When Journalists are “Embedded” in Pagan Religions

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 4, 2012 — 22 Comments

NPR correspondent Eric Weiner is the latest in a long line of journalists to temporarily embed themselves within a Pagan practice in order to explore our religions first hand. In Weiner’s new book, “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine,” he engages with a number of different religious traditions in order “to better understand faith, and to find the god or gods that speak to me.”

“Weiner, a longtime “spiritual voyeur” and inveterate traveler, realizes that while he has been privy to a wide range of religious practices, he’s never seriously considered these concepts in his own life. Face to face with his own mortality, and spurred on by the question of what spiritual principles to impart to his young daughter, he decides to correct this omission, undertaking a worldwide exploration of religions and hoping to come, if he can, to a personal understanding of the divine.”

Like a growing number of writers, Weiner decided to give Wicca a try, the largest and most accessible modern Pagan religion. While he seems to give the practice a sincere shot, he’s haunted by his monotheistic upbringing, and ultimately dismisses modern Paganism’s lack of transcendance, its polytheism, and his perception that Wiccans “are so busy pulling rabbits out of hats that they never stop to look carefully at the rabbit, or the hat for that matter, and contemplate the miracle that is its existence.” To be fair, Weiner also says some very nice things about Wicca.

“Is Wicca for me? Have I found my God and is He a They? There is a lot to like. I like the way Wiccans create fresh ritual. I like the way they eschew temples and doctrine in favor of a forest and liturgy penned on the fly. I like the idea of a world infused with magic. I like the idea of a religion with no sin. […] Wiccans are many things – wacky, rebellious, frequently kind, occasionally naked. They are not indifferent. They engage in wonder and awe on a regular basis. It that’s not religion at its best, I don’t know what is.”

I never seriously considered the idea that Weiner would convert to Wicca, as a New York Times review notes, “we never believe, for example, that Weiner is genuinely drawn to the spirit world of shamanism or the spooky ceremonies of modern-day witchcraft.” Dabbling with Pagans was more a bit of spice in a trip through the modern religious marketplace, and he’s in good company. In recent years writers like Jeff Sharlet and J.C. Hallman, in addition to BBC television presenter Peter Owen Jones, have also given some attention to modern Pagan faiths as part of a larger exploration of religion. None, to my knowledge, ever seriously considered a true conversion. The only journalist or writer  that I can think of who did convert was Stewart Farrar, who was sent to cover Witch-king Alex Sanders and ended up becoming a prominent Witch himself (Weiner’s fellow NPR correspondent Margot Adler was already “one of us” when she wrote and published the hugely influential “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America”).

The real question is if these embedded journalists writing about us is a helpful phenomenon. Does it humanize us to the wider public to read about these outsiders chanting and dancing with us in various circumstances, or does it simply make us another punchline or amusing anecdote for folks like Weiner to share at talks and interviews?

I think there’s a point where we have to question how we interface with and “embed” writers looking for a Pagan experience. I have no problem with them writing about “going skyclad” or exploring their feelings about polytheism, but I also think that we need to convey that modern Pagan faiths face serious issues that should be addressed. Whether that’s the distribution of religious materials in public schools, “occult” filters in public libraries, or equal treatment from our government. I’m fine with writers deciding Pagan religions aren’t for them, but I do hope they will come away from their experiences with a sense of the challenges we face, and a willingness to stick up for us in the public sphere. I also hope that any Pagan or Pagan group approached by an aspiring writer will have  a serious conversation with them about what their expectations are before allowing unfettered access.

Jason Pitzl-Waters