Rich Mayfield: Hollow is the deceitful ritual
Over three decades spent in the ritual business gives me a certain perspective on the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. The spectacular show revealed much of what is good about ritual and some of what is very, very bad.
I expect others about my age (rapidly moving toward ancient) were put in mind of another massive display of synchronized true believers while watching the proceedings a week ago Friday. Film clips of Hitler’s pompous pageantry at Nuremberg kept passing through my head as I watched a sometimes eerily similar show from China. From 1933-1938, the Nazis would put on a parade of monumental proportions both to jack up the German locals and intimidate the rest of us with their jack-booted troops. Watching the Chinese soldiers goose-stepping as they raised both their own flag and the Olympic flag didn’t do much to dispel my sense of ominous similarities.
Of course, there was much to raise our collective altruistic spirit as well. Who can object when children representing the plethora of ethnicities indigenous to China strolled into the arena dressed in their own tribal garb?
And when little 9-year-old Lin Miaoke confidently stood all alone and sang “Ode to the Motherland,” whose heart-strings weren’t plucked even a little? The fact that little Lin wasn’t really singing at all, but only doing a nice job of faking it while another, better tuned, tyke actually sang the number can be dismissed, I suppose, to the vagaries of show business, but I think it’s a little more ruthless than that. Apparently, Lin wasn’t even aware that her microphone had been turned off during her mute performance. It seems she was sacrificed before the gods of “national interest” according to Chen Qigang, the general music designer of the opening ceremonies.
Mr. Qigang rationalized the deception: “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.” This is the very, very bad part.
When ritual is employed to deceive rather than inspire it crosses a fine line that I find particularly troubling even if I can’t actually decide where it is drawn. But when, for instance, I see religious leaders parade into their sanctuaries dressed-up as royal figures complete with regal robes and bejeweled crowns, I sense a crossing. I certainly understand the social value of honoring our dignitaries, but one can’t help but wonder if the message offered is considerably more sinister than that. Kings and queens demand unquestioning allegiance. The dubious and the doubting are seen as traitors in such a milieu.
Our secular rituals can be equally disingenuous. The upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver has gone to extensive lengths to make sure the rituals that take place inside the Pepsi Center and at Invesco Field produce a picture of harmony and concord. To that end, the local authorities are making sure all disharmonious dissenters are kept far away from the proceedings. The little boy who announced that the king had no clothes wouldn’t stand a chance with the Democrats.
Bad ritual also can take place with the best of intentions, but the worst of executions. With apologies to Henny Youngman, “Take our national anthem … please!” Surely our over-used “Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the more unsingable patriotic pieces of music around. With all the beautiful tributes to our national heritage and culture available, why do we continue to use this disagreeable description of a rather minor battle outside of Baltimore? With a little deft editing, “America the Beautiful,” for instance, would be a giant musical leap forward and a reminder of how good ritual can offer inspiration instead of indifference, beauty rather than boredom.
No question in my mind that when those 2,000+ drummers began pounding on their illuminated barrels for the opening ceremonies, most of us responded with both awe and amazement. The dramatic display of synchronicity kept over a billion people riveted to their TV screens which, not coincidentally, provided a nice diversion for the Chinese authorities to pick up any trouble-making dissidents on the streets who might disrupt the ritual taking place inside.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.”