Vernacular Religion and Nature: The "Bible of the Folk" Tradition in Newfoundland

Article excerpt

Mrs Elizabeth March ... always chewed gum. One night about 18 years ago she put her wad of gum on her bureau and went to bed. The next morning when she went to take up the gum to chew again the gum had changed into a small statue of the Blessed Virgin. (She was a Roman Catholic.) She was very surprised and told everyone about it. She also showed it to people. People who saw it and heard about it thought that this was a kind of reward for her having had to work hard all her life. (Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive 71-9-32)

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Popular religious phenomena, from tortillas depicting the face of Christ, to aubergines which, when split, reveal the Arabic script of a verse of the Koran picked out in the aubergine seeds, frequently attract derision and dismissal from religious officials, the media and scholars alike. But to dismiss such phenomena as simply trivial or amusing is to underestimate the importance of the sacralisation of everyday life and personal experience in the religious lives of individuals (see Bowman 1990, 1992).

With an academic background in both Religious Studies and Folklore, I am convinced that ethnological insights and methodology are invaluable in terms of reappraising and understanding "religion as it is lived" in the more traditional forms of religion, and in getting to grips with contemporary spirituality in its myriad forms (see Bowman 2000). As the American folklorist, Leonard Primiano, has commented, "One of the hallmarks of the study of religion by folklorists has been their attempt to do justice to belief and lived tradition" (Primiano 1995, 41). The particular aspects of folklore studies which complement the study both of traditional forms of religion and contemporary spirituality include a refusal to grant privilege to written forms of expression over oral ones, the recognition that belief spills over into every aspect of life and behaviour, an appreciation of the dynamic nature of tradition, and the directing of attention to narrative forms such as legend and memorate.

In this paper I shall set out some of the basic ideas and terms underlying my views on the relationship between folkore and the study of religion, and on why I believe this can be such a fruitful partnership. I shall then use the case study of the "Bible of the Folk" tradition in Newfoundland to demonstrate some of these points.

Religion as a Way of Life

I have lost count of how many times converts or adherents to such varied belief systems as Paganism, Islam, Buddhism and Jehovah's Witnesses have said to me, "It isn't a religion, it's a way of life." That speaks volumes about a previously very impoverished understanding of religion--but a very common, modern western one, nonetheless--which has come to regard religion purely as an "added extra," something which is somehow divorced from "real life." It is perfectly natural (many believers would say, necessary) for religion to permeate every aspect of an individual's life. Religion provides a worldview, a way of seeing the world and interacting with it. How one sees the world--as God's everlasting creation, as an illusion, as inherently sacred, as a finite resource for humanity's use will naturally affect how one treats it. How one sees one's role in the world--to honour the earth as Goddess, to establish God's kingdom, to attain personal enrichment, or to achieve enlightenment--will affect how one acts. What one perceives will happen after one dies, what one believes happened before one was born, will colour how one conducts oneself and interprets events in this life. Religion can have an impact on what one eats, how one dresses, with whom one socialises, how resources are used; in short, how everyday life is conducted and construed.

Vernacular Religion

The practice as opposed to the theory of religion, that is, religion as it is lived, is often curiously neglected in discourses about religion, which is why I want to stress the importance of what is termed popular, folk or vernacular religion. …