Saturday, February 24, 2018

Decoration or Declaration

Published in the Fiji Times as Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RECENTLY I was sitting at an airport, waiting to board a flight for a work trip overseas, when I had a simple yet poignant encounter.

The gentleman sitting next to me leaned over, pointed to the small wooden cross I normally wear around my neck and asked me: "What's that for?"

"What's what for?" I responded, not sure where his question was leading.

"The cross, what's it for?" he clarified.

To be honest, I was caught for a moment as I went through a list of possible answers and his responses in my head. This was a person I did not know; who did not know me. My next words would determine how our getting to know each other would progress.

Many readers would assume that being a Christian minister, it would be expected of me to use this as an opportunity to evangelise this person who did not know why someone would wear a cross. Some might hold the view that in a secular state and a rapidly secularising society, I should not impose my beliefs on another, or that I might be on the receiving end of an anti-Christian or anti-religion tirade.

I even thought about giving a long explanation to justify why I was wearing a cross — family history and personal spiritual journey etc. All these thoughts were processed in about TWO seconds (my mind can work fast when it has to).

In the end I responded with simplicity and honesty:

"I wear this because I'm a Christian and because of my vocation as a minister. It's what I believe in, who I am, and what I do."

I awaited the response.

"Good," he said. "Same here."

As it turned out, the gentleman beside me was also a Christian, and a retired Anglican priest!

As we conversed my neighbour said, pointing to my little cross once more, "At least you're wearing it for a reason. I see so many people wearing things because it 'looks good,' without realising what it means or says about them."

We use symbols every day to identify ourselves — where we are from, what we believe, what we stand for, what we identify with, which team we support, our culture, and our lifestyle.

In their introduction to the book, Modern Fashion Traditions: Negotiating Tradition and Modernity Through Fashion, M Angela Jansen and Jennifer Craik suggest that: "Due to prevalent Eurocentric perceptions of fashion, people fail to comprehend that fashion is not inherent to an object, but rather that its socio-cultural-historical context renders it fashionable."

Yuniya Kawamura suggests the most important distinction between fashion and dress is, "that while dress refers to tangible objects, fashion is intangible and provides added value to dress that only exists in people's imagination and beliefs".

In her contribution to Modern Fashion Traditions, Janaki Turaga writes: "In clothing and fashion there has been a sea-change in the clothing styles of communities and people that reflects clear negotiation between tradition and modernity, a marked transition from traditional to modern, and multiple fashion trends.

"It is argued that this era is characteriSed by the critical rethinking and interpretation of nearly all elements of life and society, and the redefining of the value systems that structure lives and lifestyles. This critical recasting process is reflected in the more visible areas of religion, fashion and modes of articulation in the realm of popular culture."

However sometimes, when these symbols become fashionable to the extent that they become commodified these symbols may begin to lose their intrinsic value. Its value is now only in its status as fashionable.

Therein lies the rub.

Since the beginning of this century, as a by-product of globalisation, there has been a burgeoning of the "secularised sacred".

According to Turaga, in some cases, the wearer of symbols, "crosses the traditional rules of engagement with the sacred, taking elements of it into the non-sacred domain, which ironically proclaims the fashionableness of the wearer, while at the same time proclaiming and underscoring his or her underlying religious and spiritual beliefs".

She writes that in this sense, the "secularised" sacred is still an element of the sacred (object, image, text, verse and so on) that despite being desacralised, still retains in its new "secular" avatar, some of its sacredness, which functions as its identifying marker.

"The sacred is exclusive, while the secularised sacred is more inclusive, with unrestricted usage and open accessibility to all in the public domain which gives it the secular identity marker."

Turaga also points out that while wearing significant symbols as fashion may be considered, "cool", some wearers may not be aware of the cultural taboos regarding the usage of these symbols in daily life, viewing them merely from a fashion and aesthetic point of view.

In the context of Fiji, where there has been a critical response by some to what they consider to be the (mis)appropriation of Oceanic (Pacific) cultural symbols by Disney in the movie Moana; there has been much conversation on the issue of protecting traditional knowledge and the symbols that give our cultures meaning.

In the context of fashion, Craik and Turaga write that visual elements that have deep, mystical meanings in their culture of origin, unknown except to those steeped in the culture are extracted from those dense meaning systems and then paraded as commodities down fashion street cloaked in new mythologies and exogenous narratives.

Images, symbols, myths are manipulated for marketing purposes. And we buy into them - our own and those of others.

As we prepare to enter a new year, perhaps this is the time for all of us to take a step back and look at ourselves - what we wear, and what it mean to ourselves and to others; not just in terms of fashion and how we dress, but in terms of how we value symbols of others and our own.

Each of us is making a statement by what we chose to wear. Is it a decoration, a fashion statement? Or is it a declaration of what we value, what we find meaning in and what we stand for?

"Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity."

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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