Monday, December 17, 2012

Left out in the cold

Last night, my wife and I watched the interfaith memorial service for the victims of the massacre in Newtown. It was good to see so many religions, representative (I assume) of the population of Newtown, get together and try to begin healing their shattered community. As nations (well I am from Canada after all) watched, and most likely owing to the fact that the POTUS was a planned speaker, it was nice to see all of the Abrahamaic faiths come together and offer their own prayers, words of lamentation, words of comfort, words of trying to make some sense out of tragedy. Christian(s), the Muslim pair, the Jewish fellow, and that Baha'i guy, speaking in front of millions of people a message of hope. All very nice indeed.

But utterly meaningless.


A caveat, lest you think me some sort of monster. That presentation, that wasn't for me; it was for the vast majority of people who belong to the demographically superior religions. That presentation wasn't intending to exclude, but was doing its best to include. They had a Baha'i speaker. Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in. And good on them for their effort and for there deserved success. The goal, after all, was for a local interfaith council to speak, first and foremost, to members of their community; and to a lesser extent their nation. To offer comfort and perhaps some guidance in the wake of unimaginable horror. As I am not a member of their community, nor even counted among their countrymen, I begrudge them not; nor do I harbor any ill will or resentment. Pleasing a single polytheistic blogger was the furthest thing from their collective minds, and that is perfectly fine.

The truth, though, remains the truth. The inclusivity presented was the sort of inclusivity which can happen. Which is possible. Which is the basis of ecumenical outreach and compromise. It is possible because all of the involved parties share a common belief, and that is the belief in the undisputed correctness of monotheism. They, each of them had their own lens through which to view their god. Their own scriptures to offer solace. Their own theologies with which to understand. But they were all of them united by their adherence to monotheism, and in that their prayers have no meaning or significance to me.

Or rather, they have no religious significance. No spiritual dimension. Not even any great wisdom to confer upon me. They have significance at a human level, as genuine outpourings of grief expressed and couched in their own symbolic languages. There is no issue with understanding; the issue is with meaning.

The most I took away from that aspect of the event, was that the Abrahamaic faiths could put aside their differences and, through common symbolic and metaphoric language, express their unified belief in the ultimate goodness of their god. To remind themselves and their coreligionists that there are more than just the powers of darkness at work in the world. To stand beside one another, putting aside their religious divisions, and be united as children of the same god. That is where the real significance of the interfaith prayers lay.

Such language, though, has no meaning to me. For a monotheist and polytheist to have any sort of interfaith prayers or event such as this, would require that theism be removed altogether. Or of course, never underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance, and just pretend you're speaking the same language. Certainly on a cultural, human level, such events can have meaning. On a theological level the incompatibility screams so loud that anything theisticly specific, would be lost. Abandoned would be the gods; lost in a congealing mass of monism or pantheism. Gone would be the supremacy of YHVH, counted one god among many. True there may be a shared desire for healing, for pulling strength from a diverse body of religious or sacred texts, but the commonalities belie an insurmountable gap. There would necessarily have to be a softening of positions one way or another, rendering the whole thing moot.

Interfaith can work, can only work, if all parties involved are capable and allowed to maintain their individual positions, while at the same time finding a compromise that is not at once fatal to those positions. Monotheists can do it, because they can generally all agree on the fact that they are all worshipping the same deity (or at least trying to do so). Polytheists can do it, because they are polytheists; it is after all logically incongruent to deny the divinity of Donn, while advocating for the divinity of Pluto. Common ground is found in the case of the later, in the recognition of the godhood of those beings worshipped, even if not worshipped by the other party. Neither position or the compromise arrived at are fatal to the theological underpinnings of those beliefs. Yet when placed together, the result is at best ignorant worship of a single deity, or henotheism in denial. The best case scenario results in a total breakdown one way or the other, and this is precisely the problem. There is a simple, necessary, opposition in the two belief systems, and this can not be overcome through the best attempts of interfaith or ecumenicism. Theologically, they are incompatible. Common ground, such as it exists, is found outside theology; in morality, in ethics, in compassion and shared cultural signifiers. But then why bother with interfaith at all, if the religious component is set to the back burner, or removed altogether?

To reuse a methaphor I dismissed in a post long ago: Standing atop another mountain, one can appreciate the perspective and views of one (or more) atop another. Yet one none the less remains atop their mountain, and sometimes it gets cold.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Merry Celtmas 2012

Joyous Yuletide!

Piggybacking off my last post, and in an attempt to write about something which isn't based in my disdain for some aspect of religion/politics/media/culture, a slightly more positive post follows.

An associate of mine, indeed probably the most eloquent individual I have had the pleasure of engaging in discussion with, always has interesting things to say. Being an Asatruar, and so fully living and embodying his beliefs, the man is an inspiration. In a recent post of his, he wrote at some length about the "spirit" of Yule (or Christmas), in a way that was the inverse of what passes for writings about the "true meaning of..." While the spiritual aspect is of course necessary (but of course for those who practice a lifeway, spiritual aspects are as necessary as anything else), the "secular" aspects were just as (if not) more meaningful. The feasting, the merry making, the tree lighting and gift giving are all sourced to the idea of clinging together during the darkest day of the year, and shining a little light in the face of such darkness. Truly, the secular aspects of Christmas are sacred rites in the most literal sense.

Being someone who does not celebrate Yule or Christmas as a holy day proper, but one who none the less celebrates the secular traditions as familial ones, this argument has an immense appeal to me. The idea of making offerings to the gods, ancestors and spirits of place, is rooted in the concept of reciprocity. "A gift for a gift" so to speak. Not to reduce the practice of giving offerings to some crass calculation, to curry divine favour with a bribe; such a perspective belies ignorance of what a reciprocal relationship is. No, the act of giving a gift in generosity, in receiving a gift in thankfulness and in ensuring hospitality abounds; all contain an element of the sacred in them.

Commercialism may be rampant, and may have long ago devoured the "true meaning of the season", but there remains a trace of the deeper practice. Many, non-Christians and Christians alike, shun the rampant commercialism, and often attempt to do so by extirpating the gifting element of their celebrations. Ironically though they have the best of intentions, they unknowingly remove a deeply spiritual component, long ago established by our ancestors. Prestige goods can hardly be said to have been shunned. Through such exchanges as were arranged, familiar bonds were made stronger and social order was maintained. Material culture may be paradoxically ephemeral in modern societies where planned obsolescence and mass production are the norm, but the concept of reciprocity still informs many of our most basic relationships. Gifting during milestones such as births, subsequent birthdays, coming of age ceremony's, graduations, marriages, retirement, etc., tend to not be looked at with the same critical eye which is all too often turned towards this particular seasonal festival.

I would posit that the anti-gifting is less rooted in an overall rejection or fatigue with commercialism (as so many claim), as it is in an attempt to ensure the religious component of Christmas is pushed back into prominence in the face of secularization. I certainly have my own biases in this particular perspective, but I believe the trail leads back to those who want "us" to remember the "reason for the season". So give gifts to Jesus, but not to each other.

Fortunately, I'm (and I am sure many reading this) are coming at the issue from a considerably different religious or cultural perspective. Celebrating Christmas as a time for family, feasting (but then what celebration doesn't include a feast, or decent meal, of some kind?) and gifting as a means of creating, reestablishing, and reaffirming the bonds which hold both kin and kith together makes perfect sense to me. Sure, it may not involve the gods in the same sense as the other, more traditional calendar feast days, but their spirit is there. The act of gift giving and receiving extends and imbues, what for me is a secular celebration, with a key element of the sacral relationship I have with my gods, to one shared with my family, regardless of religious affiliation or belief.


Enjoy a cup of Yuletide cheer with family and friends. Light a roaring fire if you can (or sit with the "yule log" channel on and a space heater pointing at your toes). Curl up in a blanket, pour yourself a nice cuppa, tell tales, watch cheesy specials or saccharine films masquerading as morality tales or if all else fails, read a book.

Feast and be merry!


Image Design: Kristen Fox

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Merry Christmas... or invisible entitlement

Every year around the start of December you can be assured of two things, people railing about "keeping Christ in Christmas" and people harping about folks who say "Happy Holiday's", or "Seasons Greeting's" in lieu of "Merry Christmas". The former has been gone over with a fine toothed comb, while the later seems to be becoming more pronounced. They are certainly linked phenomena, and can trace their origins to the same sort of paranoid, god fearing types I write about around October 31st. The problem, as I see it anyway, is that one tends more to the overt and the other, the tacit. What's more, "non-Christians", or white Americans/Canadians who do not see themselves as Christians, are more often than not the ones who are now complaining about "Happy Holidays". It is this issue I would like to address, as I believe it is a very good, and topical, example of invisible privilege, specifically the pervasiveness of cultural Christianity.

A friend of mine posted this photo on her facebook, and the comments below were precisely what you would expect.

At work are two different but ultimately related perspectives; Christian as default setting and xenophobia. In this case, being this specific car decal, I tend to see the xenophobia more so than the Christian as default, but they play into each other so well that it can be difficult to separate them out.

The "Welcome To Canada" line, implies that it is a message to those who have not been in this country for very long, and so the logical conclusion is that the message is directed to recent immigrants. Recent immigrants who are more often than not (at least in the eyes of the car owner) non-Christian. Recent immigrants who in the eyes of the car owner are the reason that people say "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings", because of their desire to overthrow the established traditions and force their own religious/cultural traditions on the "rest of us", or you know have the audacity to have their Charter rights respected. After all, it isn't a conscious decision on others to acknowledge that there are a bevy of holidays celebrated over a wide swath of a given month, and that not everyone celebrates for the same reason you do. Nope, it is PC thugism run amok, and poor persecuted Christmas.

The last refuge of an outlawed holiday

Poor persecuted Christmas which is still an official government holiday, which does not allow retail business to be open unless in specific tourist areas, which used to be a single day of December, but has now devoured the entire month, and in some areas noticeable swaths of November as well. Christmas, whose symbolism and cultural accoutrement's are unavoidable, whose music is played non stop for a month on dedicated radio channels, whose related films and specials permeate the teevee. Whose more commercial deity can be found in ads, on street corners, and in malls of every size. This holiday, truly, is on its last legs and this unrelenting PC assault upon it will destroy one of the last, great north American traditions. This is afterall "their" country, and so people should be adopting "their" culture and beliefs. If they don't like it, they can leave; the Charter be damned.

There is something else, though, something which folks who whine don't know about, but really ought to. The origins of "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings", have nothing to do with any attempt to down play Christmas, or even in the spirit of inclusiveness. They are rooted in streamlining the mouthful, "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year", into something a little more wieldly, and easily printable. Yeah, so it turns out that New Years is something like 6 days after Christmas, or so I am told, and so for the sake of convenience (and having NOTHING to do with taking Christ out of Christmas), these phrases started popping up in cards and print around the 1920's. And everyone knows what a tolerant and inclusive time that was...

So I've covered the misinformation and stupidity of the xenophobic angle, how about the religious one? What is often surprising about this, as I mentioned before, is that people who do not consider themselves Christian, are still the ones getting their stockings in a bunch over the "rampant accommodation and erosion of our traditions". "I'm not a Christian, but I still say Merry Christmas", "So what if you aren't a Christian and someone wishes you a Merry Christmas? Why would that offend you?", "How dare you be offended if I say Merry Christmas to you"", and so on.  Well, for one, I think the entire "offended at Merry Christmas" is just a tad overblown, and people are seeing offence where there really is none; or where a single anecdote transforms into every encounter, forever. The "why?" though, the puzzlement which accompanies these sentiments is at the heart of the matter. Privilege, entitlement, hegemony, default, are all words which explain the why. Why people who have adopted this attitude do not understand why or how someone could be less than happy about being wished a Merry Christmas. They have never been the outsider, have never been the minority, have never had someone else's traditions and beliefs assailing them, unendingly, for months, if not forever. Or if they have been, they consider themselves exceptions to the rule.

As someone who has a perhaps higher than average interest in things religious, it never ceases to amaze me just how Christian "not really a Christian"'s are, and how much of their beliefs, customs and language is never the less deeply rooted in Christianity. It is not necessarily their fault, being the default religious setting for a thousand or so years can have that effect on a culture, let alone one where the population remains 70% Christian. Nor do they understand how people who do not, either through different cultural traditions, different religious instruction, different upbringings or a penchant for inclucivity, could want to have some validation or at least tolerance thrown their way.

Don't get me wrong either, I do celebrate Christmas, despite not being a Christian, nor being raised a Christian. I wrote about it the last two years running, here (which is a tad sentimental), and here (which is a tad jaded). I just understand the issue of seeking to be more inclusive, of knowing the origins of the phrasing, and the ability to see the invisible privilege so many are simply blind to. Frankly, I tend to say Joyous Yuletide more than anything else, and that tends to be greeted with more blank stares and puzzled looks than anything else, despite (or perhaps due to) its antiquity. I say Merry Christmas when appropriate, I say Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings when in doubt.

I've never gotten offended by someone telling me "Merry Christmas", but I do get irritated when people complain that they "aren't allowed to say it anymmore", aside from the blatant display of entitlement, it simply isn't true.

Joyous Yuletide Folks!

photographic credit: "Lowes Christmas Market"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Summers End

The summer is at its end; and certainly it went out in a rage.

Now is the time to take stock of the year that was, and the year that is to be.

Bring in the harvest.

Make ready the slaughter.

Feast at the closing of the year.

With the fire of your hearth, keep a vigil for the fallen.

For those who now abide beyond the veil, may yet need a light to guide them home.

A warm welcome.

A hearty meal.

If only for one night.

Give praise to those whose bones we tread apon.

Keep their love in your heart.

Their memory in your words.

Their legacy in your deeds.

Begin again to tell tales, weave wonders and speak of bygone days.

Long ago, or maybe not so.

Stories connect us to the gods, to the land, and to each other.

Three candles to light any darkness: Truth, Nature, Knowledge.

Yet what lights the candles?


Of our hearth.

Of our head.

Of our inspiration.

Fires of protection.

For Ourselves.

For our Kin

For our Kith.

A gift from the goddess.

Gentle and fair cheeked.

Patroness of poets and smiths both.

Fires until February, for most longer still.

To keep the frost at bay.

To see in the season of the dark.

To flourish in the absence of the sun.

Summer is ended.

Welcome the winter.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Box Seats for the End of Days

This is sort of piggy backing off my entry looking at human agency in different eschatological narratives, but I happened upon an interesting documentary titled "Waiting for Armageddon", which explores Evangelical Christianity's preoccupation with the event, and the potential for political action based on trying to bring the events about as quickly as possible.

One quote stuck out, which crystallized the moral bankruptcy of the longing for the end of the world so prevalent among Evangelicals. It occurs little under half an hour into the film, during a sequence where a tour group is being baptized in the Jordan river. The tour leader is talking to the camera about the battle of Armageddon:
" In the tribulation, this will be the final battle ground, and there are lots of different thoughts where the battle happens or any of those things. As a believer in our lord Jesus Christ, we'll have the greatest seat of all to watch it. That's something that's fantastic to me; we will not be here but we'll be able to watch it"
 Absolutely chilling, when you stop to actually think about what he is saying; genocide as a spectator sport. It isn't enough that these folks are actively longing for the mass murder of the majority of humanity, no; on top of that, they want to watch the whole thing go down. The obvious reasoning is of course that everyone who isn't "saved" deserves to be horribly murdered (before spending an eternity in writhing agony), and that the enjoyment those who get to watch will experience isn't sick or twisted, it's comeuppance. The Book of Revelations, after all is one giant revenge fantasy; those who suffer and are persecuted for Jesus will be rewarded and those who did the persecuting will get what's coming to them. While I believe his initial giddiness is based upon his actual beliefs, I think he takes a second to think how someone "of the world" would view his unabashed sadism at the prospect of Armageddon and tries to back peddle:
"The final battle I think will be a lot of fun to watch... Not fun in the sense of knowing that people are dying without having received Christ as their saviour, but at the same time seeing the prophecy fulfilled, seeing god's word come out.
On second thought, this doesn't seem like a back peddle at all (what I get for writing while watching). He doesn't do the decent thing, like say, "Oh, you're wondering why I said watching millions of people being horribly murdered would be fun to watch; what I meant was...". But no, he actually sticks to his perspective adding that he isn't happy about people dying without "getting saved". So the tragedy isn't that people are being brutally murdered as the streets overflow with rivers of blood; the tragedy is that people didn't convert to Christianity, and now they get to suffer for it. The sentiment expressed is unimaginably cruel, while at the same time unbelievably sanctimonious.

The problem is that this isn't just some zealots fevered nightmare vision of the future, millions of people believe this and share in the sentiment that such a scenario is something everyone who has a conscious ought to be hoping, nay praying for. Think about it won't you, one of the most common Christian prayers has such a sentiment within it. "The Lord's Prayer", found in Matthew 6:9-13, contains the passage "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done". Side stepping the hermeneutics of this, at its most obvious the prayer is wishing for the coming of the "Kingdom" of the Christian god, and how when is that going to be coming again? Well according to folks like the fellow quoted above, right after most of humanity is wiped from the face of the earth. I'm not sure how many people actually make the causal connection between this sentiment and the events of Revelation, but it is certainly there.

This perspective is commonly referred to as Christian triumphalism, and the more I learn and interact with Christians, the more common the sentiment is. It stems, I believe, from having been the hegemony for so long. Christianity is, in Western culture, the default position, and with this comes an inbred sense of entitlement. Amazing then that when one reads articles like the article I discuss here, they have the tremnity to perceive themselves as still being a persecuted minority. A textbook example of what the phrase "having ones cake, and eating it too", the obvious superiority the religion has been written across the pages of western history since 391 CE. Yet today in a culture so deeply beholden to its influence that any attempt at minority groups to attempt to get a fair shake is seen as an erosion, an attack on said religion. Not to be too derogatory, but the idea of a "default position" is something which is so pervasive it is almost rendered invisible; at least to those who share the position. The triumphalism trumpeted from the pages of WND may be the most blatant and obvious sort of example, but the idea runs far deeper, and across a much broader swath of traditions.

Even among many of my family, friends and co-workers, the sentiment is expressed and sustained, despite the fact that few would even consider themselves "religious". Again, when ones only frame of reference is the dominant cultural force that is the "default", everything else becomes "the other", "weird", etc. It doesn't matter how many ludicrous or clearly fantastic hagiographic tales about flying monks abound; that's normal. But some guy saying a prayer to the sun, bizarre. It may seem like I'm getting away, to some degree, from my original purpose in writing this post, but it all ties in. The guy quoted in the first couple of paragraph's, with he raging hard on for the end of days, is as I pointed out, not an aberration; far from it. While many of the more liberal or "open minded" of the Christian tradition would claim otherwise, he is simply the logical end of the sort of ideology which monotheism in a much broader sense, instills in its adherents. To be clear, he isn't advocating genocide; he isn't saying we must kill those who will not be converted. I doubt very much that the man would even have a proclivity towards violence. As an individual he is very likely a moral individual. The issue, the chilling moral callousness of his world view, is something which expressed in a group, can become very dangerous.

The idea of millions of otherwise moral individuals longing for a day when billions will die in the most horrific ways imaginable, calls into question just what it means to be moral in the Western cultural tradition. If the reward for "goodness" is that you get to sit in box seats, and witness the "wicked" cleasned from the earth, what does it say about the kind of morality which underlies a huge percentage of the "religious" in the West. Is it the funniest sort of irony when a group of people, who still percieve themselves in the same light as their historic forebearers, lions and all, now await for their turn to shout, cheer and cry out "well washed!"?


Thursday, October 18, 2012

War on Halloween 2012: News from the Underground

This is sort of becoming an annual feature here on the hilltop, but I do admit that this year I actually had to do some digging to find anything which actually qualified for a "War on Halloween" post. Usually the news feeds are ripe with "Halloween not fun for all" articles, or "Pagan Puff Pieces", but this years crop is either late, or isn't coming. Maybe it owes something to the economic powerhouse that is modern Halloween, but it doesn't seem like many sources are particularly concerned about trying to sensationalize it this year. Of course, with a little effort, one can always turn to the conservative Christian media and find some ripe articles to help with the harvest, so without further ado I give you "10 reasons to fast from Halloween".

Published three days ago by known homophobe Linda Harvey, she extols the typical (and some more topical) perils in letting little Petey and Pauline partake in Halloween partying. I'm not going to link to the actual article; of course the few people who read this blog, and then care enough to follow links would be a drip in an ocean of WND page counts, but directly linking to them makes me ill. A quick google turns up the article in question, if you are so inclined.

1. Halloween's origins are occult and not Christian.

Probably the single most trumpeted argument against good Christian kids dressing up like Iron Man, is that the origins of the (un)holiday are rooted in the practices of those evil, satan worshipping Pagans. Utter tosh, of course, but in a lazy attempt to seem intellectual (like the WND readership cares about such things), there is a piss poor attempt to pronounce Samhain as (sow-een). Because that sounds like Halloween, and thus is the etymological smoking gun to prove the occult roots. Unlike say, some ridiculous notion of "All Hallows Eve" being contracted to form the name. She also seems to acknowledge the fact that the day was an attempt to win over Pagan converts, but is "thin gruel:. After all, what sort of righteous, god fearing Christian would ever celebrate a holiday with Pagan roots or symbolism?

Because picketing a party store would be just plain ridiculous

2. Halloween is a (not so) secret Gay Holiday

Apparently the use of costume and a wee bit of liminality is not at all light hearted fun, but rather an attempt at disobeying the Christian god's divinely ordained plan for you. Children shouldn't be dressing up as Iron Man, because they are not Tony Stark. Doing so is an affront to their god, and furthers the homosexual agenda of cross dressing or something. Don't make believe, live in the real world where little Petey dressing up as Iron Man is inviting demonic possession.

3/4. Halloween is a "Gimmie" recruitment tool for satan.

Apparently the idea of having 10 individual reasons was too difficult for Harvey, so 3 continues into 4, and neither makes any sense without the other. All that blood and gore being presented to impressionable children will terrify them, maybe scar them for life? Apparently this allows satan to depress young Christians into giving up their faith? I can understand though, Christian children shouldn't be fearing Iron Man, they should be fearing their parents god and the fire and brimstone that awaits them if they fail to be righteous.

The kind of terrifying images Christian children ought to be exposed to

5/6. Hasbro wants your child's soul/ Divination is a tool of diablo

Remember all those Halloween parties you went to when you were young, and people couldn't wait to break out the ol' Ouija board and consort with the devil? Apparently Harvey remembers, and she sure turned into a devil worshipper, didn't she? This is one of those ideas which continues to perpetuate itself because Halloween parties were so lame in the 1970's that the highlight of the party was playing board games. Reason 6 is again wholly incomplete without the warnings laid out in 5, so again we get a half assed segway into the dangers of divination. Palm reading, again a mainstay of any good Halloween party, will lead to bad places and the like.

7. Hedonism!

America is obsessed with partying and what happens at parties? Booze, Drugs and Sex is what happens! Sure little Petey is dressing up like Iron Man now, but letting him attend social gatherings will condition him to be unable to say no to going to parties when he goes off to college. Soon he'll be snorting blow off a co-ed's ass, while thinking about how much he'd like to bang her roommate, Steve. All this because his Christian parents let him go to a Halloween party that one time when he was 8. Also female costumes come in two varieties, awful and slut. I actually don't have a flippant comment about this one, because its true. Not that I am terribly fond of slut shaming, or think it an ethical approach to sexual expression, but there is a disconcerting trend in Halloween costumes, in which the female versions are terrible versions of the male ones, or "sexy". One could try and make the argument that the market is speaking, and sexy costumes are what sells, but the inverse is true as well; if all that is available is sexy or awful, the idea of choice is cursory at best.

8. Halloween is empty of the Christian god's presence

All this trick-or-treating and dressing up is taking away from what Christians ought to be doing, shouting from the hill tops the greatness of their lord and saviour. Where is the religious nature of Halloween; where are the "Halloween carols"? Sure those weirdo Catholicks and their Roman Popary have that whole "All Saints/All souls day", but they aren't really, Bible believing Christians, so it doesn't count.

Nothing remotely Christian here
9.Deny your kids today, avoid damnation tomorrow

This amounts to not giving into pressure from your kids to let them partake in the devils holiday, and by doing so helping them avoid such evil and unholy of festivities.

"But Mom, Pauline's dad let him offer up burnt offerings to Baal..."
10. Halloween is an affront to the Christian god

This is really more of a conclusion than a separate reason; and really 8, 9 and 10 all flow into one another, but Harvey needed to come up with a good, Christian number like 10. So what if she actually only managed to come up with 6, it's the thought that counts. Though she fails to explain precisely why this is in fact the case, other than the assertion in 8 and 9 that her deity doesn't endorse Halloween because, well she says so. In fact, she makes the assertion that Halloween actually dishonours her god. After all, those upside down crosses and burning Jesus effigies found on every porch the night of October 31st, really lets those no account Christians know where they stand. The targeting of Churches for pranks and defilement every year, really brings home just how the day is an excuse to further persecute the down trodden Christians.

The bottom line is that Halloween will make your children hate Jesus, shun their Christian upbringing, turn them onto drugs, booze, illicit sex and probably turn them homosexual too boot.

Linda Harvey protecting the impressionable youth of America
Other than the "secret gay agenda" angle, which seems to be a hallmark of everything Harvey disagrees with, this article is pretty tame. Since it was published exclusively for WND, it amounts to little more than preaching to the choir. Perhaps there is an underlying aspect of moral weakness which the author fears is creeping into her religious community, and so this is a bulwark against those conservative Christians who do not think that their kid dressing up as Iron Man will lead to moral depravity and demonic possession. Really, this article reads like something written by Junie Harper. When a writer (and I use the term loosely) sounds less like a journalist, and more like a cartoon character, perhaps its time to get out of the game... or you know double down and prove once again the veracity of Poe's Law.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In my own backyard

So the Wild Hunt published an article yesterday which talked about the decision of Minister Vic Towes to cut all part-time paid chaplaincy positions for inmates; leaving full time chaplaincy duties to be performed by Christian (and one Muslim) chaplain. The reasoning behind the measure, has of course been lauded as "cost cutting", but $1.3 million dollars is a paltry sum compared to what the government spends on other endeavours. I haven't mentioned Canadian politics here all that often, but this is something which does bear witnessing, because there really is something else at work here.

The Conservative party, for those not in the know about federal politics north of the 49th parallel, is aptly named; they are the more right leaning federal party. They are currently enjoying their first majority government in almost 20 years, after having bucked the historic trend of the Conservative party forming a minority government, only to be dissolved and then defeated by the Liberal party. Canadian politics is, though, a significantly different beast than those in the US; and political longevity is found in the centre. As such, the Conservatives are not all that conservative in their policies; they do, however, have rather aggressive right wing Members of Parliament and of course there is their base to think about. Their recent string of electoral wins is a combination of staying in the centre, a succession of ineffective opposition leaders (especially in the now third place Liberal party, which historically could be considered the "government party"), and disaffection with the legacy of that party. The base for the Conservatives has generally been in the western provinces, which would also be the closest thing to a "bible-belt" in Canada, and yet the party has not really done anything to pander to the religious right component of their base.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly resisted requests form his own party to reopen the issues of same-sex marriage, and more recently abortion. There was some dust up over including gay rights in an information booklet given to new comers to Canada, with it finally being added just prior to the 2011 election. The government has invested funds into an "Office of Religious Freedom", whose purpose is to aid in the expansion of the rights of religious minorities in foreign nations. A noble undertaking, to be sure, but again of the kind with the faint smell of something fishy lingering about it.

The Conservatives are not stupid, and realize that not giving something to a significnt part of their base could lead to disaffection and fragmentation (because this happened less than 20 years ago). The conservative Christians need some kind of bone thrown their way to reward their loyalty and support; and since Harper is too politically wily to believe his party would survive a repeal of same sex marriage, or the reopening of the abortion issue, something else needs to be done.

Well, there is that "Office of Religious Freedom" I mentioned eariler. Which countires, and which religions need protection? Christians of course, and since the RR base are the same sorts who decry the international persecution of Christians, seems like a good choice. The Conservatives get to aid in the spread of the Canadian ideal of religious freedom, which appeals to centrist voters; and get to help out persecuted Christian communities in other countires, which appeals to that segment of their base. Is the same office going to be doing anything to say, fight the growing tide of "witch-killings" in many African countires, or the supression of practicioners of Falung-gong in China? It remains to be seen. I hope very much that this is not going to be another platform for spreading the "good news" of Christianity, but I have my doubts.

The other thrown bone is the issue mentioned above, the firing of all part-time prison chaplains who were employed by Corrections Canada. The door is still open for volunteer chaplains providing the services to inmates, but I'm certainly not the only person who feels this smacks of favouritism. Essentially this means that chaplaincy services for all religions (except that one Muslim cleric, and of course First Nations) are going to be served by Christians. I understand that chaplains are required, regardless of their individual religion, to serve the needs of any religious group; but the efficacy of a Presbyterian minister knowing and understanding the needs of an Asatruar, is going to be difficult. But again this goes back into the idea of a two message policy. On the one hand it appeals to their image of fiscal belt tightening, which will appeal to those precious centrist votes. On the other hand it attacks the "PC excesses" of a multifaith system, and effectively provides a solely Christian chaplaincy. It may not be overt endorsment of a given religious persuasion, but it certainly is tacit support, and that segment of the base will understand it as such.

Afterall, few people are going to kick up much of a fuss over the charter rights of convicts. Oh sure the NDP and LIberals are already speaking out against the move, but that is to be expected from opposition parties. This is a disappointing move, but not terribly unexpected. The best hope is a charter challenge in the courts, or a lot of negative press attention given to the issue.

I hope that this issue is resolved fairly, and that my (and others) misgivings are wrong in regards to the "Office of Religious Freedom". But all this remains to be seen. Again, I'm hopefut but at the same time I'm not really expecting my misgivings to be misplaced. The base needs their bones, and right now no one but them are really paying any attention.

Monday, September 24, 2012

I give thanks to the Dark Lord

So, I may have mentioned it a few times before (here, or elswhere), but I am a devotee (and soon to be client) of a deity with a very peculiar history and purpose. Peculiar, perhaps, because the natural extension of the function of the deity does not lend itself to easy or simple application in a practical setting. Those who find themselves as devotees of say, An Dagda or Brigid can easily enough apply mysticism or poetry to their daily lives, can actively write poetry or study arcane lore (and really, who doesn't like curling up with a musty tome of ancient lore, and a nice cuppa?); they can even share this information or creation with others, and find fulfillment in this, even purpose. But what is one to do when your god is a god of the dead? How best does one appreciate just what that means, or facilitate any sort of functional applicability in ones day to day life. Well, it isn't easy, but it is simple: you work with the dead.

I don't mean you hang about with sketchy types at 2:15 am in cemeteries, and do grave rubbings (necromancy, while interesting, doesn't have any explicit associations with this particular god.) I mean you become a human psychopomp and make it your job to help the dead transition from this world to the otherworld. You do what I did, and become a funeral director (mortician, undertaker, etc.)

Now, it may be a tad presumptious to call myself a "psychopomp", but hear me out. The function of a psychopomp is first and foremost the collection, care and transportation of the spirit/genius/soul of a living person who finds themselves, well not living anymore. They transport these spirits/souls generally to a more or less temporary/permanant abode, the realm of the god(esses) who are the lords of the dead. Among the Gaels, there are two to three deities which can be said to have aspects which are psychompomic: An Morrigan, Manannan Mac Lir and Donn. An Morrigan tends to preside over slaughter and battle in her capacity as a psychopomp and so it is reasonable to posit that the war dead are "hers" to claim. Of course, unlike say Greek or Icelandic counterparts, the fate of the war dead is never explicitly explained in the tales. Manannan, on the other hand, tends to get the psychopompic function association because of his representation of boundry crossing, and his associations with the otherworld (which is often believed to be in some capacity a realm of the dead.) Donn, however, does not seem to be as active in soul collecting (albeit there are some interesting literary figures who may reflect just this.), but he above any other deity is the best candidate for being the god of the dead. This is not generally disputed, and is infact widely held to be sensible for two particular reasons.

In later Irish folklore, Tech Duinn, "The House of Donn" (generally thought to be Bull Rock) is the place that the souls of the Irish go before they face the final judgement; and in some versions where the wicked souls go, as Donn is really the Christian Devil. It has been suggested that this is in fact a reflection of a much older belief, and like much of the mythic tales, is at its heart pre-Christian, with some enhumerization tacked on to make it sensible within the Christianized world. This is interesting in its own right, but the tales regarding how and why Donn came to be the god of the dead, and its tantalzing IE cultural ties so delicious, that few seem to have much doubt.

The reason that Donn is the god of the dead (particularly of the Irish), is that he is the first Gael to die after setting foot on Ireland. Following the initial landing of the Sons of Mil on Ireland, Donn (eldest of the sons, and in some stories jealous of his brothers) spurns the epyonymous goddesses Eriu, Banba and Fodla and so is cursed by them never again to set foot on their land. In some versions Donn is killed by the magic of the Tuatha De Danannan, in others he is killed by trying to upstage his brothers; in all versions the goddesses curse is fulfilled and he dies. He is burried (placed in a cairn) on a small island, usually identified as Bull Rock, and it is said that his ancestors will follow him, and reside with him ever after in his house. This is important for a couple of reasons; primarily the importance of precedent having both practical and symbolic meaning, tends to make the first of anything a big deal. Secondly, the broad IE motif of the sacrificial twins/ sacrificed king in cosmogenic narratives is an aspect of the assorted tales which could shed some light on just why Donn, who was not originally a god, was deified and held to be one. He can be seen, essentially, as a primoridal sacrifice, and through his death the Sons of Mil are then able to offer a suitable sacrifice and appease the gods. Again keeping with the IE motifs, the sacrificed king/twin is then elevated to godhood by becoming the ruler of the realm of the dead. There is a lot of hypothesis here, but it is based largely on established mythic paterns and provides a reasonable explanation.

So I still haven't explained the self aggrandizment of using the moniker of psychopomp. This is not rooted so much in mythic thinking, than in some basic... lets call it "funeral theory". The overall period/process of the funeral extends beyond the funeral service and burial, and encompasses the entire process (from death to disposition), known as "funeralization". One of the key cultural features of funeralization, an explanation as to why it occurs at all, is refered to as "persistence of personality". The persistence of personality is a non-specific way of refering to the cultural belief that between the physical death and disposistion, the personality of the individual persists in some capacity. For the religious, this is the soul/spirit/genius; for humanists this would be the "memory" or "prescence" of an individual. The idea of liminality, and its ritual and symbolic significance in Gaelic (and broadly Celtic) practice is well attested to in both the mythic texts and folklore/custom. Death and the dead are no exception, and actually almost embody the very essence of liminality. The most potent liminal periods of the year have overt associations with the dead, be they the more recent or our distant ancestors.

There are all manner of folk customs which arise and surround the proper method of funeralization in Irish tradition, and all of which seek to assist the dead in reaching their final place of rest; while at the same time protecting the still living from any latent wrath or retribution from the dead. There are taboos and appropriate rites which need to be performed to ensure a correct transition, and the body (and treatment thereof) is held to be as important as the state of the spirit. The finality and significance of the (again in folk custom) burial, but any disposition, can not be understated. So when I say that act, at least in part as a psychopomp, I do so with the knowledge of tradition and propriety, and just why it is a sacred duty.

I am fortunate, in that through my profession, through the tasks that I do daily, I am also communing with and fulfilling the duty I believe I have been charged with, by seeking out Donn as a Patron. I am convinced that the gods do have an influence over us, and can effect change in our lives; they are not afterall simply our imaginary friends. In saying as much, I do believe and reason, that Donn has influenced me in my career choices, and broadly in other aspects of my life. I'm sort of at the point when I look back at everything that has occured, and see what it has culminated in, and can see the threads. I think of the harmony and general flourishing which seems to surround me, and see the fruits of reciprosity and fir.

For these reasons, and many more I am unable to articulate; I give thanks and praise to Donn, the haunted god. Donn, the sacrificed king. Donn, the dark lord.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Things I learned from the Táin.

Of all the texts to which I find myself going back, over and over and over again, the Táin Bó Cualigne is the foremost in my library. It is also the single oldest actual book that I own; well that is expressly Celtic in nature, as I picked in up in my first year when doing a minor in Celtic Studies seemed like a viable option for my then career goals. My copy is a little under 10 years old, and while I am very protective and particular about my books, its age does show. The crease along the spine, the accidentally dog eared corners, the multicoloured flags which protrude at sharp angles, marking my favourite bits. This text was, among other things, my first real introduction to Celtic lit. And the great thing about the text itself, is that no matter how many times I have read it, I still manage to find something new with each turn.

To this day, I still wish that at some point in the future Zach Snyder or Frank Miller will catch a whiff of it and make a 300 style version of it. For Snyder, the book lends itself to cinematic duels or glorious battles; I think of all that was done with 300, the hypermasculinity, the over the top gore, the wholly pointless sex scene and subplots and then look at the Tain and think, the whole thing is ready made for a big screen adaptation. Miller, well he'll finally have a female character he won't have to over sexualize because its difficult to outdo Medb in that regard, and it has an inborn misogyny to boot! I'm still kind of hoping that "Hound" will eventually get made, despite my misgivings about trying to make Cú into a figure who "realizes the futility of war". You can have anti-war narratives, you can have actual epics which very well may have been written specifically as anti-war stories (Caroline Alexander does an admirable job of arguing this point about the Illiad). The Ulster Cycle, however, and the Tain in particular, are not and can not be interpreted as such. Does my desire to see Cú on the big screen outweigh my desire for things to be as they are? Well I know if they released it, I'd see it. Mind, since its got two very big things going for it, the Irish mythic narrative coupled with the fact that it would be animated; it is a combination i would find hard to resist.

Getting back on track though, things I learned from the Tain:

Don't fuck with Dog Boy

Blunt, crude, but none the less true. Regardless of his prowess, which is shown time and time again. Regardless of the fact that Fergus and the other Ulster exiles extol Cú's prowess and skill, men keep challenging him, and end up in the ground. Eventually Aillil and Medb figure this out, and have to resort to getting various warriors sloshed, and then promising them their daughter and a dowry to boot, to get men to fight Cúchulain in single combat. There is of course, outside the single combats, untold slaughter throughout the narrative, and the hyperbole is in fine form, most notably "The sixfold slaughter", where the number killed matches the grains of sand on a beach, or number among the stars. Depopulating the entirety of the country of Ireland not withstanding, Cú is not someone you want to find yourself opposed to on a battlefield.

Brushing off goddesses is a terrible idea

Now, this is a little bit of a cheat, since one of the tales is a "fore tale" (remscéla), but it has such a lasting impact on the events of the Táin, that it is referenced several times. I refer of course to the "pangs of the Ulstermen" or "Macha's curse". Macha, clearly an otherworldly figure, marries a (guy) and settles down. The guy is a twit, and openly brags that his wife could outrun Conchobar's horses. This is of course overheard and he is forced to have his wife, who is heavy with child, to run a race against said horses, or have her husband killed. She begs not to be forced to run, but Choncobar in a shining example of his baser self, forces her to do so. She runs, wins, and then immediately goes into labour. She curses the Ulstermen, that in their darkest hour, their moment of greatest need, they will all be afflicted with the pains of a woman in birth. Macha proceeds to give birth to two horses, and then dies. The message is pretty clear though, and the consequences of Choncobars cruelty is dire. Of course, there is also an argument to be made that given the nature of boasts, and of the honour of the king being sullied by not meeting such a boast, plus the idea of the 'pangs" as a literary device which brings all the more honour to Cú himself (facilitating the need for him to be a one man army), Conchobar can certainly be a more morally complex character than my above critique allows for. Hooray for multifaceted understanding!

The second, and probably more widely known, is Cú's rejection of An Morrigan. The whole scenario appears to be the worse for An Morrigan, as she winds up disfigured, and is only able to be restored by Cúchulain himself, and then only through a ruse. This is true enough, but one must also keep in mind the lesson above, DFWC. It has been established through the tales, and again owing to scribal enhumerization, that humans can overcome and defeat the gods. I am suspicious at this more literal understanding, and doubt to a large degree that this idea was in fact pre-Christian. Now, on the other hand, heroes do fight and defeat otherworldy figures on a regular basis, and Cu is a perfect example of that. That the exemplary tribal hero is able to withstand not only his countrymen, but the gods themselves, is simply the extreme end of his function. The initial set up, however, bears some consideration as well; An Morrigan approaches Cú in the guise of a beautiful woman, proclaims her love for him, offers her assistance, and only when mockingly rejected does she threaten him. The interpretation of this scene I tend to favour, follows that as Cú is in essence the ultimate warrior, and An Morrigan presides over war and slaughter, that she would naturally be drawn to him, seek him out and offer Cú her patronage. Cú rejects this offer, and since there are those wonderful misogynistic overtones, does so in a pretty mocking way. An Morrigan rankles at being spurned, and subsequently causes a lot of difficulty for Cú shortly thereafter.

The overall lessons in both of these narrations, is one which can be gleaned from almost any of the tales where humans interact with the gods; cooperation is mutually beneficial and animosity is mutually destructive. Spurning goddesses is a terrible idea.

Words are powerful

The Tain proper starts off with a narrative usually called "the pillow talk", in which Medb and Aillil compare their fortunes, and results in Medb seeking the loan of the Donn Culaigne. A deal is brokered, everyone on both sides are happy, and then a man too deep into his cups remarks that its just as well that everything worked out, because they would have taken the bull by force. This gets back to (owner of the Donn) and he is understandably pissed; subsequently he rejects the offer, and Medb tries to take the bull by force. Thousands die, because a guy made a stupid (but none the less true) boast. Thousands die because of a few simple words, and the matter of honour and pride.

No one blames the (guy); Medb agrees with the fellow, and does precisely as he said she would. This does not, though, alter the fact that a few words can have dire consequences. The lesson then is that one should speak carefully at all times, lest they say something they can no longer take back.

Men can cry

I've already written on this particular subject, but it bears repeating that the concept of masculinity which is divorced from emotion, let alone openly grieving, is something foreign to Irish mythology. No where is this more apparent than in what could arguably be the climax of the Tain itself, and certainly is of the single combats, Cú's fight with his foster brother Ferdia. Cú, the consummate warrior who has met every challenge with bravado, even gusto, balks at the idea of fighting Ferdia. Not because he is afraid of Ferdia, but because he loves him, and it is only through trickery and the cruelty of fate that these two are now forced to face each other. The battle is bloody, brutal and much noble blood is spilled. Cú comes out on top in the end, but the cost is heavy. He openly weeps for having to have killed Ferdia, curses Aillil and Medb, and laments that such a noble soul is now gone from the world. Yet, despite the tragic nature and open weeping, there is no derision within the narrative, no chiding, snide remarks about how real mean don't cry or Cú should instead of grieving, "grow a pair". The honesty and sincerity with which the greatest ass-kicker in Irish history mourns his fallen brother is something seldom seen in modern fare, and I think is something which is sorely lacking.

Microcosmogony... probably

We, as GRP's unfortunately lack a cosmogenic narrative, and have to settle for the bits scattered through literature or the ones authors have reconstructed. One of the neat things about the Táin, though, is that it provides numerous examples of place name (and often features) origin narratives, in the same tradition which would later be dominated by the dindsenchas. Bruce Lincholn, for example, makes a compelling case for interpreting the battle between the two bulls, Finnbhennach and Donn Cuailnge, as reflective of the primordial sacrifice found in other IE cosmogenic narratives, if in the inverse (Death, War, and Sacrifice, pg. 38.) As such, the dismemberment of Finnbhennach at the horns of Donn, and the casting of his body parts over the landscape, recreates on a microcosmic scale, the original sacrifice in a theoretical cosmogenic myth. Added to this is the remscéla "The Quarrel of the Two Swinherds" (De Chopur in dá Muccida), indicates that both bulls were originally men of the otherworld who had been engaged in a contest with one another, taking mirror forms of one another, again possibly harkening back to the primordial twin motif. As such, and as the text is one of the oldest known, the tantalizing glimpses are primarily conjecture, but certainly supported by a comparison with other stories as well as those from other, but related, cultures.

Divine Intervention, yes it can happen

Considering an eariler point of dicsussion was about goddesses getting involved in the affairs of mortals, this seems redundant, except that in this case divine intervention is a literal occurance. Cúchulain, having not slept between Smahian and Imbolc, is wounded and weary. Lugh appears then, and offers to hold back the armies for three days and nights, in Cú's stead. This is a rather unique situation, as such direct divine support is not something which occurs very often in the texts. I thnk in this case it reinforces the special status of Cúchulain, and so reading too much into the idea of divine intervention as an active force is, I think, unwarranted. Something else to consider is the idea that Cúchulain is a reincarnation of Lugh; sort of difficult to grasp if the deity Cu's is supposed to be an earthly incarnation of, has just shown up to lend a long hand. Sort of encroaching into trinatarianism with this, but something to think about anyway.

This is but a handful of interesting and, for me anyway, relevant concepts explored throughout the Táin. I'm sure that there are many other things to add to this list, like the plethora of puns and one liners which are replete during the single combats. I do realize that some folks simply dislike Cúchulain for a number of legitimate reasons, but I simply can not bring myself to do likewise. Guess in the end I'm simply a fanboy at heart.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

We're here not for a long time, but a good time.

I've come across a lot of stereotypes and falsehoods when it comes to Paganism, both ancient and modern. There is, however, one accusation, or assumption, which tends to come out as often, if not more often, than that of vapidness; hedonism.

There is this idea, that Pagans were (are) only ever concerned with pleasure, and having a "good time", and that ultimately Pagan spirituality/religion is empty. This tends to come out in just about every example of "ex-Pagan" narrative floating out there. 'Drugs, Drinking, (often Sex), and just "having a good time". For the most part, these the people described in these narratives have barely even cracked open a "101" book, let alone actually lived their religion. No, these people consider themselves to have been "pagan", because they abused alcohol, used recreational narcotics, had sex (outside of marriage, for the most part) and were "spiritual" not "religious": In the world of the conversion narratives (so in their authors and audiences minds) Paganism is the same as hedonism.

A few examples:

"From Paganism to Islam" : Looking into Paganism means you were a Pagan?

"In and out of Wicca": This one is typical of the conversion cycle, was a Christian, enjoyed the "high life", got depressed, looked into Paganism, became "obsessed with it", was a High Priestess, then had a revelation and went back to Christianity (a literalist, fundamentalist Christianity)

"Ginger Howell Ex-Witch saved by Jesus Christ": This one is a little more well known, high profile even (as she once had a reality TV series or something), but follows the conversion cycle, except this one has an angry, vengeful coven cajoling and threatening our wayward convert. This tends more towards the seeking power/control over a crappy life, as opposed to seeking pleasure.

There are two problems with this understanding. The first is that hedonism as a philosophy is grossly misunderstood, and is not something which is exclusive to pre-Christian cultures. The second is that contained in these sorts of narratives, is an inherent disdain for joy. I happen to think that life is best when enjoyed, and that while suffering is certainly a reality, it ought not be all there is to life.

Hedonism, as a general philosophical position, holds that the pursuit of pleasure is the greatest good. Even in common parlance, the term hedonism evokes a slovenly, often lounging, laurel wearing Roman eating grapes.

Your typical hedonist.
 Hedonism, as a philosophical position, on the other hand is at least rational, and not an unreasonable approach to living. The philosophical position is of course a rather ancient one, and the most notable proponents of it being Epicurus, founder of Epicureanism. The issue of course is that the actual philosophical perspective has been greatly overshadowed by the common understanding, to the point where referring to someone as a hedonist is almost certainly pejorative. So when I point to these narratives, and their portrayal of Pagans as hedonists, I am using the perspective of the narrative, and the understanding therein of what constitutes hedonism.

For the most part, the accounts of "ex-Pagans" contain some mention of narcotic and alcohol abuse, which has as much to do with the "have a good time" aspect, as it does with the "Born Again" (or in some cases "clean living" religious) obsession with not reverting back to addiction.You may have noticed that in the examples above, the concept of "black siding" or "liberal" religious adherents is trotted out as a sort of midway point between their "pagan" lifestyles and their (re)newed faith. It is as much, and in most cases more of, a diatribe against non-fundamentalist forms of the religions they find themselves joining, than it is against the shallow "paganism" they were members of. This is founded upon the logicall fallacy of the "slippery slope" argument, and there is a real fear, even terror, emanating from these stories about back sliding into their former lives, and this ties back to the idea of addiction. It appears that such people are only able to resist their former addictions/lifestyles/etc. because they have their religion. If not for it, they would revert back to the out of control beasts they were, and by proxy everyone who does not belong to their religion, is.

This is accomplished through a nearly puritanical disdain for joy or fulfillment found outside of the religion. H. L. Mencken said it best when he described Puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Of course, as these narrative emphasize the idea that someone can be happy, let alone have a fulfilling spiritual life, outside the strictures of their own religious perspectives, it is not surprising that the narrators life's are fueled by substance abuse and shallow spirituality. That is all that is out there for "the other", and since these people were miserable failures as human beings, obviously everyone else must also be miserable, empty and seeking a more fulfilled life. The desire shown for people to have spiritual or religious lives, is simply a reflection of their intrinsic desire to seek out the deity of the religion they now belong to; so the malevolence which was the meat of such stories in the 80's and 90's, has been replaced with misguided longing for "spiritual truth".

The world view expressed is, of course, necessarily insular. So rooted in the newly adopted perspective that reading the accounts of their former beliefs raises a number of concerns, and outright belies any sincerity on their part. When you read about "pagan" high priestesses who focus on "nature worship" and do not mention any sort of deity at all, well even the most basic 101 Wiccan book will mention The God and The Goddess. It is entirely possible that they were non-theistic and really were only focused on nature worship, but for someone to have every sincerely believed in the things they were doing to look back and utterly renounce them, and speak about them in a way which calls into question the very beliefs they held, it smack of insincerity and dabbling.

Back on track though, there is nothing at all wrong with actually enjoying life. Eudamonia, the good life, or human flourishing are noble endeavours and ends, which contain so much more depth than the shallow depictions illustrated above. The idea that the pursuit of happiness, real, full happiness, could occur not only outside of a given religious perspective, but in a way which sees said perspective as anathema, is soundly rejected by those narratives. Without X religion, there is no means of being truly happy, is necessarily a component of the belief of adherents of religion X. The figures in the conversion stories were only concerned with temporary, shallow self gratification; mostly to cover over psychological problems. So then we are to believe that not only will joining religion X make your life have meaning, it will also become a panacea for any and all psychological issues you may have. Good, if not very credible or realistic, marketing is a key component of proselytizing, and that is after all what these narratives are supposed to exist for. They really exist to reaffirm in the faithfuls eyes their own world view, and to see just how empty and shallow the "other" is.

The disdain for joy is something I find disturbing, if only because I question how one can be said to be flourishing and yet reject or deny joy. The golden mean, that one ought not to wallow in excess, nor cringe in deficiency, is a concept which is simply not understood in said world views. They perceive that there really is no mean at all, and that the preference is deficiency, rather than excess. Chalk it up to an underlying cultural affirmation of the "purity of poverty", if only subconsciously; better to suffer righteously than wallow in ones own crapulance. This is primarily a product of a very binary world view, and so the idea of balance is one of those ideas which lines the slippery slope. I suppose there is also an element of my own perspective where denial as a spiritual virtue is extolled, and that I generally disagree with it. I understand the reasoning behind it, and how it can be a profound and meaningful expression of ones commitment, but it's never something which has struck me as indicative of spiritual maturity. Fasting for justice, a custom and practice which is native to Irish tradition, operates on the idea that people shouldn't be fasting, and that by supporting an unjust decision, you are causing the death of someone through starvation. It takes will power and comitment, but it is understood to be bad to begin with, so to hold it up as a spiritual ideal is not terribly practical or sensible.

The long and short of it, is that I strongly disagree with the world views presented in these stories. There is nothing to indicate that by avoiding pleasure, by holding joy as some great evil, that one will live a full and meaningful life. Rather one will find that in abstaining from joy, they are in fact abstaining from life.

After all, we're here not for a long time, but a good time.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Misneachail (Brave): A Review

Considering how much I wanted to see this film, it did take me quite a while to get around to it. My expectations were met, and in some cases exceeded; so good on you Pixar.

So today I'm going to be examining the Disney-Pixar film, Brave. I will do my best to warn of any spoilers, and try my best to review the film without giving too much away. I plan on discussing the film through a number of different categories, so lets get on with it.


The characters are for the most part decent enough, and stridently at odds with the bulk of Disney parents. Well, that may be taking it a bit too far as this is technically a Pixar film, and there is a more robust selection of parents available. For a Princess story though, the fact that not only are both parents present, but that they are generally developed characters, is unique among Disney fare. Consider how forgettable the Queen's are in say "Sleeping Beauty", or how generally absent Eudora is in "The Princess and the Frog". In the other Princess films, the Queen is absent or dead. Even the supporting cast is used to decent enough effect, and I really wish there was more screen time with some of the characters, especially the Witch... er "Wood Carver". That there is screen time spent to not only develop the characters, but the relationships between the characters, makes this the wonderful film that it is. You actually grow to care for the plight of the characters, and there are some really deep and emotional scenes in the second and especially third act, that get to the heart of why this all matters. So onto the characters themselves.

To put it bluntly, Merida is the sort of Princess that Ariel should have been, had Ariel actually bothered to learn anything during her adventure. Merida is the kind of princess Jasmine could have been, had she been given more agency and not existed for the sole purpose of being the romantic interest. Merida is the Disney Princess who has both agency and actually develops as a character; take note for this alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, there is the "tomboy" issue, but this has more to do with our perceptions and expectations of assigned gender roles that the context the film provides. Merida is presented as a girl, not as a girl wanting to be a boy. She is presented as someone who values her individuality and freedom above all else, and rejects the role and fate her mother already has planned out for her. I stress mother, again because Elinor is the driving force behind the upkeep of societal norms and tradition, something which is made clear by her role throughout the film. Speaking of which...

Elinor is another very well thought out and developed character, if a study in contradictions, sort of. Elinor is in charge, this much is made very clear throughout the film. Elinor is far more concerned with the maintenance of balance (and peace) between the clans, and by proxy the well being of the kingdom. Fergus, on the other hand is more concerned with fighting things that need to be fought, and being a man (but more on him later). The strife between Merida wanting her freedom, and Elinor wanting to uphold tradition drives the plot and also, both her and her daughters development as characters. She is serious and nagging, and a clumsier writer would likely have given into a 'wicked queen" role. But the relationship between the two is far more complex, treated with maturity and shows the love that underlies the surface tensions. More on this later.

So, yeah Fergus is probably one of the weaker points of the film, at least from my perspective. I understand that he acts as the comedic foil to Elinor, but the hen-pecked King is kind of a tired trope. Now the capable ruler who hides behind an oafish facade is well used in Celtic myth, but this is not the sort of impression we get; He is probably the least developed of the main characters, insomuch as he remains very much the same at the end of the film as he did in the beginning. Now, to be fair, a good movie, with good characters does not necessarily mean that every character must be developed, or learn a lesson. Fergus for all intents and purposes is a fully developed character, gently disagreeing with Elinor, but understanding that they are bound by duty to place their daughter in a position she does not necessarily want to be in. When he isn't prat falling or leading merry chases, he is handled well. The opening scenes and climax are the best examples the qualities which exemplify why Fergus is the king, and are handled very well. I suppose overall though, the "men are burly idiots" thing just rubs me the wrong way.

The Triplets
The incarnation of mischief made flesh, they have their own running gags and show up to help Merida out of a few predicaments. Other than that, there isn't much to say; they are cute and funny.

What sort of proper Disney movie doesn't have animal sidekicks? Saigh has far more knowledge about horses than I (so go read her Brave review too), so I'll keep it short. Angus is a more realistic animal companion than we've seen in more recent Disney films; in essence a toned down (less anthropomorphacized) version of Maximus from "Tangled". Brave, sort of dog like, but still a horse.

The Witch
Er ... I mean the woodcarver. She's in the film only briefly, breaks the forth wall (or at least her Crow does), and provides some decent comic relief. I wish there were more scenes with her in it.

He's an evil bear, who took Fergus's leg. He could have been Moby Dick, except he's slightly more complex. He is Fergus's sworn nemesis and reason for his hatred of all things Ursine.


Feminism: Considering a lot of the hype surrounding the film, this is one of the aspects which seem to receive almost unanimous praise: Merida is a strong female character. I've seen a lot of characters be touted as "strong and female", Bella Swan from the Twilight "Saga", Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy, Jasmine from "Aladdin", Ariel from "The Little Mermaid", Fa Mulan from "Mulan". All have some degree of agency and strength, but not all female protagonists are created equal. Nor are the environments in which they find themselves. One of the greatest strengths of Brave is that the majority of the story revolves around the tumultuous relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor, and from the vantage point of story telling the film passes the Bechdel/Wallace test, which is no small feat for a Disney "Princess" film. It isn't the most comprehensive means for establishing great female portrayals (after all Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast also pass the test), but it is a start.

What is more to the point is that Merida and Elinor are the main characters, the plot hangs on them. Yes there is the secondary plot point of Fergus's obsession with hunting down Mor'du, but that exists primarily for creating tension in the second and and especially third acts. What's more, the men in the film are basically comic relief, and most of their time is split between yucking it up and pratfalls. There are two specifically telling scenes, one in the last part of the first act, the other just prior to the climax, where Elinor and Merida stop at first a sprawling, and later more serious, fight which is about to erupt between the clans. They speak in a commanding tone, extolling the much needed wisdom they have been groomed to be able to articulate. The function of the Queen/Princess is to act as the scabbard, to the men's sword (please keep your Freudian allusions to yourself, this is a kids film, pervert.) maintaining and directing the aggression to where it will do the most good, as opposed to the most harm.

Certainly, and perhaps specifically the case with Elinor, but the typical "Strong Mom" archetype is clearly visible. Perhaps the comedic "yes dear" routine (albeit it extends beyond Fergus, to the entirety of the clans) is tired and a bit too stereotypical, but considering the intended audience it makes the film, and characters more accessible, as they take on familiar tropes.

As to being a "strong female character", this is often held to be an indicator of empowering or feminist themes, but very often falls totally short. Take for example the only "princess with a body count", Fa Mulan. Mulan is represented as being strong willed, and "kick ass", as she does throughout her self titled film, single-handedly taking out the Huns, and defeating the villain. Even to the point of being offered a position serving the Emperor, basically everything she ever wanted. But does she take it? Nope, she has a man she needs to hook up with and so promptly forgets her hopes and dreams. Mulan also fails as a good example of a martial female character, because she becomes a man to do it. The best song in the entire film (and one of Disney's best of that decade) is "I'll make a man out of you", which is precisely what happens. Mulan learns proves she can hack it with the men, by out manning them. She abandons her femininity to succeed in a patriarchical world, and is even accepted when it is revelaed she is infact a woman. It goes too far though, and when she finally chooses to accept her female side, she abandons what she worked for so she can marry the cute boy. Yes, there is deffinetly agency, but there just seems to be this imbalance with what a female character can do, still be feminine, and yet still be kick ass.

Merida, on the other hand, never really gives up her feminity to succeed, well not really. She does tear her constricting dress so she can more accurately fire her bow, but she never "takes off her dress" either. She bends her conventional roles, but never breaks them; relying on loopholes so to speak. She is martial, without being manly, and so in my view exemplifies a balanced "strong female character".

"Gaelic" Values: This is probably one of the areas that those with younger kids may be more interested, because outside of the film being entertaining, being heavily American, some of the values which could be considered "Gaelic" manage to come through. The most obvious, is the stress which is placed on the idea of duty and personal responsibility. The conclusion of the film, its central theme, is not that someone should be free to marry who they want to. While the promotional material surrounding the film focuses on this theme more than anything else, it is in actuality a Macguffin. The real lesson the film instills that you are responsible for your actions and you have to be prepared to accept and deal with the repercussions.

In the extant tomes and tales the power of words, and the deeds those words reflect is represented over and over again. How often did strife arise, simply because someone was careless with their speech? Take for example, the Tain Bo Culaigne: the cause of the entire war was that one of Medb's messengers made a boast into his cups, insulting the honour of his host and forcing him to reject the offer already made. Words have power, speech leads to action; so be thoughtful of the words you choose, or the actions they engender, because sometimes you can not take them back.

On top of this is the fact that the film refuses to make Elinor a one dimensional antagonist; nor does it reject her opinions and hold them out to be wrong, for all to see. There is nuance in the development of the characters and the perspectives they are arguing for and against. Tradition is so often simply brushed off in modern fiction (and lets be honest, culture in general) as what is done is done because it was done. Shallow, superficial, empty; tradition in these kinds of films remains little more than mimicry for the sake of it. Where Brave differs from this generally modernistic view, is that it shows what the point of the tradition is, why it is done, and how lost the world the characters inhabit is without it. Having said that, there is a challenge, presented by the modern, which confronts tradition and forces it to adapt to a new context. Merida, by the films end, still rejects the idea of being married off like chattel, but she also understands that the marriage itself was ancillary to the reason behind the marriage: duty.

I would have to say that the emphasis of personal responsibility is mirrored by the underlying theme of the film, which is duty. This is a concept which is definitely at odds with the dominant conception of individual freedom, but again the film shines by bridging the two ideals. Elinor being the representative of tradition, is also aware of the responsibility she bears; she has to do what is best, and what is right. What is best may not be what her daughter wants, but what remains at stake is more important than that. Elinor has lived it, understands it, and so becomes the embodiment of duty. Merida, head strong and free willed, begins the film blind to the needs of others and is concerned only with her own desires. With just about every other "Princess" film, the character development basically stops here. Merida, just like her more recent Disney fore bearers, seeks out some means necessary to get what she wants and only afterwards does she realize what her selfishness has cost. She does, however, proceed to do all in her power to make right her mistake and through this experience comes to understand why her mother has spent so much time trying to make her "get it". Elinor too, undergoes her own transformative (no pun intended) experience, and comes to understand her daughter as well. She accepts that what is archaic can be dispensed with, because the reason behind it, duty, is more important than the form it takes.

Spiritual/Religious Bits

This will be short, because there are really only three things which fall under this category, two of which are blatant and at odds with traditional views, and the third is so bang on, but so subtle, that it is invisible unless you are already aware of it.

The Wisps
Will-o'-the wisp, in traditional folklore are generally of a more sinister nature than presented in the film. They're a lot more common in Welsh folklore than strictly speaking, Scottish, and fore the most part are held to be fairy fire, often carried by puca, to lead travelers to misfortune and death (often by drowning). There are however, some tales in which they aid travellers who become lost, so their nature is not strictly speaking all malefic. In the narrative of the film they are said to lead people to their destiny, and in actuality are something a bit more, which I can not really get into without revealing important plot points. They serve a purpose, other than being pretty blue lights though, and so all in all not a bad representation.

The Witch
I mentioned her briefly earlier, but again the term witch, or its associated terms, in Gaelic tradition is all but malefic. Cunning-woman may have been a better term (again not one originating in Scottish lore) but then again the term "witch" has in the popular imagination moved from he sense of dread to female magical worker. She is presented as averse to using magic, and only after being persuaded my Merida, does she create a spell for her. Being the locus of magic in the film, however, she exemplifies the third and final element very well, even using it to comedic effect.

I have spoken about this subject several times, and this is because of its significance in ritual and worldview, but the film really utilizes the idea well. There are basically two liminal areas which are the focus of two central plots, the "Pictish Stones" and the "Witches hut". The Pictish Stones, encompass the broader "standing stone" motifs which liter the Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish countryside (or did before some were relocated), of course those depicted in the film would only date back to the 6th century CE or later, so while they may elicit notions of pre-Christian times, they are in fact post. It does not, however, detract from their function in the film, and are clearly represented as having otherworldly properties (i.e. why Angus hesitates to cross into the circle), and once Merida passes through the stones, she begins to see the Wisps, which in turn lead her to the witches hut. The circle acts as the first of two centres of magic, throughout the film.

The second location is the Witches hut, and plays especially on the symbolism of doorways and thresholds. Merida, as a border crosser, is continually finding herself passing through the same door, only to arrive at unexpected locations. Without giving too much away, the scenes with the Witch are some of my favourite for the banter alone, and to have actually hit upon a concept as central as liminality, given that all but a few would understand the symbolism and how it reflects on something deeper than a sight gag, is certainly appreciated.

I haven't got a copy of the soundtrack, and only having seen the film once can only comment briefly on the music in the film. For the most part it works; the background music is that sort of generic "Celtic" music, coupled with a few pop-ish songs which admirably capture the "Celtic" sound. If there was a single, it would have to be "Touch the Sky", written by Alex Mande and performed by Julie Fowlis. The other would be "Into the open air", both of which are played during the film. The film is not an animated musical, and so the majority of the music is score/overlain; there are two exceptions a song Fergus sings and a flashback of Elinor singing in  Gàidhlig to a young Merida, the song is called "a mhaighdean bhan uasal"(noble fair maiden). There is another song, which was actually featured in one of the trailers and also sung by Julie Fowlis, "tha mo ghaol air aird a'chuain" (my love is on the high seas). It doesn't make it into the film itself, and sadly does not appear on the soundtrack, but is lovely none the less and probably got many folks hopes up that there would be at least some Gàidhlig in the film (well there was, albeit very little), so I suppose a case of take what you can get sort of deal. Overall the music is suitable for the film, is appropriate and adds rather than detracts from the experience.

The animation featured in the film is gorgeous, and very well rendered. The backgrounds are detailed and lush, dripping with atmosphere and crawling with character. they even manage to do a decent job of animating water, which is no small feat. The action sequences and fast paced, but slow enough that it isn't just a mind numbing blur of colour and motion. The modeling of the characters is Pixar's best yet of humans, with the caveat that they are stylized and purposefully cartoony (again, mostly the men). It isn't as evocative as say, "The Secret of Kells", but still does a very good job of incorporating medieval elements into the stylization present throughout the film.

I actually do not have as many criticisms as I thought I would, though I've only watched it once through, if this changes after the DVD release, well I'll mention it somewhere. Again, my major criticism is the use of the majority of the men as clowns. Fergus is a lummox, even though he has a few good lines, he like all the other men basically spend the film running about and making asses of themselves. There are two exceptions, the opening sequence and the climax, which are fantastic, (and the later bordering on actually being "frightening" for children), where we observe Fergus is full out warrior mode, and all slapstick is washed away by the gravity of the situation. I suppose that it could be argued that the capable chieftain/king who plays at being a buffoon to throughoff his enemies is evident in some of the lore, An Dagda being the best example. I'm just not sure that the intent was there, and it was more a case of having these popinjay, muscle flexing men strut about with their "Ayes" and "Grrr's" and "Thems fightin' werds!", and making light of a warrior culture in general: "Scottish people are a contentious lot". I can appreciate a character like Groundskeeper Willie on "The Simpsons", because he is a single parody in a world of parody, but watching dozens of them all at once is a bit off putting.

I would have liked to have had more use of Scottish folklore, and not just some general folktale/legend (which again works int he film) being the crux of the sort of mythic elements present in the movie. Gaelic folklore and myth is so robust and full that there were literally hundreds of different tales or stories which could have been used, and instead we get something that is so generic it could find itself having taken place in any given culture around the world. For a story which takes place in a specific geograhpy, period and culture, it can come across as generically medieval. Drop the accents and kilts and it could as well have been England, Wales, France or Germany. I suppose the film makers wanted to broaden the target audience and so made it more generic, but I honestly think it could have been more Scottish without losing audience members.

The film is a quality film, and one I am sure to watch over and over (and maybe this will change my feelings towards it) when it comes out in November. The plot is simple with some interesting (if predictable) twists. The chacarters for the most part are real enough that you get caught up in their plights and want them to come out okay in the end. They grow and develop, taking on a number of issues like parenting, tradition v. modernity, duty v. freedom. The relationship between Elinor and Merida is one of the best mother-daugther relationships put on screen in a long, long time, and this alone is worth the price of admission. The film has a lot of heart and for a Disney-Pixar film, a lot of depth. Sure it isn't as cinematic as Wall-E (but really what is?), or as emotional as Up (which is itself borderline manic-depressive), but it presents an excellent balance, two amazing female leads, good animation and a lot of heart. If you like animation or things Gaelic ("Celtic even"), this film comes highly recommended.