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.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://twitter.com/JosephMagnuson Joseph Magnuson

    I just noticed that in that second paragraph’s quote you wrote “hate” instead of, presumably, “hat” … At least I hope that is just a typo!

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Whoops! Fixed!

      • http://twitter.com/JosephMagnuson Joseph Magnuson

        Okay! I hate to point these small typos out, but in this case it definitely changed the entire direction of that quote!

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I believe it’s a good thing that we get written pu with integrity even if the author doesn’t consider conversion. It puts a human image out there to compete for brain-space with the demonizations some Christians put out.

    The only condition I’d put on unfettered access is a promise to sit down at the end of the tour for a run-down of dangers to the religion. End of the tour for two reasons. a) Context. b) The time the tour takes can be used to set up a one-hour Skype with, eg, the Lady Liberty League.

  • http://www.owlsdaughter.com Beth Owls Daughter

    >”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.”

    Which is why *your* courses you’ve offered at Cherry Hill Seminary, Jason, as well as the others we offer that teach Pagan leaders how to deal in a professional, positive manner with journalists and writers, are so incredibly important! Thank you for this reminder!

  • Philip Posehn

    Any interview is a gamble. Selective editing and quotations out of context can distort even the best interview into a mockery. The only real defense is to try to get a sense of the expectations of the journalist and what the track record of the publication or TV station. I was once interviewed by a reporter on a matter of local history and found a statement attributed to me that I had never made. This was on a matter where there was no controversy. The reporter just wanted to make his piece more interesting.

    • Lyradora

      That is exactly why I always send the interview back to the interviewee before it goes live on Eternal Haunted Summer — I want to make sure everything is right, and that the interviewee is satisfied.

  • http://twitter.com/LWMag LittleWitchMagazine

    Dutch journalist Susan Smit Did a report on Religious Witchcraft and became one of the Netherlands’ most vocal Witches. Proof that it does happen ;)

  • WhiteBirch

    Hrm. I watched that entire talk, and while he spoke very little about his experience with Wicca, I found he spoke pretty respectfully about the other religions he surveyed. I was impressed with the degree to which he seemed inclined to religiosity in general, and the way he seemed to be overall positive and also quite serious.

    Then I read a sizeable extract from his book, out of his chapter on Wicca, and I didn’t think he treated it with the same genuine openness that he did the mainstream faiths. The Wiccans and Raelians were his “fun” projects… and even when he spoke about it in the interview he said Wicca is a “real religion” and made an “quote” gesture as he said it (argh!).

    In a lot of ways, I think those sorts of projects are great. What more could minority religions ask than for someone to genuinely open their mind to another religion and attempt to understand it from an inside (rather than an outsider’s) viewpoint? But I’m not sure I want to be included in the religion tour if it’s going to be as a sideshow — not quite as serious or important as the main events.

    NB – I am not Wiccan, myself, but insofar as Wicca is often the visible representative of the rest of modern Paganism, I do identify with it.

  • http://witchesandscientists.blogspot.com/ Gene

    To state the obvious, every person comes to a religion–which is ‘just right for them’–because the chosen religion satisfies their particular basic needs. The thing many such articles miss, is that everyone’s mileage varies on this point. Some primarily seek to touch the face of God or Goddess, or experience some form of deep enlightenment. Other pray for more mundane things, such as better health and money. Still others believe a spiritual life leads to a better and healthy community. Of course, most people are a mix of such desires and goals. However, I find that most people tend to stress one of these factors above all else. If their experimentation or quest leads them to a religion that does not address this goal, they find the religion wanting. Sadly, they often will then characterize the religion as somehow faulty, or the people participating in it as ‘not serious’.

    Many people claim disagreements in are collected Pagan faiths as wars between Traditionalists, Neo-Re-constructionist, Wiccans, and labels such as those. But when trying to makes sense of such disagreements (heh!) I often find the root of the cause more closely resembles some of the factors I’ve listed above.

  • hardcorps80204

    Insofar as it offers an example of Paganism as a “valid” religion, I’m OK with journalists exploring it. We can only hope that we choose carefully who we allow in like this; obviously we need to pick those who will be open-minded & serious.
    I’ve heard several comments recently about “modern Paganism’s lack of transcendance” and I admit that I don’t even know WTF that means. Does anyone agree with that statement? Is it even a thing we should be concerned about?
    Inquiring minds want to know :-)

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “Does anyone agree with that statement?”

      I sure as Hel don’t.

      WTF it means — roughly; I’m no theologian — is that Paganism’s god/desses are of this or that place or phenomenon, like Air or a particular river, while the monotheistic god is, by default, the god of everything — transcending all particulars, everywhere but of no unique place. (Monotheists violate this by making shrines of particular locations like Jerusalem, but that’s another story.)

      The person who says this fails to appreciate that Pagans experience transcendance regularly. In circle, in spiral dance, in any activity that opens up the spirit to a sudden, usually brief apprehension of everything at once all divinely connected as one. It arises from our practice, not our theology, and these critics never get anywhere near enough to know that much about our practice, so they view us narrowly through the lens of theology and miss some of the best stuff.

      In short, it’s an expression of the critic’s ignorance.

      • hardcorps80204

        This FTW, I think: “It arises from our practice, not our theology.” I think that’s quite true; and having pondered the whole “transcendance” issue a bit more, I would add that Pagans see no need to “transcend” the universe in order to be one with the Universe, because that would completely violate our sense of the Sacred.

  • Lori F – MN

    Perhaps the most important questions for US to ask are
    1) Without naming a demomination, how would you describe Religion?
    2) Do you consider all Christian beliefs/demominations to be equal?
    3) What do you believe about Our religion?

    If they are honest we can make a determination about if we want them to dig into our beliefs. Oh, and ask them to write down the answers or tape them so if they start talking smack, we have proof of their stand.

  • Mia

    Wiccans are “occasionally naked”? So do everyone else wear clothes while showering then?

    • Anonymous

      full scuba gear… I don’t want to drown by accident :)

  • Ges Talt

    I believe that turning to Wicca is a path of misguidance and abuse of the old traditions and practices of the traditionalist polytheistic faiths, that should be more prevalent than Wicca. Why do the Wicca insist on being the center of all paganism when they’re hardly even a spin of insulting true pagans- polytheistic reconstructionists. One cannot be both. One cannot be correct with one. It’s a travesty built around Christian converts and their naivety on what paganism truly is, because if you ask any open minded atheist, agnostic, or Christian what paganism is they’ll describe Wicca, not polytheistic reconstructionism. Wicca is a religion built off of the age old perception by Christians of paganism- i.e. witches and wizards.

    • Harmonyfb

      Why do the Wicca insist on being the center of all paganism

      Ans: They don’t. However, Wiccans have been active in the larger community for a number of years, spearheading civil rights work, which makes the religion visible, ergo, statistically numerous.

      If you want whatever religion you’re ‘reconstructing’ to be visible, get off your duff and start doing some hard work instead of whining because someone else gets all the attention. I assure you, there’s plenty of work needs doing.

      true pagans

      ::laughing:: Wait, wait – you realize this is a monotheistic concept, right? Ancient Pagans did not do go around arguing about who was the “true” Pagan – they worshiped their gods and expected others to worship the gods which seemed best to them. Your ‘reconstruction’ seems a bit Christian-based, there.

    • Mia

      Dude, “pagan” was anyone who was not Christian (or Jewish or Muslim, depending on where you’re at). Not exactly a selective definition.

      Wicca happens to be the most visible as something “other”, and even some people who don’t practice actual Wicca will still say they’re “Wiccan” and use the recognizable pentacle symbol in public. It’s become a label for “generic” Neopaganism now. So it’s little wonder that outsiders would connect Neopaganism with Wicca; even some insiders and many newcomers make that same assumption.

      Recon is just not as appealing to many people, and a lot of recons are relatively private and protective of their information. At this early stage in the game of development I wouldn’t want it to be appealing anyhow; it’s hard enough to wade through Medieval and 19th-century misconceptions without contemporary “thinkers” adding to the pile.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Ges, Wicca has been in the public eye the longest of the current, open Pagan traditions, and so that is where the media turn when they want to cover Pagans. You should be grateful when they turn to Pagans at all rather than to some “expert” who makes a living malinforming police departments on the inflated Satanic menace.

      If you want to raise Recon’s profile, be the next Pagan to challenge some school district that’s handing out Gideon bibles or some city council that invokes Jesus before its public meetings. As was said in Rocky Horror, “Don’t dream it, be it.”

    • A.C. Fisher Aldag

      I also see many Wiccan groups involved in interfaith outreach, charities, and causes. That not only raises visibility but accomplishes some positive goals.

  • AnonGuest

    People who are used to Christian mega-churches where someone would be one in a crowd and religions that place themselves as simple pawns and deny their own power are probably better suited to “spiritual voyeurs” and press reporters.
    During many pagan rituals, there are no bystanders. By going one makes a choice to be part of said working. And if someone doesn’t like the direction of said ritual and are really taking one’s Will to be doing other things, or with no purpose of actually participating, the polite action is to leave. This isn’t to say “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”, this is to say “if this is not for you, don’t pretend it is or that you’re their just to watch, since we’re serious, and if you are not, we don’t want to include you.
    If they want to watch us like we’re a tv or a movie, they can stay at home.