The Social Script of In/Voluntary Religious Bodily Experiences

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 constructhow it is confronted, framed, sought, and overcomeis 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 dybbukKorean 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.[1] 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) [2]

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 CastratoGalliHijiraOrigenSkoptsy, 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.