Home > Religion, Spiritual Experience, Spirituality > Dialogue with Pop Culture Pagans

Dialogue with Pop Culture Pagans

I am trying to have respectful dialogue on something I have intense feelings rooted in my religion, beliefs, and understanding of my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. I understand that for those who engage in Pop Culture Paganism their feelings are probably similar if not the same towards their own Gods. I am trying to open up dialogue about something that I nearly destroyed all bridges with my family over and have dedicated my life to.

Part of my reluctance to engage is recognizing from talking with people near me, as one put it, that “You are too engrossed in your worldview to see another’s”. And you know what? That is a valid point, and one I raise to Christians when they deny the whole existence of my Gods.

I also ask ‘does my engagement actually engender frith?’ I am unsure if my writing did anything beyond preach to a choir and alienate others. I felt a compulsion to write it, out of frustration and anger at what I found to be something that I felt was insulting to my Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and I. I have issues with definitions of Paganism already, and this was one more thing that I feel that takes away from that understanding.

My point in my articles is not that Pop Culture Paganism is evil, but I admit in several places where I have weighed in that I cannot understand it. It does not make sense to me.  I don’t mind that people use statuary as stand ins for Loki, or they derive benefit from using iconography and such from another medium. I recognize that my approval probably means nothing to people engaged in religious devotion to Gods I don’t worship. I happen to use Dryad Designs’ depictions of my Gods (Odin and Freya thus far, and I’m on the lookout for Frigga) because they click with me. If Loki-as-Joker works for you, I’m fine with that. What I do not understand is the worship /of/ Joker. Or Batman.

In the article I wrote I expressed that I could not conceive of worshiping Batman or developing a devotional relationship with him, and then go on to compare and contrast it to heiti. I ask the question: “Which Batman?” among others.  Which comic do I take as an understanding of Batman? How do I verify this is indeed Batman the spirit, as opposed to a spirit wearing Batman’s face? I assume that similar methods if not the same methods I would use to check if the spirit that answered my call to Odin is Odin Himself or someone wearing His guise. However, I don’t know because it is not something I have done.

I have had revelatory experiences in my car listening to the radio. Does that mean that the artist whose song I have listened to is a prophet of this or that God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit? No, my Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits used a medium to communicate with me.

In the post I recently wrote I cited my Great-Grandfather’s journey here from Holland to America at the open of WWI when the fear was that there would be an invasion. He came to a country where he had some relatives, but he could not speak the language well. He made his life here success by success and mistake by mistake. I do not understand the process that puts his life story, one of my heroes, alongside Batman’s. I attended my Great-Grandfather’s funeral and heard his life story several times over the course of my life. I saw his ship records; he has a concrete place in this world, in my Ancestors’ House, and in my life for the little amount of time I knew him in life. He sang to me songs in broken Dutch and English, and gave me a harmonica to remember him by. Batman does not and has not done these things for me. How could he?

I use Batman here because I really like this character, especially from the 90s animated series voiced by Kevin Conroy, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and the Arkham Batman games. Have I been inspired by Batman? Sure. He was a part of my early childhood and helped form it with his stories, just as Spider-Man did. I spent a good deal of time watching both with my Dad and it helped to form dialogue between us on religion, revenge, the use of power, the poor, mental health and mental health care, the difference between reality and fiction, and so many other things. I suppose where I come to the difference, beyond ‘my Great-Grandfather lived’, is that Batman never came to me in a vision, or when I thought “Man, I could really use Batman right now.” The Gods did. When I was a Catholic, Yahweh, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary, as well as St. Francis de Assisi did.

A worthy point Sannion brought up is if indeed these are spirits unto themselves, then what if they would actively deny our worship, or worse, be insulted by it? I.e. Batman, I am fairly sure given my experience of Batman through the comics, movies, games, etc. would balk at being worshiped and would not answer. Perhaps that is me just lore-thumping with a comic book instead of an Edda. How does one enter into such a religious cultus and culture and keep a sense of discernment and sense of sanctity for Gods I consider to be more real than comic book ones that are worshiped?

So the challenge could be one where I would say “Okay, I don’t believe on whit of this, but I’m willing to entertain the notion, so here we go: I’ll buy a Batman action figure or print a picture and put it aside from my Gods and give it worship as I might my Gods. It won’t go on my God altar, but I’m willing to entertain this notion.” 
Then I think about it, and what that worship means to me, to my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and I cannot do it. I can’t go that far, and I admit that. At the risk of insulting you, and your own religious path, I don’t look at it as a negative, because I see such a thing as debasing my religion, of saying to my Gods “you are like this fictitious being to me”. It insults me, and from my perspective, and my religious training and beliefs it insults my Gods to do so.

I’m all for people worshiping whatever Gods they want to, and at the end of the day, I recognize that my voice means relatively little in the course of whether or not someone will call me wrong for worshiping Loki the way I do when they take their inspiration of worship from Marvel. They still may feel the need to say it, even if I don’t respond to it, or they may strike a dialogue with me and explain why they find the Marvel Loki more spiritually fulfilling than the Loki I know.

I think that part of the importance of my engaging with Pagans who engage Pop Culture as a source for their Gods, is to say that “I do not believe this, but I am willing at least to hear it. I won’t shout you down, but I will probably not accept it.” People may well come to me tomorrow asking for help, or I may be called upon to engage with them by my Gods, and rather than close myself off wholly to them, I think that the middling ground of “I respect your right to have your religious experiences, but I do not look at them as I will my own. If you can handle that we can continue.” If their response is “If my Gods are not welcome/respected as I respect Them I cannot treat with you” I can respect that in the larger sense; I have the exact same response to places where Loki is forbidden. I cannot go there, and cannot ask you to either. 

If your devotion to your religion and/or your Gods is that deep, let me give a heartfelt hurrah for you. I can at least nod and say “I respect your right to worship who and what you wish. I don’t understand it, I may not accept it as valid for my religion, practices, beliefs, etc. but that, ultimately, is between you and the Gods.” Hell, if your religious devotion is deep you’re doing better than a lot of so-called religious people, Pagan and not. Where I would have harsh words is if, as I have seen insisted on Tumblr, that Marvel’s Loki is the real one, and any of us who go “Wait, our understanding of Loki is based in the myths and legends and our experiences of Him through that lens” are told we are wrong. My Gods are not revealed to me in fiction.  While my understanding may, in some cases be informed by fiction, i.e. I still ‘see’ Thor with blond hair rather than red as is depicted in the myths, I do not believe They should not be placed in the same category as fiction or fictitious beings.  I cannot treat Batman, or any other superhero with the same religious reverence as my Gods, my Ancestors, or the spirits with whom I work.

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  1. May 19, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    I’m going to try to respond to this (semi-)methodically – please let me know if I’m missing the point on any of these parts (as we both know I tend to do sometimes).

    Your last post did seem combative, which was frustrating for me since I know you offline and I want to talk with you honestly about this stuff but we’re clearly on opposite sides of the fence.

    In terms of worshiping things from pop culture – if the gods have problems with people using those beings as points of worship, I feel like they’d take it up with the person. It is not anyone’s call, I feel, to say ‘yes worshiping this is okay’ or ‘no it’s not okay’ – which to me smells suspiciously like people who dislike worship of Loki. (I’m sure there’s other examples, but sadly I’m not really into most other pagan communities.)

    The fact is that pop culture deities, if you want to use that term, are taken up because they start to represent something more than just the words written on the page, the voice acting and the character models on the screen, the film on which they’re printed (or increasingly, the files they’ve been saved to). Just as someone who isn’t a worshiper of the Greek pantheon can read myths and not find anything to them other than a good story, while the believer can find meaning in them, so too can many people enjoy a film as a film, but others can find something spiritually fulfilling.

    I think, really, the point is similar to those who are hard recon vs. those who lean on UPG. People on one side here are like “NO THEY’RE NOT ESTABLISHED SO YOU CAN’T” and the other side is like “… but why not?”. Really, if it works and everyone involved isn’t offended, I really don’t’ see the harm.

    • May 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      My last post is combative in no small part because it is a statement of my position. This post was to clarify that position, and my thought process.

      At the end of the day I cannot stop a person from claiming they are Pagan. I cannot stop a person from saying that worshiping a Pop Culture God, Goddess, spirit, etc. is good and just as valid as my worship of Odin. It doesn’t matter if they are worshiping Cthulu or Odin, it doesn’t matter if they believe in the spiritual reality of the Gods, if they are polytheist, pantheist, animist, atheist, reductionist, whatever. What I have to say is my statement of beliefs, views, opinions, and where I draw from on my theology. So, while I am not dictating for the Gods, I am saying ‘here are where my boundaries lie’. When I say ‘I am insulted for my Gods’ I am not taking agency from my Gods, but stating that I believe that ‘x’ or ‘y’ statement is wrong, impious or an outright blasphemy. The Gods can indeed speak for Themselves, but as a person within this community I have a right to state what I feel is and is not a Pagan practice, and what I believe is and is not acceptable to myself as a Pagan.

      I actually view this statement in opposition: “It is not anyone’s call, I feel, to say ‘yes worshiping this is okay’ or ‘no it’s not okay’”

      Actually, it is my responsibility to delineate where my boundaries are. If an Asatru group does not accept Loki it is my responsibility not to attend their events, or, if I am so inclined, to try to change the narrative. I don’t see my changing the group’s mind as a useful endeavor, so by and large I avoid places where Loki worship is actively denigrated, denied, and unwelcome. I don’t accept it, by any means, but I accept that changing the prevalent thoughts about Loki is a long-term process and I have other things that require my attention which are more important for me to concentrate on. If a person comes into my space and insults my Gods it is incumbent upon me to correct the person and enforce the norms of my space, and if they will not show due respect to Them, to remove the person from my space.

      As someone who has dedicated their life to Odin and Anubis I have a vested interest in delineating the space of who I will and will not have in my rituals and my community. I have an interest in cultivating pious relationships with my Gods, Ancestors, and spirits because it is the balance of my life, and my religion informs all that I do. When I identify what I view as impious behavior I do not engage in it, and may raise my voice against it. Because I believe in hamingja, group luck and power that comes from oathkeeping, good relationships and so on, I am careful with those that I engage and in what ways I engage them. I won’t invite a Christian friend to a ritual unless they ask and can hold proper respect for my Gods; I expect no different from them.

      “The fact is that pop culture deities, if you want to use that term, are taken up because they start to represent something more than just the words written on the page, the voice acting and the character models on the screen, the film on which they’re printed (or increasingly, the files they’ve been saved to).”

      One of the major issues that I have with pop culture in general, and in application to religion in specific, is that most pop culture starts and ends with ‘what sells?’ This is sometimes in direct opposition to religious experience. Odin, for instance, does not sell. He is a hard God to work with for a reason, and is incredibly demanding of His followers. I view Loki similarly, but not Marvel Loki. Marvel Loki, to me, is a caricature and a foil to Marvel Thor, and is 2D at best. He is written and produced to sell, from his costume design to his character flaws. As I have said before, if someone uses the Tom Hiddleston or other Marvel imagery in place of traditional imagery, that is fine with me and I get that because the worship and respect is still given to Loki Himself, not Marvel Loki.

      “Just as someone who isn’t a worshiper of the Greek pantheon can read myths and not find anything to them other than a good story, while the believer can find meaning in them, so too can many people enjoy a film as a film, but others can find something spiritually fulfilling.”

      Sure, I can read Greek myths and find nothing to them, but their genesis is not in selling a comic or telling a good story in the sense of modern literature. They began as a devotional work, as a way of relating the Gods to us, as a method of delivering an understanding of the Gods. Their orientation is towards the sacred rather than consumption.

      I want to focus on this statement in particular: “while the believer can find meaning in them, so too can many people enjoy a film as a film, but others can find something spiritually fulfilling.”

      I would invite you to dig into this a bit more.
      When I read it my reaction is that “Well, I can read the Bible and get something out of it that might help to clarify a position I hold or a belief I hold dear, but it won’t be a deepen my relationship with Yahweh, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit since I am not a Christian.” Really that is what the Bible is actually there for: to deepen one’s relationship with those Gods.

      Popular culture’s original aim is to sell a product, even if it is one that might enliven my life with a new insight or provide an experience that hits my spirit. Popular culture’s purpose is for me to consume it. If it does not sell it disappears. The only reason Batman is still around, as opposed to The Spirit, and other comics since discontinued, is that Batman sold better. The Batman comics did not reveal a spiritual truth or give insight; they were made for entertainment. When the current Batman comics stop selling well they will eventually be discontinued and disappear from store shelves. This does not sound like a solid foundation to rest one’s religion on.

      “I think, really, the point is similar to those who are hard recon vs. those who lean on UPG. People on one side here are like “NO THEY’RE NOT ESTABLISHED SO YOU CAN’T” and the other side is like “… but why not?”

      I’m not even going so far to say “you can’t” as far as your own practice goes. What I am saying is that I do not accept it. You can worship whatever you wish, but where I draw my line is in being told that the Gods and pop culture deities are on the same level. I do not and cannot believe that. It is in being told that the worship of pop culture icons is just as valid as my worship of my Gods, something I have dedicated my life that I disagree with.

      “Really, if it works and everyone involved isn’t offended, I really don’t’ see the harm.””

      What does it mean ‘if it works?’ I raise questions like Marvel’s multiverse or the New 52 or the reason pop culture exists as reasons that, for internal logic and such, that I think that I would have a hard time understanding how worshiping pop culture icons, comic book heroes, etc. would work.

      Do you mean ‘if it works’ from a spiritual fulfillment point of view?
      If so I would also take issue with this view because it puts humans at the center of the religious equation. I think that humans by and large put ourselves center stage in a lot of things, to the exclusion of others already. I don’t worship my Gods to be spiritually fulfilled; I worship Them because that is right relationship. In my worship I find myself spiritually fulfilled, but that is not the same as the goal being my spiritual fulfillment when I kneel before my altar.

      The crux of all of this writing and my issues with pop culture moving its way into Paganism is that I am actually offended by it, but that crux goes deeper than just me being offended. I’m offended that my Gods are placed on the same playing field at all as Batman. I’m offended that my Ancestors, culture heroes, mythic heroes, etc. are placed on that same playing field as Batman. Where this goes deeper than just ‘I am offended’ is that my beliefs are actually insulted by this. It is impious. Within the scope of my religious views, teachings, and understanding, this is wrong.

      • James "TwoSnakes" Stovall
        May 24, 2013 at 7:31 am

        I would invite you to dig into this a bit more.
        When I read it my reaction is that “Well, I can read the Bible and get something out of it that might help to clarify a position I hold or a belief I hold dear, but it won’t be a deepen my relationship with Yahweh, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit since I am not a Christian.” Really that is what the Bible is actually there for: to deepen one’s relationship with those Gods.–

        Tim did you mean by this that a follower of the Northern Traditions should not read say Buddhist texts and possibly gain thought and nuance to their path?

        We have talked recently about how the book American Gods by comic book author Neil Gaiman brought home a few points about your understanding of your Gods. Can you expand a bit on that experience in contrast to your overall position?

  2. May 24, 2013 at 8:59 am

    I absolutely believe that a Northern Tradition follower should read other religious texts. There are a great many benefits, such as understanding others’ thoughts on things, where religions of the world stand on a great many issues, how reality is arranged for a follower of another religion, and so on.

    What I mean is that while I may gain thought and nuance to my path, i.e. seeing where Traditions, religions, etc. may cross-pollinate is useful, as is seeing where our differences lie, I am NOT gaining religious instruction from a Bible any more than I am from American Gods. Reading the Bhagavad Gita did add to my understanding of my own text in my Hinduism course because I compared and contrasted it with the Havamal as part of an assignment. Yet, I did not use the Bhagavad Gita in its intended purpose, which, according to Krishna.org is “to deliver mankind from the darkness of material existence.” In the same vein of thought, I no longer use the Bible as a means of coming closer to God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit.

    In terms of the book American Gods it brought home points and helped me to feel that, yes, someone gets these Gods outside of a very few people. I had just become a Northern Tradition shaman, and I had either just picked up, or not picked up yet the Northern Tradition Shamanism books. While I did at the time (and sometimes still do with how Shadow was following Mr. Wednesday more or less blindly) identify with Shadow, I am not Shadow nor is he I. I would. Gaining insight into myself or my path, whether the Gods ‘used’ American Gods to do so with me or not, was a powerful experience as part of reading the text. Yet, I did not start worshiping Mr. Wednesday, nor do I look at Anubis as Mr. Jackal.
    It may have pushed me to look at how I relate to my Gods, and what aspects of Them They had yet to reveal to me, but that is a good deal different than using American Gods as a holy text or pretext to worship Mr. Wednesday or Low Key Lyesmith.

    That said, the scene with Mr. Wednesday and Eostre/Ostara is actually a really illuminating one, and one that I look at with a grin.

  1. May 19, 2013 at 5:45 am
  2. May 31, 2013 at 8:22 am

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