Religion: Easter

This Easter season saw the conflict of the old and the new.  The old was represented all over Spain and Latin America, where processions which originated in Spain were held in many cities. The one in Popayan, Colombia, was especially moving.  The passion of Christ has a deep impact on people of all classes. But the old may be losing out to the new.  In Italy and elsewhere, Easter was mostly an occasion  to drive on crowded roads for a few days at the seaside. On Sunday I normally watch on TV mass at the cathedral of San Fernando in San Antonio, Texas.  This Easter Sunday was chosen precisely as the time to drop the program, which was replaced with an awful program and awful advertisements. I am nauseated by the deceit evident in most advertising as well as in the e-mail offers which we have discussed.  The passion of Christ is  the exaltation of truth, while modern  commercialism involves much suppressio veri, suppression of the truth.  Is this progress?

I described the Easter processions in Spanish-speaking countries. Peter Orne's account of a New England celebration is different: On this Easter morning, in the tiny peninsular town of Cushing, Maine, alarm clocks began ringing around 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., and by 6:00 a.m. sharp about 75 parishioners had gathered in a frost-covered hayfield across the street from Fales Store, edge of the St. George River, at 30 degrees F. for Sunrise
Service. Or, as Pastor Betty Bilodeau put it, "SunROSE Service," because the great orb was already a couple of inches above the stand of trees up the rise to our left.

Toes gradually began to freeze as we answered the Call to Worship -- "He is risen indeed... Alleluia!" -- as Pastor Betty played "He Lives" and "The Strife Is O'er" bare-fingered on her small accordion. Heads bowed as we spoke the Lord's Prayer together, and I noticed that the woman to my left was bare-legged, wearing a skirt and simple dress shoes. "You must be cold," I whispered. She just smiled.
The service ended at 6:30, and we drove in trucks and cars a quarter mile to Broad Cove Church for an enormous breakfast. Folks across the river from Friendship had also arrived, and there were a few unfamiliar faces, but all were happy with the efforts of the half-dozen breakfast crew who began arriving at 4:00 a.m. to warm up the griddle, mix pancake batter and crack eggs. Friends sought out friends, and chatter switched to local news, current projects and memories. One woman is digging up history on the church, which was built in the 1850s, and another said she'd return for the main service at 10:00 a.m. Betty walked round and greeted all, and at 7:30 we were cleared out to start the day.
I'm not a believer, per se, but I do believe in local community and bearing witness as basic to human psychological health. Speaking somewhat to your point, the Sunrise Service was a completely unmediated (except through air, and water moisture from the river) and uninterrupted experience. The only evidence of technology at hand was Betty's accordion and the words photocopied onto small programs. The view was downriver, across the frosty field to open water. The story was ancient -- about a centurion reporting that a body had gone missing from a cave. And a mass of local people showed up, didn't say a peep, and undoubtedly some of their forebears had stood together in this way 100 years ago.
With a broadening range of mediated experiences and technological devices to "provide" the experience of engagement for the individual, for whatever purpose, and with rising personal incomes subverting the need for strangers to want to create meaning with other strangers, Westerners march steadily toward technopolic self-isolation. The value structure for a generation to come will be how images on screens and all other forms of mediated experience make them feel (good/bad, cool/uncool). As the technologically advancing world becomes ever more real and exciting, imagination and the telling of stories in a field at dawn will have no more use, and the capacity to do so will be forgotten.

RH:  We started out with Easter close to the Equator.  Perhaps Cameron Sawyer will complete the series with an account of Russian Easter.

Cameron Sawyer writes from Moscow: I described Russian Easter, that greatest of all holidays in Russia, in an earlier post which is still on the WAIS web site:
The invitation stands!

Peter Orne writes: Easter is alive and well in Africa, including the chocolate eggs. “On Easter, more Anglicans will attend church in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda - each - than Anglicans and Episcopalians together will attend services in Britain, Canada and the U.S. combined. More Roman Catholics will celebrate Easter Mass in the Philippines than in any European country. The largest church in the world is in South Korea. And more Christians will probably attend Easter services in China than in all of Europe together.”

Where Faith Thrives by Nicholas D. Kristof
Ete Crossing, Zimbabwe ­ So with Easter approaching, here I am in the heart of Christendom.
That's right - Africa. One of the most important trends reshaping the world is the decline of Christianity in Europe and its rise in Africa and other parts of the developing world, including Asia and Latin America. I stopped at a village last Sunday morning here in Zimbabwe - and found not a single person to interview, for everyone had hiked off to church a dozen miles away. And then I dropped by a grocery store with a grim selection of the cheapest daily necessities - and huge multicolored chocolate Easter eggs.

On Easter, more Anglicans will attend church in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda - each - than Anglicans and Episcopalians together will attend services in Britain, Canada and the U.S. combined.  More Roman Catholics will celebrate Easter Mass in the Philippines than in any European country. The largest church in the world is in South Korea. And more Christians will probably attend Easter services in China than in all of Europe together.  In short, for the first time since it began two millenniums ago, Christianity is no longer "Western" in any very meaningful sense. "If on a Sunday you want to attend a lively, jammed full, fervent and life-changing service of Christian worship, you want to be in Nairobi, not in Stockholm," notes Mark Noll, a professor at Wheaton College. He adds, "But if you want to walk home safely late at night, you want to be in Stockholm, not Nairobi." This shift could be just beginning. David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University sees some parallels between China today and the early Roman empire. He wonders aloud whether a Chinese Constantine will come along and convert to Christianity.

Chairman Mao largely destroyed traditional Chinese religions, yet Communism has died as a replacement faith and left a vacuum. "Among those disappointed true-believer Marxists, it may well be that Marxism has served as a kind of John the Baptist to the rapid emergence of Christianity among Chinese intellectuals," Professor Jeffrey said. Indeed, it seems possible to me that in a few decades, China could be a largely Christian nation.  Whether in China or Africa, the commitment of new converts is extraordinary. While I was interviewing villagers along the Zambezi River last Sunday, I met a young man who was setting out for his Pentecostal church at 8:30 a.m. "The service begins at 2 p.m.," he explained - but the journey is a five-hour hike each way.

So where faith is easy, it is fading; where it's a challenge, it thrives. "When people are in difficulties, they want to cling to something," said the Rev. Johnson Makoti, a Pentecostal minister in Zimbabwe who drives a car plastered with Jesus bumper stickers. "The only solution people here can believe in is Jesus Christ."  People in this New Christendom are so zealous about their faith that I worry about the risk of new religious wars. In Africa, Christianity and Islam are competing furiously for converts, and in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and especially Sudan, the competition has sometimes led to violent clashes. "Islam is a threat that is coming," the Rev. William Dennis McDonald, a Pentecostal minister in Zambia, warned me. He is organizing "operation checkmate" to boost Christianity and contain Islam in eastern Zambia.  The denominations gaining ground tend to be evangelical and especially Pentecostal; it's the churches with the strictest demands, like giving up drinking, that are flourishing.

All this is changing the character of global Christianity, making it more socially conservative. For example, African churches are often more hostile to gays than mainline American churches. The rise of the Christian right in the U.S. is finding some echoes in other parts of the world.  Yet conservative Christians in the U.S. should take heed. Christianity is thriving where it faces obstacles, like repression in China or suspicion of evangelicals in parts of Latin America and Africa. In those countries where religion enjoys privileges - Britain, Italy, Ireland, Spain or Iran - that establishment support seems to have stifled faith. That's worth remembering in the debates about school prayers or public displays of the Ten Commandments: faith doesn't need any special leg up. Look at where religion is most vibrant today, talk to those who walk five hours to services, and the obvious conclusion is that what nurtures faith is not special privileges but rather adversity.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 13, 2005