Archives For Rod Dreher

I rarely agree with American Conservative opinion columnist Rod Dreher, not because he’s a “crunchy conservative,” but because his views on religion are so skewed by his evangelical-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian worldview that he often comes off (perhaps inadvertently) as the worst sort of smug, triumphalist, man-of-God. The kind of guy who blames Haiti’s condition on Vodou, right after it’s rocked by a massive natural disaster and humanitarian crisis.

Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.

The kind of guy who calls Santeria savage demon worship (just like Vodou), who spreads unproven smears against liberal Catholics involving the taint of Vodou and polytheism, who joined the hilarious-in-retrospect freak-out over Hollywood “pantheism” (ie “Avatar” made a lot of money), and who never misses an opportunity to be “funny” regarding the beliefs of modern Pagans (it’s humorless and like Dungeons & Dragons). However, adversity makes for strange bedfellows and all that, there is stuff going down, a Pope has resigned, and the secular “nones” are rising!

Cue the grudging “I guess Pagans aren’t SO bad” re-evaluation: 

“Personally, I find paganism far more attractive than atheism, because pagans, however mistaken their understanding (from a Christian point of view) nevertheless share with Christians a recognition that there is Something There beyond ourselves, and the material world. I can have (have had) a fruitful, engaging discussion with my friend and commenter Franklin Evans, a pagan, in a way that I just can’t with friends who have no spiritual or religious beliefs, or a sense of the numinous.

My guess, and it’s only that, is that some pagans will fall away from the practice of their faith for the same reason many Christians are: because it doesn’t make sense in our scientistic, materialistic, consumerist world. At the same time, I think that paganism stands to gain overall from the unchristening of the West. If you look at the Asatru site, this neopagan religion speaks to longings that are deep within all of us, and cannot be suppressed forever.”

Yes, in the beauty contest of belief we’re pretty homely, but at lest we’re better looking than the atheists. So, go team Paganism? Yay? Here’s the thing though, while it’s inevitable that some Pagans will leave our umbrella for other pastures in our post-Christian future, modern Paganism as a movement has no trouble embracing both “hard” polytheists and, well, Pagan humanists. Most of the faiths under our umbrella have been fine with all sorts of conceptions of the divine, because our movement isn’t centered on a single correct belief. We, and I use that “we” very loosely here, are not all that threatened by atheism, humanism, or other post-theism “isms.” Our conditions of solidarity are practical, political (in the sense of fighting for our shared rights), social, and festival-based. So it’s amazingly common to see Pagan ecumenical gatherings where polytheists and atheists participate in the same rituals. When transformative (sacred/secular) phenomena like Burning Man appear, we are generally of the “what took you guys so long” school than the “does this threaten us” school.

The “spiritual but not religious” people are, for the most part, just fine with Pagans, are are the nones. As I’ve said before, I think their growth provides fertile ground for Pagan faiths, something Dreher also agrees with. Where he truly goes wrong in his analysis is in holding any one group up as representative of the movement as a whole. Paganism, polytheism, indigenous religions, syncretic diasporic faiths, Dharmic religions, these systems endured the rise of monotheism (and sometimes even thrived) because these faiths are, for the most part, decentralized, free of a binding “Pope” hierarchy, and able to change in ways Catholicism and other top-down systems can’t. Yes, monotheism can, for a time, be brutally effective in spreading and changing culture, but that success has to tie itself to the same colonial/militaristic power structure that early Christians condemned. When that power is slowly removed, a million green religious shoots appear in the paved-over theological parking lot.

Even if the Pagan umbrella crumbles some day and our faiths go our separate ways, it will not ultimately impede the growth of this religious phenomena. Some day we may be so popular that “umbrellas” may no longer be necessary, but the religious shift we are harbingers of will endure so long as we are not actively suppressed. Dreher sees the future as a battle between “something” (theism) and “nothing” (atheism)  and thus includes Pagans in team “theism”; but modern Pagans (and our allies) know that this is a false separation. There is no dualistic battle between “something” and “nothing” and our faiths aren’t playing that game. We don’t “fight” conceptions of the liminal that we don’t agree with, we either let them be (so long as they let us be) or find ways to simply include them. Modern Paganism, and similar religious movements are far more complex, and rich, than I think Dreher can imagine, and we are far more ready for the future than perhaps even we are ready to acknowledge.

As for Dreher, I’m sure he’d make a lovely neighbor, as Chas Clifton attests, and I hope he continues to travel the road he seems to have embarked on. Maybe he’ll find that all the demons he sees are placed there by a worldview invested in seeing our faiths as demonic, that the future to fear is not the growth of atheists, or Pagans, but what the dominant monotheisms might do to retain their power and influence.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I just wanted to quickly note that I’m extensively quoted in a new column by Michael Triplett at the media-observing site Mediaite on the recent sale of Beliefnet by former owners News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch to the evangelical Christian investment group BN Media. I’m afraid I don’t have many glowing laurels to lay at Beliefnet’s feet.

“The site itself, aside from a few of its blogs, was so watered down as to be completely uninteresting to those looking for something aside from bland platitudes and feel-good inspirational stories. As others have complained, the site seemed direction-less, purpose-less.”

Also quoted in the story is Get Religion’s Terry Mattingly, soon-to-be-former Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher, and David Gibson of Politics Daily. The piece paints a picture of a media giant that killed a once-popular (though fiscally struggling) religious site through inaction and indecision, a site that’s been losing its audience and faces an uncertain future with its new owners. It’s a very nice round-up on the situation, and I encourage you to check it out (and I’m not just saying that because he say’s I’m at the “epicenter” of the online Pagan community).

Turning the Witch-Hunter into a Hero: Summit Entertainment, the company the brought you the “Twilight” movie adaptations, is branching out from vampires into the world of witchcraft. But we won’t be seeing sexy heroic witches, or even gothy bad-girl witches like in “The Craft”, instead the protagonist will be the witch-hunter.

“Summit made a pre-emptive mid-six figures acquisition of The Last Witch Hunter, a Cory Goodman pitch that has franchise potential, and the attachment of Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. The protagonist is one of the last remaining witch hunters, a breed that keeps the population of witches and warlocks in check. They are about to repopulate in a major way unless he can stop them.”

So let me get this straight, the historical figures who tortured, killed, and accused innocent men and women of being “witches” and “warlocks” are being revamped as broody anti-heroes trying to save humanity from real-live witches? What’s next? A film where heroic cops raid gay bars for the good of America? Films set in the old west where Native Americans are turned into villains again and again? Oh, wait. They already did that one.

That Darn Neopaganism: The newly launched conservative site “Alternative Right” comes out of the gate swinging against modern Paganism.

“The first and most important problem with Neopaganism is that, to put it simply, it is wrong. Whatever may be said about the dangers of egalitarian and universalist Christianity, that the Church was built as a repository of truth with the distinct purpose of spreading that truth and, through that truth, saving men’s souls, is beyond question. Neopaganism is built around an impulse that runs contrary to the truth… and this impulse is recognized by a vast majority of neopagans. Men that concern themselves with philosophy and ascetics in public find themselves slaughtering goats in the name of Thor in private when they know that the practice is utter nonsense. It is all well and good to desire a connection with your barbaric ancestors; it is quite another thing to bring your silly hobby into the realm of philosophy and politics. Which brings me to my second point: nearly every aspect of the western world worth saving is a product of Christianity, not Paganism. Even the distinctly non-Christian things are Christian in origin.”

First off, ten points are deducted from the essay for quoting G.K. Chesterton, the lazy man’s anti-pagan source material (seriously folks, Chesterton is not the alpha and omega of anti-pagan arguments). Another ten points for his ignorance of the pagan origins of things Christians like to take credit for, like democracy, charity, and philosophy. Yet another ten for faulting paganism for things it wasn’t around to do, like fighting Muslim advances into Europe, because the Christians had eliminated it! If this is the “new intellectual right-wing” is smells an awful lot like the old intellectual right-wing.

Get Religion’s Shameless Plug: Remember me mentioning Rod Dreher’s awful column defending his anti-Vodou attitudes? Well, religion journalism criticism site Get Religion just loved it! Singling it out for praise and discussion because, well, it praised Get Religion.

“We didn’t pay him to say that, or even plead for him to do so, but we’re glad that this concept was aired in a place where mainstream readers and journalists have a chance to read about it and, perhaps, even debate it.”

You can bet your boots I debated it. Dreher’s column was a biased self-serving ode to the reprehensible anti-Vodou tirades by himself and a handful of conservative-leaning columnists. The fact that he’s trying to repackage his outlandishly anti-Vodou attitude as a “respectful” journalistic “study” of the faith strains all sense of credulity for anyone who’s actually read his (and similar) work(s). So the plug really is “shameless”, but not in the way I think they mean. Oh, and if you feel the need to join the debate there, be sure to keep your criticism focused on the journalism, lest your comment be spiked.

That’s all I have for right now, have a great day!

Top Story: The Los Angeles Times covers a three-day conference about the future of American Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology. Entitled “Theology After Google”, the main focus was on how Christian churches need to change with the times, but there was plenty of food for thought for non-Christians interested in the future of religion.

“The consensus: It’s a whole new world out there. Churches will ignore it at their peril. “I think things like denomination and ordination are part of the old system of control and domination that has to go,” [Pastor Doug] Pagitt, 42, said as he relaxed after the conference’s first day at the Theo Pub set-up for participants … Jon Irvine, a 30-year-old Web designer who works with the “emerging church” movement, said the church of the future will have to be less hierarchical and more freewheeling and ecumenical … In this new world, he said, “You can be a free agent. You could start your own church, go to a little faith community down the street, you could go to a mega-church. You could be a Methodist today, Anglican tomorrow — it’s your choice.” That might sound like heresy to some, for whom doctrine is immutable. But it fit well with the spirit of the conference, where nothing with the exception of the corn toss tournament trophy, was etched in anything solid.”

I don’t know about you, but this new post-Google religious ethos sounds suspiciously Pagan-friendly to me. Or, more to the point, modern Pagan communities have been wrestling with ideas concerning religious community in a post-ordination society (or, even more to the point, a society in which everyone is conceivably ordained), and the realities of religious “free agents”, for decades. Having now attended some mass pan-Pagan events it’s obvious that many of us are quite comfortable with the “new” freedoms that are causing such concern among more rigid and hierarchical faith traditions.

To me, when Christian theologians and pastors start talking about dealing with a “post-Google” religious reality, what they are really talking about is a post-Christian religious reality. A world where a potential church-goer can not only  jump denominations, but jump religions, belief systems, or simply start a whole new faith. All the Internet has done is speed up the process in which individuals can enter into a post-Christian mindset. I don’t really know if allowing Twitter in the pews, or creating “Church 2.0″ will really stem the slow mass-exodus away from the dominant monotheisms in the West.

Dreher Defends His Anti-Vodou Attitude: Here I was going to praise Beliefnet blogger Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher for making a whole post about modern Pagans without descending into his usual mockery or prattle about demon-worship, but then he wrote a long USA Today column defending his, and other writer’s, wrong-headed assertions that Vodou is a “harmful cultural force”. He tries to bolster his defense of  “tough questions” by selectively reading essays by scholars dealing with the Haitian religious world-view. He even has the audacity to subtly praise himself at the end of his anti-Vodou apologia.

“A world in which most people believe that reality is governed by the occult caprice of the gods will be a very different place than a world in which people believe events can be explained according to either a Christian or a scientific materialist metaphysic. It’s as legitimate to ask what role voodoo plays in Haiti’s fathomless social troubles as it is to ask the same question about fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East, conservative Christianity in the Bible Belt, or militant atheism in the land of academia. And it’s as necessary. Ironically, intelligent critics of voodoo show more respect for the religion than do its would-be media protectors, simply by taking voodoo seriously enough to fault it.

Yes, that is ironic! Don’t ya think? OK Sherman, I think it’s time to use the wayback machine and remind ourselves of how Rod Dreher was really respecting Vodou by faulting it.

“I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive…”, “Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.“, “I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire.”.

Can’t you feel the love? So much respect! I won’t even get into all the “respect” other commentators have shown towards Haitian Vodou, since I’m just welling up with the sheer empathy on display already. You know, asking tough journalistic questions is one thing, and something that I’ve always supported, but being a triumphalist jerk isn’t journalism, and the idea that Haiti is being held back, or actively harmed, by Vodou isn’t supported by any reasonably fair scholar of the religion.

The Living Goddesses in School: I’ve reported before on Nepal’s Kumari, the pre-pubescent girls who are chosen as living goddesses and worshiped until they reach puberty. Some worried that Nepal’s new Maoist government would ban the practice, but the popularity, and tourism dollars, the tradition inspires trumped secular ideology. Considered a “cultural” practice by the new government, the young girls are now required to receive schooling, and not live the same sheltered life, a life that often ill-prepares them for their post-Kumari existence, that had been traditional. Sify News reports on a current Kumari who is now juggling being a goddess with private tutoring and government-mandated examinations.

“One of the many thousands of students appearing for Nepal’s tough school-leaving examinations is Chanira Bajracharya, who is also worshipped in Kathmandu’s neighbouring Lalitpur city as Kumari, the ‘Living Goddess’ of Nepal. The pre-pubescent girl will appear for the School Leaving Examination from the Bhaswara Higher Secondary School, the Kantipur daily reported … Chanira, the Living Goddess’ routine has changed due to the imminent exams. She starts her morning with a two-hour tuition after which she becomes the Kumari again, taking part in her daily worship ritual. The worship is followed by brunch break following which she is required to appear before her devotees. In the evening, she becomes a student again.”

Chanira says she’s interested in becoming a banker once she finishes being a goddess. This will most certainly be a net-positive for the young girls chosen to become Kumari, and provides a striking insight into how ancient religious traditions are adapting to modern expectations and values. For more on the Kumari, I recommend the documentary “Living Goddess” (available on Netflix), which captures a snapshot of their lives just before the Maoist uprising that ended the Nepalese monarchy.

Asatru in Prison: The Ravencast podcast interviews Pagan chaplain Patrick McCollum concerning Asatru in prison.

“This episode may likely be our most controversial one. Patrick McCollum is a pagan Chaplin working with the Cherry Hill Seminary. He works with about 2,000 Pagan Prisoners in California and has run into a gauntlet of administrative outright discrimination. Many of those prisoners are Asatruar, who are looking for some means to worship. We pop a few prison myths about racism and whether we should act at all.”

This interview is a good reminder of why McCollum’s ongoing legal battle with the state of California is important to all modern Pagans, and should be an excellent companion to the recent interview done by Anne Hill. This is a must-listen!

ABC Notices Pagan Chaplain: In a final note, the ABC News “Campus Chatter” blog just noticed that Syracuse University has appointed a Pagan chaplain for its student body.

“Syracuse University has tapped Mary Hudson to be the school’s first pagan chaplain. That makes Hudson, 50, the second pagan chaplain appointed at a U.S. college. The only other known school to have a pagan chaplain is the University of Southern Maine.  Internationally there are a few in Canada, Australia, and the UK.”

That’s not too bad, only a month after the story actually broke. Who says the immediacy of blogging hasn’t changed the mainstream news networks? Still, I suppose good press is good press.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Top Story: As post-earthquake Haiti continues to make the news, mainstream media continues to explore the unique and complex religious atmosphere of the small Caribbean nation. Specifically, the relationship of Haitian Vodou with Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the growing chorus of voices that have risen up to defend this oft-misunderstood faith. At the religion-focused interview program “Speaking of Faith”, Krista Tippett re-visits her previously run program on Vodou, adding new content from interviewee Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in the wake of the earthquake.

“After the earthquake, we had a moving and illuminating exchange with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and learned that he lost nine members of his extended family in it. We’ve updated our current program with excerpts from this correspondence.”

SOF’s programs are rich explorations of the chosen topic, and have covered minority faiths like Vodou and modern Paganism fairly and fully. I highly recommend downloading/listening to the re-aired “Living Vodou” episode. Sadly, not all ongoing discussions about Vodou are fair or open-minded. Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher tries to spark a discussion of “comparative theology and culture” with the not-at-all leading or offensive title of: “If Haitian vodou isn’t demon worship, what is?”

“But as a Christian, I don’t believe this is merely a psychological phenomenon. I believe that the vodou entities are real — and malevolent. Despite the syncretism with Roman Catholicism vodou tries to accomplish, there is nothing authentically Christian about it, and I too would think that this religion draws spiritual darkness around its followers and their communities. That does not mean that it causes earthquakes, for goodness sake! But I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive. Serious question: if what you see on that photo slideshow isn’t demon worship — demons defined as malign spiritual entities — from a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) point of view, what is?

But don’t misunderstand him! He just wants to explore “the limits of religious tolerance”, but beware, if you are “always” against passing value judgments on faiths you don’t understand, you might be an enabler of Mormon polygamy. He’s so charming, isn’t he? But wait there’s more! He also issues a dire spiritual warning to a Christian family that is raising their adopted Haitian orphans within the Vodou religion.

“I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire.”

Yes, according to Dreher, caring Christian parents should obliterate any sign of non-Christian culture from traumatized Haitian orphans. Luckily the Fitzgibbons’ don’t share his rather narrow view of things.

“[Vodou] is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person’s life,” said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. “I’m at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion.”

I’d make a guess as to who was actually more Christ-like, but being a unrepentant Pagan, I’ll refrain. You can read more about the Fitzgibbons family at their blog, “Raising Little Spirits”.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: Americans United, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of Wiccan chaplain Patrick McCollum, weighs in on the controversial WallBuilders brief that alleges the Religion Clauses should only apply to monotheists.

“Based on phony history, Wallbuilders’ court filing asks the 9th Circuit not to consider Americans United’s viewpoint. It states we don’t cite “true history” but a “revisionist history” since we claim the Founders wanted to extend religious liberty for all. Needless to say, the brief is offensive, disrespectful and essentially advocates that the government should feel free to discriminate against all non-Judeo-Christian religions. But what else can we expect from Wallbuilders? The organization’s founder and president, David Barton, is a well-known Religious Right propagandist who for years has pushed a fundamentalist “Christian nation” view of American history. He claims to be a historian, but he isn’t one. He earned a bachelor’s degree in “Christian Education” from Oral Roberts University and then taught math and science at a fundamentalist Christian school founded by his father. Wallbuilders’ brief, like Barton, is a serious joke. And we hope that the 9th Circuit pays it no mind.”

This story continues to seep into the mainstream press. There is still no response from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation concerning recent developments. For all of my past coverage of this ongoing case, click here.

Religious Discrimination or Misuse of Storage Facilities? The Times-Georgian reports that the Carroll County Board of Commissioners has rejected a conditional-use permit for the owners of a Pagan retreat that would have allowed them to keep using storage buildings as temporary residences.

“Robert Crowe asked the board to approve a conditional-use permit for use of his 33-acre tract as a Dragon Hill Retreat STAR (Sacred Tribe of the Ancient Roots) Grove, allowing it to be used in activities of the Church of the Spiral Tree, an “ecumenical pagan church.” The request itself was made by James and Rita Middleton, both members of the Church of the Spiral Tree. As part of the activities of the church on the property, the permit would allow storage buildings that have been used as temporary residences on the property to remain as such. Crowe said he is Native American and he practices certain pagan rituals that by definition are rooted in an “earth and nature-based religion.” Crowe said the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Board recommended denial of the request on Jan. 26 simply because the proposed church would promote activities and beliefs to which the members of the board were opposed.”

While Crow alleges that “personal prejudices” led to the zoning board recommending against the permit, Commissioner George Chambers says that his vote against the permit appeal had nothing to do with religion.

“I don’t take issue with what anyone else’s beliefs are. The issue is a conditional-use permit on the houses,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t an issue of whether or not I agreed with their beliefs or what they do on the land as part of their church. My issue is not with that because the current zoning allows for that. My issue was with the houses.”

So, religious discrimination, or simply a zoning issue? Why were storage facilities being used as temporary housing? The retreat’s web site says that there are cabins and kitchens, so what’s going on? Is this selective enforcement because they are Pagans? Or was this appeal more a CYA maneuver?

The Pagan Circle at the Air Force Academy: While the newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets at the Air Force Academy has garnered some anonymous “criticism” recently, it has also faced some vocal lashings from Christians who seemingly don’t believe in the equal treatment of religions within government institutions.

“What we label today as ‘pluralism,’ God called ‘idolatry,'” said Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, in a commentary in The Washington Post. “The first commandment from God was, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ “To openly violate this most basic law is to invite God’s judgment upon our nation.”

Meanwhile, Bill Donahue, the self-proclaimed advocate for all things Catholic, says that Christians are the real victims in the military (all that pluralism is “chilling” to Christian expression, don’t ya know), and Fox News finds two conservative think-tanks to explain how this incident isn’t really  a big deal.

“It’d be one thing if there was a harmful act, but to have competing symbols, I’m not sure I would put that in the category of destructive behavior,” London continued. “What is being expressed here is the view of the Judeo-Christian as opposed to the pagan tradition.”

You see, it was just a friendly discussion! An exchange of symbols. I’m sure they would agree that a Pagan idol placed within a Christian facility would be equally harmless, just another round in the showcase of competing expressions. You can read all of my stories concerning the Air Force Academy, here.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: In a final update, I just wanted to note that while President Obama did indeed attend the Family/Fellowship-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast despite calls for him to boycott, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the opportunity to indirectly criticize “The Family” and their support of Uganda’s noxious “kill the gays” bill.

“We may disagree about the best way to reform our health care system, but surely we can agree that no one ought to go broke when they get sick in the richest nation on Earth. We can take different approaches to ending inequality, but surely we can agree on the need to lift our children out of ignorance; to lift our neighbors from poverty. We may disagree about gay marriage, but surely we can agree that it is unconscionable to target gays and lesbians for who they are — whether it’s here in the United States or, as Hillary mentioned, more extremely in odious laws that are being proposed most recently in Uganda.”

It must have made for some uncomfortable moments over pancakes. To find out more about “The Family”, and why they are so dangerous, you can read my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

I was meaning to get to Massachusetts Democratic candidate Martha Coakley today, and her ties to SRA ritual-abuse panic, but it looks like I have at least one more Haiti/Vodou post to get to first. I’ll try to write about Coakley before Tuesday’s elections. In the meantime, check out Chas Clifton’s take on the subject, and my original post concerning Coakley. Now then, back to Haiti, specifically, Haitian Vodou. It seems that, in the struggle to answer the question of “why” Haiti was so devastated by the quake, of why it is so poverty-stricken, a strange new consensus has emerged.

“As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10. We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

That was conservative commentator David Brooks, who argues that we should encourage a new moral “paternalism” instead of sending more aid money to Haiti. This, naturally, appeals to Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher, who never much liked Vodou (or Santeria, which he calls savage demon-worship) anyway.

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.

Dreher bizarrely tries to bolster his point by talking about black American Christians, how the poor in Turkey are so tidy, and stuff his “Mexican immigrant housekeeper” told him. I don’t even want to begin unpacking the problems with his post, it would take me a week. Next up to the punching-bag is economist Tyler Cowen.

“Hegel was correct that the “voodoo religion,” with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well. (Isn’t that a startling insight for a guy who didn’t travel the broader world much?)”

He keeps using the word “intransitive” to describe Vodou. Either he doesn’t understand what that word actually means, or he knows next to nothing about human-loa interactions within the faith. But trust him, he’s an economist! Next, Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, interviews Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, superintendent minister of Wesley’s chapel in the City of London, who was ordained in Haiti. Guess what he thinks of Vodou in Haiti?

“Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach … said he feared the fatalism inspired by the voodoo religion would militate against recovery … Lord Griffiths told The Times: “I would say that 90 per cent of the time, the voodoo is non-malign. It is not just sticking pins into dolls, although there is a bit of that.” The tragic religious “fault line” which could now impact recovery from the earthquake was the “fatalism” of the voodoo belief system.

Man! Haiti must be totally doomed! I mean, everything would be just fine, eventually, if it weren’t for all that darn fatalistic, intransitive, futile, un-tidy Vodou! Never mind that Haiti has been kicked when it’s down so many times that it’s amazing it still exists at all, if we just inject some paternalistic, moralistic, Christianity into the country, the road to recovery can begin. The only commentator I could find who didn’t think Vodou was holding the country back was Ian Thomson, author of “Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti”.

“For most Haitians, Vodou is the only way to rise above the misery of poverty and the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, mud slides, storms and now this humanitarian catastrophe. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and transformed. At night, Port-au-Prince is now said to flicker with candles, as swaying, homeless Haitians offer prayers to the loas in hope of deliverance.

Vodou also reflects the rage and ecstasy that threw off the shackles of slavery. On the night of August 15, 1791, a ceremony was held in the north of Haiti that marked the beginning of the revolt. A rain of burning cane straw, sweet-smelling, drifted over the plantations as the slaves set them ablaze. Toussaint L’Ouverture was said to have taken part in this Vodou-inspired uprising – proof that religion is not always an opium of the people, but a prelude to action.”

Hey! Someone remembered that Vodou had a role in ending slavery in Haiti! Maybe all these commentators who seem to think they know all about Vodou and its “fatalism” should take their theological and idealogical blinders off for a moment, and realize that the faith has survived, thrived, and been exported around the world, because there is something to it besides their cheap over-simplifications. The sheer lips-smacking missionary opportunism displayed here is shameful, and casts a very dim light on the “moral” superiority of the Christian faith.

The New York Times conservative columnist (and blogger) Ross Douthat seems like a fairly smart guy, but he tends to lose his cool whenever his theological buttons (he’s Catholic) get pushed. Remember his “living in Dan Brown’s America” freak-out from May? Now he’s wound-up again over James Cameron’s new CGI opus “Avatar”, and how it’s symptomatic of a deep-rooted commitment to pantheism amongst Hollywood’s elite.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

Douthat pokes pantheism saying it romanticizes nature instead of acknowledging the “suffering and death” of our world (with just a pinch of the conservative environmentalism = pagan religion meme, and a dash of despair over America’s syncretism added for spice). That it offers no transcendent literalism as the dominant monotheisms do, instead damning its adherents to simply being “dust and ashes”.

Smelling chum in the waters, Beliefnet’s conservative blogger, Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher, decided to join in on the anti-pantheism pile-on. Bemoaning how Hollywood has suffered a “creative defeat” by “trading in its sentimentalized version of Christianity” for a “sentimentalized pantheism”, (he also seems to misunderstand the concept of panentheism in relation to Orthodox Christianity, but that’s a different topic) and linking to Weekly Standard neoconservative commentator John Podhoretz’s review of the film.

“…one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take Avatar-with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool-at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now.”

So I guess the conservative intelligentsia has spoken (David Brooks must not have gotten the memo). Pantheism is bad, Hollywood is bad, Americans are foolish eclectic-syncretic Eckhart Tolle-reading dupes who love pantheism, and we (and our souls) are all in big (I assume) trouble. Of course this reading of Hollywood’s output is a tad skewed, and relies on a rather scatter-shot selection of films (“Dances With Wolves”, Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King”, “Star Wars”, and, well, “Fern Gully”, I guess) to convince us that pantheism is the with-it thing in Hollywood and beyond. But it just doesn’t seem to line up as well as they seem to think it does. I mean, isn’t Harry Potter supposed to be all stealth-Christian underneath the spells and hexes? Is the Dan Brown gnosticism panic over and done? What about Star Trek’s secular rationalist populism? Where’s the outrage there?

It seems to me that this is all just a big excuse to write about how America’s going to heck in a hand-basket because Christianity isn’t being treated like the cool kid at the pop-cultural lunch table in a few films. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Cameron’s “Avatar” (which I haven’t seen yet), from claims that it’s visually repetitive of his past work, that it peddles old white-guilt fantasies, or that it’s filled with clunky “godawful” dialogue, but pantheism? Really? That’s the awful thing that really stands out? Just wait, after “Hypatia”, the “Clash of the Titans” remake, and the “Percy Jackson” adaptation hit theaters in 2010, it’ll be polytheism, not pantheism, that’s the real problem. I look forward to the forthcoming Ross Douthat column on the subject.

For more Pagan commentary on “Avatar”, check out Chas Clifton’s musings on “creeping pantheism”, Adrian J. Ivakhiv’s review that notes the “pagan mythology with a sledgehammer” aspects of the film, and Kvond’s philosophical and multiple-hyphenated take on the whole thing. Have you seen “Avatar” yet? What do you think? Creeping pantheism? Popcorn-munching eye-candy? Something else?

Top Story: Jon Lee Anderson of the Guardian brings us a riveting look at the massively violent drug wars raging in Rio’s favelas, where over 5000 people were murdered last year, and police-affiliated militias can be as deadly as the gangs. While exploring the question of if this situation can be reversed, and the culture of these gangs, Anderson focuses on Fernandinho, a gang-leader who converted to evangelical Christianity in 2007 and melds Christian morals with the violence of his trade.

“On 20 August 2007, a banner headline of the Rio tabloid Meia Hora said: “Thug beheads those who don’t follow his rules”, and underneath, “Fernandinho Guarabu, Dendê’s boss, uses an axe to execute his victims. The evangelical trafficker forbids even macumba in the favela.” (Macumba refers to one of the country’s African-derived religions, along with Umbanda and Candomblé, which strict evangelicals see as little more than witchcraft.) That same day, in the broadsheet O Dia, this report appeared: “In spite of his violence, the ‘word of God’ must always be propagated, sometimes in a radical way. Guarabu has supposedly banned Umbanda and Candomblé rituals, as well as spiritualist séances. At 6pm every day, a pastor’s prayer echoes on the narrow alleys.” What had happened was that Fernandinho had become friendly with Pastor Sidney, and had been born again. He took to his new faith with great enthusiasm. He had “Jesus Cristo” tattooed on one of his forearms in big letters, and Morro do Dendê was soon covered with new religious graffiti. The community swimming pool he had built now had a sign above it saying, “This Belongs to Jesus Christ”. Also, Fernandinho had supposedly ordered his men not to carry out “violent” crimes, such as carjacking, armed robbery and murder, although he was still selling drugs.”

Naturally, the story of Fernandinho’s conversion doesn’t have a happy ending for the Christians who sought to curb his violence. His gang is back to murdering informants, and Fernandinho is estranged from the pastor who converted him. That hasn’t stopped other, less scrupulous, pastors from ingratiating themselves, or even allowing their churches to be used by his operation. Proof, perhaps, that mere conversion can’t solve these problems, and may even redirect the violence into places they hadn’t anticipated (the violence against non-Christians in his favela for instance). With the international spotlight shining on Rio for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, it should be interesting to see what the government does to curb gang violence and reform the police forces before massive floods of international tourists arrive.

In Other News: The Poughkeepsie Journal has a surprisingly solid article by Lauren Yanks exploring the Winter Solstice from a variety of view-points both secular and spiritual. This includes a local Wiccan shop-owner and a Norse Pagan employee.

“Patrick Twamley also works at the Awareness Shop. Twamley follows the Norse pagan tradition. “In the Norse pagan tradition, the night before the solstice is usually called Mother’s Night,” he said. “It’s a time to honor the female ancestors of your line. This probably goes back to the idea of the mother giving birth to the sun.” As part of the Norse tradition, on the winter solstice Twamley sprinkles everybody with ale as a way of bestowing a blessing, usually out of a blessing bowl. Then there is a feast and a toast to the female spirits. “It’s a way to show gratitude for all we’ve been given,” he said.”

Yanks also asks academics about Native American traditions relating to the Winter Solstice, and interviews the minister of the Uniterian Universalist Fellowship in Poughkeepsie. Maybe papers should encourage more academics (Yanks teaches English at SUNY New Paltz) to write features for them, they, at least, know to quote multiple sources.

It seems English Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols made a theological faux pas while at a visit to a Hindu temple in London and (allegedly) placed flowers on the altar of the Hindu deities. This most likely unwitting violation of the First Commandment has gotten Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s dander up.

“I’ll say this for the Muslims: they know better than to get into this syncretism garbage. It is not only possible to honor other religions without paying homage to their gods, it is mandatory for Christians. I would not expect a Jew or a Muslim to cross himself at a Christian altar, or before a Christian crucifix or an icon. Nor would I be insulted in the least if he didn’t. It’s those who are indifferent to what a gesture like this means that worry me.”

Ah yes, “syncretism garbage”. Never mind that this wasn’t an act of “syncretism”, but most likely an unwitting mistake, it’s enough of an excuse to unleash the river of bile and snark Dreher holds for minority non-Christian faiths in general, and for Pagan and African diasporic faiths in particular. Did a polytheist kick his puppy as a child? Did Wiccans steal his lunch-money? It can’t simply be Christian piety that drives this particular immaturity.

So have you heard about the Goth Pagan Robin Hood yet? No? You are so missing out! It seems a man calling himself Frater Osiris Xnoubis robbed a bank wearing black leathers and then proceeded to hand the money out at a local sandwich shop.

“He handed a note to terrified cashier Laura Sulling telling her he was armed and demanded she hand over the cash in her till. Xnoubis, a Pagan worshipper, stuffed £6,570 into a bag and told her to “have a nice day” before calmly walking out of the HSBC branch in Terminus Road, Eastbourne. He walked a few yards to The Gildridge pub where he handed barmaid Gemma Clark a £20 note for a bottle of beer and told her to keep the change. After downing his drink he left and went to nearby Harrisons sandwich bar. He handed the bag of cash to astonished owner Clive Benneys, who was also his landlord, saying: “You are good people, help yourselves.” Xnoubis left the shop and promptly went to the police station in Grove Road where he confessed to the robbery.”

A psychiatric report stated he was depressed, but not mentally ill. A judge sentenced him to three-and-a-half years after a guilty plea. Perhaps years from now they’ll sing ballads for brave Frater Osiris Xnoubis, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Perhaps they’ll give him a merry band of goths and Pagans who help him in his quest! Hey, stranger things have happened.

In a final note, Erynn Rowan Laurie has a review up of “Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon”, a collection of essays inspired by, deriving from, or just celebrating the influential work of historian Ronald Hutton. She finds several things to like about the collection, but says its hindered by sloppy editing and some rather mediocre essays.

“There are a number of other articles in the book, some of which are passable, but unfortunately one of the editors had the least readable and least useful article in the whole compilation. It’s unfortunate he didn’t himself have an editor to look over his own work. I think that if you’re a Hutton fan, you’ll find a lot to like in this book, as well as a few things that might challenge your opinions. If you’re not specifically a Hutton fan but are interested in the state of scholarship regarding Paganism and the occult today, this will also be quite worth reading. Just be prepared for a lot of bad editing.”

Shame about the editing really, you’d expect better from an academic-oriented collection. Still, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy for review (and my own edification).

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

Modern Paganism continues to grow in India, DNA India files a report from Mumbai about the “bewitching world of Wicca”.

“Twentysix-year-old Sangeeta Krishnan is a part time editor of a scientific firm by profession but a wiccan by choice. She is as adept at using the computer as she is at using the crystal ball, wand, spells and magical charms for her wicca workshops. “I have been into this as long as I can remember. I used to have a lot of mystical experiences in my school days,” says Krishnan, who has been practicing wicca for the last 10 years.”

The fascinating cross-pollination between modern Paganism and Hinduism continues. One wonders what the American and European Indo-Pagans and the Indian Wiccans will be like a couple generations down the line. Will they intersect? Or will they each evolve into something entirely different?

World-famous Hammer Horror actress Ingrid Pitt reminices about “The Wicker Man” while in Scotland being interviewed by the BBC for a documentary concerning films shot in Scotland (which “The Wicker Man” was).

“The filming for the BBC extravaganza was done in the Ellengowan Hotel in Creetown where Britt Ekland didn’t do her naked dance routine. The actual interview was in the bar where the Barman’s Daughter was sung. And standing in the corner was Ian Cutler, sawing away on his fiddle, just the way he did it 36 years ago. 36 years ago! Makes your head spin. Pauline Law, the director insisted we had something to eat before getting down to it and I was seated next to Alan Cumming, the interviewer. Not sure that was the best thing. By the time I had chewed my way through a plate of beef I had told him my life story and hadn’t held anything back for the interview.”

Since I don’t live in the UK, I’ll most likely have to wait for a DVD release of “Filming in Scotland”. Should be worth it just for the on-location Wicker Man interviews.

I suppose I should be flattered that no matter how busy Beliefnet blogger Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher becomes, he always has enough time to point and laugh at modern Pagans. It really brings home how much his recent conversion to Orthodox Christianity has matured him. This time he unleashes his snark on a lesbian Pagan sepratist who wrote a letter to The New Yorker to complain about a recent feature they published about Lesbian sepratist communities.

“How come Crunchy Con never gets letters like this one to the New Yorker, from a reader who didn’t like lesbian writer Ariel Levy’s recent piece on the history of radical lesbian separatism? … The joke just kind of writes itself, doesn’t it? Still, if she’s got her own little Benedict Option going, good for her. I bet it’s as humor-free as Pyongyang, tho’…”

Ah, what an incisive wit! Reminds of me of the good old days when he’d make snide comments about how many “hit-points” those Pagans with funny names had. Good times, good times. Watch out though, those conservatives who don’t think he’s conservative enough are pretty sure he’s secretly a Pagan (its those organic groceries and acceptance that global warming is real). If he’s not careful, people might think he’s overcompensating with the anti-Pagan barbs in order to hide something.

Were Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder actually right about the Druids when they claimed they participated in mass ritual slaughter and cannibalism? That’s the hook of a recent National Geographic News story, but when you actually read the article they aren’t so sure.

“Druids may have killed the victims—who show evidence of skull-splitting blows—in a single event. It may have been the Roman invasion itself that escalated the Druids’ ritualized slaughter, researchers say. Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol, thinks the pile of bodies suggests savage resistance to the Romans, either on the battlefield or through deadly ritual. “Maybe the whole thing is a gigantic sacrifice … an appeasement to the gods in order that they will get ultimate victory against the Romans,” Horton said. The Alveston cave bones hint at something even more sinister—cannibalism. A human thighbone in the cave had been broken open in exactly the same method people use to get at the nutritious bone marrow of nonhuman animals. But if the bone is proof of Celtic cannibalism, the practice was probably extremely rare, Horton said. It may be evidence of increasing hunger and desperation as Roman invaders closed in, he added.”

So it there might have possibly been cannibalism based on one bone being split, and there was some sort of mass-sacrifice, but they aren’t really sure about the circumstances. They could have been willing victims trying to magically stop the Romans, executed enemies, or something else entirely. There’s still no real proof concerning how pervasive or regular human sacrifice was among the Druids, and there certainly is no proof they engaged in cannibalism regularly. Its a shame that National Geographic would veer into senstionalism like this.

In a final note, the second issue of Thorn Magazine is now out.

“Thorn Issue 2 is now available. This issue, in observance of Barack Obama’s historic election, we’re delving into the racial makeup of our Pagan traditions– who we are, which cultures we look to in borrowing (or appropriating?) our traditions and inspirations, and how we can preserve the vitality of our ethnic paths in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Including interviews with: T. Thorn Coyle, Isaac Bonewits, and S.J. “Sooj” Tucker.”

It also features a column from yours truly, a smack-down of the Lebor Feasa Runda from Phillip A. Bernhardt-House, and a review of “Talking About the Elephant” by Christine Hoff Kraemer. One of the smartest Pagan publications out there, and I’m not just saying that because I write for them.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!