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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 316-318

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Carnival and Other Christian Festivals: Folk Theology and Folk Performance. By Max Harris. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 282. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Successfully combining ethnographic and historical research, Max Harris has produced a rich collection of essays on virgin/saints' days, Corpus Christi celebrations [End Page 316] and Carnival traditions. Notebook, camera and video recorder in hand, he takes us on an exquisite journey that leads to a deeper understanding of community festivals. While sampling delicious food, drink, music and local ritual drama, Harris approaches his subject with the idea (borrowed from James Scott) that festivals embody both public and hidden "transcripts." Public accounts include ritual-related discourse produced by government and church representatives, scholars and assorted outsiders. More complex meanings are often hidden from plain view but nevertheless can be discerned through a careful reading of the festival drama itself. In visiting the celebration of San Antolín in the Spanish town of Sariñena, the author confesses that it was there that "his appreciation of folk theology . . . first took conscious form" (p. 21). Alternative meanings rendered through performance may even "offer a corrective to the public theology of church ritual, preaching and art, especially where the latter have been largely shaped by those in power" (p. 29). By paying close attention to popular religious practice, in other words, we learn much not only about so-called folk theology but social dynamics and history.

Visiting the annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, for example, Harris suggests that popular devotion to a compassionate mother figure "expresses the human need to experience God as sympathetic and close at hand" (p. 51). Yet here, adulation of the virgin is divided among three different personas each with its own constituency: the more official Mary (Christian mother of God), Tonantzin (a pre-Hispanic/Nahua deity) and Malinche or Maringuilla (largely an Indian goddess). The author observes a corresponding social ranking associated with the worship of each of these three Marías as members of different social groups construct an image of the goddess that fits their own religious understanding and cultural identity. In a variety of festival contexts, Harris observes the expression of a folk theology that tends toward a "vision of plenitude." By this he means it is often "those who, lacking political power, know most of material scarcity [and] like to imagine a God who is generous" (p. 68). Moreover, many of his case studies also reveal a degree of political tension where popular resistance to official positions of power is clearly evident. He explains, "[w]e have observed a refusal of fastidious asceticism in favor of a hearty enjoyment of food, drink, song, dance, romance, and pyrotechnics, an enjoyment of the physical world sanctioned by the benevolent presence of . . . images of saints and virgins" (p. 79).

After some thick descriptions of Corpus Christi in Spain and Peru, Harris concludes with a study of Carnival and shows its close connection with other religious holidays. Sharing the exuberant staging of Carnival in several contrasting local contexts, Harris comments, "like the Feast of Fools, Carnival deflates pretensions and fattens stomachs, proposing a more radical reading of the Christian narrative than is generally heard from pulpits and altar rails" (p. 144). As we see, Carnival participants certainly make mockery of many social and religious subjects but at the same time they perform a "not so hidden transcript" that in fact encourages rather than negates spiritual devotion. Eloquently summing up his chapter on Carnival in the Galician town of Laza, Harris notes the parallel between the Ash Wednesday funeral [End Page 317] of Carnival and the Good Friday ritual burial of Christ. "The folk theology of Laza's Carnival," he writes, "enacts the hope that, despite the brutality of emperors and generals and the foolishness of the clergy, Mary's millenarian vision of freedom and plenty for the poor will in the end prove justified" (p. 156). While the realization of the aforementioned...


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