MYTH, PERFORMANCE, AND
Strange Cults and Utopias of 19th-Century America chronicles
the history of Brook Farm. Brook Farm was a six year attempt by a group
of dedicated people to prove the values of a socialistic community.
George Ripley was one of the main members and enthusiasts for this
It was no "picnic" or "romantic episode" or
chance meeting "in a ship's cabin" to him. His whole soul was bent on
making a HOME of it. If a man's first-born, in whom his heart is bound
up, dies at six years old, that does not turn the whole affair into a
joke [emphasis in original] 1.
George Ripley was a follower of the theories of Dr. William
H. Channing. He took Channing's theories on socialism and religion and
"was bent on making a HOME of it' by putting the theory into practice.
Another way to state this, and to state the crux of this paper, is that
Ripley became a convert by performing the myth of socialism and making
the myth his HOME. Simply accepting the myth did not make Ripley a true
member of Brook Farm. It was his entering into the myth through his
performance that made him a true convert, and gave him a new home.
I propose in this paper to seek to understand just what it meant for
George Ripley to make a HOME of his newfound ideology by accepting a
myth and performing that myth in his life. I suggest that myth and
performance are together necessary to mark someone as a member of a
culture or community. I will develop this argument through research done
on conversion, which will explain that the criteria needed to indicate
who is a convert are in fact myth and performance. The studies on
conversion will be shown to be applicable to members raised in a culture
There is a common phrase
in English when we speak of someone who seems to be quite different
from most people in our society. We say they are " in their own 1itt1e
world." This idea of different worlds is also common in academic
writings. For instance, Peter Brown writes in The Cult of the Saints,
"to compare the miracles of healing, and especially of exorcism
performed by Martin, with the recipes for cures contained in the work
of Marcellus, is to enter another world."2 Jonathon Z. Smith, in an
explanation of religion, states that "what we study when we study
religion is one mode of constructing worlds of meaning, worlds within
which men find themselves and in which they choose to dwell"3 The point
of this paper is to show that myth creates worlds, performance is
behaving according to the myth, and HOME is living in those created
I want first to clarify these important words before
delving into the subject at hand: HOME, myth, performance, and
Jonathon Z. Smith's "worlds
of meaning" above is quite similar to Peter Berger's social theory in
The Sacred Canopy. According to Berger, "Every human society is an
enterprise in world-building."4 Since man does not have a biologically
encoded social structure, he has to create one. This creation, passed
from generation to generation, then becomes accepted as reality by those
within the culture: "The social world intends, as far as possible, to
be taken for granted."5 Living within such a social world thus gives a
person a structure to be at home in. I will not get into Berger's theory
on alienation as it would steer this paper into a wide detour here.
This humanly created but objectified social structure then becomes a
person's HOME. By using the capitalized word HOME I mean the cosmology
and culture that the person chooses to live within. Some alternative
words used in academia would be Reality, world, or world view. Thomas C.
Blackburn defines world view as "the explicit and implicit beliefs held
by a s ociety about the nature of man, of the universe, and of man's
relations to the universe and to his fellow man."6 I prefer to use the
word HOME because it conveys comfort in living as well as
effortlessness, or in other words, taking little or no thought
concerning one's assumptions about life derived from the world view.
This notion is used by Bernad Haring in his discussion of
conversion. In explaining the origin of the term conversion, he states
It has, however, still another tone if one knows that the word
in the Septuagint was the rendering for 'schub', or returning home. So
the sermon of Jesus, preached in Aramaic, was not a direct summons to
penance in sackcloth and ashes, ' but the good news of the already begun
era of the great return home.7
A dictionary definition of myth is "a traditional story
of unknown authorship ... serving usually to explain some phenomenon of
nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious
rites, etc., of a people..."8 Myth is commonly seen as having a ring of
untruth to it. For instance, David Bidney states that "myth may be
described as belief, usually expressed in narrative form, that is
incompatible with scientific and rational knowledge."9 In anthropology
we see examples from around the world of strange stories that far off
cultures actually seem to accept as true, yet to us they seem obviously
false. But the validity of myth is not important for our definition,
since we are looking at the function of myth in a culture, rather than
For this paper, myth is defined as the story or
group of stories of a community or culture that define and transmit
Reality to the members of that community or culture. Reality here means
the cosmological understanding of how the universe is designed and how
it works, or alternatively, the world that the members live in. The
stories that are told at important events in the community, that convey
the community's basic assumptions about life, that are taught to
children as explanations of the world or models for behavior, and that
are reenacted in ritual make up the myth of a culture. They explain to
the community member the way the world works, where the member fits in
that world, and the type of behavior expected of the member.
Myth is the story that grounds the individual in his world. As one of
Clyde Kluckhohn's informants told him, "Knowing a good story will
protect your home and children and property. A myth is just like a big
stone foundation - it lasts a long time"10 This is not to say that myth
is carved in stone, however. Kathleen M. Sands (1982)11 demonstrates
that myth is a process of incorporation and adjustment from external as
well as internal sources. The point is that myth acts as a foundation
for life, as the source for basic assumptions about the world. If the
world changes (as with the cargo cults, for example), then the myth will
change to accommodate the new world.
Richard Bauman writes about performance of a presentation of myth or
folktale as an "artistic action" or an "artistic event."12 He is
concerned with the acting out of a cultural story, and he makes many
good points in this area, but performance of myth involves more than
reenactment. It involves all aspects of a person's life. Performance
in relation to myth is herein defined as conforming one's behavior and
activities to that prescribed and assumed from the myth, without
necessarily entailing an allegiance to the myth. When a person makes
his HOME in the universe delineated by a myth and lives his life
accordingly- following prescribed behavior, making the members of his
community the primary affinity group, participating in the rituals-
then he is performing the myth. This, then, includes not only ritual and
reenactment but activities of normal life as well. It is the way we
live our entire life that places us in our myth. This includes the type
of clothes we wear, the foods we eat, and the relations we have. As
Clyde Kluckhohn has pointed out, "myth also supports accepted ways of
secular behavior,"13 such as the way women are supposed to sit.
The connection, then, among myth, performance, and HOME, is that when a
person accepts a myth and makes it his HOME, then his performance will
be the proper behavior prescribed by the myth in all areas of his life.
It is possible to accept a myth on a more superficial level where it
does not become a person's HOME, and that would not necessarily result
in proper performance. It is also possible to have proper performance
without completely accepting the myth. These possibilities will be
discussed in the studies of conversion below.
A.D. Nock's definition of conversion is widely used. It is:
The reorientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning
from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another, a
turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved,
that the old was wrong and the new is right.14
between "conversion" and "adhesion", which is adding a religious
viewpoint as a supplement rather than a substitute.
Travisano, in an often quoted definition, calls conversion "a radical
reorganization of identity, meaning, life."15
reorganization" or "great change" involves more than simple intellectual
agreement. It also is more than a change in behavior, since it is one's
sense of identity which has changed. It is instead moving from one HOME
to a different HOME.
This move can be accomplished in several
different ways. John Lofland and Norman Skonovd (1981) list six types of
conversion; intellectual, mystical, experimental, affectional,
revivalist, and coercive.16 Regardless of the type, the effect is the
In order to illuminate the
above definitions of HOME, myth, and performance, I intend to review
pertinent research done on conversion in order to indicate who is a
member of a religious group or culture. This study should indicate that
conversion, that is, the transformation of a person who has found a new
HOME, demonstrates that myth and performance (as defined above) are
together necessary and sufficient to indicate the membership or
nonmembership of a person in a culture or community. As Kluckhohn has
pointed out, "What is really important... is the intricate
interdependence of myth (which is one form of ideology) with ritual and
many other forms of behavior."17
A. Who is a convert?
Since we cannot see into a
person to get at the actual motivations within, we must rely on that
person's own explanation of his inner motives, and on his actions. The
following studies are based almost entirely on interviews and
Conversion suggests that the convert has found some
deficiency ln his preconversion life. James V. Downton, Jr. studied 41
converts of the Indian guru Maharaj ji, and from these members of the
guru's Divine Light Mission, he discovered one major reason people
converted was that they didn't seem to fit in to their old social
community.18 Some typical excerpts from converts;
Helen - "A lot of
my high school experience was pretty unhappy. I didn't fit into the
life style and I didn't know why."19
Matthew - "I found the only
way I could relate to the university community was as a loner. I just
got totally into that role again, going to events, standing off to the
side and watching, and not being a part of things."20
Walt - "I went
to my temple a few times hoping to get something out of it, but there
was nothing there for me."21 "I was always pretty isolated from the
None of these people felt that they had a HOME, so they
were open and sometimes actively seeking a new way of life before
joining the Divine Light Mission.
When someone does choose to join a
religious group or some community, there is of necessity a need for the
community to determine that that person has indeed become a convert
before he is accepted into the fold. In The Nature of Conversion, Albert
Gordon explains why the major religions make a point of confirming new
The requirements for ecclesiastical
conversion differ widely, not only among the three major faiths but
among the various divisions, denominations, and sects within each. All
are agreed, however, that there is need to ascertain the sincerity of
the candidate for conversion, for it is this above all else that
ultimately spells enrichment or decay and disintegration of church and
synagogue and the spiritual view of life to which each adheres.23
demonstrates that each of the faiths require education into the
teachings (myth) of the religion, as well as a public declaration that
one has rejected the old and accepted the new faith and practice.24
Acceptance of the myth implies a change in behavior towards the required
performance assumed from the myth.
Whether a person is merely
performing the part without really adhering to the myth is hard at
times to discern. The motivation behind performance is sometimes a
tricky thing to know. Robert W. Balch became a participant observer in a
UFO cult run by Bo and Peep to investigate this problem.25
first step in conversion to cults is learning to act like a convert by
outwardly conforming to a narrowly prescribed set of role
expectations. Genuine conviction develops later during the course of the
typical member's career. Many cult members never became true
believers, but their questioning may be effectively hidden from everyone
but their closest associates.26
This poses a problem for
researchers because these people "looked tuned in, appeared committed,
but were simply playing a role that concealed their real feelings, even
from other mmembers of the cult."27 Balch's solution is:
Don't be deceived by appearances. I believe that social scientists need
to adopt the model of investigative reporting to discover what cult
members say and do when they are not "on-stage" in front of the public
or, if possible, even their peers. Only then we can penetrate the wall
of secrecy, that normally separates the nature of the psychological and
behavioral changes that occur when someone joins a religious cult.28
Balch is not completely correct here since it is not applicable to
all types of conversion (it does not apply, for example, to St. Paul's
mystical experience on the road to Damascus), but it does indicate that
performance is not the total picture behind conversion. A person who is
performing correctly but hasn't made his new community his HOME is not
yet a convert. One of Balch's subjects, a piano tuner by trade and
considered one of the most devout members by others, in fact had
secretly kept the tools of his trade in his car trunk in case the UFO
did not actually arrive to spirit them away.29 Balch himself was a
proper performer but he had no intention of becoming a true convert.
In "Conversion or Commitment? A Reassessment of the
Snow and Machalek Approach to the Study of Conversion", Clifford L.
Staples and Armand L. Mauss attempt to corne up with a method of
demonstrating who is a convert. "There is one underlying assumption
upon which most researchers would seem to agree, and that is that
'conversion involves a radical change in a person's experience.'"30 They
take as a model the Snow-Machalek (1983; 1984) system of 4 indicators;
biographical reconstruction, adoption of a master attribution scheme,
suspension of analogical reasoning, and embracing a master role.
indicator is "biographical reconstruction."31 This "refers to the idea
that individuals who undergo the radical change of conversion
reconstruct or reinterpret their past lives from the perspective of the
present. In a very real sense, the past is created anew."32 To test the
Snow and Machalek model, Staples and Mauss interviewed 15 members of a
"Jesus-Freaks" organization in their locale. Four of the fifteen people
interviewed "denied ever having a conversion experience" because they
considered themselves life-long Christians. The biographical
reconstruction indicator, then, seems to be useful in marking converts
from those who have not had a major shift in their world view, but it is
not a useful test for conversion.
The second is "the adoption of a
master attribution scheme."34 "When asked to account for the state of
the world, self, or others and their actions, converts inevitably resort
to one attrbibution scheme"35 rather than a variety of schemes as an
average person might.
The third indicator is "a suspension of
analogical reasoning", 36 which comes from the following idea: "Since
the use of analogy is meant to indicate that 'one thing is like
another', it is contrary to the basic motive of religious belief to
suggest that an equivalence exists between one's own beliefs and those
of some other group."37 This move keeps one's ideas about the world
insulated from any ideas that may compete with the ideas that corne from
the myth a person holds.
The final indicator is "embracing of a
master role."38 "The convert comes to see him or herself almost totally
in terms of the role as convert and member of a particular group", and
is thus a Christian first, then a student, athlete, or whatever. He
sees himself mainly in relation to his myth.
Staples and Mauss
only see the first, biographical reconstruction, as indicative of
conversion since it indicates a radical transformation. All four,
however, are for them indicators of commitment. Commitment is still
quite useful for our purposes, however, in that it indicates who has
made the group his HOME.
Now, to review Staples and Mauss in
light of myth and performance, I will consider each of their four
indicators. "Biographical reconstruction" involves a new way of
interpreting one's past through the new myth. A member may now see his
move from one city to another, as an example, not to get a better paying
job but instead as the hand of God directing him to come in contact
with his new Family and HOME. The myth is assumed to have been working
even in his past.
The "adoption of a master attribution scheme"
runs clearly in line with acceptance of the myth. One now makes his
assumptions in life based on the myth rather than from a variety of
options. This would indicate for Balch's apparent converts, for
instance, whether they were experimenting or committed (or perhaps, more
troublingly, great performers). "Suspension of analogical reasoning"
also indicates a commitment to the myth, since it assumes that there is
nothing comparable to or above the myth.
If a stranger would ask, "Who are you?", a person would more
than likely answer based on his or her master role. Staples and Mauss's
informers all indicated that they were Christians first and foremost.
Their self-perception is based on the myth that they embrace.
Thus, in essence, Staples and Mauss provide indicators for
commitment that involve myth-based explanations of the world (adoption
of a master attribution scheme, suspension of analogical reasoning) and
myth-based self-interpretation (biographical reconstruction, embracing a
master role). And were we to distill this even more, we may say that
making the myth one's HOME is the indication of commitment. What their
study has shown for our purposes is that the indication that a person is
a member of a culture or community is that he is living in the myth.
While they did not delve directly into performance, other than the
verbal performance at the interviews, I propose that when a person is
living within a myth, or has made that his HOME, proper performance goes
hand in hand with this.
B. Myth and Performance Equals
Of course it makes sense that if someone wants to
convert another, they are hoping to do more than just get that other to
accept a particular story. Certainly, some type of behavior is expected
to result from this acceptance. It is interesting to note that some
recruiting organizations attempt to "sell" their myth and assume
performance will follow, while others seek through altering performance
to instill the myth. This indicates that myth and performance are
assumed to go hand in hand.
Fundamentalist Christian organizations stress their
stories to potential converts through preaching, witnessing, radio and
TV programs, revivals, tracts, and other methods. The main stress is for
converts to adhere to the myth. "For God so loved the world that he gave
his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but
have eternal life" (John 3:16) is the battle cry for Christian
proselytizers, calling people to believe in the myth of Christ. In
Conversion, Walter E. Conn's collection of essays on the subject, one
strains to find any place where the Christian essayists address just
what performance is expected of the convert. What is noted continually
is that when one accepts the myth of Christianity, he becomes a new man,
but little mention is made of what the behavioral consequences of this
entail. Karl Barth, one of the essayists, states that conversion
literally revolves around the acceptance of the myth:
difference between the life of the one who is engaged in conversion and
that of others is not that the former moves itself, but that it has an
axis on which to turn. It is properly this axis which makes this man a
While not delineated, newness of
character is assumed from conversion in these essays. A great change has
taken place in the convert's life which is expected to have profound
impact and lasting positive value.
There is another type of
conversion which follows the contrary theory that proper performance
will instill the myth. This is coercive conversion. Robert J. Lifton's
study of forty "graduates" of the Chinese re-education camps during the
late 1950's is the seminal work in this field. Mao Tse-tung initiated
the re-education camps to change wrong-thinking people into model
citizens. "We must also carry our various effective measures to
transform the various evil ideological conceptions in the minds of the
people so that they may be educated and reformed into new people."40 The
re-education camps were simply prisons where several men shared a cell.
The daily routine involved confession of one's own faults and criticism
of one's fellow "schoolmates." A cell chief would observe the progress
of each "schoolmate" and report it to a superior. Each prisoner's every
move was observed and recorded to show whether he was beginning to see
things from "the people's point of view." Progress was dependent upon
how the superiors translated the behavior and confessions of each. If
progress was not made, more pressure was applied, including physical
beatings, deprival of sleep and food, and ridicule by fellow
"schoolmates" until the proper behavior or confession occurred. Often if
there was no progress after several weeks, the prisoner was shot.
When one looks at the four indicators of Staples and Mauss explained
above, it is plain from Lifton's work that the re-education consisted of
attempting to implant all four indicators into each prisoner.
"Biographical reconstruction" is plainly evident in the confessions of
past misdeeds. "You have committed crimes against the people, and you
must now confess everything,"41 a judge told a new "schoolmate." "Hate
your past, and you will find your way for the future"42 was a slogan at
a university in Yenching.
"Adoption of a master attribution
scheme" was constantly pushed onto the prisoners. "Each had to learn to
express himself from the 'correct' or 'people's standpoint' applied not
only to personal actions, but to political, social, and ethical
issues."43 When a prisoner had over an extended time exhibited the fact
that he saw the world from the "people's point of view" then he was
reIeased. "Suspension of analogical reasoning" was
carried to an extreme. The government was seen as above all and immune
from imperfections. When Dr. Vincent, a new prisoner, declared his
innocence at his initial hearing, the judge said sharply "The government
never arrests an innocent man."44 After weeks of trying to maintain a
rational confession, under constant torture and sleepless
interrogation, Dr. Vincent finally broke down:
You are annihilated
... exhausted ...you can't control yourself, or remember what you said
two minutes before. You feel that all is lost ... From that moment, the
judge is the real master of you. You accept anything he says. When he
asks how many 'intelligences' you gave to that person, you just put out
a number in order to satisfy him.45
"Embracing a master role" is
taking on "the people's point of view." One becomes a fellow communist
first and foremost. In a coercive environment, there is only one choice
available for the future: "He is likely to be drawn to a conversion
experience, which he sees as the only means of attaining a path of
existence for the future."46
The point of forcing performance,
again, is to instill the myth by which the communists wanted the
"schoolmates" to live by. Myth and performance again go hand in hand.
Parenthetically, there were marginal successes in this, but generally
when the extreme milieu control was lifted, a majority of prisoners
returned more or less to their old way of life.
III. Application of
the Myth/Performance Unit
This study has hopefully explained that
myth and performance are the ingredients that make up membership in a
culture or community. A person who has incorporated the myth into his
life to the extent, as Berger states, that "it has acheived that measure
of objectivity that compels the individual to recognize it as real,"47
has made the myth his HOME. His actions and behavior will be patterned
according to the myth. Regardless of whether a person was raised in a
myth or converted in some manner, if the myth is his HOME, then he is a
member of that culture.
A person can accept a myth without making it
his HOME. Equally, a person can perform according to the prescribed
manners of a myth, yet not accept the myth in any way. These two cases
are guarded against by the community at large because the person is not
grounded in the myth well enough to be immune from nonmythic ideas and
behavior, and could infect the community's world. It is for this reason
that converts are carefully scrutinized before being allowed into the
fold (and, I would suggest, so children raised in a culture are also
scrutinized through training and ritual). It is important for the
community to know who is and who is not a member. It is also important
for the academic world to make this demarcation as well. The Staples and
Mauss article is a good representation of how academics is straining to
find a way to discern actual membership from peripheral
experimentation, acting, and other degrees of participation in a
culture. I would suggest that the myth/performance model is beneficial
in this type of research.
A question that arises from this research
is, just where are the seekers, those people who have found discomfort
their current HOME? They have basically rejected their old world and
still haven't found a new HOME yet. It appears that they are in a
liminal state. Victor Turner's The Ritual Process explains that the
liminal state is when a person "passes through a cultural realm that has
few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state."48 The
liminal state in this case seems to be a dangerous, unsettling time
where one's orientation is missing. As Berger says, "radical separation
from the social world, or anomy, constitutes such a powerful threat to
the individual ... In extreme cases, he loses his sense of reality and
identity."49 No wonder there are stunning testimonials of effusive
praise when a person finds a new HOME after wandering without direction.
The research for this paper has shown to me that using the
myth/performance unit to study cultural membership opens up ripe areas
for study and insight. It makes the criteria for who is a member easier
to comprehend and apply than the more unwieldy attempts without it. And
it demonstrates the commonality of experience within intercultural
studies, where the basis of a culture is seen to be coming from a
The study of conversion can be greatly aided by
keeping myth and performance in mind. In today's religious and cultural
marketplace people have a myriad of choices should they decide to find a
new HOME. It would be useful for people to understand that when they
convert to another culture, they are in a sense moving into a new world.
This is a radical step and one that should not be taken lightly as it
seems many people do. They should understand the myth clearly, and also
what performance will be expected from them before they decide to commit
to any new culture.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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1 John Humphrey Noyes,
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2 Peter Brown, THE CULT OF THE
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3 IMAGINING RELIGION:
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4 Peter Berger, THE SACRED CANOPY, (New York: Anchor
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5 ibid. p.24.
6 Thomas C. Blackburn,
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Conn, ed., CONVERSION; PERSPECTIVES ON PERSONAL AND SOCIAL
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9 David Bidney, THEORETICAL
ANTHROPOLOGY, (NY: Columbia University Press, 1953), p.295.
Clyde Kluckhohn "Myths and Rituals: A General Theory", Harvard
Theological Review, date unknown (class handout), p.74.
Kathleen M. Sands, "The Singing Tree: Dynamics of a Yaqui Myth",
AMERICAN QUARTERLY, Fall 1983 35(4) :355-375.
12 Richard Bauman,
"Verbal Art as Performance" AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, 1975, 77:290-311.
13 Kluckhohn, p.61.
14 A.D. Nock, CONVERSION (London :
Oxford University Press, 1933), p.7.
15 Richard Travisano in
G.P. Stone and H. Farberman (eds.), SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY THROUGH SYMBOLIC
INTERACTION, (Waltham, MA: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970), quoted in
16 John Lofland and Norman Skonovd,
"Conversion Motifs", JOURNAL FOR THE SCIENTIFIC STUDY OF RELIGION 1981,
17 Kluckhohn, p. 54.
18 James V. Downton,
Jr., SACRED JOURNEYS: THE CONVERSION OF YOUNG AMERICANS TO DIVINE LIGHT
MISSION, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
20 ibid. p. 49.
21 ibid. p.79.
23 Albert I. Gordon, THE NATURE OF CONVERSION: A STUDY OF
FORTY-FIVE MEN AND WOMEN WHO CHANGED THEIR RELIGION, (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1967), P.9.
24 ibid, p. 25
25 Balch, "Looking
Behind the Scenes in a Religious Cult: Implications for the study of
Conversion", SOCIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS 1980 41,2:137-143.
28 ibid. p. 143.
29 ibid. p.141.
30 ibid. p. 134.
31 Clifford L. Staples and Armand L.
Mauss, "Corrver s i.on or Commitment? A Reassessment of the Snow and
Machalek Approach to the Study of Conversion", J.S.S.R.,
33 ibid. p.142.
34 ibid. p.136.
36 ibid. p.136.
39 CONVERSION P.37.
40 Robert J. Lifton,
THOUGHT REFORM AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALISM, (New York: W.W. Norton &
Co., 1963), p.14.
41 ibid. p.21.
42 ibid. p. 345.
43 ibid. p.26
44 ibid. p. 21.
45 ibid. p.23.
46 ibid. p.434.
47 Berger, p.12.
48 Victor Turner, THE
RITUAL PROCESS (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), p.94.
49 Berger, p. 21.