Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Multimedia Mysticism: How the Digital Age has Affected Modern Paganism

The Pagan community has changed a lot over the decades, particularly in regards to how we organize and communicate. Once, news letters like Green Egg were the primary method of staying apprised of the goings on in circles outside of one's own local group/s. Communication was slow and existed in only one direction; information was much more difficult to come by. The very makeup of the Pagan culture- its traditions and perspectives- has evolved with the changing environment of the modern social arena.

What the Research Says
A lot of research has been done in recent years involving the effects of “Network Culture”. There are discernible trends found within the endless records of digital networks that have had a massive impact on modern culture.
One of the defining aspects of digital communications is its accessibility, versatility, and ability to be personalized. Old style media would present you with a prescribed narrative, in a fixed format, which the reader could then choose to accept or reject. Alternatively, modern digital media is information driven, as opposed to story driven. Users have the ability to deconstruct, fact check, and determine the validity of the information they are being presented with, all from the same terminal and within minutes using research tools like Google.
This was a massive shift in perspective, which drastically altered what we sought from our media communications. People want to hear about issues which interest them. They want it from sources they like, they want to be kept up to date in real time, and most of all they want to be in control of how that digital media is presented. Story driven narratives sum up singular events and attempt to reach a conclusion. Information driven networks are never complete. They are thus a process rather than a product. What this really comes down to is that the arrival of the Internet, social media outlets, and online news sources placed the user in control, allowing them to research as they wish.

Digital Pantheons
So what happens when the digital age hits a religious community? Most of the research here is done from a specifically Christian perspective. Lamberts Secularization of New Religious Paradigms concluded that digital communities “promote Dehierarchization, personal practice, pluralism, and relativism”. This was backed by the Barna Research Group a year later in a study which found that within religious communities there was a sharp decline in the number of people who believed church affiliation was important. This is WITHIN religious communities, meaning that these people were still believers (in this case mostly Christian) but felt that Church affiliation was less important than personal practice.

So what does this mean for us Pagans?
Obviously these traits were highly distressing to organized religions, but they hardly seem to troublesome to modern Paganism, right? Dehierarchization, personal practice, pluralism... These are many of the traits which Pagans often pride themselves on! It's easy to overlook the influence of the Internet on our traditions, when you try to judge those effects based on most modern practices, but it didn't always work this way. Even for those of us who weren't practicing back in the days before the digital revolution , all it takes is a simple look at our history to see how we've changed.
Most traditions in the 60's were initiation based, with information being much more restricted. Concepts like lineage and bloodlines were highly valued, and carried a degree of authority or clout in many circles. Most covens also had a significantly longer life-span. So what exactly changed? The 1970's and 80's brought about several new concepts and organizations. The first important shift came from authors like Raymond Buckland, who promoted the idea of self initiation and solitary practice. Texts like the infamous Bucklands Big Blue Book , encouraged the reader to form their own personal practice based off of their own research. At the same time, modern Heathenry was really bursting into the scene in America with the Ásatrú Free Assembly. The AFA was heavily research focused, as a reconstruction effort. By the early 90's there was a growing notion of Paganism/Heathenry as an information driven effort, where the individual practitioners had the power to declare their own beliefs and ideas.
So when the digital age hit the religious sphere, the various Pagan communities were already working on, and to some (debatable) degree prepared for, the coming changes. Because we were so few and far between, we latched onto this new method of interaction, and it has DRASTICALLY changed our culture.

Pro's and Con's
For better or worse, most parts of our community have fully integrated online resources. This comes with certain strengths and weaknesses. We can communicate and mobilize nearly instantly, and have a community which often promotes self reliance and critical thinking. However the majority of our covens/kindred/groves only last one or two years before collapsing. Unlike our predecessors from the 60's, many groups simply cannot be maintained long term. Sometimes people just move on to a new area, sometimes the group splits over some issue, or simply disbands due to lack of time or money.
One of the reasons I am a solitary Heathen, and the reason many of the Solitaries I know decide to remain such, is because of this extraordinary turnover rate. So how do we, as a community, maintain the advances we've made while addressing our potential weak points? Do we push from better offline organization, pushing for permanent locations and maintained memberships? Or do we accept this transient trait as an aspect of the community and simply integrate the idea as a strength rather than a shortcoming? Our communities are constantly changing, adapting, and growing. Our ability to change and integrate is a large part of our successful survival. Only time will tell what the answers will be, but progress can't be made by simply overlooking the issues at hand. As ever, open dialog is the key. 

Edited By: Jessie

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Pagan Elephant

Adventures in 2A.M. Editing!
Those of you who may have read this when it was first posted may have noticed s few (Read: A plethora) of errors. This has been amended and we here at Wyrd Wiles would like to apologize for the wait, and thank you for your patience!

A Heathen, a Jew, and a Baptist walk into bar...

As many awesome jokes as I'm sure can come from that into, believe it or not this is the story of my life. I am a practicing Heathen who loves to pore over the Eddas and the Sagas, as well as being an active Rune reader. My wife is a devout Jew, who hopes to someday become a Reconstructionist Rabbi. Our roommate is a conservative Baptist, who is known for going to church/ church functions multiple times a week. Welcome to my household, my Kith and Kin, and that's just the ones I live with!
The subject of interfaith dialog and interaction is both massive and complicated. My every day life is an exercise in cross cultural communication, and living in that kind of environment will force you to learn not only about your peer's belief's, but your own as well. Being the only member of the house from a Non-Abrahamic tradition has its difficulties; being solitary doesn't help either. As Heathens/Pagans we often don't have an organized collective to cite, or definitive texts to fall back on. If we want to participate in religious conversations with those outside of our community, we have to leave that “Pagan Bubble” and stand on our own.
Many interfaith organizations tend to focus on the religious “Common Ground”, treating their differences as the unspoken elephant in the room. Even in overwhelmingly Abrahamic interfaith organizations, it's difficult enough to coordinate between paths with a common origin, how then are we ever supposed to integrate traditions which are founded on fundamentally opposing worldviews? The more inclusive you try to make the conversation, the smaller that common ground is going to get, and the less you're going to accomplish without stumbling into that elephant.
The key concepts that keep my home afloat are open curiosity, and considerate but unapologetic dialog. We don't shy away from our differences, we can't. My roommate, author of The Velveteen Girl, is a young earth Biblical creationist. I'm an Anthropology major who studies human evolution. Her worldview is so PROFOUNDLY different from my own, that if we tried to stay only on common ground there would be almost no conversation at all. So how do we manage to get along and work together?
  1. Open Curiosity
We ask questions, and then LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS. You don't need to agree, but it's important to understand.
  1. Considerate but Unapologetic Dialog
When I'm talking to my roommate, I understand that she's a creationist, but I don't hide the fact that I'm not. She is a friend and her beliefs mean a lot to her, so I would never mock her for those beliefs, but I don't shy away from discussing my studies in her presence. I don't make exceptions or change the way I conduct myself when around her, nor does she. She'll talk to me about her church without fear or reservation. She asks about my faith, or my classes, and never belittles or attacks them, even though I know she disagrees with them. We are both comfortable with ourselves and our beliefs, and aren't threatened by opposing ideas.
My wife is a Monotheist. She follows the god of her people. She doesn't feel the need to defend this belief, nor is she threatened by the gods of her Heathen husband, or the trinity of her Christian roommate.
We all hold differing worldviews, cultures, and practices, and that's fine. The rare nights when we are all home together often end in discussions of religion, politics, and philosophy over a glass of wine. There's a catch 22 to this though. Everyone in this discussion is willing to participate and listen, and is secure enough in their own beliefs that they can do so without becoming defensive. The lesson here is “Choose your battles”. You can reach across the aisle, but unless the other person is ready to do the same, you're not going to get anywhere.

The Pagan Elephant

On so many occasions when speaking to fellow Pagans about community building and inter religious dialog I hear the phrase “when talking to Non-Pagans...”. While standing outside that bubble and working with those beyond the borders of our community is vitally important, so many forget to apply those same foundations to communication within our own groups. Wiccans, Heathens, Druids, Celtic re-constructionists, Dianics, Radical Faeries, and a hundred other groups and subgroups exist within the Pagan umbrella. Why then, do we pretend that interfaith discussion is only needed outside the bubble? Why is there a Pagan Elephant?
A close friend of mine, we'll call her T, is a Faery Wiccan. She holds to the Three Fold Law, and emphasizes “Harm None”. She's essentially a magickal pacifist, practicing only defense. These aren't uncommon guidelines to be found within the greater Pagan community, but (as I'm sure my fellow Heathens are thinking) they're hardly universal. However, they're often portrayed as the “Common ground” of the pagan community at open gatherings. Assuming that everyone at the circle believes in these concepts is naive, and can lead to miscommunication. You can't learn to really understand someone, their choices and motivations, by simply making an assumption about their beliefs. We're all aware that there are those among our circles who believe differently, sometimes DRASTICALLY differently, but we don't talk about it for fear of confrontation. We talk about our connections, we talk about the correlations between many of our paths, we pretend that we're all fundamentally the same.

Thence cometh our great pentacle-spangled pachyderm.

We can stand together, work together, and support each other, and still acknowledge that we are different, without ending in confrontation. I disagree with the Three Fold Law, and just like when I'm speaking to my wife or my roommate, I don't shy away from the subject when speaking to T. If we're going to work together, we need to understand these differences, not sweep them under the rug.
If we're going to work on how to speak to the world, make ourselves understood, we're going to need to learn to how speak to ourselves. 

Edited by: Jessie

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


 Sometimes the Gods whisper hints in your ear, other times they whack you over the head with a message. In my last post I mentioned the idea that the Pagan community is coming to the attention of mainstream media more and more often. Sometimes as a curiosity, other times as easy sensationalized cannon fodder, or (as in the recent Fox incident) as a joke. So when I heard that the infamous “Wife Swap” was doing an episode with a Pagan family THE VERY NEXT DAY, I took the hint.
(/written while nursing a lump on top of my head)

The Show
For those who either aren't brave enough to ford the waters of insanity, or who simply have no wish to subject themselves to reality TV, here's the basic structure of the show.
1- Two families are chosen and the wives are (predictably) swapped.
2- For one week, the guest wife lives in the manner which the host household is accustomed to.
3- For the second week, the guest wife is allowed to write a set of rules for how she wants the house to run, which the host household must follow if they want the money.
So, I feel I should make it known (as if you all hadn't figured this out already) that I don't watch shows like “Wife Swap”. In fact, I make a point of actively avoiding daytime, reality TV rags. In the spirit of proper analysis, however, I bit the bullet and watched 3 episodes. The first two were from the previous incarnation of the show, which is back in business after spending a year off the air. Both of these episodes featured Pagan (Read: Wiccan) families.
So, first and foremost, this IS reality TV. If there's no drama, there's no money. The families selected a chosen specifically so that there will be tension/conflict. The first two episodes didn't exactly help with my preconceived notions about reality TV. In the first episode they pointed at the “weird and kooky” witches, and essentially made a joke out of the community by choosing a particularly unbalanced family and portraying them as representative of the community. The next episode simply presented the witches as laughable. Knowing full well that I couldn't just let this one slide by after my last post, I grit my teeth and plunged into this weeks episode. Imagine my surprise when it actually wasn't (entirely) awful.
The Fireheart family was presented with their religious affiliations at the forefront of every scene. The show made a point to display various pieces of religious paraphernalia, ritual activities, and even common household beliefs in action. Now, if you're at all like me, the first reaction to this is to cringe at what looks like the beginnings of a sensationalist “Look how weird these people are” piece. After a few minutes of cringing, waiting for the whammy, I managed to take a peak. Wonder of wonders, the Fireheart family is being shown as a loving, relatively mundane, all American family.
Pagan Culture and Mainstream Media
The pieces of Pagan culture that shown mostly seemed to be a display of a colorful subculture. The majority of the viewing audience for “Wife Swap” isn't going to know much about Modern Paganism, and the pieces shown were meant to grab attention. The part which makes this latest episode different from it's predecessors, is that it was done without exploiting or condemning that culture. Without going into an in depth review of the whole episode, (Which you can watch for free via the link above) the religious tension was used to mark the differences in the two families without inherently mocking Pagan beliefs.
So what should we, within the Pagan community, take away from this? A single episode of a reality TV show does not a cultural revolution make, however it is an encouraging sign. While the Firehearts hardly represent all Pagans, they did represent many common aspects of the over all culture found in our community. They also did a wonderful job of showing a healthy, well balanced, family unit.
Coming so soon after the aforementioned Fox Fumble, one can't help but wonder; Have we finally achieved the point at which the complaints of our community are loud enough to be heard by those producing mainstream media? Given the radical shift in tone and tactic between the first two episodes featuring Pagan families, and this latest one, the idea doesn't seem as impossible as it might once have been.
What I think we should really learn from this, is that when we choose to come together over a cause of mutual interest, it's not impossible for even a minority voice to be recognized. The world isn't going to change overnight, and one episode of a reality TV show isn't a huge lunge forward, but it is a step in the right direction. Through the networks we form, both in person and online, we can enact real, visible, change.
Our community is finding its voice, and the media is beginning to recognize that there are enough of us around to matter. Once we have that recognition, once we become prevalent enough to warrant consideration, THEN we will have achieved the social foundation that we need as a movement to progress.