The Problem of New Wine

None of us lives context free. We live the gospel in worlds driven by other values and other practices. While the separation from the rest of the world has lots of traction within Christianity, as a means of legitimizing faith, still the things we draw on to emphasize the separation leave much room for context. It is hard to imagine a completely gospel driven society of any size.

Since I am in Peru let me use a Catholic example. The Spanish, when they came to Peru, saw themselves as the emissaries of God whose mission it was to build a city on a hill, a truly Christian society. Although many Indians converted relatively easily, the Spanish quickly ran into problems. They could not translate basic concepts that ought to be universal into the Indian languages, in order to make them comprehensible. There was not a word for God, for example, or worship.

For the Spanish this lack of basic Christian language indicated the Indians must be a lesser race of people, since they did not have the basic terms required for rational/religious discourse. Others insisted the Indians, given their level of civilization, must have already received divine instruction from Jesus or his apostles, or that they were Jews somehow found in the new world, and that the priests should look deeper in order to find equivalents for basic vocabulary items.

The argument was not simply about how to proselyte, it also took on a political economic character around the potential place of Indians in society.

There is no doubt the Spanish were successful in developing Christian nations here in what was the Inca Empire. Crosses adorn most hilltops, Churches are found in almost every community, and the religious life is strong. But the Church always worries that the people here are somehow not Christian enough.

The explanatory materials used in the Cathedral of Cusco celebrate the mixing of Spanish and Indigenous, which in an earlier time would have been cause for the inquisitors to begin an inquiry. Current Catholic thought, in the notion of the enculturated gospel, that is the idea that the gospel can be presented from within different cultures although its external manifestations might be different, allow for the celebration.

On Friday Cusqueños celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross. It marks the beginning of the time of cold, the dry season, as my taxi driver and then many others informed me. Sponsors of different public crosses have the obligation to take down the cross, if it is movable, clean it and dress it. Then all night people will light candles at the cross as they stay with it through the night when cold begins. They will share ponche, a local beverage, with each other, and at some of the larger crucifixes there would be dancing.

The local newspaper explains the Spanish wanted to destroy the indigenous worship of rocks, mountains, and rivers, so they put crosses on them and encouraged the people to worship the crosses instead. However, as the press noted, the people displaced the gifts to the rock onto the cross. This is fine, as far as it goes. But one cannot deny, despite the popular invocations of syncretism, that the people also see themselves as Christian and engaging in Christian worship akin to that done in Jerusalem, Rome, Madrid, Lima and other Christian centers. They see themselves as part of a universal Christian Church.

Accusations of syncretism can be dangerous, because of their obvious implications for religious legitimacy and politics. In Peru, the elites have often accused the Indians of syncretisms when they wished to challenge their status and legitimacy. Even now, when it is socially and religiously turned around as part of the enculturated gospel, or simply as an argument to the “folk” as what draws tourists and builds the nation, the accusations have a political charge.

To me this is all very fascinating, but the religious politics do not change the figure and ground problem of living the gospel. That is to say the gospel is almost always figured as new wine in old wine skins. While this opens the many possibilities of being in the world but not of the world, it also means that the not of the world is always still in the world.

I was watching people interact with the crosses and dress them. It seemed to me in people’s activities was something related to their not having a word for the absolute transcendent God. While various indigenous “deities” were suggested for translating the word God, the Spanish seized on the solution of a loan word, dios, which they hoped to signify as they wished. But a difficulty still remains in that effort to create a meaning.

The indigenous world does not draw easy distinctions between the living and the non-living, between nature and supernature, in the same way Western Christianity does. The mountains are, by definition alive, as is the sky, the earth, and the rivers. Yesterday we were blowing on coca leaves to ask permission of the earth and the mountains for us to hike a trail.

To me the people treat the crosses as if they had the characteristics of life. They are dressed in cloth, as people almost always are. That is one of the fundamental characteristics of being a human being, wearing clothing. People sit with them through the long night and use a ritual and label to do so that is generally used for funerals, velar, “to candle”. In Quechua the feast is called Cruz Velakuy, or in Spanish La Velación de la Cruz. It is as if the crosses died once a year and were reborn as the skies move into their winter figures.

This is simply my hasty idea. I have not done extensive fieldwork on the issue. I use it simply to illustrate the figure and ground problem. One can bring in the gospel, the figure, or the cross, a related figure, but the ground, in this case the metaphysics of the people, becomes the space in which the figures are given meaning. Although impressively and deeply Christian, this meaning is not quite the same, it seems to me, as in other parts of the Christian world.

Arguably, now that the LDS Church is growing around the world similar kinds of figure ground relationships are developing. Despite the best efforts of the Brethren and the Correlation Committee, not to mention Church translators, this is bound to happen. Even we who may be from old Mormon families, live this dilemma. And it is wonderfully rich for analysis.


  1. David, I really liked your post. I’m not sure I have much to add to what you have observed. In my forays into South America (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) I have also noticed different kinds of syncretism in the local culture. I have also wondered what effect this has and will have as the church continues to grow. Over on Mormon Stories, Ted Lyon (BYU prof, mission, MTC, temple president in Chile) discusses the Bretheren’s attempts to avoid transplanting the culture of the Wasatch Front to these diverse cultures. I’m in a doctoral program in Spanish and Portuguese and I was talking to another member that is in the same program. We were discussing many of the translation “errors” of Preach My Gospel.

    Just as a quick example, let’s look at the use of the future tense in Spanish. The invitation to baptism that I was taught (before PMG): ¿Se bautizará en la Iglesia…? (Will you be baptized in the Church…?) At a colloquial, conversational level, the future in this case expresses conjecture and some doubt. It would be more like “Are you thinking about getting baptized? Do you think, perhaps, that you might get baptized?” This is much different than the concrete and direct nature of the question in English. The way I got around this grammatical ambiguity was to simply ask if the person was willing to follow Christ and get baptized in the Church. That seemed to clear up any confusion. But I do remember when a district leader would not pass off one of my discussions because I was straying from the script. Sigh.

    Now, I’m not saying that every church manual has to be adapted to a specific culture or region. That would be absurd. In fact, I think the church has done a much better job to stream-line certain manuals, policies, and procedures so that they can be adapted to local culture. Again, this is more anecdotal evidence since I have never sat on a correlation committee.


  2. Mark IV says:

    Excellent work, David.

    I especially like your penultimate sentence. The church adapts itself not only to cultures in different places, but because culture is always changing, the church adapts, over time, even within the same culture. My experience with the church is different from my parents’ experience. The approach my children take to living the gospel will be different from mine.

  3. BruceC says:

    I’ll take an example from Hong Kong. Local Mormons used a small potted orange tree, a traditional icon the chinese new year, in their observance of Christmas. It annoyed one senior sister missionary with whom I served in the misson office. She felt very strongly that the new members should abandon their obviously pagan practice and use a Christmas tree like a proper christian. I pointed out that the dwarf orange tree was no more pagan than her blue spruce. She didn’t take it well.

  4. Mark IV says:

    In this context, if you’ll pardon a semi-long quote, I think something Kathleen Flake said in her interview for The Mormons bears repeating:

    I got a master’s in liturgical studies from Catholic University, and as I studied 2,000 years of Catholicism’s missionary efforts from the point of view of their liturgy, it was only then that I realized how lightly Mormonism travels, how little it takes to create a Mormon congregation and sustain it, because remember, it’s lay leadership. Lay leadership is one of the untold stories of this church. If you want to know how it travels and how it roots to indigenous cultures, you have to look at the extent to which indigenous peoples are given control of local worship.

    So all this talk about hierarchy and control and power and making people do things misses this point that leadership in Mongolia is Mongolian. And yes, Salt Lake City will say: “Tithings are 10 percent. You can’t charge 5 percent; you can’t charge 20 percent.” But the other story of 20th-century Mormonism that doesn’t get told is the extent to which they do not feel in control. They’re perceived to be this juggernaut of organization, but internally, my guess is they have all their fingers in the dike. …

  5. Hmmm. We had a member of the Twelve out here a month or so ago. I won’t use his name because I am not sure I remember correctly which one it was! He met with the Stake leaders and Bispops/Branch Presidents. He was here to encourage our missionary efforts. Our BP asked our opinion of why SL would be so concened that US baptisms are faltering, since we are making great progress in the rest of the world. The answer was money – US tithing funds almost all of the building and administrative activity of the church worldwide. There is a real concern that if US membership can’t keep us with world wide conversions, something will have to give. I had a hard time with this as we had just been told in Sunday School to “seek ye first the kingdom of God” but I guess I can understand. Do you think adapting the gospel peripherals, if you know what I mean, to each individual culture makes this issue of affordability better or worse?

  6. david knowlton says:

    Lots of good ideas. Mark IV, Kathleen Flake is right, but one should not underestimate the difficulties of transposing LDS ideas into different linguistic and cultural contexts. The “se bautizará” observation of Jimmy’s is one case in point. But there are many more. What words have Latter-day Saints used to represent key theological ideas in other contexts and what are the other uses of these words? What registers of language and dialectical forms are used? Those are critical questions.

    When I was a missionary in Bolivia I kept noticing how the “charlas”, as we called them, the missionary discussions, were nearly unintelligible to working class Bolivians, who were most of the people we taught, yet we were supposed to recite them word for word. I soon gave that up, I must admit in favor of trying to explain the concepts.

    Catholics faced the same difficulty here in Peru. At one point the Church established a single set of authoritative writings in Quechua, which the clergy were supposed to use verbatim, if possible. The Quechua however was a code that no one really spoke. The Church chose to create its own language out of the diversity of Quechua to try to suggest something universal and fixed. Yikes. History repeats itself it seems.

    The lay leadership is a source of syncretic re-elaboration of Mormonism, as are ordinary members.

    The issue of the Christmas Tree reminds me of the figure ground problem and boundaries drawn. For the sister you sited the tree was Christian. For other Latter-day Saints, since it was also pagan in origin, it did not count. Why not an orange tree indeed? Let the new context rule here in inconsequentials.

    This is the boundary between the two that is so significant and rich in meaning as it is created, challenged, and argued. Even the notion that some things are essential and some not is a challenging assertion that attempts to make some things forms and the rest tokens.

    The name of a Wasatch Front culture is similarly a problematic notion like in Catholicism the notion of popular religion, in that it delegitimizes one kind of working of Mormonism in favor of others, in part to make Mormonism more transportable. No matter how done, these distinctions are always arguable, I think.

    Nora, on the importance granted to the US, I hear you.

  7. I am going to print out your post and try to translate it into words of one syllable so that I can understand what you are saying. My problem- not yours. I thought syncrete was what they paved the I-15 with in SL a few years ago!

  8. david knowlton says:

    Sorry Nora. Syncretism is the blending of two different religious traditions. My apologies. Syncrete was horrible, if I remember correctly. LOL.

    PS. I will be glad to put into more ordinary English anything that does not make sense in my academese.

  9. Norbert says:

    Interesting post, David. I can think of loads of examples in Finland of the kind of thing you’re describing.

    Something we were talking about Sunday: the Finnish word for president, presidentti, is only used to refer to the president of the country: its not used otherwise. And so President Monson is usually called profeetta Monson — Prophet Monson. Likewise, all church callings use the word ‘johtaja,’ leader, instead of president. So it’s a stake leader, a temple leader, etc. How that works with the concept of presiding as a doctrine is interesting.

    Also, the increased importance of baby blessings to match up with the general cultural practice of infant baptisms within Lutheranism is interesting, but I’ve been contemplating a post on that.

  10. david knowlton says:

    I look forward to your post Norbert.

    On the Finnish words and the concept of presiding, that notion can only be expressed in language–despite more corporal ways of showing deference to presiding authorities. As a result an analysis of the words and their connotations and usages inside and outside of Mormonism would be important or helping us understand the different Mormonisms that are arriving of necessity in this time of correlation.

  11. “I pointed out that the dwarf orange tree was no more pagan than her blue spruce. She didn’t take it well.”

    The wrong taketh the truth to be hard?

  12. Ever since my own mission, I have been fascinated by how cultures view certain practices differently – and how the Church is manifested differently by different people. I knew many Japanese members who kept the traditional ancestors shrine in their houses, with no concern that it might be wrong. As I listened to their reasoning, I agreed wholeheartedly.

    Otoh, the Spanish Branch in our stake regularly starts 10-15 late, and the general noise level is much higher than that to which I am accustomed and enjoy. My initial judgment was to address those “concerns” – until it hit me that my perception was cultural and that the branch was FAR more successful statistically than any other unit in our stake. It became clear to me that what they were doing – the atmosphere and spirit that they were creating in that church family – worked for them, even if it seemed a bit dysfunctional to me.

    I am fine with cultural adaptations that do not sacrifice doctrinal foundations. In this case, I’d rather put new wine in unique bottles than not be able to put the wine in any bottles at all.

  13. Kristine says:

    Even the notion that some things are essential and some not is a challenging assertion that attempts to make some things forms and the rest tokens.

    David, I like this formulation. I’m just (at this embarrassingly late date) reading Talal Asad for the first time, and have been struck by his observation that even calling a particular set of practices “religion” already imposes an enormous set of preconceptions and unexamined assumptions on our observation of other cultures. It seems to me that teasing out these prejudices is particularly difficult and important, precisely because Mormon categories of belief and practice overlap in different ways than other traditions’.

  14. david knowlton says:

    I agree Kristine that it is important to take into account Asad’s observations about religion. In some ways here is the distinction made around Wasatch Front “culture”. This historical form of Mormonism does not fit easily into contemporary frames of religion that are internationally recognized. It is easier, to pick up again Mark IV’s citation of Kathleen Flake, concepts of religion as a defining frame, including notions of lay leadership. This way the Church is made more portable. Yet the Church is far more than a religion. There is inherent tension between the two definitional realities. Some parts are far more portable than others. Some are more easily seen as religious than others.

    Ray, the notion of cultural adaptations troubles me. It seems to assume there is something outside of culture which can find a means of adapting to culture. I wonder what can justify a claim that something is beyond culture. Can claims to divine origin? Only to the degree that the divine can stand continually outside of human activity. But that makes it unknowable. Otherwise we face power claims which prioritize themselves by removing issues from discussion. But that process is still within culture.

    However all that academic stuff said I think I would like your stake’s Spanish branch. It sounds fun.

    There is the old saying from Italian that to translate is to betray. Any process of translation involves a series of choices and accidents which only allow some meanings through and which create new meanings in the text in translation. As a result new Mormonisms are being created simply by taking the historical Church mostly found in the Mountain West and moving it to other milieus, whether urban US suburbia, Japan, Mexico City, or anywhere else.

    Well gotta pack my bag to leave in a couple of hours for Lake Titicaca.

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