After conducting extensive research studying cultures around the world, theorist and social anthropologist Peter Van Der Veer remarked that “the critical elements, like those to be found in the spiritual ideas at the beginning of the 20th century, are missing” (Van Der Veer). Spirituality, a fundamental element at the root of most cultures, has been significantly influenced by the phenomenon of globalization. In the novels Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, globalization breaks down cultural barriers by forming an interconnectedness among people, thus challenging one’s sense of spirituality.
In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe portrays globalization and its effect on spirituality through the theme of tradition versus change. The Igbo, a people that greatly valued their cultural identity, is threatened when white colonialists bring Christianity to Umuofia. Their arrival triggers change within the Igbo culture, causing the tribe to compromise their customs and accommodate the new settlers:
“And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth color of the vast, hungry swarm” (Achebe, 40).
This passage, drawn from chapter seven of the novel, is symbolic and allegorical for the inescapable arrival of the white missionaries in Umuofia. The locusts have come and “settled on every tree and on every blade of grass”, breaking the “mighty tree branches” under them. These branches, representing the traditions, customs – and therefore the spirituality of the Igbo people – can no longer resist the weight and external pressure brought on by the colonialists. Achebe stresses the destructive nature of the locusts, whose arrival will alter the identity of the Igbo tibe, resulting in the downfall of their culture.
Throughout the novel, globalization is depicted as a weapon of cultural homogenization, destroying the elements that make up the cultural identity of the Igbo people and replacing them with a “uniform” set of values, as imposed by the white men (Everything 2). This is especially demonstrated through the actions of the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo. After accidentally killing Ezeudu’s son and spending seven years in exile with his family in Mbanta, Okonkwo returns to Umuofia and finds his village changed by the presence of the white men. This is exemplified through the exchanges between Obierika and Okonkwo that occur in chapter twenty of the novel:
“Does the white man understand our custom about land?” “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe, 152).
After much effort to reclaim his land by destroying a Christian church, Okonkwo soon realizes that the people of Umuofia are not going to protect themselves or fight for their culture. His tribe, once so deeply rooted in tradition, has changed. Okonkwo, no longer recognizing the society to which he once belonged, commits suicide to avoid being tried in court. The globalization of the Igbo culture ultimately altered the cultural identity of the people and broke down their cultural barriers by forming an interconnectedness among people, thus challenging their cultural values and in turn, their spirituality.
Rather than depicting the loss of spirituality through a globalized culture as found in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the novel Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru instead questions the way in which people handle their spirituality in relation to the “unknown”. Through dovetailing plotlines, Kunzru’s fiction revolves around a place in the Mojave Desert known as the Three Pinnacles. The reader quickly learns that this place holds great significance and means various things to different characters. Whether taking the form of traditional spirituality through religion or through the existence of extraterrestrial life, the Pinnacles are vital to the overall theme of spirituality:
“He’d been a young man, one of nine, covenanted to pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the murder of their Prophet upon the Nation, all sworn that they would teach the same to their children and their children’s children unto the third and fourth generation” (Kunzru, 184).
Spirituality is introduced on both the individual and universal level. The main characters, Jaz and Lisa, are central to the novel. Coming from different spiritual backgrounds (Jaz being Punjabi Sikh and Lisa, American-Jewish), their diverging faiths present a clear obstacle to their marriage. Spirituality can also be demonstrated through the native traditions of the Mojave. For example, through the arrival of the coyote that roams the text in various forms, as well as through the U.F.O. cult that is established at the Three Pinnacles. Although the novel remains mysteriously unanswered and does explicitly state what truly is and what is not, Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is a successful reflection of the globalized spirituality that perpetuates the modern era.
Touching back upon Peter Van Der Veer’s statement regarding spiritual idealism, Van Der Veer adds that “there isn’t even a word for spirituality in Sanskrit” (Van Der Veer). Should we fear that globalization will in fact bring the ultimate deterioration to social values, including that of spirituality? As demonstrated through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, as globalization continues to develop, an interconnectedness will be formed among all people that will result in a cultural homogenization. Our traditions, our customs, our spirituality and our identities will be challenged in this digital age (Kilgour).
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Heinemann, 1996. Print.
Kilgour, David. “Spirituality on the Way to Globalisation.” David Kilgour. Web.
Kunzru, Hari. Gods Without Men. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Print.
Romig, Rollo. “Staring Into The Void With Hari Kunzru.” The New Yorker. 13 Mar. 2012. Web.
“Things Fall Apart.” Everything2. Web.
Van Der Veer, Peter. “Spirituality on the Way to Globalisation.” Max-Planck- Gesellschaft. 20 Aug. 2012. Web.