Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ripples of Reverence: Responding to Commenters

My earlier post on reverence has spawned commentary both on my blog and on the mailing list where the discussion originated.  Since there were so many good points raised, I figured I'd compile them together here along with my observations.

In the latest post to her Witches & Pagans blog, Galina Krasskova tells one of the stories which inspired the original entry.
During the course of the three days I taught, I discovered that JD had A) broken a solemn oath to Ellegua (an Orisha, but some of us do have interactions with African Traditional Religions, and this particular incident occurred before JD became Heathen); B) had tried to force a Deity to compel a man to leave his wife and become her lover (this was…what do you know?...unsuccessful); C) had cursed and “attacked” Freya; (I’m not sure what form the ‘attack’ took…I was already rather shell-shocked by that point in her recitation); D) had offended her ancestors (no sh*t, ya think?); and E) had desecrated and befouled a shrine to Nephthys, while visiting a Kemetic colleague after having an argument with said colleague centering around JD’s sense of entitlement to all the magical secrets of the universe (JD demanded an initiation and when it wasn’t forthcoming threw a tantrum). 
The long term results of all of this were rather dramatic—even by my standards and I’ve seen just about everything. Immediately after offending Nephthys (and I was equally appalled at the desecration and the fact that upon pointing out that Jane had desecrated the territory of a Deity, her response was ‘but I like Nephthys.’ Yes, I get all the bright ones in my classes), JD found herself unable to bath. She was, literally, afflicted with an allergy to water. I believe, having done divination and having then consulted with a colleague who also divined, that this was so that JD’s physical form would reflect her spiritual form. Additionally, she lost her job and her home and in the intervening time period (of several years) found herself unable to maintain either in any workable fashion. After cursing and trying to “attack” Freya, she found herself afflicted with certain sexual problems. After offending Ellegua, she began to have recurrent nightmares and night terrors that were getting progressively worse. Her personal luck, as one might expect, was terrible.
JD's actions were certainly uncommonly egregious, but the mindset from which they originated is all too common.  Salena notes:
Comic books touch a creative part of the brain that mainstream societal conditioning really doesn't seem to, if anything adding the comic book ideology of Gods on top of the rigid, mainstream anti-reverence undertones- it's almost as though an all out two pronged approach to war against worship is happening (no, I'm not paranoid). We now have people conditioned to thinking Gods are present only to please us and heck, lets add some creative juice to this and now they not only serve to keep us safe and comfy but they will also entertain and delight us. When we tire of 'their little games' we can just move on to the next toy till we choose to break that one also, or we can play high school boyfriend games with them till the last touchdown of homecoming game has been made. In our favor of course. 
I'm not positive there is anything we actually can do directly to combat this issue. I've seen people bandy about the titles of books some on this email have authored- sure they say they are great but much of the readership is missing something. There is a place within them walled off to understanding the reverence, awe, and sheer holy fear that should be present when working with deity. They 'say' they get it, I don't think they truly do, their actions speak so loudly.
Unfortunately, to engender reverence, they have to be able to express, at a minimum, willful vulnerability. Kneeling before a God is vulnerability, it is saying, 'You are bigger than I.' But here is the core of that question- how do you get someone raised in this culture with no awe, no humility, no understanding of deity, to be willfully vulnerable? This is so very antithetical to our conditioning.
I agree completely. Comic imagery can touch us in a visceral way and evoke deep emotional responses in a way that mere text cannot. And because we start reading it at an early age, it shapes us in a way the Jesuits can only envy. One of the ways we have always brought children into the tribe is through stories. They're the way we transmit our values on to the next generation.  And when we turned storytelling over to other people, we gave them a great deal of power over the future of our culture.

The entertainment industry is in the business of entertainment. Their primary concern is shareholder profit, not the edification and education of tomorrow's leaders. Maximizing profits means selling product to the widest possible consumer base.  The old cradle tales aimed inward, seeking to guide the child into the family, village and tribe. Publishers and producers look outward, seeking to expose their images to as many eyeballs as possible. To that end, they seek to gain the child's attention through flashy art and easily digested story lines. Reverence is a thorny subject at best, especially given the monotheist/multiculturalist tensions in American society. When you talk about worship or spiritual topics you are almost certain to offend one group or another. It's easiest to avoid the issue altogether.  

We focus a lot on the Pagans who are coming in from Fundamentalist backgrounds and want to reject their old religion while retaining many of its core concepts.  This is something different: the Pagans I'm seeing who suffer the worst from this come from secular backgrounds, or from homes where religion wasn't particularly important. This isn't some ex-Pentecostal acting out against Big Daddy Jesus. These are people who have had little or nothing in the way of traditional religious education and have no working models as to what a religion actually is or what it is supposed to do.  

Elizabeth Vongvisith noted:

I for one get super annoyed with fangirls who toil under the delusion that their crush on Tom Hiddleston constitutes a spiritual experience. Lately, I've seen people selling items on Etsy that have quotes from the movies such as "mewling quim" and "puny god" in reference to Loki, which fans are apparently wearing to show off how cool they think Loki is. Since when was being insulted a cause for admiration? If they knew anything about mythology, they'd know that Loki's the one who usually does the insulting ;) 
Best of all, I just read some people on Tumblr speculating that the Loki devotional I wrote is really fangirl poetry based on the comic book character. Boy, will they be surprised if they actually get hold of a copy. So yeah, I'd say the amount of ignorance is distressing, at the least.
I find it interesting just how many people are reporting spiritual experiences that read like bad fan fiction.  The idea that somebody might think it appropriate, advisable or even possible to "attack" Freya boggles my mind -- but it's perfectly in keeping with the classic narrative of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu hero who manages to beat Voldemort/Sauron/etc.

Comic/fan culture fills a lot of the roles which were once covered by religion.  It provides a place for meeting like-minded friends and lovers. It gives devotees larger-than-life figures to venerate and even, yes, idolize.  It provides them with a liturgy which is even called "canon" by devotees. And if you've never trembled before of a God, you can easily mistake the quick emotional punch of mass media artwork and imagery for the awe one feels in the presence of the Divine.  As an added bonus, fan culture tends to pride itself on its "tolerance of diversity."  Meaning that it's seen as bad form to criticize others for their efforts. Given that most Americans already think that "tolerance" means an empty-headed agreement that any idea is as good as another, that makes it really hard to call out the community's drama queenes and delusional dumbshites.  It also means that devotees will often get really defensive when you suggest they may be doing something wrong. You're impinging on their creativity and you're mocking them and stifling their religious freedom yada yada.  And so a lot of people continue wandering merrily along in delusion-land, getting in trouble on those rare occasions when they actually encounter the Spirit World.

What we're dealing with here are people whose mythology and worldview comes from the entertainment industry. They choose deities because they look cool and interesting, the same way they choose graphic novels and movie rentals.  When the series  starts getting boring, they can reprogram their TiVo and watch something else. They were never told that the Gods were real but they were taught at an early age that comics were "just make believe."  They were taught that these images exist for their personal gratification and enjoyment. And they don't have any frame of reference by which they can understand just how totally wrong they are.

And Pythia Theocritos commented on the original entry:

I'm probably going to bounce all over the place when it comes to this subject but I will start with my belief that the modern pagan movement has really created a subculture of religious narcissists. I've been to more than one pagan meetup where the gods are treated as cosmic cash machines, there to grant wishes like trans-dimensional genies, because they exist to console, coddle, and care for mankind.  
The solitary paganism movement in the 90's did little to change this; so paganism isn't about a group of "religions" anymore but glorified self-help and self-help means complete autonomy even when dealing with entities that are gods deserving of worship. As our society becomes secular the idea of "worship" has attained sinister overtones, perhaps due to the me-centricity of modern Western culture, but possibly because so much of Protestantism is based on the idea that all you have to do is ask for forgiveness (and most of the time this doesn't include actual worship or even real repentance ) and everything is all right. 
Would it be fair to say that many pagans bring this mentality into a religious umbrella they already think "has no rules?" And when most mainstream books treat gods like underwear, while referring to the legitimate orthopraxy of Judaism or Christianity as stifling, oppressive, or totalitarian; you don't have a religious umbrella; you have a refuge for a bunch of petulant teenagers who don't want to be 'told what to do' even by their gods.
It seems that we have some agreement (at least in a small circle) that there are serious problems. Which, of course, leads inevitably to a future blog entry wherein we discuss possible responses to these issues.  Stay tuned, folks.