What Did Jesus Know about Rome?

Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. Paolo Veronese, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

An interesting short essay in which a historian conjectures just how much Jesus of Nazareth would have known about the Roman Empire, in which he lived. The assumption is that he spoke Greek as a second language; otherwise, how did he communicate with Pontius Pilate, not to mention the centurion of the miracle?

Heathenry and the Politics of Postcolonialism

Thad Horrell, Heathen and graduate student, hurls himself against the issue of post-colonialism and reconstructed Northern religion in this article, “Heathenry as a Postcolonial Movement,” published in the online Journal of Religion, Identity and Politics, written by students in his PhD program.

His thesis is “that Heathenry is ‘postcolonial’  in complex and contradictory senses of the term. It both acknowledges and offers resistance to the imperialism of Christendom, while simultaneously trivializing colonialism and making it seem merely a thing of the past.”

I will argue that Heathenry is a postcolonial movement both in the sense that it combats and challenges elements of colonial history and the contemporary expectations derived from it (anti-colonial), and in the much more problematic sense that it serves to justify current social and racial inequalities by pushing the structures of colonialism off as a thing of the past (pro-colonial). Rather than promoting a sense of solidarity with colonized populations, Heathen critiques of colonialism and imperialism often serve to justify disregard for claims of oppression by colonized minorities. After all, if we’ve all been colonized, what is there to complain about?

This trope of resistance is employed in academic writing as well as “insider” writing. It shines through Carole Cusack’s recent Pomegranate article on the emperor Charlemagne’s “jihad” (to borrow an appropriate term) against the Pagan Saxons: “Pagan Saxon Resistance to Charlemagne’s Mission: ‘Indigenous’ Religion and ‘World’ Religion in the Early Middle Ages.”

The ideas of invasion, colonization, and resistance were important in the first years of Wicca too, although not so much since the 1950s.

Gerald Gardner played the nativist card as well, implicitly conflating the threatened invasion of southern England by the German army in 1940 with the “Gregorian mission” that brought Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth century. (The earlier Celtic-speaking post-colonial-Roman Britain had been heavily Christian as well by the end.)

But the idea of resistance to “invasion” has put down deeper roots in contemporary Norse, Baltic, and Slavic Paganism than in the Anglosphere, I think.

Is the Church of England Desperate or Just Confused about Paganism?

With the obvious news peg of summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, the Telegraph reports on a rather odd initiative from the Church of England. The article begins,

The church is training ministers to create “a pagan church where Christianity [is] very much in the centre” to attract spiritual believers.

Ministers are being trained to create new forms of Anglicanism suitable for people of alternative beliefs as part of a Church of England drive to retain congregation numbers.

Reverend Steve Hollinghurst, a researcher and adviser in new religious movements told the BBC: “I would be looking to formulate an exploration of the Christian faith that would be at home in their culture.”

He said it would be “almost to create a pagan church where Christianity was very much in the centre.”

To which I can only ask, what are they talking about? Is this Christianity with mistletoe and pentacles? Do they think that they can attract the “party Pagans” to drum circles in the parish hall? The article continues,

The Church Mission Society, which is training ministers to “break new ground”, hopes to see a number of spiritual people align themselves with Christianity.

Andrea Campenale, of the Church Mission Society, said: “Nowadays people, they want to feel something; they want to have some sense of experience.

There is that.

Related: a Church Mission Society article on “being the light of Christ” at a Pagan festival in 2012. They gave free henna tattoos and did card readings with the “Jesus Deck.”

UPDATE: An Anglican priest involved says that the Telegraph’s article overstated what was going on.

i do not believe that a Christian church could adopt Paganism and remain Christian nor that a Pagan group (or individual) could adopt Christianity and remain Pagan. i do think that Paganism has much to say and offer to the world today and much that Christians can adopt – for instance whilst Christianity isn’t polytheistic, the Trinity does include the divine feminine as well as the divine masculine and those, including Pagans, who have criticized an apparently male lone christian deity are right to do so, and we as Christians need to acknowledge that and recover out own tradition of the divine feminine. similarly Pagans have often put Christians to shame when it comes to the environment when St Paul time and again talks of Jesus not saving people from the world but wanting to set the whole of creation free from suffering – we need to recover this ecological vision. i could go on but i hope you get the idea – that is what i meant by saying a Pagan church – on reflection i think i should have said a church in Pagan culture or one that learnt lessons from Paganism.

A Country “Under Christian Occupation”

The BBC profiles some Hellenes — modern Greek Pagans — with minimal snark.

Tryphon Olympios leads many of the ceremonies (BBC).

[The summer solstice is] the most important annual festival for followers of The Return of the Hellenes – a movement trying to bring back the religion, values, philosophy and way of life of ancient Greece, more than 16 centuries after it was replaced by Christianity

These people consider Greece to be a country under Christian occupation.

(Not to mention nearly four hundred years of Muslim occupation as well.)

The followers are an odd mix. There are New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek.

As the modern-day ancients relax in their camp at the base of the mountain, a few sell philosophy books, CDs, food and jewellery. Some wear modern clothes, others togas [sic], and a few sport a wreath.

No, Matthew Brunwasser, every ancient garment is not a “toga.”

‘Non-Christian’ License Plate Prompts Oklahoma Lawsuit

An Oklahoma court has cleared the way for Methodist clergyman Keith Cressman to sue the state over his objection to  imagery on that state’s license plate.

The new license plates carry a photo of a statue called “Prayer for Rain,” of an Apache man shooting an arrow into the sky.

His 2011 lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City seeks a court order allowing him either to cover up the image on his plates or to get a personalized plate for the same cost as a standard license plate.

“Mr. Cressman’s (lawsuit) states a plausible compelled speech claim,” the appellate judges wrote Tuesday in a 39-page decision, reversing Judge Joe Heaton’s dismissal of the lawsuit. “He has alleged sufficient facts to suggest that the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow’ image on the standard Oklahoma license plate conveys a particularized message that others are likely to understand and to which he objects.”

Oklahoma has used American Indian imagery on license plates before, but something about this one evidently pushed the Rev. Cressman’s buttons.

Sigh. Maybe they should make a plain black and white plate for militant monotheists.

Francis of Assisi: From Radical Monk to Garden Ornament

The real-estate supplement of the Taos News this week carried an article titled “Five Must-Haves for a Beautiful Backyard.” Oddly enough, four of the five items* were available at the store owned by a person interviewed for the story.

“Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is one of our most popular statues,” said Char Austin, who works at Camino Real Imports. “People like the air of serenity that he brings in, more so when the statue is surrounded by trees, and birds can nest around. El San Francisco definitely contributes to create a peaceful environment.”

The real St. Francis of Assisi was anything but serene. He was more like “Occupy Rome”  AD 1204 — an upper middle class young man angry at the establishment, demanding radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. But history has turned him into a bird bath — and perhaps that metamorphosis was inevitable.

St. Francis as a bird bath with the wolf of Gubbio.

St. Francis as a bird bath, with the wolf of Gubbio.

Growing up as a Forest Service brat, with an agnostic father and a devoutly Christian mother, I noticed that Christianity seemed to end at the edge of town. Relations with the other-than-human world were not discussed in church. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contained a prayer for rain, as I recall, and that was about all.

For the rest, I was offered the secular gospel of conservation: scientific forestry, soil and water conservation, state-regulated hunting. At least that was better than what had gone before: cut-and-run timber cutting, market-hunting that wiped out species, the Dust Bowl . . .

Pope Innocent III has a dream of St. Francis of Assisi supporting the tilting church (attributed to Giotto).  Francis was more concerned with church reform than with nature itself. (Wikipedia.)

His Franciscan order grew to where it too was a bureaucratic organization, and some of the monks who clung too hard to Francis’ peace-and-poverty ideals (the “Spirituals”) ended up condemned as heretics. (The conflict between hard-core Franciscans and the Vatican appears briefly at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. Most viewers probably don’t get it.)

Yes, he wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” in which all creation, including animals, the Sun and Moon, etc., is invited to praise God and is depicted as manifesting the divine. And he supposedly preached to birds — but he preferred to preach to people, even to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, who was enough of a sporting gent to let him live. In the story of the “wolf of Gubbio,” he saves the wolf from persecution by the local pastoralists, but at the price of giving up its wolf-ness. There is nothing in the canticle about the ecological role of predators.

Fast forward to 1967, when the journal Science published an essay by the historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (PDF), still widely read and anthologized today. In it, White blamed the crisis on the dualistic creator/created thinking fostered by the monotheistic religions, among which he included Communism, given the environmental crises created by Communist Party policies in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe:

Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.

Christianity (and its parallel faiths) did not just end at the edge of town, it ended at a strip mine. Here is an interesting slide-show summary of the essay.

Casting about for an alternative to the “domination” model within the Christian tradition, White settled (rather half-heartedly, I always thought) on Francis, even though Francis’ view of non-human nature was thoroughly Catholic. To quote the Wikipedia entry,  Francis taught “that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man.” Contrary to the slide show linked above, this is not particularly “closer to Eastern philosophy.”

With the environmental movement growing, religious officialdom had to respond. Some Protestant Christians started talking “eco-justice,” while in 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis “patron of ecology,” urging Catholics to be like Francis and take care of nature. Francis, said the pope, “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation” — as long as we understand that it is human-centric and required to praise God the creator, who is outside of creation, for letting it exist.

Of the hundreds of officially canonized saints, Francis was the only candidate for patron of ecology, even though the Vatican had squeezed all the radical ideas out of the Franciscan order within a century of his death.

Maybe as a medievalist Lynn White, Jr., was unaware of how nature, parallel to scripture, has served as  source of spiritual value in America.

We could see Bird Bath Francis as an attempt to bridge these traditions, to consecrate a safe, protected, and  cultivated nature — if not the self-organizing wolf-ridden wilderness. Followers of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion,” which may not be at all theistic, might not be so easily persuaded by the monk of Assisi, were they to meet him on the path.

*Wood carvings of saints, giant metal flowers, concrete animals, small water fountain, and ceramic Sun and Moon faces

OK, It’s Their Holiday, But Really, the ATM Too?

Went to town with M. today—it’s our secular Sunday routine of coffeehouse brunch, newspapers (v. trad, that’s us), and then the laundromat and the grocery store.

The coffeehouse is owned by (extremely low-key) Christian ex-missionaries. I had checked the Facebook page to see if they were closing today for Easter — nothing posted there one way or another, so off we went.

When we arrived, however, there was a sign on the door to the effect that they were closing at noon, and the lone barista was totally overwhelmed by a long line of people all ordering cinnamon-ginger-latte-Italian soda-extra large-and-sugary drinks that take five minutes to make. (Really, why don’t they just go down the street and get a milkshake and a cup of coffee, then pour them together?)

All too soon the noon siren at the fire department blew.

With the clothes at the laundromat, we then went to the supermarket. One item on the short shopping list was potting soil, because M. is starting seeds in the greenhouse. But it was closed.

“Let’s try the hardware store,” I said. Nope, closed. Oh, and I needed cash for the week, so I walked to the bank, entered the ATM lobby and — “Temporarily Out of Service.” Now that’s really not fair. I feel marginalized and oppressed.

Around the Blogosphere, 24 March 2013

Unitarians squirming over polyamory:

But as the issue of same-sex marriage heads to the Supreme Court, many committed Unitarians think the denomination should have a position, which is that polyamory activists should just sit down and be quiet. For one thing, poly activists are seen as undermining the fight for same-sex marriage. The UUA has officially supported same-sex marriage, the spokeswoman says, “since 1979, with tons of resolutions from the general assembly.”

How do you honor your Christian ancestors?

When They first began contacting me, it was a cacophony of voices, questions like “Why did you stop going to church?  Do you not like Fr. ___ anymore?” and “You can still pray with us, yes? (or ja?, dependent on the Ancestor)?” and many others.  Their Catholic identity was so strong and intrinsic to Their Being that They carried it over with some part of Them into Death.  If Their Catholicism is as deep, powerful, and purposeful a presence in Their life as Paganism is in mine, that it lasts well after They have crossed over, who am I to argue with Their spirits?

• While we are reclaiming formerly pejorative terms, why not reclaim “apostate?”

The word apostate is one such boundary. It is a word that requires confidence and defiance. People demand things when they hear it. It opens conversations and breaks down walls. It can also cause a great deal of pain and suffering in places that do not allow freedom of belief or thought

Articles on Otherkin, Therianthropes

• Joseph P. Laycock, ” ‘We Are Spirits of Another Sort’:  Ontological Rebellion and Religious Dimensions of the Otherkin Community,” Nova Religio 15, no. 3 (2012): 65–90.   DOI: 10.1525/nr.2012.15.3.65

• Venetia Laura Delano Robertson, “The Beast Within: Anthrozoomorphic Identity and Alternative Spirituality in the Online Therianthropy Movement,” Nova Religio 16, no. 3 (2013): 7–30. DOI: 10.1525/nr.2013.16.3.7

“Therianthropic,” coined from the Greek words for “wild beast” and “man,” first showed up in 1886, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote of  “Religions, in which animistic ideas still play a prominent part, but which have grown up to a therianthropic polytheism”—such as ancient Egyptian religion with the jackal-headed Set, etc., I suppose. Other therio- combinations go back to the seventeenth century, such as theriomancy.

Both Robertson and Laycock rely heavily on blogger Lupa’s book A Field Guide to Otherkin.

Laycock’s Otherkin scholarship seems to be a spin off from his work with the Atlanta Vampire Alliance, which produced Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism.

Although he has to take time to explain the Otherkin “community” to his readers (I use the scare quotes because I have some reservations about the world community in such cases), Laycock is really engaged in religion scholars’ ongoing debate over what “religion” is or whether the word “religion” is useful at all in a scholarly setting. (There are those who claim it is not, that it merely masks political and social competitions.)

He places the Otherkin in the historical spectrum of Western esotericism and spiritualism: the idea of “walk-ins” goes back to the 19th century, for example, while the influential English esotericist Dion Fortune wrote of “possesion by ‘elementals’ or thought-forms . . . . Despite Fortune’s rather pejorative view of such people, Psychic Self-Defense has since been cited as an early reference to the Otherkin phenomenon” (71).

To Laycock, Otherkin are perhaps best described as an ” ‘audience cult,’ a movement that supports novel beliefs and practices but without a discernible organization. Individuals frequently participate in audience cults simply through reading books and watching television programs. . . . As an audience cult facilitated primarily by the Internet, Otherkin are free to practice whatever religion they like, but their identity tends to color that practice” (73).

There is more, but I am just summarizing a few points.

Robertson spends more time explaining the concept of Therianthropes’ self-descriptions of “awakening” to their dual natures, goes into “Internet religion — Therianthropy popped up on alt.horror.werewolves in 1992 — and concurs with Laycock  that Therianthropes “reify their anthrozoomorphic identity through the appropriation of spiritual concepts into personal mythologies” (10).

She spends time on the idea of shape-shifting through history and the return of totemism through neo-shamanic teaching as well as contemporary Paganism. But she also notes that there are Christian Therianthropes who see themrmselves as “having a gift bestowed upon them by God to redress the balance between nature and civilization” (23).

Her conclusion is that the Therianthropy movement “exemplifies the innovation of spiritual individuals in the postmodern age . . . popular occulture and re-enchantment in motion” (24).  In other words, the key sociology-of-religion concept of re-enchantment is more malleable and multi-faceted than previously discussed.