A great film about the intersection of witchcraft and organized religion.
A great film about the intersection of witchcraft and organized religion.
This is a little belated, but a friend of mine and I were discussing the new American Horror Story, The Conjuring and other horror movies. Originally from Mississippi, he is a horror aficionado and has a masters in history. (He is not Pagan at all). I really enjoyed his response and I thought you might enjoy what he had to say.
He has graciously given me permission to post his long rambling reply back to me, with the understanding that it was not intended for anyone else to see it, nor was it edited.
The Salon article we were talking about can be found here.
The Wild Hunt article we were talking about can be found here.
I am certainly interested in hearing any of your own responses to the articles or to what he had to say!
The Wild Hunt’s review was far superior to Salon. I’m not a fan at all of Salon. I mean, sometimes they do good investigative work, but their cultural haughtiness is sickening. Plus, they are one of the most important participants in modern “travel guides” about the South written by “outsiders.” Meaning, they, probably more than most other media sites, perpetuate this negative image of the backwoods, insidious South, like if Deliverance mated with Mississippi Burning. Talk about shortsighted…
Anyway, I might just have to see the movie. If Salon doesn’t like the complicated cultural politics of the Conjuring, what do they think of the Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or the Omen? They could make a case that two of those are “progressive,” but certainly not the Exorcist if we’re going by Salon’s, or even Wild Hunt’s, rubric. The Wild Hunt’s critique focuses on the hegemonic nature of Christian theology in American culture. That seems more like a political statement than an actual critique. And, I totally understand why and don’t mean to disparage that. It’s necessary. I like that it furthers this critique in discussing how it obfuscates the true meaning of witchcraft, shines a light on the Warren’s bullshit, drums up “reality” to sell tickets, and pigeon holes a historically troubled religion with dualism. But, as it points out, aren’t the Warrens Christian culturalists, self-promoters, and publicity hogs? Hell yeah. Is this their first time to drum up notoriety with a movie? Another Hell Yeah (plus a couple more). (another sidebar: what horror film isn’t dualistic?) I also think it’s shortsighted to suggest it could be anything but a Christian horror film (in the dualistic sense of good v evil). It’s true it’s not a subversive Christian horror film, like those others I mentioned. Thought exercise: what would a pagan horror film look like? I’m thinking it would be similar in a lot of ways.
I’m not sure what the cultural impact of this film will be. Where Salon and Wild Hunt see problems of upmost gravity, I see marketing techniques and horror clichés. I agree wholeheartedly that it sounds like there is nothing flippant, politically revolutionary, or that. But, I’m cautious. People wrote off Saw as a horror film beset by reactionary politics, as if they were totally unaware of the Christian/moral culture wars taking place at that distinct historical moment of the early 2000s. I saw it as a grotesque reflection of the early 2000s. An old white man punishes those he feels are unresponsible drains on society? God damn, did he sleep with Ayn Rand?
The feminist angle is a good critique. It sounds like both reviews hit that point pretty solidly. Once again, I need to see it. Does the female character/witches have a sort of agency? Who is viewing that agency, or what perspective is the film told from? A man’s? The Warren’s? A woman’s? These are big deal questions that should go a long way in establishing, or supporting, the points made in the Salon article. Or they could totally discount those points. Case: Rob Zombie just released another horror movie revolving around a new England town and the Salem Witch trials. It looks to be pretty subversive, a coven of witches reaching through history to empower women to take their revenge on the hegemonic culture… It doesn’t sound like this is the Conjuring.
The Salem Witch Trials thing… Whatever. I mean, getting all in a tizzy over whether or not a horror movie portrays an event in history accurately is like getting mad at the clouds for raining. It’s pointless. Anybody can search Salem Witch Trials in google, go the the Wikipedia page, and discredit any premise put forward by a horror movie about the historical event. You could say the same about a Wikipedia search for “witches.” (Wikipedia the Warrens, it isn’t a favorable “toneless” article). This doesn’t mean that the influence of culture on how people describe horrific events, or supernatural events, doesn’t trickle down to our “enlightened” 21st century. I could see, if I were Wiccan, that this would make me uncomfortable, but it’s pervasive. It’s also pretty campy. So many of American totems, or popular culture figures/stock characters, are so campy. Horror, even at the most horrific, is campy.
I guess I see transgressive and subversive properties in the Christian-American bastardization of the Wiccan religion, especially in some horror movies or just our culture. If a bunch of little girls are dressed as witches and terrorizing the boys, I would like to give them a “right on.” Horror films are all about anxiety, so even when they’re told from the reactionary perspective they’re automatically exposing the faultlines in their own logic thinking by showing where that culture breaks downs, or where the weak points are in the ramparts. The best horror is written like a satire, in a fit of discontent. The Conjuring probably wasn’t coming from that angle.
**Have you seen House of the Devil?
Today for lunch I escaped my office and walked over to the student union, enjoying the beautiful spring weather as I went. After working my way through hoards of students, I grabbed my Orange Chicken from Panda Express, grateful for a seat at a table in the corner. There I started to blissfully veg out to the music videos they had streaming over the t.v.’s. While music videos aren’t something I generally engage in, it was something I could stare at and not have to think about. (This should tell you what sort of frame of mind I was in today).
If you follow me over on Pagan Square, you’ll know that last night I walked 10 miles for St. Joseph’s Night and had an amazing spiritual experience. Today I woke up sore and tired. Dragging myself into work was harder than usual and for once I didn’t even try to look professional. Today I broke one of fashion’s cardinal rules and wore yoga pants and a sweatshirt to the office. Luckily I’m hidden away in the back so I can get away with it.
Anyway, this video caught my attention…
…and I was trying to make out what was going on with it when a girl walked up to my table. She asked me if I was expecting anyone and since it was busy in the seating area, I assumed she wanted my chairs. So I told her no and gestured at the chairs. Apparently she was not asking to take my extra chairs because the next thing I knew she and her friend were sitting down and asking me if I had God in my life.
I didn’t have any fight in me today. I found I could not be mean to her. I told her that yes, as a matter of fact, I did have a lot of the Gods in my life; that I was a Wiccan priestess, and much of my life was based around worship of the Gods. This took her aback and I could see the mental wheels turning. She didn’t quite know what to make of that. I’ve been confronted with this in the past when approached by Christians out to convert me. They seem to think that if you don’t believe in their God, you’re either worshiping Satan or don’t have any sort of religious life at all.
She didn’t let it deter her for too long. She looked at me and said “well, I was sitting over there and I saw you sitting by yourself and God told me that I needed to come and talk to you”. I work at a ritzy private university, this girl matched most of the other girls sitting and chatting around me. Well styled hair, expensive clothing, tasteful (and real) jewelry. In comparison to me with my piercings and tattoos and crazy hair, I was definitely very Other, even without wearing any of my usual Goddess type jewelry. In her very sheltered mind, I probably looked like the sort of Godless heathen she always hears about.
I told her that that was wonderful, but that I talk to my Gods all the time. Again, a confused look.
I took a second to explain that having been raised in the Methodist Church (which she also didn’t know about) that I had worked hard to find my religious beliefs and had worked hard to become a priestess (I didn’t even touch the idea of initiation, if she didn’t know about Methodists, she wasn’t going to grasp initiation). I also explained that I was very happy on my path, that I was happy she had found hers, that many people didn’t. But, she kept at it. Of course.
Next the conversation went something like this:
Her: Where are you going when you die?
Me: I believe in reincarnation
Her: Well how do you KNOW?
Me: I believe
Her: But you don’t know?
Me: *Sigh* How do you know you’re going to go to Heaven or Hell?
Her: Because it’s where I’m going.
Me: Have you been to either place?
Me: Has God spoken directly to you?
Me: So you believe that there is a heaven and hell?
She generally stuck to the “I believe the Bible because the Bible tells me to believe in the Bible” circular argument. I finally managed to shovel enough of my chicken in my mouth to escape politely after telling her that it was nice talking to her but that I was happy with my path, but that it was good to have dialogue with other people.
But that was the problem, I wasn’t having a dialogue with her at all. I was pretty much repeating “I’ve found my path and am happy on it and am happy that you found your path and are happy on it, let’s agree to disagree, OK?” Which she was completely oblivious to.
The two things that really struck me about the whole experience (other than how unpleasant it is to have an 18 year old try to save you on your lunch break when you just don’t want to be bothered) was her complete lack of background knowledge. How do you have a rational discussion with someone who has no knowledge of the, excuse the English major in me coming out, but the “canon” of their beliefs? And two, that you can’t argue with someone who believes they are in the right and has absolutely no interest in having any sort of rational discourse. There was nothing “interfaith” about her schtick, she didn’t care that I had a fulfilling religious life, she simply wanted me to accept hers.
The whole experience bothered me much more than it ought to have. It’s not like it’s the first time, after all. I’m a witch who lives in the South. But New Orleans is usually pretty good about the whole “your spirituality is different than mine, but that’s OK, we can still be friends” sort of thing.
I smuggled my egg roll back to my office and ate it there (it was soggy at that point) and continued to dredge through the rest of the day.
When I came home, I came across Sam Webster’s controversial new article over at Patheos called Why you can’t worship Jesus Christ and be Pagan. Before my experience with God-girl earlier, I still would have agreed with Sam. This is something that my partner has written about and gets yelled at for a lot. But having had this conversation with God-girl, this article meant a bit more to me than usual.
While I didn’t agree with all of Sam’s points, I also didn’t find the article to be hateful. I did find it to be strongly opinionated. The comments, on the other hand, were actually pretty hateful.Whether you agree with Sam or not, Yeshe Rabbit summed it up beautifully with her comment:
I find this article interesting for several reasons. 1) wakes us up and invites us to question ourselves. 2) states an unabashed and personally-relevant opinion, defends it with a consistent set of data and frame of reference (whether your particular scholarly opinion of the Bible is in agreement or not). 3) asks us to state who we are, and to be able to back up why we think that way. 4) opens the unpopular dialogue about the dangers of “getting too Interfaith to be relevant or specific anymore.” 5) generates buzz and attention, which means that whatever Sam REALLY wants us to read will be coming soon/next, now that we are watching with piqued interest. I’m looking forward to that part, particularly. 6) demonstrates one viable method for owning one’s personal authority and opinion without resorting to cruelty or personal attack of any one being, the example of which I see has NOT translated to most of the comments here.
And this was exactly what God-girl was missing. Her “my way or the highway” attitude is exactly why I have so many problems with the idea of combining elements of Christianity with Paganism. While Paganism is accepting, Christianity is not. Its lack of acceptance and “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” sort of attitude is not one that is compatible with a a group of people who all do things a little differently. Pagans are also pretty big about going out and reading and discussing and arguing. We value intelligence. We can argue about how to approach our type of Paganism all we want (I do with Wicca all the time), but at the end of the day, we don’t tell you that if you don’t do this a certain way you’re going to go to a very bad place where you’ll roast for all eternity. Bringing that mindset into Paganism is scary, it’s what I left behind when I left Christianity. Christianity does not embrace differing world views or background knowledge further than “the Bible told me to do it”.
We can agree to disagree and since we’re Pagan, that’s OK. But as Jesus says, “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life, no one comes to my father except through me” (John 14:6). I don’t think it’s possible to satisfy a God that clearly points out there is no other way than His way. As Sam points out, He expressly forbids the worship of other gods, idols, doing of magic and divination, things that Pagans holds sacred. This reasoning is the sort of reasoning that has caused so many atrocities over the years. Why in the world do we want to invite that sort of “my way or the highway” thinking into our community, even if it is cloaked by a good-god persona?
Every time my father, who has some serious health problems, goes to a new doctor he signs the DNR forms (Do Not Resuscitate). And each time, he has to explain to the doctor that if something happens during a surgery and he ends up brain-dead, he does not want to be kept alive. The doctor usually argues with him. But my father does not see that as being any sort of life; he would prefer to be released to whatever comes next. I would never act against his wishes in this sort of matter.
Where has our respect for death gone?
I’ve watched family members battle death down to the very bitter end, and I’ve watched other family members pass out of this world and into the next peacefully and quietly. Death is inevitable, it comes to all of us in the end. How you meet it, is completely up to you.
From the doctor’s perspective, it seems, life is life and the quality of it doesn’t necessarily matter. The point is to save life. I have a friend who recently graduated from medical school and is now doing her residency as an OBGyn in high risk pregnancy cases. I drive her up the wall when I tell her that if I ever have children, I want to have a home birth. I want to be comfortable in my own home, with the atmosphere that I choose. Her argument is that something can go wrong in an instant and if it does, I’ll want to be at a hospital where they can fix it. I think the differences in our attitudes is the fear of death. In her perspective, we have to be extremely proactive to insure that life is saved. In mine, I see birth and the possibility of death as natural aspects of the process. I have faith in my body to do what it needs to do. Does this mean that I won’t check with a doctor before hand? No, I will certainly go and see my doctor and make sure the basics are in order. I have the ability to do that, so why wouldn’t I? But I also think that the process of life has to occur the way it is meant to.
I see this argument often in our current society. I see it in the Pro-Lifers, who don’t seem to want to take into consideration the life of the mother and child after delivery or during the pregnancy, and I see it in our treatment of issues of gun control and the wars we’re fighting in the Middle East.
As a Pagan and especially as a Wiccan, I respect death and the role that it plays as much as I respect life.
This perspective on death is one of the big differences between Paganism and Monotheistic/Abrahamic religions. As a Pagan, I do not fear Death. While death itself may not be a pleasant experience, whatever comes for me next is not something to be feared.
When I was originally taking my Classics classes in college and we started talking about how Christianity went from a cult that the Romans were trying to wipe out to one that was the state religion, one of the things we talked about was that Christians offered something that people really liked, they offered an afterlife and answered the question of why you go wherever you go. According to that world view, what you do in this life affects where you go in the next. Essentially, by living a moral life, you get to go to a nice happy place and if you do not live a good and moral life, you get to burn in Hell for eternity.
Understandably, this sort of world-view causes a great fear of Death. Death should be held off at all costs
As a Pagan, my world-view is not so black and white. Living a “good” and “moral” life is not a part of my particular liturgy. My values encompass things like focusing on my environment and my community. Essentially, I don’t need a nice after life as an incentive. There are other consequences for my actions.
In Wicca and in Ceremonial Magic, Death and Life are two sides of the human experience; In Kaballah the Tree Of Life illustrates this, in that life has a dark and light side. Not good and evil, but life and death (as well as conscious and unconscious, male and female, etc). In Wicca we believe the same thing: there is light and dark, and this concept includes life and death. This idea is completely antithetical to the Abrahamic ideas that most of us grew up with. The Light and Dark do not represent good and evil, they represent life and death in magical theory.
But I think this idea of death being the ultimate end and the fear that it brings, is an insidious perspective that we in the Pagan community don’t even realize that we’re carrying around. Death is not something that we should fear, it is something that we should strive to understand and incorporate into our work and practices. We need to embrace Death fully to be able to truly understand life. Death is natural and normal. Death is simply our transition to whatever happens next and when we fear it, we ignore it or separate ourselves as far from it as we can and when we do that, we can’t understand fully half of the world that we live and work in.