Dale Appleby

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Weekly Reflections

Why change? 4 May 14

Why change?

Andrew Beatty and his family spent five years or so living in a small village in East Java in the 1990s. He is an anthropologist who was interested in the ways different religious and cultural streams worked together. He was there at a very interesting time when traditional Javanese religion and folk Islam were being influenced by a new radical strain of Islam.

His book, called “A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java”, traces the different currents and influences that changed a settled village into one that began to be disturbed and divided. His book provides a very insightful picture of the different religious and cultural streams in an ordinary village. Mysticism, old animism, Hindu stories and plays, Islamic devotions and religious structures, all weaving themselves together in the life of a village.

The changes were brought about by a stricter form of Islam. At least by people who thought Islam should be practised in a way that appeared closer to the traditions and writings. Beatty is clearly in favour of the old syncretism and its gentle village life. He seems afraid of what the new radicals will do to the village.

A sequel written twelve years later shows that not all the feared changes took place. The village was harder to change than was feared (or hoped for).

Those who want an insight into traditional folk Islam in Indonesia and the impact of the radical version, will find this book very interesting.

Those wanting an understanding of traditional church life, might also find this book interesting. Most churches and many believers are syncretistic to some extent, and believe and practise things which are in some cases mistaken and in other cases just extra additions to the faith. Some of these don't do much harm. Others can be quite misleading. All can act as a veneer which hides what could be a different practice.

Does it matter? Yes. Can it be changed? With difficulty. Those who can distinguish the authentic from the additions don't always want to do anything about it. Why would one want to change something that has become comfortable and settled?

Some may want to change because the different practice might have power and benefit that is stifled by the comfortable and settled. Or because it is closer to what they think the Master called them to.



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