Samsara and Baraka, Our World in Film

Coming soon to a theater near you. We’ve all heard those words. (At least I think we have. Do movie advertisements say that any more?) But for a lot of the movies I’d like to see, it’s not true. That’s because my community doesn’t have a local venue for foreign films and documentaries. We do, though, have a library that does a pretty good job of keeping up with off-the-beaten-path movies. For these kinds of films, maybe the slogan should be “Coming later to a library near you.”

That brings me to a new production that premiers today in New York and Seattle. The title is Samsara, which the production’s website says is “a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever turning wheel of life.'” It’s a series of video clips filmed in 25 countries over a period of nearly five years. With a musical score but no dialogue or commentary, it is director Ron Fricke’s followup to his earlier Baraka (1992). Both follow the same format, and both were shot on high-resolution 70 mm film. Baraka, a word present in several languages, means “blessing.”

Of Baraka, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert writes, “Of course there is a ‘message’ somewhere in ‘Baraka’—the same message we have heard before, about how man must love and respect the planet.” But Mark Magidson, who produced and co-edited Samsara and worked on Baraka as well, tells The New York Times that with Samsara, “We’re not trying to say anything.”

Maybe the editing of Samsara will end up showing an obvious message, but it looks to me right now that the film is a video Rorschach test, with the meaning varying from viewer to viewer. In fact, I envision getting a copy and showing it to some groups—for instance, college students or potential missionaries or veteran cross-cultural workers—and asking them, “What do you think the filmmakers are trying to say? What one-word title would you give to the movie? What does it mean to you?”

In 2008, Baraka was digitally restored and released on Blu-ray (it’s also available on DVD). In response to the restoration, Ebert writes, “If man sends another Voyager to the distant stars and it can carry only one film on board, that film might be “Baraka.” And as for the Blu-ray version:

[It] is the finest video disc I have every viewed or ever imagined. . . . It is comparable to what is perceptible to the human eye, the restorers say. “Baraka” by itself is sufficient reason to acquire a Blu-ray player.

While I’m waiting for Samsara to come to my library, I think I’ll check out—or buy—a copy of Baraka. And maybe both will be aboard Voyager 3, going soon to a galaxy far, far away.

(Nicolas Rapold, “Planetary Poetry, Woven into a Movie,” The New York Times, August 18, 2012; Roger Ebert, “Baraka,” November 12, 1993; Ebert, “Baraka [1992],” October 16, 2008)

[photo: “holi amusedness!” by Elijah Nouvelage, used under a Creative Commons license]

Cultural Plate Tectonics

Since we’re all globally savvy, we could find all the countries on a world map, right? (Well, most of them . . . at least the big ones.) But could you locate the countries on a map arranged by culture? That’s the kind of map that the World Values Survey has produced, with each nation positioned along two axes: Traditional/Secular-rational and Survival/Self-expression. The result is a graphic on a square grid that puts like-minded countries into distinct groupings, like the stitched-together pieces of an abstract quilt.

The Traditional/Secular-rational scale measures the importance placed on religion, while Survival/Self-expression distinguishes, in large part, between the haves and the have-nots, where the survival cultures are concerned with basic needs, and the self-expression cultures focus more on “subjective well-being” and “quality of life.”

The countries that sit closest to the four corners of the 2005-2008 map are

  • Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Bulgaria: Secular-rational and Survival
  • Zimbabwe and Morocco: Traditional and Survival
  • Sweden: Secular-rational and Self-expression
  • US and Ireland: Traditional and Self-expression

This more recent layout is interesting, but what makes it even more interesting is to see how it compares with the 1999-2004 map, showing the shifting of cultures over time.

Both maps are part of an article, “The WVS Culture Map of the World,” written by Ronald Inglehart and Christ Welzel. After explaining the survey findings, the authors go on to evaluate them as they relate to the development of democracy in societies around the globe, giving particular attention to the correlation between the move toward self-expression and, therefore, interpersonal trust:

This produces a culture of trust and tolerance, in which people place a relatively high value on individual freedom and self-expression, and have activist political orientations. These are precisely the attributes that the political culture literature defines as crucial to democracy.

This seems to be a basic theme of the World Values Survey organization. My guess is that not everyone across political and ideological spectrums agree with their conclusions. But their interpretation of the survey results are certainly thought provoking, especially in light of recent world events, such as the Arab Spring.

[photo: “Blue Mountain Center (September 2007),” by Sherri Lynn Wood, used under a Creative Commons license]

200 Years of American Missions: Names and Numbers

On February 6, 1812, Gordon Hall, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, and Luther Rice became the first North Americans commissioned as missionaries, set apart by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at the Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts. A few days later,  Judson—along with his wife, Nancy—and Newell—with his wife, Harriett—set sail for India, arriving there in June. Samuel and Roxanna Nott, Hall, and Rice joined them there two months later.

On the occasion of this 200-year anniversary Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, announced that since that time, by 2010, the number of Christian missionaries sent from the US had grown to 127,000, or 32% of the 400,000 missionaries worldwide. The US is top on the list, while in 2010 Brazil sent the second-most number of missionaries at 34,000.

So if the US sends the most missionaries, who receives the most? Well, that would the US as well, with 32,400 missionaries arriving from other countries (again, using 2010 numbers). Turns out that many of the Brazilian missionaries are sent to work among Brazilian communities in states in the Northeast.

There’s also another person who is sometimes mentioned along with Adoniram Judson and his group when the first missionaries are listed, not because he went out with them, but because he went out before them. He was George Liele, an African-American former slave in Savannah, Georgia. He gained his freedom before the Civil War, and then he and his family escaped re-enslavement by sailing to Jamaica with a British colonel (sometime around 1782 to 1784). In Jamaica, Liele planted a Baptist church, reporting in 1791, “I have baptized 400 in Jamaica. . . . We have nigh three hundred and fifty members; a few white people among them.”

So who was the first American missionary? That depends on our definitions. The first American “citizens” “commissioned” and “sent,” those would be the ones from Salem. The first ones born in America to travel to another country and make disciples, that would be Liele and his family. My guess is that there would not have been a lot of jealous arguing about “firsts” coming from either group. And who knows? Maybe someone had already gone out earlier, someone now unnamed, someone unremembered, someone who simply went, without fanfare, spreading the hope of the gospel.

(Daniel Lovering, “In 200-Year Tradition, Most Christian Missionaries Are American,” Reuters, February 20, 2012; “People and Events: George Liele,” PBS; Billy Hall, “George Liele: Should Be a National Hero,” Jamaica Gleaner, April 8, 2003)

[photo: “Vintage Globes,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

Sunni and Shiite, They’re Not the Same

If you want to better understand news coming out of the Islamic world—or if you’d like to better understand your Muslim friends living down the street—you’ll need to know some of the differences between Islam’s two main divisions, Sunni and Shiah. Test what you know, and probably learn some things in the process, at The Christian Science Monitor’s online quiz: “Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do You Know the Difference?” Hint: If you can correctly answer the first question—”Which Muslim sect is larger demographically?” you’ll be well on your way to a decent score.

[photo: “China,” by Steve Evans, used under a Creative Commons license]

Volleyball and Football: New Dress Codes

Up until  two weeks ago, female beach volleyball players were required by the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) to wear a one-piece body suit or a bikini . . .  and not just any bikini, but one “with a maximum side width of 7 cm [2.76 inches].” Who knew? But now that’s all changed, as the FIVB has changed its rules to allow for “shorts of a maximum length of 3 cm [1.18 inches] above the knee and sleeved or sleeveless tops.” This new rule will be applied in all official beach-volleyball tournaments, including the 2012 Olympic Games, which will take place this summer in London. The reason behind the change, as stated on the FIVB site “is to respect the custom and/or religious beliefs.” While it is easy to think of countries with customs and religious beliefs that would have kept them from competing in revealing swimwear, the US as a whole would not be included in that category. But it will be interesting to see if individual senses of modesty will affect American uniforms. It will also be interesting to see if anyone is challenged or disqualified during an extremely close match for wearing too-long shorts. Where exactly does the knee start, anyway?

(“Uniform Change for All Beach Volleyball Events,” Fèdèration Internationale de Volleyball, March 18, 2012)

This isn’t the only recent change in women’s sports uniforms. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), has now decided to allow women to wear head coverings during football games (soccer games for us Americans). In June of last year, the Iranian team was disqualified from playing its Olympic-qualifying games against Jordan and Vietnam because they refused to remove their hijabs. FIFA considered the head coverings, which also wrap around the neck, as choking hazards. (Three Jordinian players were also banned for wearing hijabs, but the rest of their team stayed in the competition.) But now, following an effort begun by FIFA vice president, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, and the development of a newly designed hijab, which uses Velcro instead of pins, the rule has been changed. Willfried Lemke, the UN secretary general’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, praised the decision, saying it will give everyone “an equal chance to participate in football, without any barriers and regardless of gender, race, ability, age, culture or religious beliefs.”

(Jens Juul Petersen, “Football Now a Game of Inclusion for Muslim Women,” Common Ground News Service, March 20, 2012; Graham Dunbar, “Hijab Scarf Rule Comes to a Head as Iranian Women’s Soccer Team Banned,” Toronto Star, June 6, 2011)

[photo: “Beach Volleyball,” by Blake Bokky Bentley, used under a Creative Commons license]

Ken and Barbie, Not Welcome in Iran

Back in 1996, religious leaders in Iran declared Mattel’s Barbie un-Islamic because of “destructive cultural and social consequences,” but toy sellers largely ignored their edict. Starting in December of last year, though, Iran’s morality police initiated an official ban on the doll (and her companion, Ken). Who will fill the empty shelves? Enter Sara and Dara, created by the Iranian government’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in 2002 “to promote traditional values, with their modest clothing and pro-family backgrounds.” The pair of dolls are modeled after eight-year-old children, and even though that is young enough for Sara not to have to wear a headscarf in public under Islamic law, one is provided with each of her outfits. Quoted in Islam for Today, Masoumeh Rahimi, a toy seller in Iran, welcomes Sara and Dara’s arrival. “I think every Barbie doll is more harmful than an American missile,” she said. Another shop owner, agreed, calling Sara and Dara “an answer to Barbie and Ken, which have dominated Iran’s toy market.” But a Reuter’s report quotes a toy seller in Tehran who has a different opinion of the changes: “We still sell Barbies but secretly and put [dolls covered with veils and wearing loose-fitting clothes] in the window to make the police think we are just selling these kinds of dolls.” And Famaz, a 38-year-old mother, said, “My daughter prefers Barbies. She says Sara and Dara are ugly and fat.” Made in China, a Sara doll sells in Iran for about US$15, compared to US$40 for a real Barbie, and US$3 for a copy.

(Mitra Amiri, “Iran: Morality Police Cracking Down on Barbie Dolls,” Huffpost World, January 16, 2012; “Dara and Sara—Iran’s Islamic Alternative to Ken and Barbie,” Islam for Today)

[the photo is of girls in Iran with a Barbie backpack: “Picture 980” by cordelia_persen, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Global Church Is on the Move

According to Peter Crossing of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, one hundred years ago, the statistical center of Christianity was in Spain, with over 80% of Christians living in Europe and Northern America. But today, broad changes in the Christian population have moved the statistical center to Western Africa. “This 100-year shift is the most dramatic in Christian history,” said Crossing, who spoke in October of last year at the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia. Other statistics noted at the forum were

• In 1910, less than 2% of Christians were in Africa. Today, 20% live there.

• While 60% of Christians now live outside of Europe and Northern America, their share of Christian income is only 17%.

• The top five languages used in churches are Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Chinese.

• 32.39% of the world’s population consider themselves Christian. The next largest group, Muslims, make up 22.9%.

• In 1960, evangelical Christians were 2.9% of the world’s population. Today they have reached 7.9%.

(Mazda Rosalya, “For 100 Years, Christians Make up One-Third of World’s Population” and “Christianity Underwent Greatest Cultural Shift in 2,000 Years, Says Scholar,” Oct. 10, 2011, The Christian Post.)

[photo: “Praying Together” by Boyznberry, used under a Creative Commons license]