Art, Entertainment and the Technology of the Sacred
Satire, Irony & the Discourse on Pagan Diversity
Recent health issues have prevented me from doing much blogging this winter, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to revisit an essay I wrote almost two years ago but never published.
By the time I had gathered my thoughts and written this post, much of the controversy which originally inspired it had calmed, and the conversation in the larger Pagan community had moved on. Yet many of the issues at the heart of that controversy remained only half-articulated, and as a community, we’ve continued to encounter many of them again and again, albeit in always shifting forms. Most recently, talks and events at this year’s Pantheacon — including those involving a satirical newsletter mocking racist organizations (written in part by a Pagan of color), and the unintended but very real hurt it caused to some other Pagans of color — echo the themes I attempted to address in this essay when I wrote it almost two years ago.
How do we grapple with the sacred ambivalence of art, poetry and satire, in our theology and in our politics? How do we distinguish between healthy cross-cultural borrowing through art and other forms of communication, and harmful cultural appropriation? Between respect for historical accuracy and unique cultural contexts, and an obsession with cultural purity that so easily gives way to exclusion and racism? How do we express ourselves and explore our uncertainties freely and respectfully in the context of difficult conversations, especially about issues of injustice and inequality when the stakes are so high and the pain so raw? Two years ago, some Pagans objected to the characterization of ritual as art/entertainment because to them it implied that their religion was not being “taken seriously” by others. Today, some Pagans (not all of them the same) are suggesting that there are some political issues that are “too serious for satire.” I hope that examining some of the parallels between these conversations, separated by time and subject matter, might give us some insight into the deeper themes that our community is struggling to articulate during our long, slow coming-of-age, and how those themes are reflected in conversations about sometimes vastly different issues.
Over the past week, I’ve done some gentle editing on this essay, but for the most part it remains how I originally wrote it. For that reason, the references are almost entirely to the events surrounding the “pop-culture Paganism” controversy of two years ago, and do not directly reference current events. However, I’m a strong believer in learning from history; in this case, our own (very recent) history. I hope that this essay can offer all of us in the Pagan community who care deeply about these issues — especially those who, like myself, feel that art, poetry and satire are sacred forms of expression capable of provoking deep healing and great transformation — something to contemplate as we move forward in healthy and healing ways.
My heart aches with the weight of the racism so prevalent in American society, and in our own community. But I’m also concerned by references I have seen recently to satire as “weaponized poetry” and its elision with the use of irony as a way of obfuscating, manipulating or directing violence against others.* I’m concerned by claims that satire is only appropriate when “everyone understands” it and the satirist “understands everything” about the issue — which is another way of saying that it is never appropriate, for who could possibly claim to have such a comprehensive and complete understanding, or such control over the understanding of others?
A community that cannot tell the difference between poetry and propaganda, between satire and scorn, is a community at risk of losing its grasp of the real political power of art. It is a community at risk of sliding into the brittle literalism and harmful intolerance of fundamentalism that is actively hostile to expressions of ambivalence, uncertainty, mystery, curiosity and, in the end, diversity itself. In light of these concerns, I wanted to share this essay as a robust defense of the sacred value of art, poetry and satire within both our theological explorations and our political discourse. It is my view that ambivalence itself can be sacred, for it opens us to authentic experiences of others which may be unexpected or challenging, and so we can appreciate this ambivalence and the art forms that express it as powerful and meaningful aspects of our relationship with the numinous, and with each other.
I met the gods in a high school auditorium.
It began with a clap of thunder, a ripple of woodwinds and the words, “There is an island where rivers run deep…”
And then the whole vivid magic of the musical Once On This Island blossomed on stage. It was the spring of my sophomore year, I was almost sixteen, and I was coming into my own. I had finally quit the soccer team I’d played on since grade school just to please my parents, and I was writing poetry and learning guitar and generally throwing myself headlong into becoming the true artsy hippie chick I’d always wanted to be. I couldn’t sing, dance or act worth shit, but when a friend mentioned that the high school theater group had a spot open on the lighting technician crew, I signed up.
That spring I spent hours squirreled away in the tiny, dimly-lit lighting booth at the back of the theater, up among the dust and stacks of moldy, half-forgotten storage boxes just below the roof access ladder. I flipped switches and swung the spotlight across the stage, and a whole world came to life below me full of sound and fury and laughter and music and dance and so much color. And every once in awhile, the old light board would short out, plunging the stage into darkness, and I’d have to show it some tough love with a well-aimed kick or strangle it into submission with some electrical tape. But that’s how my art has always been — not glamorous and center stage, but just on the awkward side of nerdy, and done mostly in the dark.
I wouldn’t attend my first Pagan ritual until I was in college a few years later. But when I look back at that spring of my high school sophomore year, what I remember is the dawning sense of the sacred that seemed to bubble up from among the trilling flutes and rumbling drums in the orchestra pit. I remember the costumes swirling and flashing in a riot of color, set against a minimalist background of black-cardboard silhouetted trees. I remember the kind-hearted giggles among the dancers at their missteps and mess-ups as they learned their moves, and the soaring sense of awe when the singers hit those high notes, voices swept up on a surge of adrenaline and startled pride. I remember the itch to dance moving through my body like an unspoken prayer as I sat alone in that dark little booth.
And I remember watching my fellow students down on the stage, belting out songs in honor of the gods of earth and sea, love and death, and wondering… What did it feel like to sing praises in honor of gods you didn’t really believe in? I wondered if the more conservative Christians among them were wincing, or doing penance after rehearsal each night. Somehow, I doubted it. It was all just good entertainment, after all.
But then, truly good entertainment is never just that. Art is sacred. It shapes the way we see the world. It tunes us to new ways of being and thinking. It moves us to love, fear, grief and longing. It opens us to the realities of our own mortality, and to the possibilities of a life fully lived, set loose by death into the realm of memory and legacy. Storytelling, music, dance — the living arts of body and community — the preserving arts of pigments and paints, clay and stone.
Pagans With Hammers
There has been a perennial debate in the Pagan community about art, entertainment and theology, and their influences on modern Paganism. There have even been times when I’ve found myself caught off-guard by the ambivalence towards art and poetry expressed by Pagans who I would have thought would be strong advocates for its inclusion and celebration — a response that has challenged me to examine my own complex reactions to this topic. One such response came from Christine Hoff Kraemer, who wrote:
As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). […] I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local. [emphasis added]
It struck me as strange that Kraemer would elide fiction and “time on the computer.” I could at least understand the Reconstructionists’ theological argument against newly-invented gods (even if I didn’t agree with it), but there was something unsettling to me about this notion of putting fiction, and art more generally, at odds with an attentive engagement with the natural world.
In another post, a response to an interview with secular atheist Pagan Amy B. that appeared on Jason Mankey’s blog, John Halstead shared his concerned reaction to Amy’s comment that she viewed ritual primarily as a form of entertainment:
When I read that, I thought, “Crap! This will confirm the worst fears of theistic Pagans about non-theists.” I commented on Jason’s blog and expressed my concern, and I was glad to see other non-theists speak up as well. […] Many non-theistic Pagans, including myself, have a deep sense of spirituality and treat ritual as something sacred.
Reading the rest of Amy’s interview, I wondered if “entertainment” was really the word she was looking for. She goes on to speak about the power and beauty of ritual done well, and the social and psychological implications of a shared physical, aesthetic experience. It seemed to me that she was speaking not so much of “mere” entertainment, but of the power of art.
There’s good reason to feel uneasy about equating art with entertainment, or fiction with “time on the computer.” In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explores the differences between entertainment and what he calls “enchantment,” drawing heavily on Marshall McLuhan’s theories concerning the relationship between various media, the experiences they provoke and the ideas they communicate. Postman’s focus in this book is on the effects that the medium of television had on the many different forms of cultural discourse — from politics to religion to family life — in the modern Western world, particularly leading up to the mid-80s. But in his 1998 talk, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” (pdf), he anticipated the coming digital age of smart phones and social media when he noted:
Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. […] The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether. [emphasis added]
What can we say of a culture in which access to the multi-media cacophony of the internet has become ubiquitous, instantaneous and interactive? To a person with a smart phone, everything looks like a Tumblr post. (And warrants the same call-out culture response.) As Postman rightly points out:
Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. […] A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. [emphasis added]
The debate over pop culture and theology that has raged in the Pagan community seems to me to be a debate about how technology has changed everything, including art and entertainment. One of those changes is that, at a basic level, the carefully constructed division between the two has begun to break down. We’re no longer sure where “mere” entertainment stops, and true art begins. We now live in a world where we make our own entertainment: from internet memes that seem to take on a rollicking life of their own as they crowd-surf the crowd-source, to painstakingly edited YouTube videos of autotuned local news reports and comic artists who spend hours on cartoons that intentionally mimic the look of a five-year-old who can’t draw. We live in a world where the best forms of entertainment are often meta-commentaries on the medium itself, where the sacred art of satire rubs elbows with the laziness of cynicism and sarcasm, where sincerity is in constant rivalry with irony, and everybody’s a hipster who doesn’t care if you care that they actually care.
Why We Tell The Story
So what are the “worst fears” of some polytheists that Halstead worries will be confirmed when they are confronted with the beliefs and opinions of other polytheistic and non-theist Pagans?
Perhaps most important to this conversation is Postman’s “fifth idea,” which is worth quoting in full:
I come now to the fifth and final idea, which is that media tend to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word “myth” to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers — they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context. When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control. [emphasis added]
As much as the polytheist debate has been about theology, it has also been about the mythic place of media in our religious practices.
In some reconstructionist and devotional polytheists who argue in favor of historical accuracy, scholarly research and deity-centered ritual, we can see a parallel to Postman’s “computer people” who value data and information as the primary organizing principle of reality. From this perspective, it matters at a fundamental level that the gods are “real,” external, discrete, identifiable — in short, the gods are matters of fact. Their existence is a piece of information, a point of data, that must be taken into consideration, factored into whatever code we live by if we expect that code to function properly. The growing emphasis on piety, ritual efficacy and right relationship among some Pagans reflects this desire to organize and manage the “data” of the gods’ existence in a way that will not break down or return inexplicable error messages that bring our engagement with the real world to a grinding halt. From this perspective, ambiguity in our language is an obstacle to clarity and precision that can quickly derail our attempts to live devoutly.
To “smart phone people,” however, data no longer represents inviolate truth. Facts make up the messy, quantum sludge of the collective, crowd-sourced mind out of which a consensus reality congeals. Given the overwhelming and sometimes self-contradictory milieu, there is not necessarily any way to “function properly” in the midst of this onslaught of information, no way to factor in every stray data point. Attempts to write the perfect code end up too brittle to keep up with the pace and unpredictability of change, and no matter how good your phone’s data plan, sometimes you just can’t get a signal. In fact, the task of distinguishing the signal from the noise is ultimately the work of a lifetime, a creative process of individual exploration and self-expression. From the viewpoint of some pop-culture Pagans, there is simply no reliable way to differentiate the gods as external “facts” from the socially constructed and mediated experiences of those gods. For these polytheists, ritual is like the Double-Rainbow Song — a spontaneous response to awe, autotuned, imitated, parodied and adapted into a thousand unique derivations and expressions, some of which are really quite beautiful and reverent. To “smart phone” Pagans, theology is Wikipedia.
Of course, these are not strictly defined and mutually exclusive categories; none of us are always and only one or the other. We may be “computer people” about some things, and “smart phone people” about others. At other times, we may be “television people,” “pencil people” or even “pigment-and-paintbrush people” or “hammer-and-anvil people.” All of us find ourselves in a matrix of multiple-belonging, and so many of us often feel the pressure to adjust ourselves to more neatly fit into only one category, to be only one kind of person.
Because It Might Lead To Dancing
There is an old joke that goes: Why are Southern Baptists against sex outside of marriage? Because it might lead to dancing. At the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, the punchline works because it flips on its head the assumptions about the goal of a particular religious group and its authority figures. The joke plays on the realization that dancing itself can be subversive in its own right, perhaps even more so than sex. The act of dancing can radically shape our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. And so by extension, it can influence (and be influenced by) all of the ways that we experience the intensity of intimate relationship. It can let joy, pleasure and rebellion leak in where figures of authority would prefer to enforce conformity in the name of “seriousness.”
Art has always held a controversial place in relation to authority, in particular religious authority. It can be used to shore up this authority and to reinforce worldviews, to elevate some aspects of reality to the realm of untouchability while dismissing others as merely frivolous and so justifiably ignored. Art always involves an active, intentional participation in the world; it shapes and changes that medium within which it participates. Without an appreciation for the potential power of art to shape our relationship with the world around us, art as “mere entertainment” can become something that distracts us from engaging more deeply with the world-as-it-is apart from its re-creation within the aesthetic experience. As a species, we are capable of constructing works of fantasy that are self-referential and appear to be self-reaffirming. Because works of art can present us with a sense of wholeness and coherence, balance and completeness, we always run the risk of mistaking the work itself for a comprehensive view of reality — we can become convinced that a particular artistic representation is a “matter of fact.” In short, when we no longer recognize art as art, we risk taking it as reality. Works of art cease to be cultural artifacts and are instead perceived to be, as Postman put it, “gifts of nature” that have achieved mythic status.
If sex can lead to dancing, the Southern Baptists of our joke might worry that the joy and pleasure of the aesthetic act of dancing may come to be seen as synonymous with sexuality and sexual relationship itself, obscuring aspects of sexuality that are not, in fact, very much like dancing at all (such as the ethical and biological implications of sex and its potential long-term results). We can laugh at this joke because it highlights extremist and fundamentalist attitudes that fear pleasure and aesthetic self-expression even more than sex. But this potential confusion between works of art and the realities with which they play fast and foot-loose is an issue we can see even in more open and inclusive communities. If modern Pagans intentionally mythologize works of art or entertainment, might they not risk placing these cultural artifacts “beyond our control,” reimagining them as “gifts of nature” rather than as products of our own human hands? To intentionally mythologize a work of art or entertainment may give undue authority to the human creators of those works, allowing the particular worldview that their work embodies to rise to the level of “reality” or natural fact.
Yet art can also be used to deconstruct or challenge this authority as well, and to undermine current mainstream worldviews. The very basic process of making art does this: the artist must learn how to effectively and meaningfully engage with a physical medium that is not infinitely malleable, a passive subject to the human will, but which has its own limitations and puts up its own unique forms of resistance. Making art puts us in touch with the “real world” around us in a very immediate and undeniable way — art is engagement. Great art does this not only for the artist, but for the audience as well, forcing us to come to terms with the constructed nature of the work itself by calling our attention to its own artifice. The political potential of such art lies in its ability to show us the ways that our own presumed worldview is itself “artificial,” a cultural artifact that is the product of a specific place and time. In reminding us of the constructed nature of our experience of reality and forcing us to confront the natural limits of the media through which we communicate with each other, art can open doors to a deeper appreciation of the world around us. It can be a doorway to the gods, breaking open worldviews that have become too self-referential and stagnant.
Which way you view the role of art and entertainment in modern Paganism depends on where you stand and what you have at stake. Does art undermine “serious” belief in what is actually real, or does it crack open stale notions of reality to let in a fresh breath of spirit? Does it deliberately obscure the processes of meaning-making, or does it expose those processes and invite fuller, more self-aware participation in them? There aren’t necessarily any “right answers” to these questions — only complexly overlapping views with a wide variety of (sometimes unexpected or unintended) consequences.
Gods in Disguise
Where do I stand? Somewhere between the “smart phone people,” and the people who still see the function of art as rooted in a community of storytellers, gathered together around the hearthfire at night whispering old familiar tales into the darkness, giving life to the heroes, gods and sacred landscapes of memory and myth through the movement and music of our own bodies in a cooperative, participatory experience…
Modern social media and technology allow this kind of storytelling to take on new forms, and we often find ourselves retelling old stories in new and surprising ways. When I met the gods in high school, I did not know them for what they were.** They were gods in disguise, gods acted out and embodied by people who did not really believe in them (except, perhaps, for their shared belief in the beauty and value to be found in good art). These were gods hidden behind the veil of “mere entertainment” — but that did not keep them from being gods, and sparking in me a deep longing to explore the mystery of the Many that I sensed unfolding before me. An important aspect of my relationship with the gods is the long-standing belief (confirmed by experience) that the gods are so much more than I can possibly conceive or control. They will find their own ways into the human heart and mind, even if it means that on occasion they have to take a detour through Hollywood.
The musical “Once On This Island” still in many ways defines my sense of connection and the spirit of my own approach to worship. My heart hears the song, my feet move along, and to the music of the gods, I dance. And as the song goes, much of the time I feel that I am “dancing just to stay alive.” This is how essential, how absolutely vital art and poetry are to my spiritual life.
* The differences between satire and irony are subtle, but crucial. Satire relies on the intentional use of ambiguity and uncertainty to question the presumed authority of current systems of power, while irony asserts itself as a superior frame of reference, often through the use of cynicism, sarcasm or disdain. While irony can be used as one (of many) techniques in satire, it is in no way synonymous with it, nor can the political function of satire be reduced to a simplistic one-to-one comparison to irony, cynicism, propaganda or sophistry.
** I was also not yet familiar with the complex issues of cultural appropriation and racism that potentially arise when stories about people of color are retold by a mostly white teenage cast. I note this here, not to denounce the choice of the adult supervising staff to put on this particular musical at my high school — being involved in the production profoundly influenced me in many ways, ways that I believe have helped me become more sensitive to and passionate about issues of justice and equality — but I want to acknowledge my own ignorance about the broader implications of these issues that this choice took for granted or failed to address at the time. This is made all the more complex by the history of cultural borrowing underlying Once On This Island itself, which is a musical adaptation of a novel by a Trinidad-born American writer who herself had drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Shakespear’s “Romeo and Juliet” for inspiration. Even now, with more awareness about these issues than I had then, I’m still unsure about whether my high school’s choice to put on this play is to be criticized as insensitive, or applauded as appreciative of diversity.
• “Cosmic Dance,” by Prabhu B Doss (CC) [source]
• “Asia Global Belly Dance Competition 2012,” by Matt Paish (CC) [source]
• “dancing with lights,” by petros asimomytis (CC) [source]
• “let’s dance! Mevlevi Sufi Whirling Dervishes,” by Tinou Bao (CC) [source]
• “Traditional Kandyan Dance,” by Gwenael Piaser (CC) [source]
• “Dance like no one is watching,” by Heather (CC) [source]