Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Temples and Holy Places

My previous post has served its purpose - enough of you have asked when I'm going to post again that I feel sheepish if I sit in front of the computer and don't write. So, since there is a slight element of "forcing it", don't expect too much :o)

I was walking around today and put my finger on something that had been ruminating under the surface for awhile. One of the main roads in my town runs from east to west, and on this road are two of the religious landmarks near the center of town - a large mosque and a Christian church.

The Dongguan Grand Mosque is on the east side of the city center, and was featured in absentia in a post last fall marking Eid al-Fitr. It is one of the largest mosques in China, and is rumored to annually host the largest gathering of Muslims outside of Saudi Arabia celebrating the end of Ramadan (I'm still looking for concrete statistics to support this). Dongguan is a cultural landmark for the many Muslims in our city, and the area surrounding it is full of small shops and markets selling Islamic merchandise - head coverings and hats, prayer rugs, halal food, religious books (in Chinese, Arabic, and Persian), gold-plated plaques featuring intricate Arabic inscriptions of the shahada, etc. It is a lively, bustling area, and one of my favorite parts of China for its unique Chinese Islamic flavor.

But, after four years of being away, I noticed a few months ago that something had changed at the mosque. When the sun went down and the street lights fired up, lights also fired up on the mosque. This beautiful mosque, which features a blend of Tibetan, European, Turkish, and Arabic architecture, is now covered in very large, very tacky strings of lights. It's like a little piece of Vegas tucked in a corner of Mecca. It would be completely shocking if not for the fact that this is how most parts of Chinese cities look. If you keep heading west on the road, you get to the more economically developed part of the city, chock full of shops splattered with neon, blasting Chinese and Korean pop music. It is the mosque and the neighborhood surrounding it that are the true anomalies.

Further down the road, at the intersection that marks the city center, there is another out of place structure - a church steeple. There many reasons this steeple is out of place, but perhaps the most prominent is that it is the only church building I recall seeing in this part of China. When I visited Shanghai in the spring, I was surprised by how many church buildings and steeples dotted the skyline. There were even DENOMINATIONS! It was quite surreal, and highlighted the oddity of this church steeple in my largely Muslim, Buddhist, and agnostic city, proclaiming in bold white letters: "Church of Christ" (not the denomination).

The other prominent aspect contributing to this building's oddity is the fact that it is just off the city center intersection. Everything around it is stores, malls, shopping centers, and restaurants. There are perhaps more lights per square meter than in any other part of the city. There is a huge video screen projecting various advertisements above one of the few Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in our 落后 (backward/underdeveloped) little city. Everything around this steeple screams of hustle and commerce, hardly a place for religious reflection.

The stretch of road between the mosque and church is nothing but stores and markets. Walking through that strip today, I was struck by how many people were walking alongside me, raptly drinking in the blaring music and signs announcing 30% off sales. The people were incredibly diverse - Muslim women wearing glittery headscarves and 4-inch heels, Tibetan monks wearing scarlet robes and leather jackets, Chinese college students sporting the newest and coolest tight jeans and spiky hairdos, and elderly people walking slowly with hands that survived the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution clasped behind backs. It is these last who have witnessed the rise of a new religion to come alongside the Buddhism and Islam which have had roots in the area for centuries.

I am not the first to write about the religious aspects of consumerism, nor will I be the last. I am not particularly in the mood to present an academic case for it either. However, I will say that today, the temple of consumerism had more pilgrims than the mosque and the church. The lights that have crept up the front of the Dongguan Grand Mosque and the barrage of blinking signs obscuring the view of the Church of Christ steeple seem to suggest that this is not temporary. The coffee shops and merchandise booths inside some American mega-churches hint at possible milestones farther down the road for these religious landmarks in my "developing" city. I suppose everyone has different ideas of the benefits or detractors of this trajectory, but very few seem able to imagine anything different for the future. Consumerism seems to have won the religious franchise wars.

I'm rambling now. I guess I'm stirred because the other day on Facebook an acquaintance asked if people thought their faith had impacted their behavior. It's actually a multi-layered question that was apparently sparked by a conversation about the correlation between adherence to a faith system and what is considered "bad" behavior. Maybe I'll post my response on here sometime, but if that question is aimed at the religion of consumerism, the answers that arise are a bit disturbing.

I'm reading a novel by Margaret Atwood called Oryx and Crake, which through graphic depictions of the gradual excesses of consumeristic, self-centered behavior leading to societal apocalypse has regularly sent chills down my spine. Self-centered behavior encouraged by rampant consumerism leads to a valuation of comfort and security above all else. As Kahlil Gibran asserts in The Prophet, this lust for comfort is risky business:

And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors? Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?

Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires. Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron. It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh. It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels. Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.
(You can read "On Houses" in its entirety here)

Perhaps the religion of consumerism serves the god of comfort. Perhaps that is why many times religion can end up looking very similar to consumerism and the political/economic orders that uphold it as a unifying (and pacifying) strategy. When the lust for comfort has not only become masters of our houses, but of our churches, mosques, and temples, what then becomes of the passion of the soul?

There has to be more to religion than whispers of comfort, or else religion becomes a murderer. But I'll leave that for another post :o)

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