Bell on Ritual Change

Bell on Ritual Change - From Catherine Bells Ritual:...

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From Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Dimensions and Perspectives Oxford University Press, 1997. Chapter Seven Ritual Change Questions of ritual density and style are not far removed from questions of ritual change, that is, the way in which rituals change over time. Yet the issue of ritual change has been much more central to study and analysis of ritual than the issue of density. Indeed, much controversy surrounds questions of ritual change among people involved firsthand in performing ritual. There are very few religious groups that are not concerned today with how best to adapt traditions of worship to shifting social and spiritual realities. At the same time, new religious organizations are also concerned with how to build ritual traditions and communities without replicating what they see as the problems of past traditionalism. A number of scholars, as either participants or observers, have been drawn to the issue of contemporary ritual change and, at times, drawn into the controversies surrounding it. Part of the dilemma of ritual change lies in the simple fact that rituals tend to present themselves as the unchanging, time-honored customs of an enduring community. Even when no such claims are explicitly made within or outside the rite, a variety of
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cultural dynamics tend to make us take it for granted that rituals are old in some way; any suggestion that they may be rather recently minted can give rise to consternation and confusion. Indeed, as chapter 5 demonstrated, part of what makes behavior ritual- like is the way in which such practices imply the legitimacy of age and tradition. Yet there are also other reasons why we tend to think of ritual, especially effective or meaningful ritual, as relatively unchanging. Most theories of ritual have been rooted in ethnographic observations of oral societies, which afford less perception and evidence of historical change. These ritual traditions particularly give the impression--to both the indigenous peoples and foreign observers--that they are a matter of deep structures that do not change. Even though there is evidence that such rites are imperceptibly but homeostatically changing all the time, this constant modification is not usually interpreted as discrete instances of long-term pro- cesses known as change but simply as limited and commonsensical arrangements necessary in particular instances. Foreign observers have tended to see unchanging rituals in oral societies unless they carefully record different performances and compare them, which was the case with the Ncwala kingship ritual discussed in chapter 3. A now discredited ethnographic contrast between societies "with
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history" and those "without history" express the perceptions of some Western scholars that oral societies have no real sense of the past. 1
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This note was uploaded on 02/14/2009 for the course 840 317 taught by Professor Kearns during the Fall '08 term at Rutgers.

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Bell on Ritual Change - From Catherine Bells Ritual:...

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