Sunday, April 27, 2008

Christian Mysticism Book Discussion Group Forming

I'd like to invite everyone to participate in a Mysticism: Theory and History book discussion group through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. The group kicks off this coming Thursday, May 1. The first book we’ll be discussing is Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.

Just follow this link to learn more about the group and to sign up:

Friday, April 25, 2008

Blog It!

It has just come to my attention that FaceBook and Six Apart have joined forces to create a new application called "Blog It." With Blog It I can simultaneously post to several different Blog Sites, including Worpress (where my "main" blog lives), as well as LiveJournal and Blogger. So this is an experiment - and if it works, I may be back on LiveJournal more often, as well as hanging out on Blogger more than ever before. It appears to be a nifty little app, so if you have Facebook, check it out.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Tent of Abraham

The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians and Muslims
By Joan Chittister, OSB, Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti and Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Forward by Karen Armstrong
Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2006
Review by Carl McColman

Given the insanity currently going on in southern Lebanon (not to mention similar, underreported violence in Gaza), this book could not be more timely. Three American authors — a Benedictine nun, a rabbi, and a Sufi — joined forces to write this hopeful book which teases out the story of Abraham, his two sons and their mothers, in an effort to look at how the disparate cultures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can somehow come together in our day to foster real peace in the middle east (and beyond). The book is a celebration of story and hermeneutic as much as it is a call for peace, as it teases out the many layers of meaning in the Abraham story (as well as considering how the story has been told and retold in different ways within the different faith communities). The authors begin by simply retelling the story, each from the perspective of his or her faith tradition. Naturally, the Jewish tradition focusses on Sarah and Isaac, while the Arab/Muslim tradition prefers the perspective of Hagar and Ishmael. The authors not only consider the canonical stories as found in Genesis and the Quran, but also look at midrash, folklore, and commentary as it has enlarged our understanding of the story down the ages. Thus, the terror of Abraham, who essentially turns out to be a threat to the life of both his sons, is faced honestly; much is made of the scriptural tradition that the two sons came together after the father's death to bury him — and then to settle down together.

At its heart, this book simply asks Rodney King's question: why can't we all just get along?  If Isaac and Ishmael are brothers, and if whatever enmity that existed between them was more their parent's doing (and was put aside at the time of the father's death), then shouldn't that be the blueprint for creating a world where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-exist peacefully and with honor and respect for one another? While the book with its American authorship and liberal publisher may suffer the fate of reaching (and preaching) only to the choir, its message remains powerful in its simplicity and deserving of as wide a readership as it can possibly find.

Each author brings a wonderfully unique perspective. Rabbi Waskow goes right after the hard questions as he deconstructs the story's layers of terror — but always with an eye to finding a hope which transcends the traditional ways in which Abraham has been used as a focus of tribal (rather than global) identity. Sister Chittister situates her understanding of the story within her life experience as a peacemaker who has worked extensively with both Israeli and Palestinian women. Finally, Chishti (who may be more familiar to some readers by his Anglo name Neil Douglas-Klotz) brings a Sufi's mystical sensibility to the story, considering how each of the five principle characters live within all of us as dimensions of our individual souls. Rounding out the book is a brief section of essays considering ways to foster peace: through creating interfaith forums where we may greet our long lost "cousins" and hopefully build relationships, along with suggestions for shared holidays, particularly this year and in 2007 when the sacred months of Ramadan and Tishrei coincide. 

The final chapter may be the most explosive. It's a retelling of the story of the circumstances by which Hagar and Ishmael left Abraham, told from the perspective of the women (both Hagar and Sarah) and suggesting that the enmity between the women as reported in the old stories may have been fabricated by the women themselves in an effort to protect the children from Abraham's miguided zeal.  Could the story of Hagar's and Ishmael's banishment actually be history's most long-standing cover-up? In exploring this question, what emerges is a fascinating new telling of the tale, with polyamorous overtones even as it challenges the dangers of religious fanaticism.

If you have any concern for peace (particularly in the middle east) or for interfaith work (particularly among the three Abrahamic faiths), The Tent of Abraham is a must-read. But as soon as you're done with it, give it away or loan it out. It needs to reach as many people as possible.

How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job

How to be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job:
An Invitation to Oblate Life

By Brother Benet Tvedten
Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2006
Review by Carl McColman

A charming and easy read, this book celebrates the unique spirituality of Benedictine oblates — individuals who are not monastics but who choose to integrate the wisdom of the Rule of Saint Benedict into their lives while also forming a special relationship with a particular monastery. Oblates (the word comes from the Latin for "offering") offer themselves as dedicants to the Benedictine way of life, while remaining "in the world." Oblates can be either women or men, Catholic or Protestant, clergy or ordained – the only requirement is a sincere interest in Benedictine spirituality, a willingness to be spiritually formed in accordance with the wisdom of the Rule, and a desire to explore this dimension of faith in relationship with a monastic community.

Brother Benet Tvedten has been the Director of Oblates for Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota since the 1970s. As such, he is the monk who provides guidance and support to the many non-monastic women and men who come to his community seeking the wisdom of the Benedictine way. Given his long-standing ministry to the oblates of his community, he is in a unique position to reflect on the unique gifts of oblate life and how monks and oblates can provide inspiration, encouragement, and spiritual nurture to each other.

In this book Brother Benet sketches the history of oblates, from the ancient practice of fostering young boys to a monastery all the way up to developments in our times (the practice of allowing both men and women to become oblates of communities of either monks or nuns is a twentieth century innovation). He devotes several chapters to the most essential of Benedictine values, including hospitality, stability, continual conversion, justice and peace. He notes how ordinary and unadorned the Benedictine tradition is, pointing out that this is not a path for extraordinary "mystics" so much as a discipline for anyone interested in deepening their walk of faith. The author notes that Benedictine spirituality truly is Christian spirituality – there is nothing exotic or extraordinary in the Benedictine way; on the contrary, here is a spirituality defined by its very simplicity and earthiness.

Not everyone is called to be a monk or a nun. But thanks to Brother Tvedten's accessible invitation to consider oblate life, perhaps more people will taste the blessings of Benedictine wisdom than ever before. The author sees oblates as bridges between the hidden world of the cloister and the "everyday" world in which most of us live and work. Oblates are like ambassadors – fluent in both cultures and able to convey meaning between the two. Not only is this a rare and beautiful gift, but — for those who are called to it — oblate life is a source of joy and meaning. Brother Benet has done a fine job at putting into words the poetic beauty of this singular spiritual path.

This book is part of Paraclete Press' "A Voice From the Monastery Series." If the series can be judged by this title, then it's well worth exploring.

A Generous Orthodoxy

A Generous Orthodoxy
By Brian McLaren
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004
Review by Carl McColman

Here's a book that gets the amazing-subtitle award. See if you can repeat this three times fast: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. What a mouthful!

I'm delighted to say that the book is as good as its title is long.

McLaren is a non-denominational (perhaps Matthew Fox's neologism "post-denominational" would be more apt) minister who pastors a large church in Maryland; he comes out of the evangelical world and so shares the sensibility and lingo of the born again community, but with a clear appreciation for philosophy, culture, science and liberal values — values that sometimes puts him at odds with the evangelical mainstream even while enabling him to articulate a truly visionary statement of how the church might find new ways to express fidelity to Christ in the postmodern world. A Generous Orthodoxy is a confessional work in which McLaren gives voice to his own faith, and in doing so provides inspiration for the faith of anyone who is seeking an authentic expression of Christianity for our time.

There are many jewels in this book, but perhaps the single most valuable one, to my mind, is McLaren's audacious declaration that "Protestant" needs to be re-defined: away from protest, and toward pro-testifying. In other words, one of the weaknesses of Protestant Christianity (and therefore, of evangelicalism) has been its core identity of protest: protesting the abuses of late medieval catholicism; then protesting the rise of secularism, and — sadly, all too often — protesting other "protestantisms," as the various denominations of Protestant Christianity have attacked one another with a same zeal that inspired the initial 16th-century break with Rome. Of course, the problem with protesting, is that it leads to a culture that is defined more by what it is against rather than what it is for. As a consequence, people outside of Christianity tend to see the religion in terms of its prohibitions: no extramarital sex (and most especially no same-sex love), no abortion, no exploration of non-Christian faith, no drinking, no dancing, no fun (!). But the taboos of the faith are only a small part of Christianity, and so McLaren wisely counsels the postmodern believer to shift the focus away from protest and toward the core good news of the gospel: hence his awkward if theologically astute pun calling for a "pro-testifying" form of Protestantism.

This is not a book of erudite theology or carefully argued Biblical exegesis, and as such it may frustrate those who prefer their Christian reading to be served with a razor-sharp attention to logical detail. But what McLaren lacks in scholarship he more than makes up for with vision, playfulness, optimism, wit, and genuine love for the faith and the church whose task it is to present that faith to each new generation. And so, McLaren has taken on the task of articulating a vision of Christianity that can speak to the postmodern seeker, who grew up listening to rock and roll and surfing the internet and consequently feels at home in the kaleidoscopic, ethnically diverse, culturally multivalent, and all too often ethically ambiguous world that, for lack of a better term, we call "the postmodern." And while I suspect many in the evangelical community are wringing their hands at a world where teenagers are militant about everything from piercings to polyamory, McLaren embraces postmodernity and sees it as a wonderful venue where the best and most radical qualities of the gospel (like, for example, the unconditional love and grace of God) can be celebrated in new ways.

McLaren is a fan of Ken Wilber, and as such Wilber's integral theory dances through this book. Indeed, A Generous Orthodoxy could be described as a Wilberian approach to Christianity, as it seeks to integrate the best qualities of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and the various strands of Protestantism and evangelicalism. Like Wilber, McLaren wastes no time trying to figure out who's right and who's wrong, but instead gleefully sets about trying to piece together the various strands of the Christian tradition into a gleaming, integral (read: postmodern) whole. As such, he is wonderfully appreciative of Catholicism (which of course warmed my heart), but that's in a context where he endeavors to be wonderfully appreciative of just about all constructive forms of the faith. The supersized title gives you a preview of the book's table of contents, and so in it you can see how Calvinism, Anglicanism, Methodism, mysticism and the charismatic renewal, and various other currents (and eddies) in the Christian stream are all honored in turn. In each chapter, McLaren strives to be balanced, not shying away from the problems or limitations of the particular school of theology/spirituality being discussed, while maintaining an overall positive tone. The end result: a rich tie-dye vision of a big, inclusive Christianity that welcomes diversity of opinion and experience, thereby enabling multiple points of entry for the seeker who is not so much interested in finding "the truth" as in celebrating "a truth" that vibrates with meaning and purpose (not to mention love and joy).

Of course, along the way McLaren sticks his neck out more than once, although pretty much always in ways of which this postmodern contemplative heartily approves. He sees evangelism-as-salesmanship to be the liability it is, and boldly insists that Christians need to stop worrying about who is or isn't saved — regardless of whether a person is even a Christian, or instead practices some other faith (or none at all). By shifting the focus away from who is (or isn't) likely to end up in hell and emphasizing instead the prodigal love and grace of God, this approach to the faith creates room for the titular generosity that McLaren champions: an orthodox Christianity that is more concerned with giving away God's love than with tallying up God's assets.

It's a great book. I think every Christian should read it, and every open-minded non-Christian probably should as well. If the faith looked more like McLaren's vision of it, I think many of the liberals who abandoned church over the last two generations would be tempted to return — with their integrity fully intact.

Shamanic Christianity

Shamanic Christianity: The Direct Experience of Mystical Communion
By Bradford Keeney
Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2006
Review by Carl McColman

I wanted — at least in theory — to like this book.

After all, I'm the guy who calls himself "the Druid with a Rosary." My spiritual identity is significantly linked to exploring ways to integrate Christianity with various forms of earth-based wisdom. So obviously, a book on shamanic Christianity sounded like just the kind of book I would love.

But this is not a book on shamanic Christianity. It's just another tired pop-psychology treatment of ho-hum spiritual ideas and exercises, marketed under the generic term of "shamanism" and given just enough Christian window-dressing to justify its title. What you get for your fifteen bucks is a book that fails both as an exploration of shamanism and as a study of Christian spirituality. Dear reader, you would do far better to get your hands on Michael Harner's Way of the Shaman and Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism; read them concurrently and let your imagination do the talking. At least then, you'd have decent material from which to launch your own spiritual exploration of Christian/shaman cross-breeding. And if you can't figure out how to integrate the two, read Matthew Fox.

But if you decide you really want to read this book, what you're going to get is a series of "Lost Teachings" that presents a series of stories (ranging from the whimsical to the absurd) which combine an element of Christian spirituality with a shamanic principle. A "lost parable" deepens each shaman-Christian connection, leading into an exercise to help you integrate the teaching into your own practice. So, for example, one chapter suggests that Jesus walked at one point among the Ojibway, where he learned to run (and howl) with the wolves; another chapter gushes about how the Virgin Mary's greatest desire is to bake yummy little cakes so that people will taste a bit of heaven when they eat them. Further chapters take aim at Francis of Assisi, the Celtic saints, Hildegard of Bingen, and even the Shakers.

The second part of the book consists of "Lost Directives" where you can get all sorts of helpful shamanic hints for dealing with anger, fear, boredom, worry, and other annoying little problems that prevent us from having lots of fun all the time. While occasionally the author manages to offer something that seems to have a bit of merit (the exercise on "finding your lost temper" might actually help diffuse real anger with wacky humor. Hey, it's worth a try), I remain unpersuaded that any of this cloying pop-psychology has any necessary relationship with shamanism, let alone Christianity.

The author appears to be a bit of a coyote, but one who thinks that all shamanism must be silly and playful in order to be authentic. Wiseguy comments like "True Christian shamans value the ridiculous as much as they aspire to enter the mystical visions of heaven. No quaking laughter, no entry into the biggest mysteries" and "shamanic tricksters... meet seriousness with absurdity and comedic improvisation" dance through this book. But Keeney beats this drum to the point where it seems that he's just set up yet another tired dualism: silliness and absurdity is good, earnestness and seriousness is not so good. Meanwhile, even his silliness betrays the original meaning of that word (it comes from a Germanic root that connotes a sense of being blessed) and winds up feeling more like nonsense than anything truly useful to either the theorist or would-be practitioner of shamanic Christian mysticism.

I suspect that this book will be read more by shamanic wannabes who are trying to figure out why Jesus won't let go of them, than by mainstream Christians who are looking for compelling new dimensions to their faith. For all of Keeney's efforts to come across as hip and playful, at times he sounds rather shrill and lacking in the most important of Christian qualities: love. After all, those who take their faith too seriously often do so because they think it's the loving thing to do. Rather than gently tease them out of their self-imposed prison of dour religiosity, Keeney basically goes after the jugular. And maybe that's "shamanic" (whatever that means), but it's a rather poor expression of Christianity.

In the introduction to the second part of the book, Keeney makes the following very revealing declaration: "Should you find yourself wondering what is the point of an exercise, remind yourself that one of the points is to plunge you into a new experiential territory that bankrupts your habituated ways of making meaning... This is intended to be a baptism into sacred absurdity, part of the matrix for shamanic transformation." In other words, he has thrown in his pennies with all the other legions of new age and pagan and shamanic and various other post-modern earthy-types who, in reacting against the rationalistic heritage of the modern era, have lionized the irrational (the "sacred absurdity" in Keeney's words) as the only true gateway to the mystical. But this is a salient example of what Ken Wilber calls the "pre/trans fallacy." In other words, true mystical awakening can only come when consciousness transcends mere rationality, and engages in a trans-rational state of being. But far too many spiritual hipsters, recognizing the inherent limitations of rationality but blind to the true trans-egoic demands of the Spirit, make the mistake of thinking that pre-rational modes of consciousness are all that is necessary to achieve enlightenment. So we can play at being tricksters and absurdists and we can run around in the woods howling at the moon, just like Keeney suggests Jesus did. Of course, if you'd rather be a shamanic Buddhist, just substitute Siddhartha for Jesus. And all it takes to be enlightened is simply to pretend that it's so. After all, the only thing that matters is to trade what is rational for what is absurd...

Our world needs powerful, deeply-rooted, ethically nuanced explorations of ways to integrate the mystical wisdom of the monotheistic faith traditions with the earth-positive lore of indigenous spiritualities. But this book doesn't come close. Its feel-good "teachings" would quickly bore a student of John of the Cross or even Black Elk. Think Silver Ravenwolf with a rattle in one hand and a cross in the other. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Adventures in Missing the Point

Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel
By Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003
Review by Carl McColman

The writing of Brian D. McLaren was recommended to me by two very different friends: an Episcopalian who is also a Sufi healing minister, and a non-denominational evangelical involved in the emerging and house church movements. Sufficiently intrigued, I picked up this book, which also introduced me to the well known "liberal evangelical" Tony Campolo. It's really written for a specific audience: for evangelical Christians who are struggling to articulate their sense of "there's something more" or "there's something amiss" with the state of the evangelical world. Since I have never been an evangelical (the closest I came was attending a nondenominational charismatic youth group meeting for several months back in the 1970s), reading Adventures in Missing the Point seemed almost voyeuristic to me — I was glimpsing through the window at another family's earnest discussion, a discussion that could easily explode into an argument but for the efforts of those making their case to keep their heads cool. At the beginning of the book, the authors warn against letting this book be fuel for judgmentalism: "But shame on you if you use this book to critique others, to point the finger and say, 'See how they're missing the point!' If you do that, you're missing the point. This adventure is not about finding the splinter in someone else's eye, not about judging others for their poor vision." Well, then, with this caveat firmly in mind, I'll share my thoughts on this book: basically, I think it does what it sets out to do very well. McLaren and Campolo take turns writing brief chapters an a variety of issues, both central and controversial, to the evangelical ethos: the chapter titles — "Salvation," "End Times," "The Bible," "Women in Ministry," "Homosexuality," "Sin" — sums it up rather nicely. Each author then provides a brief response to each of the chapters written by the other. So what emerges has the feel of a conversation, a stereophonic presentation of how progressives/liberals/postmoderns (take the adjective of your choice, I get the sense that both authors try to avoid wearing labels of this sort) within the evangelical community are trying to open up new ways of thinking, believing, and doing church.

Reading this as very much an outsider (I'm in no danger of being accused of membership in the religious right), my reactions veered from insight (it's encouraging to see McLaren try to deconstruct the personalist soteriology that dogs the evangelical world) to pleasure (the chapter in which McLaren skewers the sexist-driven exegetical inconsistencies that keeps women out of evangelical ministry was a delight) to frustration (Campolo's commendable but timid efforts at calling for compassion toward lesbians and gays is undermined by his own theology of purity that results in his hastening to assure his readers that he believes "the Bible tells us that same-gender eroticism is wrong" — I get the sense that he hasn't read Episcopal theologian William Countryman, whose magisterial Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today consigns homophobic readings of the Bible to the dustbins where they belong). Campolo and McLaren begin to sound like brothers: Campolo the slightly more conservative and mainstream elder brother who cautions his rather visionary but excitable younger brother, who in turn gently eggs the elder on.

If my biggest gripe about this book is that it doesn't go far enough, that probably says more about the gulf that separates me from the intended audience than anything else. One of the crying issues facing Christianity today is the need to build bridges between the conservative and liberal camps. It's too easy for folks like me to take refuge in the writings of Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong and simply dismiss the benighted evangelicals as unworthy of our attention. But that's a grave mistake, as writers like McLaren, or Jim Wallis, make clear. I hope every conservative Christian reads this book. And liberal Christians need to read it too, if for no other reason than to see how progressive evangelicals make their case to those on the right.


Orlando (1992)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp
Directed by Sally Potter
Review by Carl McColman

This is one of those films that rewards repeated viewings. I recently saw it for the third time (having seen it in the theater in 1993, and later on when it first came out on DVD), and with each subsequent viewing I laugh harder, find more to think about, and am generally more entranced by the wondrously magical world that director Sally Potter has conjured out of Virginia Woolf's gender-bending pirouette through four centuries of English history, culture, and literature.

Tilda Swinton (who in 2005 wowed the mainstream with her performance as the White Witch Jadis in the big-screen adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is Orlando, whom we first meet as a delicate young lad at the end of the sixteenth century, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth (brilliantly played by Quentin Crisp). The playful erotic tension between the queen (an old woman, portrayed by a man) and the hero (a young man, portrayed by a woman) alone makes this a fun and worthwhile movie to explore. But the sexual deconstruction of the movie's opening act really is just an hors-d'oeuvre to whet the appetite for the increasingly layered, enigmatic, yet ultimately pointedly feminist story that will unravel, with 400 years of British vanity and irony crammed into 93 cinematic minutes.

As a favorite of the Virgin Queen, Orlando is given the gift of the beautiful country house in which he lives with his family. But there's a catch: Elizabeth exhorts the boy to never grow old and never fade. This he does, like some British cousin to the Tuck Everlasting clan, agelessly wandering through the ages, exploring such themes as death, love, poetry, politics, society and sex. In many ways Orlando is simply a metaphor for British literature, and so as the eighteenth century yields to the nineteenth (and the so-called Enlightenment insists that science is the only "manly" pursuit, relegating poetry to the "affectations" of women). Orlando wakes one morning and, in a luminously filmed scene of transcendent wonder, discovers the he is now a she. But not to worry: this climactic moment is given a twist by Swinton's brilliantly deadpan delivery of her ironic first thoughts as a woman: "Same person. No difference at all... just a different sex."

But if Orlando was troubled by gender politics as a man, she soon finds out just how much worse things get now that she has no penis to shield her from the brunt of her culture's mindless sexism. Not only is she trivialised and dismissed, but the powers that be set their sights on her house, which, after all, cannot be owned by a mere female. Undaunted, Orlando proceeds to revel in the sensual pleasures of being a woman (joined by Billy Zane as her eye-worthy lover), and as she wanders through the World War I era battlefields into the twentieth century, she discovers just where her power really lies in relation to the past.

Filled with memorable images and playing out like an extended dream sequence, Orlando may not appeal to those who want the films to combine non-stop action with a simple and easy-to-follow storyline. But fans of Virginia Woolf's darkly visionary prose ought to find plenty to cheer about in this film, as will anyone interested in the subtle relationships between society and the arts (and how gender politics intersect with both of those vectors). Just remember: be prepared to watch it more than once.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ashes Are Burning

Ashes Are Burning
By Renaissance
Capitol Records, 1972
Review by Carl McColman

Once upon a time (when Ronald Reagan was merely an ex-governor from California and "liberal" was not a dirty word), back before the 80s marketing gurus dreamed up the term "classic rock" to describe anything that predated the Sex Pistols, there was a genre of popular music known as "classicAL rock," which it signified music that blended classical motifs and themes with the basic structure of rock'n'roll. Several bands were known for this genre, including Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis (when Peter Gabriel was still a member) and Renaissance — musicians who either borrowed from, or were inspired by, classical repertoire in order to give their work a more expansive feel. Today this genre is mostly called "prog-rock" ("progressive rock"), but "classical rock" remains the more accurate term. Of these acts, Renaissance may not have had multi-platinum-level commercial success, but created arguably the most beautiful and "pure" form of classical rock. At times playfully lifting themes from the works of composers like Rachmaninov, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Faure, Renaissance created a sound that was majestic, big, fully rock'n'roll, and anchored by John Tout's aggressive piano playing and Annie Haslam's operatic soprano. And while classical rock was never hip enough for the critics who wrote for magazines like Rolling Stone, to those of us who heard beauty in this music, it was (and still is) transcendent and glorious, a testament to humankind's desire to reach for something greater — greater beauty, greater happiness, greater understanding.

Ashes Are Burning was Renaissance's fourth album, but their second featuring their classic lineup of Annie Haslam, John Tout, Jon Camp, and Terence Sullivan (although not credited as a band member, Michael Dunford wrote nearly all the music, and later did take his place as the fifth member of the group). The album's first track, "Can You Understand?" opens with an understated gong which gives way to a piano torrent exploding into an assertive rock jam, an energetic celebration of Renaissance's signature sound. But the music slows down, and accompanied by a twelve-string guitar, Annie's voice soars into the song. With dreamy, impressionistic lyrics, "Can You Understand?" asks the listener to cultivate mindfulness — a theme which appears again and again on this album. As the song portion of this majestic composition progresses, Annie and the band are joined by a full orchestra, adding still more color to the already richly textured sound. Eventually the music erupts into another fit of energetic rocking. Haslam's voice and lyricist Betty Thatcher's otherworldly images might be delicate, but this band has muscles and isn't afraid to flex them.

"Let it Grow" and "On the Frontier" are more subdued showcases for the band's lovely vocals ("On the Frontier" shows that the guys can harmonize beautifully with Haslam), but the true majesty of this recording begins with the fourth track (the first song of side two back in the days of vinyl). "Carpet of the Sun," a light-hearted celebration of nature and light, is probably the closest Renaissance ever came to having a hit single; it is a song that still finds its way onto 70s anthologies, and with good reason. Acoustic guitar, orchestration, and piano weave together in a light, joyful melody, and Annie Haslam's interpretation of the song's sunny lyrics find her voice at its songbird best. It's one of the happiest pieces of music ever to grace a rock album. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" this isn't. It's optimistic, joyful, and deeply spiritual—a perfect antidote to the cynicism of our time.

Lest Renaissance seem pollyannish in the face of all this happy music, "At the Harbour" evokes a darker feeling of loss and grief—all is not sweetness and light in Renaissance's world. A somber song about women waiting for a boat that was lost at sea, it is the dark counterpoint to "Carpet of the Sun." But if these two songs function as some sort of Hegelian thesis/antithesis, the grand synthesis comes in the album's final opus, the 11-and-a-half minute title track. Beginning with a haunting sound of cymbals almost overwhelmed by the whistling of a stormy wind, an introspective mid-tempo piano melody (accompanied by a pulsating bass line) introduces the music. Haslam's voice, sounding pensive and perhaps even wistful, adds to the mood of the lyrics, which explore themes of vision, the taking of a journey, and (again) the need for clarity of mind. Like the central image of burning ashes, the song has a melancholy feel, evoking a sense of loss and regret that seems an inevitable part of the march of time. But this mood suddenly changes when the tempo picks up, the lyrics give way to a graceful passage of vocalise, and the music blossoms like an opening flower into an extended, tuneful jam. Each of the musicians shows off his virtuosity, culminating in a moment of deep stillness, when (accompanied only by an organ), Haslam sings the final verse, a stunning resolution of the song's yearning in a mystical affirmation of forgiveness and love. "Imagine the burning embers, the glow below and above, your sins you won't remember, and all you'll find there is love." What is this referring to? The flames of purgatory? The fires of divine love? Haslam never says. We are left to interpret the words for ourselves: Out of loss comes redemption, out of the passage of time comes the doorway to eternity. Once more, the music explodes into a lovely coda. It's a stunning climax, but as it slowly fades away the message is simple: nothing really ends, it only changes.

Ashes Are Burning is a salutory example of how popular culture can convey the emotional resonance of mystical yearning. Maybe in today's world of rave music and technopop it might seem a little outdated, but on another level it's as timeless as the classical music that inspired this artful band. Beauty, after all, never goes out of style. And if one word could describe the music contained herein, "beautiful" would be the word.

Pagan Theology

Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion
By Michael York
New York: New York University Press, 2003.
Review by Carl McColman

The most important word in the title of this book is neither “Pagan” nor “Theology,” but “World.” Readers hoping for a survey of western neopagan thought may be disappointed by this book, which devotes very little attention to the spiritual movement that arose out of Wicca and other attempts to revive or recreate western alternatives to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But as the subtitle indicates, this short book aims to position pagan theology within the context of world religions. To do this, Michael York has engaged in a process of identifying which religions are primarily pagan in their theological position (such as Hinduism), but he has also paid attention to how pagan strands of thought or practice may be found in religions that, on the surface, are not “pagan” at all—even including the three “Abrahamic” monotheist faiths. Thus, while topics like “Wicca” or “Asatru” receive scant attention, the author takes a much-needed look at how pagan behavior and theology persist within such traditions as Roman Catholicism or Islam.

For many readers in the neopagan community, the thesis (if not the content) of this book might seem gratuitous. For years, western practitioners of the new paganism have gleefully pointed out to one another how such “Christian” practices as hanging mistletoe in December or hiding eggs at Eastertime are, in fact, evidence of vestigial pagan customs that somehow survived the triumph of non-pagan monotheism. Therefore, York’s methodical ferreting out of the paganism hidden even in religious like Hinduism or Buddhism might seem, well, like old news. And yet, it would be a mistake to judge the book from an “on-campus” neopagan perspective. For this book was written not for the true believers in the pagan path, but rather for non-Pagans, particularly within the academic religious community.

The academic study of religious paganism is still enough in its infancy that the researchers in this field often have to moonlight as apologists for their work. Helen A. Berger’s A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999) begins with a discussion of whether paganism and witchcraft can properly be deemed religions (Berger argues in the affirmative). To neopagans, such a discussion might seem patronizing or insulting, and yet it represents the reality of entrenched institutions like the American Academy of Religion, where by no means is neopaganism universally recognized as a valid living religious tradition. It is precisely for those who would dismiss postmodern earth spirituality as nothing more than a cultural fad that York’s book is so valuable. By demonstrating the recurrence of pagan behavior and thought throughout the cultures (and religions) of the world, York is arguing persuasively for the legitimacy of not only pagan theology, but neopaganism as a religion.

It sometimes seems that an unbridgeable chasm separates the rarefied world of the academic study of religion (any religion), and the practical, put-the-theory-into-action reality of religious practitioners. For the vast majority of pagan readers whose interest in theology is more practical than theoretical, York’s book may prove frustrating or irrelevant. But for those who understand that his purpose in writing is not to elucidate the reasons why neopagans do what they do, but rather to place western earth-based spirituality within a larger and viable global context, it’s apparent that Pagan Theology is a valuable and timely contribution.

Postscript: In early 2005 a friend of mine who is involved with the American Academy of Religions, after reading this review, sent me the following bit of good news: "While I cannot argue the universal acceptance of Paganism as a valid religion in the eyes of the Academy's membership, I can argue the institutional approval of it. The Contemporary Pagan Studies Consultation proposal was approved — Pagan Studies now has an official place on the AAR's program. As someone who was in the room when the decision was made, I know that the committee that made the approval was very complimentary and supportive of the proposal."

Mysticism After Modernity

Mysticism After Modernity
By Don Cupitt
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998
Review by Carl McColman

Don Cupitt presents a lucid and stimulating argument for ways to understand mysticism in the postmodern world. He suggests that the modernist understanding of mysticism (in vogue from approximately 1790 to 1970) was based on a fundamental error: the idea that a mystic was a person who had "mystical experiences," a sort of ineffable event which confirmed the truth of religious orthodoxy. Such ineffable experiences are based on an assumption that "experience" can exist prior to language, and furthermore that it is possible to have an experience which language cannot describe. But, as Cupitt points out, this privileging of experience over language has been rendered obsolete in the postmodern world, a world which recognizes that no experience exists apart from language and that ineffability is a self-contradictory notion. In Cupitt's words, "there is no meaningfulness and no cognition prior to language" (p. 11).

Instead of the mystic as experiential defender of the faith, Cupitt considers how mystics in premodern times were, in essence, proto-deconstructionists—using the language of mystical literature to deconstruct the ability of the religious bureaucracy to regulate the spiritual lives of individuals. Now, in our postmodern age, we can read the mystics as writers whose texts attack the religious establishment—only today, we see in the mystics a profound celebration of the "secondariness" of all things. In other words, mystical literature allows us to consider that joy and ecstasy are possible without resorting to ecclesial authority or any "primary" object; rather, even in a world where everything is relative and free-floating and fluid—in other words, where everything is "secondary"—is such rapture possible.

Cupitt demonstrates the modern construction of mysticism by exploring the modernist assumptions behind the words "experience," "religious experience," "mysticism" and "spirituality." "Experience" is essentially a passive apprehension of things, arising out of the modernist assumption that knowledge and truth is "out there" and can be subjectively known through uninterpreted perception. "Religious experience," following William James, implies a specific type of experience in which each individual soul has access to supernaturally-inspired altered states—a notion which collapsed along with the assumption that the supernatural exists prior to language. Cupitt defines "mysticism" as "a tradition of devotional writing which commonly uses the vocabulary of Plato and the neoplatonists, and is rather consciously paradoxical." (p. 25). He points out that, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, "mysticism" is a term of disparagement, and only in the psychoanalytical environment of late modernity does mysticism take on a more fashionable identity as subjective religious experience. "Spirituality" in the modern era has been used essentially as a synonym for "piety," although with the arrival of postmodernity it is taking on more of a cultural, aesthetic dimension—less something we do so much as something we display, a lifestyle we choose—whether it be "charismatic" or "contemplative" or "new age."

Cupitt considers the theories of mysticism in modernity, showing how the modern idea of mysticism regards it as a universal, prelinguistic experience which can serve to validate all religious and ethical knowledge in the same way that empirical experience validates scientific knowledge. But in order for this view of mysticism to work, it must rely on theological realism, semi-realism, or naturalism—in other words, it must rely on the idea that God is "out there" coming to the mystic in his or her cultural language or symbols, or on the idea that nature (and especially sexuality) are adequate tools for describing the encounter with the Divine. But, Cupitt argues, all this amounts to a "wild goose chase," a "distraction" in which mysticism does nothing to advance the cause of theological realism—and yet, if mysticism relies on realism or naturalism, then mysticism itself has been undermined in the postmodern world just as realism and naturalism have been undermined.

As an alternative, Cupit considers the idea that, at least in Europe, most Christian mystics wrote in reaction to the consolidation of dogmatic theology and absolute papal authority that was epitomized by Urban VIII's Bull Unum Sanctum in 1302: "We declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff." Cupitt argues that "the mystic is a religious anarchist and utopian, who speaks for an ancient tradition of protest against religious alienation." (p. 56). Furthermore, since the idea that pure thought precedes language is no longer tenable (consider, for example, how a deaf child needs to learn sign language in order to exhibit normal intellectual development), the idea that "mystical experience" exists somehow beyond language is equally invalid. Thus, Cupitt argues that mysticism is not a matter of experience put imperfectly into words, but is rather in itself simply a kind of writing—a discourse intended to produce religious happiness, not by appealing to some supralingual experience, but simply in itself.

How does mystical writing produce religious happiness? Using John of the Cross' "Cancion de la subida del Monte Carmelo" as an example, Cupitt shows how the mystic declared the possibility of transformation and union in divine love, but hidden under the imagery of human illicit eroticism. Why illicit eroticism? Because within John's world—the world of Catholic objective reality—divine union is a deferred pleasure, attainable only through compliance with the dictates of the church. John subverts that world-view by suggesting (but never directly saying) that religious happiness is available directly, bypassing the officially approved channels of religious obedience.

Cupitt argues that mystical writing is essentially political in nature. Against the masculine, authoritarian, legalistic culture of dogmatic theology, the theology of the mystic is erotic, feminine, poetic, and subversive. He suggests that one reason why so few mystical writers have emerged in the twentieth century is because, with the declining power of the church as a force for regulating and controlling the lives of individuals, there is a declining need for the "alternative" viewpoint of the mystic. But examples exist, from George Fox in the seventeenth century to Thomas Merton in the twentieth, of mystics who clearly articulate a political dimension in their writings. And so the future of mysticism may involve the tools of this literary tradition being used not to subvert dogmatic theology, but to subvert other forms of social control, such as capitalism. He considers the paradoxical and playful mysticism of Eckhart to explore the idea that mysticism was the forerunner of deconstruction and radical theology. He goes on to say that "mystical writing always attempts to deconstruct those orthodox doctrines (about God and the soul, etc.) that stand in the way of religious happiness; and mystical writing also seeks to find ways of bypassing the officially controlled channels of salvation." (p. 109)

But how do mystics articulate this subversive, deconstructive religious happiness? Cupitt thinks the greatest mystical achievement lies in what he calls the "meltdown," where both God and the self are both united (in an erotic fashion) and dissolved into the other. This, of course, goes beyond the pale of orthodoxy, so the greatest mystics are the ones with the greatest command of language—like Eckhart or John of the Cross—able to couch subversive notions in carefully-crafted writing that appears, at least on the surface, to fall within the bounds of dogmatic acceptability.

In the end, mysticism leads to secondariness—to a world without the authority of the church or the authority of the state, without a reified God who exists as some sort of timeless supercop who will judge us when we die. Without all these fixed absolutes, all things are in flux, all things flow, everything comes and goes. Happiness arises out of recognition that we do not have to rely on an external authority to make us "good," nor do we need to defer life or wellbeing to some distant point after we die.

Cupitt sees two competing forms of postmodernity: "right postmodernism," or attempts to reclaim the modern or even the premodern world (exemplified by religious fundamentalism), and "left postmodernism," which delights in the flux and impermanence and secondariness of all things. Cupitt bluntly states his support for the left, and argues that mysticism after modernity rejoices in the flux and the flow and the lack of any fixed absolute, be it God or whatever.

While the argument of this short book may feel threatening (or at the least, absurd) to anyone whose thought is grounded in the modernist notion of mysticism-as-supralingual-experience, Mysticism After Modernity should prove invaluable to those concerned about the relevance and ongoing survival of the mystical tradition in the post-Derrida world we now inhabit.

This review originally appeared on the "Academic Discussion of Mysticism" e-list.

Box of Fairies

Box of Fairies
By Gwen Knighton
Bedlam House, 2002
Review by Carl McColman

The softly romantic cover illustration of the CD, replete with a half-dozen or so cute diminutive naked fairies frolicking about Gwen Knighton and her harp in a bucolic setting, might lead the listener to expect a disc full of saccharine new age melodies with insufferable affirmations strung together as lyrics. Not! The irony of the cover design is but the first trickery of this powerful and unforgettable recording filled with bardic surprises and artistic enchantment. Sure, Knighton— award-winning harpist and member of the pagan/filk trio Three Weird Sisters— is a romantic, as revealed by her reliance on fairytales as subject matter. But like all the best romantics, she's as interested in the dark as in the light, and so her debut solo recording explores a world where safety and danger rub elbows alongside the piercing longing of a stepchild as much as the sweet innocence of love between friends.

Box of Fairies is a solo album in the truest sense of the word: neither of Knighton's bandmates appear, and with the exception of bass on one song and bass and guitar on another, the rest of the album features only Knighton's harp and her voice. But this woman is a bard (never mind how much she would deny it), and like all bards she not only makes music, she enchants as well. Which means that it's easy for the listener to forget that the rich cascade of harp music and the emotional intensity of her voice are the artistry of but one person.

With the exception of a passionate reading of Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc," all the songs on the CD were written by Knighton. They're not pagan songs in the sense of yet-another-chant-to-Isis, but rather bardic in their exploration of a deeply lived inner world, where myth and reality collide (and collude) with varying degrees of success. While love songs like "Common Land" and "Free Fall" reveal a lyrical romanticism ably given voice by melodic tunes and confident singing, the finest and most luminous songs found here are— surprise!— the dark ones. "Ghosts" uses the metaphor of psychic ability to plumb the shadowlands of self-doubt, and "Stepchild" gazes into the world of a selkie from the forever-left-out perspective of her all-human stepdaughter, magnifying the longing for an unattainable mother's love with a similar ache for a watery world forbidden to those not born of it.

Some of the twilight tunes feature lyrics that are as funny as they are ominous: "Cinderella Sleeps" muses on the misadventures and dysfunctional lovestyles of fairy tales princesses transported into twenty-first century America, while "My Fairy Tale" takes the heroine-as-victim motif to a sardonic extreme. Humor notwithstanding, the heart of the bardic art is the telling of a story, and each song included here has its own tale, implied if not declared: such as the Arthurian backstory of "Gwen's Lullabye for Ygerna" or "Last Run," an impressionistic study of cyberpunk instincts based on the roleplaying game Shadowrun.

Musically, Knighton's compositions are "folk" in the truest sense of the word: straightforward melodies, edgy but memorable. Adorned by her fluid "harpistry," the music seduces as much as it plays. Box of Fairies reveals a world rich with mythic power. May Knighton take us there again and again.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Triumph of the Moon

The Triumph of the Moon
By Ronald Hutton
Oxford University Press, 1999
Review by Carl McColman

Ronald Hutton has produced several academic books of interest to the neopagan community, including The Stations of the Sun (a history of the ritual year in Britain) and The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Like his earlier books, The Triumph of the Moon strikes a careful, and in my opinion important, balance between debunking the cherished myths and sacred cows of a community that is too often recklessly unconcerned with factual history, while defending that community for what it is—a valid expression of a modern spiritual impulse. In Hutton's view, Wicca and other forms of neopaganism do not have to prove their ancient lineage in order to be meaningful and important religious movements. This is just as well, since virtually no evidence of such ancient lineage exists.

Although such an assertion may scandalize members of the neopagan community (read some of the scathing reviews of this book posted at to get a sense of the ire it raises among the more fundamentalist of pagans), Hutton carefully and methodically demonstrates, time and again, how little or no real evidence exists to back up the claims of many of Wicca's most celebrated and controversial spokespersons, including Gerald Gardner, Sybil Leek, Alex Sanders, and Bill Liddell. Like the true scholar he is, Hutton never once claims that this disproves the assertions that Wicca's founders made about the lineage of their faith—it merely means the evidence to back up their claims isn't there. Hutton leaves his readers free to draw their own conclusions. Granted, one could decide that modern Wicca is only a giant hoax. But my conclusion is that, following Hutton's own sensible view, this attempt to "revive" ancient paganism in the guide of religious witchcraft is a meaningful and culturally important development that does not need to appeal to a past that probably never existed in order to justify itself.

Anyone who cares enough about the Wiccan and broader neopagan movement to want high standards of scholarship to inform the history and theology of the movement should welcome this book. As the first book-length critical study of the history of Wicca, the text doubtless has a measure of errors, omissions, and blind spots of its own (and I certainly lack the scholarship or the knowledge to point those out). But if Hutton's work inspires further consideration by historians and cultural anthropologists to come, such blemishes will eventually be revealed in the light of subsequent research. In the meantime, the importance of this book cannot be overstated. A thoroughly-read copy belongs in the library of every neopagan (as well as every observer of contemporary religious culture).

David and the Phoenix

David and The Phoenix
By Edward Ormondroyd
Columbus: Weekly Reader Children's Book Club, 1958
Review by Carl McColman

This gentle masterpiece of children's literature first appeared in the late 1950s, bringing a dimension of magic and wonder to young baby boomers growing up in a society dizzy with consumerism, the space race, and post-WWII arrogance. Recently reprinted in both hardback and paperback editions, this book is now available for an entire new generation of budding visionaries.

The 1998 movie Toy Story 2 looks back on the fifties as a time when science fiction triumphed over cowboys as the dominant mythology for American youth. But Ormondroyd's David and the Phoenix, a genuine relic from that era, hearkens back to an even grander myth, or set of myths. Peopled with Banshees and Leprechauns, Griffins and Fauns, Sea Serpents and of course the magnificent Phoenix itself, this story cracks wide open the rich treasure-trove of world mythology and makes it fun, appealing, and shimmeringly real for today's post-modern youth.

Like Harry Potter's train to the magic land of Hogwart's, David and the Phoenix uses the concept of journeying to transport its young protagonist to the enchantments of the other world. On a beautiful summer day, David climbs the mountain behind his new home to discover the last secret refuge of a legendary bird. Stumbling upon the Phoenix quite by accident, David encounters a being with a gloriously imperfect character: learned but a bit pompous, potentially fierce but often comical, contemplative and meditative yet with a genuinely warm heart. When the boy and the bird strike up an unexpected friendship, the mythic creature decides that David deserves a "practical" education, unlike what he is receiving in school. Although the Phoenix's notions of practicality may seem a bit eccentric ("How do you tell a true Unicorn from a false one? What is the first rule of defense when attacked by a Chimera?"), this overriding theme of their friendship also serves as the moral of the story: don't let the encroaching claims of "Science" and "Modern Life" get in the way of a real education, which is based in wonder, imagination, and sometimes just lollygagging around on a sunny day. Long before movies like E.T. or Splash explored the conflict between empiricism and imagination, David and the Phoenix made an articulate case for putting science in its rightful place as only one aspect of a truly educated life.

The tension between science and myth is heightened by the Phoenix's bête noir: an over-eager scientist who is so obsessed with hunting down the bird that he would even kill it. Some of the novel's most brilliant humor involves the lengths that David and the Phoenix go to foil the scientist and dissuade him from his quest.

I properly first discovered David and the Phoenix as a boy, and today I cherish its message of the primacy of myth and wonder. Going back to re-read it in 2001, I am struck by how masculine a book it is (although the Phoenix's gender is never disclosed); I also wince at its portrayal of witches as either petulant or comically threatening (one old Irish hag keeps trying to get the Phoenix to sell David to her. "Ah, the wee darling, the plump little mannikin. What a broth he'd make, to be sure"). But I can forgive these flaws as symptoms of the book's age, especially given the overall feeling of magic and enchantment that fills this too-brief story.

The resolution of the conflict between the Phoenix and the scientist brings themes of loss and renewal together in a heartbreaking climax. At least the hostile scientist doesn't win, but he isn't defeated, either. We readers are left to carry on the battle, of providing the Phoenix and his kind safe harbor and refuge in a world where "getting and spending" and the "obsessive interest" of arrogant science have threatened the eternal beauty and truth of the mythic world.

It's a challenge I'm willing to take.