Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, set in a Nigerian village before the coming of white men, reminds me of the 2004 American film, The Village. Each story begins in a small village isolated from contact with the outside world. The village is surrounded by an evil forest containing fearful monsters or spirits which can only be kept away by careful adherence to ritual and avoidance of taboos. Each village is ruled by a group of elders who periodically costume themselves as spirits or monsters, visit the village, and strike terror into the hearts of the young and impressionable. Savvy people recognize the sham performance, but do not expose it. Their cultural survival depends on the majority accepting the myths and rituals that provide social stability and a moral code for their community.
Modern countries, with the exception of totalitarian regimes, base social stability on legal codes. Yet, myths and rituals play their part. National history is often taught with distortions intended to promote patriotism—resulting in larger than life portraits of national heroes like George Washington who never told a lie. Flags and national anthems are patriotic rituals that promote national cohesion.
Religions also promote myths and rituals to solidify the faith of members. The Old Testament is full of taboos, the violation of which brought swift punishment. Even Uzzah’s pristine motive of trying to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling off the ox cart did not keep God from smiting him for touching the ark with his unauthorized hand (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Church members who neglect rituals such as baptism or confessing Jesus as their savior risk damnation in the next life. Members who vocalize skepticism about the historicity of improvable stories such as virgin births or angels appearing to humans may be ostracized.
Laws, rituals, and myths promoted by nations and churches benefit the community. Stirring phrases such as “Give me liberty or give me death!” rally the young to take up arms for their country. Social regulations of marriage originated to protect women and children from being deserted by their provider.
Along with the positives, social organizations have negatives. In the Nigerian village of Achebe’s novel, the social mores subjugate women, allow women and children to be beaten, discriminate against individuals labeled “outcasts,” force the abandonment of twin infants, and provide harsh punishments even for unintentional injuries caused by a tribe member. Allowing input from members other than the leaders might have caused the tribe to recognize that some of their traditions had no merit and were harmful. Unfortunately, leaders of organizations seldom welcome input from ordinary group members, and pointless traditions often continue until they drag the group down.
Like Native-American culture, African culture has largely been destroyed by the coming of whites seeking riches and Christian churches seeking converts. I wonder if Achebe’s village might have dealt better with the European intrusion if their own culture had relied less on fear and obedience to leaders. Is fear the best motivator for social stability? History tends to say yes.