Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Next Word On The New American Pagan: Mine

“When people cease to believe in God, remarked G.K. Chesterton slyly, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything.” Christopher Hitchens, For The Sake Of Argument: Essays & Minority Reports.

Coffee shop at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
It is Hitch who is remarking slyly, here: Chesterton never said this — not so succinctly, at any rate. But the sentiment is Chestertonian enough to qualify (note the canny absence of quotation marks). And I gratefully use it as a helpful entry-point for this post.

“They come to believe . . . in anything.” More particularly than “anything,” I wonder if the Default Setting for human consciousness isn't Paganism.

Paganism has an innate logic, from a pop-psych POV. From birth to late adolescence we see our parents as gods. In benign families the child's consciousness morphs from “How did she KNOW I was going to pilfer that cookie?” to gradually discovering some of the tricks behind this perceived omniscience, to the young-adult motivation to prove oneself not just equal to the parent, but superior.*

Plurality produces a manifold awareness. Even in happy families, children witness their parents in conflict. The gods rage! I displeased them with that third cookie! They rage against me! In FUBAR families the children adopt strategies to become parent to the parent — usually an admixture of deceit, distraction, and recognized emotional supplication. Daddy calms down when I cry and say “I love you!” Again, this happens in healthy families also, albeit with less trauma.

Here we have the basic template for standard modes of religious supplication. It is currently, I would offer, THE template for Evangelical worship, with its emphasis on childlike chorus-cycles and incantatory prayer.** Often even when one deliberately steps away from a particular religious community such as this, the primal expectations that gave rise to these communal call-and-response rituals remain very much alive and at work in the individual consciousness.***

What the intrepid pilgrim discovers out in the larger world is, in fact, a multiplicity of call-and-response communities and rituals. Navigating these is exceedingly tricky work. Among the more popular options, the rituals and rigours of science are indeed commendable. But when it comes to appealing to the collective consciousness about a communal concern as baseline fundamental as the survival of our species, the scientific community is at a demonstrably significant loss. One reason for this, I suspect, is that our species is not possessed of a singular collective consciousness, but rather a multiplicity of collective consciousnesses.

Since I've already committed myself to the realm of rainbows and unicorns, I'll go the distance and make it personal: to all intents and purposes, I conduct my life presupposing that Pagan Narratives are spinning themselves out in the Cosmos — or at the very least on this planet. More than that, I suspect everyone else does, too,**** and that arriving at some wisdom regarding which of these impulses are healthy and which are detrimental is one of life's most formidable challenges.

If that seems a bit rich, coming from the gormless Christian in the back pew, I'd suggest that one of the more palatable lenses through which to read the Bible is as a cumulative butting against Pagan Narratives, without and within — before finally subsuming them all under one Predominant Cosmic (and comic) Narrative.

At this point my thoughts scatter like marbles on the floor. Some of those marbles are brighter than others; hopefully in the next few days I can point to a few of them as they roll under the couch/fridge/stove.

No Unified Field Theory from me, in other words. Instead, I'll revert to my lazy-bones norm, and point toward the cogent thoughts of others for your perusal. Here’s a short bibliography of works that nudged me toward this POV:

Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism In The Age Of Information.

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible & Literature.

Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. (A note: the enlightened among us take these men-in-tights stories seriously, but it is safe to say Morrison's enlightenment on this score is of a vastly different plane.)

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium.

"We're all Neo-Pagans now, Henry."
*Hm. “Individuation as monotheistic paradigm”? Thoughts for later.

**Liturgical communities attempt to sidestep or subvert some of these expectations by adapting the Jewish practice of Prayer As A Reminder Of Our Place. Job Shrugs: “God is God. What are you going to do?”

***The frustrated apostate: there is no God. Life is evidently cruel. Who to blame? And why?

****I remain cheerfully open to correction: do you know of exceptions?

Friday, March 21, 2014

The New American Pagan: We'll give "Chef" the first word, Stephen Marche the next

It's now week 2. The words are coming, sure, but they aren't cohering in any way that is at all attractive. And now here comes Stephen Marche, adroitly putting his finger on one angle of the whole New American Pagan thing that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. Go read it, please. Daddy needs to work some more.
"Its' fucking pagan idolatry."

Friday, March 14, 2014


I’m working on a post I hope to get up in the next day or two. In the meantime, here are some links that caught my attention, with some personal explication:
I love the blogosphere busy-ness, self-publication as the glorious act of splashing around in one’s own pool, inviting neighbors and passers-by to hop in or ignore, as they see fit. But I also, on occasion, succumb to Pro Writer’s Envy. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a stray issue of something prestige — a New Yorker, say, or a BOMB magazine — and I’ll read it, and enjoy it, and I’ll think, “Wow. I really wish I was in that tree-house.” And, for my tastes, no tree-house has a more coveted vista than n+1.
Currently, club-members have started a ruckus outside the tree-house by framing a polar debate: “MFA vs NYC.” If, like me, you reflexively consider this a false dichotomy, be assured: there are flying elbows in this melee that will strike a vulnerable spot for just about any reader. Leslie Jamison attends the fracas and considers, among other issues, writerly authority. Michael Bourne focuses on the most pragmatic concern: how does either side make a living?
“Screw NYC: Buenos Aires is the place to be. Tangential to n+1 matters: New York magazine (another tree-house — with an open bar!) profiles n+1 founder, certified hep-cat and unabashed Marxist Benjamin Kunkel over here. Take-away quote: “Is the growth of the radical left a cause for hope or just a mark of accumulating despair?”
And, finally, just because: over at the VICE tree-house (um, what's that smell?) Danny McDonald prompts some Chuck Bukowski recollections from one-time muse (and several-times girlfriend) Linda King. I like that McDonald throws in Roger Ebert's assessment of Buk. “Statistical aberration,” could sum up just about any writer who grabs and holds the spotlight, really — regardless of MFA or chosen city locale.
"You know what 'MFA' really stands for, don't you?"

Friday, March 07, 2014

“What’s Your Magisterium, Baby?”

A few years back geez magazine asked a pre-selected group of people, “How Evangelical are you?” Individuals’ answers were posted in the sidebar, with their pictures, and a graphic of a needle-gage which swung either to the right (“Very Evangelical”) or left (go figure). I thought the issue was perfect for a Buzzfeed-like questionnaire that reveals a person’s deepest, truest self, but geez disappointed me on this front. Too bad. I was game to play along, even — especially — if it meant I’d prove to be Very Evangelical. Missed opportunity, there, geez-ers.

Bathrobes? I thought we were a hornier bunch.

When I was born, my parents attended — and my father eventually pastored — an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church. When I was 13 my father shifted denominations to pastor an MB church in Winnipeg. The “E” might have been dropped* but the MBs were still a determinedly Evangelical bunch. At 16 or so I consented to baptism in that church.

In the next five years I questioned, then vigorously protested Evangelicalism. I couldn’t see any distinctives that separated this so-called “movement” from its hillbilly cousins, the Fundamentalists. I moved to a bigger city, and eventually the fellow that took over pastoring from my father called me on the phone and asked if I still considered myself a member of my childhood church. I said, “No.”

Onn daut je’wast daut.

From the git-go Mennonites have been an evangelical bunch — their namesake made an emphatic point of it, with this manifesto. Of course, Menno’s evangelicalism is resolutely small “e” — as holistic in scope as things got in the 16th Century. At the time, people lived and died over this sort of parsing, so you don’t get much more holistic than that. But from a 20th and 21st Century American POV, Simon’s evangelicalism has more than a whiff of “get your feet on the dirty street, and roll up your sleeves, ‘cos we got work to do” Social Gospel — which is too concerned with earthly practicalities to qualify as capital “e” Evangelicalism.

Anyway, if you bothered to follow that earlier Menno Simons link, you can see that Mennonites are still devoting a heap of head-scratching over whether they are “Evangelical” or “evangelical,” or if “evangelical” isn’t a word Anabaptists should discard altogether.

Mennonites are not unique in their intellectual struggles: by now a significant number of American Evangelicals are asking the very same questions. Journalist/Historian Molly Worthen surveys what’s going on, and, in The Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority In American Evangelicalism takes a fair stab at historical and intellectual summary.

If, like me, you reflexively snort at the application of “intellectual” to “evangelical,” this is a link worth reading. The tendency to equate North American Evangelicalism with anti-intellectualism is not without justification, but still a presupposition worth scrutiny. The beholder can declare a given intellectual struggle “false,” while the struggle rages on, both unabated and (in its uniquely false way) intellectual.**

Determining common intellectual ground among Evangelicals is its own minefield, of course, which Worthen navigates by reducing Evangelical concerns to three questions: “how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom.”

I have to admit that, after reading her summary, I wondered whether I had in fact left Evangelicalism behind, or if I was just fooling myself. Worthen acknowledges, “These are, in some sense, universal questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level.” She goes on to say that, “Liberal Protestants, in practice, tend to treat human reason as their magisterium — either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.”

Trent vs.Urbana, FTW

“They don’t get too angsty” whew: I’m off the hook!*** Mind you, that’s arguably more likely a by-product of temperament than of intellect. As for “caring about the supernatural,” that will have to wait for another post, hopefully the next.

In the meantime, Worthen’s book gets a good review by Chris Lehman, over here. Tangentially related, here is a conversation between Steve Paulson and Roman Catholic theologian John Haught. I’d guess from Paulson’s Salon contributions (hey, Ken Wilber!) that his “magisterium” may reside on the “liberal” side of things. Haught confesses he’s striving to build on the work of Teilhard de Chardin, who didn’t originally get much sympathy from the Magisterium he shares with Haught. As is often the case with interviews like this, I’m less inclined to pick up the new book on offer and more inclined to return to the author’s source of inspiration (which also includes Tillich, and the usual triad of blasphemers, Camus, Sartre and of course Nietzsche. Good luck with that, John).

Right then: forward in all directions, people.

*Or, more likely, added in the case of the EMBs. I’m a little sketchy on the history, but I’m thinking the EMBs are a more recent Mennonite splinter.

**Evangelical attempts to align Darwin with the Genesis accounts, and (more to the point) Evangelical interpretations of Pauline theology, are a prime example. They might strike the more liberal or non-faithful observer as just another energetic attempt to align all of Copernicus’s Heavenly Spheres, but it still counts as intellectual activity. Best done with tongue-in-cheek, IMO.

***Speaking of Buzzfeed questionnaires: this one has me pegged as “Aristotle: You think that everyone should aim to be as happy as they possibly can, and that happiness is best achieved by challenging yourself academically. You’re always reading and you enjoy going to art museums and galleries.” I don’t know if they’ve “got” Aristotle, but Id like to think they’ve just about nailed me. 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Beginning The Lenten Crawl, Online.

I noticed today, while hitting the daily clicks, a growing preponderance of religiously-themed links. Chiefly “Pro-“ vs. “Anti-“ — dreary stuff, most of it. My Morning-Mind puzzled over this phenom, until I finally woke up enough to recall: Shrove Tuesday.* Ash Wednesday. And, uh, Thumthing Thurthday. The Lenten crawl toward Easter has begun.

Easter, with its many dividing lines, certainly seems to invite debate. I would have been all over this stuff, when I was in my 20s. There’s nothing more clarifying than a debate, after all, particularly when one side apparently walks away with all the marbles.

But I lost my appetite for it, after a while. What these spectacular smack-downs hammered home more deeply than anything was the fact that I clearly wasn’t the smartest chap in the room. And those occasions when I presumed to be led to behaviour I would later recall with profound shame. I finally decided that if the fragile yolk of my ego was to remain intact, the more prudent strategy would be to acknowledge the clear strengths of any particular argument, and gently probe at possible vulnerabilities, where perceived.

It’s what I do — unless the roaring ape within glimpses the shiny possibility that, maybe just this once, he really might be the smartest chap in the room. I still wield the whip and the chair, of course, but there are times when the Old Gorilla will not abide.

Speaking of which, here’s a Frazetta cartoon from MAD Magazine that always gets me giggling.

Anyway, some of these links have been better at thought-provocation. I intend to post them, along with a few drabs of my usually muddled commentary. Stay tuned.

*AKA, "Pancake" Tuesday.