Erotic Religion: The Body and Sex for Wiccans and Pagans

This post is part of the October Patheos Public Square on “The Spirituality of Sex.” Every religious tradition has rules—spoken and unspoken—around sexuality, and sacred texts come into play as these rules are navigated in dating and marriage. What does your faith tradition really say about the meaning of our sexuality and sexual activity? What role does sex play in the life of the spirit?


Witchcraft traditions such as Wicca are highly visible in the Pagan movement when it comes to sexuality and sexual activity. Though Pagan traditions in general see the body as a blessing, they hold a variety of views on what the proper relationship is between sexuality and spirituality. Wiccans and other witches, however, embrace the holiness of sexuality as a central religious principle.

“The Charge of the Goddess,” penned by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente (1922-1999), is a piece of liturgy so powerful that its influence has reached far outside Wicca into spiritual feminism, the sex-positive community, and contemporary Paganism as a whole. When used in ritual, the Charge is spoken by a priestess who is embodying the presence of the Goddess. She says:

And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye are really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in my praise.…

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals. (DoreenValiente.org)

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

An ~11,000-year-old figurine thought to depict a pair of lovers. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. (CC-BY 2.5)

Many Wiccans and witches believe that all things contain a primal energy or vital life force that moves within and among them. This energy is most easily experienced through sexual activity, especially when it is raised with spiritual intent. Through their sexual intimacy, practitioners can participate in a primal moment of creation: a moment when two divine forces or beings—imagined as a many-gendered God/dess making love with her mirror reflection; or a lunar Goddess and a solar God; or a genderless yin and yang, nothing and something—communed together in an erotic union whose vibrations continue to animate the universe.

Sexuality is a particularly dramatic way to experience the flow of life force, but for some Wiccans and witches, it is not the only way. Sensual communion with nature and nonsexual touch are also places where spiritual energy can flow between two or more beings. To emphasize that this embodied, intimate flow of life force contains sexuality but is broader than sexuality, I use the term eros or the erotic.

I first encountered the idea of the erotic as a spiritual force in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (1979). In the 1980s, this important book of ecofeminist witchcraft was many Pagans’ introduction to Paganism and Goddess religion, as well as to the idea that the body and sexuality are holy. In her introduction to the 1999 edition of the book, Starhawk emphasized that the erotic should not be understood solely in terms of heterosexual or reproductive sexuality, nor necessarily always in terms of pairs (as opposed to individuals or groups). Instead, eros is a relational force that is found throughout nature and within the self. She writes:

Sexual reproduction is an elegant method of ensuring maximum biological diversity. […] But to take one particular form of sexual union as the model for the whole is to limit ourselves unfairly. If we could, instead, take the whole as the model for the part, then whomever or whatever we choose to love, even if it ourselves in our solitude, all our acts of love and pleasure could reflect the union of leaf and sun, the wheeling dance of galaxies, or the slow swelling of bud to fruit. (The Spiral Dance 1999, 20-21)

Starhawk is in good company in understanding eros as both an individual and a cosmic principle. Her idea of the erotic echoes other the views of other theologians and spiritual writers of the twentieth century. To name just a few: psychologist and mystic C.G. Jung saw eros as the foundational principle of all relationship; feminist visionary Audre Lorde characterized the erotic an embodied impulse toward pleasure and holistic community flourishing; and progressive Christian theologians Carter Heyward and Marvin Ellison understand eros as a divine principle of desirous connection that motivates justice-making.

Perhaps because of the theology that “all acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals,” Wiccans, witches, and many other Pagans are often more accepting of sexual minorities and unusual sexual behaviors than is society at large. When sociologist Helen Berger surveyed American Pagans in the early 2000s, about 28% of Pagans identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—a much larger percentage than in the United States overall. LGBTQ Pagans can be found in positions of religious leadership in many different Pagan traditions today, and many traditions have rituals to celebrate same-sex partnerships and even group marriages (for Pagans who practice polyamory, a form of ethical nonmonogamy). Such rituals may sacralize temporary partnerships—for example, for a year and a day, at the end of which the commitment may be renewed—while other rituals formalize a lifetime partnership, or even a commitment to seek one another in a future life.

Pagans usually consider sexual activity to be ethical if it is consensual, between adults, and does no harm. Today, Pagans are having important conversations about how to ensure valid consent to sexual activity, as well as exploring the impact of individuals’ sexual behavior on their communities. Because inequality—based on race, class, gender, gender identity, and other factors—is an unavoidable part of living in our society, Pagans struggle with questions about how to best navigate power differentials in romantic and sexual relationships.

Pagan traditions challenge religious traditions that see the body as sinful or as a prison for the soul. Although celebration of sexuality is most central for Wiccans and other witches, sexual freedom and community harmony are important values for many Pagans. Accordingly, the Pagan movement continues to welcome LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities who find themselves unwelcome in their birth religions. For Pagans of many paths, the body is an important site of religious practice, a place in which we can meet divinity flesh to flesh and heart to heart.

Find out more:

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Paganism and the Body Class Sneak Peek

Eros and Touch from a Pagan PerspectiveThis Fall I’m offering Paganism and the Body, a 14-week graduate-level online class in body theology and sexual ethics, at Cherry Hill Seminary. Some of you may have already heard about CHS’s uncertain future, so this may be the last time a class like this is available for some years. If you’re thinking about signing up, please do it soon! We start Sept. 12.

Additionally, I just noticed that the price of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has popped up again to its retail price on Amazon. (There are some copies from third-party sellers still available for around $50.) If the price of the book is a problem, don’t worry; talk to me and we’ll make other arrangements.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at the syllabus! And here’s where you can register. [Write me at chkraemer13 at gmail dot com if you haven’t taken a CHS class before — I believe you’ll need instructor permission.]

 


Note: This syllabus is subject to change.

Course Number and Title:  N6650 Paganism and the Body

Semester:  Spring 2016

Class meeting time: Mondays, 9pm ET

Instructor(s): Christine Hoff Kraemer, PhD

 

 

Description of the Course

For most Pagans, the human body and the manifest world are sacred centers of religious practice. But what are the consequences of that belief for our daily lives? What do our Pagan theologies of the body call us to do in terms of justice work? Because of the significant percentage of gender and sexual minorities in the Pagan movement, this class will have a special focus on sexual ethics and alternative sexualities and gender expressions. We will also explore other important aspects of embodiment such as health and disability; race; relationship with food, water, and the natural environment; and more.

Prerequisite:  C5121 Contemporary Global Paganisms OR C5141 Introduction to Pagan Theology OR written permission of the instructor

 

Required Texts

  • Jennifer Hunter, Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism, Citadel Press, 2004
  • Christine Hoff Kraemer, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, Routledge, 2013
  • A book of your choice on embodiment issues

Other readings will be posted as PDFs or links to web pages in the Moodle classroom.

 

Course Objectives

This course is intended to provide you with an introduction to contemporary thought examining embodiment issues in a Pagan religious context.  Our study will include both academic peer-reviewed articles and personal or journalistic accounts by Pagan practitioners and others. These goals will be achieved through regular reading, discussion, and writing.  You will also need to demonstrate your engagement and understanding of the material through a final project.

By the end of this class, you should be able to:

  • Articulate your own religious beliefs about bodies and embodiment
  • Reflect critically and constructively on existing theologies of embodiment
  • Have the foundation to deal sensitively and knowledgeably with both Pagans and non-Pagans around issues of the body

 

 General Expectations

 Paganism and the Body is a graduate-level course. Students will be expected to digest difficult written material and attend discussions prepared with their own observations and questions. The instructor’s role in the course is primarily as a facilitator and knowledge resource; it is the students who will decide what elements of the assigned readings we will explore most deeply.

Forum posts may be written conversationally. For formal written assignments, students are expected to adhere to academic writing conventions, including the use of proper citation format (Chicago, MLA, or another academic style). The Office of Assertion by Scott F. Crider is recommended as a good basic text on academic writing.

Because clear and mechanically correct writing is essential for effective communication, grammar and organization will be considered in the evaluation process. If successful academic writing has been a challenge for you in the past, it is recommended that you submit a rough draft to the instructor a week before the assignment is due so that she may assist you in revisions.

Plagiarism is a serious violation of ethics, and its consequences may include failing this class. Check with your instructor if you are unclear on how to quote or cite work that is not your own.

See the Catalog for details about additional issues of policy.

 

 Participation

 If you attend and participate in at least eight class chats, you will receive an 85 or above for participation. In order to receive a participation grade in the A range, students should participate in additional chats and engage in discussion in the forums. Participation grades will be assigned at the discretion of the instructor.

During each class chat, we will discuss the readings assigned during the previous week.

 

Weekly Homework

 For Week 1, you will briefly define a list of key terms for the study of theologies of embodiment. One- or two-sentence answers are sufficient. Many of these terms can be found in your Week 1 readings. For additional information, Wikipedia is a sufficiently reliable resource for this assignment and (due to how frequently it is updated) may even be superior to standard encyclopedias and dictionaries. Please note, however, that Wikipedia is not an appropriate resource to cite for a research paper.

 Other weekly homework assignments will include reflective responses, summaries, or summary/responses in a specific format (see below). Each week, you will be asked to post one of your written assignments to the Forum by Thursday for group discussion; the rest are due by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student post before the next chat.

Students are encouraged to use the Forums for any additional questions, reflections, or reactions that come up in the course of the class.

 

Summary/Response

Your weekly homework is due by the end of the day on Wednesday. Each reading summary should be around 200-250 words. You will not be penalized for additional length, but it will make the best use of your time and the instructor’s time if your writing is dense and to the point.

In addition to submitting your assignment through the assignment link, choose one reading summary to post in the Forum by the end of Thursday. Turn in the remainder of your homework by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student Forum post before the following week’s chat.

In paragraphs or in outline form, summarize the reading and then respond to it both analytically and personally.

Below is an example of a student reading summary in this format, from a chapter of Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many.

Jordan Paper states:

  • that when we depend on wild plants and animals, we see them as numinous/deities
  • that when we domesticate the plants and animals on which we still depend, we see them as gifts of the numinous/deities rather than as the numinous/deities themselves
  • that plant and animal deities have powers humans need in our lives
  • that humans are weak in relation to wild animals
  • that we know about deities because they communicate with us

I affirm:

  • that my life is dependent on the deaths – the sacrifices – of plants and animals, as well as the gifts of plants and animals (mammals do not have to die to give milk, or fowl to give eggs, for example)
  • my respect for and gratitude to the plants and animals whose deaths sustain my life
  • that I recognize the plant and animal beings I encounter each day as Sacred, and strive to do so more consciously
  • my bird feeding as a sacrifice of appreciation to some of the bird deities in my new location, as a freely-chosen religious/spiritual obligation during certain seasons
  • that the conscious cultivation of relationship with plants and animals may restore a numinous quality that supermarket culture has removed

Assignments that receive a grade in the A range will:

  • be specific
  • go beyond mere description and begin to ask/answer “why?”, “how?”, and “so what?”
  • pick up on nuances in the readings that require more than skimming to grasp
  • present students’ most controversial, radical, or challenging personal theologies
  • present statements from students’ experience that are likely to be unique

The instructor may choose a few particularly insightful or provocative excerpts from these assignments to share anonymously with the class as springboards for further discussion.

 

Term Assignments

Book Review: This assignment gives you an opportunity to read an additional book related to theology and embodiment. Suggestions for acceptable books will be provided by the instructor; other choices must be approved. This assignment is due at the end of Week 5.

Your book review will contain the following elements:

  • Summary of the book’s contents and main argument(s)
  • Evaluation of the book’s effectiveness with its intended audience
  • Reflective response on how this book might be useful in your ministry or personally

Assume that your reader is an educated fellow student who has not read the book. Your summary must give the reader enough information to understand your evaluation of it. Make sure your review is more than summary, however! Your job is to present an educated opinion about the book you read; summary is a tool in this process and is not a sufficient end product by itself. Your thoughts and reflections should make up at least half of the review.

Consider questions such as these as you take notes for your review.

  • What is the topic?
  • What are the author’s subjects?
  • To whom is the author writing?
  • What is the author’s opinion of her subject and what tone does she use?
  • How does the author support her statements?
  • Is the argument convincing? If not, why not?
  • How am I reacting to the text?
  • How does this text fit into what I already know about the subject?
  • Who would benefit most from reading this text?

Your review should contain a minimum of 750 double-spaced words. Organization, grammar, clarity, and the use of proper citation format (MLA, Chicago, or another academic format) will be considered in the evaluation of your essay.

A sample book review: http://inhumandecency.org/christine/eisler.html

 

Autobiography: You will compose an approximately 1000-word personal reflection and account considering the role of the body in your religious and spiritual life. In order to focus your narrative, you may wish to choose a specific incident from your life and contextualize it using the theological ideas and issues that we will study in class. These narratives will be shared with the class in a non-judgmental environment, so students are encouraged to share as openly as they feel comfortable. Potential starting places for beginning such narratives include:

  • experiences of the body’s limits, such as while running a marathon or dealing with a serious illness
  • memories of the onset of puberty or menstruation
  • reflections on one’s personal relationship to traditional gender roles, particularly during life transitions such as marriage or parenthood
  • aging
  • growing, preparing, and eating one’s own food
  • coming out regarding sexual orientation or gender identity
  • sacred experiences of touch (with human or other-than-human persons)
  • experiences of the body while recovering from abuse
  • experiences of the body in “natural” environments

Questions you may wish to address in order to link your personal experiences with class materials:

  • How did I experience divinity (or the absence of divinity) in this incident or period of my life?
  • How did my spiritual practice and beliefs at the time shape this experience?
  • How has this experience shaped my spiritual practice and beliefs?
  • What are the ethical issues that are relevant to my experience?
  • How did I relate to my community and my loved ones with regard to this issue? How did they relate to me?
  • What did my experiences teach me about the nature of the body?

Assignments will be graded for clarity, originality, and their success in framing a personal experience within a theological framework. Students may wish to consider carefully before writing about an issue that is emotionally volatile for them, as it may be difficult to submit such experiences to theological analysis. A successful autobiography assignment will balance emotional engagement with thoughtful, well-reasoned theological reflections.

This assignment is due at the end of Week 8, and the writing process should be considered part of the preparation for your Final Project Question, described below.

 

Final Project Question: By the end of Week 8, you will have developed a sense of what you are curious about and how that might become a project. Your project question may still be broad and open-ended, but it should also be provocative and express a real area of curiosity and concern for you.

Post your question to the Final Project Questions forum for instructor and student feedback. There, we will begin to narrow your field of inquiry so that it can be tackled in a final project.

Examples of viable project questions:

  • What is the role of a religious community in supporting its members around coming-out issues?
  • Why was ritual sex important in early twentieth-century occultism?
  • How can Pagan beliefs about the body support food and water justice work?
  • How can large Pagan groups balance disability accommodation with the desire to offer ritual in wild or out of the way natural settings?
  • How can Pagans best represent the sexual and gender diversity of the Pagan community in an interfaith context?
  • How do Pagan beliefs inform our ethics about reproductive rights?
  • What do children need to know about their bodies in order to understand them as sacred?
  • What education does my community need around racial justice, and how does its existing beliefs about the religious role of ancestry help or hinder that effort?

 

Final Project: You will design, implement as is appropriate, and present a project based on your personal learning goals, readings, autobiography, reading responses, and your final project question.

This project is not necessarily a research paper, although you may write a paper if research is the best format in which to address your question.  You might choose to outline a workshop, create a game, design a ritual, prepare a speech, develop a meditation series, or any other creative and useful vehicle for your project.  The project will be presented to the class during one of the two final chats.

Written materials should be 12-15 pages long. Other types of projects should involve about as much work as a 15-page paper and must include a verbal or written component that contextualizes the project for the class (or other intended audience). If you are choosing to work in an artistic medium, speak to the instructor about how substantial the written or verbal presentation should be.

Project Proposal

Your project proposal of approximately 250 words is due by the end of Week 9 and must be approved by the instructor. It should include:

  • A description of the project, including your (brief) anticipated answer to your Project Question (your “thesis sentence”)
  • A rationale for the project – why this topic? Why this approach?
  • Whom you intend the project to serve
  • How you see this project as serving this population
  • Logistical considerations, including how you will present the project for grading and to the class
  • A list of the resources you will draw on to complete the project (books, websites, people, etc.)

Project Presentation

You will present your project or excerpts from it to the class at the end of the semester. During Week 13, post an approximately 200-word summary of your project (an abstract such as you might provide for a conference presentation) to the Final Projects forum.

The written part of your project is due at the end of Week 13. Project materials may be posted to the Forum, or you may share a link to Dropbox or another service if they are very large.

Presentations may be made verbally via Skype, with Powerpoint, via recorded MP3, and/or by another instructor-approved method.  Your presentation of the project to the class should be no more than 10 minutes long. Each student will take questions and comments after their presentation.

Note that you will certainly not be able to cover every aspect of your project in ten minutes, so come prepared to adequately summarize and point out the highlights of your paper or project for the class. The effectiveness with which you present the project will be considered in grading.

 

 Grading

Grades will be given according to the rubric described in the Student Handbook. Please note that in a graduate-level class, a B is given for solid, above-average work. Grades in the A range require substantial analytical thinking and creativity. Contact the instructor if you need clarification on what “analysis” means in the study of theology.

Book Review                                      15%

Weekly Homework                         15%

Participation                                       15%

Autobiography                                  20%

Project Question                              5%

Final Project Proposal                    5%

Final Project                                       20%

Final Project Presentation            5%

 

Summary of Assignments

 Forum posts are due by Thursday of the week assigned. All other assignments should be submitted by the Sunday of the week they are due.  Late assignments may receive a grade penalty, up to one letter grade per week, at the discretion of the instructor.

If you find you need an extension on an assignment, contact the instructor immediately.

Weekly

Definitions, 200-word reflective responses, or summary/responses

Forum posts and replies

Assigned readings

Week 2

Title of book for review

Week 5

Book Review

Week 8

Autobiography

Final Project Question

Week 9

Final Project Proposal

Week 13-14

Final Projects

 

Schedule

 Week 1:  Defining Terms

  • Kraemer, “Pagan Traditions: Sacralizing the Body” (2016)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch (2013), Introduction and Conclusion
  • Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh (2008), Introduction and Conclusion

Week 2: Theologies of the Embodied Self/Soul(s)

  • Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery (2012) Chp 4, 83-85; 91-94
  • Weidenbaum, “You Have to Take It With You” (2008)
  • Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia” (1990)
  • Whiting, “On Being a Holy Mother” (2011)

Week 3: Pain, Illness, and Disability

  • Fuller, Spirituality In the Flesh, Chp 6
  • Matthews, “Rooted in This Body: Learning Pantheism from Chronic Illness” (2013)
  • Pearson, “Disabled Rites?: Ritual and Disability in Wicca” (2011)
  • Pearson, “Embracing the Lash: Pain and Ritual as Spiritual Tools” (2011)
  • Aldag, “How to Include the Physically Challenged in Group Rituals”

Week 4: Pleasure, Healing, and Touch

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 1 & 4
  • Kirner, “Healing Community” (2014)
  • Brown, “Touch and American Religions” (2009)

Week 5: Food and Water Justice

  • Harvey, Animism (2005) Chp 6
  • Rifkin, “Pagan Kosher” series (2013) (http://witchesandpagans.com/tags/tag/pagan-kosher.html)
  • Larson, “Holy Water and Human Rights” (2011)
  • UUA, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
  • Clifton, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” (1993)
  • Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast (1995) excerpts

Week 6:  Sexual and Erotic Diversity

  • Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984/1992)
  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 3

Week 7:  Erotic Justice

  • Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 2
  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 90-118, 142-146
  • Kraemer and Aburrow, Pagan Consent Culture Introduction (2016)
  • Betkowski, “Seeking a Morality of Difference” (2016)

Week 8: Race, Rac(ial)ism, and Ancestry

  • Gallagher, “Weaving a Tangled Web? Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” (2009)
  • Bel, “Ancestors and Heritage in Paganism” (2016)
  • Blanton, “Understanding the Definition of Racism” (2015)
  • Skallagrimsson, “Racism in Asatru”
  • Hale, “Marketing Rad Trad” (2015)
  • Theurer, “Ancestor Work and Anti-Racism” (2015)

Week 9: Sexuality and Gender

  • Kraemer, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism” (2012)
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006) Chp 6
  • Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism (2002) Chp 7
  • Blain and Wallis, “The Ergi Seidman” (2001)

Week 10: Queer and Transgender Issues

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 119-142
  • Eller, Am I a Woman? (2003) Chp 1 & 2
  • Kaldera, “The Third Voice” (2012)
  • Stover, “When Pan Met Wendy: Gendered Membership Debates Among the Radical Faeries” (2008)
  • Greene, “Transgender Inclusion Debates Reignite in Pagan Community” (2016)

Week 11:  BDSM and Alternative Relationship Structures

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 64-89, 147-173
  • Henkin, “Counseling Bisexuals on BDSM Lifestyle Issues” (2005)
  • Kaldera, “Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context” (2016)
  • Hoff and Sprott, “Therapy Experiences of Clients with BDSM Sexualities” (2009)
  • Zell, “A Bouquet of Lovers” (1990)
  • Weitzman, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (2005)
  • Hutchins, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (2005)

Week 12: The Myth of the Temple Prostitute and the Contemporary “Sacred Harlot”

  • Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 174-194
  • Hutchins, “Bisexual Women as Emblematic Sexual Healers and the Problematics of the Embodied Sacred Whore” (2002)
  • Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution (2008) Introduction, Chp 11
  • Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006), Conclusion

Week 13:  Final Projects

Week 14:  Final Projects

 

 

Why Black Lives Matter (Too) – A Book Review #BlackLivesMatter

The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to the violent deaths of three unarmed Black men: teenager Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Suddenly, it seemed, the media silence around such deaths at the hands of police or other authorities had broken. The names of unarmed Black adults, teens, and children assaulted or killed by police came blazing across our news feeds, seemingly a new name every week.

For many of us in the Pagan movement who do justice work, it felt like scales had fallen from our eyes. We may have been aware that our society is racist, that Black people are still suffering from the aftermath of American slavery. But we were living under the illusion that since the gains of the Civil Rights era, we were still slowly moving toward true equality.

The well-publicized deaths in 2013 and 2014 showed how wrong we were. In the US, unarmed Black children and adults can be killed by police (or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman) with no repercussions—and such assaults happen frequently. This is not a society moving toward equality for Black people. Rather, it’s a society whose systemic racism has simply become more subtle and well-disguised. “Black Lives Matter” is a powerful slogan because in so many arenas, our society still treats Black lives as though they do NOT matter.

why-black-lives-matter-too-revolutionary-call-to-action-by-mary-canty-merrill-phdThe anthology Why Black Lives Matter (Too) emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group established by Mary Canty Merrill in August 2015. Merrill describes the group as “a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality.” After Voices for Equality agreed that the proceeds of the book should support challenging the effects of racism in the justice system, they chose The Sentencing Project as the beneficiary. To quote from its website:

Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Our work includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications, and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration; that racial disparities pervade the criminal justice system; that nearly six million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions; and that thousands of women and children have lost food stamps and cash assistance as the result of convictions for drug offenses.

The opportunity to support The Sentencing Project is, by itself, a good reason to pick up a copy of the anthology. However, the anthology has a broader mission than either The Sentencing Project or the Black Lives Matter movement as it was originally conceived. Black Lives Matter (Too) critiques racial injustice in the United States in a huge variety of contexts, and it does so with equal servings of research and personal narrative.

As a writer and editor, I can tell you that anthologies are never of completely consistent quality. Some pieces will always be stronger than others, and this is true of Black Lives Matter (Too). A good anthology, however, should have “something for everyone”—a variety of pieces so that almost any reader should be able to find something to connect with—and the anthology does fulfill that mission.

For example, there are a number of strong pieces from white activists who tell personal stories of discovering and confronting both their own racism and our society’s. Patheos Pagan’s own Cat Chapin-Bishop, for example, has an engaging essay that does this admirably. I also particularly recommend the piece by Rebecca Wiggins, which lays out the issue of systemic racism briefly and clearly and then provides a list of concrete strategies for response. Either would make an excellent introductory essay for a person or group just beginning to learn about racial injustice. Frustratingly, however, the anthology is organized alphabetically by author’s last name, not topically or by placing complementary essays in groups. This arrangement results in the middle of the book being dominated by essays by white activists, most of whom seem to be responding to the same writing prompt, “Why Black Lives Matter to Me.”

If the reader presses on through the repetition, however, some of the strongest essays are buried near the back. I was particularly struck by Rhonda Lee Richoux’s piece, which addresses how one can be a person of color (in her case, Filipino) and still be thoroughly indoctrinated in racism. This essay is immediately followed by my favorite in the collection, a piece from Native activist Bee Schrull that celebrates the accomplishments of Black scientists, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs while mourning the creative Black lives that have been lost to injustice. Some of the strongest Black writers are also included near the back of the volume: a piece by Muthu (Jordan) Weerasinghe protesting the inattention that Black Lives Matter has given to Black women and gender-nonconforming Black people, and an essay by Anthony M. Wiley about being Black and in a position of authority in the military.

These and many of the other pieces in the book would make excellent reading for a discussion group that wants to educate itself about systemic racism. I am disappointed, however, to say that I cannot recommend assigning the book as a whole to a “newbie” group. Sadly, Black Lives Matter (Too) suffers from poor editing. In addition to the ineffective system of organizing the essays, the anthology is riddled with grammatical errors that can interfere with comprehension. In some essays, sentences were so vague, unclear, or just plain muddled that they left me scratching my head. (Take, for example, this uncited statistic from p. 11 of the introduction: “A 2015 Huffington Post survey shows that three out of four white Americans believe that racism is a ‘somewhat serious’ national problem, compared to nine out of ten Blacks—that’s 68 percent of Black respondents, compared to 31 percent of whites.”) Other problems were content-based; one essay, in apparent innocence of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda, uses the stereotypical image of the “crafty” Jew to criticize a former business partner.

The weak editing is particularly problematic in the first twenty-five pages of the book, which are the key parts for connecting with and drawing in an audience. Unfortunately, it is not clear who the intended audience is. Mary Canty Merrill, who drew the material together and wrote the introduction and conclusion, seems to address a sympathetic white audience on the back of the book, where she asks readers to “confront your own white privilege and fragility as you examine racial justice and equality in a revolutionary way.” The book’s prologue by Mirthell Bazemore, however, is written for a Black audience, whom Bazemore chastises for language and dress that she doesn’t see as liberatory (xx).

This prologue is followed by Merrill’s long framing introduction, which gives historical and sociological background for systemic racism. Some parts of this introduction are excellent, giving talking points and facts about topics such as internalized racism, discrimination in health care and employment, and inequality in the justice system. Merrill, whose PhD is in a psychological field and who works as an organizational psychologist, is particularly strong on the topic of mental health, and she provides careful, clear definitions of jargon such as “privilege” and “microaggressions.” Her conclusion for the book is also effective, outlining concrete strategies for readers to address racial injustice. Yet other sections of the introduction—particularly the opening pages—are much less focused, with abrupt changes in tone, facts stated without citation, and ad hominem attacks on other researchers.

These problems are especially frustrating because they distract from what is essentially a strong argument. Why Black Lives Matter (Too) could have easily been crafted into an effective introductory text for white readers who are curious about but perhaps still skeptical of the racial justice movement, and based on the back cover blurb, this seems to have been Merrill’s intent. Because the writing is not properly organized and edited for this audience, however, it preaches best to the already-converted.

Despite these issues, I can still recommend this book for educators and activists who are working with people who know little about or do not yet support the movement. Merrill’s introduction provides all the material an educator needs to give an effective introductory lecture. Educators can then pick and choose readings from the collection of essays for a combination that will draw in and then effectively challenge their chosen audience. Merrill’s conclusion, which outlines concrete strategies for activism, can be assigned whole cloth to guide future action. With this strategy, Why Black Lives Matter (Too) should be a powerful resource for anti-racism educators.

 

City of Refuge, by Starhawk (Book Review)

[Please note: spoilers ahead, especially for the prequel, The Fifth Sacred Thing.]

City of RefugeWhen I bought my copy of City of Refuge, I was trying to have low expectations. I can only imagine that writing a sequel to a well-received, bestselling book like The Fifth Sacred Thing more than twenty years after its initial publication must have been an intimidating task. Would the sequel remain true to the characters we loved the first time around? Would the story still resonate despite changes in our political climate? Would the book simply come off as too idealistic for me—now twenty years older myself—to take it seriously?

Well, I lost a lot of sleep the week I read it. I didn’t stay up all night, because I am the parent of a toddler and I value my sanity; but I stayed up till the wee hours four nights in a row because I was desperate to learn what happened next. Dare I say it? I could barely put it down.

Now, I’ll admit that neither City of Refuge nor The Fifth Sacred Thing is going to win prizes as literary fiction. The Fifth Sacred Thing suffers from the didactic, “teachy/preachy” quality that’s typical of utopian/dystopia sci-fi. The book’s setting is drawn in broad strokes: the United States government has collapsed and its remnants are controlled by a corrupt, fundamentalist, militaristic Christian sect. The land once known as California is in severe drought, and water is a scarce resource. But within the border of the former San Francisco, witches and other community-oriented, earth-loving people have formed a lovely but fragile consensus-based society that is harmoniously integrated into the local ecosystem.

Starhawk uses the metaphor of homeopathy to suggest that a tiny, representative fragment of a just society, when inserted into an unhealthy society at the right place and time, can have a healing effect that ripples out from the point of contact. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, this principle describes how the peaceful people of former San Francisco survive an army invasion and, after terrible and bloody loss of life through nonviolence resistance, convert the ill-treated soldiers to their side. In City of Refuge, this metaphor continues as main characters Bird and Madrone travel to the crumbling metropolis of former Los Angeles. There, while the converted army turns and marches on its former masters, they attempt to set up a safe place for refugees from the city who would otherwise be executed or slain.

City of Refuge is still a utopian/dystopian novel. It has parts where characters lecture each other in order to get across important background information about economics, permaculture, pedagogy, and other issues. Yet it does its teaching more smoothly and with more self-awareness than The Fifth Sacred Thing. The Fifth Sacred Thing was written by an activist in her forties whose daily work included regular direct action—no doubt an intense and polarizing place from which to write. City of Refuge was written by that same activist in her sixties, and seemingly from a place of greater reflection and humility.

At an American Academy of Religion conference I attended about five years ago, Starhawk spoke about her work with the Occupy movement. She remarked on the potentially insurmountable challenges that Occupy faced in its attempt to exclusively use a consensus-based decision-making process. As she wrote in her blog around the same time:

Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.  When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, it’s hard to see that other people might also have needs.  When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak.  When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. […Consensus] requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D.  When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration.  When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.

The idealism of City of Refuge is noticeably tempered with real-world experience. Consensus works pretty well in a well-fed group of people who have been trained their whole lives to use it; but what about on the streets with a group of starving strangers, some of whom are in poor mental and physical health and all of whom are scared and angry? There are moments when Bird and Madrone’s project simply goes off the rails, and there is no magical solution, no deus ex machina to make things right.

People die a lot in City of Refuge: adults and teenagers and children. The book presents problems to which there are no solutions, at least not in this storyline. And although there are moments of hope—perhaps even a “happy” ending—some threads are simply left unraveled.

The book also has moments of black humor that warn the audience against reading it or its prequels as strictly ideological. The Fifth Sacred Thing used nonviolent resistance as a central plot point, and many readers have assumed that Starhawk is rigidly committed to nonviolent protest. In City of Refuge, however, Maya—the character whose life story most resembles Starhawk’s—states firmly that she was never a pacifist. When challenged on her past advocacy for nonviolence as a response to invasion, she snaps, “That was a vision. I never claimed it was dogma for all occasions.”

Later, when a group of enslaved farmers is being liberated, we have what initially looks like a stereotypical utopian/dystopian teaching moment: a farmer asks how they will run the farm without hierarchy, and a member of the liberating army launches into an explanation of collective ownership. Rather than listening avidly, however—as one would expect if this were a typical scene in the genre—the starving, exhausted farmers talk amongst themselves, cry, or stare off into space in total shock. The lecture falls on deaf ears—a lesson, perhaps, in the need to give ideology second place behind compassionate response to human need.

This is what I mean when I say that City of Refuge is humble. It is not a book that present itself as knowing the answers to climate change, racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, or economic exploitation. Its beautiful witch heroes are compelling, but they are also sometimes naïve, wrong, or just plain foolish. Its villains, in turn, are not wholly evil, though some are quite bad; in fact, some apparent villains turn out to be needed allies for the liberating army. City of Refuge does not present situations or people in black and white terms. It acknowledges brokenness and does not always insist that that brokenness be fixed. Instead, it allows for love, and for uncertainty.

City of Refuge portrays earth-based spirituality, permaculture, sacred sexuality, nonhierarchical decision-making, collective ownership, and other politically-charged concepts. As an engaging novel, it is an enjoyable way to introduce yourself or a loved one to these ideas—and in that way, it serves an ideological purpose. However—and this is what makes City of Refuge so much better than many utopian/dystopian novels—it refuses to present these ideas rigidly or dogmatically. City of Refuge is deeper than a simple dramatization of Starhawk’s politics. For that reason, this book belongs not just in the hands of Pagans or activists, but in the hands of any reader who is struggling with the realities of this frightening historical moment. Humbly, City of Refuge offers us not simple answers, but instead a variety of ways forward to explore and perhaps make our own.

 

PAGAN CONSENT CULTURE Anthology Is Available!

Pagan Consent Culture - cover by Shauna Aura Knight

cover by Shauna Aura Knight

Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow are pleased to announce the release of Pagan Consent Culture: Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy, a new collection from Asphodel Press.

How might a Druid understand consent? How about a Wiccan, a Thelemite, a Heathen, or a Polytheist? In this collection, Pagans of many traditions show how to ground good consent practices in Pagan stories, liturgies, and values.

Although many Pagans see the body and sexuality as sacred, Pagan communities still struggle with the reality of assault and abuse. To build consent culture, good consent practices must be embraced by communities, not just by individuals—and consent is about much more than sexuality. Consent culture begins with the idea of autonomy, with recognizing our right to control our bodies and selves in all areas of life; and it is sustained by empathy, the ability to understand and share the emotional states of others.

In Part One of Pagan Consent Culture, writers develop specifically Pagan philosophies of consent, tackling complex issues such as power differentials, sexual initiation, rape culture in traditional myths, and relationships with the gods. Part Two presents personal narratives of abuse and healing, as well as policies to help prevent sexual abuse and assault and to effectively respond to it when it occurs. Finally, Part Three provides resources for teaching and practicing consent culture, including curricula and exercises for children and adults.

Pagan Consent Culture is available from Asphodel Press (via Lulu.com) in paperback and electronic formats.

Check out the Pagan Consent Culture website for further resources, as well as a free study guide!

www.paganconsentculture.com

 

Table of Contents

Part I: Developing Pagan Philosophies of Consent

  • Culture of Consent, Culture of Sovereignty: A Recipe from a Druid’s Perspective, by John Beckett
  • Thelema and Consent, by Brandy Williams
  • Consent within Heathenry, by Sophia Sheree Martinez
  • Matriarchy and Consent Culture in a Feminist Pagan Community, by Yeshe Rabbit
  • Wicca and Consent, by Yvonne Aburrow
  • The Anderson Faery Tradition and Sexual Initiation: An Interview with Traci, by Helix
  • Consent. Contact. An Animist Approach to Consent, by Theo Wildcroft
  • Seeking a Morality of Difference: A Polytheological Approach to Consent, by Julian Betkowski
  • The Charge of the Goddess: Teachings about Desire and Its End, and Their Limitations, by Grove Harris
  • Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context, by Raven Kaldera
  • Saving Iphigenia: Escaping Ancient Rape Culture through Creating Modern Myths, by Thenea Pantera
  • Is “Tam Lin” a Rape Story? Yes, Maybe, and No, by A. Acland
  • Godspousery and Consent, by Sebastian Lokason

Part II: Responding to Abuse and Assault

  • The Third Degree: Exploitation and Initiation, by Jason Thomas Pitzl
  • From Fear into Power: Transforming Survivorship Sarah Twichell Rosehill
  • In the Midst of Avalon: Casualties of the Sexual Revolution, by Katessa S. Harkey
  • Responding to Abuse in the Pagan Community, by Cat Chapin-Bishop
  • Sexual Assault and Abuse Prevention: Safeguarding Policies for Pagan Communities, by Kim and Tracey Dent-Brown, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • The Rite and Right of Refusal: Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in Communities and at Festivals, by Diana Rajchel
  • Sex-Positive, Not Sex-Pressuring: Consent, Boundaries, and Ethics in Pagan Communities, by Shauna Aura Knight
  • Living in Community with Trauma Survivors, by Lydia M. N. Crabtree
  • Consent in Intergenerational Community, by Lasara Firefox Allen

Part III: Building Communities of Autonomy and Empathy

  • Mindful Touch as a Religious Practice, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Consent Culture: Radical Love and Radical Accessibility, by Stasa Morgan-Appel
  • Wild Naked Pagans and How to Host Them, by Tom Swiss
  • Respect, Relationship and Responsibility: UU Resources for Pagan Consent Education, by Zebrine Gray
  • Self-Possession as a Pillar of Parenting, by Nadirah Adeye
  • Paganism, Children, and Consent Culture: An Interview with Sierra Black, by Sarah Whedon
  • Teaching Consent Culture: Tips and Games for Kids, Teens, and Adults, by Christine Hoff Kraemer
  • Asperger’s Syndrome and Consent Culture: An Interview with Vinnie West, Joshua Tenpenny, and Maya Kurentz, by Raven Kaldera
  • Consent in Gardnerian Wiccan Practice, by Jo Anderson, with the Triple Horse Coven
  • Teaching Sex Magick, by Sable Aradia
  • Healing the Hungry Heart, by B. B. Blank

Appendices

  • Additional Resources
  • Sample Handout: Tradition-Specific Consent Culture Class
  • The Earth Religion Anti-Abuse Resolution (1988)
  • A Pagan Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse (2009)

 

Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships by Diana L. Paxson (Book Review)

Paxson PossessionDiana L. Paxson’s Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships is a practical and informational text on possessory work with spirits and gods. The first section of the book deals with preparation for deep spiritual and magical work of any kind: practices designed to stabilize and strengthen the self. Next, Paxson guides the reader through the process of contacting gods and spirits and developing a devotional relationship. The third section looks at possessory practices around the world (including among Pagans in the United States) for models of how groups successfully negotiate possession. The final section of the book outlines practices for preparing for possession, gaining skill as a medium, and building a group container in which possession can successfully and safely occur. The book is written from a hard polytheist perspective (treating the gods as separately existing beings with their own agency), but Paxson also discusses archetypal approaches to possession work and does not insist that practitioners hold any particular theology.

As I read the book, I found myself in turns feeling impressed and uncomfortable. Paxson’s extensive reading and personal experience of possession make her a convincing authority on the subject (which, having personally witnessed her in action as an oracle, I can confirm). I appreciated the historical and contemporary information she gives on possession practices, with particular attention to Spiritualism, Spiritism, and Afro-Caribbean traditions.

I was also intrigued by the detailed cross-cultural information on models of the multi-part soul. Paxson encourages the reader to approach the spiritual self as an entity of many parts, organically and complexly relating. She recommends bringing each part under the influence of protective forces as part of her regimen of spiritual strengthening, prior to seeking out divine relationships. The book as a whole demonstrates a breadth of knowledge of religion and spirituality that can make it easy to trust Paxson as an expert.

In some ways, however, the book’s very breadth makes me uneasy. It is of medium length—about 250 pages—and its goals are lofty: to help readers prepare for a dangerous and taxing spiritual practice; to educate them about possession globally; to guide them into healthy relationships with gods and spirits; and finally, to enable them to practice possession as safely as possible. Any of these topics could be a book in itself (and in some cases, there are such books already). The need to keep the book a manageable length lends itself to questionable generalizations, such as the statement that “Most religions hold that the purpose of our life is to become closer to God” (21), or the implication that Plato’s theory of forms and Jung’s theory of archetypes are functionally identical (40). A book that aims to be broad and encompassing inevitably lacks nuance, and as I read, I wondered what nuance was missing from Paxson’s presentation of the primary subject.

I only become more uneasy when I think of a solitary individual or an isolated group attempting to use this book to attempt possession work. The book’s first two sections are a compressed curriculum for a course of spiritual development work that takes most people years. Though the book gives no time frame for that work, the section’s relative brevity suggests that the work should take only a few months. This is simply not enough preparation for such a demanding spiritual activity.

Having had a small amount of training in possessory technique and having assisted in possessory rituals a number of times, I approach possession as exhilarating but dangerously unpredictable. If a group happens to include a talented but basically untrained medium, it would be easy to skate too quickly through the book’s opening sections to “get to the good part”—in which case the group could find themselves struggling with experiences that traumatized the medium, the other group members, or both.

On the other hand, groups that pick up this book because problematic possession has already happened will likely find its resources to be helpful, as it has concrete suggestions for how to set boundaries with spirits and gods. A group that has no “god-bothered” members (no members, in other words, who experience the gods whether they want to or not) will only get results from this book with dedicated effort, and probably only then if they use the resources it provides to seek in-person help and training.

I was most pleased with the guide to building divine relationships. Paxson provides a framework for approaching gods and spirits while clearly signaling that the work will evolve and expand as the relationship does. The text presents itself not as a definitive program of training, but rather as a guide to an experience that must be unique to the individuals involved.

The book’s final section, in which Paxson discusses how one might attempt possession work, is even more open-ended. Paxson shares some of her own journal entries, allowing the reader to appreciate that her development of skill as a medium took many years and required the support of many teachers, friends, and experienced groups of people. She demonstrates that the journey of a medium is completely individual and cannot be accomplished by working through a curriculum. Paxson also emphasizes that historically and in contemporary religions, possession work is done as a service to a community. For her, possession is not a solitary practice.

Paxson discusses some of the dangers of possession, such as damage to the medium’s mental, spiritual, and/or physical health, as well as the possibility of “horsetalk,” where a medium brings through a message that comes mostly from the medium herself, not from a god. Paxson appropriately encourages people who develop health problems or who are traumatized in the course of mediumship to stop (or at least set boundaries) until they are healed or strengthened. In response to the problem of “horsetalk,” she gives guidelines for those who receive the messages to validate them—by getting second or third opinions from other diviners, by looking at lore, and by testing them against one’s own sense of truth.

However, I found myself wishing she had dealt in more depth with the group-shattering dynamics that can result from attempts at possession. For example, unethical but charismatic leaders may feign possession in order to manipulate group members. Possessions may also be partial, leaving some members sure that the experience was genuine while others suspect “horsetalk.” Even when all members agree that a possession is genuine, success does not guarantee a pleasant experience. Unpredictable behavior on the part of the possessed (especially with an underprepared support team) can result in participants feeling violated or simply uncomfortable with the person who was being ridden. Paxson also does not substantially discuss the dangers of improperly warded ritual spaces or attempts to invoke deities with whom there is no strong pre-existing relationship. Groups that have not carefully prepared for possession work may find one of their members possessed by someone or something other than the Person they intended to call—who may delight in causing mischief.

Overall, Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships would make an excellent supporting text for an individual who is pursuing mediumship training with a teacher or group. The information is well-organized and Paxson’s approach is sensible and sane. Paxson also draws appropriately on the wisdom of other Pagan mediums through a series of interviews that she quotes throughout the text. I suspect the book would be very much of help to the “god-bothered” who wish to tone down or better control their contact with the divine. When I think of a reader or a small group using the book to pursue possession without a pressing need or experienced help, however, the best I can say is that it may be better than nothing. Such readers would be best served by reading everything in the book’s bibliography—and then, hopefully, seeking a teacher.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (Review)

Do you know the work of Alan Moore? If you’re a Pagan or an occultist, you should.

Moore doesn’t think of himself as a Pagan per se, but he’s a product of the same cultural and spiritual currents that have produced contemporary Paganism. A self-declared magician and worshipper of the “sock-puppet” snake god Glycon, Moore is deeply informed by the Western occult tradition. In particular, his graphic novel series Promethea (1999-2005) is written as a primer on the classical elements, the Tarot, the kabbalistic Tree of Life, and more—all explored within the structure of a Wonder Woman-inspired superhero narrative. With a loose group of colleagues who call themselves “The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels,” Moore has also recorded several CDs of ritual theater, some of which have been illustrated as graphic novels.

Lest this introduction make Moore sound like a writer who writes for a niche of a niche—comics fans deeply interested in the occult—I should also say that his mainstream appeal is well-established. Best known for Watchmen (1986), a grim and satirical take on the superhero genre, Moore has profoundly influenced the direction of mainstream comics while also working to advance comics as a literary and artistic form. Several of his graphic novels have also been made into big-budget Hollywood films. These have increased Moore’s fame even as he has distanced himself from the films, which he has come to view as crassly commercial. At Moore’s demand, the film version of Watchmen (2009) does not bear his name; Moore turned over his share of the profits to Watchmen’s original artist, Dave Gibbons.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan MooreAlthough Moore has been frequently interviewed over the course of his career, he has been relatively circumspect about his personal life. I turned to Lance Parkin’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore (2013) hoping for deeper glimpses of the man behind the work. In this I was somewhat disappointed, perhaps because, as Parkin portrays him, Moore’s work has largely been his life.

The book does spend time on Moore’s childhood and psychedelic adolescence in a working-class neighborhood of Northampton, a chapter I read with interest. In many places, however, the chapter becomes simply a history of Northampton rather than a history of Moore specifically—and this may be in keeping with Moore’s impression of himself. Moore is a lifelong resident of Northampton; his novel The Voice of the Fire is set entirely on the land on which Northampton is built, though its story begins in the Neolithic. Moore is profoundly interested in what Pagans might call “the spirituality of place,” as well as in psychogeography, a playful approach to urban geography that emphasizes the shifting relationships between people and environment. For the most part, however, Parkin covers Moore’s personal life in a handful of sentences scattered throughout the book, and usually only when it directly relates to his writing. For example, The Mirror of Love (2004), Moore’s poetic celebration of same-sex love, was originally written while Moore was part of a polyamorous marriage; he and his partners published the poem in 1988 as part of a protest against Britain’s anti-LGBT Section 28. About Moore’s daughters, the book says almost nothing except to note that Leah Moore is now a comics writer herself. Moore’s current marriage to Melinda Gebbie is mostly discussed in the context of their long-term artistic collaboration, most notably on the erotic trilogy Lost Girls (2006).

Magic Words is rich in detail, however, when it comes to Moore’s often troubled professional relationships. This level of detail may prove a barrier to the more casual reader; since I am not well-versed in the British comics industry of the late 1970s, I found my eyes glazing over a bit during the chapters that cover this phase of Moore’s career. I am much more familiar with the American comics industry, however, and I found myself engrossed in Parkin’s analysis of Moore’s loss of trust in and ultimate falling-out with his original American publisher, DC Comics.

Parkin also spends quite a bit of space on literary and cultural analysis. One chapter is dedicated entirely to Watchmen, which Parkin contextualizes within Moore’s earlier humorous and satirical work. Parkin’s argument is that critics have taken Watchmen far too seriously, producing readings that miss its irony and humor. Parkin also considers the adaptation of Moore’s novels into films, which he portrays as unsuccessful artistically, but nevertheless functioning to draw attention to the graphic novels on which they are based. Some, like the V for Vendetta film (2005), have had enduring cultural impact; Moore reported pleasure at hearing that the activist group Anonymous had adopted the Guy Fawkes masks used in the book and movie.

Parkin devotes a chapter to Moore’s magical philosophy and practice. Moore sees magic as a type of language, the proper use of which gives one access to the nature of reality. The book’s treatment of Moore as a magician is a good summary of the many interviews Moore has given on the subject, and it retains Moore’s playfulness and self-deprecating humor. Parkin is a little reductionistic, however; he sees Moore’s magical practice primarily as Moore’s way of describing and codifying his creative process, not as a potentially freestanding system of spiritual exploration and development. Readers who are primarily looking for insight into Moore’s occult work will probably be better served by reading Moore’s many interviews or by watching the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003).

Overall, I was most impressed by the way Parkin ultimately used his detailed accounts of Moore’s professional relationships to allow the reader to evaluate industry perceptions of the writer. In the last chapter of the book, Parkin presents two competing perceptions of Moore: that his stubborn nature and blind adherence to points of principle have cut him off from the rest of the industry, leading him to create work that is increasingly inaccessible; or that Moore has distanced himself from an overcommercialized and failing comics industry, which has allowed him to concentrate on experimental multimedia work while continuing to garner critical acclaim and financial success. Parkin’s meticulous history of Moore’s working life provides the context needed to potentially make a case for either side (although it is probably obvious on which one this reviewer comes down!).

Perhaps my only real quibble with the book is that it does not fully convey Moore’s warmth, which is frequently mentioned by interviewers, and which I experienced myself in Moore’s response to a fan letter I wrote to him in my early twenties. (After sending the letter, I was floored to receive a reply package containing a kind and funny note from Moore, as well as a book, an article, and CDs relating to his occult interests!) To balance that lack, I’d like to close by relating Moore’s thoughtful advice to new magicians, which was given in 2012 as part of a group videochat to raise money for a Harvey Pekar memorial.

Well, I would say, be careful, and try to remember to keep the four basic magickal weapons–and the properties that they symbolize, more importantly–with you at all times. What you need to do is work upon your discriminating intellect, and your compassion, and your basic drive–your will, if you like–and your material circumstances, and to realize that you need to have all of these things under control if you’re going to be a successful human being or a magician, because basically a magician is just a human being writ large. […] Above all, you need compassion, because even if you’ve got the other three and everything is succeeding perfectly, if you don’t have compassion, you’ll end up as a monster. If you’ve got those four basic things, then I would simply advise you to, yes, be careful, treat all this with respect, because it’s all real, at least inside your head, and that’s the only place it needs to be real. Then, progress adventurously. Don’t be afraid to think new or unorthodox things. Try to make sure that whatever magickal insights you’re receiving are applicable to ordinary, everyday life. If they are simply describing conditions in some imaginary universe that only exists to you, they’re probably not of a great deal of use. If they’re telling you things that you can actually use in your everyday interactions with other people, that you can actually use in your own creative life, then they’re probably useful and genuine. Good luck with it, good luck with it!

[If you’d like to hear the entire group chat, there’s an .avi version with a fair bit of garbling and several cut-outs here; or, leave me a comment with some contact info and I can provide a nice .mp3 of the audio only.]


The Superhero AfterlifeFor those with a general interest in religion and comics, I’d also like to note the recent publication of American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife by my friend and colleague A. David Lewis. The book deals with portrayals of the afterlife in superhero comics–which often contrast with the afterlives of traditional Western monotheisms–as well as the evolving models of the human self that these portrayals reflect. I was involved in the editing process of the book, and I can attest that it is smart, accessible, and compelling. Plus, there’s a whole chapter on Promethea! Check it out via a university library, interlibrary loan, or Amazon.

Spiritual Healing: Run Toward Your Fear (A Book Review: #PTCS by Reba Riley)

This book response is part of the Patheos Book Club on Spiritual Healing and Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome. You can read the first four chapters of PTCS on Bookgrabbr.com.


Post-Traumatic Church SyndromeThirty before Thirty: Reba Riley—chronically ill , spiritually destitute, and in search of healing—made it her project to visit thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.

It might sound like a shallow project to some, as it did to one of the rabbis she visited in the course of her year. But Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is not an attempt to catalogue the world’s religions. Rather, it’s a memoir of Reba’s attempt to get outside of her narrow sense of self, to push her boundaries by exploring the wounds she carried from leaving her childhood religion, pentecostal Christianity.

I’m not like Reba in that particular way; I left Christianity gently with no hard feelings. But I relate to this: she finds her fear and runs straight for it. And I relate to this: for Reba, spiritual growth isn’t a luxury, but a matter of life and death.

I was twenty-nine too (Saturn return!) when I left my marriage and my career and moved across the country, hoping that a change in external circumstances would shift my internal pain. And when that didn’t work, I plunged into the most intense period of spiritual practice in my life, spending at least an hour a day at my altar. As with Reba, a combination of self-observational and stillness meditation were the linchpins to finding my way out of the spiritual prison I’d made for myself. When Reba seeks the heart of Being and finds Love, I just had to cheer. I remember that journey.

What I did not have was Reba’s excellent sense of humor. PTCS is an easy read, self-deprecating and funny—so funny, in fact, that it may be hard to grasp the depth of suffering, both physical and spiritual, that she endured.  There’s deep experience here, wrapped up in a bright, silly-looking package. On the cover, Reba’s spirit animal, a peacock, attempts to eat part of the title: Is this a book we’re meant to take seriously?

Unadulterated seriousness will not serve you in reading this book; nor, I think, does it speed the process of spiritual healing. Wiccans and other witches will recall that in “The Charge of the Goddess,” we are asked to carry both mirth and reverence within us (a combination that well describes Reba’s visit to a public Beltane circle, incidentally—tangled maypole and all). Spirituality has a place for laughter, for spontaneity and experimentation—but those characteristics are not incompatible with discipline. Since Reba encourages the reader to join her in making fun of herself, it’s easy to miss how challenging months-long dedication to daily meditation practice is—and this is a discipline that ultimately bears much fruit. Reba may tell her story lightly, but there is determination here, and drive. There is humor here because the task is so heavy.

Is this a book for Pagans? If you are a Pagan of the scarred, ex-conservative Christian kind, this book is definitely for you. And if you are an earnest spiritual seeker, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome may give hope that trauma, spiritual brokenness, and debilitating illness can sometimes be healed. It is an uplifting book, not because it turns away from suffering and pain, but because it refuses to remain there.

There is one other way that PTCS provides a breath of fresh air. It is not a meaningful profile of thirty religions—the story is really about Reba’s journey. But what Reba does very well is convey how profoundly different these religions and their practitioners are seem to her. Though she doesn’t leave her home state, there is enormous variety of thought and practice in her backyard. This aspect of the book is an antidote to the claustrophobia that can come from spending too much time in one’s own religious community—using its jargon, asking its questions, pursuing its goals. (I think this is something Reba understands well, from her use of the term Christianese: the coded language in which Christians enforce their community’s norms.) It is a great relief sometimes to remember that other people have never heard of the great spiritual debates that so vex my religious community—they have their own weighty matters, their own vocabulary, and they work from completely different first principles. This reminder of the vastness of human experience can be freeing. Our differences, though so often a source of struggle, are also a source of great joy.

For Pagans with Christian families, this book may act as a bridge to open up sincere, thoughtful conversations about faith. More generally, I recommend it for anyone looking for a light and funny read that I, at least, am still reflecting on weeks later.


Hello all! I’m easing back into blogging with a series of book reviews. Next up: a biography of award-winning comics artist and occultist Alan Moore.

Friends, May I Present to You… Your New Channel Manager!

With a mix of excitement and sadness, I am writing to announce my resignation as Managing Editor of the Patheos.com Pagan channel. I will very much miss the way this job brought me into daily contact with such thoughtful, dedicated people—both Pagans and people of other religious traditions. But I’m also excited to lead a slower-paced life and spend more time with my family. Think of me, please, chasing my toddler around outside without an electronic device in sight!

Our very own Jason Mankey will be taking up the mantle of Managing Editor. In addition to writing Raise the Horns, Jason is an accomplished ritualist, coven leader, and workshop presenter, with particular interest in popular music and contemporary Pagan history. Jason has been very committed to representing the Pagan channel to our community, most recently co-organizing a Patheos Pagan panel on blogging at Pantheacon. I’ve often heard him say that his blog cannot be successful unless the entire channel is doing well—we succeed or falter as a group. I think he’s going to do a fantastic job! I hope you’ll all offer him your support as he learns the ins and outs of the position. His official duties begin on March 1.

As for me, I’ll be taking a nice long break from the Pagan blogosphere while Yvonne and I are editing our Pagan Consent Culture anthology, and then I’ll be returning to occasional blogging at Sermons from the Mound. I look forward to remaining part of the Patheos Pagan community in this quieter and less public role.

Thank you all so much for the energy you lend to this space. I have learned so much from all of you, and I’m glad I will be able to go on doing so. Many blessings.

 

Ancestor Work: It’s Not Always About “Honoring”

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Image by Tairy Greene via Shutterstock

Happy Samhain and Happy Halloween to those who celebrate them! Here on the Patheos Pagan channel, we’re just wrapping up a month-long series on ancestor remembrance. Our Pagan writers produced dozens of thoughtful articles on connecting with ancestors. Additionally, some of our writers teamed up with writers from the Progressive Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Spirituality channels to do ancestor remembrance practices in tandem. I hope in the future we can do more projects like this to form meaningful cross-channel relationships. (The Patheos Public Square focused on remembering the dead this month too — check it out!)

In listening to all these conversations about ancestor work, I wanted to address an objection that often comes up around this topic.

“I don’t like my ancestors. Some of them, in fact, were execreble human beings — rapists and abusers, slaveholders and architects of genocide. I don’t want to honor them, or remember them, or acknowledge their existence at all.”

This is a fair and valid objection. Some of us need to set boundaries between ourselves and our ancestors in the same way that we might need to set boundaries between ourselves and abusive family members. Not all of us will be reconciled with estranged families in our lifetimes, and sometimes keeping distance is the best possible strategy for managing the trauma of the past and the ongoing danger of the present.

Many Pagans who prefer not to honor ancestors of blood focus on ancestors of spirit — mentors or historical figures with whom they have affinity — or beloved dead, friends or adoptive family who have crossed over. Some also honor ancestors of place, those who lived on the land where they now live (and these ancestors may be animal, not human). Our ancestor remembrance project includes several examples of these kinds of ancestors; I’ve particularly enjoyed Nornoriel Lokason’s memorializing of Harvey Milk and Helen Keller and Lupa Greenwolf’s letter to her non-human ancestors.

Other Pagans approach their ancestors of blood by accepting their flaws and focusing on their strengths. This can feel like a more authentic way to honor a dead family member with whom the relationship was conflicted and difficult. Although the article deals with a spiritual ancestor rather than one of blood, Cat Chapin-Bishop’s remembrance of Ann Putnam is a good example of how one might work with a problematic ancestor around themes of redemption.

These kinds of ancestor work still focus on honoring the dead, however; and for anyone who is just beginning ancestor work, honoring is the best and easiest place to start. But ancestor work is not always about remembering the positive. Sometimes, it can be about demanding justice, making reparations, or healing wounds.

My line of witchcraft considers itself “traditional” — a slippery and much-contested word, but here meaning something like “witchcraft that deals primarily in relationships with the land and its inhabitants in various states of embodiment.” As I was taught witchcraft, deepening relationship with the ancestral line is a key element of our work — and if no relationship exists, we must restore it to come fully into our power. So what do we do if the ancestral line is blood-soaked, broken, twisted with hatred, wounded?

The short answer is that we engage the ancestral line where we have direct access to it — beginning with its endpoint, our own embodied selves. Whatever we have inherited from our ancestors that burdens or wounds us, we work to make it right: to atone for our ancestors’ wrongdoing with just action, or to heal grief that our grandmothers and grandfathers carried to their graves. It’s slow work, often painful; and it is not work I would recommend to everyone. There are a thousand ways to deepen spiritually and serve community, and not everyone’s path will lead them to dig into the past this way.

For those who are called to work with their ancestors, especially those who are trying to resolve an inherited spiritual burden, I can recommend an excellent mundane tool. If you have access to family stories, either through family members or through genealogical research, it can be enormously helpful to make a genogram, a tool often used in family systems therapy. A genogram is a kind of family tree that also records major life events (such as illnesses, career changes, etc.) and important aspects of family relationships (strained or very close connections, for example). The results can reveal a pattern that persists over generations, or behaviors in later generations that represent clear reactions to events that occurred before they were born. A genogram can help uncover issues that need to be addressed, and it may even identify specific ancestors who need help in healing, who need to be confronted for crimes, or who may be of aid in either process.

The process of healing one’s ancestral line will be different based on the situation, and it is probably best undertaken for the first time under the guidance of someone experienced in ancestor work. Readers may also find Laura Patsouris’ short book Weaving Memory to be helpful. From personal experience, I can say that to successfully resolve an issue in one’s ancestral line can be an enormous relief that reverberates throughout one’s life. Ancestor work allowed me to shift complexes that years of other spiritual practices and healing modalities had failed to touch.

Ancestor practice that goes beyond honoring can be heavy work. Happily, not every Samhain celebration needs to be about confronting family traumas. My ancestor practice tonight will be to dress up my little one in an adorable monster costume and take him to hand out candy to local trick-or-treaters, as my parents and grandparents did. Whether the Samhain season calls you to deep healing or simple celebration, I wish you all the blessings of the dark time of the year.