Christian Animism by Shawn Sanford Beck

Christian Animism
Shawn Sanford Beck
Christian Alternative, 2015

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Review by Katina Haaland-Ramer.

Christian Animism’ by Shawn Sanford Beck is a curious and brief (52-page) treatise on the titular topic by a Canadian Anglican Priest with Pagan leanings. The author cites as his two greatest sources of inspiration activist/theologian Walter Wink and Starhawk. The work could roughly be called an apologetic, as a great deal of the text is taken up with explaining how such a thing could exist in the first place.

While he claims full faith in Christ, his alternative theology recognizes the influences of Buddhist, Cree, and the aforementioned Pagan traditions. Internal to the Christian heritage he recognizes Celtic faith and classic apocryphal Enochian literature. He contests that while monotheism may be at odds with pantheism and polytheism, there is sufficient Biblical support for an animistic worldview as to make it not incompatible with the Christian faith.

I believe it [an apple tree] to be a fellow creature, a being both physical and spiritual, as I am. But I don’t worship it, and I don’t consider it a god. It is simply a neighbor. Now, while you may think me a bit off my rocker for holding this belief, you cannot accuse me of being a heretic (14).

Beck’s vision is one in which the world may be treated as the body of the triune God: Creator, Word, and Holy Sophia. At the same time, he sees it populated by the spirits of individual living things (including rocks, plants, and even natural features) under the jurisdiction of presiding spirits (such as all vegetables, the sky, and so forth). He also references the fictional worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth as parables of his world view.

Beck contests that adopting this paradigm is theologically beneficial in the areas of creating an ecologically-aware Christianity that treats all beings of the earth as “neighbors”. This is to correct for the other Biblical models of relatedness to the world which are anthropocentric. His work is very carefully progressive, and he seems to suffer much over the past and present errors of the traditional Church.

It is unfortunate to see such a brilliant thinker apparently girding himself for attack expected from all sides, but understandable. He is attempting to syncratize traditions that have much hatred to overcome if they are ever to coexist peacefully. The second benefit he cites is the potential for creating the interfaith dialogue required to make such a future a reality.

Finally, he hopes to revitalize the faith by encouraging personal awakening in the faithful:

Christian animism can give us some tools so that we might begin to open our hearts and minds to the “spirit world”, not as a realm far removed from day-to-day reality, and not as a synonym for heaven (as an eschatological reality), but rather as the world of energy and consciousness intricately bound to the physical creatures whom we encounter in our real lives (18).

If there be any criticism, this is a highly intellectual and academic work thick with jargon through which those unfamiliar with technical religious study might find it tedious to pick. However, it may be the best piece of literature possible for someone from a deep Christian background seeking to reconcile that faith with a magical awakening.

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Santa Muerte by Tracey Rollin

Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death
Tracey Rollin
Weiser, 2017

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Review by Holli Emore

A saint for criminals? A goddess who accepts everyone? A holdover from the blood cult of the Aztecs? It seems that everyone from the New York Times to Reza Aslan (Believer 2017 television series) to the Roman Catholic Church are either intrigued, enchanted or upset about Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, or Santa Muerte for short. Our Lady of Holy Death, the skeleton in a colorful dress, is rapidly acquiring new followers throughout Mexico and the southeastern United States. The Bony Lady, as some call her, is either a folk saint unauthorized by the church, or a goddess, depending on who you talk to. Either way, she is beloved and revered, particularly for her power to answer the prayers of her devoteés.

Tracey Rollin has written what might be the definitive Pagan book about Santa Muerte, skillfully weaving the bright colors of personal experience, history and lore, and suggested modern practice. Santa Muerte: The History, Rituals, and Magic of Our Lady of the Holy Death is beautifully-written. Rollin begins with an account of her Catholic childhood then goes on to provide fascinating details about the presumed origins of Santa Muerte, who is arguably based on the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl (also connected with the goddess Tonantein, who many believe to be the source of Our Lady of Guadalupe.) The church already had several patron saints of the dead, but Rollin notes that Santa Muerte is a haven of last resort for the marginalized such as prostitutes, addicts and, yes, drug cartel members.

This is the dark underside of Santa Muerte devotion which leads law enforcement to dread cartel followers who they feel act with more abandon and violence, thinking that they are under a special protection by the saint-goddess. It is even murmured that some will kill as an offering to Santa Muerte. Rollin does not apologize for this unfortunate connection, but relates it as being a natural outgrowth of Santa Muerte’s universal acceptance of all who come to her for protection and favors. In that aspect, she closely resembles many mother goddesses associated with death such as Kali, Hela, Oye or Sekhmet, or even the earth itself, which both gives and reclaims life with apparent disregard of status or even goodness. Neither death nor Santa Muerte discriminate; they come for each of us eventually.

If you are up to the challenge of looking into the compassionate but unyielding face of death, Santa Muerte (the book) may be your best introduction to a relationship with the saint-goddess. You will read about color aspects, using candles and novenas, rosary, incense, oil– even chocolate offerings. Rollin shares a number of prayers, blessings and other liturgical elements, even a banishing ritual à la the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. While ending with a helpful glossary and a recommended reading list, a glaring omission from this otherwise excellent volume is the complete lack of references. Perhaps a future edition will add citations to satisfy those of us with inquiring minds.

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