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Ritual and its interpretation

25 July 2014

David Martin enjoys a study that probes action and meanings


The Craft of Ritual Studies

Ronald L. Grimes

OUP £19.99


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THIS book by the doyen of ritual studies reflects with an autobiographical flavour on how to study and interpret rituals. Rituals are often religious, but not necessarily so, and Grimes seeks to induct us by numerous examples into the whole range of ritual behaviour.

He is particularly interested in the Santa Fé Fiesta, which has some very traditional Catholic elements, but other elements of sheer carnival. This is a site of academic reflection ripe with alternative interpretative possibilities. It can, for example, be seen as an arena for reconciling the different cultures that have clashed and mingled in Santa Fé. No participant calls it a healing rite, but it embodies an aspiration to heal "the wounds that divide us", suffused with religious rhetoric. But it can also be seen from a perspective that emphasises power relations as an invented Hispanic strategy for launching covert protest against Anglo economic domination. The participants themselves do not see it that way; so the analyst has to make an interpretative leap to claim to unveil the real meaning behind the outward show.

So ritual allows a wide range of interpretation both for the participants and the analysts. It can be healing and integrative, or it can secure boundaries against other groups and be divisive, or it can be both. If the Fiesta is cast in terms of the traditional, associated with Hispanic, Catholic, and Native, and the natural, associated with Anglos and assorted artists and newcomers, it becomes clear that our interpretative strategies are morally and ideologically saturated. Ritual integrates, and it divides, and it divides by integrating - rather like religion. As Ronald Grimes points out, rituals can empower and disempower, attune bodies and "disattune" them, reinforce the status quo and enact transformation, and make and unmake meaning. The washing of the feet in Holy Week inverts the structure of power to emphasise service, but the "servant of all" is still the chief actor.

Grimes also makes clear how discussions of ritual by such analysts as Émile Durkheim, Catherine Bell, Clifford Geertz, Roy Rappaport, Victor Turner, and Frits Staal are embedded in fundamental theoretical stances. The work of Durkheim, for example, as a common intellectual ancestor of the rest, regards the rituals of the sacred as subjunctive, a way of seeing the world ideally as it might be: that is one fundamental theory. Frits Staal sees ritual as isolated in a sacred enclosure, obsessed with rules, pure activity without meaning or goal. That shows just how perverse some fundamental theories can be, even when their exaggerations also illuminate.

There is much in Grimes's bookto inform the liturgist about text, image, and gesture, and many examples to stimulate reflection. There is, for example, Barry Stephenson's analysis of how the Reformation is currently performed in Wittenberg, and his discussion (online video), quoted by Grimes, of all that was involved for the participants in the deconsecration of a United Church of Canada building in rural Ontario. In a very Protestant way, it became just another building, and yet some church members took bricks away as material memorials of what had been for them the theatre of the sacred.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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