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The Pagan Bubble

Teo Bishop —  March 26, 2013 — 133 Comments
Boy In A Bubble

Photo by Charles Strebor

We live in a Pagan bubble.

Mostly, we seem unaware that the bubble exists.

We talk a lot to ourselves, Pagans do. We talk to ourselves about who we are and who we are not. We talk to ourselves about what we believe, what we do not believe, and sometimes we even argue about whether or not belief is that meaningful.

We argue, Pagans do, within the Pagan bubble.

We also, at times, dive deep into meaningful conversations that look nothing like argument. Some of us sit in contemplation with the difficult stuff of community building, and we do so with grace and compassion. We are complicated, for certain.

But the Pagan bubble is real. And so long as we continue to live inside of it, we remain ghettoized.

At least, we are ghettoized online. The Pagan and polytheist corners of the internet foster conversations that require so much context as to be nearly unintelligible to outsiders. I suppose to a degree this is the nature of any walled-off community. It’s what religious people do: they talk within their walls about who they are.

But this talking to ourselves about ourselves is debilitating. We become steeped in our own lore, influenced by our own memetic waves, and stuck within a vocabulary and symbol system that could really benefit from a Universal Translator. We are well versed at talking about who we are to each other, but I’m beginning to think that we are (or, at least, I am) unpracticed at talking about who we are to people who do not share our vernacular.

This all came into focus for me as I was sitting at my parents dining room table this past weekend. My stepfather, a man who has loved me as his own for nearly thirty years, a man who has never been religious but who has been tolerant of my religiosity in its various incarnations, looked at me and said, gently,

“I read your blog, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”

*pause*

I was speechless.

I didn’t know I’d been that cryptic. I didn’t realize that my writing was so narrowly focused. I’d thought that within the realm of Pagan writers I’d managed to do a pretty good job thinking and writing outside of the box. I’ve worked to consider the diversity of belief and religious practice in the Pagan world, and I often reach for something more universal — more purely human — that might unite us in a shared understanding.

But that’s just it. I’ve been doing this work from within the realm of PaganismI have been writing in a Pagan bubble.

Even this blog post I’m writing now is written on a site create by a Pagan for Pagans. It offers a “modern Pagan perspective,” primarily for the benefit of other Pagans.

The bubble is big, and there’s a lot of great work going on within the bubble. But it is still a bubble.

Reeling from this realization, I ran through the list of places that house my writing:

  • My work at Bishop In The Grove is geared toward an audience of mostly Pagans and polytheists. There is the occasional Buddhist reader/commenter, and once in a while a Progressive Christian shows up with a kind word. But mostly, it’s a Pagan blog.
  • The Solitary Druid Fellowship blog is even more specific to a Pagan tradition (ADF Druidry). It’s more universal in its language and approach than many ADF groves, being that it seeks to serve solitaries of a wide variety of hearth cultures and traditions. But, you’ve still got to get a basic education in Paganism or Druidry to benefit from all of what the Fellowship offers.
  • I write for HuffPost Religion primarily on the High Days; and while I try to include a little descriptive information in each post about the relevance of the day for the benefit of non-Pagans, the posts are mostly directed toward people for whom these days already have relevance. I write posts that serve as reflections on days that are sacred to Pagans.
  • When I wrote at Patheos, an interfaith blogging site, it would have appeared that I was working outside of the Pagan bubble. But I was writing on the “Pagan channel.” Even within this mini-verse of religious blogs, there are clearly drawn religious lines. The Pagan bubble exists there, too.
  • I have a column coming out in the next edition of Witches and Pagans, and… well… can you get much more Pagan than that?

In a few seconds I realized that the majority, if not all of the writing I’ve done in the past few years — a couple hundred posts worth — has been Pagan-specific, Pagan-centered, and Pagan-directed.

Here in my parent’s kitchen, I found myself unpracticed at talking about Paganism (or more specifically, my paganism) with someone outside of my relatively small, insular world.

Photo by Jason Mrachina

Photo by Jason Mrachina

I’m not unfamiliar with operating within a cultural ghetto. Growing up gay, I immersed myself in an ad-hoc study of gay history, gay culture, and gay tradition. I sought out resources on gay spirituality, visited gay bookstores, and sewed a gay patch on my backpack. I bought gay political rags, gauged my support of politicians based on their stances on gay issues, and checked the language of newspaper and online articles with precision to search out “gay friendly” or “anti-gay” language.

Everything was, for a time, filtered through a gay lens. And by creating a gay bubble for myself (or, rather, by gleefully recognizing my place within the gay bubble created by my gay forebears), I was able to affirm my gay identity, my gay tastes and preferences, and my sense of gay-self. I knew where I stood within the gay bubble, and I knew very clearly what stood on the outside.

The gay community first organized in response to cultural oppression and subjugation. Gays organized because they were being treated poorly, and through organization we were able to forge change within culture. We continue to do so to this day. But should we achieve all of our political goals and forge the cultural change we have sought out for so long, we may find ourselves in a position where we are no longer in need of protection against the over-culture. The cultural forces whose othering allowed for us to shore up our sense of individual and collective identities may become benign.

I suspect a similar fate for Pagans should we step outside of our bubble, and I think this may be one reason why the bubble stays in place.

As my husband (my gay husband), Sean Michael Morris, told me while discussing this matter,

“In today’s world, many ghettos, which were created by people who othered us, are maintained because we cherish our otherness.”

We perpetuate our otherness because it’s safer than being out. We perpetuate our otherness, I think, because if we allow the walls to come down from around our encampment, our stronghold against those on the outside, we run the risk of losing our sense of identity in the world.

Do these boundaries continue to be necessary? Do they serve a purpose, other than for protection?

How, I wonder, might we be better served by the deconstruction of our ghettos? What would happen if we no longer lived in this Pagan bubble?

To start off my first column for the newly independent The Wild Hunt, I’d like to thank Jason Pitzl-Waters for letting me be a part of this valuable, community-supported news source. I believe in the work being done here, and it’s an honor to be blogging beside so many talented, thoughtful writers. I look forward to bringing the spirit of dialogue present on my blog, Bishop In The Grove, to my columns here at TWH.

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When I wrote “I Felt Ashamed At Pagan Pride,” I had no idea it would elicit the response that it did. With over 100 comments, several thousand page views, and shares galore on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, this subjective account of my experience at Denver’s 2012 Pagan Pride Day event made waves through the community.

The dialogue generated around this post offered me new perspectives on the meaning of casting circle, the challenges of public ritual, and the possibility of a mythology of victimhood within the Pagan community. But there was one perspective missing: that of the person leading the PPD ritual, Joy Burton.

joyburton

Joy Burton, eclectic Wiccan priestess and founder and president of Living Earth, a Neo-Pagan open circle and church in the south Denver area.

I interviewed Joy via email with the intent to allow her the chance to voice her perspective without revision. Below is the full interview, unedited.

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Thank you for your willingness to speak with me, Joy. Could you tell us a little about yourself, and about the Living Earth Center?

I’ve been an eclectic Wiccan priestess for about 20 years, with strong Reclaiming influences. I helped start Pagan Picnic in St. Louis, and have been advocating for and active in the Pagan community ever since.  I’m part of an open circle in the south metro area of Denver called Living Earth. We started in 2006 and now we have about 700 members of varying Pagan traditions. We offer a national-scale Pagan festival and musicfest called Beltania every May, hold regular Sabbats and Esbats, and this winter we’ll be celebrating our one-year anniversary at Living Earth Center.

The Center is our small but much-loved church facility and community center at Holly and Evans in Denver, hosting about 20 rituals, classes, workshops, drum circles, and other events per month. Other groups and individuals are welcomed at Living Earth Center to hold their own events and rituals too.

Community service has always been important to us, and since we’ve had our own facility, our outreach activities (called the Hand2Hand Project) have expanded to include more charitable giving, a food bank, and helping our elders and those with disabilities. We have a winter clothing drive going on now. We even have our own church bowling league raising funds for the food bank.

How would you describe Denver’s Pagan community?

Living Earth

The people I have met through Living Earth have been some of the kindest, most generous and caring people I have ever met. These are people with some really big hearts, great ideas, and are movers and shakers who have accomplished so much. They don’t just talk about creating community, they do it. There’s a willingness I see now to try new things, and connect outside their comfort zones in meaningful ways. I think Denver has reached a “critical mass” of people who want not only to be Pagan but also to create connections, develop infrastructure, and offer their gifts, time, and talents to the community.

The Denver Pagan community is growing exponentially, with more families and children now being raised Pagan than ever before. The Denver community has a high number of veterans, I’ve noticed. It’s also an aging community, with a greater need for community services and support for our elders. I worry about the disconnect in parts of our community between the older generations and newcomers.

We have a lot more people willing to be open now about being Pagan, and more mainstream acceptance of Paganism than ever before. You’re just as likely to see a khakis-wearing math teacher as a silver jewelry-bedecked hippie type in a cloak. So in that sense we are more diverse than ever. I’m seeing more people wanting to lend a hand and help their neighbors.

And like any other faith community, the Denver Pagan community is full of very human people. We are striving, like any other group, to more fully manifest our ideals of compassion, wisdom, honor, love, and so much more.

“I Felt Ashamed At Pagan Pride,” received a huge response. My post was a one-sided account, and completely subjective. Could you offer your account of what the Pagan Pride Day ritual was like?

Well at this point I think there’s been enough subjective accounting of the ritual. I just don’t see the benefit to it. I have no interest in negating anyone’s experience. If there were any less-than-ideal circumstances at that time, I would not use this forum to criticize the Pagan Pride Day organizers who so graciously invited us to lead the ritual.

I honor your experience and your right to share that experience in the forum of your choosing. I honor the homeless person who could not contain their verbal remarks which came across as heckling, and the several other homeless folks we were blessed to meet and also offer some food and water that day too. I honor the people walking through and skateboarding in the park, the man who wanted a cigarette, and their right to be there. I honor the Pagans who boldly stepped into the center that day to choose to participate in a ritual for all to see, and also those who chose not to participate.  I honor the learning experience so many of us are having as a result of Pagan Pride and the conversations afterward.

I can’t remember any ritual, public or private, where there was a consensus in critiquing it. Where one person is turned off, another is deeply moved. Where one person is uncomfortable with casting a circle, another would think it necessary and important. That’s why we are so blessed to have such a diversity of faith traditions, groups, and practices here in Denver throughout the year and at Pagan Pride Day’s multitude of workshops, booths, and rituals.

On occasion, as I move through our community, I find myself in a ritual that isn’t comfortable for me or I sense something isn’t quite going as planned.  In any case, I consider it my responsibility as a priestess and guest to prepare myself with centering and grounding, create my own connection to Spirit, and hold myself in a state of grace as an example for others. I also make a point of send positive energies to assist in a productive fashion. All of this can be done without saying a word. When we purposefully act in support of each other, it becomes not just the leaders’ ritual but everyone’s ritual, and our community is strengthened.

I really appreciate your emphasis on being a positive force within the community. How would you encourage people to serve in that capacity in their individual cities? How does one begin? 

Diana's GroveI would encourage anyone wanting a more positive community to read Diana’s Grove Cornerstones of Community by Cynthea Jones.  I didn’t discover the Cornerstones of Community until recent years, but they so accurately capture what I had to learn the hard way and what I’ve observed in those who make a difference in this world.

The five cornerstones include Choice, Thinking Well of the Group, Thinking Well of Yourself, Stewardship of the Self, and The Sacred Wound. We can make the choice to be the change we want to see in the world…or not.  Our very presence in this community is a choice. Thinking Well of the Group invites us to choose a new default attitude and behavior towards people that honors and respects them rather than assuming the worst and demonizing them when things aren’t as we expect or desire.  And if we don’t think well of ourselves, it’s difficult to think well of others and be a positive influence in the community. When we are stewards over our lives, we have a responsibility and obligation to fully manifest what we are called to do.  And lastly, we need to make our wounds sacred.  There isn’t a single one of us who isn’t wounded from our past experiences.  We can allow our wounds to be our teachers and agents of growth instead of allowing them to paralyze us.

A positive, healthy, open, giving community starts inside of each person.

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Many thanks to Joy for this interview. She’s been nothing but kind to me.

I ask you, TWH readers:

If you were a part of that first conversation on BITG, does knowing Joy’s perspective change the way you read that post? Did her answers leave you with new questions?

What do you think about the ”Cornerstones of Community?”