The High Druid's Homily

A blog about Druidism, Paganism, Politics, Southern Life, Sex, Entertainment, Sci-Fi, and a lot of crap like that.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

An Open Letter to Catherine Sanders

Catherine Sanders recently wrote Wicca's Charm, a follow-up book to a series of articles about Wicca from the Christian perspective. While she's journalistically fair in her approach, and does get some things correct, I take issue with the thrust of her argument: that all the nifty stuff Pagans are drawn to in Wicca can be found in Christianity if you look at it the right way and hold your mouth right and ignore 2000 years of history -- so we should stop being witches already and come back to the church. While well-handled, her book is basically a guidebook in how to subvert the honest seeker from their chosen path and get them back in Church. Needless to say, I took issue with it, and here is the letter I sent to her:

Dear Catherine,

I’m sure you are assailed constantly by Wiccans and Pagans who take issue with your views. After reviewing your article on the subject, and purchasing your book last night, I wanted to join that chorus.

Since I have not yet received your book, I will limit my comment to your article. While I feel you have dealt fairly with the subject from a journalistic standpoint, I think that your analysis of the religion is shallow, and your comparisons to Christianity are off base.

As background, I have been a Wiccan and Druid for 20 years, come this August, and I have a degree from UNC-CH in Religious Studies. I consider myself a Pagan Theologian. I’ve devoted considerable time and effort in analysis of my religion and its wild growth in the two decades since I found it. I’ve also spent considerable time examining the relationship between Paganism and Christianity. Perhaps you would appreciate some of my insight to assist in your understanding of those factors.

The number of Pagans in this country is going to increase dramatically, and there is little that the Church can do to stem the tide. The factors are not, as you think, purely a failure of ministry to capture the attention of the youth, the failure is in the fundamental make up of modern Christianity – and the problem is so deep that there is virtually nothing that modern Christians can do to mend it, I’m afraid. The primary issues that most Pagans have with the Church are doctrinal, and they are so fundamental as to preclude any real return to the Church from Pagan ranks.

The combination of an undoubtedly Male godhead with radical monotheism has led directly to the spiritual disenfranchisement of women in the Church, and has further led to a patriarchal mind-set that permeates every aspect of inter-gender relations in the Christian Church. This is not a matter of letting the Ladies Auxiliary lead a service every now and then, it is a fundamental flaw in the make-up of all the Abrahamic faiths. When God is male, with no female counterpart, the deck is inherently stacked and any attempt at true coequal spirituality is dashed. Certainly the doctrine of the Trinity leaves open the possibility of feminine elements, but unless someone in true authority comes out and explicitly equates the Holy Spirit with the Goddess, the Church will remain fatally flawed.

The implicit denigration of Femininity in the scriptures also leads to a denigration of sex, itself. Until the Church is willing to recognize sexuality as inherently sacred, not inherently sinful, there will be few Pagans in your pews. Masturbation, menstruation, pornography, “uncleanliness”, and the host of petty bigotries based on scriptural assertions of the sinful nature of sex, a human universal attribute and font of all life, are anathema to Pagans. The whole concept of the Fall from Eden, predicated by feminine foolishness, is a slap in the face of every woman in the world, an attempt by a tribal patriarchy to provide religious justification for the virtual enslavement and mistreatment of women. You can make all the excuses you like, but the Genesis stories provide ample basis for this subjugation. In doing so, Jehovah has made war on the Goddess. How could we come back to worship the confessed perpetrator of such a crime?

Your take on Wiccan ethics, while accurate to a point, is limited. You do not understand the very sophisticated basis of our ethical life. In comparing our ethics to those of Christianity, you proudly tout that “Only because we have a transcendent Creator, who is perfect goodness and declared what is absolute good or bad, do we have grounds to condemn anything.”, while saying at the same time that “Wicca itself falls short of providing a basis for Wiccans to take social action.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and your analysis demonstrates a distinct lack of research on the subject.

No doubt the ubiquitous Wiccan Rede and the Threefold Law came up in your research. Most Christian critics of Wicca bring them up, praise them in a limited way, and dismiss them in favor of the “absolute good” Jehovah allegedly represents. They decry the lack of an “objective” guide for good-and-evil while ignoring the fact that under the “objective” rules in scripture the most horrendous crimes in history have been perpetrated. Yes, Wiccans do have highly subjective ideas about “good” and “evil” – but we aren’t nearly as concerned with the two as abstract concepts as are the Zoroastrian-influenced dualism of the Abrahamic Faiths.

Our Rede and Law are guides, ethical rules-of-thumb, not divinely given commandments. In our religion we depend on no one but ourselves and our own conscience to determine the rightness or wrongness of our actions. Do Wiccans occasionally transgress our self-imposed subjective morality? Of course, occasionally we do have people who commit acts that objectively could be considered “evil”. Do we forgive them, chalk it up to a skewed perspective and go on our merry way? We do not. We hold that person accountable for their actions.

Indeed, our religion revolves around the individual taking responsibility for their actions, good and bad. There is no Christian “get out of sin free” card. You are expected to make the right decisions, and if you do not, you are expected to live with the consequences. A Wiccan who truly understands what the Rede and the Law and the other ethical components you may have missed (the Codes of Chivalry, for instance, and the Path of Wisdom) knows that transgressions of commonly held moral views that hurt others hold powerful consequences, and encourage a tremendous amount of forethought before action is taken. Hurting yourself is not a violation of those principals – it’s just stupid, and is recognized as such.

Conversely, Christianity is packed full of people who pride themselves on being forgiven for their sins, and because of that they seem to be all the more willing to sin in the first place. “Only God is perfect” they say, as they indulge in one bad decision after another. They are never held to account, spiritually. It’s an ontological blank check, and Christians, in the Pagan perception, are constantly adding zeros to the amount. One reason why you see teens leaving the Church in droves for our covens and groves is because they tire of seeing their “devout” Christian parents indulge in daily hypocrisy. They want a religion that holds them to account. Wicca and the other Pagan religions are very big on constant and intense introspection about ethical issues, because we teach that no matter how much some transcendent deity may forgive you, it is you, and you alone, who must live with the responsibility for your actions. We don’t need commandments or laws to determine what is “good” and what is “evil”. We recognize that when a religion has such, everyone becomes a spiritual lawyer seeking loopholes, from medieval indulgences to modern televangelists crying on TV about their weakness for prostitutes and then declaring that they are forgiven. Our religion is not like that.

Can you tell me, Is Good really inherently good, independent of God, or is it Good because God says it is? Is Evil really inherently evil, or is it evil because God said it is? Under Christian doctrine and practice the “good” that the religion seems so proud of has been used to justify horrific crimes. When Christianity faces its collective responsibility and acknowledges the evil it has done in the name of supposed “good”, then we might come back.

But I doubt it. We’re not very forgiving that way.

You play up the environmental aspect of Paganism, and that’s all to the good. However, you fail to recognize the anti-environmental stance implicit in Christianity. According to the good ol’ Book of Revelations, the Earth is going to get burned up in the End Times anyway – so why bother with it? It is merely a tool God gave to Man, after all. You can quote other scripture all you like, but the overwhelming implication of Revelations, including the fatalism and hopelessness in that book, have forever tainted the Church against doing anything more than lip service to the environment. “Good Stewards”, indeed! Under Christianity we have seen our once glorious planet suffer as Man uses his Goddess-given gift like a rented mule. The tides are rising, the icecaps are melting, the species are dying, the Armada Storms have begun, all because for the last five-hundred years Christian doctrine has not only allowed the use of the Earth’s bounty with impunity or thought to consequence, it has actively encouraged it.

“The fact that all human beings are made in the image of God provides us with a basis to respect women and help the poor, while the pagan, pantheistic view of Wicca places human beings no better than inanimate objects such as rocks or trees.” This is another way in which you demonstrate the shallow nature of your study of our religion. “No better than . . . rocks or trees” . . . are we somehow “better”? Or is this attitude merely human self-aggrandizement, sufficient justification for the wholesale destruction of our world? The Church tries to claim moral superiority to our poor little limited view of humanity by claiming that Man was made in God’s image . . . when, in truth, we instead accept the idea that the rocks and trees were also made in the image of the Divine. If the Christian ethic based on this ideal held true, then we would not have the centuries of suffering the Church has spawned, up to and including the current war. Perhaps we hold human beings in no better esteem than rocks or trees . . . but we hold rocks and trees in pretty high esteem. When humans merit that esteem, we are more than happy to acknowledge it. Is a man worth more than a tree? Depends upon the man. Depends on the tree. Subjective morality is like that.

Christian missionaries approving clear-cutting of African forests to drive the animist tribes out of their arboreal lifestyle and into good little Church-centric villages, divorced from their livelihood; Christian missionaries in Southeast Asia buying little girls from starving families, only to raise them in convent schools and “ration them out” without brideprice on the condition that their future husbands convert – thus destroying a local culture that has evolved over a thousand years to maintain a careful balance with the fragile, limit natural resources at their disposal. The wholesale slaughter of tribal peoples in an attempt to pacify and civilize them while stealing the resources from their lands, with Christians more concerned about their souls than their lives. Christian bishops insisting that condoms do not protect against HIV/AIDS in Africa, and even saying that they spread the disease. Christians have a horrid history of abuses of both man and environment that has led directly to the current state of environmental affairs. And they do so because God told Adam he owned it all in Genesis and then told John the Divine that he was just going to destroy it all anyway.

And then there is the issue of basic Cosmology. Christians, of course, believe you get one shot to determine your eternal existence. Violate the rules, forget to ask for forgiveness at the right time, and you’re hellbound. Conversely, they cannot seem to agree upon what, exactly, one must do to escape the flames of perdition. Pagans see the afterlife as they see life, as a circle or spiral, granting plenty of opportunities for development along the way. In Christianity, you have the doctrine of unlimited forgiveness – but you wouldn’t need it if Jehovah hadn’t set up the rules to ensure unlimited damnation in the first place. Christ brings hope, perhaps, but it was Jehovah who established the hopelessness. Forgive us if we don’t think that’s a fair game. In respect to the afterlife and “eternal salvation”, Jehovah’s rules and attitude throughout the OT reveal a personality that, when sane, appears more like a Mafia don than a benevolent spiritual figure. Until the spiritual coercion implicit in Christianity ends, you won’t see many Pagans come back to the Church. As revealed in the OT, Jehovah simply does not measure up to Pagan moral standards as worthy of worship.
“As for spiritual reality, only Christian truth possesses a deity that took on human flesh, was real, and existed among us. Nothing is more real than Jesus and his Holy Spirit. He has given us the victory over the spirits of this world.” This statement reveals a gross ignorance of both other religions and your own. World religions are replete with examples of deities that took human form, took human flesh. There is nothing remarkable about Christ’s story, save that the mythology is hailed as history and stubbornly defended, despite any evidence to the contrary. It harkens back to the idea that the scriptures were, somehow, immune from the hyperbole and religiously-sanctioned mythologizing of the past that every single other contemporary culture and religion was subject to. And Christians make this claim without a real shred of evidence.
The divinity of Jesus? You can’t even satisfactorily prove the existence of Jesus, historically. How do you know the Bible is true? runs the argument. “It’s old!” the Chrisitans say, “and all these other people thought it was true.” But how did they know? “The Bible says it’s true – you just have to have Faith!” Faith is absolute belief without supporting proof. It’s a circular argument, and one that no self-respecting Pagan of sufficient maturity will fall for. And the implication, that unprovable “Christian truth” somehow trumps all other of mankind’s notions of divinity and automatically places it at the head of the morality line is laughable. You speak of victory over “the spirits of the world” without realizing the mystery: that the “spirits of the world” were never at war with us. We were at war with ourselves, and all Christianity did was to take that internal war which all man is heir to and express it as external war, turning the legitimate quest for spiritual truth into an all-or-nothing battle of evangelism and coercion. The Bible uses the language of warfare constantly, to devastating effect. The Goddess is above such conceits. She seeks not to war on the world, but enable us to live within it.
Indeed, the whole concept of a “divine book” is laughable to Pagans. How can a book be more divine than a tree? How can God say everything he’s going to say to one little tribe and trust them to pass it on to everyone else, untainted by local prejudice? As long as Christianity relies on the Bible as its basis, the “objective” standards you tout only serve as fodder to endless, mindless debate about interpretation, keeping people from true spiritual development as they wade through five millennia of mistranslated hagiography taken drastically out of context. As a rule, Pagans look on Christianity as a hypocritical, anti-female, anti-sex, anti-life death-cult that is bound and determined to see to the wholesale destruction of life on our world. For every positive example of Christian goodness there are a hundred horrific examples of evil done under the sign of the Cross.

Jesus isn’t the problem. Most Wiccans follow much the same path that Jesus preached. The problem is that Christianity has largely ignored his teachings in favor of glorifying his death and alleged resurrection. The Church teaches that the crucifixion is the important part and spends little time on the message. While it terrorizes your youth with images of human sacrifice and bloody torture, of eternal suffering and perpetual punishment, ours invites the youth to examine their lives devoid of threat and coercion. While the Church teaches damnation as the result of deviation from doctrine, the Coven and Grove teach the inherent worth and dignity of the individual, judged by no greater or lesser authority than yourself, with an emphasis on self love that is completely absent in Christianity. Jesus may have taught brotherly love and human understanding, but y’all lost sight of that in your liturgy and catechism long ago.

In short, most Pagans view Christianity as hopelessly flawed and devoid of meaning in our modern world. And attempts to preach at us, as kindly and gently as they may come, makes us mad. There will always be those Wiccans who go back to the Church. There will always be those Christians who find Wicca and the healing power of the Goddess and never set foot in a church again. But after twenty years of intense study on the subject, to have my religion dismissed so casually in favor of a pathologically crippled monstrosity, to have books written about how to subvert my coreligionists from their hard-won spiritual path, that infuriates me.

I have three small children who are all being raised Pagan. They are being taught a healthy respect for Life and Death, are being shown the eternal cycle of the seasons and invited to joy and delight in the manifold glories of Nature. They are being taught that God and Goddess are the Mommy and Daddy to us all. They are being taught to be truthful, helpful members of society who treat all people with respect and love. And yet they are constantly being told by schoolmates, teachers, and “well-meaning” adults that their mommy and daddy are going to Hell when they die, and the only way that we can be saved is to go to Church, where there’s this horrific dead guy on the wall and all the talk about blood. Christians try to get Pagan kids to sign “statements of faith” at “harmless” ice cream socials and Church sleepovers. Christian kids gang up on Pagan kids and call them devil worshippers and Satanists. Christians who tell Pagan kids their Goddess is a whore and a deceiver. The end justifies the means, that’s what Christianity is ultimately about. And you want my kids to come to this “wholesome” environment?

There are no books on how to convert Christians to Paganism. We don’t need them. Y’all are doing a fine job yourself. But I resent you laying out a plan to steal my children’s faith from them, I really do. Until Christianity can come clean and dramatically restructure itself, no amount of weaseling about how you can find “Wiccan elements” in scripture is going to make a convincing argument. It’s a creaky, decrepit house that keeps getting propped up, and every time it does it becomes more rickety and less able to provide spiritual shelter to those who hunger for such.

Arion the Blue

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Post-Partum Sex: Myth or Legend?

It’s not often that I plug another blog, but every now and then you come across something worthy of comment and pee-your-pants kinda funny. When that happens, you want to share. So here goes:

Naughty Mommy. Heh. Anyone who knows me, where I work, or knows my wife realizes why this is personally a hoot. It’s one of those “sex-after-baby” sites, but one written with humor, talent and style. With the motto “Putting the T&A back in PTA” as a masthead, how could you go wrong?

The simple fact of the matter is that once you have a baby, your erotic life changes irrevocably. At first it’s depressing, maddening, and frustrating. By Kid #2 the dull, numbing realization that your genitalia have done their job and can go home, now, sets in. By Kid #3 your thoughts about sex tend to be more philosophical than primal, and you start thinking of your offspring in terms of your Genetic Legacy so you don’t think of them as ruthless midget cock blockers and entertain thoughts of infanticide after a particularly frustrating evening.

Rekindling that pre-child spark in a relationship is difficult because it isn’t going to be just about you and your partner . . . ever again. Apart from the involuntary insomnia and emotional trauma of the first 7-12 months of your offspring’s life, there is a new psychological factor present in your bed every night. The Child. They may not be there, physically, but they’re always Somewhere, and to be a good parent that Somewhere has to be on your mind constantly.

From the Mommy perspective, your body has just endured a year of physiological trauma akin to the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. While you are learning to cope with the physical issues and infirmities that arise with labor and delivery, and its ugly aftermath, your hormones are raging like an out-of-control forest fire – but not in a good way. Sex is, literally, the last thing on your mind. You don’t need the intimacy – the bond you share with the New Kid is like fine wine compared to the cheap, flat beer kind of intimacy provided by your husband. Your boobs are no longer property of either you or your husband, and they are about as erotic as a beverage vending machine. Your nether regions are painfully recovering from the most distressing disturbance ever, and the very thought of your man making an erotic advance on you is vile sounding, insulting, and potentially denigrating to the whole concept of Motherhood.

From the Daddy perspective, you are a confused and frustrated ball of hormones and low self-esteem – but not in a good way. You are nearly as sleep deprived as the new Mommy. You also have the tremendous psychological impact of not only being utterly responsible for this new, helpless life you’ve sired, but also for this new, bitchy wife you’ve acquired. And you don’t have a single drop of the serotonin-enhancing hormones your wife’s body pumps out in compensation for the extreme circumstances. Every move you make under her eye is laden with suspicion and mistrust. You have become a junior partner in your marriage, yet the pressure for success goes up by orders of magnitude. You are held up to an impossibly high standard by your wife, her sisters, her girlfriends, her mother, and passing strangers who all have invaded your home and feel obligated to point out your shortcomings as a father, husband, and a man. There is no way you can ever meet this standard. And every sniffing comment on dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, and un-vacuumed rugs becomes a pronouncement on your fitness to be involved in the sacred rite of Motherhood.

Not Parenthood. And certainly not Fatherhood – who the hell needs ‘em? Motherhood is the gold standard, and you will never, ever, ever achieve it. Under the Maternal Microscope, nothing you do will ever, ever be right. This is Mommy’s show, you’re a mere stagehand – it doesn’t matter how many diapers you change, backs you rub, meals you prepare, or the work you take home because the scant compensated “Maternity Leave” your boss begrudgingly extended to you was taken up not with bonding with your new baby, but with catering to the constant physical and emotional demands of wife and child. If that isn’t sapping your self-esteem during this confusing and frustrating time, then congratulations! You’ve found the right medication.

The last ten months have been a roller-coaster of life-changing internal monologs revolving around the implications of the New Kid. The next ten months will be a long and frustrating battle to re-establish yourself as a real Player in your new family, and not a mere servant. You are emotionally shattered, physically exhausted, and psychologically scarred from seeing your favorite piece of anatomy on your wife turned inside out and stretched beyond recognition. Boobs? They seem to be out all the time, big healthy fluffy boobs, too, round, firm, fully packed and ripe for the picking. Just because they are lactating – who knew? – that shouldn’t be a barrier to your enjoyment of them. But. You. Can’t. Touch. Them.

You see sex as a relief, a vital reaffirmation of yourself as a human being and a man. Sex can bring it all back, you tell yourself. That heady orgasmic bliss will soothe your aching ego as well as re-establish the profound love that brought the New Kid into existence in the first place. Perhaps it will also remind your wife of your small, pathetic little needs, as well as the fact that you have purpose beyond Waste Management. You are biologically programmed to use sex as a bridge to your deeper emotional life – you have a difficult time “opening up” without it, so all of these extreme feelings you have are backing up like a broken septic tank. You need sex like an addict needs a fix.

And it just ain’t gonna happen.

It’s a shock when that fact settles in. If you are lucky you will be so busy those first few months that you won’t think about it. That first-six-weeks-no-intercourse rule hangs over your bed like a stern guardian of your wife’s vaginal security, but you intellectually understand the medical reasoning behind it. The Happy Place needs time to heal. And it does give you a goal – if you can’t have sex for the first six weeks, then surely you can have sex after the first six weeks.

There’s a big difference, however, between ‘can’ and ‘will’. Even as you get home from your wife’s six-week-post-partum check up, you are eagerly stripping off your clothes, selecting an appropriate G-string to wear for two minutes, and considering if it’s too early to re-introduce a little light porn, your wife will glare accusingly at you, clutch her baby (HER baby – not yours) protectively in her arms, and snarl “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?!?” Game Over.

The temptation exists to stand around your wife while she nurses, whimpering like a dog begging at the table for scraps. It seems demeaning and degrading at first – and it is – but after a couple of weeks without sex your pride level drops low enough to keep your self-esteem company. Begging doesn’t seem quite so bad anymore. Do it right, it might even be kinky. Get rejected? Go back for more. Maybe if you grovel just a little harder this time . . .

There also exists the temptation to engage in an argument that would have been perfectly normal and healthy . . . pre-Baby. To do so now is to invite untold misery into your personal life. Blaming Mommy because Daddy’s head is about to explode with sexual tension is just a poor idea. It also invites the wrath of her maternal support network, who will have no problems verbally eviscerating you for your temerity. How DARE you blame her for your insignificant problems! And, of course, there is the highly pragmatic issue of an argument just not working the way that you want it to. Best to keep your fool mouth shut. Perhaps if you casually, humorously mention it: “Remember that thing we used to do? Wouldn’t it be cool if we—”

But no. Your natural desire for sex is a perverse sign of your flawed humanity in her eyes. That you could entertain such base thoughts at such an important time reveals your own utter lack of sensitivity. Push it far enough and she’ll start to verbally muse about what she saw in you in the first place. Try to take matters in your own hands – and get busted on it – and you are likely to hear the shriek “How can you jerk off when there is LAUNDRY to be done? What kind of man are you?”

And that’s without the complication of Post Partum Depression. Like PMS and Menopause, this is one of those great female Mysteries that you, as a man, must always be understanding about but must never mention in her presence. No matter how many baby bottles she throws at your head, you must not suggest that she might be feeling a little PPD, lest your possibility of getting nookie – ever – dry up completely. But PPD is a very real and very scary thing, and it is wise to take that into account when you are considering groveling. Remember: women with Post Partum have been successfully acquitted for murder due to insanity. Best not mention that last part to your honey.

Your personal dam will come under strain. Men feel the need to have sex when they are stressed, and nothing stresses you like a new baby, a temporarily insane wife, and a boss who grew up in an era where the Father, as functionary, did not become the focus of the childrearing experience until the kid was at least 12 – “Whaddaya mean you need to get off early again? Can’t she handle a little mommy-crap on her own? You’ve got important things to do! Keep this up and you can be a stay-at-home Dad!”

When the frustration level gets to that certain point, where your subconscious mind is considering which co-workers you would have an affair with in an ideal world and you look forward to a half-hour’s worth of masturbation the way you once anticipated Date Night, it can be hard to successfully communicate these inner feelings to your mate without sounding . . . selfish. And that’s the issue, to her. Your alleged sexual needs, she sees, are a selfish manifestation of your inherently selfish personality. They are something that has nothing to do with her or the baby – just a crude physiological self-gratification, the kind that you should be more than willing to trade in for the august position of Fatherhood.


So you brood, and your mother-in-law wants to know what’s wrong with you. You sulk, and wife’s BFF thinks you don’t like the baby. Show the smallest signs of self-pity and anger, and you get accused of falling out of love for your wife and mother of your child just when she needs you the most. You cannot defend yourself against these accusations. To do so validates them in the minds of the females involved.

The best tactic to take is a kind of perverse stoicism. Cultivate a monk-like serenity. Go ahead, bottle up those emotions. Pack ‘em down tight – that’s the unselfish thing to do. Consciously distance yourself emotionally from your mate during the period where she wants you to simultaneously be an emotional punching bag, a flawless housekeeper, and a sensitive father to your new child. Cultivate that distance, because it will keep you sane during the next year, while she copes with Motherhood herself, recovers from the hormonal yo-yo, and redefines herself as a woman. As much as you crave it, as much as you need it like the breath of life itself, forget that such a thing as sex exists – any less sets you up for continual disappointment. Eventually, she might let you in. Until then, keep your damn mouth shut and your mind on the laundry.

Of course by that time your own emotional development has become stunted, and your self esteem shrivels up to a ghost of its former self. Your emotional survival and self-image as a man is in jeopardy. You suddenly understand that certain expression on your father’s face. Despite yourself you come to resent your wife and kids and know, instinctively, that your value to them is based solely on how useful you are, and not much more.

Someday, perhaps, your wife will want to have sex with you again. She won’t feel like it, she won’t like it, and it won’t be any good, but by that time a three-minute quickie while the baby naps is like tantalizing dew-drops to a man dying of thirst. No matter how bad the sex is – and it will be bad, mark my words – it will be the first tangible sign that you may have a relationship again.

Emphasis on may. There are no guarantees. Sometimes the strain of the new baby on a relationship is such that it becomes permanently broken. I’ve known even the strongest of relationships to break under that stress. And again, it isn’t just the two of you any more, even when it’s just the two of you.

A co-worker of my wife’s once explained to her the downfall of his own marriage one late night before we were married. He blamed it on the “little shit” scenario, the typical masculine response to the Big Freeze after labor and delivery.

The short version runs like this: New Daddy loves the baby, loves the New Mommy, love, love, love. But New Daddy gets no love of his own, knows New Mommy used to love him, and recognizes the New Kid as the alienating factor. New Kid goes quickly from being the light of your life to the little shit that’s monopolizing the woman you spent years, probably, making into the wife you love. Once the New Kid is weaned successfully, and the Boobies return to your ostensible possession, the little shit still keeps your wife from thinking about sex for the first year or so. The milestones of development progress – sleeping through the night, the need to belch, solid foods, etc. – and the excuses for no sex gradually fall away, but the little shit keeps getting in the way of you having the sex you so richly deserve.

Resentment builds, until you can barely look at your cute baby without blaming the little shit for the longest cock-block in history. Any experiences you do have are furtive, at best, with the constant possibility of the little shit crying or otherwise interrupting your savoir fare looming over the pathetic “moves” that used to work with your wife. Only now, instead of her warming up with your caress and laughing at your stupid pre-sex jokes, she blithely strips off her nursing bra and says with a sigh “We have to hurry – and don’t touch the boobs yet.” Keep it up, and the Little Shit will become a permanent wedge in your marriage, and ultimately keep you from a fulfilling relationship with your own kid. As you grow more and more resentful, your wife becomes more and more dissatisfied with your emotional distance. And your chances of scoring slide quickly to zero.

The one issue I have with Ms. Raykeil’s blog is her emphasis on quality over quantity. I respect it and understand it – to a new mother, few things are more sexy or life-affirming than a husband who changes diapers without complaint and folds laundry without being asked – but I take issue with it. No doubt there is a part of the New Mommy that finds new orgasmic heights in post-baby sex. But to a New Daddy, a single earth-shattering experience a month is a poor substitute for more regular, more mediocre sex. While New Mommy might see once-a-month Date Night as an opportunity for superlative romantic and passionate married-people sex, New Daddy would be so much more appreciative of a weekly handjob or so, just until things return to some semblance of normalcy. It isn’t a character flaw in us – it’s just how we’re wired. We can’t help it any more than y’all can help menstruation.

Now, all of this being said, I want to emphasize that the problems and situations I’ve discussed are by no means a reflection on my wife’s behavior during any of the three New Kids we’ve had. I won’t say that we had a seamless and problem-free transition between pre-baby and post-baby sex, but we were forewarned about the matter, and both of us made a conscious effort to deal with our mutual psychological conditions without recourse to personal judgments or verbal condemnations. But we’re weird. Most couples go through this long and painful transition with no clue what’s going on in each other’s heads, and little desire to add the complications of a real sex life to the already-complex world of New Kid. Not everyone has my wife’s obsession with communication or my own passion for personal introspection. They aren’t told about this by their elders, largely because they don’t want to re-live those wonderful, ghastly days, or discuss it with the grown up Little Shits who still get in the way of their sex life. And I can’t blame them. This column was hard enough to write, knowing how many of my friends, family members, and passing strangers will read it. But it is important that this point of view is expressed, and likewise important for my wife to know that I rarely, if ever, entertain the “Little Shit” model of post-partum sexuality.

Now, if I could just keep “Elmo’s Song” from playing in my head when I’m “doing it”, and I could look at a sexy bra without thinking “How the hell could she nurse in that?!?” I’d be one under par. As it is, I get more than most men in my situation, and my wife is a princess among women.

Maybe that admission will be enough for me to score tonight. But I doubt it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

An Open Letter to Dawn Ostroff

An Open Letter to Dawn Ostroff

Dear Ms. Ostroff:

I admit, I had mixed emotions about the merger between UPN and the WB networks to create the “CW” network. On the one hand, both small networks have produced some quality programming (and, sadly, some less than stellar) over the years, taking programming risks that larger companies would not. As a result, a number of hit shows that would have languished on the larger networks were allowed to flourish. On the other hand, the combination of companies will undoubtedly make the resulting network stronger, as the better shows from both networks are combined. And then there is the chance for new programming, the subject of my letter.

Bring back Firefly.

Yeah, I said it. You have experienced the incredible talent that Joss Whedon and his creative posse possess before. You know how fanatical his fans can be. This is an opportunity to bring high-quality programming, with an established track record and built-in fanbase, to the new network in truly superlative fashion.

Unlike the Angel/Buffy crew of stars, the Firefly cast has yet to sign on for long-term projects elsewhere. They are all still available. The set of Serenity is still there (I believe) and the enthusiasm that everyone shared for the show is just as present now, after the movie. This is a show that has already gone through the painful (and expensive) development phase already, has attracted a core of die-hard fans who are very active, very vocal, and loyal to the extreme, and has already proven its “legs” in a very well-received feature film.

Yes, there are obstacles in the way. Whedon is working in comics, on movies, and is far from his TV roots. The cast is looking at guest shots and searching for more permanent work. The crew that was so integral to the experience has in many cases moved on. But I believe every one of them would jump back on board, if given the opportunity.

This is the world of TV. Anything can be done if you want to badly enough – and I speak for about a million Browncoats when I say we want it badly enough. I therefore strongly encourage you to open negotiations with Whedon, et. al. and return this outstanding series to television. Whedon, for all of his genius, really needs an episodic format in which to develop the characters that drive his stories, and CW is going to need so thick, meaty, and popular fare to survive more than a year or two. Do us all a favor and lure Whedon to your new creation. Get him his ship, his crew. And put us in the air again.

You won’t regret it, I swear. Hell, the DVD revenues alone would make it pay.


Terry Mancour

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Wisdom of Irv

Today is my 38th Birthday.

I’ve always had a morbid dread of my birthdays, once the excitement of my childhood passed, as they were an annual reminder about how I was getting closer and closer to facing my own mortality and all the existential stuff that comes with that. 38 is particularly brutal, because I can no longer fool myself by saying, “Oh, I’m in my mid-thirties” anymore. 38 is Late 30s. Demographics don’t lie. If current life-expectancies hold true, my life is at least half over. My 20th High School Reunion is this year, and apart from one little New York Times Best Seller and two bona fide Dream Jobs under my belt, three precocious, healthy tots and a beautiful wife who makes more than I do, what do I have to show for it?


I was struck recently by how good I’ve got it. I live in the greatest civilization the world has ever known, with all the world’s knowledge available for my study in the time it takes to Google, enjoy a standard of living undreamt of by the vast majority of history’s royalty and superrich, and just a century ago the likelihood that I’d be dead by now would be pretty high. It would make a great story to tell you how hard I struggled against overwhelming odds and untold suffering to achieve my current life, but that would be fictional bullshit. I’ve had it good from the start, and I can directly pinpoint the reasons that are most responsible.

This thought occurred to me the other day as I was passing by the playpen where my youngest son, not yet two, had grown dissatisfied with the entertainment value of Noggin and pleaded with me to pick him up, with his customary cry of “Holdju! Holdju!”, accompanied by raised arms and frantically waving hands. Cute.

Just then a flood of comprehension washed across my soul, and the planets aligned, and I had what some would call a quasi-mystical experience. I’d say it was a flashback, except that I was no where near as pharmaceutically liberal in my youthful experimentation phase as most of my peers. I just remembered being in a similar situation when I was around the boy’s age. And that made me appreciate my father, Irv, who himself just had an ostensibly important transitional birthday, his 60th.

If you don’t know Irv, you are the poorer for it. He, like me, is a father to three children, three boys, no less. He was a “Sedimentation and Erosion Control Technician” (read: “Dirt Inspector”) for Durham County for a decade and a half, and had other, less glamorous jobs before that. On paper, he was completely unexceptional: middle class, two-year degree, wife ‘n’ kids. But read between the lines there and you find out just how subtly exceptional he was.

My Dad is the wisest man I know, bar none. While our opinions on many subjects (politics included) have diverged slightly over the years, he remains the most astute analyst of human social interaction and behavior that I have ever known. The lessons he has passed on to me have gone far beyond the “fatherly wisdom” variety, and delved into deep, rich territory.

Unlike the vast majority of his peers, he did not pursue affluence or wealth. Prosperity, yes. Having just enough was enough. “Friends are more important than money” was one of the many, many maxims he instilled in me, and he proved it, over and over again. Faced with the inevitable choices that a middle-class family has to make about expenditure, he consistently chose the path that led to investments in his family, not in things. Oh, he could have, easily, by making the choice to pursue a soul-killing job in middle-management somewhere. But he didn’t, and I am the richer for it.

He was not the typical Boomer Dad, thank the Goddess. He was an outstanding parent, conducting the brain-busting, wallet-draining task of raising three precocious boys to men without investing a shred of self-important ego into the task. He didn’t cheat on his wife, indulge in cocaine or fundamentalist religion, go through some self-delusional pity-party midlife crisis, or any of the other asinine stunts his generation was prone to. He lived life well, a life to be envied, and he had no regrets about the way he did it. If he had disappointments in his life, I rarely knew about them, and bitterness was not in his nature. When I take a survey of my closest friends, I find myself in the enviable position of having the same set of parents, in the same household, that I started out with – which makes me an aberration. I don’t mind.

Perhaps I suffer as a writer because I didn’t experience the agony of “daddy issues”, testosterone-laden competition between father and son, mutual disappointments, constant arguments, or the idea that he “just didn’t understand” me, but I can live with professional mediocrity if that’s the price of admission to greatness. Irv always understood me. He never tried to dominate me, or live life vicariously through me or my brothers. He never tried to make me conform to an uncomfortable social stereotype, or worry overmuch what other people thought about me. We were never trans-generationally alienated. From adolescence on he treated me like an intellectual equal, if an undereducated one. He never tried to push me into a career, or really do anything but exploit my natural talents and interests. He ensured I learned the skills I would need in manhood, and did it in a non-coercive way. Seeing how my peers were raised, I know full well how lucky I was in this.

I know he had issues with his own father, and that makes his parenting that much more impressive. Faced with an occasionally belligerent and rigid-minded dad himself, he went out of his way to raise us with a healthy dose of affection and demonstrated love. He did not become his father.

I said Irv was wise. That’s not something you hear often these days, that a man is Wise; Wisdom is a highly undervalued commodity in our world, but Irv, in his wisdom, knew that, and took advantage of it. He taught us to look at a situation fully before acting, not act in haste without sacrificing the spontaneity essential for a well-lived life, and stay informed on everything that could potentially help or harm us. He taught us how to make strangers into friends, and friends into allies. He taught the art of the Hat Trick, solving your or your friends’ problems through networking, craftiness, and initiative. He taught us how to tell when we’re being bullshitted. He taught us drywall and auto repair and how to do little inexpensive romantic things to keep your marriage running. He taught us how to pay attention to those with wisdom (that is, learning from the mistakes of others; everyone can learn from their own mistakes.). He taught us to be our own men.

Irv was, and still is, a Boy Scout leader. Despite the issues that have arisen surrounding that organization, it still has tremendous value as a repository for knowledge and wisdom – merit badges are “survival tickets” and the moral codes taught by the BSA, while often viewed through a very narrow, conservative lens, are nonetheless strong and important values that are rarely taught any where else. In his retirement he and my mom have become Red Cross volunteers and Ruritans, because helping out your neighbors in a crisis and making your community a better place is the right thing to do. He taught us that community service isn’t just something a judge makes you do. He taught us that Enlightened Self Interest often looks like pure altruism, if you don’t look too closely.

Irv is a political animal, astute in recognizing power structures and adept at realizing their strengths and weaknesses. He is a shrewd negotiator, mostly because he doesn’t try to “get the better end of the deal” all the time. He frequently views the Big Picture, trying to put local issues in a greater context and seeing how trends in the greater world will have a local effect. During his tenure at Durham County, he became known as “the man with the hat”, and it was rare we attended any public event without at least a few folks shouting “Irv!” gleefully, then introducing their entire family. Irv once confided that the hats he wore were a sort of reverse camouflage – he could go somewhere without it, and most folks wouldn’t recognize him off-hand. He could disappear just by taking off his hat. Ingenious.

Despite having nominally racist parents and living in an apparently racist society, Irv never went that route. He taught us to be conscious of race, especially in the South, and taught us how to view people for who they were, not what they were. He taught us to recognize that there are plenty of Black people who are assholes, and that there are plenty of White people who are assholes, and why it was in your best interest to avoid the assholes of whatever color. He has some racist friends of both colors – he doesn’t let a man’s political view stand in the way of friendship, unless it turns him into an asshole. We grew up in a mixed Black/White neighborhood, and I can’t imagine any other way. Truth to tell, I don’t think my father could live anyplace that didn’t have Black folks in it. He can admire aspects of the culture without feeling the need to self-consciously ape it, and he can find fault with the culture without feeling the need to criticize in a patronizing manner. He taught us that, too.

Irv is one of those rare and special Boomers who is not technophobic, which pleases me to no end. He gave me my appetite for high technology and science-fiction (he passed me Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones when I was 8, and it changed my life – not that the book was that special, but it was Real Grown Up Sci-Fi). He has a knack for seeing the social implications of a new piece of technology and projecting into the future what effect it might have. At this late stage he is embarking on a part-time job in computer hardware repair.

Irv knows a bargain when he sees it. While we were not the most affluent of families growing up, we usually lived much higher on the food chain than our family’s income would indicate, largely because my Mom is a demon shopper and my Dad can find hidden resources in the unlikeliest of places. He taught us that a two-year old car is better than a brand new car, and that the best car of all is one you got cheap and you can keep going until the wheels fall off. He isn’t above a good scavenge – he taught me that trash piles are unappreciated resources and that everything has value . . . eventually.

One of the most important lessons he taught me was that sometimes you just have to tip your head back and sing! That doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering – lots of people sing. But in his immediate family such public displays of emotion were heavily discouraged – an unfortunate by-product, along with hard teasing, of our Scottish cultural heritage, I believe. He spent twenty years teaching himself how to play guitar and sing. After twenty years he became a pretty decent guitar player. He never became a good singer. Didn’t improve one iota. Couldn’t carry a tune in a gunny sack. Had little musical talent at all – but that never once stopped him from expressing himself in the media he preferred. He still sings – badly – but he doesn’t play guitar any more.

Which brings me back to the present, and back to my mystical experience, and back to my appreciation of my father in a way I hadn’t fully realized before. A few weeks before my youngest son (“Holdju! Holdju!”) was born, my father suffered his second stroke. The first had been bad enough; it had reduced his range of movement and strength on his right side. With some physical therapy and determination he had come back to the point where you really had to look to notice any defect. This second stroke, though, struck hard. He is mostly paralyzed on his right side which, among other things, precludes his ever playing guitar again. That’s got to be devastating to a man who had little natural talent to begin with, and whose ability was almost entirely self taught. That was a tumultuous time for us all – my Dad came home from the hospital to live with me and my wife and kids, because they live out in the boonies and I was closer to the hospital, as well as having through no fault of my own a handicapped accessible shower and toilet. A week later we went back to the hospital for the youngest to be born. He now walks with a cane (“Papa’s Hook”) and a leg brace, and there is just the barest hint of a speech impediment. But he walks, and he talks, and he still sings upon occasion. No, the stroke didn’t make that any better, either. But not much worse.

The reason I bring all of this up is that on my 38th birthday I am realizing that my father’s influence on my life, the lessons he taught me, didn’t stop when I moved out of the house. They continue to this day. The struggle he has faced these last two years have revealed a great deal of his character and his personal vulnerabilities that I was previously unaware of. I’ve seen dark parts of my Dad that I’d rather not have experienced – quite understandable, under the circumstances. He still faces depression on a daily basis, I know. But in facing that struggle, with all of its attendant heartbreaks, disappointments, and profound feelings of loss, my father has taught me lessons as valuable as any imparted in childhood. He has taught me how to face the abyss in your own soul, how to challenge adversity, and how to adapt to changing circumstances.

As he stood in the Ruritan hall at the surprise party my mother had so adeptly arranged (haven’t forgotten about you, Mom, you get your own article), he looked out at the crowd of Boy Scouts and grandchildren and friends, and in that moment he taught me how to age gracefully, love life, and deal with adversity. For a half-paralyzed, retired old man on a fixed income, my Dad remains active: he’s rebuilding a 1960s era John Deer tractor that he dearly loves – one handed. He remains a Red Cross volunteer and Scout leader, as well as an active Ruritan. He has a network of friends and allies that Karl Rove would envy. He has six active grandchildren that he remains very engaged with – he’s the perfect grandfather. For a man with one good leg and a quickly-retrained left hand, he accomplishes a remarkable amount. If that ain’t a lesson, I don’t know what is.

But it all started, if my flashback was accurate, when I was a baby my son’s age or thereabouts, with me looking up to his bearded face (God, when he shaved his beard off once when I was 11 I freaked!) from the daycare center near to Mott Community College where he got his 2 year degree, my arms extended, hands waving, shouting my own version of “Holdju! Holdju!” when he came to get me. And the smile on his face when he reached down and picked me up and played with me in a manner which most manly men would have avoided, clinging instead to their rigid idea of traditional masculinity and the very minor role that babies play in it. I saw that smile reflected back at his 60th birthday party, and now when I look at the long, slow journey of middle age and beyond, with the inevitable conclusion, I know how to handle it. Because Irv taught me. He continues to teach me. And I have many more lessons yet to come.

So I reached over and picked up my last child, hugged him tight, and went all Goofydaddy for a good five minutes when there was probably some important stuff I had to do. Because I learned from Irv that my most important job in the world is making sure that my kids have a happy childhood and that they have a friend, first and foremost, in their father.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Monotheists, do not fear Pagans: all we want is your compost . . .

Every now and then I will come across an article that bemoans the loss of the undisputed dominance that Radical Monotheism, as personified in the Abrahamic Faiths, has had over Western Civilization for the last fifteen hundred years. Usually they cite the appearance of publicly worshiping pagans as a symptom of the general collapse of spiritual and moral values. They point to the increased public presence of homosexuality, feminism, environmentalism, and, various “attacks” on the unofficial but ubiquitous dominance of Christianity in our public sphere as proof. Where society at large pays respect to Western civilization’s pagan past, they holler loud, such as they did at the presence of statues of the Goddess of Justice, Themis, in courthouses or the celebration of Greece’s pagan past at the 2004 Olympics in Athens as “proof” that we are sliding away from a moral society. Nothing rouses their ire more than the idea that we are worshiping, not “God” as typified by Jehovah/Jesus/Allah, but Goddess, with Her own unique and individual identity. That really pisses them off.

And it leads them to the conclusion that we are somehow immoral or amoral, because we do not have God as Lawgiver at the head of our pantheon. While lambasting Wicca and the other Pagan faiths for this, referring to the apparent lack of ethical and moral underpinnings for our morality, they commonly make the erroneous conclusion that we are inconstant moral relativists who sail through life changing our moral and ethical standards at whim. Had they studied the matter more thoroughly, talked to some serious members of the Neo-Pagan community, and investigated our beliefs even casually, they would find otherwise. Pagans in general tend to have high ethical standards, as it is endemic to our beliefs and practices. While these standards are sometimes – if not often – at odds with the established Abrahamic faiths, they are not ideas foreign to Western Civilization.

One reason we Pagans were excited about the return of the Olympic Games to their original home – if not to their original purpose as a religious celebration – is that it acknowledged and even celebrated one of the major pillars of Western Civilization: the contribution of these ancient Pagans to our identity as members of this civilization.

Often overshadowed by the more recent contributions of the Abrahamic faiths – faiths that codify the rites, customs, and laws of one single culture into the rule for all – the contributions of the Classical Pagans are easily as valid and important to the development of our civilization as those brought by the People of the Book.

Could you deny the profound moral and ethical effect that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and the other Greeks had on our culture? Many Radical Monotheists conveniently forget that their modern ideas and ideals were both born in hearts raised in a vibrant, sophisticated polytheistic culture, which included (gasp!) goddess worship. Yet the same moral absolutists who deride us for “picking and choosing” spiritual elements from other sources have no problem pillaging the Classical Pagans for the ideas they find useful (Logic, mathematics, ethics, philosophy, democracy) while rejecting out of hand the spiritual foundation on which these ideas were built.

In delving into the emerging Neo-Pagan religion they would have found a body of deeply spiritual people, well educated and no more hedonistic than most of our Monotheistic peers. But we are not a people of Faith (the absolute belief in God without proof), as the Abrahamic religions are, but a people devoted to Wisdom (the art and science of Doing the Right Thing at the Right Time). We often value the truth of personal experience over the vagaries of interpreting the written word. We hold the development of our personal conscience more important than our perceived transgressions against written spiritual law. And we favor adaptability to our rapidly changing world over the blind acceptance of our circumstance as the will of a single, remote deity. Neo-Pagans place a higher premium on Responsibility, personal and cultural, than we do on Sin and its attendant apparatus. Neo-Paganism may be seen as a sort of shallow spiritual buffet by some, but is in actuality the realization of an emerging religious paradigm, one dedicated to navigating the complex web of modern life and not to the fulfillment of the prophecies of desert-born mystics.

It is therefore somewhat galling that some Evangelicals have used Jerry Falwell’s infamous statement on Neo-Paganism’s spiritual responsibility for the current War on Terror as a welcome word of caution about the dangers of our times. Considering that the parties involved are all Radical Monotheists, it seems supremely ironic to scapegoat the Neo-Pagan community for the crimes committed on September 11 and since by all sides.

To my knowledge no polytheists were involved, directly or indirectly, in the fight (Apart, that is, from a few brave and dedicated Neo-Pagans in America’s military forces who are today in harm’s way because their “moral relativism” made them patriotic and committed enough to American ideals to volunteer to do so). As a rule Pagans feel no need to spend their lives in futile martyrdom, dying to protect the Holy Land – for we see all land as holy. We find the depredations performed by Monotheists on one another as not only morally repugnant and unworthy of the very God they profess to worship, but also as dangerous and haphazard steps toward unconscionable human suffering, theocratic totalitarianism, and our eventual extinction as a species.

While it is all to easy for Monotheists to see polytheism as a cause for the current crises, I counter that the viciousness of al Qaida, the War on Terror, the Intifatah, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the skirmishes in this conflict, known and unknown, are due entirely to the failure of Radical Monotheism to live up to its own grand ideals. For Radical Monotheism and the Abrahamic Faiths have it as an axiom that divine favor and utopic society can be achieved at the price of conformity of belief and adherence to “divine” law— as properly interpreted – and, outside of small, dedicated and openly mocked religious communities it has utterly failed to deliver. Unfettered capitalism and modern consumer materialism, after all, were inventions of Monotheists, not the pagans, new or old. Yet we continually receive the brunt of the blame for these problems in our society.

On the contrary, Neo-Pagans are not the cause of the problems, or even a symptom of the “sickness” of Western Civilization. We are, instead, a natural result of the failure of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to adequately address the grave political, ecological, economical, social and spiritual problems that have arisen as a result of their own “successes”. We are the natural and entirely predictable result of the pluralism and pursuit of liberty our Founding Fathers enshrined into our most basic laws. As the great Monotheisms flounder around grave moral matters and the fundamental questions of our time, they have squandered whatever spiritual capital they may have once had in scandal, belligerence, and a thirst for political power that belies whatever great spiritual truths they may hold. If the presence of paganism is indicative of the erosion of “former certainties” that everyone worships the same indivisible divinity, as many Radical Monotheists insist, should we not call into question the absolute nature of those certainties? Are they worthy, necessarily, of fighting, killing, and dying over?

Polytheism by its very nature can contain within itself the concept of monotheism; the reverse is certainly not true. The belief in more than one aspect of Divinity, and the idea that it might be represented as both male and female, as is all of Creation, has caused considerable alarm in the Radical Monotheistic community. They gaze in abject horror at our willingness to see the universe differently than they and their immediate ancestors did, refusing to recognize that we have left behind Monotheism in general and Judaism and Christianity specifically because, as currently preached and practiced, they just don’t work. When their neighbors dare to consider the compassionate embrace of the Goddess as personally preferable to the baleful eye of a jealous and wrathful God, the Radical Monotheists proceed to have fits. That’s not the way the prophets said it should be, after all – even if that way seems to lead clearly to our destruction as a race.

Though we are denied and derided, we will persist because we are, in the final analysis, survivors. If the worship of the Great Goddess could lay dormant in our civilization for fifteen centuries only to spring forth again in such a dramatic fashion without (I might point out) any conscious desire of Neo-Pagans to prosetheltize, it must have some value to its adherence beyond simple “idol worship”. How the Radical Monotheists deal with it will tell us much about their moral and ethical character.

In the meantime, I assure all of you Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews and Radical Islamicists that despite your fears about us, society is not dominated by pagans – far from it. Radical Monotheism is still the default religion of the majority, and Polytheism is a tiny and innocuous nascent religion, often mistaken for a cult (we aren’t that organized). Many outspoken Monotheists will even admit that we are a tiny minority, a few hundred thousand on a continent of hundreds of millions. Our own estimates place our numbers closer to a million, but the statistical difference between the two is negligible: we are a tiny, tiny minority in our nation, with little control and virtually no organization. In pointing us out, they have given us far, far more credit for our impact on “pop culture” and the American Experience than we justly deserve.

We don’t offer an Ultimate Answer – we have seen three great religions propose them, and the results thereof, and we are not interested in such. But we do offer an alternative, one outside of the Abrahmic sphere of influence and absent its considerable baggage. If the Monotheistic establishment is indeed that worried about us, I encourage them to look elsewhere for the cause of his complaint. We are not to blame. We are a minority religion immersed in a culture often unfriendly and ignorant of our true beliefs, leaving us open to frequent attack and persecution by the majority – a similar position enjoyed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at various points of their history.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Very Wiccan Holiday Season

Ah, Yule! That glorious time of year that brings out goodwill towards men, the kindness of strangers, the fragrance of fresh-cut greenery and the inevitable prospect of numerous church-state First Amendment court cases on the part of the Evangelical Conservative Christians on the Right, and the litigious Wiccans on the . . . well, call it the Left, because the Evangelicals have certainly put it in those terms.

If you read the news, that’s likely the context in which you have been exposed to Wicca as a modern religion. It perennially pops up as third-page news every Hallowe’en (based on the Celtic fire festival Samhain and regularly reclaimed and rejected by above-referenced Evangelicals) and Christmas (all the Christmas Trees, mistletoe, crackling fires and gift-giving around the Winter Solstice have a distinctly Pagan feel and Pagan history about them) because of the Pagan connotations.

But what was once fairly safe historical-interest filler for the Religion section of the paper is now a hotbed of religious contention over symbols, beliefs, and public displays during the holiday season. Yes, those holidays were derived from Pagan roots, but until recently Paganism was a historical footnote, not taken seriously in the Western world of Religion as anything but fodder for quaint tradition.

No more. Wicca is a Pagan religion. It does not accept any scripture from the Ancient Middle East as a valid spiritual authority. It is a pantheistic/polytheistic Nature-oriented religion. It is protected by the First Amendment, recognized by the US Military (“an equal-opportunity employer”) and the legally savvy Wiccans are going to do everything they can to ensure that their beliefs are respected by the courts, if not the present Administration and the public-at-large.

Pretty heady stuff for a “made up” religion with less than 1 million practitioners in North America.

Wicca has been practiced in the Western world for over 50 years, now. Yet some claim that Wicca (an Old English-derived term for Witch, as in Witchcraft, as in magic, spells, wands and brooms) is some kind of kooky “made up” religion that was invented by an aging British civil servant, Gerald Gardner, in the 1950s. Still others claim that Wicca is the continuation of an ancient goddess-centric spirituality that dates back to Paleolithic times – when the evidence breaks down, blame the “monotheistic patriarchy” for trying to hide the truth. The facts and the truth lie somewhere between those extremes.

One of the common arguments against Wicca as a “real” religion is the fact that some early practitioners (way back in the mists of time, say the late 1960s, early 1970s), in an attempt to borrow legitimacy for their beliefs, made claims about the historical roots of the religion, often citing Margaret Murray’s now-discredited The Witch Cult in Western Europe as source material. With the rise of Wiccan practitioners in the 1990s, a whole new wave of historical re-interpretation was launched, asserting the overtly feminist history (or herstory, if you will) of Wicca, mainly basing their position on popular books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. Both books asserted a prehistoric matriarchal culture that universally worshipped a Mother Goddess, and the latter work claimed that Wicca was a descendent, spiritual or direct, of that cult. The scholarship was uneven, speculative, and in some places just fantastic; and while the books brought up an interesting – even inspiring –proposition, using them as a credible source for a historical base of the religion is difficult at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Wicca, as it is currently practiced, was largely formed by a small group of British mystics in the 1950s, themselves spiritual descendents of the previous age of British mystics who had used the British Empire as their spiritual smorgasbord. By borrowing mystical concepts from such diverse sources as Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and the Western European Occult tradition in the form of Freemasonry, Astrology and Alchemy, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and Alex Saunders, among others, “created” the bare bones of the religion now known as Wicca.
Most Wiccans are aware of that. Most Wiccans are cool with that.

Because the need to legitimize a spiritual belief by rooting it in the soil of ancient tradition or teaching is one of the legacies our culture bears from the Abrahamic Faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Wicca has grown and matured over the last 50 years, however, a large number of Wiccans have recognized that theirs is a syncretic faith. Upon further study, so were Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This apparently occurs every couple of hundred years or so: as the society and technology and the economy change, so to does Religion change to conform to the spiritual needs of the people. It is no accident that Wicca’s recent popularity has coincided with the rise of the Internet, or the post-industrial economy.

The fact of the matter is that absent of any historically legitimizing text or practice, Wicca is a vibrant, potent spiritual movement in today’s society – much to the chagrin of many Christians, who take the very presence of this tiny religion as a sign of the Apocalypse. Wicca’s numbers have grown exponentially in the last few decades. And unlike previous nascent faiths, it has done so while actively shunning proselytizing of any sort. It has no central organization – and damn little local organization of any sort – and very few widely acknowledged leaders. Websites about Wicca abound, and are filled with as much rumor, urban myth and bad history as they are useful and practical information on the religion. With no central . . . anything, it’s easy to see how confusing things might get. As any three Wiccans of their opinion of any conceivable theological topic, it is said, and you will get five answers and a fight.

All of that being said, Wicca continues to expand, grow, and mature. Especially mature. No longer a “kooky cult”, it has been around long enough now to attract serious academic study as well as develop a very generalized theology, body of ritual, custom and lore. And virtually none of it came from ancient sources.

Are Wiccans “making it up as they go along”, as so many critics have insisted? Not quite. In the very best of religious traditions, Wicca is borrowing many diverse elements and creating a faith out of it. While this rankles the nostrils of those academicians who have spent their entire career viewing religion through a text-based filter, the fact remains that Wicca has co-opted perfectly sound religious principals from other religions . . . and other philosophical sources.

Feminist philosophy is one. One of the hallmarks of Wicca is the return of the Goddess – not the return of any specific pre-Christian Goddess, necessarily, but a return to the acknowledgement that Divinity has a female face as well as a long white beard. One common complaint among Wiccans about the current dominant faiths is that they are nearly totally lacking in divine feminine archetypes, and they place much of the burden of Christianity’s past sins squarely on its patriarchal shoulders. Bring back the Goddess, the Wiccans say, invite Her into your life and you invite Compassion, Love, and Caritas into your life. They aren’t pushy about it, and this isn’t the central focus for a lot of Wiccans, but Goddess Spirituality is a cornerstone of the religion.

Environmental Spirituality is another. As the effect of man’s presence on this globe is finally being felt in ways that cannot be ignored, a rise in the veneration of Nature and Ecology is to be expected. For some Wiccans it is a matter of picking up litter at public parks; for others it is the restoration or protection of environmentally sensitive areas. Combining social activism with religion is nothing new – Christianity and Islam have done it over and over – even if the realm of the Environment is relatively new spiritual territory. It helps that in absence of an Armageddon-like end-game, Wiccans are looking towards continued habitation on this planet for at least a few more hundred years. Elevating the Environment to the status of divine gives it more gravitas as an issue for them.

Science Fiction and Fantasy have also contributed to the syncretic nature of Wicca. While rarely used as “canonical” texts, Wiccans as a rule are as much well-educated bookworms as they are radical feminists or Green activists. Wicca in practice has co-opted much from the Society for Creative Anachronism, Sci-Fi Conventions, Star Trek, Star Wars, Renaissance Faires, and similar institutions, and the bookshelf of the average Wiccan has as much classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy as it does spellbooks. This gives Wicca a spiritual link to both the Past (Medieval Fantasy) and the Future (Science Fiction). It allows the religion to be open to new experiences and influences, such as the Internet and technology, as well as glean spiritually important insights from the past. The whole Goth aspect of Wicca stems from this wellspring. If the Geeks really will inherit the Earth, it will be a bunch of Dungeon-and-Dragons playing Wiccan Trekkies in charge.

The influence of “Eastern” religions is also present. While the belief in reincarnation shared by most practitioners was, indeed, a central tenant of the ancient Druids, it is more commonly understood by Wiccans today through a Hindu/Buddhist filter. Other Eastern spiritual practices inform the religious observances of Wiccans, without being a core component of the religion as a whole: martial arts, yoga, Chinese herbalism, acupuncture, and other exotic elements with very practical applications have seeped into Wicca. There’s also been a bit of Native American tradition picked up, which frequently annoys Native Americans. Most of the Wiccans don’t seem to mind.

Wicca is a syncretic faith, like all of the others. It has a dubious origin and questionable mythology, like all of the others. It has its zealots, its apostates, its martyrs, and its saints, just like all the others.

What it has that the Big Three lack is a deep spiritual commitment to Diversity and a focus on Wisdom (The Art and Science of Doing The Right Thing At The Right Time) instead of Faith (Absolute Belief Without Proof). It glorifies the sanctity of the individual spiritual experience instead of exalting the interpretation of the written word. It seeks religious truth through personal introspection instead of through conversion and confession. It is a religion of Orthopraxy (“Right Action”) as opposed to Orthodoxy (“Right Belief”). And it is an emergent faith, one that is still growing, still changing, still evolving.

And that’s cool with the Wiccans, too.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Pagan Response to Terrorism

Recently there has been a number of articles posted in the Wiccasphere about the moral position that modern Paganism has on the current War on Terror, and on terrorism in general. Most of these Pagan responses take into consideration our religious preference to eschew terms like “evil” when faced with complex moral issues such as the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks and the bombings in Madrid and London.

Yet I have to disagree with some of the conclusions, namely the idea that Pagans can theologically reject the concept of Evil. Certainly, the idea of a kind of institutional evil has been shamefully used by the dominant culture against more marginalized cultures for millennia, now. It was all too easy for Christian and Moslem missionaries to encounter aboriginal cultural practices that did not fit within their narrow idea of morality; this enabled them to classify such practices as “evil”, “the work of Satan”, or simply “immoral” and, therefore, justify an extreme, brutal, and (in many cases) economically lucrative response. One of the hallmarks of the modern Pagan Resurgence has been a rejection of this dualistic paradigm in favor of a more measured, more relative idea of morality.

But that does not mean that we have totally abandoned the idea of evil as a force in our world today. When faced with such astonishing events as the Holocaust, the A-bomb and other Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the periodic genocides that plague our world, it is hard to say that evil isn’t a valid descriptor of these things. As a Pagan thealogian I have had my share of debates with Abrahamists of all traditions on the subject of evil, and the issue is often how evil is defined by the relative morality of Paganism compared to the absolutist morality of the God of Abraham. And while most Pagans would agree that personifying evil as the Abrahamists do is both inappropriate and destructive to society at large, I think that we can, in fact, reach a good, general rule-of-thumb Pagan consensus on the subject: if it looks evil, it probably is.

On the face of it I agree with most of my colleagues’ basic premise: that suffering the recent terrorist attacks is one of the results of our decades-old foreign and economic policies, and that terrorism is the only available military response of the Oppressed. History is replete with examples of oppressed religious, ethnic, and national groups responding to unbearable pressure by resorting to violence – what the military currently calls “asymmetrical warfare”. In the past it was also known as “guerrilla warfare”, “irregular warfare”, “low-intensity warfare”, “insurgency”, and “politically based banditry”. It’s what happens when a group of people feels that no recourse but violence, but they don’t have the resources for a tank regiment. In other words, War on a budget.

Asymmetrical Warfare is the type of war known as a Police War; instead of infantry and cavalry, air support and supply chains, a Police War has other operators. It usually uses the regular and “special” police of a nation as soldiers, uses criminal-style organizations, and uses assassination, sabotage, espionage, counter-espionage, propaganda, press-releases, publicity stunts, kidnapping, theft, indictments, treachery, politics, and any number of dirty tricks to carry out the war. There are, at any given time, hundreds of these Police Wars going on between rival power groups. And it is important to keep that in mind when we talk about this: all warfare is a struggle between rival power groups with a goal to set policy.

Police War, like all war, is “diplomacy by other means”; a way for one group to get what they want over the interests of another group. Police Wars are usually undeclared, as they often take place between groups without proper states or governments behind them. Police War covers struggles as diverse as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque separatists, the finally ending Ulster conflict, the endless narcotics wars in Latin America, the struggles between the Mafia and law-enforcement, innumerable revolutionary movements, and even some struggles between corporations may evolve into this kind of conflict – Halliburton comes to mind. Our own Revolutionary War started as a Police War before we got the French involved. In all cases, though, the goal is to project power in order to influence policy, like other types of warfare. And a Police War can be won or lost like any other kind of war.

Police Wars can be subtle affairs, such as the complicated and largely secret 50-year dance of the Cold War superpowers; or they can be nasty, bloody, and very public, as the IRA and the Basque Separatists once demonstrated. They can be conducted with wide-spread popular support, as the French Resistance enjoyed in WWII, or they can be fought with a handful of die-hard fanatics who are generally despised by the public, as was the 17 November organization in Greece. The classic model is that of a small, lightly armed insurgency organized by clandestine cells and embedded within a civilian population versus a larger, better funded and equipped government military force.

But Police War is still a war, and war has rules. That has been established since the earliest days of the professional warrior. And while these rules change as politics and technology evolve, there are some that are unwritten and universal: such as the crime of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Any professional soldier – or professional revolutionary – despises that kind of conduct and recognizes that it is almost always counter-productive in fulfilling the aim of war, i.e. establishing the right to set policy.

Civilians get hurt in war all the time. The military has plenty of euphemisms concerning this unpleasant fact: “collateral damage” is the newest way to clean it up. Civilians have always been in the wrong place at the wrong time in war. Bombs do not recognize uniforms, and bullets can’t tell a farmer from a sapper. It is one of the greatest horrors of war, and in every discussion about the rules of engagement since the Stone Age, it has been agreed by professional warriors of all stripes and cultures that purposefully targeting civilians is anathema. Even the Mafia has rules about such things.

This is true especially in a Police War where civilians can be easily damaged, by both sides. Asymmetrical Warfare presupposes that an insurgency is going to hide among a civilian population, which means that inevitably the innocent will be swept up by the government in efforts to net actual insurgents – and some will be wrongfully accused, mistakenly prosecuted, and summarily executed or imprisoned without charge. Similarly, insurgents will often “shake down” civilians for supplies and support, often resorting to threats of violence to do so, or target innocents for assassinations based on faulty intelligence about collaborators in their midst or as leverage against a target. But making war on a civilian population is never a good idea from a policy standpoint. It loses the insurgents their base, and it alienates the people from the government that is trying to fight the insurgency – and collect taxes.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen – indeed, it happens at some point in nearly every war. But that doesn’t make it any more right, or less reviled, by any belief system. The soldiers and revolutionaries and politicians who fight a Police War know the risks of what they do. The average farmer or shopkeeper or commuter does not, and it is universally unjust to include him into the battlefield without his knowledge. When you make war on civilians you are increasing suffering for no real political cause. As a Pagan thealogian, notorious for promoting our “relativist morality”, I deem unnecessary suffering as a universal evil.

So without descending to the level of using the term “evil” to describe one side of our current conflict (which , thanks to Abrahamic Dualism, implies that our side is therefore “good”) I would propose that the actions in the case of the Jihadi war against the West should be viewed by Pagans as violations of the essential rules of war. As such, it is to be condemned, regardless of the religion of the critic, the victim, or the terrorist, as evil.

Most of us cling to the Rede (“An it Harm Ye None, Do What Thou Wilt.”) as our guiding moral principal, whether we are Wiccan or not. But the Rede doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it always be interpreted in a way that covers the myriad of ethical concerns we face on a daily basis. As a Pagan, I use it as a great rule-of-thumb to make my moral decisions. But I also use two other important guides to daily living to assist me in the ethical labyrinth that I am faced with: the Path of Wisdom and the Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality.

The Path of Wisdom is an unwritten (or custom-written) set of practical suggestions for the express purpose of Doing the Right Thing at the Right Time. It includes every scrap of useful lore you were ever exposed to, and it is frequently referred to as “common sense”, although as many have pointed out, it is a lot less common that we would prefer. The Path of Wisdom is constantly evolving and changing as we grow and develop our own moral and ethical judgments. It is guided by conscience and tempered by experience. It covers all of those “gray areas” that are left open by the Rede, and it is unique in form and composition for every Pagan.

The Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality are the rules of “civilized” behavior that were developed by our Paleopagan ancestors to regulate the rights, obligations and responsibilities of an individual in peace or in war. It may seem antiquated, archaic, or even obsolete to some in our modern age – Christianity, industrialism and Marxist theory have dramatically eroded its popular respect over the years. And while they may seem like quaint matters of simple politeness now, in the formative years of the great Pagan civilizations these Codes were elevated to the status of holy sacraments in nearly all cultures. The Roman cult of Jupiter, for example, held Hospitality as a religious rite, not merely a social institution. The Codes were created to inform the people about what kind of behavior they could reasonably expect in certain situations.

For example, if a wounded stranger wanders into your territory, you are obliged by the Code of Hospitality to take him in, feed him, nurse him to health, and allow him to leave your lands unimpeded (providing, of course, that he did not himself violate the Codes). Likewise, as a guest you have the obligation not to steal or damage your hosts’ property, to treat his kin with the same courtesy and respect you would treat your own, and to contribute in whatever way is appropriate to the management of his estate.

The Code of Chivalry regulated the affairs of warriors and the conduct of war. While the term eventually morphed into a high-minded set of rules of etiquette for the upper class, at its base it was developed to bring a semblance order to the bloody business of warfare. It codified the elements of mercy and fairness that make up the foundation of our human society. It made the word of the Warrior his bond, to be kept no matter the price. It established the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak without demeaning them. It institutionalizes the idea of a Warrior’s Honor, without which he is little more than a thug with a sword. And among its most sacred principals was avoiding the purposeful slaughtering of civilians – especially women and children. Such a crime was a supreme dishonor.

Archaic though this idea may be, the ideal still holds tremendous resonance for modern Pagans. Chivalry was the code adopted voluntarily by the male fighting elite as a means of practicing compassion, an essential and boundless quality of the Goddess. Chivalry predates the Christian expansion into northern Europe (despite the Arthurian cycle) – indeed, the early Church fought hard against it, blaming it for institutionalizing warfare (true), until it wised up and co-opted the institution. At its core was the idea that it was a Warrior’s duty to protect the tribe, clan, family, temple, and nation – but to do so with honor, even if it meant the death of the warrior.

Nor was it an exclusively European invention. The Moslems certainly had their own Koranic code of Chivalry, as did the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese. The idea of Chivalry was developed in many cultures, and while the specifics of the Code changed with relation to time and culture, the central idea was universal. The Warrior is ultimately responsible for his own actions – and the actions of his warband. The ends do not justify the means, no matter how important the cause. War may be inevitable, but it need not bring more suffering than absolutely necessary.

Starhawk, one of the prominent spokeswitches in our religion, has made an analysis of the moral issue of terrorism. At the root, her analysis is framed with the idea that as horrible as terror attacks are, they exist in a context that must be appreciated in order to understand that horror. That we are, in effect, reaping what we have sown as Westerners for allowing our governments and corporations to create a climate where this kind of violence can thrive. While I cannot disagree that corporate leaders bear some large share of responsibility for the current situation – especially the petroleum consortium that exploits the oil resources of the Middle-East – and that our politicians have been sadly myopic in designing both foreign and economic policies in this region, I feel that Starhawk ultimately misses the mark when it comes to a Pagan perspective on this conflict.

For Paganism is not an inherently pacifistic religion, despite the personal convictions of many of its adherents. As I write this there are hundreds of Pagans in military service and police work – even in the Central Intelligence Agency, if my sources are correct. They are putting their lives on the line for our freedoms, regardless of the asinine leadership of our politicians, and we should honor and respect these Pagan warriors for their individual sacrifice and high personal ideals. I appreciate Starhawk’s syncretism of progressive ideals and the re-emergence of the Goddess, and applaud her continuing struggles for social justice – but from a thealogical perspective, I remind her that it is the right of all species and peoples to defend themselves in the face of aggression, no matter what the source.

One of the things I have learned of the Goddess is that She is capable of boundless compassion for all of Her children. She is truly the All Mother, and she looks after us and loves us all, even when we fight amongst ourselves. It’s a learning experience, after all, and we acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is necessary to suffer to learn, even if the lessons learned don’t become manifest until the next lifetime. But She does not abide unnecessary suffering. If there is a Pagan definition of “evil”, that has to be it.

When the World Trade Center was attacked, I was as rabid as any Red Stater about the necessity of removing a brutally oppressive regime from Afghanistan in retribution for their support of the terrorists who murdered 3000 people in an utterly senseless and unnecessary infliction of suffering on my people. I did this knowing that there would inevitably be civilian casualties and wanton destruction. But I saw it as necessary, even as I prayed to the Goddess to protect the innocent. And I stand by that position.

I was also vocal about the utter foolishness of prosecuting the Iraqi war – ethical and moral considerations aside, it was a fundamentally unwise decision – and I (successfully) predicted the result. Our current Administration and their political cronies are de facto imperialists, turning our nation into a hegemonic Imperium, firmly in the pocket of commercial and Evangelical interests. And they apparently have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of Wisdom. While fighting a bloody war on someone else’s territory may have some resonance in the heartland, sticking your hands into a hornet’s nest and clapping merits a dunce cap, not a victory lap.

Starhawk is also correct in her assertion that Pagans have no centralized . . . anything. The website, a kind of Pagan USA Today, is our only truly common forum. We pride ourselves on our individual right to choose and decide and bear responsibility for those decisions and beliefs. We regularly receive criticism from text-based religions about our lack of absolute values, and why it makes us a kooky cult instead of a valid religion. But that does not stop us from recognizing, as a community, the innate wrongness that the Jihadis have demonstrated in their global insurgency. Without labeling their cause as evil, I feel fully justified at labeling their actions as evil when they make random war on civilian populations.

They are falling into the same pit of evil that the Marxists did last century: using an ideological system to justify random violence, to make it OK for angry young men to express their testosterone poisoning by blowing things up. If a group wants to prosecute a war of liberation, a secessionist movement, a struggle for ethnic or religious identity, or the violent redress of grievances from a brutal and oppressive regime, fine. There are lawful and moral ways to do so, some of which do include killing people blowing things up. Even guerilla wars have rules, though, and even wide-eyed fanatical holy warriors have honor. Regardless of the cause, regardless of the situation, violating such a fundamental aspect of the international Code of Chivalry is no less than evil – and should be called out as such by any Pagan who gives the matter much thought.