Putting an End to Pizza Box Forms of "Inculturation"

I am pretty sure that I could replicate typical post-conciliar approach to inculturation by stopping random strangers on the street and asking what one could do to make a Mass feel more….fill in the blank. African? "Drums." Afro-American? "Gospel music." American Indian? "Feathers and dance regalia." But just suppose for a moment that I filled in that blank with “Italian” instead. Our man on the street might think of spaghetti, opera, and accordions—after which we’d saunter off and shape a ritual spectacle to match his expectations. Sure, we might well end up with something superficially “Italian” but it would be at about the same level of sophistication as a caricature on a pizza box. To come up with something as deeply Italian as the Roman and Ambrosian rites shaped over millennia in the land and language of Cicero, Virgil, Gregory and Ambrose would be pretty much impossible under the circumstances.

A "fully inculturated" template for the modern Roman Rite
Having devoted over two decades to studying the very cultures typically selected for inculturation projects, the post-Vatican II attempts look increasingly to me like pizza box caricatures. They never delivered on their promises of thoroughly authentic cultural expressions but have instead fallen into inadequate stereotypes that are practically indistinguishable from an ignorant tourist’s expectations. What makes it all the more embarrassing is that many well-meaning Catholics within these communities are now accepting these stereotyped tropes as if they were an authentic cultural expression.

Modern inculturation has become the liturgical equivalent of that infelicitous time decades ago when the residents of Indian reservations would deck themselves out in TV-style costumes for snapshots with tourists. Philadelphians still fondly treasure the memory of Traynora Ora “Chief” Halftown, a full-blooded Seneca Indian whose children's’ television show did so very much to dispel the “Hollywood Indian” stereotype—but even he wore the instantly recognizable Plains war bonnet and not the traditional but comparatively obscure Iroquoian gustoweh. That tells you how deeply some of these stereotypes can be rooted.

We have probably allowed ourselves to be seduced by a pizza-box approach to inculturation because we have falsely thought—or, rather, have been falsely taught—that the pre-Vatican II church was a hide-bound, monolithic entity that cannot have anything good to say on the question of cultural adaptation. But it is a foolish, and liturgically fatal, assumption that wouldn't survive one lecture by researchers such as John Thornton, Jeroen DeWulf, and Linda Heywood, who have done tremendous work in documenting the Catholicism of the African diaspora. But it is a sad fact that Catholic scholars and prelates have lately not been as quick as their secular counterparts to appreciate, research, and synthesize traditional Catholic material.

I am not offering any easy solution here. Researching this material takes time and patience—and often it also takes some imagination to see old material in new ways -- but putting in the time and effort will certainly yield much more fruitful results down the road. We need to slowly retrain ourselves away from going for the cheap stereotypes and associations and, instead, take seriously the pre-Vatican II customs of these communities, not just as historical artifacts walled off behind protective glass, but as rules and guides for the continued development of the liturgical arts today.

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