Danny Cardoza and Jacob Hickman, Anthropology
Fong: Mentoring his students down to hell
The deceased was damned to hell and there was nothing to be done about it. Of this, Fong was quite sure. It was surprising to hear such a simple pronouncement, which rendered the typically complicated set of Hmong funerary rites—whether ‘traditional’ or Christian—effectively useless.
We met Fong1 in the summer of 2015 in a small Hmong hamlet not far Sapa, a town in the mountains of the northern reaches of Vietnam. Fong was the pastor of his small village, a group of Christians that converted through the missionary efforts of covert foreign missionaries about ten years ago. Fong took us to a Christian funeral, in the which the man who died was not Christian, but the rest of his family was. Fong decided that because the man wasn’t Christian that their typical Christian funeral rites wouldn’t help because the man didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. However, he also told us that performing the traditional rites would be sinful. According to Fong, this meant that the man was damned to hell and there was nothing they could do to save his soul. The funeral which they did hold was for the descendants, not for the man’s soul, and the rituals were abbreviated and short when compared with what Fong said their funerals were typically like. Fong didn’t even call us to let us know that they decided to move up the time when they were interring the body, so we missed it entirely—Fong thought that it just wasn’t worth our time.
Fong’s Christian life is explained well by the theories of conversion popular in the current anthropological study of Christianity. These theories emphasize a “discontinuity” with the pre-conversion religion. Theorists sometimes term this as a “rupture” with the old way of believing. These beliefs, however, are critical, because they are directly linked to the way the people compose their version of reality. Essentially these theorists are claiming that when people convert their conception of reality is fundamentally changing. Fong demonstrates this in the way he thinks that the traditional rituals, even as a last ditch effort to save the man’s soul, are inherently sinful. When Fong demonizes the pre-conversion belief system, he demonstrates the rupture, and, at the same time, reinforces how important the new, post-conversion reality is for him.
However, these theories of discontinuity or rupture don’t explain all of Fong’s post-conversion relationship to his pre-conversion beliefs. Before Fong converted to Christianity he was a traditional ritual master. This master performed and taught the traditional Hmong funeral rituals and other Hmong spiritual ceremonies. Fong was a particularly popular master in his community and had five protégés. When Fong converted, two of his students converted with him. However, three did not. Fong has continued in the mentorship of these three students for the past ten years, even though he adamantly condemns these same rituals. As far as we could tell, Fong was effectively mentoring these three students down to hell.
We spent the summer doing ethnographic fieldwork in Fong’s village and the surrounding area. We conducted person-centered interviews with Fong. This specific theoretical approach to interviewing is critical in understanding the contextual and meta-contextual elements of Fong’s story. Through the course of these interviews, we learned about Fong, his conversion, and the deep cultural and psychological implications his beliefs hold for his ontology.
We also participated in many of the rituals Fong showed us, both Christian and traditional. We attended a Christian funeral, as described above, but we also attended a traditional funeral with Fong, as well as many other Christian and traditional ceremonies. During the rituals we would ask the meanings of the different things we were doing with them, from kowtowing with incense in a traditional funeral, to bumbling our way through Christian hymns in Hmong during a worship service. We also recorded important elements of the rituals, which we later showed Fong and recorded his comments to the recordings.
We transcribed the interviews and used qualitative data analysis software (MAXQDA) to piece together the bigger picture of Fong’s story. After analyzing the hours and hours of interviews with Fong, we have a decent case study with which we can adequately challenge the current theories of discontinuity and rupture.
Discussion and Conclusion
Fong’s story tells us that the current theory of discontinuity in conversion to Christianity does not account for all aspects of how conversion is experienced. The traditional rituals were important to Fong both as something that was on the one hand supremely sinful, but on the other hand critically important to him as part of his identity as a Hmong person. While he felt that the rituals were sinful, he was terrified that one day they might be forgotten. He also felt an intense pressure to continue teaching them because that is what teachers do; to stop teaching represented a deep moral transgression. Fong’s case demonstrates some type of moral and religious syncretism. The concept of syncretism, however, brings a lot of theoretical baggage. We propose that more research be conducted in this area to provide evidence for a rethinking of syncretism that is not a melting pot of religious beliefs or moral concepts, but a theory of syncretism that allows for incommensurable beliefs to be held—for aspects of the pre-conversion belief system to retain importance in the post conversion construction of reality.
1 Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.