Shamanic Christianity: The Direct Experience of Mystical Communion
By Bradford Keeney
Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2006
Review by Carl McColman
After all, I’m the guy who calls himself “the Druid with a Rosary.” My spiritual identity is significantly linked to exploring ways to integrate Christianity with various forms of earth-based wisdom. So obviously, a book on shamanic Christianity sounded like just the kind of book I would love.
But this is not a book on shamanic Christianity. It’s just another tired pop-psychology treatment of ho-hum spiritual ideas and exercises, marketed under the generic term of “shamanism” and given just enough Christian window-dressing to justify its title. What you get for your fifteen bucks is a book that fails both as an exploration of shamanism and as a study of Christian spirituality. Dear reader, you would do far better to get your hands on Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism; read them concurrently and let your imagination do the talking. At least then, you’d have decent material from which to launch your own spiritual exploration of Christian/shaman cross-breeding. And if you can’t figure out how to integrate the two, read Matthew Fox.
But if you decide you really want to read this book, what you’re going to get is a series of “Lost Teachings” that presents a series of stories (ranging from the whimsical to the absurd) which combine an element of Christian spirituality with a shamanic principle. A “lost parable” deepens each shaman-Christian connection, leading into an exercise to help you integrate the teaching into your own practice. So, for example, one chapter suggests that Jesus walked at one point among the Ojibway, where he learned to run (and howl) with the wolves; another chapter gushes about how the Virgin Mary’s greatest desire is to bake yummy little cakes so that people will taste a bit of heaven when they eat them. Further chapters take aim at Francis of Assisi, the Celtic saints, Hildegard of Bingen, and even the Shakers.
The second part of the book consists of “Lost Directives” where you can get all sorts of helpful shamanic hints for dealing with anger, fear, boredom, worry, and other annoying little problems that prevent us from having lots of fun all the time. While occasionally the author manages to offer something that seems to have a bit of merit (the exercise on “finding your lost temper” might actually help diffuse real anger with wacky humor. Hey, it’s worth a try), I remain unpersuaded that any of this cloying pop-psychology has any necessary relationship with shamanism, let alone Christianity.
The author appears to be a bit of a coyote, but one who thinks that all shamanism must be silly and playful in order to be authentic. Wiseguy comments like “True Christian shamans value the ridiculous as much as they aspire to enter the mystical visions of heaven. No quaking laughter, no entry into the biggest mysteries” and “shamanic tricksters… meet seriousness with absurdity and comedic improvisation” dance through this book. But Keeney beats this drum to the point where it seems that he’s just set up yet another tired dualism: silliness and absurdity is good, earnestness and seriousness is not so good. Meanwhile, even his silliness betrays the original meaning of that word (it comes from a Germanic root that connotes a sense of being blessed) and winds up feeling more like nonsense than anything truly useful to either the theorist or would-be practitioner of shamanic Christian mysticism.
I suspect that this book will be read more by shamanic wannabes who are trying to figure out why Jesus won’t let go of them, than by mainstream Christians who are looking for compelling new dimensions to their faith. For all of Keeney’s efforts to come across as hip and playful, at times he sounds rather shrill and lacking in the most important of Christian qualities: love. After all, those who take their faith too seriously often do so because they think it’s the loving thing to do. Rather than gently tease them out of their self-imposed prison of dour religiosity, Keeney basically goes after the jugular. And maybe that’s “shamanic” (whatever that means), but it’s a rather poor expression of Christianity.
In the introduction to the second part of the book, Keeney makes the following very revealing declaration: “Should you find yourself wondering what is the point of an exercise, remind yourself that one of the points is to plunge you into a new experiential territory that bankrupts your habituated ways of making meaning… This is intended to be a baptism into sacred absurdity, part of the matrix for shamanic transformation.” In other words, he has thrown in his pennies with all the other legions of new age and pagan and shamanic and various other post-modern earthy-types who, in reacting against the rationalistic heritage of the modern era, have lionized the irrational (the “sacred absurdity” in Keeney’s words) as the only true gateway to the mystical. But this is a salient example of what Ken Wilber calls the “pre/trans fallacy.” In other words, true mystical awakening can only come when consciousness transcends mere rationality, and engages in a trans-rational state of being. But far too many spiritual hipsters, recognizing the inherent limitations of rationality but blind to the true trans-egoic demands of the Spirit, make the mistake of thinking that pre-rational modes of consciousness are all that is necessary to achieve enlightenment. So we can play at being tricksters and absurdists and we can run around in the woods howling at the moon, just like Keeney suggests Jesus did. Of course, if you’d rather be a shamanic Buddhist, just substitute Siddhartha for Jesus. And all it takes to be enlightened is simply to pretend that it’s so. After all, the only thing that matters is to trade what is rational for what is absurd…
Our world needs powerful, deeply-rooted, ethically nuanced explorations of ways to integrate the mystical wisdom of the monotheistic faith traditions with the earth-positive lore of indigenous spiritualities. But this book doesn’t come close. Its feel-good “teachings” would quickly bore a student of John of the Cross or even Black Elk. Think Silver Ravenwolf with a rattle in one hand and a cross in the other. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.