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.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Déjà vu

These walls have eyes
Rows of photographs
And faces like mine
Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from

. . . .

 And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget
And I'll remember the years
When your mind was clear
How the laughter and life
Filled up this silent house

by  Neil Finn, Natalie Maines,  
Emily Robinson, Martie Maguire

We had a marvelous family vacation in Puerto Penasco, Mexico the week after youngest daughter Natasha graduated from law school at USD. We all just caravanned from San Diego down to Rocky Point. My mother joined us again, the second year in a row after my father's death. I'd been writing in a steady and committed way but left my books at home for the first time on a trip like that. I just wanted to be with my family and knew that I would pick right up where I'd left off when I returned. 

However, less than 24 hours after our return home, my mother took a still-mysterious fall at her home and ended up in neuro-ICU with bleeding in two places in her brain. I saw the untransformed future pass before my eyes: endless hours in ERs and hospital rooms; the emotional and physical pain that accompanies such lack of activity and the stress of both the known and the unknown; the loss of power around my declaration that I would finish my dissertation and graduate by December, 2010; and, most devastating, the ultimate loss of my mother.

Her falling wasn't a surprise. Increasingly unsteady, she'd fallen twice in the previous two months. This time, however, it became impossible to distinguish between her rapidly failing memory and the head injury. After almost three weeks, we brought her home to our house, a move we'd been negotiating with her earlier. Suddenly, living alone at her home was no longer an option and we hurriedly shoveled (yes, shoveled) out my office and the adjacent spare room, which had last been Lawyer Girl's. We culled both academic books and fiction I'd been hoarding for decades so as to empty one entire wall of shelves for her personal items, and we still don't know what to do with the large floor loom that remains in the office (now her sitting room).

Our children living locally made an amazing difference. The oldest daughters helped with this process by moving and cleaning. However, while my mother was in the rehab hospital, daughter #2 was also rushed to the ER with blood sugars over 1000, so we rotated between the rehab facility and the ICU a few blocks away, still trying to prepare the house for Mother's release. In the meantime, I spent a week in Georgia, attending our youngest son's graduation from basic training and transporting him from Ft. Benning to Ft. Gordon, where he will be doing his training in satellite communications. By my return home, David had brought my mother home.

A week later, I had surgery on my other knee.

I know, I know. I just really want to be able to be in the world with my husband, doing the things we love to do together, like scuba diving, hiking, and active travel. I live in a tennis family and I can't play tennis. From my perspective, if not now, then when?

So here I sit, with my crutch and my range of motion and cooling machines, watching Wimbledon tennis (a family tradition). Occasionally I see a black chasm open up that feels like my future. Still working out the anesthesia, I don't feel focused enough to write, and I'm exhausted from answering the same questions over and over again for my mother. Her memory has declined so dramatically that she just now asked me twice in the last five minutes who just called her on the phone (her sister-in-law, whose name she can't now remember). At least twice a day she suddenly turns to me and says, "Doe Nan, I need to go home. I have laundry to do and things to take care of." I remind her that she lives with us now and doesn't need to worry about such things. After years of not cooking and very little cleaning, I've become a homemaker again, which I didn't do very well (and didn't much like doing) the first time around. My mother is my new two-year-old, who I can't pick up and carry around when she gets into her medications and messes them up and other such adventures.

(Sidenote: I took my oldest grandchild, a granddaughter, the daughter of my diabetic child who almost died two weeks ago) to a writing workshop at Changing Hands. Because this daughter couldn't drive, her sister and I coordinated making sure her two children's needs were met. It took lots of time and effort and I loved it. It happened that a colleague from ASU had her own daughter in the workshop and we chatted for a while. When I explained why I hadn't been writing, she responded that the only students she'd seen complete PhDs were those who were willing to tell their families to take a hike for six months.)

Though it seems counter-intuitive, her observation isn't the truth. So what IS the truth?

What I know is so about writing a doctoral dissertation while also being a human being: 
  • "It won't get any better than this," "It's only going to get worse" or "I guess I'll scratch the PhD off my list; I clearly can't do it with all that's happened" are only stories that have nothing to do with what's happened and won't open up a space for action that will make a difference in my life or the lives of my mother, husband, children, and grandchildren. 
  • I will not tell my family to take a hike while I write my dissertation.
  • I can still meet my personal commitments AND manage my mother's care and be her loving daughter at the end of her life AND be an effective spouse, parent, and grandparent while writing my dissertation.
  • I am in the process of working out just how it will all happen. 
  • I am a powerful person who can do amazing things. I am unstoppable. 
Don't believe me? Hide and watch!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Experience" is the Premium Channel


Have you ever held something until your hands were aching? 
And then let it go and watched it fall and listened to it breaking?
I have held back time and tide when all the world was plenty,
But now my hands are open wide, open wide and empty. 
(Karine Polwart, 2005)

My hands are wide open...

And the possibilities are endless.

(Prayers of the Goddess Gaia)
(ByDesiree Delgado)

Coming to the end of another semester, I stop to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going. I've done much good work on my dissertation in the last three months, finally overcoming the abject terror and lethargy that gripped me every time I even thought about writing. Now, every day I easily contemplate and nuance the intricacies of the arguments I aim to weave about the intersection of Mormonism and the New Spirituality. I'm finally clear that that is the subject of my project. It isn't about New Age or Contemporary Pagan Studies per se. Rather, it's about where those I've called "New Age Mormon Pagans" fit in relation to the larger American spiritual/religious context. 

As I write, the path appears increasingly clear: A review of literature about "spirituality" in America points intuitively to the need to include commentary on the importance of experience in American religious history, which has led most Americans to expect (even demand) the right to cultivate a fulfilling--and unmediated--spiritual life. It's interesting to see how sociological investigation of what was happening to "religion" during the 1960s and 70s segued into the 1980s and 90s concept of spiritual marketplace (Wade Clark Roof, 1999) and religious economies/rational choice (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985; Stark & Finke, 2005) theories. 

Even if, like Mark Oppenheimer (Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, 2003), you think "alternative" religions had very little impact on Americans and that New Age" spirituality as just so much "silliness" (p. 228) (preferring instead to put your money on the influence of "mainline" religious institutions), experience is still the watchword. The subversive power of the counterculture, though according to Oppenheimer it produced only "aesthetic" and "formalistic" change, was that it created an entirely new experience of traditional religion (p. 220). 

Regardless of whether the women I encounter in my research consider themselves orthodox or heretical Mormons (or not Mormons at all), they are all engaged in the search for a more authentic self-expression in their spiritual lives. In the end, experience is the premium channel.

In addition to getting power around my writing, I have also been led to question the degree to which I am fully self-expressed in other areas of my life. What experience of the world am I claiming for myself? Does a scholar who studies historically new and alternative religions (including Mormonism) ever get to be powerfully and fully self-expressed? If so, what might that self-expression look like? 

It's no wonder that I've put off situating myself in relation to my work in my Preface.  Have I held onto academic political correctness with white knuckles, assuming the position so to speak, just hoping to avoid the hordes who perpetually mislabel critical analysis as "misunderstanding."
I've come to realize I'm consciously choosing something different, a different way of being. I am no longer so interested in safety. I've let go of the net and what lies broken was in any case no longer interesting or useful.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Glenn Beck and the Book of Love

The Book of Love

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It's full of charts and facts and figures
and instructions for dancing

But I
I love it when you read to me
And you
You can read me anything

The book of love has music in it
In fact that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb

But I
I love it when you sing to me
And you
You can sing me anything

(Song by Stephin Merritt
Sung by Peter Gabriel on "Scratch My Back," 2010)

Glenn Beck has become a common topic on blogs and in newspapers and ejournals. In case you've been living in the middle of nowhere for some time now, Beck (who proudly explained his conversion to Mormonism by announcing that he joined the LDS Church so that his wife would marry and have sex with him) took his loud-mouthed show from CNN to Fox News, where he surely fits in much better. He has made the headlines most recently for his tirade against social justice, urging listeners to flee churches that espoused those principles (like that of Jim Wallis), comparing them with Nazism and Communism. I'm proud to see that two of my friends and colleagues have publicly called him out.

First, Joanna Brooks responded with fire by quoting social justice passages from the Book of Mormon, noting the effect his statements have for her:
Glenn Beck is a Mormon. So am I. During the nineteenth century, my Mormon ancestors crossed the plains to live their faith without fear of attack from the mobs that had hounded them out of Missouri and Illinois.
Watching Glenn Beck threaten to "bring the hammer down" on another person of faith makes my stomach turn.
Later, there was an absolutely scathing response to Beck from Jana Riess on the "Faiths and Prayer" blog:
Dear Glenn Beck,
Have You Read the Book of Mormon Lately?
As you know, Glenn, during the last week, Christians of all stripes have debated your advice about exiting any churches that mentioned “social justice” or “economic justice” on their websites or preached it in their sermons. As you apparently hoped, you have dominated the airwaves. The good news for me is that, if you follow your own advice, you must soon be exiting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which we are both members. And if that happens, I will dance a little jig.

I couldn't help but laugh out loud!

And so . . . Here is my take on the phenomenon of Glenn Beck:

It occurs to me that Beck functions for Mormons in similar ways as Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight series: He allows Mormons to enter mainstream popular culture in ways they wouldn't otherwise be able to, which can be very affirming of historical Mormon identity.

In addition, I also believe he may be an expression of the phenomenon I'm writing about in my dissertation. In a "secularized" (read: routinized, demythologized) Mormonism (which looks more like mainline Protestantism than the mystical tradition established by Joseph Smith), Beck reenchants the experience of being Mormon . . . or at the very least he reawakens the Mormon cultural memory of prophetic millennialism. In other words, Mormonism is missing that distinctiveness, that tension of persecuted otherness. The "living prophet" rarely speaks on political issues unrelated to gay marriage, so Beck becomes the prophet-cum-Ezra Taft Benson.

Finally, Beck is so nasty that Mormons are able to live vicariously through him in a whole new way--and even voice their suppressed thoughts and feelings about the way the world works. Ordinarily, Mormons behave passive aggressively because we have demonized disagreement/dissent. (I include myself in this category, though I've spent the better half of the last decade trying to learn new ways of being). But Beck has a platform that allows him (pays him generously) to say whatever he thinks. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn't have to be "nice" all the time. Mormons admire him for that and, even if just subconsciously, wish to be (like) him. He gets to be the Brigham Young who thumbs his nose at the government and everyone else. He also apparently escapes censure by church authorities, which makes him an even larger icon in the Mormon imagination.

From my perspective, Beck makes a prosperous living from inciting (an activity markedly different from in-sighting, or making in-sightful). He has an impact in the world--and not a positive one. The LDS Church felt compelled to make a statement not long ago that doesn't name Beck (or other caustic commentators) directly but responds to his type of fear-based hatemongering, ironically titled "The Mormon Ethic of Civility." Which makes me wonder at what point the church might take away his temple recommend for sowing hatred and division, but that's none of my business. (Given the kind of person one is supposed to be being in the world in order to get one of those, one might just be tempted to do a jig over that.)

(Glenn Beck image from