Women and Religion in the West edited by Aune, Sharma and Vincett

Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization
Edited by Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Giselle Vincett
Vermont/England: Ashgate Publishing Company
230 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the first issue of Thorn Magazine, which I reviewed here.

Women and Religion in the West, far from being a feel-good “we are all sisters” text, is an ambitious project that focuses on the female interpretation of religion and religiosity in the West. It is set within the context of a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, and whose discussion of secularization is also often male-dominated. Additionally, it avoids the common practice of approaching Christianity alone; while that religion is explored, Islam and new religious movements are given ample coverage as well. Each religious category receives its own section of the book, with four essays per section.

All twelve essays in this book are solid. While each essayist has a unique interpretation of the theme, there are a few that particularly stand out.

–“Religious Change in the West: Watch the Women” by Penny Long Marler: Are women the longtime “secret weapon” of organized religion? Marler makes a convincing argument that while men may have been the primary figureheads of Christianity, it is the women who have been the cohesive congregation that made the religion possible. She details demographic and social changes since industrialization, as well as the effects of the defection of women from organized religions to more free-form spiritualities. While the roles of women have often been relegated to the background, the “pink-collar” occupations and volunteer stations within Christianity have created the backbone of the religion. Particularly noteworthy is the adept approach to the nuclear family—and the current disintegration thereof—in conjunction with trends in the Christian religion. As the social structures that rely primarily on the nuclear family are replaced by more flexible ones, the roles of women shift as well. Marler points out research showing that in the Western world, while women may take the role of only homemaker, or only career woman, the majority have a foot in each world, able to adapt as necessary. The pink-collar roles within traditional Christianity have relied on the stay-at-home mother who is a staple of the nuclear family; as that particular structure has become less common, so has adherence to traditional religious structures. Beyond the church, though, there are implications in these changes even for industrial-capitalist economies, and male-dominated society, which Marler discusses to some extent.

–“The Soul of Soulless Conditions: Paganism, Goddess Religion and Witchcraft in Canada” by Sian Reid: While there is a modern trend to perceive secularization as the most advanced stage of cultural religious development, Reid counters with the fact that numerous women continue to find meaning through belief—albeit through spirituality rather than organized religion. She particularly focuses on pagan religions in Canada, as well as on the importance of the feminine Divine to many female pagans. I was particularly struck by research that noted that female and male neopagans may approach the Goddess in different manners: “…while women are inclined to speak of Goddess spirituality in terms of larger gender inequalities and as a means of obtaining ‘self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify’…men are less likely to make reference to patriarchal social structures, and tend to discuss the Goddess ‘more as an expressive or nurturing force that aided one’s immediate self’” (127). This and other general statements may lead to some hearty debate among practicing pagans, and make the essay well worth reading. Reid’s ultimate conclusion, though, is that while traditional religions may be losing adherents, Canadian women are still finding outlets for belief—to include a mirror of themselves in Deity, and the structure of modern pagan religious systems that allow for more flexibility and personal expression.

–“Being Seen By Many Eyes: Muslim Immigrant Women in the United States” by Garbi Schmidt: Schmidt opens this essay by emphasizing some of the basic stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with Islam and Muslim women in particular, but this is just the beginning. The meaning and politics behind such things as the hijab, the veil that is so strongly associated with Muslim women; the specific roles and niches occupied by women within Islam; Muslim women as sexual beings; and other controversial topics are discussed in depth. Schmidt offers an excellent balance between exposing the stereotypes that exist, and denying those stereotypes power through counter-arguments and contrary examples from real life. She shows how faith is a source of strength for Muslim women, even with the negative aspects and assumptions, and it’s a truly eye-opening essay. What’s particularly remarkable is the discussion of Muslim women using differences to their benefit, rather than as a source of stress. While this is not a universal practice, Karima, one of Schmidt’s interviewees, turns the role of being Other into an advantage. Schmidt remarks, “Rather than choosing a strategy of retreat, she stresses the very elements that make her different. Difference becomes a powerful way of marking identity in public spaces. The identity and political position she chooses to take within the United States equally compels her to position herself towards and even against other localities, for example the region her parents came from. Within these diverse contexts, Islam becomes a means for protest and reform” (209). This theme of activism continues through the experiences of women in Schmidt’s essay, and counters the stereotype of the Muslim woman as a hidden, trapped figure.

Pagans should not make the mistake of shying away simply because some of the essays involve monotheistic religions. There is much to learn from all of the essayists regardless of their stance. Additionally, those who were curious, incensed, or puzzled about Kristin Aune’s claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is convincing thousands of women to leave church every year may want to get a more solid feel for Aune’s research on women and Christianity. It’s not about pop culture, so much as it is about the state of being a single woman within religious communities, and how this is a state of non-normativity (compared to the state of being married, which according to Aune “continues to hold sway as the normative status in contemporary Britain” (67).

The tone of this book may come across as being fundamentally against traditional religious structures, as the majority of the material concerns women who are defecting from those structures to more free-form spiritualities. One particular exception is Maria Trzebiatowska’s “Vocational Habit(u)s: Catholic Nuns in Contemporary Poland”, a discussion of women entering into a deeper relationship with traditional religious structures despite secularization and criticism by peers. Christianity, however, seems to get the brunt of the theme of anti-religiosity.

Additionally, the relatively limited scope of religions discussed may beg the question of how these themes apply to women in other religions. Judaism is a glaring omission, for example; how might modern Jewish women approach secularization, as well as traditional (particularly orthodox) structures within their religious communities? There is plenty of ground left unexplored, and it almost would have been better to release a series of books, each focusing on a particular religion, to bring more depth to the topic.
Overall, though, this is a much-needed discussion about the state of religion in the world today, with the added benefit of breaking the male-dominated mold too often found in religious studies. Even those not of a particularly sociological bent will find the material to be informative and applicable to everyday religious and spiritual interactions and experiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles

Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes
Christopher Knowles
Weiser Books, 2007
234 pages

I had a number of reasons for being really excited about reading this book. One, I am a geek. While I’m a bit of a latecomer to comic book geekery in specific, I’ve done a good bit of catching up. Two, I’m also a sometimes-practitioner of pop culture magic (a concept that my husband, who wrote a practical guide on it, introduced me to). There’s really not much about the intersection of occultism and pop culture out there other than some examinations of trends in movies and books in general, so this text pinged a lot of my geek buttons.

The idea itself is excellent: examine the trappings of the occult in various comic books, both from major publishers like DC and Marvel, and smaller indy publishers, as well as the relationship comic book fans have to the characters and stories as modern-day mythology. There’s plenty of material available, some of it subtle, a good deal of it (especially recently) more open.

Knowles most definitely knows his comic books, at least more mainstream ones. He draws on a wide variety of titles, and brings in a lot of little details about their origins (occult and otherwise). He also explains the contexts in which different characters were created and/or revived, particularly social and political issues, which adds significantly to the depth of his research. His research on the various flavors of occultism in and of itself is pretty solid as well; I’m not sure how active he himself is, but if he’s coming more from the perspective of an observer, he’s done pretty well.

His enthusiasm for the topic comes through in his writing, and I’d love to hear him speak about comic books sometime. He makes nonfiction into a story, as his writing has a narrative quality to it. I would love to read just a straight comic book history from this author. This book could have used extra proofreading, as there are some typos, but that’s not on the author.

Unfortunately, the execution of the material wasn’t nearly as good as I had hoped. First, the book feels more like it’s written for the comic book end of the audience rather than the occultists, despite having been picked up by one of the premiere occult and pagan publishers in the industry, and seems to have been promoted primarily within the comic book scene. It’s a book entirely composed of theory and research, rather than any practical material. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, other than that the bias may be a bit disappointing to those expecting more occult-specific material.

The organization of the text leaves much to be desired. The chapters don’t always segue well from one to the next. Additionally, and this is a big complaint on my part, Knowles spends a lot of ink interjecting 101 material both about the history of comics and occultism. Given that there are numerous texts that cover these concepts more than adequately, the space could have been better put to use. The same goes for the bulk of the material on the actual occult aspects of comic book characters. It reads mostly like a laundry list or a high school report; there’s not a lot of analysis of the information amid the statement of the facts. And while Knowles does cite some sources here and there, he engages in a LOT of speculation about the supposed occult influences on various characters. Granted, we know a lot more about the activities of, say, Grant Morrison than we do about Jack Kirby, thanks to interviews and so forth. However, speculation should be presented as just that, not as undisputed fact.

I really think that the laundry list should have been shortened significantly, and a lot of the not-directly-relevant 101 material cut out. What would have been more valuable would have been extending the more solid information that we do have–for example, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman and their occult-influenced works could easily have been given a chapter apiece. While I don’t think the contributions of Kirby and others should have been ignored, I think Knowles missed the chance to go more in-depth with some of these creators and their creations.

The same goes for the “reverent” approach towards heroes that Knowles attributes to many comic book fans. He hints at it here and there, but never really examines it in detail. Given that there are people who work with comic book characters in magical practice, and folks who see them as modern manifestations of ancient archetypes in spirituality, he could have done some research on this sort of modern practice. Of course, he also refers to Joseph Campbell’s work as “obscure” (p. 193), so he may be more mainstream than I had initially assumed (again, reference the heavier influence towards the comic book audience in the book overall).

Finally, one quibble in gender-related terminology I’d like to bring up. On p.167, Knowles states, “In Miller’s stories, Elektra is essentially devoid of a recognizably feminine personality, and became quite square-jawed and muscular in his later renderings. One can even argue that Elektra is essentially a transvestite or transsexual character, and that the trauma of her father’s death effectively removes her femininity” (italics mine). No, no, and furthermore, no. A masculine woman is NOT automatically transgender. Given, however, that the comic book aesthetic relies quite a bit on gender dualities, I’m not surprised to see this misunderstanding of nondualistic gender and sexual identity.

Given that this is the first (to my knowledge) book to explore the occult history of comic books, it’s not surprising that there are some flaws–this is common with the first of any sort of book. Despite my complaints, it’s a good effort, all told, and still worth reading (albeit with some caveats). I’m a pretty picky reviewer, and as mentioned, geeky enough to have nitpicks that other readers may overlook. However, I’m going to give it….

Three pawprints out of five.

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Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

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The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers, 2008
258 pages

This isn’t a strictly pagan book; however, the author is well-known in the pagan and occult communities. Additionally, the material in this book will be of interest to many pagans (and non-pagans as well!). Instead of speaking primarily from a place as a spiritual leader, in this book, Greer emphasizes his experiences as “a certified Master Conserver, organic gardener and scholar of ecological history” (as per his bio).

The Long Descent is an in-depth discussion of an often-ignored possibility for the future. Having studied the destruction of numerous civilizations throughout history, the trend that Greer observes the most is that of slow decay, often staggered, over a period of centuries–hence the title of the book. I can already see two groups of people who will be, at the very least, irritated about the holes that Greer pokes in the futuristic mythologies they tell. One will be those who believe that technology will save us all, and keeping industrial civilization going is only a matter of finding the right invention. The other will be fatalistic would-be anarchists (or Rapturists, or those waiting for the Veil to fall etc.) who anxiously await a sudden Apocalypse that will bring everything as we know it an end–either ushering in a new paradise, or a hellhole.

Either way, Greer offers a much more time-tested pattern of change. However, instead of leaving us with a pessimistic view of the future, in which we’re all victims of plagues and violence, he provides a good number of constructive solutions for making a smoother transition from industrial society to a more agrarian one. (He argues that the linear perspective of civilizations, that industrialism is automatically “higher” and “better” than agrarian ones, is unrealistic–similar to claiming that monotheism is an automatic improvement over polytheism in the grand, linear scheme of things). Surprisingly, he does not support having small, self-contained communities scattered everywhere, though he does strongly favor community interaction; the lone cabin of the survivalist is inferior to the remainders of cities, towns, etc.

He does realistically explore the down sides of this potential future; it’s not all sunshine and windmills. As health care degrades, people will succumb to illnesses and injuries that even a century ago were major threats. (One of his suggestions is to do as much DIY health care as possible.) However, overall this is a hopeful book, one that balances the very real possibility that a few generations from now there won’t be the internet, automobiles, and other luxuries we’ve come to expect–and realistic, accessible solutions for riding out the worst parts of the transition. Additionally, as he advocates acting now, rather than waiting until it’s too late, it’s a very much-needed reminder that simply thinking about the issues won’t change things.

There is an excellent chapter on spirituality and post-peak-oil that pagans should particularly take interest in. While he doesn’t promote one religion over another, he does take a good, hard look at how the reality of one’s living conditions can interplay with spiritual beliefs. He manages to blend it nicely into an otherwise primarily secular book.

Whether you’re pagan or not, whether you believe in progress, apocalypse, or some other potential future, and whether you’re a reader of Greer’s popular Archdruid Report blog, give this book a try. You may throw it against the wall, you may love it dearly, but I’m betting that you’ll have something to say about it once you’re through.

Five informed and empowered pawprints out of five.

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Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

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A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario – Neil Jamieson-Williams

A Field Guide to Modern Pagans In Hamilton, Ontario
Neil Jamieson-Williams
Australopithecine Press
146 pages

This is a really cool book. It’s an in-depth study of the pagan community in Hamilton, Ontario by a member of said community. Neil Jamieson-Williams is an academic as well, holding degrees in both anthropology and sociology, and he approaches this work with that as well as his personal background in a healthy balance. His experience as an academic lends itself to a professional treatment of the topic at hand, but his experience within the community he studies tempers it without showing too much bias.

The author starts with a basic overview of modern paganism, and then proceeds into some good advice on how to observe pagans (for we are wily critters!) He’s quite open about the fact that academics may do some pretty covert observations of people who don’t realize they’re being observed, including online in forums and elsewhere. And he stresses the importance of being open with the people you’re observing (no doubt to help would-be observers to avoid “Luhrmann syndrome”*) However, he’s also honest about the methods by which academics may “ethically” obtain material, some of which may raise the hackles of more private pagans. It’s a refreshing sort of honesty.

The rest of the book is dedicated to profiles of different covens and other groups in the Hamilton area at the time of the book’s publication. Jamieson-Williams is quite open about the fact that pagan groups are often short-lived, especially those he terms “Eclectic”, and that his book may be dated in a short time. However, this does not detract from the systematic explanation of the different groups and lineages represented in his chosen demographic, nor the frank appraisal of their varying levels of participation in the community at large (and how that may affect the budding ethnographer’s attempts to study them).

My quibbles are minor. There are a few typos scattered throughout the book, even taking into account my American eyes and the author’s Canadian English. Additionally, there are a few points I would question, such as his assertion on p. 14 that “the vast majority of Modern Pagans absolutely despise the term Neopagan”. I’d say that some do, but not the vast majority. Even if this were a regional difference, it goes against his later cautioning against generalizing based on too small a selection of study participants.

But these are small things, and should not deter even the casual reader. Overall, I applaud the existence of this book. It’s valuable to pagans because it shows us a potential way of communicating about ourselves in a way that nonpagans may be more amenable to than, say, a practical book on spells. It also points the way towards a more advanced way of exploring the community; we do have our academics in the community, though even nonacademics may use this as inspiration for their own explorations and ways of communicating about paganism to others. For academics, pagan or otherwise, it’s an example of a sensitive, yet effective, study of a particular group of pagans that allows the freedom to explore and learn, but also shows areas where we may feel particularly vulnerable and may ask for more respect. And for members of the mainstream community who are not pagan or academic, it’s an accessible guide that shows pagans in a realistic, relatively neutral light. The writing style, while fitting academic standards, is still understandable to the layperson rather than couching itself in too much complexity and jargon. In all, it’s a very balanced book.

Personally, I would like to see more books like this, studies of specific demographics. Granted, not every community has its very own long-term resident pagan-academic. And I don’t think every book should be a carbon copy of this one. However, just as some people study specific tribes, or even specific indigenous communities, so may there be value in looking at individual pagan communities in detail. This has tended to be more slanted towards specific traditions spread across wide geographic locations. But in-depth studies of specific locales and their corresponding communities may help give some insight on unique concepts, such as where pagans are more populous and/or active, and what factors may contribute to that. I also encourage people to take the same well-balanced approach that Jamieson-Williams has in this book, offering a little of something for everyone.

Five pawprints out of five.

* This refers to Tanya Luhrmann, an academic who studied pagans in the ’80’s, who took advantage of the trust of pagans who treated her less like an academic and more like their own after a time. They gave her oathbound material that she then released into a more public domain. (In Wallis 2004 as referenced by Ellwood 2008, p. 62)

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