Saturday, June 28, 2008

Never Underestimate The Power Of Religion To Adapt

I spent much of last week in Mexico. Specifically, in the city of Monterrey, which is the provincial capital of Nuevo Leon state. I was there on family business, and unfortunately my formal reasons for being there kept me quite occupied for the duration of the trip. 

Consequently, I was largely unable to get out and investigate the religious landscape. During my brief sojourns in cars and buses around the city, I noticed a large number of growing Pentecostal churches, a trend Christian demographers have been talking about in Latin America for some time. Of course there were a number of Roman Catholic churches too, but the Pentecostal churches were more ingrained into the urban landscape. 

In the United States, many have come to see business architecture as rather standard and bland. A business has some kind of dark building color, perhaps brick, with an external sign indicating the name of the business. In Monterrey, and in much of Latin America, entrepreneurs are much more economical about their advertising space. While small businesses are often painted in light, distinguishing colors such as yellow and white, the names of businesses, telephone numbers, and even internet addresses are painted on the building itself in rich contrasting colors from wine red to deep blue. The small Pentacostal churches were no different, plunging headlong into the web of advertising and struggle for the public eye, rather than towering above with Romanesque steeples. Perhaps most interestingly, many preferred a rich cobalt blue for their outside walls, while advertising their religious services in white.

Just as the Pentecostal churches were small but far more numerous than I have noticed before in Mexico, I found the local religious television to be equally fascinating and fully integrated into the available technology for use. In the United States, it is very common for cable television systems to carry Protestant Christian networks, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network or others. While a worldwide Roman Catholic network does exist  (EWTN), the Monterrey metropolitan area was instead served by Maria Vision, a charismatic network offering intense devotional programming designed for the Latin American market, complete with a logo featuring the Virgin of Guadelupe.

Instead of watching Protestant ministers deep in prayer or preaching a specific message, the program I ran across was simply a focused, unmoving camera. The object of the camera lens was an instance of the Blessed Sacrament, affixed in a monstrance and pyx as in the unofficial, quasi-liturgical ritual offered in so many Catholic churches at the demands of the laity. 

Telephone numbers for different Latin American countries were displayed on the screen for those to call in their prayers, while a chyron at the bottom flashed different numbers for the devotees in various Latin American countries to text message their prayers into the network. The chyron at the bottom occasionally flashed 'Maria Vision' while a woman and man alternately intoned the 'Hail Mary' prayer in Spanish.

Back in the 1960's, it was very common for secular intellectuals and cultural critics in the United States to predict that religion would soon fade away as science, technology and communication took over as paradigms for human living. If anything, the last 50 years have roundly disproven this "secularization" hypothesis. Rather, the careful study of technology and capitalism reveal that some of their largest and most successful applications have been religious ones. Not only in an area such as the United States of America, but also places with very different relationships with religion and culture, such as the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.