Religious Branding

Star Foster of Patheos Pagan Portal has asked some of us for articles responding to the latest flurry of debate surrounding the issue of who call themselves “Pagan” and why. I’ve weighed in on this question before, and my partner, a linguist by trade as well as by nature who has nearly two decades of experience in the field, has written on several occasions about how language and labels function and evolve, especially when it comes to religious community. But the topic keeps coming up, and I keep finding new reasons to find it silly. Here’s yet another one.

When I was growing up, things were simple. I was Catholic. With a little brother on the way, my parents moved our small family into a house on the cheapest, oldest edge of the best school district they could find and at two years old I went from being a city-dweller surrounded by people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, to a suburban kid with a swing-set in the backyard and streets that were wide and safe enough to learn to bike in, surrounded by other (mostly white) suburbanites. My mother, who has a funny sense of loyalty in an age of social mobility and product placement, kept on sending my brother and me to the same day care center in the city (where my father still worked) until we were old enough for school, and my favorite teacher for those first few important years of my life was an elderly Hispanic women named Mrs. Iris, who taught me poetry in Spanish.

When I started attending school, everyone was Christian (except for Ramsi, who was Muslim, and the other Allison, who spelled her name with two Ls and was Jewish, and Jeremy and John, who were atheists and anarchists and played trombone in the high school marching band). As a Catholic, I was Christian. This didn’t matter much, because no one in our yuppie school had much of a mind to religion. Soccer was important, and dominated our lives three times a week for practice plus Saturdays. The church my dad took us to on Sunday mornings was full of young couples and new parents with screaming babies, interested in doing right and looking for a quiet, gentle reminder that suburban life wasn’t the end-all of existence — but who were mostly worried about how they were going to get the kids to soccer practice after school the next day. I took a certain amount of pride that I wasn’t just Christian, wasn’t just Catholic, but was Irish Catholic, which seemed to my young self to carry a flavor of nature mysticism and deep roots in the same way that the air by the ocean seems to carry the taste of salt into every crack and crevice. I loved that mysticism and that poetry, and I explored my spirituality through the lens of aesthetics and poetics, all the while devouring books on mysticism, metaphor and mythology from every exotic culture I could get my hands on. None of that made me any less Catholic. It just deepened my Catholicism into something more meaningful and uniquely personal.

It was only when I got to college that I met for the first time people who believed Catholics weren’t Christian, who were surprised, amused and maybe a little bit scandalized at the very suggestion. We had too many saints, for one thing, and we took the whole Trinity thing a bit too seriously and mysteriously. Plus, the Pope, I mean, come on. In fact, some of the folks I met in college insisted that Christianity wasn’t a religion. It was a “way of life,” a transformed existence. Religion was what happened to other people, it was what you got when you turned to silly things like prayer and candles and rosary beads and incense, before you got Saved. Once you were Born Again, you didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, as someone working on her degree in comparative religious studies, I found this perspective fascinating. And while I was busy meeting people who said I wasn’t Christian because I was Catholic, at the very same time I began to meet people who thought that, because I was Catholic, I was incapable of being intelligent, informed or broad-minded. There was mild pressure within the academic community to disown any personal religious affiliation and step out into the realm of “objective observer.” But more intense was the pressure from my friends studying physics and chemistry, the nerds I naturally gravitated towards, who thought religion in general was a bunch of silly nonsense. You didn’t need religion; you had everything you needed in Star Wars, punk rock and Dr. Pepper.

Star Wars, punk rock, Dr. Pepper, Jesus Christ, Manchester United. In the end, it’s all about branding. American culture still struggles with the consequences of ideals like freedom, pluralism and diversity. If we can accept that communities or cities or college campuses can be diverse places, we still expect that complexity and diversity to be named and delineated, categorized and branded. In some ways, this naming is essential — the ability to name one’s own identity can lend strength and foster solidarity in communities struggling against misunderstanding or oppression. The sacrality of naming can create a small haven of understanding and relationship in the mad rush and noise of the American mainstream.

Too easily, though, the holiness of naming is mistaken for the manipulative convenience of branding. Branding makes it easier to consume, easier to sift through the cultural loyalties of the people we meet, easier to choose who we’ll befriend and who we’ll pass by. Branding allows us to create our own image and advertise our community allegiances with prepackaged customizations. Is your iPod black or red? Is your cell an iPhone or an Android? What do you drink? Are you a good ol’ fashioned, All-American Pepsi kind of girl? Are you a fitness nut, chugging down Aquafina by the gallon, sipping your Ocean Spray grapefruit juice at breakfast, maybe indulging in a Lipton Diet Green Tea for lunch? Do you like the caffeine rush of Mountain Dew or AMP Energy or a carmel Frappuccino to wake you up in the morning? Winding down with a caffeine-free Mug Root Beer or Sierra Mist? Or maybe you’re a bit of a hippie, chilling out with a SoBe or a Tazo? And how much does it matter to you that all these drinks are made by the same company?

There’s a reason the Pepsi-Cola company downplays the relationship between all these different brand names. There’s a reason they don’t call it “Pepsi grapefruit juice” and “Pepsi water” — just reading those names has probably conjured up some pretty gross concoctions in your imagination (they definitely do in mine!). And that’s the point. Each name brand has its own associations and assumptions. Challenging those often superficial characteristics is much harder to do than simply creating a new name whenever you want to target a new demographic or capture a new market.

So it’s not surprising to me that there are people in our wildly diverse community of outsiders, fringe-dwellers and envelope-pushers who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the “Pagan” brand. It tastes too much like Wicca(nate), they object, it’s too fizzy and fluffy, it’s bad for your teeth. There may be many reasons why an individual or small group who leaves the “Pagan” name behind suddenly find themselves more appealing to the American mainstream — for the same reason that, as a Catholic girl, I read about Sufism and Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Mossflower of Redwall and the Dragonriders of Pern. There is something appealing and tantalizing about the exotic and the strange, something that seems to promise ancient wisdom or harken back to more intimate times…. especially when that something is a brand that can be tried on for style, taken up and discarded again, without demanding anything of you, without expecting you to change.

But that’s also the problem with branding. It’s shallow. It’s ephemeral. It’s easy. It obscures not only the deep connections that we actually share with one another, but also the very real and more intricate diversity that is a part of any community no matter how apparently homogenous on the surface. We struggle with acknowledging just how diverse a community can be while still retaining its coherence, I think in part because we are so used to an “Us versus Them” mentality that takes for granted that “They” are always a simple, easy to categorize Other. This remains true even when we find ourselves drawn to that Otherness. We imagine that maybe being Other is easy, or that it will meet some need in ourselves to be other, to be unique and different. But when Otherness is merely a brand that we slap onto our tee-shirts and stitch into our shoes, that we advertise with our jewelry and our bumper-stickers, we’re likely to find that it fails to satisfy, it ceases to tantalize and soon enough we’re searching again for a new style.

When it comes to “Pagans who aren’t Pagans,” I’ve noticed two patterns that seem to come up again and again. The first is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who has wandered from religion to religion maybe for years, hardly staying with one tradition or community long enough to decide he isn’t satisfied before moving on again to the next. He may praise Paganism (or a Paganism-That-Isn’t) for its flexibility and plurality, for catering to and upholding individualism, while at the same time pointing out how much he regrets that so few (other) Pagans are as deeply rooted in real, authentic ancient tradition as he is. That there might be some sacred tension or paradox here between individuality and community, between freedom and rootedness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. Roots are not something you grow by deepening your practice, but something you acquire by seeking the right community with the right name. Community is not something you build, but something you win, something akin to popularity or fame.

The second is the Pagan-Who-Isn’t who settled down into a tradition and grew roots and built community, and who for one reason or another fell under the impression that she was the only one who did. For her, the name “Pagan” has come to signify the early stages of her growth, like an old skin that now feels a bit too scratchy and tight for comfort. She sees her old Pagan self in all those neophytes wandering the eclectic Wiccan(ate) mish-mash, just getting their feet wet, sampling from here and there and not yet settled down. She might even see other Pagans-Who-Aren’t as part of the problem, folks who wander from one tradition to the next looking for some satisfaction in the superficiality of the name they choose.

Some of my favorite people in the world are this second kind of Pagan-Who-Isn’t… people who continually struggle with the loneliness and complexity of that sacred tension between individuality and community, freedom and plurality. People on the edge of throwing up their hands and saying to Hel with it, but who have enough self-awareness and self-reflection to see just how mired in Pagan aesthetic and modern Pagan history they really are, whether they like it or not. People interested in asking themselves, and each other, what that relationship with the name “Pagan” really means.

Just the other day reading Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book on the ogam, I was struck by how much some of her meditative practices were clearly influenced by ceremonial magic… the same ceremonial magic she took pains to distance herself from earlier in the book. She describes Celtic Reconstructionism as a tradition rooted in ancient Celtic lore and culture but still relevant to today’s society, but then that’s exactly how my Neopagan/Revival Druidry order describes itself. And our practices, though different in some ways, are also very similar in many others, and the academic and cultural sources of our inspiration that inform and shape our practice are barely distinguishable. Writers, teachers and leaders in the CR community are admired and appreciated among the Druids I know — and their occasional insistence that they’re Not-Pagans is taken in stride as not being all that relevant, especially since they continue attend and teach at Pagan festivals and gatherings and participant in the Pagan online community through blogs and forums.

It seems a bit silly to me that we have a collective habit of bemoaning a lack of “beyond Pagan 101″ material out there, as though we should expect “Pagan 202″ to drop into our laps neatly packaged as a simple, single tradition. In college, I didn’t go from taking “Comparative World Religions 101″ to “CWR 202.” I started taking courses called things like, “The Protestant Reformation in Europe” and “Holy Texts and History in Rabbinical Judaism” and “Religion and Violence” with numbers like 224 and 315. I took advanced philosophy and politics courses like “Middle Eastern Relations” and “Political Philosophy in the Socratic Dialogues” and “Word and Image” and “Philosophy of Consciousness” and “The History of Family”— not “Philosophy 202″ and “Politics 202.” But the idea that because these advanced courses had a specific name and particular focus, they were no longer part of “politics” or “religion” but had become something else would have been foolish… as foolish as those Christians who told me I wasn’t Christian if I was Catholic, or that if you were truly Christian then you weren’t religious.

Part of deepening is discovering that diversity can exist even within coherent, larger communities, and that coherence and camaraderie can exist even where there seems to be endless plurality and difference. Part of the difference between a name and a brand is that a brand is shallow and simple — in fact, a brand relies on being shallow and simple and at least superficially different from all the other brands out there. But a name — a name is something that embraces a certain delicious ambivalence and fascinating complexity. A name is something, like a seed, that grows with nourishment and cultivation, that continues to evolve and change while still retaining some basic essence that weaves it together into a kind of tenuous wholeness. (“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay.” – Shaw)

If we want the name “Pagan” to be something more than just a brand or a fashion statement, some of us are going to have to stick around and own up to it when the going gets tough. We’re going to have to be honest with ourselves about our roots not only in ancient cultures but in the so-soon-forgotten history of the recent past, the last couple hundred years when the theosophists and the Freemasons and the deep ecologists and the feminists were all conspiring to become our embarrassing old uncles who show up uninvited at the family reunion. The word “Pagan” doesn’t come prepackaged with its own meaning — if we want “Pagan” to mean something, we’re going to have to make that meaning, to build that community and grow those roots through our effort and our outreach. And yes, it will be more difficult and it will challenge and change us in the process. And no, it won’t always make us popular or trendy.

And yes, sometimes it will mean throwing in our lot with the over-enthusiastic neophytes and the High Priestess Lady Shimmering Fairy Wolf Moons out there. Every community has its converts and beginners. Personally, I don’t mind. I’m not all that invested in telling people they’re not good enough to share a name with me, that they’re not deep or real enough to be called what I call myself. And that’s what you’re in for, as soon as you start trying to shed the name “Pagan.” The name exists because there is a community here that requires it, that demands — quietly, insistently — to be named. As soon as we try to move away from the name “Pagan,” we’ll find a new name cropping up in its place (maybe it will be “polytheist” next, that seems to be catching on). And in a few decades time, we’ll look back to find ourselves still having this conversation, with different names but the same furrowed brows, the same wringing hands… and no closer to a solution.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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