Tuesday, December 28, 2004

What makes a creepy movie creepy

The Devil Rides Out, one of the classic Hammer Studios horror films, is supposed to be scary. It's based on a novel by occult-horror writer Dennis Wheatley and stars Christopher Lee (Saruman in Lord of the Rings). I watched it recently, and I learned that the main attribute of British ceremonial magicians, "black" and "white," is that they spend much time driving from one country house to another in vintage Rolls Royces and Morgans. It's a yawner.

Then there is Brigham City, a low-budget but taut thriller from Zion Films, a company serving a largely Mormon audience.

On one level, it's a modern "Western," with a rural sheriff confronting a baffling string of murders. Richard Dutcher plays the sheriff with one sustained weary expression. No doubt he is weary, because he is also the producer, director, and screenwriter.

Because of his LDS religious convictions, Dutcher created a PG-13 movie without gratuitous sex and violence and not one curse word--even in the bar scenes. Some other directors might profit by watching it: violence that is barely off-screen or understated can still be chilling. But something else was more chilling than the killings.

The sheriff, you see, is also a Mormon bishop. At one point, he summons all the men in this mostly Mormon town for a house-to-house search for one of the victims. To paraphrase The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "We don't need no search warrants. I don't have to show you any steenkin' search warrant!"

Merely to lock out the civilian searchers brings down the sheriff's wrath. When one man does so, he is thrown against the wall of his house. The searchers do find something embarrassing in his home--but it has nothing to do with the murders. In fact, none of the house searches turns up any useful evidence at all.

I don't think that Dutcher intended this lesson of what happens when spiritual and temporal power are identical to be the scary part of the movie, but it is.

At the end, the man whose secret was disclosed is shown sitting in a pew at the Sunday sacrament meeting. He has nowhere else to go. And of course his secret will be known to everyone via the gossip grapevine. Oh well, what's a little Inquisition on the ward? It's not like he questioned the archaeology of the Book of Mormon.

Monday, December 27, 2004

"The Gods Return to Olympus" part 2

I Still Worship Zeus, the documentary film on contemporary Hellenic Pagans, which I referred to earlier, may be preordered at their Web site.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Joe's World

More seasonal thoughts:

Consider the Holy Family as the prototype of the typical television sitcom where everybody is smarter than dumb ol' Dad. Let's call the show Joe's World

Joe is this hardworking contractor. He drives a pickup truck with tool boxes and a ladder rack. He stops off after work at The Palms bar for a beer with his friends.

Then he comes home to his bright, perky, upwardly mobile wife, Mary, who could be played by someone like Helen Hunt in Mad About You or DeLane Matthews (my choice) in Dave's World. Her ally in getting Joe to do whatever she wants is her charmingly bratty, verbally precocious kid, Jesus.

You can read a typical episode in Luke 2: 39-53.
"Amazons" in Roman Britain

Via Cronaca: the Times mentions a new archaeological find suggesting that Roman auxiliary forces in Britain included at least some female fighters.
It's all about birds

Things found while Web-surfing. Snopes.com debunks the story that the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" contains hidden references to Christian doctrine, adding that the "five golden rings" are ring-necked pheasants. If true, that would establish an earliest date for the song: when were those birds first imported from Asia? (They were brought to the Willamette Valley of Oregon about 1881, I think--their first North American importation.)

And while we are debunking, Snopes says "Ring around the rosie" does not contain any reference to the English bubonic plague outbreaks of either the 14th or 17th centuries.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Midnight (imagistic) Mass

A few nights ago, M. and I were sharing reminiscences of Christmases long past, including the experience of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. It wasn't the content of the service that mattered, but the experience: the waiting all evening, driving to the church through quiet streets, the explosion of lights in darkness, then walking out from the church into the cold, crisp night air.

It was one of few times when modern Christianity--at least in our churches (hers Roman Catholic, mine Episcopal with High Church touches at the holidays)--felt like a mystery religion. Watching the stripping of the altar on Good Friday was another such time: it could actually seem deathly scary.

Neither of us could understand the Protestants--people just sitting passively and being talked at. No altar (at most a vestigial table), but a dominating pulpit that turned the church into a lecture hall.

A year ago I was introduced to the work of Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist of religion who divides religions depending on which tendency they embody most: the "doctrinal" or the "imagistic." Once you have had an imagistic experience, such as an initiation into a mystery, it stays with you, whereas doctrinal teaching must be reinforced with constant repetition.

Whitehouse has developed this idea in several articles and monographs; his new book, Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission is on my current reading shelf. I may have more to say about it later.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

"The gods return to Olympus"

Thus the title of an article in the January/February 2005 issue of Archaeology magazine on Greeks re-creating their ancient religion. An abstract is available here, but to my mind it leaves out a key quote, from reconstructionist leader Tryphon Olympios, who left the country for political reasons during the junta years of the 1970s and taught philosophy at Stockholm University:
We argue that Christian ethics, based on apocalyptic truth, are incompatible with Greek ethics, based on philosophical, scientific knowledge, a product of rationalism.

No mystoi here then? A documentary film about the reconstructionists, I Still Worship Zeus, is supposed to be available, and I am looking for it.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Seasonal confusion, hard feelings, and so on.

Evidently the struggle over who gets to define the solsticial holiday continues. The Bureaucratic Mind, confronted with competing claims, tends to retreat to blanket negativity . . . and is then accused of promoting "secularism."

Punditry ranges from ramblings about "druids" to curmudgeonly rants like this one from Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, muttering that everyone should "just leave Christmas alone." (Registration required.)
To insist that the overwhelming majority of this country stifle its religious impulses in public so that minorities can feel "comfortable" not only understandably enrages the majority but commits two sins. The first is profound ungenerosity toward a majority of fellow citizens who have shown such generosity of spirit toward minority religions.

He is right about one thing: no one has a constitutional right not to be made to "feel uncomfortable." But in my experience, while some Pagans might feel that Christmas is "shoved down their throats," others are more likely to take the approach of Asatru blogger Robin Runesinger and "take back Yule," enjoying the Pagan roots of the whole celebration, from the fir tree to Santa's possible relationship to Odin the shaman god.

Even a novelist whose main qualification is that she wrote a thriller about Catholics versus "The Goddess" (and guess whose side she was on?) gets to pontificate on the reason for the season. (Registration required.)

Regardless of how we feel, I am afraid that the impulse to bureaucratic blandness is winning. Rather than think deeply about American tradition, as Krauthammer suggests, mayors, school principals, and the like are more likely to forbid anything that looks "religious."

And some Christians are able to talk out of both sides of their mouths: America, they say, is a "Christian nation," yet somehow these Christians are the victims, no less, of secularism (whatever that is), the so-called liberal media, the Hollywood film industry, and so on.

Yet the admittedly Christian bloggers at GetReligion remind us that Christmas used to be a low-key holiday, when it was celebrated at all. (Seventeenth-century Puritans banned its observance when they could.)

Lucky for us Pagans, trees are religious symbols, as are five-pointed stars.

PS: Why newspapers make online readers is pointless to me. Protect your privacy and get an instant login and password from BugMeNot. Thanks to Wildhunt for a couple of the links above.
The Passion but not the Code

The Religious Newswriters Association's top 10 religion news stories list of 2004 leads off with Mel Gibson's Passion.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Some Year-End Roundups

1. Top cryptozoology stories of 2004 by Loren Coleman. Those Southeast Asian "hobbits" lead the list.

2. Top stories involving Paganism, from the Wildhunt blog. Start with "Drug dealers, religious intolerance, court battles and a possible trip to the Supreme Court!"
Llewellyn George, Patent Medicine, and Pagan Publishing

In 1993, when I was editing the Witchcraft Today series for Llewellyn Publications, I few up to Minnesota to spend a couple of days conferring with Carl and Sandra Weschcke, who own the company.

Driving me around St. Paul in his black Cadillac, Carl told me the story of how he came from a German family heavy with doctors and pharmacists, inheriting a company that made cough lozenges and other over-the-counter medicines. In the 1960s, however, he took a different turn, buying a tiny astrological publishing firm founded by astrologer Llewellyn George (1876-1954). He even legally changed his own middle name to Llewellyn in homage.

Llewellyn Publications is still in St. Paul. It publishes (in short runs) more books on contemporary Paganism, astrology, ceremonial magic, and other such topic than any other firm, although the quality is sometimes uneven.

So much for the astrology connection. But there is also a patent (OTC) medicine connection: Llewellyn George was in that business also, as the journalist and critic H.L. Mencken noted in one of his "Free Lance" columns almost ninety years ago. I have put Mencken's full text here.

UPDATE: Llewellyn now plans to move to suburban Woodbury, Minn., and the old Coca-Cola bottling plant that has served as office/warehouse will become part of some waterfront re-development.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

"Satan in the Groin"

It's the name of a site devoted to "exhibitionist figures in medieaval churches," but with excursions to phallic standing stones in Ireland as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Communicators struggle with communication

It looks as though the Religion Newswriters Association is re-doing its website, and although it now boasts this page of religion blogs, the links to John Dart's and Don Lattin's blogs don't work anymore. And they are stalwart RNA members. Consequently, their links on my blogroll under "Religion and Journalism" don't work either.

While we are waiting for RNA to figure this problem out, read Bartholomew's Notes on Religion instead.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Supremes back UDV

The Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian-based church that uses entheogens in a way similar to the Native American Church, has won an important battle in the Supreme Court.
"Those poor pagans"

A meandering Denver Post opinion column has a lot of Colorado Pagans upset, mainly because Paganism is invoked rather pointlessly just to color yet another rant about secular government and religious observances.

Some sample comments from the e-mail lists:

--He responded to me also, just to say, "Please, tell me again HOW you think I offended you and other Wiccans."

--Frankly, that's the only way it makes sense. There are such amazing leaps in logic there that Superman would be dizzy.

I think we are seeing one fruit of Wicca and other Pagan religions' increasing visibility. We have moved from "invisible religion" to "fake and/or ludicrous religion," which is, I hope, a step on the way to "just another religion." See my previous post here and Jason Pitzl-Waters' comments here and elsewhere.

Some letters to the editor about the column.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Secret Thrills of Teaching Rhetoric

I teach a class each semester on advanced composition and rhetoric, using this book as one of the texts. The students are mostly education majors who must take the course as their last exposure to a writing class before they are turned loose on the job market.

This semester's final exam included a creampuff essay question that brought this response in the first paper that I graded. "Students should know who Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and Quintilian were." Quintilian! Take that, constructivists!

Of course, who knows what she will actually do once she has a classroom of her own. I just like the fact that I'm able to pass on a little bit of the Classical Pagan tradition here at a minor state university.

Over the break, I plan to snuggle up with Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric to design some new in-class writing exercises.

UPDATE: In all fairness, I should point out that there is a "Classical" wing in the Christian homeschooling movement. But they run up against opposition from their own co-religionists, as in this excerpt from the "Classical Christian Homeschooling: Frequently Asked Questions" page:
Classical education seems like the best model to produce truly educated children. But as Christians, how can we use the model established by the pagan Greeks and Romans? Does Christian classical education have a Biblical foundation?

Answer coming soon

I'll be watching for that answer. See also my earlier post about the possible dangers of "addiction to Greek mythology."

As I try to point out gently to my own students, rhetoric cannot really stretch its wings when there is a Holy Book With All The Answers limiting what can and cannot be discussed or even asked.
Pagan Studies in the Academy (AAR Musings, Part 3)

I mentioned earlier an attempt by scholars of contemporary Paganism to gain program-unit status in the American Academy of Religion.

Good news from Cat McEarchern, who has been doing the heavy lifting on the proposal:
We got it. I heard just a few minutes ago that the AAR Program Committee approved the proposal for the Contemporary Pagan Studies Consultation. There was apparently only a brief discussion and many of the members of the committee seemed to think that approval was a given. So people outside our field have been noticing all the work we've been doing and the growth of Paganism as a religion.

It's time to start thinking of something that I can submit for next year's session.

I will post a link to the Call for Papers when it is ready.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

It's so nice to be noticed

By Belisarius' definition here, all religions would be "fake," insofar as they were given form by human beings. If Belisarius were writing as a militant atheist, he would be more convincing. Unfortunately, Ship of Fools is a Christian Web site, and an entertaining one at that. Check out the "mystery worshipper."
Happy Chrismahanukwanzakah to you

Barraged by comment over holiday-related squabbles in the state capital, I especially enjoyed this animated greeting. (A fast connection helps.)

In an ecumenical spirit, M. went Chrismahanukwanzakah shopping today at the Holy Cross Abbey winery.

When I was a young Pagan, I never let the "C-word" cross my lips if I could possibly say "Yule" instead. Now I hardly care. When a Salvation Army bellringer wished me "Happy Holidays" last week after I put some money in the kettle, I almost snapped back, "I expect to hear 'Merry Christmas' from you! Where's your pride?" But that response would not have been in the Chrismahanukwanzakah spirit. (Thanks again to GetReligion for the link.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Fun with Visitor Logs

This blog entry was the first hit when someone typed the search terms "Hellenistic VW bus" into Google. Someone else managed a convoluted scriptural exegesis involving VW buses, hippes, and the apostle Paul on a Segway human transporter.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

La Virgen as a Goddess

Today's Denver Post dips a toe into the water with this story suggesting the the Virgin of Guadalupe might be a goddess--or at least a pop icon.

"Many of us are working to claim her larger cosmological meaning as earth mother," says scholar China Galland, author of Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna.

Robert Anton Wilson made much the same point nearly 30 years ago in an essay in the long-gone Llewellyn magazine Gnostica, but who was he? Just some pulp-fiction writer in a "fringe" publication, not "mainstream media."
Journalists and new religions

Being a former newspaper reporter and someone whose religion by academic standards is "new," The Revealer's review of Sean McCloud's Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993(University of North Carolina Press, 2004)went right through me.
McCloud contends that since the 1950s, mainstream magazines like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report have tarred and feathered any group that displayed high levels of zeal, dogma or emotion. Whatever cultural stereotypes would make these groups look most peripheral and abnormal were thrown at them. Sometimes this meant lightly mocking them, at other times representing them as simply offering brain candy for poor people, and very often giving the impression that all “cults” were lead by charismatic serial killers and rapists who had turned their followers into zombies.

I've been on both sides of this one: I have agonized over poor reportage on contemporary Paganism, yet in my early-1980s pieces on such groups as The Way International and the Church Universal and Triumphant (a/k/a Summit Lighthouse), was I guilty of what McCloud calls "push[ing] these groups to the periphery as a way of reinforcing their own position in the center"? But which "center" was that? Certainly not a mainstream Protestant center. A secularist center disguising my Pagan identity?

Reviewer Gal Berckerman does not totally buy into McCloud's use of certain social theorists; I will have to read this book to see if I do.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Canada's First Pagan Conference

Gaia Gathering, billed as Canada's first national Pagan conference, is planned for May 20-23, 2005, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Panel discussions include topics such as Pagan paths, Paganism in the various regions of Canada, interacting with the mainstream community, forming 'churches', marrying rights, Pagan parenting, living our beliefs in an environmentally sensitive world, Pagan Chaplaincy, and much more...

A discussion group is here, or visit the official Web site.
CES Founder Honored Online

A eulogy page to Church of the Eternal Source co-founder Don Harrison is now online. It loads slowly if you have a dialup connection. I mentioned him earlier here.
A Fistfight at the Poets' Café

When I was about 15, I saw Jean Cocteau's Orfée, a film based on the Greek legend of Orpheus the poet, his wife, Eurydice, and their journeys into Hades.

Most of it went right by me. I was not prepared for its intensity nor its shamanic overtones. All I really remembered were Death's outriders on their motorcycles.

I watched it again last night and was amazed. Made in 1949, it is still a compelling film. This film has the imperious logic of a dream: you don't know exactly why things are happening as they do, but they are "right" all the same. Surrealist poetry coming from the radio of a Rolls-Royce? Of course.

All of this is done in black-and-white with a minimum of special effects.
Alexander and the Critics

I still have not seen Alexander, but Rogue Classicism is tracking critical reaction, particularly from the Greeks.
Pagan Studies in the Academy (AAR musings, part 2)

Right now more than 50 scholars who work at least some of the time in Pagan Studies are anxiously awaiting an announcement from the American Academy of Religion's program committee.

Steered by Cat McEarchern, organizer of the last two Conferences on Contemporary Pagan Studies, we have put together a proposal for a "consultation" on Pagan Studies as part of the AAR's regular annual meeting, as opposed to an "additional meeting," our current status.

The AAR has four levels of program units: consultations, seminars, groups, and sections, each one longer-lived and with more time slots during the meeting. Consultations are for "nascent discourses seeking to establish a constituency and create a framework for thinking about a specific set of problems," in AAR-speak.

This whole process began during the 1995 annual meeting, when Selena Fox and Dennis Carpenter of Circle Sanctuary organized an informal meeting of scholars in Paganism and nature religion. In 1996 the baton was passed to me. We had another brief meeting and agreed to start a listserv for researchers in the field.

In 1997 a group of us met and wrote up a consultation proposal, which was rejected on the grounds that we had not adequately proven that our intellectual concerns could not fit into an existing unit, such as New Religious Movements.

From 1999-2002 we met for one 2.5-hour session before each AAR-SBL annual meeting, which I organized, and presented papers just like a real program unit. Then Cat stepped forward and, beginning in 2003, organized a day-long session.

In the meantime, I found an academic publisher to take over The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, and other publishers began showing interest in publishing Pagan Studies books, most notably AltaMira Press.

Plus the AAR is now actively soliciting new program units, which it was not in 1997. So we're hopeful. Watch this space for more news. (AAR Musings Part 1 here.)

Friday, December 03, 2004

Blog Stew

1. A University of Texas study suggests that the nutritional value of American vegetables has declined over the past 50 years (from Science Blog via MacRaven).

Yesterday two of my students, both living at about the poverty line while attending university, were complaining about how hard it is to eat high-quality food because "they make the price so high." Setting aside the tendency to blame things on "they," these two women had a point: high-quality food often does cost more than junk.

One of them, I know, drives to Pueblo from a prairie town and goes almost right past our favorite organic farmer's place--but what should she do after his harvest is completed for the season? I am not sure that I know. Take a generic multivitamin?

2. My brother-in-law has two public sculptures on display in Charlottesville, Virginia: "Business as Usual" and "One-Room Cow."

3. Thursday night is often B-movie tonight. Last night's offering, Red Blood, which was something like "Tony (Soprano) meets Tony (Hillerman)."

It had minor Mafiosi versus sort-of-like Apaches in the Mogollon Rim country of Arizona. A bunch of guys with real or assumed north Jersey accents (who auditioned for The Sopranos but were never called back) were paired off against every lesser-known American Indian actor in the book. Fat guys with guns and gold chains and bad-guy cowboys faced an Indian warrior (who was also, we are to believe, a New York City stand-up comedian) with a compound bow on a mountain bike.

A Yoda-like wise grandfather said things like "Every being is responsible for his own actions." (But Yoda would have said, "His own actions every being is responsible for," right?) It was multi-culturalism at its finest: a cliché to offend everyone.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

An ex-Pagan's blog

John Gibson apparently defines himself by what he no longer is, Wiccan:
I met with Alan, became interested, and started meeting with his group during their new moon rituals. Most of these rituals were what we called "prosperity" rituals, because they were aimed at getting money to the participants. I participated fully in these rituals. At this point, I'd like to mention a sinister reality: At times, the devil can use the tactic of giving "gifts" as a lure. During one of these rituals, I was in need of a couple of thousand dollars to pay bills. The next day, I was contacted by a gentleman who wanted to purchase two computers that I had for sale.

Now he is Catholic:
During Lent, I made my first confession. I wonder how many priests get to hear the sin of idolatry?

But he is young, and perhaps more changes lie ahead.