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Between Sacred and Profane: The Religious Theme Park.

       (Nanshan Park, Hainan, China).







On a tropical island. In parkland by the sea. A statue of the Goddess arising from the waves. Guanyin: Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. A park of temples in her honour. A religious theme park.


Are all religious sites now becoming theme parks? A (post)modern envelope containing a promissory note to be redeemed in the afterlife. An advanced capitalist shell framing a pearl whose luster is fed by the light of the otherworldly. In this world occupying a, sometimes special, geography; place given over to theme; a theme sometimes inherited from given circumstances (natural flora or fauna, sacred site), sometimes imposed from without (Disneyland). In the modern world this is how (the) experience is sold – pretty much regardless of content. The exchange form apparently apposite for any and every content in today’s world.


Religious sites and the presence of money (remembering that records or tokens of exchange for grain stored at the temple granary are one proposed origin for money). A presence somehow not at all tainting, curiously un-polluting; perhaps cleansed, along with the soul of the giver, in its passing through a sacred site. Sacred and profane. A (possibly always somewhat rhetorical) diremption now cured. The ‘torn halves’ of religion and commerce (not the same thing as economics, from which no one is exempt) now reunited, as the commodity enters -first permitting exchange and then developing- ever more fields of human activity.


Religion and economics (Buddhism and money). In this religion, perhaps above all others due to its emphasis on letting-go, on leaving behind desire, the spur to expenditure, this relation is a trifle incongruous (if not downright contradictory). But how else could it be; if it were not only to be suitable for monks (for whom someone, somewhere, must, in the end, pay). An interaction with life’s dominant forms of exchange is inevitable… (as with pollution, in the accumulation of waste chemicals, heat, or non-degradables, there is no outside to the exchange systems we live in - no free lunch).


Sell, sell, sell, (buy. buy, buy). And then there are the golden Buddhas… and the golden Guanyins… row upon row (as if in a modern commercial parody of the ‘thousand Buddha’ caves of South East Asian cultures, exchanging fluorescent brightness for candlelit obscurity). Gold, once the universal exchange equivalent, now (again) the spiritual exchange equivalent. In order to renounce, it would appear one first has to accumulate… religious memorabilia. A gilded investment, the gilt-edged stocks of spiritual saving. A chance to own a sacred piece, a piece of sacred time (a time ‘beyond’ the world of the commodity - as some would like to think). Sacred peace on sale.


A transaction where the indicative relation of fact is changed (rather than misrecognised) by the subjunctive wish? So in fact a performative, where the word or symbol is itself the act, is sufficient to change the fact on the ground. So offering, or at least pointing, the way to the possibility of such, where not its actual transformation. Or perhaps showing us that it is the limit of this performative relation that has now been reached? That the sacred (making sacred) is a special case…


What we find is the combination of the logic of economic survival (as old as religion itself, stuff must be made, food provided) together with the logic of the modern enterprise (mode of exchange) and a site with sacred, so cultural or historical relevance (a particular geography- always a form of monopoly), such that all unite in the form of the theme park – in effect a religious market. But here there are aspects that are more serious: prayer and guidance are part of the deal… as well as the ideals of a religious site, the presiding deity, here combined together with sea views and (Chinese style) gardens.


Buy, buy, buy (sell, sell, sell, your time, stored as money, in exchange for) objects and experiences whose point of reference or anchoring co-relative is sacred time - its favour, your betterment.


Perhaps we are witnessing here the dream of religion in the modern (advanced capitalist) world; cohesive and with a non-exclusive, non-excluding, face. Whilst also being the opposite to (and possible cure for) today’s stop-gap sectarianisms and fundamentalist turns, with their rhetoric of fear and control, their propagation of hatred (fruit of religion evolved for early social phases, adapted to feudal power relations and now often only surviving through the promotion of their worst aspects). Such a form of religion, cohesive and non-exclusive, would be opposite to these, as also to its other, opposite pole, the over-refined form of ‘religion’, existing only on the intellectual level (often a precursor to the ‘noble lie’). Perhaps this new ‘pop’ commercialization is the alternative to both ‘apostasies’? Religion ‘in-between’ (neither fanatical nor intellectual); does it stop being religion? Or does the commodification and identity rituals it is embedded in constitute a ‘third way’, a ‘middle voice’, a (post-) modern answer to the question of religion. Grail of critical thought now provided, gratis, by the two forms it (once) sort most to critique: the all-leveling, all-appropriating commodification machine that is reterritorialising all it touches, from our planet’s surface to the depths of our very souls (even providing this latter, at a price of course, if not readily locatable) and religion.


Money returning the favour it owes to its founder. Supporting religion in its time of crisis. Ensuring its continued survival.


In the absence of a new belief system, evolved, indeed incepted, in and for our times... For the new global world order as it appears still to be coming… Based upon the ebb and flow of Capital and the Market, sustained and augmented by the State. With a bewildering variety of national or regional geo-cultural colouration (usually founded upon previous religious history). Predominantly (at time of writing) some form of liberal democracy, as according to the social structures and institutions it finds itself evolving with -even if, therefore, accompanied by some less liberal forms of governance (probably historically transitory). So far… anyway, as we can see. Always remembering that the ideal of democracy, most particularly that of small scale democracy -based upon face to face structures- is untenable in modern mass society, and may be so in even all but the smallest units (small countries and cities – even on the level of the street such matters quickly become dominated by interested parties, activists, local charismatics or members of powerful groups, representatives of families or communities). Never mind (at the other extreme of size) the ex-empires that have now exceeded to the capitalist form of market relations and imitate the other institutions of advanced societies with differing degrees of mimesis, resistance, and success (on both fronts, and where anyway a lot more social and economic development would be required before any proper comparisons as to similarity or difference could be made). In the West existential secular religions do not yet seem to ‘do it’ for more than a few of the educated few (putting aside the New Age-isms of the semi-educated). The educated few would anyway in any age normally dispense with their religion or cultural background (at least in private), as well as the popular superstition that makes up the actual mass of most religion, a populist cloak hanging untidily over its organizational backbone complete with hierarchy and crowning elite. The ‘noble lie’ lends focus to the (social) functions of religion (a cynical reductionist rendition of religion) perhaps separating out its philosophical truths and insights… The pragmatic use for these is perhaps an advance as compared to their service as a prop for (the) social order, always given the maintenance of this order of course (of which such classes often appear to be the major beneficiaries). Failed states are only of advantage to the most degenerate (to which religion, often the cause, is also the cure…). So given the absence of a new belief system, evolved, indeed incepted, in and for our times... given the absence of any suitable secular belief system, it would appear that almost any religion (only providing tolerance as a key feature) is preferable. If none of the religious sites of the West as yet appear to have had the full Disney treatment, then this is because the religion that gave birth to and succored capitalism (permitting it to evolve in an environment where politics did not call for its dismantling… one answer to its lack of ‘take-off’ in previous world civilizations) still has some propaganda issues with money as a creed. Perhaps as a residual ‘left’-populism, face of the weak and poor and meek; or anyway as a residual taboo concerning certain forms of alliance of money with religion. But it may only be a matter of time…


Fervency and its avoidance (or taming) appear the issue here, as fervency once denied social and cultural change whilst maintaining social coherence; but now merely provides a fertile ground for extremist recruitment…and so social destabilization whilst refusing all progress. Perhaps this (new or particularly Chinese) Eastern way with religion, not the (Western) myth of this (a self-serving ’orientalist’ admixture of cod-wisdom and exoticist mysticism) but the actuality of its lived experience, ‘actually existing religion’, with a number of secular safeguards on the power of sects and political opportunism, perhaps this semi-secularised, semi-commercialised form of religion has a role to play in the future that the western (monotheistic) religions (outside of their ongoing cultural import) sometimes appear to have outlived (witness the dying out of participatory religion in many parts of Europe). But what of Christmas… the West’s largest religious festival, which as a commodity festival shows a clear fusion of the older with the newer social forms and rituals - a knot tied in identity (religious) and economic exchange relations.


More tasteful is the statue of Guanyin, Buddhist ‘Goddess’ of Mercy, multi-faced, facing all directions, in appearance as if arising from the sea, or walking upon water… All the better to allow multiple-vantage points. Multiple face-to-face returns of gaze. Fulfilling the requirement of mercy that it first offers recognition. A peaceful site, whether viewed over or from the sea, or as approached from the land and walking over her (shop-lined) approach road or walkway (no different to the markets that evolve around any religious site where many people go .. providing indeed all the services required by those arriving, here cold drinks as well as religious memorabilia…).


An altogether less tasteful version may be found in the Wutaishan experience. One of China’s five sacred Buddhist mountains, where, despite the competitive aspects of the market, monopoly situation and opportunity nevertheless result in the fleecing of the pilgrim/tourist/consumer who, in search of a more inward experience, must turn a blind eye to his or her own impoverishment, or indeed must regard it as part of the price of the religious (identity) exchange relation they seek - the means by which this sense, this experience, is bought


At the opposite extreme there is, or perhaps was, Putuoshan Dao, with its (now no longer fully-accessible) mountain over-looking the sea, a peaceful isle which does not quite yet have the aura of a theme park, although with the pace of the isle’s development as a site for tourism and pilgrimage, this is getting closer…


Guanyin. The female face of Buddhism, a caring face, St Christopher and Virgin Mary rolled into one; Goddess of Mercy. A (still traditional, nurturing) role for the feminine in a religious world oft dominated by male deities (this latter an echo, no doubt, of modern religion’s patriarchal origins, whence the similar role played by the Marian cult in the West). Again the message is clear, effective, pleasantly free of unwelcome commitments and, most importantly, non-exclusive. Not liable, therefore, to be bent to some easy extreme ‘-ism’ or ‘-ist’ (in this it mirrors the preference by capital for equality of potential efficiency and a propensity for consumption and so disregards the other aspects of human life which we have, unhappily, elevated to principles of discrimination and hierarchy). As such any unwanted (for better or for worse) cultural accretions are easily removable (as is the case for, for example, in liberal forms of traditional religions, but is a reformation resisted by those with an interest…with an eye to a constituency or career as a putative charismatic). Only then are such religious feelings, together with their personifications, embodiments or symbols or imaginary deities, made more suitable for today’s society and to the places it would appear to be taking us (and over which we have frighteningly little control).


The appearance of the statue, arising as if from out of the sunlit sea, serene and dignified, and the surrounding park, green and ordered, offers for the fresh arrival from another universe a vision civilised and graceful – a world at peace. Would that the cultural, economic and social evolution of the society that backs up this image would grow up into the truth of the image it would wish to convey…




Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010