Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sweaty jocks and pet death

I saw an ad in The New Yorker for someone who will help your high-school student to write that dreaded college admissions essay

With that in mind, here from my own school's alumni magazine is an Admissions Department insider's view of that genre.

I wonder why they admitted me, though. As I recall, I wrote part of an essay, became frustrated, cut it off abruptly, and made up the balance by including some of my "brilliant" high-school poetry. Maybe they had a "rebellious poet" slot open.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The "fastest-growing" religion?

Jason Pitzl-Waters links to a survey showing "nature religion" to be the fastest-growing religious category in Australia.

Jim Lewis, a long-time scholar of new religious movements, presented a similar roundup last week at AAR-SBL. Interestingly, he found the number of Pagans in English-speaking countries to come in consistently at about 0.1 percent. (That's one-tenth of one percent.)

I think that should Pagans reach about the 2-percent mark, it would be a sort of tipping point. What that Paganism would look like, I have no idea.

"Growth" is a debatable term, of course. The steering committees for each AAR program unit are supposed to track how many people come to each session for institutional-research purposes. At one of the new religious movements sessions, an attendee cracked, "Let's just be like the Scientologists and count everyone who comes through the door [as a member]."

Yeah. Whose numbers do you trust?

Sunday, November 26, 2006


  • Abstracts of articles published in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies are now available online and searchable.
  • Advanced Book Exchange is my normal starting place for used or out-of-print books, but it is getting some competition from, which claims to be more selective or something. Naturally I went to their site and searched on my own stuff, and what a surprise to see my junior-year literary magazine from Reed College listed for $49.99. That was not because I had some poems in it; rather, the contributors included Lee Blessing, who became a Pulitzer-winning playwright, and his friend the screenwriter Eric Overmeyer.
  • Coming home from AAR-SBL, M. & I had a layover in Chicago, so after coffee at her favorite hangout, Intelligentsia on Jackson Street, we walked down to the Art Institute. (I have a standing date with John Singer Sargent there; he painted like I want to write.)
  • My mind still at AAR, I became way too amused at an exhibit titled “Art of the Islamic World: Unity and Diversity.” That could be the perfect all-purpose after-the-colon academic title. “Chicago: Unity and Diversity.” “America in the Jacksonian Era: Unity and Diversity.” “The Corvidae: Unity and Diversity.” “Contemporary Paganism: Unity and Diversity.” Or, as M. suggests, “unity in diversity,” for even more ambiguity. Either one would do. I would tell my freshmen students to try it, except that I don’t think they would understand that I was speaking ironically. I would immediately receive six or eight papers with "Unity and Diversity" in the title!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pagan Studies and paper management

US Capitol Building, early morning, Nov. 21, 2006

The Capitol as it looked on my last morning's walk to the AAR-SBL meeting.

Coming home from the American Academy of Religion-Society for Biblical Literature meeting means an enormous amount of "paper management." Books, catalogs, receipts, business cards, mysterious scribbled notes, sample copies of journals, maps, newspaper clippings--all are dumped on my desk and need to be sorted out.

Somewhere in the pile is my notebook with about seven pages of "to do" items.

One thing I did hear was an insider's perspective on the lawsuit against the Veterans Administration over the pentacle on Sgt. Patrick Stewart's memorial. Thanks to the state of Nevada, he did get his pentacle.

Suffice it to say that the lawsuit may force the VA to reveal that a double standard was employed. There is an old saying: A fish rots from the head.

As I work through that to-do list, I'll have more to say about our sessions. Meanwhile, here is one bookseller's take on the last day of the book show..

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Amtrak Heaven, Amtrak Hell--and all for Pagan Studies

Regular readers know that M. and I like train travel. We saw both sides of it on our just-completed trip to Washington, DC.

The Southwest Chief was on time to La Junta, Colorado, where we meet it, but the ticket agent was muttering about possible stoppage due to high winds.

Somewhere in western Kansas, we ended up parked for five hours. Apparently there is an Amtrak regulation against prairie travel when winds exceed 50 mph, and according to a crew member, winds at the Dodge City airport were 63 mph. Can those double-decker Superliner cars blow over?

Late to Chicago, we missed our connection on Capitol Limited to Washington, but did make it onto the Lakeshore Limited, which had been held in the station. Thus began the great Rust Belt tour: northern Indiana and Ohio, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and down the Hudson River to New York City. This time, our sleeper was one of the one-level Viewliner cars, designed to fit into Penn Station.

I could never keep count of all the old brick warehouses, piles of scrap metal, and empty factories. What is the quarter-mile long three-story white brick building in Utica, New York, that looks empty? There is just so much stuff in this country.

We arrived in New York about 8 p.m. and an Amtrak representative promised us seats on a regional train down to Washington, DC, which would have gotten us there by midnight--eight hours late, but we could live with it.

But what she did not tell us was that a freight train had derailed south of Baltimore, interrupting the "catenary" electrical system and stopping commuter trains in that sector. We got this sad news from the conductor somewhere around Trenton: our train would stop at Philadelphia.

It was too late for a Greyhound bus--the last one had left at 10:15 p.m. The rental car counters were all closed. Amtrak's Philadelphia agents were flailing around, first promising buses and then saying that there were none, and that Baltimore was worse, anyway.

Eventually, like some other passengers, we partnered with a third traveler and rented a cab. Yes, from Phillie to Washington by taxi, driven by an immigrant Indian driver who knew how to get onto Interstate 95 south, but after that had no idea where he was going.

Neither M. nor I knew our way around either. Fortunately the other guy knew the main roads--and somewhere in the south part of downtown, the brotherhood of cabdrivers was invoked: our driver pulled alongside a DC cab, rolled down his window, and shouted [assume melodious Indian accent]: “Where is Hotel Washington?” And soon we were there, heads hitting the pillow about 3 a.m.

And so I slept until about 10:30 a.m. and then trudged off to the Convention Center, arriving late for the all-day Pagan studies conference, but delighted to be there and able to say that I had paid all that money out of my devotion to Pagan studies.

It was totally worth it.

On the return trip, we were only slightly late into Chicago and right on time in La Junta. Boarding the Southwest Chief in Chicago, we looked around and realized that we were in the same "roomette" in the same sleeping car that we had just vacated six hours earlier. That never happened before. Perhaps it was . . . a sign.

Thursday, Nov. 16, apparently was no picnic for air travelers either. I spoke to one attendee who had been dropped in Pittsburgh and sent by bus to Baltimore. Others had similar stories. The travel system is complex and fragile. One thunderstorm at an airport can back up air travel all around the country, so I cannot be too hard on Amtrak for its high-wind policy.

On the other hand, I have been talking with Customer Relations and will be seeking some sort of refund, having bought Chicago-Washington sleeper tickets but having been dumped in Philadelphia.


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Steve Stirling's Wiccans

For reading on last week's train trip to Washington, D.C., I brought Steve Stirling’s The Protector’s War; it is the second of a post-apocalyptic trilogy, following Dies the Fire.

In the first book, set in the 1990s, some mysterious Change occurs and suddenly electricity does not flow, internal combustion engines do not combust, gunpowder will not explode, and even steam engines do not function well enough to be useful. One of the characters tries to explain it as a change in the laws governing the behavior of gases. That last is a bit of a stretch, since other sorts of machines, including pumps, do work, and wood-fueled fires do burn. But Stirling clearly wanted to write a Neo-Medieval tale, and so he bypasses any revival of the Age of Steam.

Within months of the Change, the end of civilization as we know it, the survivors have reverted to idealistic feudalism (the good guys) or despotic feudalism (the bad guys) or outright banditry (the enemies of both). Having a background in special operations (Green Berets, SAS) or the Society for Creative Anachronism seems to be helpful for survival as either good guy or bad guy, since large amounts of the books involved small-group tactics, covert operations, and combat with edged weapons. Having read all of Tolkien’s work twenty times can be a plus too. (The SCA must luv this series.)

Probably the main reason that review copies of parts two and three arrived in my mailbox is Sterling’s pride in creating the character of Juniper MacKenzie, folksinger and Wiccan high priestess, whose coven becomes the nucleus of “Clan Mackenzie,” a burgeoning tribe of small farmers and craftspeople who take their archery practice very seriously. The clan makes the “Old Religion” the dominate faith tradition of Oregon’s middle Willamette Valley—except for the monks at Mount Angel and a few other hold-outs.

Having Wiccan characters in a novel of alternative history is not exactly mainstreaming them—-and I could just as easily see a charismatic Protestant pastor organizing the Lord’s Army of kick-ass archers and pikemen—-but it does allow the books’ characters to bring a Pagan sensibility to this tale of war and survival.

In this second book of the series, which takes place nine after the Change, the older characters are looking at the older teens, who were little kids when civilization died, and then wondering about the next generation, who will never have known anything else, and how their worldview will be significantly different from that of the people who were adults during the Change.

I wonder if Stirling would have related that to one of the live issues within Pagan studies—-and the movement in general—-about how the religion(s) will change as more and more cradle Pagans and then their children come into them.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Do what thou wilt, Mr. President

This story is funnier to me because I am blogging two blocks from the White House.

Could Aleister Crowley be George W. Bush's grandfather?

More later: I am too busy at the American Academy of Religion meeting. My trip here was 48 hours of chaos, but it is all truly worth it to be with the Pagan Studies crowd.

UPDATE: I do not necessarily buy the Bush-Crowley connection, but as Eric Riley points out, it does put a different spin on creating your own reality.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Being a fake priest in Japan

Once again, the Japanese turn Western religious categories on their heads.

Omi Junko was surprised to find out that some of the Western priests were not genuine.

"I thought the priests were all real and I think everyone in Japan thinks that," she said.

But Mr Kelly argues that the ceremony is not about religion, but about image.

"I give a good performance. I use an Apache wedding prayer in my ceremony. It works very well, although I had to take out the part about the bear god in the sky," he said.

"If people are crying by the end of the wedding, I think I have done a good job."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

CNN polls on pentacle veterans' markers

This won't last, but CNN is polling viewers on whether the Veterans Administration should do the right thing and create a Wiccan grave/memorial marker.

So far the Yes votes are far ahead. I suspect that that is because Americans mostly think that (a) religion is a personal matter and (b) anyone who served in the military ought to get the religious marker of their choice.

Some background here and more current news here.

UPDATE: At GetReligion, they are wondering if the pentacle might be offensive to families of nearby-buried vets. I suppose the star of David and that atheistic atomic symbol are offensive too.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

We have a Pagan Studies series!

Introduction to Pagan Studies by Barbara Jane Davy
With Barb Davy's Introduction to Pagan Studies, we now have three books in Rowman & Littlefield's Pagan Studies series.

And three of something truly is a "series," right?


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Caught in the eddy

When Her Hidden Children came out last summer, I enjoyed about two months of happiness over that, but now it is time to get going on something else.

I started research for an historical novel, and I still mean to write it, once I figure out the rhythm of fiction-writing. Publication, if ever, would be a long way away, however.

And there was a plan for another scholarly book, but my editor at Rowman & Littlefield poured cold water on that idea, mainly because it sort of fell between two horses from a marketing perspective.

I have not abandoned the idea though, and I mean to talk with him at AAR-SBL next week.

That leaves some book reviews that I need to do for Nova Religio. As I tell my students, when you don't have anything else going on, reviewing keeps your mind and your fingers moving.

If you came here for content today, then, there is not much to be found--unless you look at some of the excellent bloggers over on the right side of your screen.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A ritual no more

I like living where I do. I like going down to the old schoolhouse to vote in a building where time seems to have stopped about 1950 (except in two classrooms that are now a library).

I like seeing the election judges whom I otherwise might meet only at the post office, since the cafe closed and I obviously don't attend the community church.

"Hi, Irene. How've you been, Alden?"

But after today, no more.

We used to vote on paper ballots that were marked and then fed into a scanner. With three or four booths and only a couple of hundred voters in the precinct, lines were always short. Go in, get registration checked, vote, grab coffee and cookie, and out.

But this year the county went to electronic machines. The machine works great--but that is machine, singular. County funds are short. Our precinct gets one machine, and this year's Colorado ballot is a long one crammed with referenda and initiatives.

Poll workers estimated 10 minutes per voter. I know that I was faster than that, but still, it was 8:20 a.m. and I was only voter number 12. (Polls open at 7 a.m., but they had some trouble getting the voting computer going, they said.)

M. stopped on her way to work mid-morning when the congestion was supposed to be less, and instead it was worse. She eventually gave up. Sorry, Congressman Salazar, that's one less for you.

After today, I resolve to vote early at the courthouse or else by absentee ballot. I will miss Alden, Irene, and the free cookies. I will miss the little civic ritual of climbing the steps of the old schoolhouse, ready to commit democracy.

Cross-posted to Nature Blog.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A fall from a height

I am in Colorado Springs today, where famous evangelical pastor Ted Haggard's fall dominates the news.

Frankly, to borrow the name of a better-known blog, I just don't "get" his kind of religion. A 14,000-member megachurch? Why? So you can sit on your butt and be preached at and sung at among a huge crowd of strangers?

My dislike for Haggard's approach is more than theological. It is partly aesthetic--the whole megamall megachurch entertainment thing. And it's partly because of the way that New Lifers regarded the most interesting parts of Colorado Springs (such as the Old North End and Tejon Street) as controlled by Satan or something. I wrote elsewhere that they do not understand the gods of the city, only the gods of the suburban shopping mall.

One excerpt: "[Jeff] Sharlet makes a good case for New Lifers as exurban parasites, taking the services that the city provides but being unwilling to pay for them, either financially or psychically."

Anyway, he is toast now, although there will probably be some sort of public-repentence-as-career move. From a Christian perspective, LaShawn Barber's coverage is about the best.

And that's the news from "Fort God."

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Friday, November 03, 2006

The apotheosis of Mao

I was half-listening to an ABC News story last night about Chinese billionaires (and now I cannot find any link on their site. Help!) that mentioned one man whose mansion had something like a mosaic of images of Mao Zedong.

The reporter seemed bemused, since Chairman Mao (1893-1976) was after all a Communist.

Coincidentally, I was reading Jordan Paper's The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology where he writes of visiting China in the late 1980s:

[At that time] a new deity of wealth was needed, one that would be effective in the new economy. Who was the most powerful dead not yet with a divine specialization? Why, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) of course! Small icons of his image, with a plastic version of a Chinese gold ingot hanging from it, were on sale everywhere. They were variously hung, such as from automobile rear view mirrors, including government vehicles. When I asked a bureaucrat, a member of the Communist Party, why it was hanging there, the answer was succint: "Ta shi shen" (He's a Deity.)

The old Greeks had a word for it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Human rights and the 'living goddess'

Via law professor Ann Althouse, thoughts on a case with a Pagan twist, although she does not approach it that way.

I am waiting for the blogging devadasi to weigh in. If she does, I will link to her.

UPDATE: I knew that Kama would have something to say.

Creeping syncretic Southwestern Paganism

Day of the Dead altar of the English ClubThe instructions from the Student Activities Board were explicit:

On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed--signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will illuminate the way for the dead upon their return. . . .

All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside. Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense. A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expel all its guilt when it is stepped on.

Yes, it was time for the annual campus-wide Day of the Dead altar-building competition. Illustrated: the altar of the English Club, with Victorian writers.

I stopped by the Student Center lounge where the Spanish Department professor who mastermind the competition (and who always features Frida Kahlo) was putting up some final trimmings.

"Looks like taxpayer-supported Paganism to me," I said with a wink.

"Oh no-o," replied la profesora, "it's culture."

"That's what they always say," I responded.

She is right--but art and culture can often trump dogma. Where are the campus Christian conservatives in this one? I think that they are scared of the Multiculturalism Monster.



Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Stopping the marching zombies

A medievalist takes on the "Christians stole all the Pagan festivals" meme.

So the juxtaposition of Samhain and All Saints Day is just that - a juxtaposition, not an adoption or adaptation by the Church of a pre-existing Celtic holiday, unless you want to think that there were Celtic pagans living in central Italy in the early 8th century celebrating Samhain.

Ah, but it's so hard to stop the basic religious outbidding of "Our festival is older than yours, nyah nyah nyah."

Where are the 'advanced Wicca' books

Dianne Sylvan blogged recently on the lack of advanced Wicca books.

The problem is partly the lack of a definition, she notes, asking also,

How many books have you seen on how to live as a Wiccan when life sucks? How to face life’s worst moments and most difficult challenges? Where are the books on surviving grief, abuse, and loss and still maintaining your faith as a Wiccan? How to bring your entire life in alignment with your values, and how Wicca influences those values, or should? How, if everything is sacred, every choice we make from what to eat to what shoes to buy is an expression of our spiritual beliefs?

For my part, I have often wondered at the paucity of Wiccan autobiography in this country compared even to the UK's modest offerings. There might possibly be a connection.