Hairpin: Interview with a Postmodern Pagan

In the first of a series of interviews with people who are professionally religious, a general-interest women’s website talks to a pagan clergyman, 29-year-old Brian. Brian leads a pagan church in Nashville, Tennessee.

A selection of questions and answers from the interview:

Could you tell me more about what you believe specifically?

norse6My cosmology is based on ancient Northern European religion, and my source material is mythology and epic poetry written about and by the ancient pre-Christian Northern Europeans. I’ve always been a history buff, which is part of why this appeals to me. And within this particular brand of paganism, people often think of the Viking aesthetic, macho men going out looting and pillaging. But in the source text, from an anthropological view, you’ll find a really complete society.

I do tend to worship male gods, but I’m a cisgender male, and I identify as such. Therefore I tend to resonate more with gods than goddess or gods with more fluid gender indenties.

What gods are you talking about?

Recently, Odin has decided to rear his head in my life. I started off working with the god Thor, and as I’ve gotten older, Odin has started to appear more. I also work with Freyja and Frigga, a little bit with Idunna, and the god Tyr.

What do you mean when you say you work with them?

I pray to them, I offer them time, I meditate on them. When I say that I work with a god, I mean that I engage in a practice of reciprocal gift-giving. I develop and maintain a relationship with my god by giving gifts to them and thanking for the gifts they give to me.

That’s a really nice, simple way of putting it. Do you feel that you also atone for yourself to them? Is there an analogue to Judeo-Christian punishment and repentance within paganism?

With paganism being so varied, there’s no set code of ethics. Most pagans tend to believe that people know what the right thing is. They don’t need a father figure to say, “Don’t kill people, and don’t steal.”

Most pagans believe in a variation of the Hindu belief in karma, and the variation comes from the fact that pagans tend to believe that what you do will come back to you not in the next life but in this one.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I do believe in an afterlife, and I also espouse the idea that I have not been there so I can’t really know. Within paganism, you find a concept that your soul prepares itself for its next incarnation after you die, that you are reincarnated because you have learned certain lessons and still have more to learn, but that’s an extreme generalization. My personal view includes Asgard, Helheim, and all the various afterlife aspects found in Norse myth.

What’s something that you believe that could apply to anyone?

I really try to accept people for who they are. I very much believe in an individual’s decision to lead their lives for themselves and find meaning however they want, and that process is a beautiful thing. That’s one of the reasons I became a minister, was to help people find what gives meaning to their lives.

And this is true for any religion, but I should say that it’s very difficult for a single individual to be representative of paganism as a whole, because our faith structure is a postmodern one. Paganism—neo-paganism—only really broke on the scene in the ‘50s when England repealed its anti-witchcraft laws. So, fairly uniquely, paganism has always been defined by ease of access to information, which led us to emphasize diversity over orthodoxy, and promote tolerance, and acceptance of people walking their own paths.

Read the whole interview.

Brian’s observation that the faith structure of “paganism as a whole” is a postmodern one is pretty accurate description for neo-paganism. The pagans he is talking about aren’t indigenous people in Africa or Australia but the new pagans in America many of which are fleeing Christianity. The fact that the core meaning of the religion boils down to “I really try to accept people for who they are” is also pretty important for the consciousness of postmodernism in general.

Postmodern people don’t have to be pagan to have an ethos of accepting people’s individual self-expression. Postmodern people generally do, except of course when they are rejecting people who are fundamentalist or traditional or capitalistic or conservative or sexist or intolerant in their beliefs.

Paganism may or may not be a growing spirituality or religion in circa 2013, but my belief is that the growth of postmodernism has probably already peaked, give or take a few percentage points. I may be wrong. Paganism per se is not at the front line of consciousness, but is a spiritual expression that may already be waning, at least in its postmodern expression.

A more integral paganism is a topic that we will be visiting on Spirituality Post. What comes post-postmodern paganism? Basically I will argue that what is coming does away with the religious relativism of the postmoderns and recognizes a spiritual and cultural and social evolution through a spiral of development which requires attention to the health of the spiral as a whole. That’s too hard a pill for postmoderns to swallow unless they go through a conversion experience that leaves them adrift from postmodernism and the currents that swept them into the sea of relativity and hyper-sensitivity. Post-postmodernism is integral and evolutionary, broadly speaking. It is a subject of great interest to me, and I look forward to exploring it with you over time.

Filmmakers go biblical in a possibly unprecedented wave of new films

RNS-BIBLE-FILMSMoviegoers are about to encounter more movies with religious themes than I can remember in my lifetime. Upcoming adaptations include Resurrection, Noah, Exodus, Gods And Kings, Pontius Pilate, The Redemption of Cain, Mary Mother of Christ, Son of God, and Left Behind.

Blame or credit Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which earned over $60 million in worldwide box office receipts.

“We have learned that there is more to unite us than to divide us,” a megachurch pastor said to Religion News Service. He has previously hosted a religious film festival.

A. Larry Ross is quoted by RNS saying, “filmmakers are the new high priests of our culture.”

And the high priests are learning to market their films by going to the lower priests for help, encouraging religious hierarchy leadership and well-known pastors and preachers to endorse their movies. They want to avoid boycotts and encourage churches to screen their movies.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m reserving judgment. It’s always possible the filmmakers could strike the perfect sweet spot in which artistic merit and popular culture and evolving consciousness meet in synergy.

But then again Nicholas Cage is starring in Left Behind? (Groan.)

Photo: Diogo Morgado plays Jesus in “Son of God”. For use with RNS-BIBLE-FILMS, transmitted on October 22, 2013, Photo courtesy Lightworkers Media.

Internet service helps manage the mourning process

shiva-connect-for-spirituality-postA new website functions like a wedding registry, but for Jewish mourners. “The aim of the website is to avoid duplication and consolidate the many facets of Jewish mourning,” says an article on RNS.

No talk of expanding the service to cater to folks outside the Hebrew tradition, but can it be long in the offering? The ritual are fewer and different, but with enough marketing drive from funeral homes it’s probably inevitable.

Weighing In on Oprah Winfrey’s “What is an Atheist?” Debate

Quite a bit of ink has spilled on the topic of defining atheism lately thanks to a show in which Oprah Winfrey denied that her guest was an atheist in her book. Here’s how describes the controversy:

Earlier this month (Oct. 13) Winfrey, 59, hosted Nyad on “Super Soul Sunday,” her weekly talk program on cable’s Oprah Winfrey Network. Nyad, 64, recently completed a 53-hour solo swim from Cuba to Florida.

During the hourlong segment, Nyad declared herself an atheist. She then explained, “I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”

Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad attends Day 1 of ‘Swim For Relief’ benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery at Herald Square on October 8, 2013 in New York City.

“Well, I don’t call you an atheist then,” Winfrey said. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.”

Read the whole article.

oprah-ep501-own-sss-diana-nyad-3-365x240Oprah Winfrey got it wrong before she got it right. Nyad said she sensed the beauty of the universe and felt love for humanity, not that she felt awe and wonder and mystery. Oprah mis-heard her somewhat. These are qualitatively different things and Nyad never said she felt the universe was mysterious, nor that she felt awe before it or even wonder. She sensed its beauty and felt love, and that was all she said.

But Oprah may have got something very important right. In her book, someone who feels mystery and awe before the universe is responding to God. She was showing the common ground she shared with the professed atheist, and catching the atheist in the common belief that just because they reject a certain false notion of god (an old man in the sky) that they truly reject God.

There are a lot of atheists who profess to not believe in God who actually disbelieve in the sort of god that believers disbelieve in. And many of them want to elevate nature to godhood in which case they are actually pantheists. Others want to elevate human love to godhood in which case they are humanists.

Nyad was clearly a pantheistic humanist, not a theist. If Oprah had really wanted to express her common ground with the swimmer she might have asked if she felt awe and wonder and mystery about the world or human love, and if so was she at all curious about what that awe and wonder and mystery might be pointing. If Nyad answered “Yes! I feel awe and mystery!” then she would be on the same path as many theists or panentheists, but she would not yet be at the station in which belief emerges out of mere questioning and wrestles with doubt instead of apathy.

I don’t think it’s worth spilling much more ink on the subject at this time. Truly only Oprah and Nyad could say what they really meant and if they properly understood each other, and the rest of the attention is curious.

Jonathan Merritt: Mark Driscoll is not one to credibly call for peaceful talk

In response to a new book by fiesty Calvinist cleric Mark Driscoll, Jonathan Merritt suggests the author may be a hypocrite or at least self-contradictory for urging an end to harsh language among Christians in online exchanges. One anecdote Merritt uses to build his case against Driscoll-as-peacemaker:

In A Call to Resurgence, Driscoll resurrects this tweet but he softens the language, stating that the President “placed his hand on a Bible he may not entirely believe.” Driscoll goes on to say, “Obama then took his place as the leader of a nation whose money says, ‘In God We Trust’ without even the courtesy of a punch line to let us know it’s a joke.”

Not exactly the kind of rhetoric that builds bridges and transcends tribalism.

Read more.

The End of Spirituality?

One look at Google Trends for “spirituality” ought to raise eyebrows of anyone who believes that spirituality is an increasingly popular phenomenon, or some sort of cure for the illness of secularism, or some sort of replacement for religion.


Since March 2004, to June of 2013, interest in “spirituality” as a search time has declined by over 70 percentage points. For every hundred or so web searches nine years ago, only thirty people searched on the topic over the summer. Pick other timeframes and you’ll still find an enormous loss of 40 percentage points in less than a decade.

If there were a CEO of Spirituality, she or he would have been fired long ago. If there were a public relations firm responsible for promoting spirituality, its contract would have been terminated.  But who do you hold accountable for such a precipitous decline in interest in the topic?

Not only is it hard to point fingers to find a responsible party, it is equally difficult to explain how it happened. Did some sort of bubble burst caused by media fads or the alignment of planetary forces or a spate of bestselling books? Did the intellectual apogee of spirituality occur with the first Matrix movie? Seriously though, what’s up with the precipitous numbers and how much ought we care?

There’s a play on words in the title of this new blog. Spirituality Post is not merely a blog with posts about spiritual topics. It is an inquiry into the possibility that we are entering a Post-Spiritual World, an exploration of what the contemporary spiritual landscape looks like, and a constructive vision of a new way of being in the world which might transcend the dichotomy between spiritual and non-spiritual.

I have several hypotheses which I believe may help to explain the decline of interest in spirituality and the rise of a new ethos. This blog will tell all. Here is the first hypothesis: the belief that there is spirituality distinct from religion became infused (or infected if you’re inclined to judge negatively) with postmodern relativism, ultimately leading to the quintessential message: Everything is Spiritual.

Whether you are inclined to think the slogan Everything is Spiritual is deeply profound “non-dual” wisdom or the banal logical conclusion of the death of the truly spiritual, it’s hard to deny that it’s easy to get people excited about Something but it’s next-to-impossible to get them excited about Everything. How long can that level of enthusiasm last? Is it even possible for the average person to orient his or her ultimate concern in life to Everything or is that the exclusive province of rare mystics?

The End of Spirituality could be on the horizon, but if so it need not fade into a breed of secularism. If contemporary spiritual and religious leaders adapt to the transformed landscape, there is reason to believe that Post-Spiritual is only a rejection of certain vacuous forms of spirituality and the beginning of something new and hopeful.

Follow Spirituality Post to discover yourself with a view at the front-line of Life, Culture, Society, Spirit.

Lady Gaga Undresses The Burqa: A Step On The Path Of A World Artist

gagaOmid Safi has written a heartfelt editorial for Religion News Service explaining why Lady Gaga’s new song which uses the traditional Muslim burqa — women’s scarf and body covering — is in poor taste. It’s hardly the first time the performer has been accused of poor taste, but in this instance she is being accused of violating the sacred.

Here are some of the lyrics to “Burqa”:

I’m not a wandering slave, 
I am a woman of choice
My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face
You watch, you fancy me cause there’s always one man to love
But in the bedroom the size of them’s more than enough 

Safi writes:

But let us not, for one minute, confuse all the #Burqaswag references among her fan (“little monsters”, as she affectionately calls them) as something in any way emancipatory, or actually about the women who choose to wear burqa (or niqab) or are even forced to wear one by dominant patriarchal cultures around them. Gaga’s Burqa outfits (and song, if it is indeed hers) does nothing to share the already existing full humanity of Muslim women, or others who wear (by choice, custom, or force) the burqa.   It is merely appropriation of some one else’s clothing by an unimaginably wealthy, white, elite North American woman without in any way altering the reality of the lives of women on whose behalf it pretends to speak.

Later he quotes approvingly Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American Muslim poet, in the context of Lady Gaga’s song (noting that Hammad was not describing Gaga):

Don’t build around me your fetish, fantasy,
Your lustful profanity to cage me in, clip my wings.
Don’t wanna be your exotic.

Your lovin’ of my beauty
ain’t more than funky fornication, plain pink perversion
In fact, nasty necrophilia.
Because my beauty is dead to you…

Please, don’t don’t accuse Lady Gaga of necrophilia. We just don’t know what she’s capable of doing next.

I have a certain sympathy with artists who push boundaries of propriety even to the point where they are accused of breaking rules, being insensitive to the feelings of others, or engaging in sensationalism. There is no written rulebook for the agent provocateur, and each artist has a unique style. And then there are successful exploitations of a cultural opening and unsuccessful forays.

Did Lady Gage misfire? Is her Burqua song so offensive she ought to be criticized for Orientalizing all women who wear the Burqua, harming them in some way? Ought her effort to call attention to the potential for exploitation and oppression in Muslim culture be ridiculed as not “in any way emancipatory”?

The issues are complex and yet what does your heart say? Mine does not go on the offensive against an artist who knows how to use the power of her bully pulpit to shift the tide of public opinion — especially the opinion of youth — in emancipatory ways. Perhaps her flirtation with the Burqua song will be short-lived, a mere exploitation of a sensitive issue, an experiment in testing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say about Islamic tradition in a song. Even so I would not criticize her for trying, nor would I attack anyone such as Safi or Hammad if they are turned off by it. They are also entitled to their reactions.

At Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg doesn’t care much for Burqua and uses its opportunity to just say that Lady Gaga isn’t a very good artist:

There’s no question that as an advocate, Lady Gaga’s done enormous good in raising the profile of issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality, and Russia’s anti-gay laws. I just wish that her songs were as nuanced and effective as her political work can be. Using your power in service of others is a generous act. Speaking for others in your music in a way that doesn’t recognize the difference between elevating their voices and subsuming them, is less noble, and less musically effective.

So you see here’s the crux of where I disagree with this strand of thought in art criticism: Safi and Rosenberg think Gaga is “subsuming” those who are different from her rather than “elevating their voices”. They have an either/or worldview: you’re either lifting THEM up, or you’re stomping on THEM. However, Gaga seems to be both identifying with the other as well as differentiating herself from them clearly by putting her lyrics into her own unique style. Safi’s and Rosenberg’s views are more Green, Gaga’s and mine are more Integral.

To think that you can’t sing about being “born this way” unless you are yourself that way is the worst sort of handcuffing of artists, a denial of the non-dual or causal self in the name of the subtle self or gross self. To think that an artist isn’t allowed her own voice because she’s a “wealthy, white, elite North American woman” is its own sort of unfortunate discrimination. Sometimes Gaga’s lyrics become bland and sappy when they fly too high above the particular, it is true, but when you’re doing work on the frothy edge of popular culture some of that is inevitable.

What I hope is that Lady Gaga will not stop at Burqua, but will continue to take up a truly prophetic calling to use pop music as a vehicle for shifting the cultural views of women throughout the world in more liberating directions, including those Muslim women who are forced to wear garments that violate them. If she keeps going she may not make every critic happy, especially the Green ones, but she will have demonstrated that she is a World Artist capable of delivering a mix of entertainment with enlightenment to audiences across the globe while changing millions of lives in the process.

“Moon Reflection” By Mattar Bin Lahej Depicts Phases Of The Spiritual Life



An artist from Dubai has created a unique art piece for The Dubai Mall which is associated with Ramadan.

Spiritual development is the primary theme of the work, with phases of the moon connected to the spiritual journey, according to an interview with the artist on

“The idea behind the ‘Moon Reflection’ can be linked to a typical Muslim’s life during Ramadan. The circles emphasise the moon and the letters inside indicate what a person does during Ramadan. In Ramadan, people always try to clear themselves from any sins by reading the Quran and so the different phases of the moon – changing shape from small to big then back small again – indicate that [spiritual] movement,” he added.

Bin Lahej also pointed out that the reason he made the first phases of the moon in silver and bronze and the last phase in gold is because “gold is the achievement or reward from God and it also marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid.”

Bin Lahej describes the purpose of his work as integrative:

“Art is about getting people integrated and not reaching out only to specific people. My target is to reach everyone and I like my work to speak for itself.”

Read the whole article.

Mystic Jocelyn Woods plumbs the depths of spirituality, eroticism, and disability



One of the most inspirational stories you’ll read about, right here, by Ken Picard in Seven Days. Jocelyn Woods, 27, of Vermont has not only battled a perplexing neuromuscular disease since childhood which leaves her mostly bedridden, she is also a cutting-edge artist with powerful creative visions which are defying stereotypes about disabled people and sexuality. Woods does so without resorting to politically correct message-driven art (which she detests), but by calling up the power of her True Self, the “vast eternity” which she came to identify with.

Picard writes:

Woods was born in Florida but moved to Vermont at age 10. An only child, she was homeschooled by her mom through high school, which she completed at 16. Woods traces her spiritual awakening to an existential crisis she had at age 4, when she brought her mother into the bathroom and stood there crying because she didn’t believe the little girl in the mirror reflected her true, infinite nature.

“I felt like I was sitting on the edge of this vast eternity,” she recalls, “and didn’t know how to process that as a child.”

Woods’ creativity also blossomed early. At 3, she asked her mother for piano lessons, and was playing by age 5. At 15 she was composing and performing her own classical pieces, and at age 16 Woods recorded a solo album titled A River’s Journey at Charles Eller’s studio in Charlotte. She expected to pursue a career as a concert pianist until her poor health intervened.

A severe bout of influenza when she was 18 robbed Woods of mobility and dexterity, including her ability to play the piano. She was left semi-bedridden and took years to recover. Today, her health has stabilized, but she undergoes daily physical therapy and Pilates sessions to maintain her strength and muscle tone. She also experiments with alternative therapies and takes singing lessons to strengthen her diaphragm.

In June 2012, Woods contracted a severe respiratory illness that nearly claimed her life. This time, it triggered what she calls a “shamanic experience” that inspired much of her recent work.

“It was quite frightening, and I wasn’t quite sure how I would emerge from that,” she recalls, “because I felt as though I were suspended between the two worlds of life and death, the soul realm and the physical realm.”

Read the whole article.


Are We Entering A Post-Mormon Moment?



Joseph Walker at the Deseret News writes that a Mormon university president spoke of the religion entering “the post-Mormon moment.” Here’s an explanation:

Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland said Tuesday that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are learning to swim in contemporary religion’s mainstream during what he referred to as “the post-Mormon moment.”

“It’s one thing to think about loving others and getting along with people from different faith perspectives when you are insular and existing outside the main body of faith,” Holland told a classroom full of students and professors during his appearance as a guest lecturer for UVU’s special “Mormonism in the American Experience” class.

“But those questions,” he continued, “become very real, very challenging when you are suddenly in the mainstream and part of a society in which we interact more regularly and are more connected globally.”

And that is precisely where Holland believes Mormonism is as a result of the so-called “Mormon moment,” which he said consisted of an extraordinary set of situations and circumstances — from the two presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney to “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway to the LDS Church’s own “I’m a Mormon” media campaign — that put the church and its members squarely within the bright light of intense media scrutiny.

Read the whole article.

Whether or not one likes the term “post-Mormon moment”, Holland is pointing to something real, I think: a heightened visibility of the LDS Church which results in greater integration within American mainstream society. This is in a sense becoming more integral: integral to the mainstream society, and so long as that results in identification with positive cultural values then that is a sign of progress.

But it is not the same as saying Mormons are truly becoming more Integral — coming to a sense of their own identity which transcends their “ethnocentric” identification with their religious subculture or society at large. A more Integral Mormonism could be seen by signs such as more Mormons moving past the fundamentalism which locks their doctrine or beginning to challenge the identification of Mormon culture with American corporate values. More Mormons will have to become more postmodern before they can become post-postmodern. Will we ever see LDS missionaries in tie-dye T-shirts and Birkenstocks, or Mormon theologians leading the World Council of Churches? Will it be commonplace for Mormon scholars to be leading the vanguard in integral interdisciplinary studies?

I’m sure there are signs of these things happening, but I don’t see the media reporting on them. Instead they are talking about something routine, a sect becoming more socially acceptable. Once we see the LDS Church and its leadership becoming more Green and Teal, then we can start talking about a real “post-Mormon moment”.