News | Opinion | Columns
The word “sacrament” is a portmanteau of the Latin words sacer and mentum, “sacred oath”, and one of its English meanings is “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”.
The Christian or formerly Christian among us might recognise the word as a reference to the communion wine and wafers shared during Sunday masses and church services.
What’s interesting to me is that those sacraments are rather mundane to begin with, but become invested with great significance by believers. Wafers of unleavened bread and wine or fruit juice become the very body and blood of Christ, for the believers.
I was struck by the idea of a sacrament when watching the series Gilmore Girls with my daughter. At one point, the younger Gilmore Girl, Rory, says to her friend: “We can go to my room, and listen to music.” She said it slowly and significantly. Like music was special!
Gilmore Girls is set about 15-20 years ago, before the ubiquity of the internet, the rise of YouTube, Spotify, and of course TikTok. While these platforms have certainly given us access to more music, they have also cheapened it.
When Gilmore Girls launched, around the turn of the millennium, music was still expensive. Recorded music had to be purchased on physical sound reproductions. These not only added to the cost and rarity of music, but also meant these recordings became fetishised. The modern fetishisation of vinyl records by collectors is a remnant of this belief system.
A mere two decades ago, music was still a sacrament. As it was for thousands of years.
Since then, following the appearance of file-sharing services like Napster and then the streaming services, music has become ubiquitous, but in the process also worthless.
A seven-inch vinyl single containing two songs cost $5,87 (about R37,50) in 2000. A survey by mybroadband two years ago found that streaming music on mobile data cost around R40 for 10 hours. That means a three-minute song costs around 20c. If you have wi-fi, it’s so cheap as to be almost free. Banal.
I am forced to wonder whether this applies to other areas of our lives. Certainly TV series have lost value, entire seasons now bingeable in a few evenings, where we would previously have to invest years of our lives in them. Movies similarly. With ease of access comes a loss of value. What was once a sacrament is now a commodity.
As digital platforms enable remote working, one wonders, has the same begun to happen with our work?
Of course, the office is becoming an outdated concept, and with it the idea of commuting to work, dressing up for work, or even getting out of bed to do it on a rough morning.
I’ve also often wondered about the provenance of the isiXhosa word for work: umsebenzi. The word is also used to describe a cultural ceremony. The kind of place you might encounter a sacrament. I used to think maybe Xhosa people chose umsebenzi as the word because of the utter seriousness with which white people approached the business of work.
I’m not sure that is any longer the case. Make no mistake, work is still done, and it is still of significance. But it is no longer a sacrament of modern life. Our jobs are coming to define us less and less. As unemployment reaches towards 50% of our population, we must accept that having a job is no longer normal, but an exception.
Even among those who work, the challenge of caring for our families, managing our households and looking after our health is now such that we cannot quite dedicate our entire lives to our careers. It’s even frowned upon. We aspire to more holistic, well-rounded lives.
Work is no longer the sacrament it once was. There is talk of four-day work weeks. Hybrid models. Universal income grants.
This is inevitable, I suppose, when the work of others – the songs, the albums, the series, the movies, has also become so cheap.
Sex has of course been utterly commoditised by adult content. Even love, once so prized, so rare, is now available on any one of half a dozen internet dating apps.
As ease of digital access has come to cheapen so much that previously had value, I wonder what still does?
What are our modern sacraments? What remains that is still “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance”?
That is a question that we will each have to answer for ourselves.