Friday, April 11, 2014

TFS Response-Modes, Part 1

What do you do when The Freaky Shit happens?

A woman whose background was born-again Christian told of reading a book on voodoo until deep in the night. She fell asleep and then awoke to see half-human, half-animal figures roaming about on the landing outside her bedroom door. She had never seen or imagined such beings. The book had not included them. 
I was not asleep,” she said. “I was completely awake. I know I was because I reached out to touch the wall beside me.”
What did you do about the creatures?” I asked, knowing that she had left the religious assurances of childhood beliefs far behind.
I called on the blood of Jesus,” she said, her voice going high with emotion.
Good idea,” I said. Old habits die hard, which is sometimes for the best.
Christine Wicker, Not In Kansas Anymore: Dark Arts, Sex Spells, Money Magic, And Other Things Your Neighbors Aren't Telling You

Wicker's anecdote has the ring of familiarity to me. The people I was raised by had very clear lines of demarcation when it came to The Freaky Shit. You had God, you had the Devil, and you gave the latter — even the faintest suggestion of the latter — as wide a berth as possible.

Wicker says contemporary Magi refer, with some impatience, to this attitude as Dualism, a less-than-helpful lens through which to view and interact with the world. And although I maintain a cautious, if not downright skittish, approach to matters of the occult, I'm drawn to wonder if its acolytes don't have a point.

Getting back to my roots, and the skittishness cultivated: “Flee the Devil,” was a motto we strove to live by. Itinerant evangelists who billed themselves “Occult Experts” (or, even more sensationally, “ex-Satanists”) made it easy for us by revealing the depths to which the occult permeated popular culture. Cue the slideshow of album art, and now we teenage youth were seeing vivid examples of Dark Magickal motifs that were in all likelihood squatting in our bedrooms and poisoning the very air with demonic influence. One parking lot bonfire later, youth and parents alike were relieved of these malign forces for once and for all.

Or at least until it finally hit the youth just how badly Christian Rock sucked.

"Next up: Larry Norman!"

It was a clear message: stay away from Those Guys and Their Freaky Shit. And if, for whatever reason, you found yourself confronted by it, a Friday night bonfire of the vanities, with invocations of Christ and Christ's blood, ought to be enough to get you out of the jam.

This, then, is the Dualism: two kinds of magic, one good (God through Jesus), and everything else, bad (Satan, “alive and well” as one “expert” claimed, in all the other religions (except maybe Judaism), but especially so in the religion that bore his name).

Still, even in a community free of Ouija boards and Tarot cards, The Freaky Shit occurred. Dreams, visions, visitations, alien abductions — at the outskirts of my village lived a family of five, three members of which had one really wild abduction story. They were sweet-natured people, pointedly uneducated. Which side of the equation were we to park this stuff?

Then there were the Holy Rollers, a subset the Mennonites could in no way avoid. Beyond the usual group-phenomena of glossolalia, Holy Giggles and Slayings in the Spirit, there were individuals who seemed to tap into an elevated vision of things that permitted them a surprisingly prurient vantage point. I knew of one character who developed a reputation for busting in on scenes he shouldn't have had any knowledge of. Some of those groups were up to potentially grievous mischief — go with God, dude. But others seemed completely innocent — none of your business, really, so: why?

I related some stories about this guy to another charismatic, who sighed and rolled his eyes. “Getting 'The Gifts' doesn't make anybody a better person,” he said. “You might have noticed. Some of these people become incredible dicks.”

It all leads me to wonder if the dualistic POV isn't too simplistic, and (ironically) prone to complicate things. Perhaps Dualism is merely Paganism-in-Denial?

Some TFS links:

TFS happens to Mark Twain, among others. So why isn't it a legitimate element in academic study? (My thoughts: a compelling enough piece, but blinkered in a way that seems typical of academia. You want TFS on-campus? Go to the Drama Department. No shortage of TFS stories and happenings occurring there, my dear perfesser.)

TFS happens, with some regularity, to Barbara Ehrenreich. And, like Twain, she still considers herself an atheist (although I can't help sensing a POV that begins with the letter “P”. . .).

Christine Wicker's book is terrific, by the way. She's clear-eyed, disarmingly frank in her self-disclosure, and revelatory about the whole American Neo-Pagan scene. Get it here.

Added 13-iv-14: Hey, lookit: Mary's gone Pentecostal, too!

And finally, my favourite evilest band in the world, the Supersuckers, have released a new albumGet The Hell, I am happy to say, is a return to the form that made me fond, in previous albums like M(ofo)s Be Trippin' (rave here) and The Evil Powers of Rock 'n' Roll. Rock on, dudes.


Joel said...

First, just so I know, is this considered part of your neo-paganism series, or is this a digression?

I have some personal reminisces about this topic as well, if you'll allow me the digression in your comment section.
Growing up both in the church, and at a private Christian school, I got a lot of Christian input in my youth, but when it comes to the supernatural my upbringing was not entirely consistent. Depending on who was teaching Sunday School that week, or who are teacher was that year, we got differing views.

One view was something I like to think of as Christian Deism. It's similar to the view of the Deist who believes God created the world, but then left it alone. But the Christian version is that God was actively involved in human history up until the last book of the Bible had been written, and then after that he left it alone. Miracles had occurred in Biblical times, but you can't go looking for supernatural events nowadays, because the age of miracles is over. (No-one ever said this in as many words, but eventually I pieced together that this is the view many of my teachers were operating under.)

The other view is similar to what is expressed here, where there was a belief in all sorts of crazy things--demon possession, ouji boards, satanic backtracking in music, Dungeon and Dragons leading to Devil Worship, speaking in tongues, exorcism, et cetera. I had some teachers who swallowed the whole thing, and in their classes we would get on class discussions about this. As the floor was opened up to debate, my classmates would contribute their own stories, and one person after another would bring up stories about how their friend of a friend had once contacted a demon using the ouji board, or how another friend of a friend had had their ouji board spontaneously combust into flames. It was almost never something that was personally witnessed by the teller, but always a friend-of-a-friend type stories. Despite this, the teacher would always take these incredibly, poorly sourced, stories at face value. If the teacher was inclined to believe the supernatural intervened in human affairs, they would gladly take any story that confirmed that thesis.
Looking back several years later, with a much more skeptical mind, I can now see how easily these kind of urban rumours and myths get passed along in the Christian community.

It's interesting, though, that these things only seem to happen to people pre-disposed to believe them. These kind of experiences never happened to the "Deist Christians" I knew. And I never hear these stories from my secular friends.

In Cambodia, a similar kind of credulity exists, and people believe in all sorts of superstitions, magic, and miracles over here. And, not surprisingly, they are always having experiences that validate these beliefs.

I have grown very skeptical of everything over the years, and the experience of hearing so many crazy stories about magic from Cambodians has only increased my skepticism of the supernatural.

Given all that we know about the fallibility of the senses, and the problems with human memory, and the way people are disposed to believe certain things--all of these lead me to think that anecdotal tales of the supernatural are worthless to me. If something can be observed under controlled conditions in a scientific experiment, then you have my attention. (I believe that if the supernatural exists in real life, it can exist in the laboratory as well.)

Darrell Reimer said...

Worthless -- until you're the anecdote, pal.

Darrell Reimer said...

Did you follow any of the other links, Joel? I'm frankly gobsmacked to see you so swiftly resort to the pejorative.

Joel said...

Okay, perhaps I came off as a bit harsh in that last comment (the dangers of quickly dashing off comments in an Internet cafe). No disrespect intended. I'll back up and try again.

I'm influenced by Thomas Paine, who said that, although various religions claim divine revelation, even if God has revealed himself in history to anyone, it is only divine revelation to that individual alone, and to anyone else it is hearsay, and that we are under no obligation to believe it. And furthermore if we did consider ourselves obliged to believe in everyone else's divine experiences, we would put our credulity at the mercy of fraudsters, tricksters, and also the mentally unstable.

Now, granted Paine was talking about something different. He was talking about organized religion, which puts a moral duty on an unquestioning belief in the divine revelation of certain prophets. And you're (I think) talking more about a spirit of open-mindedness when it comes to the supernatural.

But, when it comes to trying to understand the mysteries of the universe, I still take this as my cue: I don't consider myself obliged to believe in the private mystical experiences of other people. If I did consider myself under such an obligation, there's no end to the crazy stuff I would be obliged to believe from all sorts of out there people.
...Of course when it happens to perfectly sane people, as in your links, that's a different story I suppose. And yet....and yet....

Joel said...

I probably didn't read through all the links as thoroughly as I should have (again, the parallels of trying to dash out comments quickly in the Internet cafe), but I did have a look at the Mark Twain one, and the Barbara Ehrenreich one. And while they certainly give one pause, there seem to be any number of reasons to be skeptical.

Barbara Ehrenreich seems to have had a private religious experience she considers very important, and yet if the universe had something so important to communicate to us, why is it only Barbara Ehrenreich who is getting this vision.
Also people on drugs see all sorts of crazy mystical visions. And well Barbara Ehrenreich wasn't on drugs, you see my point perhaps--if it is is possible to have chemically induced visions and mystical experiences (which no one puts much stock in), why should we put stock in visions under normal circumstances? There could be any number of neural-chemical explanations for this.

As for Mark Twain, I'll respond with an anecdote of my own--I recently (within the past couple weeks) had a dream about a girl I knew in high school. This was somewhat I hadn't seen for about 18 years, and hadn't even thought about for years. So when I woke up in the morning, my immediate question was: Why was she in my dreams? Freud said that are dreams have several layers, but on a surface layer everything visual in our dreams can be traced back to something we experienced that day--something I generally find to be true, but I had neither seen this girl nor thought about her for years.
And yet, I woke up with a feeling that the experience was so real, and that I felt we had a real closeness, that it seemed hard to believe it was merely a dream, and that there must be something behind it--some sort of connection between us.
That feeling eventually passed, and now I am back again to the idea that it was all just a dream.
A stupid example perhaps, but maybe you take my point. We all wake up from time to time with the feelings that our dreams seemed so vivid and real that they must mean something, or must have some connection to reality, and 90% of the time it doesn't mean anything at all. But the law of averages must dictate that occasionally some of these vivid dreams have some sort of connection in real life, and these are the dreams we remember while all of the other ones get quietly forgotten.

That's not to say I should dismiss this stuff completely out of hand.

I should acknowledge (something perhaps I didn't make clear in my last comment), that I can't dismiss anything out of hand. Maybe it did happen--who am I to say?
But I don't accept it out of hand either, and I suppose I tend to put the emphasis on the skepticism.

Of course if it ever happened to me, I guess that would be quite a different story. What you said about: Worthless -- until you're the anecdote, pal.--Is actually quite true. But for me the key word is "until". (Although even then there might be several reasons to distrust my senses.)

But my personal anecdotal experience of the world thus far is that it seems to be a world where the supernatural does not exist. And when my anecdotal experiences conflict with the anecdotal experiences of someone who does believe in the supernatural, then at that point there are two conflicting world views based on differing experiences, and we should go to what I would consider the referee--what does scientific research of controlled experiments tell us?

Joel said...

>>>The other view is similar to what is expressed here, where there was a belief in all sorts of crazy things--

Sorry, just so there's no confusion, I want to clarify that I wasn't trying to say you were expressing a belief in crazy things-- I meant "here" to be in reference to the occult experts and evangelicalists you mentioned.

Darrell Reimer said...

Hey Joel.

You're clearly sorting through a wide array of concerns, many tangential to what I've posted, in a very compressed period of time. It's a pleasure to witness, but I hope I'll be forgiven if I don't address them point by point.

I’m thinking about your earnest teacher soliciting occult adventures from the kids. The way you describe him makes me like him, weirdly enough. It’s a rare teacher who can get a roomful of children to blurt out the riskiest stuff they secretly believe in, or just way down deep inside fear might be true. Rarer still the person who can solicit that trust in adults — so, again, I am nothing but deeply flattered that you have that freedom on my blog.

I’m not so fond of the professional decriers (Larson and his ilk) who pitch a tent next to the church and pull in a few buckets of money. In fact, I’m not fond of professional decriers of any stripe. When one person starts doing a good job of sealing off the exits, the mob starts doing a bad job of breaking the windows.

Which leads me to ask: who died and made Science boss?

Listen, MIT Labs are doing commendable work, when they aren't cooking up new ways to extinguish human lives. But the fields of study otherwise devoted to species betterment have got roughly 8,000 years of human consciousness to catch up to. And speaking now as your elder let me tell you: life is too fucking short.

You and your interlocutors — your peers at the pub, the cultures and clients who so generously play host to you — are the lab. Collect and correlate the data. And quit with the “crazy” talk. That kind of thing reads loud and clear, so it’s no wonder your friends aren’t coming up with TFS stories.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Steady there. I haven't ENDORSED Pentecostalism, just noted its presence on this rez.

I myself have always walked right towards Satan and found that wickedness (sex, drugs and rock n' roll) will throw me right back out. In fact, I put my arms around Satan and feel him sobbing. He's only a child.

Prairie Mary

Darrell Reimer said...

Sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll make a mess out of everything -- especially sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll.

paul bowman said...

I wasn't paying attention to this stuff at all until your string of posts here, and haven't (I confess) been looking at all your links, even. Reading the flamboyant Morrison, though, as you know. And now I find Ehrenreich is turning up on the radio, talking about her book. Here's one of those interviews:

paul bowman said...

And happened on this tonight. A little monotheism, a little karma, a little good planetary timing ...

It's going to be everywhere I turn now, isn't it?