Thursday, September 23, 2010

Practical Magic: Walking Between the Worlds, or Distinguishing 'Normal' from Everything Else

My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue.
It rather denotes a lack of courage!

While doing some research I came across the Practical Magic Blog Party, which I so wanted to comment on and even participate in! But. . . . the question was how I might participate, given that the purpose of my blog is to reflect on the experience and practice of writing a doctoral dissertation on the topic of popular religion (what I and some other scholars call "The New Spirituality." 

The book and film both fit into this category, but I still wasn't sure how to go about contributing to the party as an academic, given that I haven't written any spells or baked any Practical Magic cookies!

Then I remembered this quote from the movie, which appears on the Blog Party website. In the book and subsequent film, one of the main characters desperately wants to be "normal"--or, in her particular context, NOT a witch. She forbids her children to do magic and denies her true identity as a hereditary witch in hopes that she might avoid the family curse, under which the men loved by Owens women die tragically.

What is normal? In fact, my own perception of normalcy feels deeply connected to the history of religion in America as well as the development of Western psychology and psychiatry, which included the pathologization and medicalization of women's religious experience. Historically, as the book and film illustrate (the curse is cast in 1690, by Maria Owens just before her hanging for witchcraft), not being "normal" (i.e. Protestant enough; Catholic enough; Christian--the right Christian--enough) could get you killed--or in later years committed to an asylum!

That said, "normal" is not really a state of being; it is, rather, an experience we have of ourselves (or that someone else creates of us) in relation to others.

Though some scholars debate the characterization of various historical outpourings of religious enthusiasm/excitement as “Great Awakenings,” [1] it is undeniable that, in one way or another, privileging personal experience has been a religious imperative throughout American history. For adherents/practitioners, authentic religion is based on personal experience: a new birth constituting a religion of the heart. Anne Hutchinson, Mother Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, and Mary Baker Eddy; the Fox sisters: All of these individuals acted out of their own revelatory and/or practical experience. Mormonism and the New Spirituality (including New Age and various Neopaganisms) inherited that impulse. 

In her book Fits, trances, & visions: experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James (1999), which traces historical attitudes toward involuntary or spontaneous religious experience in America, Anne Taves argues that “experience” and “practice” are intertwined in a “necessarily dynamic and interdependent” relationship.[2] From the 18th century forward, revivalism’s emphasis on personal experience made policing and disciplining religious rebels more and more difficult. [3] Like many of the women who participated in my dissertation project, 18th and 19th-century American Christians were concerned with distinguishing their particular experiences and practices as legitimate, trying to avoid their being associated with unauthorized spiritual expressions.[4]

I would say that nothing much has changed (witness the controversy over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in NYC), except that would be untrue. Many LDS women, for example, are still watching themselves, trying to gauge their relationship to the "normal" in their communities as they push the boundaries of their personal spirituality and religious identities. That's what I'm writing about! But today so many resources exist to confirm their decisions as "normal," whichever direction they go. Americans enjoy endless religious/spiritual options and, in the end, we each choose for ourselves what works best. 

That may mean a woman chooses to appear as "normal" as possible while pursuing alternative spiritual practices on the side and/or on the sly. It may mean she gives Mormonism (or insert your choice of religious tradition) the heave-ho and navigates her broom to some other more hospitable location. 

All possible choices on that spectrum take courage. 

I've long struggled with the sense that I wasn't "normal," primarily because of the things I thought about, my fears and concerns, and especially my perpetual brawl with patriarchal authority of any kind--which in Mormonism is a no-no. However, like Sally Owens (played in the film by Sandra Bullock), who found that embracing one's authentic self (in her case, her inherited powers) led not to tragedy and ostracism but to resolution and acceptance inside her local New England community, I have accepted that my own personal inauthenticity is way too costly. Ultimately, I am the chooser, so to speak. I choose that my varied cherished communities of women overlap so that distinctions between "normal" and its opposite (whatever that is) dissolve. 

Inside of intentional community, normal = healthy, and so normal can be an integrative act. 

So tonight I drink a Coke Zero toast to all those who are witches, and especially to those who are afraid to be! 

Take a deep breath and choose!

[1] See, for instance, Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction,” in The Journal of American History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Sep., 1982), pp. 305-325; Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); and Frank Lambert, “Inventing the Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 650-659.
[2] Ann Taves. Fits, trances, & visions: experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 47.
[3] Bellah, et. al. History of the Hearth: individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, L.A., London: University of California Press, 1985, p. 233.
[4] Ann Taves associates scholars’ use of terms like “religious experience,” mysticism,” and “spirituality” with the division between theology and religious studies; theologians are more likely to identify those terms with “high religion” as opposed to popular or “folk” religion (p. 6). Speaking of the difficulties inherent in studying religious experience, Taves argues “Since there is no way to specify an inherently contested phenomenon precisely . . . scholars can situate what people characterize as religious, spiritual, mystical, magical, superstitious, and so forth in relation to larger processes of meaning making and valuation, in which people deem some things special and set them apart from others,” (p. 12). Ann Taves. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Big Time: The Difficulty of Increasing Favor While Also Wanting to Only Look Good

I'm on my way I'm making it,  
I've got to make it show yeah, 
So much larger than life 
I'm gonna watch it growing.
. . . . 

 My parties have all the big names 
And I greet them with the widest smile
Tell them how my life is one big adventure 

And always they're amazed 
When I show them 'round my house to my bed
I had it made like a mountain range 

With a snow white pillow for my big fat head
And my heaven will be a big heaven,
And I will walk through the front door . . .

"Big Time"
Peter Gabriel, 1986 

Several of us have been discussing the article "Mormons need to work to increase favor," which reports on what appears to have been a frank discussion about the Mormon image in America, how Mormons are seen by the general public, with the goal of identifying and rectifying the causes of people's low opinions of the LDS Church and its members.

Gary Lawrence's study apparently supports what I have long argued: Mormons often charge critics who ask hard questions with "misunderstanding" Mormonism or the LDS Church when, in fact, they understand very well.

As they say, taking responsibility for one's communication is the first step to cleaning up lack of integrity or authenticity. But it is often not pretty, for it involves having to face the reality of how we have been dishonest as well as how our ways of "being" land over there where others are. (Believe me: I know, because I routinely have to do it!) It's not just about facing what we wish others would see when they are in our presence. There's nothing wrong  with wanting to look or be good, but cleaning up after ourselves requires recognizing what's really so about it.

I realize that this is just an article and not the entire talk given by Lawrence at the FAIR conference this week. Therefore, I admit that my concerns may actually have been addressed when he spoke to his audience. However, based on just this article, the consensus among my conversation partners seems to be that Lawrence's solutions for making changes in how Mormons relate to people still miss the mark.

For instance, his suggestion that church members break up the three relational steps for getting friends to join the church into a six step model are likely to still occur to others as transparent friend-making with conversion as the goal. In other words, because nothing fundamental is changing in the person doing the friend-seeking (i.e. their motive for friend-seeking), it is likely that "favor toward Mormons" won't increase just because church members become more stealthy about pursuing converts.

Put another way, though Lawrence instructs readers not to make friends with an agenda, the tactic he promotes appears to perpetuates the baptism agenda. True friendship requires not trying to get anywhere with a potential friend but just delighting in their company.

Moreover, I'm not sure that Lawrence is on the right track with his suggestions for how to answer what have been hard questions for Mormons. For instance, Lawrence cites the active membership of Glenn Beck and Harry Reid as evidence that Mormonism is "a big-tent religion." The article doesn't clarify the context, but I assume Lawrence is referring to a perceived lack of diversity in Mormonism (or, presumably, blind obedience in the political sphere). Though I get where he's trying to go with that, there is no obvious acknowledgment of  how polarizing both of those figures have been in the larger American (and American Mormon) community/ies.

Similarly, complicated questions cannot be answered in a soundbite. Other seemingly flippant remarks he suggests as responses to questions about polygamy ("If I wanted to be excommunicated from the church, I would practice polygamy; the other sins take longer.") and Christian identity ("Of course we believe the Bible; our members wrote it.) ignore the complexity these questions ask about religious identity and are likely to land for non-members as inherently offensive. In fact, I see very little difference between those responses and the question about the relationship between Jesus and Lucifer, against which Mormons always cry foul when it arises.That, too, is a complicated relationship--and that's the problem. When we try act like Protestants, our doctrines simply reveal the truth we try to obscure with the charge that we're "misunderstood."   

Finally, as an academic, I must also dispute the claim that Mormonism can only be "fairly" represented by the experience of "believing" Mormons (whatever that means). When looking into/studying any religion, it is necessary to listen to as many voices as possible. The full experience of Mormonism doesn't just reside in just those who have temple recommends or who believe the church to be "true." (And what it means to "believe" something is very complex).

However, according to Lawrence, "less prepared" members appear to be less appropriate representatives, though they actually have more non-Mormon friends than do active Mormons. (This in itself is a huge ah-ha moment that could transform any  church member's point of view in deep ways.) Though "less prepared" is clearly a euphemism for "less active," it remains unclear by what criteria these church members' stories are insufficient or, as is implied, don't qualify as true or legitimate Mormon experience.

Like all people, Mormons want to be treated fairly in the marketplace of ideas. However, at the same time they also want only to look good. That isn't a criticism of Mormons. It's the human condition. But it is important to distinguish the meaning of the term "fair." Some of the definitions of "fair" include "not excessive or extreme"; "free from bias or deception"; and "evenhanded." However, it can mean "very pleasing to the eye" while simultaneously designating something as "average: lacking exceptional quality or ability."

Identifying the ways in which some things fail to work, or the times when our actions have caused others harm, doesn't necessarily constitute "distortion" of the truth, nor is it "unfair." The last time I looked, those acknowledgments were inherent to the practice of repentance.

Religion is messy, and the (fair) truth is never at the ends but always somewhere in between the poles.