Looking for Jesus in ‘bahag’: A primer on our pre-colonial faith

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What did our faith look like before Christianity? As we are temporarily redeemed from our responsibilities this Holy Week, there’s ample time to reflect and reexamine what we know we believe, and what we believe we know. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Fascination with the pre-colonial isn’t uncommon, especially in a country like ours, where vestiges of Spanish and American occupation and imperialism bombard us whichever direction we look. The West is embedded in our food, our music, our education, our surnames, our maps, even in the languages we use to articulate our thoughts and give form to the world we perceive. This realization often causes one to question the “authenticity” of the present: what we believe in, what we practice, what we know.

There is a restless insecurity triggered by this doubt, one that is especially strong regarding the concept of religion and spirituality: What did we believe in before the Spaniards and Americans brought their iterations of Christianity to our islands? Are we doomed to suffer a permanent amnesia, cursed to worship an imported deity and parrot the systems of the oppressor? Did Christian conversion really rob us of everything that made us who we were?

The pursuit of any pre-colonial identity, much less the “resurrection” or “reclamation” of its facets, is a tricky act. On one level, is it truly possible to completely shuck off centuries’ worth of doing and undoing, and return to an uncontaminated past? We’re also faced with the problem of space: whose past are we trying to recover? Prior to Spain lumping together these seven thousand or so odd islands together in the name of empire, there was no unifying system that linked Palawan to Surigao, Tawi-Tawi to Batanes. Whatever pantheon of deities the Tinggian of Abra were venerating prior to Western contact barely resembled the gods of the Subanen of Zamboanga.

The pursuit of any pre-colonial identity, much less the “resurrection” or “reclamation” of its facets, is a tricky act. On one level, is it truly possible to completely shuck off centuries’ worth of doing and undoing, and return to an uncontaminated past? We’re also faced with the problem of space: whose past are we trying to recover?

This search for a mythic past also distracts us from the now, the tapestry of faith our peoples have woven for themselves within — not despite — the introduction of an outsider religion. It is true that the violence of colonialism should not be downplayed, but it is also important to celebrate how, as the Cebuano scholar Resil Mojares puts it, “carved out in the colonial belly […] historically-specific identit[ies].”

Christianity in the Philippines is no carbon copy of its Western progenitors: it is rife with signs of folk and traditional vigor. The same can be said as well for the vibrant variations of Islam practiced in the country. However, in the attempts to visualize the pristine past, we often dismiss these ruptures as mere superstitions or quirky misbeliefs instead of the subversive sites that they are. One does not even need to squint along the margins or flock to remote corners of the country to see that the Filipino has creatively appropriated a once-enforced faith to suit their local sensibilities: almost any Christian rite, image, or ritual in the country has unmistakable traces of the local.

As a good number of us are temporarily redeemed from our responsibilities this Holy Week, there’s ample time to reflect and reexamine what we know we believe, and what we believe we know. Here’s a list of works that only begin to scratch the surface of the richness of indigenized faith in the country.

Novel: ANG BANAL NA AKLAT NG MGA KUMAG

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Allan N. Derain’s dizzying 2013 novel won acclaim at the Palancas and National Book Awards. Stories within stories within a story, “Ang Banal na Aklat ng Mga Kumag” recreates an ecosystem of the texts that lie just within the borders of our consciousnesses as Filipinos: myths, folktales, parables, biblical narratives, novels, and bits of pop culture collide on a stage scaffolded by folk faith. The book is a visual treat too, with illustrations (by the author himself) that bring to mind the anting-anting of the Visayas and Southern Tagalog regions.

“Ang Banal na Aklat ng mga Kumag” is published by Anvil Publishing.

Nonfiction: PASYON AND REVOLUTION

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In 1979, Reynaldo Ileto published what is now a landmark text in Philippine studies, tracing popular movements and peasant uprisings in Luzon before and after the revolutions of 1896 and 1898. Ileto explores how revolutionary leaders used Philippinized concepts such as loób and pakikiramay in religious texts such as the Pasyon (a chanted epic following the Passion of the Christ — itself a prime example of indigenized Christianity) to rouse and mobilize the masses during a pivotal era in Philippine history.

“Pasyon and Revolution” is published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Short fiction: THE WORKS OF ROSARIO CRUZ-LUCERO

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The prolific fictionist and Philippine studies scholar locates the bulk of her stories in Negros Occidental, and explores the interactions of the locals and outsiders (whether those outsiders be Spaniards, friars, Americans, or even Filipinos from outside the region) throughout the province’s history from pre-colonial times to present. Stories such as The Death of Fray Salvador Montano, Conquistador of Negros from “Feast and Famine” (2003), The White Lady in the Forest from “La India, or Island of the Disappeared” (2012), and Comedia from the anthology “Underground Spirit” (2010) captivatingly lay out the dynamics of these cultural collisions.

The works of Rosario Cruz-Lucero are published by the University of the Philippines Press.

Poetry: CANTICOS

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At the forefront of contemporary Bikol literature and translation stands Kristian Sendon Cordero. “Canticos,” his collection of four lengthy poems in Bikol and Filipino was published in 2013. Originally his creative thesis at Ateneo, “Canticos” takes apart four Bikolano songs essayed from the perspectives of four marginalized characters in (Bikol) society — the Agta, woman, Aswang, and Asog. These poems dialog between the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the grotesque, the folk and the formal, the religious and the secular, and offers us a glimpse at history from the margins of both the page and country.

“Canticos” is published by the UST Publishing House.

Music: DIWA

Chants and songs from indigenous communities aren’t exactly surprising contents for an album by the inimitable Grace Nono, whose primary field of scholarship and archival is precisely that. However, the record, released in 2002, also contains tracks that colorfully display how traditional sensibilities inform and reshape Christian music as we know it. “Awit sa Krus,” a pandanggo from Batangas, “Golpiadu Makimallo,” of the Itawit and Ibanag of Cagayan, “Hol Doyon Kuy D’wata,” a T’boli interpretation of Psalm 150, and Nono’s own adaptations of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” and St. Nicetas’ “Te Deum” all add to such a rich and growing spectrum of Filipino liturgical music.

Grace Nono’s “Diwa” is produced by Tao Music Records. Listen to her songs on Spotify.

Film

A Quiapo intercessor’s daughter has Marian delusions in Laurice Guillen’s “Santa Santita” (2004). In Emmanuel Palo’s “Sta. Niña” (2012), a man uncovers his daughter’s uncorrupted corpse in Pampanga’s lahar fields. In Alvin Yapan’s "Debosyon" (2013), a Bikolano devotee of the Virgin of Peñafrancia falls in love with a mysterious woman who lives in a forest at the foot of the Mayon volcano. Four priests-in-training confront demons (literally and metaphorically) in Erik Matti’s "Seklusyon" (2016). Kristian Sendon Cordero’s "Angustía" (2013) and "Hinulid" (2016) explore the sites of folk’s and faith’s meetings in Luzon’s extreme south. And, of course, Nora Aunor, in Ishmael Bernal’s "Himala" (1982) teaches us all that in the end, our deepest faith and heaviest doubts are all of our own making.

Filipino theologians

The Philippines is nowhere short on incredible thinkers who locate their theology precisely where they practice it: the Philippines, with all its vernacular quirks and colonial baggage. José M. de Mesa, Melba Padilla Maggay, Isabelo F. Magalit, and Ed Lapiz are just a few of many Filipino theologians who show that Christology and enculturation go hand-in-hand, pulling Christianity away from the polarizing West and reimagining Christ’s work and legacy through our own indigenous terms and mechanics.

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One can argue that faith knows no culture, and is boundless and powerful enough to articulate itself through whatever system of meaning-making humanity has developed. One can also say that culture does have the power to absorb and reinterpret any outside force that attempts to  erase it. Either way, the nativist view entails looking only to the past, imagining and centering narratives of defeat, silencing, or erasure. It is easy to overlook how beliefs evolve and adapt, deluding ourselves into thinking they’ve disappeared. Instead, we should take joy in the dynamic conversations and negotiations that continue to take place as Filipinos all over the country localize a once-foreign faith, making the country a vibrant site of belief.