

    This raises the continual question – is the desire for the EF/TLM a *culture* as defined or in the context above? Very much doubt it. Even B16 did not see it as a *rite* like the hisotrical/current rites in the West.

  6. Out of interest, how many of us here have young children?

    Mine would love this sort of Mass, and would be entirely able to grasp the difference between this and the sort of Mass they normally go to. Once the priest has their attention, he can engage them in the Liturgy and get them thinking and deepen their understanding.

    Many kids (particularly my own), have short attention spans. Anything that the priest does to pull them out of their colouring books is welcome.

    And don’t suggest that I should take away their colouring books: before they had them, they’d be (literally) screaming before the end of the Gloria.

    The staid “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” attitude that is typical of most English-language Masses I’ve attended is a real turn-off for the kids, and makes Mass attendance a real chore. If it’s a chore, they’re going to get less than nothing out of it. At the very least, a priest like this one is going to get the kids interested in coming to Mass. If they’re there, they stand a chance of engaging more deeply with the mystery of the Eucharist. If they’re not there (physically or mentally), no such chance exists.

    1. @Paul Robertson – comment #14:
      I don’t have young children currently, but I have had them in the past. And I agree that it is pretty much impossible to get them to pay attention throughout Mass. In fact, it boggles the mind that anyone, whether they have had young children or not, would think that they could do this.

      That said, I still think that Superheroes and Super Soakers import a commercialized pop culture into the liturgy in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I found my own children had their attention caught by things like smoking thuribles and processions and bells.

      Also, I think the best strategy is to get kids to pay attention for brief, carefully chosen key moments (less than a minute) and then let them do their thing (coloring books, etc.) otherwise. This is what the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe suggested in her brilliant essay Transubstantiation. A relevant quotation:

      It is easiest to tell what transubstantiation is by saying this: little children should be taught about it as early as possible. Not of course using the word “transubstantiation”, because it is not a little child’s word. But the thing can be taught, and it is best taught at mass at the consecration, the one part where a small child should be got to fix its attention on what is going on. I mean a child that is beginning to speak, one that understands enough language to be told and to tell you things that have happened and to follow a simple story. Such a child can be taught then by whispering to it such things as: “Look! Look what the priest is doing … He is saying Jesus’ words that change the bread into Jesus’ body. Now he’s lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say ‘My Lord and my God’,” and then “Look, now he’s taken hold of the cup. He’s saying the words that change the wine into Jesus’ blood. Look up at the cup. Now bow your head and say ‘We believe, we adore your precious blood, Christ of God’.” [The cry of the Ethiopians at the consecration of the chalice.]

  7. I just watched the water pistol scene on youtube because the link above got stuck, and will probably remember it for a long time, because the blurb explained that the reason for the gimmick was to protest the terrible murders in Mexico, one of them local to that church, and the violent drugs trade. It is profoundly shocking.

    I wouldn’t mind what visual aids appeared in the sermon if they would help focus on real evils in the world more than legislation about regulating other people’s sexual partnerships.

  8. Stories like this, a rare and exceptional example, prompt the guys upstairs to crack down on all expressions of liturgical creativity, even that which is done thoughtfully and modestly. One time someone somewhere tried to celebrate Mass with potato chips and beer around a coffee table, and now we all get Redemptionis Sacramentum.

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