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