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Voices Online Edition
Pentecost 2001 --- Volume XVI No. 2
Other Voices - Indeed
By Donna Steichen
By the time May reached Ojai, where I live, spring was already here and prospering. Jasmine scented the air; roses and bougainvillea spilled over gray stone walls, and local pagans announced a Beltaine Festival.
According to Wiccan lore - purported to be that of ancient Druids but largely invented by 20th century English eccentrics - Beltaine is a time of rejoicing in new life, and celebrating the union of the Goddess with her consort, the Horned God.
It is supposed to be a May Day festival, but as May Day came inconveniently in midweek, the festival was postponed to Saturday, May 5. Notices of the affair, neatly stacked beside cash registers in Ojai markets, pictured a demonic-looking Pan, and promised celebrants a Maypole and pagan dances on the hilly grounds of the Krotona Institute of Theosophy. They were urged to bring tents, as the revelry would continue until Sunday noon, and "healthy snacks", preferably vegan.
No representative of the media bothered to report how the pagans celebrated the "coming together" of the Wiccan deities. The press appraised neither the nature and quality of the dancing nor the wholesomeness of the snacks. In fact, no one except the pagans themselves paid the slightest attention to the phenomenon of a witches sabbat in the heart of this small town, which says something about the state of public tolerance in third millennium USA.
Finding their own gods and goddesses.
This inattention is not unique to Ojai. Terry Mattingly's nationally syndicated religion column for May 91 introduced Kristin Madden, a cradle pagan active in the "Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids". Kristin, the author of Pagan Parenting and the Shamanic Guide to Death and Dying, described a bedtime ritual she practiced with her three year-old son, at a "personal altar" he built - by draping his father's old ironing board with a blue cloth and adorning it with rocks, an earth flag, a seedling tree, and a dragon statue. Snuggled together, mother and son would talk about magic and his dream voyages, and recite a favorite prayer:
Now I lay me down to bed. Great Spirit, bless my sleepy head. As I journey in my sleep, I know the Dragons my soul will keep. Mother Earth and Father Sky, watch over me here where I lie. Fairies please carry my love to all. Relations and loved ones, I do call.
Madden said the current pop-culture fascination with the occult can become a problem for pagan parents:
In Hollywood, this is the age of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch", "Practical Magic", "Charmed" and "The Craft". Oprah Winfrey is leading Middle America in prayers to the spirit of the universe, and covens can be found in many liberal Christian seminaries. Pentagon debates about pagan chaplains, naked worship and sacred daggers offer the first glimpses of another constitutional issue - the separation of coven and state.
"Many pagan parents consider Harry Potter a mixed blessing", said Madden. "The whole Harry Potter thing has just taken off and glamorized everything. It makes it seem like all of this is about spells and magic". Madden chooses not to read the J.K. Rowling books with her son, now five. "It can be hard to get children to remember that what we're about is faith and spirituality", she said.
Pagan parents realize that they live in a culture dominated by a "lip-service" brand of Judeo-Christian values, she said. The mainstream fears any form of rigorous faith that "isn't normal" and becomes countercultural.... Ultimately, this entire neo-pagan revival is about choice, she said. More and more Americans are claiming the freedom to find their own gods and goddesses, their own rituals, their own truths and their own brands of spirituality.... "As a pagan believer, I am very hopeful", she said. "America is really coming along and becoming more open and tolerant.... People are out there searching for a personal relationship with a god and with nature. They don't want dogma. They want new experiences and their own kind of spirituality. They are ready to try all kinds of things".
There is an obvious disparity between Madden's admission that anything occult fascinates the pop-culture, and her claim that "the mainstream" fears any countercultural faith. Where is pop-culture to be found if not in the mainstream? But internal contradiction does not trouble those who reject religious dogma in favor of a religion of new experiences and one's own truth.
The MTV Effect
Is tolerance a virtue, then, or an incitement to vice?
MTV pours into many American homes a stream of lewd lessons about expected human behavior. The consequences are unimaginable to adults raised in pre-MTV times, who still suppose school dances to be innocent events where shy adolescents attempt social communication. At least in Brown Deer, WI, Norristown, PA, Bethany, KY, Riverview, MI, Los Angeles, CA, Iowa City, IA, and Anchorage, AK, this is no longer the case.
According to an Associated Press story published in the Washington Times Culture section on May 10, 20012:
Teen-agers slip their hands down one another's waistbands. Hips grind together. Guys lie on the floor with girls straddling them. High school students call it dirty dancing, freaking, booty dancing - or just dancing....
"It's simulated sex on the dance floor", said Miles Burrell, 45, a school dance chaperone at Norristown Area High School, outside Philadelphia. "Anybody with morals, who brings their kids up in any Christian family, would stop that kind of thing".
How is this different from sending one's children to be educated at a brothel? Schools around the country are cracking down. Some schools have canceled all dances; others permit only a prom.
Suburban schools especially are struggling with how to restrict dance moves that are common on television and in dance clubs and movies. "They emulate MTV and dance videos, and we feel that's not appropriate", said development director Kathy Leboeuf at Gabriel Richard High School in Riverview, Michigan.
But some students say they don't understand what the crackdown is about.
"Basically it's just grinding, bumping, imitating some sexual behavior", said Emily James, a sophomore at Norristown Area High. "It's not as bad as they make it sound. I don't think it leads to sex. We're just trying to have fun".
One is bemused to discover that chaperones may actually be present at such events. No wonder the homeschooling movement is growing exponentially. No wonder homeschooled students outperform their classroom-schooled cousins on SAT tests, and win national spelling bees.
On the other hand, it is not usually at school that children watch MTV. Parents are not exempt from blame for this extraordinary decadence.
Beyond the Pale
Two more school-related items prove that tolerance is not absolute, however. In early May, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against Virginia Military Institute, a state-supported military college in Lexington, demanding an end to the tradition of officially mandated prayer before meals. For decades at VMI, a designated cadet has read a non-denominational prayer in the dining hall each night, thanking God, but not naming Jesus.
The suit was filed on behalf of two cadets who said their complaints were ignored by the school, reported Catholic World News3.
"VMI places heavy pressure on these students to participate", said Kent Willis, state director of the ACLU chapter. "Those who don't want to pray are perceived as breaking the conformity that the school expects".
One plaintiff, Neil Mellen, wrote in the student newspaper that the prayer "promotes religion over non-religion and fosters an environment in which non-participants can feel like or be treated as outsiders".
But Attorney General Mark L. Earley said, "Cadets are not compelled to participate, remain at attention or bow their heads during these blessings". He promised to defend the tradition vigorously.
A few years ago, VMI was forced by court order to admit female students. Perhaps a court-ordered prohibition of prayer will now make it an environment hospitable to simulated sex dancing, to which the ACLU apparently has no objection.
Rodeph Sholom is a private, expensive, Jewish day school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Just before Mothers' Day, students brought home a notice that certain holidays will no longer be recognized at school. Commenting in National Review Online, alumnus Jonah Goldberg4 explained that the school is so liberal that, "they implant the microchip that forces you to take everything the New York Times says at face value".
"After much thought and discussion this past year, we will not be celebrating Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day", wrote Cindi Samson, director of the school's lower elementary division. "At this time, these holidays are not needed to enhance our writing and arts programs".
"The reasoning was several-fold", Samson explained to the [New York] Post. "One is, it didn't serve an academic and educational need. Number two, families are changing. Some children were very uncomfortable". Goldberg called the decision "simply a farce", exemplifying misguided concern for minority sensitivities. John Derbyshire has written that, "in a civilized modern society, majorities owe a debt of tolerance to harmless minorities. But minorities also owe something to the majority: a decent respect for its tastes and opinions, and careful restraint in challenging them". Just as Jewish kids do far better in life when they have a healthy respect for Christianity, the children of homosexuals - and homosexuals themselves - would be well-served if they showed others a little respect too. Denying Mother's Day will not change the fact that most people have mothers.
While everyone from flight attendants to Act Up demonstrators to shaman Kristin Madden invokes "choice" as today's ultimate value, it is still true that what is chosen makes a difference. Some practices are apparently too countercultural to be tolerated.
Cardinal George Talks About "Choice"
In a superior example of the opinion column, George Will recently praised Chicago's Francis Cardinal George as "A Man of Papal Quality"5. As Will reports the Cardinal's observations on "choice" and the condition of our culture, his words shed some useful light on the choices reflected in the incidents mentioned here.
John Locke, so important to America's Founders, tempered his philosophic individualism by stressing sharable norms that come to us from nature and common experience, and which require us to take into account something other than our own desires. But Locke's intellectual precursor, Thomas Hobbes, portrayed human beings not as possessing personhood, not as rational or responsible, and least of all as free. Rather, Hobbes said, they are subject to irresistible stimuli and are, Cardinal George says, "as determined as any physical object". Human rights, as Hobbes understood them are banal, arising from, and being defined by, irresistible urges.
And a society morally anesthetized by the reduction of persons to bundles of impulses, and by the definition of rights in terms of power (powerful desires), should not be surprised by 1.3 million abortions a year, and one in three children born out of wedlock.
Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature is completely presocial ("solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"). But a society that postulates, as Hobbes did, a world void of natural norms, will be a barely social society. Such a void, says Cardinal George, will be filled exclusively by every individual's interests and drives. This limits our horizons to our own experiences. The classic American antidote to such truncation of moral vision is education. But there can be, he tartly notes, "well-instructed moral cretins"....
Cardinal George warns that Hobbes's picture of mankind, or any radically individualist depiction, can be self-fulfilling. Against such depictions, the Church bears witness to a particular and universal notion of the good.
This puts - or should put - believers in perennial, and healthy, tension with any society, but particularly with pluralistic societies, and especially with those permeated with modernity's mentality, which eschews the idea of a transcendent source of norms....
The three great carriers of American culture - universities, entertainment and the law - currently teach, Cardinal George says, the supreme value of something value-free - a mere process, "choice". So politics is becoming a mere "ensemble of procedures" for "regulating the pursuit of our personal satisfactions". The resultant culture is comfortable with merely comfortable religion - religion that is, George says, a "personal motivator" but not "an organizer of life". In an increasingly secular society. Faith decreasingly infuses life. This result is what George calls "religious indifferentism".
Indifferentism probably explains the unconcern of Americans with the public practice of witchcraft. But it is an indifferentism that tolerates no competition. The ruling value in contemporary culture is not simply raw instinct, but absolute moral autonomy: the right not only to do whatever one chooses, but to be affirmed as good in doing it. Those who accept this moral premise are apt to turn their spiritual hunger toward the occult, which promises them freedom to invent their own gods or goddesses, their own rituals, their own truths. The same demand for individual moral autonomy is often advanced by Catholic liberals under the name of conscience.
An entirely personal religion presents no problem to a society based on a right to fulfill one's own desires, no matter what they may be. Even a cultured cannibal like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs can be accepted as an attractive, if unusual, movie hero. Nothing is prohibited except moral judgment of another's autonomously chosen behavior.
Believing Christians have no choice but to be in tension with such a society.
Donna Steichen is a contributing editor to Voices.
1. Terry Mattingly, religion column for May 9, 2001 "Mother's Day for the Earth Mothers", Washington Bureau: email: Terry Mattingly
2. Associated Press, "High Schools Cracking Down on Dances", Washington Times Culture section: May 10, 2001.
3. CWNews.com, "Virginia Military Institute Sued to Stop Grace before Meals", May 10, 2001.
4. Jonah Goldberg, "My School Bans Mother's Day; The Self-Esteem Brigade Marches on", National Review Online, May 8, 2001 12:45 p.m.
5. George Will, "A Man of Papal Quality", Washington Post, Sunday, May 13, 2001; Page B07.
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