Friday, July 21, 2006

Public TV That Got Me Thinking

My kids are yelling in the background, so forgive me if this is totally inarticulate......

A couple days ago, I watched a special on Public TV dealing with communication of ideas through images. Although that sounds rather drab, the program featured cultures throughout history and examined their ways of communicating ideas and passing on traditions. There were examinations of Greek Tragedy, Roman bas-reliefs, but what struck me the most was the segment on the Aborigines of Australia.

The Aborigines most likely have the oldest continuing culture of any group in the world today. As the documentary unfolded, the audience was shown cave paintings dating back thousands of years. Amazingly, these cave pictures are nearly identical to the forms found in contemporary Aboriginal art. Much like Byzantine Icons, the pictures are not a series of narrative illustrations, but rather each individual drawing contains layers of meanings derived from its form, decoration, and position. In order to grasp the full meaning of the drawings, one needs to have an elder interpret it and tell the entire story.

There was another aspect to this entire scene, which should raise some interesting points. The pictures and the stories were incomplete outside of a story-telling ritual. The old and young Aboriginals would gather at night around the paintings, and amidst drums, the stories and myths were told through chant.

To me, the liturgical overtones in this scene were powerful. So many basic truths easily forgotten -- The powerful roles played by art, beauty, and sacred space are wound into our beings in a very fundamental way. The Aboriginals have an unbroken lineage going back to the dawn of language itself, yet (this had to be coming) within the Catholic Church we have suffered a forty year cataclysm in catechetics, liturgy, and passing on the Faith itself.

This whole scene reminded me of some bits and pieces of Chesterton. The themes and images of The Everlasting Man are evoked from this primitive scene. As a matter of fact, I distinctly remember GKC mentioning the Aboriginal myth of the great flood. A giant frog had swallowed the waters, and refused to spit them out. All of the animals went to ask the frog to relent and failed until the eel arrived. The eel was comical, tumbling and spinning around out of water, and the frog laughed and spewed forth the waters, causing the flood. If I remember correctly, the Aboriginals are also monotheistic.

Our culture has designed focus groups, multimedia presentations, tutors, standardized testing, no child left behind, and graduate studies departments bursting at the seams to devise new and better ways to teach children. The fact that the most proven and long lasting means of teaching can be observed as being........liturgy........should be a sobering thought.

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