American Gods and the Intersection of Religion and Pop Culture

All my fans know that I love the show American Gods, so both of you may appreciate this post. As the second season evolves from the book, it demonstrates by its very storytelling how religions actually change in human societies. That is, religions are continually adapting to the social, political, economic, and geographical circumstances as they move throughout time and space.

One of my favourite things to do when I teach courses on New Religious Movements (otherwise known as “cults,” though scholars use the acronym NRM in order minimize the automatic and often incorrect biases against them) is to introduce the topic via the beginnings of Christianity. The early Jesus followers were viewed with suspicion, not only by other Jews, but also by the surrounding Roman rulers. The accusations against them ranged from being cannibals (because they ate of the body and drank from the blood of Jesus during the Eucharist); incestuous (Athenagoras claims they faced Oedipal allegations); and suspect because they engaged in bizarre secret rituals like eating among their dead in the catacombs (because Christianity was illegal, they retreated to areas few people ventured).

Romans and Jews alike saw them as strange and a threat. Two thousand years later, and it is one of the major influences of the “western” world, whether you are Christian or not, whether you realize it or not.

This example demonstrates a pattern in human behaviour: newly introduced ideas are often viewed with suspicion and vitriol. Once an idea takes hold, it becomes familiar, and it is then subsumed into the larger culture. In the 1960s, yoga and vegetarianism were considered dangerous “cult” practices luring American youth into deviant lifestyles. Today, most people reading this (both of you) will view them as largely innocuous if not personally appealing.

Ideas change over time. This is not a radical claim. What is, perhaps, (mildly) radical, is to suggest that when religious ideas inevitably do change they are just as much influenced by popular culture as they are theological elites. In my subfields of magic, ritual, new religions, and pop culture from a religious studies perspective (which means it’s secular-ish) the distinctions between high and low cultures are being challenged and uprooted, as they are in many academic subfields, to greater and lesser reception and resistance.

Keep all this in mind as we discuss American Gods.

When I first watched the show I was slightly disappointed that actual American new religions were not represented at all (Scientologists, Mormons, Satanists, what have you). Instead, Gaiman presents our obsession with pop culture as the New Gods (Media/New Media, Technical Boy, Mr. World, etc.). On the surface, new religions are not present in an overt way on the show, but they are present tangentially because of the prime feature of many American New Religions: they develop incorporating and responding to narratives from popular culture.

America is the birthplace of several new religions centered around aliens and science. They emerge alongside the genre of science fiction, which produced books, zines, newsletters, comics, and cartoons. It was a popular obsession. One result is an outcropping of these smaller religious groups, and another is the USA going to the moon. “Elite” and “popular” culture are exchanging ideas with each other. While Technical Boy doesn’t address these religions, he is actually the one they could potentially worship, because many centre around the idea that humans have the technological capacity to achieve various religious ends: measure a person’s mental state (Scientology); overcome death and illness (transhumanist movement); clone ourselves like aliens cloned us (Raeliens); or evolve into the next level of human achievement and fly away on a spacecraft hidden behind a comet (Heaven’s Gate). Pop culture intersecting with religion.

Mr. Wednesday, in his quest to revive his worship, never mentions the contemporary neo-Pagan movements that incorporate him into their pantheon. But he has certainly experienced a “revival”—which is more accurately called a “reconstruction” as there is no unbroken link between his ancient popularity until today. What we actually have is people using modern research methods to educate themselves on ancient Norse religions, and then altering these ideas to suit their respective modern religious interests. It’s a “do-it-yourself” type of practice, studied under the broad umbrella of “magic” and/or “new religious movements.” The most fascinating aspect of contemporary pagan or magical religious groups and individuals is that they are heavily influenced by popular culture. Even if many self-understand as harkening back to a “pure” ancient knowledge, the aesthetics, ritual objects, chants, and spells evolve with and mirror shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Charmed, Vikings, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. They inform and reflect each other. [Note: Ostara features prominently in these pantheons as well.]

This brings me to New Media—a welcome deviation from the book as she encapsulates  how religions shift and expand under new circumstances. As she’s the God of social media, entertainment, and mass communications, some of my favourite outlier religions are her constituents. Consider the Otherkin (people who believe they are partially non-human, such as part dragon, vampire, unicorn, etc.) and Therianthropes (people who believe their true selves are animals, such as wolf, eagle, cat, etc.), two groups that first developed in online chat rooms and early Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs is where us old school non-digital natives first went online to find other freaks like ourselves). As there is an understanding that they cannot ever be a “kin self” in their current body, online interactions with others like them and role playing in online forums becomes the format by which they express their desired true nature. New Media not only allows for interaction with co-religionists, it is their virtual ultimate form. New Media is the avatar of their true “religious” selves.

It’s not farfetched to conceive of an actual religion that develops around media and mass communications. It may ring weird at first, especially to people who haven’t grown up with the internet, but eventually becomes ubiquitous. New Media (or something like it) could potentially be a central religion for future human societies. Weirder things have happened, folks. We’re a bizarre species, and I love the most strange among us.

There are a thousand different links to draw between this show and what I do: the multiple images of Jesus in global Christianity, where he is depicted from Buff Black Jesus to Twink; the notion of true faith as exhibited by Salim in tandem with his homosexuality, like many Muslim LGBTQIA groups and the scholarly studies about them; and how religions deal with those who oppose the Gods, such as the Jinn/Ifrit becoming a “demon heretic.” [Note to religion scholars: could not all demons be considered heretics, by their very nature? Is it redundant, or am I forgetting some theological discourse?]

If time and revelation permit, I’ll continue these posts, as I’m currently thinking about how to frame an article/book on American Gods, fandom, pop culture, and religion. The blog allows for a quicker processing of ideas without having to vet it via the strident rigours of my discipline. Plus, it’s fun. And academia definitely needs more of that.

New Article on Religious Satanism

I’m delighted to finally share my latest publication, an article in the peer-reviewed journal: La Rosa di Paracelso. Click on title to access the journal and download the free PDF.

Cimminnee Holt

Abstract

The concept of “Total Environments” (1988) is outlined by Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan (1966), in response to the question: “What do Satanists do?” The query itself prompted by religious Satanism’s seemingly lack of recognizable “religious” traits: as an atheistic religion, they reject notions of the divine, demonic, and spiritual; there is no belief in a Golden Age myth to which to return; and no evangelical mandate or desire for mass conversion. What then, do members of the Church of Satan do? The answer, in part, is for Satanists to create the conditions for their individual desires to be reflected in the sensorial and material world.

This paper centralizes the sensorial and material qualities of religious Satanism as outlined by LaVey and understood by members of the Church of Satan. First, it discusses the objects used in Greater Magic rituals to demonstrate how these idiosyncratic items function as mediations of personal desire; and secondly, how LaVey’s ideas on insular spaces outside of ritual space—his concept of Total Environments—reveals that Satanists perceive their entire lives as an ongoing extension of the will. Living “satanically” in the world is a continued magical act mediated by materiality itself. LaVey’s concepts on magic contribute to the historical discourse and study of magic, and this paper suggests that LaVey’s framework can be used to study the lives of Church of Satan members as a whole. That is, applied religious Satanism is, ideally, creating a Total Environment.

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From La Rosa di Paracelso, No 2 (2017) (special issue)

Diabolus in singulis est: The Devil, Satan and Lucifer

“The most recent studies by Massimo Introvigne, Per Faxneld, Jesper Aagard Petersen and Ruben van Lujik have highlighted, under various aspects, the relief of the figure and symbolism related to the Devil. Such historical importance concerns the History of Ideas in the same way, as well as that of the Western Esotericism of the New Religious Movements. It is clear, for example, that a certain conception of the devil distinguishes the work of Anton Szandor Lavey (pseudonym of Howard Stanton Levey, 1930-1997) and his Californian Church of Satan, or the films of director Kenneth Anger (pseud by Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer, 1927 – still alive), or the thought of Robert de Grimston (weigher of Robert Moor, 1935 – still living) and Mary Ann Maclean (1931-2005), as well as of the group they founded The Process Church of the Final Judgment. Diaballein, of the luciferic fallen angel, as well as an androgynous being or a “spirit of the earth or of opposition” have influenced and continue to interest the most diverse historical, social and cultural dynamics concerning the groups and various currents of Satanism, past and present.

The most recent studies by Massimo Introvigne, Per Faxneld, Jesper Aagard Petersen and Ruben van Lujik have highlighted, in different manners, the prominence of the figure and the symbology of the Devil. And in the domain of the Western esotericism and in the New Religious Movements. One of them, understand, for a certain idea of ​​the Devil marks the work of Anton Szandor Lavey (pseudonym of Howard Stanton Levey, 1930-1997) and of his Californian Church of Satan, or of the films of director Kenneth Anger (pseudonym of Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer, b. 1927), or of the thought of Robert de Grimston (pseudonym of Robert Moor, b. 1935) and Mary Ann Maclean (1931-2009), and of the group of the Final Judgment. Diaballein, of the Luciferian fallen angel, with an idea of ​​an androgyne being of the spirit of the earth or of the ‘have impressed and continued to interest the most different mechanics from a historical, social and cultural point of view, concerning groups and various currents of Satanism, past and present.”

 

Academic Writing: Or, How to Avoid Being Sick Over Your Laptop

My writing process is thus:

1: Vomit words on a page.
2: Leave it for two weeks.
3: Re-write everything.

Or, as my friend Erik Östling puts it, the old “puke and revise” method.

Much of academic writing is taking two separate ideas and merging them together. A basic formula could be: here’s this one dudette’s theory on something religion-related, and here’s this religious group behaving in ways I find interesting, so my job is to see what is gained or lost by applying this theory to the practice. Does it fit well? Why or why not? What insights can we glean from the group’s practice? How could the theory be revised? Etc.

It’s simple enough. Good scholarship does this kind of thing seamlessly.

The problem, is that academics are rarely marrying just two ideas (that’s for undergrads [P.S.: I love teaching undergrads.]), but are instead trying to present a seamless disscussing on one topic by weaving in multiple theories, discourses, and ideas in a way that does not leave the reader confused, angry, and unwilling to fund, publish, and work with you.

I am obsessive. Before beginning to write I collect mass amounts of data before I get a clear idea of what it is I am actually trying to do, overwhelming the issue and confusing myself for days, before I finally streamline my thoughts. The eventual clarity is a glorious euphoria: Oh this is what my paper’s about!!!

The current problem under review: how do you write a thesis proposal on the Church of Satan, which incorporates two separate fields of study, western esotericism, and media/material culture studies? That is, how do I look at the material culture of these Satanists in a way that corresponds to similar studies on magical groups, without the study reading as disjointed?

For those unfamiliar, it is somewhat rare to study contemporary ritual/magical groups in terms of material culture. First, because modern magicians simply are not as studied, and second, because when they are, they are usually studied under the rubric of western esotericism (not material culture).

There is always overlap between fields. The issue, is that when you go cross-disciplinary, your methodology requires refining to adapt to the tug-and-pull of different disciplines, in a way that benefits the particular study best. The proposal I put together at the beginning of my doctorate is no longer completely relevant, as I’ve refined my approach. It’s now time to put it all together.

That’s where I’m at. I’m not yet certain how to do this. And I have a thesis proposal (over)due.

Lucky for me I can vomit on my blog.

Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

Magic is a Western word, born out of the western context. You can read its semantic use in popular discourse from the Oxford Dictionary Online. Note its common applications: as manipulation of events, as adjective, as verb, etc.

Its use within the larger western discourse of religious studies, though has nuanced definitions. It begins with the Greek encounter with Zoroastrian priests and their perceived esoteric skills, wherein magi comes to mean the foreign, mysterious, and occult. It retains this notion of specialized arcane knowledge to the current day, but has also developed other threads along its journey.

Most relevant to me, is the history of how scholars have studied magic. It begins with a Protestant discourse that retroactively applied the term to all things not Christian. Though the word itself predates the early anthropologists, we, in the academy, are most influenced by the first scholars to study “magic” with a social scientific (not theological) methodology. Magic could be:

    1. “Primitives” in foreign areas. Early anthropologist traveling to exotic places and labelling all indigenous practices as magical. Max Warwick presents an excellent discussion on his cross comparison on how the term is applied in studies in Oceania and Africa. For example, some chroniclers use it to denote malevolent practices, while for other cultures it is considered good. In yet others, magic is neutral, but the intent of the skilled person depends on how it is viewed. As these European writers use western language and discourse to describe the foreign ideas, terms like “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “spells,” and “curses” have a wide-range of meanings and applications, with little to no discussion of nuance, and no systematic standard between and among the European writers. Marwick advocates for scholars to define their terms for each study (For group A “magic” is considered evil; for group B is it not, etc.).
    2. Peasants, and their superstitions, sometimes based on older pagan ideas, or simply viewed as more common, a low culture as opposed to high culture. Much of what was considered not part of the practice of civilized elites was denounced as “magic.”
    3. Rival Christianities: your form of Christianity is clearly inferior to mine, and therefore magical, if not satanic. To which the response is an equally emphatic: No, your form of Christiniaty is clearly “magic,” and thus false.
    4. As early European anthropologists viewed civilization as the pinnacle of an upward trajectory model, they also retroactively applied the term magic to previous monotheistic religions, not solely pagan practices. Under this rubric Judaism (with its “archaic” ritual sacrifice) is magical, as are those funny types of Christians [Catholics]. Echoes of this remain within academic discourse, wherein the assumption that anything “ritualistic” is more base, carnal, and not in keeping with the Protestant ideal of internal, direct communion with god. The implication is that anything done with the body, the material, and the carnal is corrupt and inferior.

That is, for much of contemporary history, “magic” is informed by what Christianity claims it is not. Even as what-it-is-not is ephemeral, contested, and constantly in flux according to the socio-politico-religious influnces. What is considered “Christian” in one time/place/context could be considered heretical in another. No discussion of magic can ignore the history of Christianity and how it self-defines: the two are intertwined.

In the modern context, we have yet another use of the term, with the emphasis on technologies used to create magical illusions that tie into the discourse on science versus religion, with magic taking on this hybrid type of non-status. Magic as illusion by the exceptionally scientific. It is entertainment and wonder for a general population, performed by skilled scientists. To be a stage magician is still to manipulate the natural world, yet with the audience suspending disbelief in order to engage with the wonder and awe of the event.

Still, in the case of stage magic, there is an amphasis that it is not religion, not miracle. To believe that stage magic is miracle puts one in the camp of the delusional, unscientific, and guillible (much like the current anti-religious discourse in the western world). Complicating things further, is that many of the earliest scientists engaged in ideas that modern scientists consider pseudo-science or occult magic (see John Dee). Some of theses sciences were fully endorsed and funded by the Church. Some scientists also fuelled the idea that they held supernatural powers (Nichola Tesla was known to encourage rumours of his magical abilities).

Contemporary self-identified magicians (of which there are many types) also contribute to blurring the categories, by claiming that the effectiveness of magic is a science not yet explained by current methods (echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). Magic, within these groups and individuals, can be anything from harnessing biological and psychological techniques, to manipulation of spirits and/or demons via ritual to do your bidding, to an understading that magic is performative and cathartic in and of itself, without requiring deeper supernatural explanations.

In the convoluted ven diagram of Religion versus Magic versus Science, there was and continues to be much overlap.

How do I, then, propose to study and write a dissertation on magic, a thing that has no clear definition?

Well… stay tuned.

Media Studies: Centralizing the Material in the Magical

For my proposed dissertation (an ethnographic study of members of the Church of Satan), I am increasingly interested in media studies, often studied under its umbrella discipline of communications. Media studies can be viewed as the study of material culture, but it is much more. It is the study of objects, technologies, music, and any other sensorial aspect of human experience that informs how humans behave and act. Materical culture has certainly been studied before under various disciplines, but when we merge them with religious studies, we begin to see a methodological divide between the material (historically denounced as lesser, base, and carnal) and the spiritual (the high culture, the philosophical, the superior). We therefore have an implied dichotomy, a fracture in our approach that places the spiritual above the material. I want to usurp that ostensible divide.

Jeremy Stolow, in his article, “Religion and/as Media,” claims that media has been credited with, “a key role in the world-historical disembedding of religion from public life, and its relocation within the private walls of bourgeois domesticity, or deeper still, the interior, silent universe of individual readers and their infinitely replicable activities of decoding texts” (2005, 122). Stolow is addressing the notion that “religion” is often considered a private, interior phenomenon, and that anything that happens externally from one’s thoughts is somehow lesser, not quite as genuine.

This type of scheme is a holdover from Protestant denouncements of Catholic rituals, now embedded in academia, which is itself an idea as old as Plato’s dualism. The same mind/body, spirit/material, divine/human (and its gendered equivalent: male/female) fracture gets played out over and over again in various forms, where the first is considered the ultimate, perfect, and pure, while the latter is considered flawed, imperfect, and corrupt. This ostensible dichotomy has only relatively recently been challenged in academia.

Stolow suggests that, while media and religion as an emerging discipline is naturally cross-disciplinary, that the most fruitful approach is to begin with the premise: “religion as media” (125). That is, that:

Throughout history, in myriad forms, communication with and about ‘the sacred’ has always been enacted through written texts, ritual gestures, images and icons, architecture, music, incense, special garments, saintly relics and other objects of veneration, markings upon flesh, wagging tongues and other body parts.

The premise, then, of media studies, is to center the technologies involved in mediating religious phenomena. Place them in the foreground, not relegated to (an implied lesser) afterthought. Much of the history of religious studies has emphasized philosophy, theology, interiority, and sincerity, and has then claimed that mediation has “compromised, diluted, or eviscerated religious belief” (Morgan 2008, 1). [1]

Stolow is instead claiming that religious studies have always been studies of media. Religion is, by nature, mediated. Given this, perhaps media studies is best understood as a methodological approach that places the communication through various media as the foundational starting point.

My next project/article is on media (the objects) used in Satanic magical rituals that have cross purposes: The Satanic Bible not only as ritual script, but as a talisman, an object of importance with aesthetic properties; writing out one’s own script is not solely for liturgical guidance, but has artistic value as the letters scrawled in cursive, written with nice pens, become word-images; music played during ritual is more than an aural experience, as your presence in the chamber alters the resonance and sound and promotes a physiological reaction. Books are smelled. Letters are touched. Sound is felt.

In Satanic ritual magic, heightened sensorial experiences are designed to stimulate a transformative and effective magical rite. The media, then, is the magic.

This next project on Satanic magic is cross-disciplinary, using studies in material culture alongside studies in magic and esotericism, approached with the intent of centralizing the material aspect. David Morgan’s introduction to religion and media studies lists the multiple and varied fields and scholars engaged with media studies, addressing similar questions in the field, stemming from different disciplines. It is fitting to end this blog post with his open-ended commentary that: “To date, participants have felt no urgency to limit the discourse or dominate it by discipline, field, or methodology. For many of us, this is a sign of robust intellectual health” (2008, 13).

[1] As an important parallel: challenging the very term “belief” as a defining factor of religion is an ongoing discourse in religious studies. I can state anecdotally that it is a hurdle introducing the concept that religion takes many (unrecognizable) forms to new students, many of which have little or nothing to do with “belief.”