Barry Stephenson works in the field of Religious Studies, focusing on the study of ritual, religion and the arts, and religion in modernity. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary, in 2005. He resides in St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where he is Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador (MUN, for short).
A former co-chair of the Ritual Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion, Professor Stephenson co-edits Oxford University Press’s Ritual Studies Series, and co-directs the After Church Atlas research project, with colleague Dr. Nicholas Lynch. He is author of Excursions in Ritual Studies, Ritual: a very short introduction, Performing the Reformation: Public Ritual in the City of Luther, and Veneration and Revolt: Hermann Hesse and Swabian Pietism. With colleagues Sean McGrath and Kyla Bruff (MUN) he founded and runs the not-for-profit For a New Earth, an environmental action group aiming to raise ecological awareness and activism in the province.
In his book A Secular Age (2007), the influential Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers brief reflections on the place of festivity in public culture, describing it as “one of the new forms of religion in our world.” Taylor discusses the importance of moments in urban life where the boudnary between “solitude and communication… sometimes flip over into common action.” Sporting events, rock concerts and festivals are among Taylor’s examples. There is great need within our mechanized, atomized, secular culture, observes Taylor, for moments of transcedence and the experience of collective action and solidarity. In an earlier work (Performing the Reformation, Oxford University Press), I discussed in-depth the dimensions of sociability, communitas, conviviality and transcendence in a new festival culture in Wittenberg, Germany. Far from advocating transcendence at all costs–for example, in the complete erasure of self through absorption in to the group, or the in the high that often accompanies participating in mob violence–the horizontal flattening that has accompanied the processes and structures of modernity nevertheless provokes the effort to attain or insert some element of verticality in to one’s life. Many festive cultures, especially those modelled in part on Carnivelesque elements, aspire to such heights, to, as Taylor puts it, generate “moments of fusion in common action/feeling, which both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves. Which is why some have seen these moments as among the new forms of religion in our world. I think there is something to this idea…” I do too, but, a shortcoming in Taylor’s account is that it is just that–an account. He tells, rather than shows, he claims rather than argues. I agree in many respects with Taylor’s analysis, but it is worthwhile to ground his insights in some empirical data and on-the-ground instances of the phenomenon about which he speaks. This fim then is a frontstage-backstage look at BRUiTAL’s participation in the 2019 version of Prague’s Velvet Carnival. Velvet Carnival is an annual masked satirical parade in Prague. BRUiTAL is a trance drumming group from Belguim.