In medieval times, the Church’s theologians argued about the nature of the catholic mass. Was it a symbolic act or a miracle, a magical act? Did the wafer and the wine truly became the flesh and blood of Christ? It is a true miracle, they claimed. Even though the wine tastes like wine, looks like wine, and smells like wine, it has now become blood.
How? Well, the medieval philosophers made a distinction between primary and secondary characteristics. The primary characteristic is the essence of something, while the secondary characteristics are those phenomenal manifestations that we use to recognize something but it is not part of its essence. For example, the soul of a person would be their essence and the true meassure of who they are. Everything else would be a secondary characteristic: external appearance, color of the skin, or even their particular life story. In the case of the wine, the transformation into “the blood of Christ,” according to the Catholic theologian allows it to retain all the secondary characteristics. The signal to the senses remained unchanged, but the substance had been transformed. It is, in the eyes of these theologians, a type of miracle that affects the essence, not the outward or secondary characteristics. Similarly, they would argue, prayer and the sacraments affect the soul, but not the body of the supplicant. This effect of exchanging one essence for another was called “transubstantiation.”
Now, look at the traditions that seek to preserve the past. Take a dance, any dance, performed thousands of years ago, perhaps to prepare for the hunt. It was a preparation for the one act that could mean survival or death for the tribe. Today, you go to a park in your vehicle, you see people dress in feathers drumming away and you think you are watching the same dance the tribal people did before the hunt long ago.
They dance. They follow the same external steps. They play music, perhaps even dance to the same tunes as before; but what was a dance of survival then is now mere entertainment. What was sacred in a raw sense is now performed to educate and entertain. The audience, and the performers, do not have now the same experience that the ancient artists had. They’ve preserved the external manifestations but not the essence.
The Telling is an experiment in cultural transubstantiation. It seeks to bring in the essence of something live and potent from a different time and make it do what it did, make it come to life in a context that delivers the essence. It does not seek to retain the externals, but delivers the true substance and the audience knows that something happened that is not part of the known.
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