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Paul Post: in the end, all rituals are about banning evil

Published: 08th November 2019 Last updated: 08th November 2019

When people think of rituals, they associate these with beautiful, good, and immutable solemn ceremonies, such as we find them in funerals, baptisms, and weddings. But this view is incorrect, as outgoing professor Paul Post explains: ‘Quite often these rituals are neither good nor beautiful, and they are certainly not immutable. That is something I wanted to expose. In contrast to popular belief, rituals are always in flux, finding expression in interesting new forms, such as multi-functional churches and relics of refugees.’

Professor Paul Post, having occupied the chair of Ritual Studies for 25 years, is retiring and saying farewell to Tilburg University. In his valedictory address, he looks back on his work on rituals, more particularly on how these take on new forms. ‘I studied theology at Utrecht, specializing early Christian art. I was always interested in the material side of ritual art and folk culture. In my address, I want to map and analyze the dynamics, the transformation of rituals. New rituals almost never grow out of nothing, they are reallocations of existing elements. Older elements in these rituals, such as churches, locations, are subsequently used for different purposes.’

What Post prefers is what is indicated by the neutral concept of recasting, introduced from Brazil, where no judgment of any kind is expressed on the transformation itself. Religion and ritual creatively adapt to changes and take on new forms in new contexts. Thus, local (ancestor) cults can be mixed with religious Catholic liturgy, for instance. He refers to the large former multifunctional monastery complexes, which also served as meeting places, musea theaters, and libraries. These functions we can now see in the recasting of churches that have become redundant. 

Guts needed in reallocating the purpose of church buildings 
In reallocating the purpose of church buildings, the guardians of the Cultural Heritage organization are one of the parties involved, but they are happier with a Jumbo supermarket being set up in a church in Helmond than with the recasting of the Church of Saint Peter in Vught being transformed as a meeting place, uniting within its confines a theater, a museum, and a Fair Trade Shop and café/restaurant, all of which required a lot of refurbishments. 
‘Good recasting needs guts, and space has to be made’, Post observes. ‘In this, you can even embrace an entirely new concept or idea. For instance the phenomenon of ‘church’ can be recast. In a new ‘Vinex location’ Leidschenveen a white way-side chapel was built on a mound (a former landfill) as an art project. It is not allowed to enter; you can only look in from the outside. And yet it has a sacred function, it gets people thinking about the fact that there are no longer any churches built in new residential areas. 
In my view, we should adopt a recasting perspective, answer the question how we can create sacral zones in our present-day culture, and be ambitious about allowing it to take all manner of forms and shapes. Recasting can be manifested in multiple ways at the same time. Churches can function as a Day Chapel, as a meeting place, a place for reflection and contemplation, a place where meetings or exhibitions can be organized. In several places in (too large) churches a smaller cube has been built in the middle of it and is being used as liturgical space, while the rest is serving a variety of purposes. Let an old church chiefly be a center that you can always walk in and out of.’

Relics of refugee boats
Other examples of recasting with ritual reallocation that Post mentions are what he refers to as the new relics: ‘After the disasters with refugee boats near Lampedusa, artists crafted and exhibited relics, made from the refugees’ boats and life jackets. Wreckage was turned into crosses. Lists of, if possible, names of deceased refugees are drawn up - the Migrant Files – by people traveling all around the Mediterranean to give the migrants a name and a face, or at least a number, and specify the size of the group they were part of.’
But recasting does not always work well. Together with the ‘We gaan ze halen’ organization (‘Let’s bring them here’), set up by the Reverend Rikko Voorberg, people wanted to commemorate the refugees with paper crosses on the Fourth of May – the Official Dutch Commemoration Day - in Amsterdam. It was a recasting in the sense of an update of the Dutch Commemoration Day. It sparked a lot of protests, as did one of the trails of the Nacht van de Vluchteling (Refugee Night), which was to start from Kamp Westerbork (suitable because the camp was originally built as asylum for German refugees in the Second World War). Both events were cancelled after the upheaval. 

But as long as there are people, Post points out, these rituals will be in transformation. This is confirmed by prehistoric finds. Recent research on mummified iceman Ötzi revealed that he had tattoos in places on his body that scientist suspect were affected by arthritis. Post: ‘In the end, all rituals are about banning evil. Of course, rituals also serve to connect people and help them cope with grief and misfortune. But if you dig down one layer deeper, what you find is this elementary need to ban evil.’’