Journal of Religion and Film

They Call Me Joy: Philippine Protestantism
as Local Culture

By Brian Howell
Wheaton College

and

Anthony dela Fuente
Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary/Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary

Vol. 10, No. 2 October 2006

They Call Me Joy: Philippine Protestantism
as Local Culture

By Brian Howell
Wheaton College

and

Anthony dela Fuente
Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary/Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary

Abstract

In this paper, we use the narrative of an award-winning Filipino film from 1998 as a window into contemporary Filipino spirituality and religious consciousness. Giving narrative details and literary content, with a particular focus on those aspects we feel are most salient for our discussion here, we argue that the commercially and critically successful film suggests important cultural themes. Specifically, this paper draws on the medium of film as a window into the contemporary ethos of Philippine spirituality and thought, and applies that insight to an analysis of ethnographic data on Philippine Baptist Christianity. Through conversion narratives as they were shared with us, we offer analogies to the messages of popular culture and the streams of thought they represent. In the end we argue that this is fruitful in interpreting contemporary non-Western Protestantism as, at least potentially, a locally meaningful phenomenon.

Article

Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin (They Call Me Joy)

[1] In a successful film of recent years, a prostitute wants to buy her way out of her situation and she longs for a man that will treat her as if she has never been dirty. This film was one of many with similar themes that won the hearts and captured the minds of Filipinos who are known for their avid film-watching habits.1

[2] Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin, (They Call Me Joy) deals with the theme of redemption and progress, of liberation and escape, becoming more than what one's background is, of overcoming circumstances and emerging as a new person. Ian Maher describes that sort of progress as one that is "essentially concerned with overcoming all that prevents a person from becoming fully human. Both the oppressed and oppressor need to be liberated from actions, attitudes and ideologies that are life-diminishing. This often involves radical, if not revolutionary change in the lives of individuals, institutions and structures that are responsible for the oppression."2 This revolution has become an important motif in many media in popular Filipino culture. Although the film invokes many traditional images of religion, economy, machismo, gender relations and so forth, the film is really not about the rejection of these traditions as something irrelevant or something that must be discarded in order to become "modern," or "developed." Rather, what Ligaya is trying to communicate is that redemption can be achieved through building on these traditions, in the re-appropriation of an essence, in holding to the core values of these traditional elements.

[3] Ligaya, a feisty and determined woman, does not want to spend the rest of her life as a prostitute.3 A seemingly innocent farmer takes her out of the brothel and marries her. In the end, she is deeply disappointed as escaping her past life is not as easy as she first envisions it. Her past keeps haunting her. Thus, wholeness, cleanness, and redemption become the central foci of the film.

[4] Religion and its accompanying traditions play an important role in the quest for redemption. The Filipino whose religion is predominantly Roman Catholic examines and questions the relevance of the Church and its role, as its people seek a better life and redemption from their current situation. In one particularly vivid scene, Ligaya, usually portrayed as a strong character, is seen desperately begging one of her regular patrons to take her out of the brothel, to redeem her. The man, who turns out to be the parish priest, instead spits at her and repeatedly calls her a whore, humiliating her, and degrading her further. This particular scene and subsequent images of the Roman Catholic Church in the film are significant in different ways. First, the scene is a candid portrayal and commentary on the fallibility and corruptibility of the priests who are predominantly seen as the channels of grace and atonement by the Filipino4 Second, the portrayal of the inability of the traditional church as a human institution to ultimately help the people liberate themselves from their immediate, earthly concerns suggests that as an institution, the church is openly criticized and often thought inadequate. One cannot find redemption and progress in a corrupt, crumbling edifice of the traditional church. Instead, Ligaya is humiliated and condemned by the church.

[5] But at the same time, the film continues to recognize the strong influence of the church in the lives of the people and their aspirations for a better or moral life. A church wedding and a white wedding dress seem to make Ligaya ecstatic. After meeting the man she believes will be her husband and savior, and moving into a typically humble house with him, we see Ligaya repeatedly fingering the fabric of the white wedding dress she has purchased and hidden away in anticipation of her church wedding. These become important symbols of her redemption. It marks the departure from her old life, and the beginning of a new one. The Roman Catholic rituals and sacraments remain a significant element in the Filipino's quest for wholeness and liberation. Ligaya, as a prelude to her church wedding, finds it necessary to go to confession (although this is cut short by the unfortunate discovery that the parish priest turns out to be her regular patron).

[6] The view of the Roman Catholic Church as portrayed in the film certainly is a hodgepodge of conflicting images. While Filipinos may see the Roman Catholic Church as this corrupt, flawed institution, they continually are drawn to its embrace as they see the church as the channel and dispenser of the better life. The presence and significance of the Roman Catholic Church in the Filipino's quest for redemption and progress remains a significant theme to the Filipino religious consciousness. What is important for the Filipinos, it would seem, is what this institution represents. It is not just some antiquated, ineffective structure that needs to be discarded. What they see is that the church, or more importantly, the meaning of the church, remains the center of Filipino spirituality; sanctuary, grace and life abundant can be experienced within, or in spite of the apparent flaws of, the religion.

[7] Ligaya has to contend with seemingly overwhelming obstacles as she faces the challenge to become a better, a new, person. She wants to break through the traditional roles and conventions to which she belongs. Trapped by circumstances and her station in life, the repeated phrase in Ligaya is "a woman who is destined to be a whore will in fact become a whore and will remain a whore until she dies.” This traditional Filipino fatalism runs against her hope for redemption that she thought possible through the institutions of the church (the wedding) and society (traditional Filipino domesticity). In the end, the failure of these institutions stands out starkly against what the film-maker suggests is the real source of such possible redemption, love.

[8] Ultimately, it is not just seeking to overcome these social obstacles in which Ligaya finds the possibility for actualization of redemption. It is in the wrestling, and coming into terms, with what she has, who she is, and her condition deep within herself that ultimately ushers in the redemption she is seeking. The hope for redemption is not in the casting off of traditional roles, morals, or cultural worlds, but in the reformation of those traditions through what can be seen as a surprisingly evangelical vision of an individual's relationship with the Divine.

[9] Ligaya fails to play the traditional role of a farmer's wife as her inability to cook and her customary ways and vocabulary are dead giveaways that she is different, and therefore cannot belong in the mainstream society. Traditional roles and values are not discarded, but flawed and constricting in the quest for personal progress and freedom, needing reform. Her ultimate submission to the social world of prostitution does not mean the film portrays a hopelessness for the plight of the oppressed, but there is a clear indication that the social world can never be the source of her hope and salvation.

[10] An insight such as this becomes informative for understanding many facets of contemporary Filipino society, including the development of the Protestant Church. Although a distinct minority religion (10-15 percent of the population), Protestants, by and large, have personal religious roots in the Roman Catholic Church. All, of course, live in a national context that is profoundly shaped by Roman Catholicism and Church institutions. There are those, of course, who characterize Protestants as having rejected both Catholicism and Filipino cultural tradition in the most profound manner imaginable: by leaving the Church.5 Rather than rejecting a previous and deeply ingrained tradition, it is in the cultural messages seen in these films that we find the key to interpreting how many Filipino converts view their own religious change.

[11] A superficial or isolated examination of Philippine Protestantism would give the impression that it is merely imitative and "Western,” an extreme rejection of Catholicism, Catholic tradition and, perhaps, the culture with which it is so closely associated. However, with an understanding of the way in which the underlying themes of Protestantism are present in the wider social context (as exhibited in the films) we are able to argue that the practice of Protestantism is very much a part of the local Filipino moral landscape as it is developing in the early 21st Century.

[12] Our research of Philippine Protestantism follows a now familiar anthropological track by exploring the meanings and uses to which religious understandings are put. Following Weber, Parsons, Geertz and now many others, we would suggest that culture, religious or otherwise, is an essentially contested process of meaning making. This process is not isolated from prior cultural messages and must be taken in the larger social context. Thus we can explore the analogies of Protestantism and popular culture. In this paper we focus in particular on that centerpiece of Protestant experience and religious life, the conversion narrative.6

[13] Rosa Canales, a member of La Trinidad Baptist Church (TBC), has a very familiar story in which she encountered a group of evangelical Christians who befriended her and invited her to an informal Bible study in one of the member's homes. Her family, particularly her mother, proffered staunch opposition to her conversion from Roman Catholicism, cutting off virtually all contact for over a year. Rosa persevered, however, and when asked what convinced her that this change was worth such family strife she replied:

[For] me? It's like I was just convicted and because of that I started worshipping together with the people here before…before where we were still at Camp Dangwa [the first location of the group which would eventually become TBC]. We worshiped the Lord together but there were times… there were Sundays when I would go to the Catholic Church and then…it was like I saw the difference of…as if when I was there in the Catholic Church my worship is sort of mechanical. It's like it's choreographed like that. But when I was there…together with my Bible Study companions, its as if I can begi…oh…nothing…automatic in your worship. If what you are feeling is like that. And then it is as if the Word of the Lord says to you, "Follow me, come follow me,” like that. And suddenly I thought about the Bible…like that…you forget yourself…You feel renewed. I said, "How will I follow Christ really? If I follow you?” So that was convicted me – to follow Him… really through and through, come what may, through thick and thin. Yes. Praise God, I am victorious. Because even when I was a new Christian it was as if I still had downfalls, but God was there to support me. And now I am stronger…I believe!7

[14] Her testimony contains a number of elements familiar to others who have examined these narratives: renewal, commitment, a personal encounter with the Divine. What is absent, however, is a sense of rejection of the former life in a very strict sense. Her complaint with the Catholic Church is neither doctrinal nor relational. She does not suggest that she came to a truth she previously did not possess in any form. Rather, she says that the worship of the Catholic Church was "mechanical” and "choreographed” and ultimately unfulfilling for her. Her conversion, though dramatic and in clear contrast to her life prior to her decision to join the evangelicals, is not so much one of rejection and enlightenment as it is improvement and progression.

[15] A similar theme was invoked by Velorio Sag-dan, a leader and long-time member of City Baptist Church. His "conversion” story was somewhat different in that he described attending the church after his children became involved in the summer Vacation Bible School.

[16] It was the children who started [going to the church.] I believe it is good…they go and say, "come with us.” For me, it is no problem. I am already Christian. So it is no problem, I just go. I like this church and it is better I go with the children so later I think I can join.

[17] His background was with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP,) and he did not have family members who held Catholic membership. For him, becoming a member of the Baptist church was less problematic, since both are Protestant denominations and there would likely be little or no resistance from family members or those in the community, as is often the case with Catholic converts. But in his interpretation of why he would leave the UCCP for the Baptists, it is essentially no different than Rosa's decision to convert from Catholicism. Doctrinally he does not distinguish UCCP and Baptists; he calls both "Christians.” But he finds in the Baptist church a superior form of Christianity that is free of the empty ritualism with which he characterizes the UCCP.

[18] "[The Christianity] there is dead.”, he declared. "Here [at City Baptist] I learn to love God and His Spirit.” When pressed to elaborate he explained, "They are always working. Trying to do good works. They do not trust and believe like at CBC. It is better to just trust, you know?”

[19] Later, when asked to identify who, among other Christian groups, were "really Christians” in terms of doctrine, he elaborated. "I do not know who is just going to heaven only. But they are too much for works. It is not the Bible. They have the same Bible. But they are trying only to work, and not trusting.”

[20] For both Rosa and Velorio, we do not find themes of rejection and rupture, in which the new affiliation is seen as a break from a personal or cultural past. Rather, the new affiliation with Baptist Christianity is the improvement and progression of spirituality and religion. As seen in the films, finding a "new” spiritual path does not entail the rejection of the old, but is seen as providing a continuation and improvement of prior commitments.

[21] When understood in light of Ligaya and other such films' presentation of a Filipino relationship to the traditions and institutions at the heart of "Filipino Culture,” it becomes clear that in the mind of many, the hope of reform, change, and "progress” is not to degrade those institutions, but to bring them to their original purpose and rescue the value they are purported to embody.

[22] There is no doubt that Filipinos can identify those practices and elements within their social world that originated outside of the Philippines, but are those elements necessarily replacing, covering or challenging locally produced identity, religious or otherwise? Does a departure from traditional forms suggest that the ideals, values or legacy of those traditions is being left behind as well? Despite the practice of a very Western form of Christianity, individuals are able to place themselves within a flow of Philippine history that is unbroken from earlier times. Their membership in the Catholic Church or Protestant movements is recast as a form of their current faith – a flawed or imperfect form – but one that led to their current faith and practice.

[23] This is not to say that interpretations of conversion are uniform across Protestant believers. Elsewhere, a more complete exploration of this data is presented, clearly displaying the complexity of this religious community.8 There are some (perhaps through their internalization of dichotomies created in other contexts) who hold to a very clear division between Protestant life and faith, and the Catholic Church they or others have left behind. Yet this is not an intrinsic feature of Protestant conversion. So-called foreign elements so prominent in Philippine Protestantism and Filipino society can be seen as intimately connected to local traditions; as logical extensions of the faith with which Filipinos are so familiar. Recast as meaningfully local, even a seemingly Western style Protestantism can become a source of redemption and fulfillment for Filipinos who find traditional religious expressions lacking. For Ligaya, it was to reinterpret her experience as a prostitute; for these Filipino Protestants, it is their understanding of how to serve, worship, or relate to God; but for all of them, the traditions of the past, whose forms are left behind, continue on in shaping their progress and redemption.

References

Douglas, Bronwen. 2001 From Invisible Christians to Gothic Theatre: The Romance of the Millennial in Melanesian Anthropology. Current Anthropology 42(5):615-650.

Harding, Susan. 1987 Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamentalist Conversion. American Ethnologist 14:127-181.

Howell, Brian. 2003 Practical belief and the localization of Christianity: Pentecostal and denominational Christianity in global/local perspective. Religion 33(3):233-248.

Kipp, Rita Smith. 1995 Conversion by Affiliation: The History of the Karo Batak Protestant Church. American Ethnologist 22(4):868-882.

Maggay, Melba. 1999 Filipino Religious Consciousness. Quezon City: Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

Maher, Ian. 1997 Liberation in Awakenings. In Explorations in Theology and Films. C. Marsh and G. Ortiz, eds. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Stromberg, Peter. 1993 Language and Self-Transformation: The study of Christian conversion narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trinidad, Ruben F. 2002 Nicolas Zamora and the IEMELEF Church. Chapters in Philippine Church History. A.C. Kwantes, ed. Colorado Springs: International Academic Publishers, Ltd.

Viswanathan, Gauri. 1998 Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

GROUPED NOTES

FILM CREDITS
Ligaya Ang Itawag Mo Sa Akin
They Call Me Joy


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Vol. 10, No. 2


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