Sensationalizing Pagan Leaders: The Damaging Social Structure Behind BNP Status

My good friend Peter Dybing started a conversation on his blog several days ago that is really important to me. I was on the Pagan Musings Podcast and was talking about this very topic because I was referred to as one of the “new BNP’s”. Not that the podcast did anything wrong, but the thought made me cringe. I have never publicly been called any type of BNP, only teased by my closest friends. And yet the conversation from the interview and  Peter’s blog, presents a view point that I agree with. The use of of the label BNP is not helpful to the greater needs within the Pagan community. In my opinion, the need that serves the whole of the community is an ability to be one with each other in worship, celebration and in growth.

The term Big Named Pagan has become a part of modern Pagan culture. I think part of what I do not like is the separation from community that happens when someone is labeled as different from others. I see community as a group of people that have common interests or beliefs, and are working together to achieve or celebrate those commonalities. Part of the power of that is the knowing that we are all in this together; good, bad or indifferent. It is the process of co-existence that motivates us to work towards the betterment of our society. The labeling of certain people out of those community members means that there is a separation and they are then given this elitist type position within the community. How does this further empower or promote the community voice? How does this encourage everyone to embrace the responsibility of the outcome of the collective people? I do not believe it does, and that it is counterproductive at best.

When someone speaks against the BNP title, it is often confused with an unwillingness to accept leadership responsibilities. This is far from the truth in my opinion. Leadership does not bother me, work does not bother me. I am not afraid to get my hands dirty and “put my money where my mouth is”. The societal culture of separation is one that goes beyond Paganism. It is a culture that is deeply ingrained in American culture and our history together on this land. We have always needed a leader, a ruler, a decision maker or an enforcer. We are conditioned to look for those who are more worthy than the average person to hold the torch.

And just like with American politics, we elect those people and then we tear them down once they are in office. We forget that before given the title, they were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, workers, voters, and community members. Low and behold, everyone that receives a label of such is still a real life person that benefits from their active participation in the process of community.

Why do we do this to our community leaders? Why do we build them up, thrust importance onto them, push them away from community and then blame them for not fulfilling our needs? Who is responsible for fulfilling our personal needs? Why do we twist certain types of leadership or expression into the dysfunctional, distorted culture mold of our American history; basing worth in spotlight value?

Social work theories point to many systems that make sense of this. Conflict theory being one of them. Conflict theory looks at social groups and structures that naturally create conflict over limited resources. Then the real question we should look at is one of limited resource. What is so limited?

I have seen a limited resource on personal worth within society, and also within the Pagan community. Our community is a microcosm of larger societal issues, meaning that we are a perfect representation of the larger whole; beauty and issues included. Our smaller version of the whole shows the same struggles with identity, and finding importance individually and collectively. People place value on titles, labels, categories, associations, teachers, traditions, physical appearances, or even practices instead of placing value on ourselves. We have the automatic response that something outside of ourselves will define who we are… or who we are not. The limited resource might just be a base lack of personal and cultural community worth.

Society structures of belief between the “haves” and the “have nots”, the worthy and the unworthy, is based on the history of value system within our society. We define the importance of people based on outdated moral information and judge them by standards that often no longer apply. Social work theory’s often refers to American values that include individualism, protestant work ethic, egalitarianism and social Darwinism. These values have been a part of our foundation and become a part of our cultural conditioning as Americans. And so it is my belief that we unconsciously view our small society through the glasses of a history rich in separation, and with a strong sense of identifying the values of one another to indicate importance.

I understand this and yet it saddens me to see us unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, use divisive tactics within our community that will divide more than serve. I am not anti-leadership or some form of structure. I am against blindly applying structures in our community that have proven to be historically harmful to the ability to celebrate our collective worth. Let us be conscious of the unconscious messages we are passing along in our speech and our actions. That is all I am asking.

No one is a small named Pagan to me. I wish everyone could know the awesomeness I have learned from the “small names” as well as those who might be more commonly known. I learn from my coven sisters all the time, for years. My local community teaches me so much. My husband stretches me daily to be a better mother, wife and priestess.

No amount of skill, Pagan fame, publicity, good photos or even incredible writing would make someone effective in isolation. I am not effective with any mission I set out to do by myself, without the skills and support around me . And so I am choosing to recognize the contributions of all people in our Pagan village, including my own. Let’s celebrate and appreciate one another, and grow within ourselves, and within our community, to rebuild our personal and community worth.

And in that process, let us be conscious of our developing vocabulary, so we can be inclusive in our speech. We can choose phrases that do not include the opposite as somehow smaller or less. We can consciously select ways to refer to one another that continue the thread of community.

  • Soli

    “No one is a small named Pagan to me.”

    I love this. I love the totality, but especially this.

  • Barbara

    This is a wonderful post, so well written. Thank you. But I am left wondering if this is this a discussion without a problem? Who wouldn’t agree with what Crystal has
    written? I don’t know any Pagan leader who has gained wide public recognition
    who holds the view that others are somehow less than they are or that they are
    separated from community. No one — not Thorn Coyle, Andras Corban Arthen, Angie Buchanan, Patrick McCollum, etc., etc. So I am at a loss as to where this discussion is coming from. (Yes, I know it started with Peter Dybing. But I am wondering what is the problem that is being addressed?) What we do find are Pagan leaders who work tirelessly to help others and to advance the Pagan cause. I commend Crystal for distinguishing Pagan leaders from BNPs, but then who are the BNP culprits being addressed or is it just the term itself that is being criticized? And if the latter, then why all the discussion about separation and community members’ worthwhile contributions? Let’s take Thorn Coyle (www.thorncoyle.com) as an example of a Pagan leader who I suppose might be called a BNP. She is . . .

    a smart, capable woman who could have done a lot of other things with her life, but decided to dedicate her spirit, energy, brains and talents to help others and to advance the movement. She is wonderfully gifted, and others recognize that in her and therefore follow her blog and her books and go to her classes and rituals. She is where she is because she has something special to offer and she offers it daily, and others recognize that something special she offers. That is why she is a prominent Pagan leader. She has never said or done anything to suggest that others who contribute to the community in other ways (e.g., being a mother, a community healer in a small community setting, an event organizer, etc.) are less worthy in some way than she is. Rather, what Crystal is extolling about the community is what those who have taken leadership roles espouse. In my experience, prominent leaders believe in, and speak and write about, the equal inherent worth and dignity of everyone, the critical importance of everyone who makes up community in whatever role each feels called, and each person’s special contribution. Some, like Thorn, dedicate their whole lives to community, whether that is within one’s immediate community or internationally as Andras Corban Arthen and Patrick McCollum have done. They are rightly acknowledged for that especially life-focused dedication. But no leader I know distinguishes themselves as being more worthy than anyone else, thus creating the separation that Crystal and Peter suggest is damaging to community. So, again . . .

    Is this a discussion in search of a problem — that doesn’t exist? Or if there is a sense of separation, where is it coming from? I suggest that it isn’t coming from the prominent leaders in the movement.

    • Crystal Blanton

      Barbara. Thanks for your post. I replied with a good lengthy reply and the internet ate it. So I am going to try again.

      The series of events might help with how I got here. I was doing an interview and was referred to as one of the “new BNP’s” and discussed on the show my thoughts on that. Peter, my friend, was listening and it motivated him to write his own thoughts.

      I am pointing out a structural and systematic concern within the dynamics of the Pagan community, specifically with the terms we use. This is not about any BNP and more about the way we are structuring our system of importance on a type of fame.

      Thorn is a good example, she is my friend and we work on several projects together. She is incredible. And like her… there are many others who are also doing good work without the recognition. Before writing a book and getting some attention in the community, I did the SAME work for the last 16 years in social services and clinical work within impoverished neighborhoods. I imagine there are a lot of people doing good work without anyone really knowing. Some just have more of a vehicle to talk about it to the public.

      And also knowing Thorn, Don, Patrick and others who are more well known, I know that they (and myself) would be doing the same work whether anyone knew or not. So it is not about the work… it is about where we place our value and that is often in spotlight.

      We need to be intentional in the way we are choosing our vocabulary and creating our culture. As a relatively new community, this is very important and will be for generations. Using terms that automatically divide people into categories of importance sets the stage for some to feel more important, some to feel less important, some to feel that others are more important, and even some to feel resentful. I can’t tell you how many times I or other (more known) Pagans have had to deal with attitudes or problems because they were in some “BnP” status or label.

      It is a real problem, even if we are not talking about it openly or recognize it all the time. We should work towards acknowledging those things that will not serve us in the long run. In my opinion, and with historical context, I believe this issue is one of them.

      Thanks!!!

    • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com/ thalassa

      I’ve been adminin a Pagan forum for several years now, and I’ve only occasionally seen anyone even use the term. I’ve even more rarely used the term myself…and when I have, its never been in reference to someone being Pagan leaders or elders (I’ve only seen that connection in the blogosphere). TBH, most BNP’s I would almost never call a Pagan leader (and I sort of think that indicates a greater problem–I would think that the folks with more name recognition SHOULD be leaders and elders). Instead, I see the term being used (and have used it) in reference to something like “I went to this festival and they had a great line-up, lots of BNP’s”–basically, lots of people with name recognition.

      The other time I’ve seen it used, and I think *this* is when people need to be concerned, is in reference to Pagans that have become well-known without having much substance behind that recognition, OR being awesome and then becoming well-known, and just riding on their name, “resting on their laurels”. I’m sure everyone has *someone* they can think of that falls into that category, rightly or wrongly, whether it says more about ourselves, or them (or both). When BNP is being used in this way, I can see why it would bother people…particularly if it is true.

  • Rory

    Although self-promotion clearly had its place in the early days of Gardner and Sanders, I can’t think of a single major pagan leader in the last thirty years who has not consciously and studiously avoided the temptation to become a “celebrity,” although there have been dozens of self-promoting folks who rose for a while and then found a more sustainable level. Collaborative power and community do inherently discourage the “cult of celebrity” so common in the wider culture with its engagingly predictable promotion/disgrace/redemption cycles.

    I don’t see an authentic issue around BNP’s, but do see how positing such a class might be a way for rising, medium-named-Pagans to gain more publicity or name-recognition. Ego and self-promotion are an issue in any culture, but they seem refreshingly absent in the Pagan movement I know, excised and banished to the more lucrative networks of newage which seem to connect life coaches and seminars with bookstores and the guru circuit.

    • Crystal Blanton

      I think we are a smaller community and so some things appear smaller because they are in context. Yet in reality they are and have the potential to be at the same level as other communities. I do not think we have guru status within the Pagandom arena, but I do know of some in the past that have worked hard for celebrity type status. Yet….. this post is not about them.

      It is about the collective responsibility of our community to structure our language and culture in ways that will produce togetherness and effective community. There is not room for separating some out as more celebrity like, just because they are doing great work. And they are!!!

      We have to keep in mind that all people, regardless of how well known they are, are just as important to the process of community as someone who is not known by many.

      Thanks for your comment!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/nels.linde Nels Linde

    I think the job of an author, to get their name and work publicity, is often confused with a “big name”. Maybe “Highly Respected” Pagan is a better term. For me that is someone whose words in whatever media, are thoughtful and precise and helpful; AND they are backed up with real hands on actions and freely given in service to community. I know many Highly Respected Pagans (HRP) who are hardly known by others, some who work within a community, and some that happen to be only authors or writers(that is where their hands mainly work)… and respecting someone does not diminish others in my view.

  • Macha

    Nice post, Crystal. Here’s another take on the same topic: http://besom.blogspot.com/2013/03/on-matter-of-big-name-pagans.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=724085372 Jennifer Lawrence

    >>I have seen a limited resource on personal worth within society, and also within the Pagan community. [snip] Our smaller version of the whole shows the same struggles with identity, and finding importance individually and collectively. People place value on titles, labels, categories, associations, teachers, traditions, physical appearances, or even practices instead of placing value on ourselves.[snip] The limited resource might just be a base lack of personal and cultural community worth.

    >>Society structures of belief between the “haves” and the “have nots”, the worthy and the unworthy, is based on the history of value system within our society.

    THIS. One of the things I’ve noticed when people refer derisively to “BNPs” is that it often seems to stem from envy; the BNP is known by many in the larger pagan community for what they have done, and the person sneering might feel underappreciated for what they have done. (This is also true of those folks who always want to be BFFs with the BNPs; they hope the esteem that the BNPs are given by our society will rub off somehow, just by virtue of knowing someone famous.)

    We all want to feel appreciated by our peers. This is a universal concept in every society, to the point that we often feel that there’s something “wrong” with someone who not only shuns society, but actively disparages the idea of the kudos of others. We all want to be valued for what we contribute to our peer groups — our actions, our words, our thoughts, our contributions. The problem is that any society larger than a single family is generally too big for everyone to know everyone else, and so, the accomplishments of the “average” Joe are, by and large, unknown to those people outside of his immediate social circle. Only when a person’s accomplishments are large enough to be noticed by folks outside of our subgroup (for example, when a particular pagan has written books that even non-pagans have heard of and read) do those accomplishments become known by “everyone”. And, to be frank, most of our accomplishments aren’t that widely known. And so that feeling of being unappreciated fosters resentment, and eventually, scorn for those who are that widely known.

    It would be wonderful if there was some way to make the accomplishments of the “average Joe Pagan” known more widely. We all contribute *something*. Possibly a website…or maybe another blog here at Patheos Pagan that could solicit folks to nominate their peers in the community for wider recognition, so that the “average Joe Pagan” would finally get to have others recognize and appreciate what they’ve done? (Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame”, more or less.) I think that might go at least a little way toward ameliorating some of this issue.

    ~Jennifer

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    Great post.

    I have come across Big Name Pagans “holding court” at parties, and acquiring neophytes who fail to grow because they are too busy adoring the Big Name Pagan. Sometimes the Big Name Pagans have even realised what they are doing, and stopped doing it. And kudos to them when they have – it is hard to step away from that. Sometimes they acquire followers sort of by accident, because they have charisma and people like to hero-worship.

    I have always said that if ever I turn into a person with a bunch of disempowered followers, my friends have my full and frank permission to kick me up the backside. Really.

    I have even been accused of thinking my opinion is more important than other people’s because I blog. No, I don’t think my opinion is more important than other people’s, but I do think it is just as important as anyone else’s, and I like to write, and if people like to read what I write, and find it helpful in some way, then that’s great. (Also, if my opinion happens to be better informed than someone else’s, then yes, I think it is better than theirs – not because it’s mine, but because it’s better informed.)

    It is a really nice feeling when someone compliments my writing, but I would rather the experience remained a treasured rarity than something I ever got blasé about.


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