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.
This post belongs to a series of posts on media and religion, related to my dissertation on the Church of Satan.
Catherine Bell, in her book, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, focuses on underlying concerns that are addressed in the study of religion and media; she challenges the dichotomy that separates thought and action. First, she discusses a history of how ritual has been studied, and then second, she critiques how ritual has been isolated from theory and social activity. She proposes instead, “a focus on ‘ritualization’ as a strategic way of acting” (1992, 7). That is, that ritual is a thought-action, that communicates ways of being in the world through socially constructed symbols and meanings. It is, most importantly, not separate from theory. Ritual action is thought-action, and their ostensible division is a product of western history, tracing as far back as Plato, that denounces material culture over an exalted spiritual dimension.
The bipolar division of the world has contemporary repercussions in scholarship. Allow David Morgan to elaborate on the problem within his commentary on studies in visual culture:
As the set of practices, attitudes, and ideas invested in images that structure the experience of the sacred, visual piety cancels the dualistic separation of mind and matter, thought and behavior, that plagues a great deal of work on art and religion. (Morgan 1998, 2-3)
He promotes a dissolution of the dualistic approach, and instead examines material culture in terms of how people construct ways of meaning by their interaction with images.
A similar critique to the ostensible duality of human existence can be found in the Satanic worldview. Anton Szandor LaVey (1938-1997), the founder of the Church of Satan (1966), writes in his foundational text, The Satanic Bible:
ALL religions of a spiritual nature are inventions of man. He has created an entire system of gods with nothing more than his carnal brain. Just because he has an ego, and cannot accept it, he has to externalize it into some great spiritual device which he calls “God.” (2005, 44)
LaVey claims that humans worshipping gods are instead worshipping the humans that made those gods; he advocates eliminating the “middle man” and worshipping the self directly. He writes: “Man needs ritual and dogma, but no law states that an externalized god is necessary in order to engage in ritual and ceremony” (ibid). That is, that humankind, as solely carnal beings, can engage in ritual behaviour and ceremony that fulfills an innate desire for ritualization and meaning-making. They are meant as rites of communion with the self, as magical rites of autonomy. They define magic as a manifestation of the will; Satanic magical rituals are actions that effect desired transformations.
The Satanic Bible and other literature from the Church of Satan contains suggestive, not prescriptive, scripts for magical rituals, which employ scent, sight, sound, and touch to enhance the sensorial aspects of the rites. Individual members, however, alter the scripts to enact highly particular magical performances. These customized ceremonies are designed to arouse the senses of the participants; a highly emotional and stimulating rite is considered potent and successful magic. Though members of the Church of Satan adopt a firm secular worldview, with a strong atheistic foundation, their understanding of ritual is a hybridist carnal-magical practice that boosts the senses for a heightened and cathartic bodily experience.
Bell and Morgan promote similar notions to that of Lavey (though, obviously, with different intents and audiences): that ritual, practice, and materiality are paramount to constructing meaningful individual and social lives.
Given that I currently framing my research into Satanic Magic in terms of the sensorial media used within rituals, I am prompted to think about the emotive quality of sound. Isaac Weiner claims: “Perhaps it might be more appropriate to think of sound as a property or characteristic of a discrete material object” (2011, 110). That is, Weiner states that though you could consider the objects that create sound as material culture, he is more interested in the materiality of sound itself. He writes:
[To] focus on sound merely as a secondary characteristic of discrete material objects ignores how a sound’s material properties change as it emanates from its source. It ignores how particular sounds are affected by other aspects of the physical world, including weather patterns, the built environment, and the geographic landscape. And it ignores the vibrating of air on the eardrum that makes hearing itself a physiological process. (110)
Weiner is promoting the idea that sound, simply because it cannot be seen and is transitory in nature, should not be denounced as immaterial; it is, in fact, directly affecting its environment, and altering that which it encounters.
LaVey, a lifelong musician, would likely agree with Weiner’s statement, as he discussed the evocative effects of music (both in terms of physiological sound waves and emotive qualities) and how to use them for ritual magic. He notes: “Anything which serves to intensify the emotions during a ritual will contribute to its success. Any drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, photograph, article of clothing, scent, sound, music, tableau, or contrived situation that can be incorporated into the ceremony will serve the sorcerer well” (2005, 124). The point of a Satanic ritual is to have a heightened emotional experience for cathartic ends. Music, then, plays an important role.
Essays from LaVey’s book Satan Speak’s, “UR-Song, or Why There Are No More Volume Pedals,” and “Stereo, Scam of the Century,” describe how musicians should make music that compels people to “listen, rather than merely hear” (1998, 60). LaVey emphasizes tempo and dynamism, while lambasting stereo for eliminating musical nuance. He notes that music heard from one source is still binaural, as two ears act as “range finders for sound” (56). Too much focus is on the emitter of sound, and not the receptor of sound.
For Satanic magical rituals, he lists a range of classical music that he finds particularly evocative, such as:
Puccini’s Turandot, climax of first act:
Handel’s Largo from Xerxes:
Berlioz’ Funeral and Triumphal Symphony:
As Satanic rituals are highly idiosyncratic, many Satanists also use LaVey’s own Hymn of the Satanic Empire:
(Sheet music available on the Church of Satan website.)
The succeeding and current High Priest of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore—who holds a degree in music composition from New York University—offers some of his own downloadable classical music compositions. Gilmore has written about his love of bombastic symphony music, and how it creates “grand emotional expression” (2007, 112).
Gilmore attests that Satanic rituals are “self-transformative psychodrama” (2007, 223). One of the ways in which the transformation occurs is through the sound of music, but also through the proclaimed word. Performative utterances in ritual are proclamations of fact, not simply word references. When a marriage ceremony is conducted, a judge’s statement “I now pronounce you man and wife” legally changes the civil status of that couple. Similarly, when proclaiming “So it is done” in Satanic ritual, it does not merely describe the action, it is the action. It is another form of willfully engaging in suspension of disbelief; you act as if your desire has already been fulfilled. The sounded out words shifts the understanding of reality.
There are correlations to be made between sound in Satanic ritual and how Weiner advances his discussion on sound. He states:
Studying sound should direct our attention…not to discrete physical objects, but to the space—and relationship—between them. Studying sound implies a theory of religion that is inherently communal and intersubjective. To study sounds as material culture, then, is to attend both to their physical properties and to the historically specific processes through which broadcasters and receivers invest sounds with significance. (2011, 109)
This intersubjectivity can be applied to the emotionally cathartic goal of Satanic ritual. It is meant as a sensorial manipulation of one’s own psyche.
Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory: Ritual Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gilmore, Peter H. 2007. The Satanic Scriptures. Scapegoat Publishing.
LaVey, Anton Szandor. 2005 . The Satanic Bible. New York, NY: Avon Books.
—–. 1998. Satan Speaks. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.
Morgan, David. 2008. Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture. New York, NY: Routeledge.
—–. 1998. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Weiner, Isaac. 2013. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: NYU Press.
—–. 2011. “Sound,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art & Belief 7.1: 108–15.
—–. 2009. “Sound and American Religions,” Religion Compass 3.5: 897–908.
An upcoming subsection of blog posts will be dedicated to loosely examining media studies, with the ultimate goal of applying the theoretical approach to Satanic ritual. Some posts may or not include direct analysis of Satanism or magic.
Media: the Body
In her essay, “Goose Bumps All Over: Breath, Media, and Tremor,” Maria José de Abreu summarizes the analysis of Rudolf Otto on the mystical experience of goose bumps who argued that, “goose bumps express the ecstasy of the body when in the presence of the divine. Implied in Otto’s theory is that the religious subject is involuntarily and unexpectedly caught up by the unknown. This encounter produces a powerful bodily experience, which dawns on the believer like a revelation” (2008, 60-61). The involuntary bodily experience as a social construct—how it is confronted, framed, sought, and overcome—is what I wish to focus on here.
De Abreu states that involuntary bodily experiences are where the natural encounters the supernatural: “One of the concepts that seems to aptly illustrate this complicity between mystical experience and the unexpected is that of enrapture” (61). Ecstatic experiences such as the Christian notion of enrapture is to be unexpectedly overcome by a divine force. Phenomenon such as glossolalia and possession function similarly. In a Christian context, possession could be by the Holy Ghost or demons, but possession itself is not solely under a Christian purview (see Jewish dybbuk, Korean shamans, and Tamil brides, for some examples), and, much like the notion that goose bumps are evidence of an interfusion between the mundane and the sacred, the bodies of those possessed are considered bridges of access between two worlds. The body becomes porous, an unwilling vehicle for external forces.
The involuntariness of these bodily experiences, though, is only ostensibly involuntary. Take, for instance, Brazil’s Padre Marcelo and his “Jesus aerobics”. De Abreu explains the conditions in the twenty-five degree temperature event venue:
The system is designed to spray water over the devout during Padre Marcelo’s dynamic worship, which he has branded the “aerobics of Jesus.” Also known as Masses of Deliverance, the aerobics of Jesus consist of sing-alongs combined with choreographed physical exercises based on Byzantine techniques of prayer such as the Prayer of the Heart. First used by the early Desert Fathers in fourth-century Egypt in the tradition of Hesychasm, the Prayer of the Heart flourished among Greek monks for ten centuries. Valued for its psychosomatic results, the prayer draws on both vocalic and physical activities. The idea is to have voice both punctuate and be punctuated by the bodily rhythmic repetitions of breath and heartbeat, so that one’s voice becomes an extension of breath in the form of traveling sound. Once synchronization between voice, breath, and heartbeat is accomplished, the subject is gradually transported along different stages of mystical ascension.(2008, 59) 
This is a concert of frenzied worship where congregants have an expectation of ecstatic experience. They are already open and receptive to the idea of being overcome. By convening in the “safe” environment of Marcelo’s sermons, having such unexpected bodily experiences is within a controlled space, with an expected outcome. Despite the descriptions of the wild and untamed encounter with the divine, there is still a social script for how these phenomena unfold. That social script is known and accepted both internally (within Christian communities, to varying degrees) and externally (as secular worldviews are familiar with the script, even as many critique religious institutions).
By contrast, compare how we view involuntary behaviour that falls outside of the social script: the uncontrolled loss of bodily fluids during orgasm, illness, or death are not considered fit for a public audience; unexpected laughter at a funeral; visibly sweating in front of others when not physically exerting oneself; sexual arousal in unsanctioned spaces; and even enraptured bodily experiences like glossolalia must be performed in a sanctioned space for them to be considered “normal”—the average person who spontaneously spoke in tongues could be thought to be mentally ill. The social script, then, dictates how “unexpected” bodily experiences are framed, and an incident of involuntariness can be sanctioned, sought, denigrated, or shameful.
There are multiple examples within my area of expertise of new religions movements (NRMs) where bodies are used in unexpected ways. Generally speaking, many of the NRMs that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in western societies were a critique of the orthodox and homogeneous; they are born within and responding to the socially turbulent counterculture movements of the time, which included the civil rights movement, sexual politics and feminism, anti-war protests and hippies, and all were deliberately subverting and challenging the social scripts. New religions echoed the concerns of the larger social context, yet varied in how these challenges manifested.
For example, Bhagwan Shree Rajaneesh (later known simply as Osho), the leader of a neo-sannyas commune in Oregon, would have his devotees dance, scream, cry, jump, and shake in a daily ritual designed to jar one’s self out of everyday routines and thought, to overcome the ego and learned behaviours. Once the body behaves in novel and unstructured ways, so does the mind. These “meditations” were meant to provoke involuntary behaviour, as they were considered more pure, unfiltered, and unhampered by social constraints.
Rajneesh devotees also challenged social scripts by swapping normative roles, having women do construction, and men do nursing, for example, as well as having the children be raised collectively on the commune, with adults supervisors on rotation. Children’s bodies and desires were considered more pure, and thus should be unfettered by adult intervention, even that of the parent-child bond.
Another group that addressed the body in unconventional ways was the infamous Heaven’s Gate, a group most known for having committed mass suicide in 1997. The leaders were Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who developed a deep platonic bond, and wished to overcome sexual desires, as acting on sexual desire was considered having a lack of control, a sign of weakness and “humanness.” To circumvent this, they tried deliberately erasing signs of gender: all members wore long tunics over trousers, abstained from sexual activity, and some male members underwent surgical castration.
Unlike the ecstatic event of glossolalia and its assumed intersection of the supernatural and natural for Marcelo’s congregants, for members of Heaven’s Gate the ecstatic act of sexual activity was what drew them away from access to what they called the Next Level of human existence. Their “Next Level” was a bridge to eternal life. Involuntary sexual arousal was then an impediment to their spiritual goals. The act of castration itself was a method to reach what they deemed to be a higher form of existence, they wished to overcome the involuntariness of the body to be in a more pure state when they finally moved on to the Kingdom of Heaven (which was considered a physical space aboard a spaceship hiding in the clouds of the comet Hale-Bopp). Their suicides were a calculated act to halt the involuntary decay of the body; it is what allowed them to reach to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. In many of the recorded “exit statements” from members, they expressed happiness and elation about moving on: “We are returning to Life…and we do in all honesty hate this world.” They were no signs of violence, coercion, or undo force for members of Heaven’s Gate, as Applewhite and Nettles wanted only those who genuinely wanted to be there to remain within the group. They even bought plane or train tickets and provided money for members who wished to leave. Most members were middle-aged, educated, middle class professionals with no history of substance abuse or mental illness.
Voluntary castration for spiritual advancement is not unique to members of Heaven’s Gate (see Castrato, Galli, Hijira, Origen, Skoptsy, and various other eunuchs). But what is unique, or at least unusual, is that they did it within our society, and thus violated the social script. We tend not to be as horrified when such acts occur “over there” (wherever that may be, but it certainly is not “here”). Because their behaviour is so far outside of what we consider normal, and because they are like us (same society, language, education), we assume that their acts were involuntary. We deny them their agency because it makes us uncomfortable to consider castration and suicide as voluntary acts. We frame them as “brainwashed” or under the influence of “mind control.” (As an important aside, there has been much debate about the validity of the “brainwashing” theory over the past several decades. Most NRM scholars these days barely address it as it is considered debunked by multiple studies that have challenged such theories. When an NRM scholar does mention it, it is usually within the context of popular opinion or the larger academy of the study of religion. See Melton 2007.)
When people or groups reframe things that violate the social script, it makes us uncomfortable: gender roles, suicide, castration, childrearing. Suicide is considered a failure on behalf of our social welfare systems, or even a cowardly act by the person in question. We often claim that the person must have “felt they had no choice.” We never view it in terms of a spiritual act of conviction. On a lesser scale, we say similar things about Muslim women veiling: we suspect that they would not do it if they truly had a choice. To allow agency for behaviours that make us uneasy is to admit that we are not an authority.
The religious body is caught between notions of voluntary and involuntary behaviour, from both internal and external social scripts. The exalted involuntary bodily experience in one social context (such as goose bumps and tremors during the charismatic masses) is the weird brainwashing cult-like behaviour in another (such as with the Rajneesh devotees’ meditations). An involuntary bodily experience (such as sexual attraction) is sought-after in a secular context, whereas the same experience (such as with the Heaven’s Gate group) is denied by castration for spiritual advancement. The social context dictates how in/voluntariness of the bodily acts are framed and understood.
1. [From De Abreu’s article:] Hesychasm refers to the Greek word for silence, stillness, and quietness associated with the Christian ascetical writings and traditions of prayer in Orthodox Eastern Christianity since the fourth century. Contested by the Roman Catholic Church, the Prayer of the Heart is an integral part of the larger collection of texts on practices associated with spiritual asceticism in the tradition of Hesychasm later compiled in the texts Philokalia by St. Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. See Olga Louchakova, “Ontopoiesis and Union in the Prayer of the Heart: Contributions to Psychotherapy and Learning,” in Logos of Phenomenology, Phenomenology of Logos, bk. 4, Analecta Husserliana: The Yearbook of Phenomonological Research, vol. 91, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2005), 289 – 311.
2. The editor in me is screaming that this particular wordpress template automatically puts (unremovable) quotation marks on the block quote. It is one or the other, never both. It drives me insane.