Monday, July 7, 2014

On Religious Parades

Before I went to Taiwan, I always thought of idols in one of three ways. Either they were gods worshipped in the distant past, they were modern pop stars as in “American Idol” or they were things that Christians today put ahead of God, such as money or having a good reputation. But after moving to Asia I realized that idolatry, in the most literal sense of the word, is alive and thriving in many places.

One Sunday night at around 8:00 p.m., the street outside my house exploded. If I lived anywhere else, I would probably have thought there was a gunfight. But in Taiwan, I assumed that it was just firecrackers. The bangs were accompanied by loud, raucous music. It was so noisy that I found myself putting my hands over my ears to stop them from hurting.

Apparently that was the night of a religious festival, probably a local deity’s birthday. These festivals are usually celebrated with parades, and this one started right outside my apartment.

The parade featured people in elaborate costumes, which represent either deities or protective spirits, that dance while music is played. People also carry the statues of the deities, which normally rest in temples, through the streets. These statues rest in elaborate boxes carried on poles by teams of people, kind of like a sedan chair. Traditionally the carriers bounce the boxes to give the deities a more enjoyable ride.

This parade also had fireworks, not just firecrackers, as well as a truck that was playing Western music, such as “Trouble” by Taylor Swift. (I wish that were a joke.) As they were getting ready before it started, I also spotted a flat-bed truck with a pole and a young woman who looked like she was going to be dancing on it.

My first reaction was frustration and anger at the noise. The sound was almost causing me physical pain, and there was no way I could get anything done with that cacophony outside.

But then my conscience caught up with me, and I thought of God. It was as if the Holy Spirit said to me, “How do you think I feel?” I realized that this parade, which in my mind was nothing more than a nuisance that should be shut down with a noise ordinance, was actually much more. It was an expression of a false religion, an act of worship given to a god that cannot save. Moreover, in worshipping this idol, the people there were despising and ignoring their Creator, who I love dearly.

Acting on impulse, I went downstairs to get a closer look. That was when I saw the costumed people dancing and posing in the street. There was a police officer directing traffic around the parade. And I saw a crowd of young men walk by, carrying the box with the idol, my frustration at the noise began to fade. I wondered what was going through their minds, whether they really believed they were holding a god or whether they were just participating in a fun cultural activity. I wondered the same about all the people in the parade.

Taiwan is quite highly developed as a whole. It has great public transportation, some very impressive buildings, and goods from all over the world. Almost all the young people have smartphones, and they tend to act surprised when they learn I don’t have one. And yet the country is still in the grip of superstition and pagan religious practices.

I’m not usually one to complain about other cultures. I’m all for experiencing and learning about new kinds of food, music, clothing, art, etc. Finding out about other countries can make our lives much more interesting. I also think Chinese culture has a lot of values it can teach us in the West, such as the importance of caring for one’s parents.

But religion doesn’t fall into either of those categories. It isn’t a morally neutral thing you can add into your life, like trying a new food or buying some calligraphy to hang on your wall. It isn’t even a moral statement everyone can recognize intuitively, accept and act on.

No, religion is fundamentally a statement of the way the world works. And that means if any religion is true, anyone who rejects it is believing a lie. I think Christianity is true. (If I didn’t, I would not be a Christian.) And if I’m right, these people are not only wasting their time; they’re actively insulting the God of the universe by choosing to worship something else.

After a few minutes, I turned away from the parade because I was choking up. The sight of so many people so lost and confused broke my heart. It was humbling for me to realize how little I cared about my Taiwanese neighbors. At first I didn’t care what these people were doing, as long as they didn’t interrupt my quiet evening at home. 

But for those of us who love the Lord, idolatry is not just a nuisance. It is a sin against God and a tragedy for people. If we listen with the ears of Christ, the sounds of the parade are really a cry for help.