Thursday, September 23, 2010

Religious Observance

Throughout the first half of Tales of the Tikongs, one of themes that author Epeli Hau'ofa returns to repeatedly is the different reasons people subscribe to religion, and whether adherence to religious dogma can actually make one a more moral person. Characters like Sione and Ti Polo Siminī incorporate religious ceremony into their lives in various ways, but none view the rituals they partake in as vehicles which they can employ to have a positive impact on those around them. Instead, the characters perceive such observance as a requirement which much be fulfilled in order for them to avoid unpleasing sensations. In contrast, one of the few characters in the novel who expresses an interest in "truth" -- in something greater than his own pleasure -- does not regularly partake in religious rites (44). By presenting these dueling portraits, Hau'ofa begins to suggest that religious practice does not refine, and may even dull, one's moral compass.
In Tiktongs's first chapter, Hau'ofa makes it clear to the reader that the people of Tikong, and Sione in particular, do not attend Church out of a desire for spiritual edification. The "100% Church attendance" in Tikong is a conditioned reaction to the "booming" Church bells, and the citizens' knowledge that this negative stimuli will only cease after "everyone has gone to church" (2). That Sione and his wife "bounce" out of bed upon hearing the bells -- a citywide reaction, Hau'ofa tells the reader -- demonstrates the power of this external compulsion (2). Sione and his peers do not appear to have any other motive for going to Church. Manu, able to ignore the noise by using earplugs, would rather sleep than attend the service for its and his own sake. Furthermore, though they are "pious" while worshipping, the citizens have no desire to avoid "Temptation" and "sin" in the time they are not at Church, making their "confess[ing]" and "prais[ing]" of God seem like meaningless, rote exercises (3).
Ti Polo Siminī is one of the few characters in Tikongs who is depicted as engaging in non-ritualistic spiritual activities outside of Church, but he only does so to avoid a more powerful negative stimuli than the bells: the vengeance of God's prophets. Ti Polo prays for forgiveness after committing the accidental "sacrilege" of ripping out a page of the Bible in the dark to use as a cigarette, and having had a wrathful divine dream as a result (36). His remorse seems to arise from his understanding of not only having committed a major sin, but having committed an unordinary one (36). He recognizes the "enormity" of his act because it is something which his peers would "never" do (36). Ti Polo has no qualm about stealing from his neighbor - by again ripping a page from the Bible but not repeating the "un[heard]" of act of burning it -- and trying to rape his neighbor's wife in his attempts to atone for his initial sin (36).
Though his initial sin was inadvertent, Ti Polo commits these acts with full awareness of what he is doing, and commits the second even after repenting for the first. For him, like Tikong's parishioners, religious observance has become a way of bypassing pain, and he considers forgiveness as a guarantee "no matter what" his intentions for the future are (10). That Hau'ofa allows the character to get out of his suffering by sinning again -- this time an "equal and opposite sin" -- shows that he, like Ti Polo, views religion as what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a "set of rules," a set which does not help one become a genuinely better person (42; MacIntyre 119).

Hau'ofa, Epeli. Tales of the Tikongs. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: Third Edition. United States: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008

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