NYTimes: Mouseketeer-turned-Pagan-turned-Christian trip

One of the staples of evangelical Christianity — at least so far as I can remember — is the story of the spectacular sinner who found redemption, preferably on the “sawdust trail” of a tent revivalist’s “canvass cathedral.”

One of the more dramatic examples is the 1949 conversion of songwriter/actor Stuart Hamblen under the ministry of a then-very-young Billy Graham; Hamblen went on to write a gospel music staple, “It Is No Secret,” about that experience.

It is equally true — for those of us with a bit of experience in the evangelical realm — that sometimes these testimonies should be viewed with skepticism. Evangelicals, myself included, were entertained and impressed by “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke in the late 1970s and 1980, He regaled audiences with tales of his being a “high Satanist priest” and having later come to the light of faith in Jesus. Sadly, Warnke’s testimony was later challenged and shown to be suspect, at the very least, which is why we don’t see him much on TBN these days, although he still professes Christian belief, and has an independent ministry.

Both of these elements popped into my mind as The New York Times featured a former member of the “Mouseketeers of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1996 on the Disney Channel,” a cable outlet. Born and raised as Matt Morris, the onetime-Episcopalian embraced Paganism, with a capital “P,” and, “under a red moon” one night pledged fealty “to the unseen forces that guide my life.”

“Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer sets the ex-Mouseketeer tone here:

They’re an august alumni association. … Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake top the charts. Keri Russell was Felicity. Christina Aguilera stars with CeeLo Green on “The Voice.” Ryan Gosling starred with his own abs in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

But Teo Bishop, while keeping up a career in pop music, accomplished something less predictable and altogether curiouser. Beginning about three years ago, he began a rise to prominence in the Pagan community. Then, last month, he shocked the Pagan community by re-embracing Christianity.

“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope. … I don’t know what to do with all of this.”

For American Pagans, Mr. Bishop’s defecting to a big, bad mainstream religion is bigger news than winning a Grammy, bigger than shooting a Vanity Fair cover. If you’re a Druid, a Wiccan or any of the nature-religion followers grouped under the label Pagan, you’re not talking about Britney, JT or Xtina. You’re talking Teo Bishop.

Bishop — he legally changed his name from Morris — found great success with the “Bishop in the Grove” blog, earning plaudits in the pagan (or is it still Pagan here?) community:

Bishop in the Grove became popular with Pagans of different traditions, its comments section a virtual meeting place. At its peak, Mr. Bishop said this week, the site got as many as 10,000 unique visitors a month. At Pagan gatherings and conventions, he was a treated like a celebrity — and more so because in July 2012 Teo Bishop came out as Mr. Morris, merging his two public identities. He also changed his name legally.

By 2013, Mr. Bishop made the cover of Witches & Pagans magazine. That issue was still on the newsstands on Oct. 13, when Mr. Bishop wrote online about the new Christian complications in his spiritual life.

Not that long ago, the story explains, Bishop gave a homeless woman some food, and she replied, “God bless you.” Those words summoned from Bishop an emotional response, he started thinking about Jesus and Christianity, and has made a digression from the pagan pathway:

About three weeks ago, he attended an Episcopal church in his hometown, Portland, Ore. He decided beforehand that he would hold nothing back, that he would pray the liturgy despite lingering misgivings about Christianity. “ ‘I am just going to give myself over to it, not intellectualize it,’ ” he told himself. “It was an amazing experience.”

Other pagans haven’t rejoiced:

On Nov. 2, Mr. [Jason] Pitzl-Waters published an essay by Mr. Bishop about his Christian journey. But this week the two friends agreed that Mr. Bishop would stop writing for The Wild Hunt, where he had been a regular contributor. Mr. Bishop has also abandoned his regular column in Witches & Pagans magazine.

“Someone once said to me, ‘I can hear Christian voices anywhere,’ ” Mr. Pitzl-Waters explained. “ ‘I turn to your site to hear Pagan voices.’ ”

Amy Hale, a scholar of Paganism, said that many Pagans had no problem with a Pagan who incorporates elements of Hinduism, say, or Buddhism. But “Christianity is a little more tricky,” Dr. Hale said. “There are historical reasons for that.” Christianity is seen as being exclusionary, refusing to accept other sources of divine truth, and of seeking to convert others.

All this is fair enough, I suppose, and Oppenheimer plays it more-or-less down the middle. A Christian scholar or spokesman might’ve been a good addition to the mix, but the overall tone is respectful of all sides.

The writer ends, however, with something that should catch any reader’s attention:

Meanwhile, Mr. Bishop is not ready to accept any simple labels, Christian or otherwise.

“There were Pagans who felt like maybe I was turning into one of the Christians who alienated them, like I joined the other team,” Mr. Bishop said. “There were also Christians who said things like, ‘Oh, finally you’re back — we won one for the team.’

“Neither of those rings true to me.”

Which, I suppose, means Bishop won’t open for the still-preaching Warnke on any tours just yet. Then again, if Bishop has “lingering misgivings” about Christianity and says “neither” description, that of joining “the other team” or “finally you’re back” would “ring true,” has he really completed a “journey back to Christianity,” as the headline suggests?

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • helen

    If he’s visiting Schori’s (sp?) Episcopalians “neither” sounds about right.

    • MainlineP

      What a silly, mean-spirited and inaccurate comment. He said he prayed the liturgy without reservation and let the prayers wash over him. Did that story fact escape your reading or , as I suspect, didn’t it fit your highly politicized agenda (Evangelicals good, Episcopalians bad). I speak for many Episcopalians who have stuck with the church and I don’t cross my fingers or lower my voice when the Nicene Creed is spoken aloud. I join in and pray with full faith. So does Mr. Morris, and who are you to question his faith, anyway?

  • PalaceGuard

    ““canvass cathedral.” ” Is that where one pays one’s “pole tax”? (Sorry. Can’t help it…)

  • Kathe

    Biting my tongue about the very subtle contrast between “Neopagan” and “Episcopalian in Portland Oregon”….

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    1) Yes, it’s Pagan, not pagan. You capitalize Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, so capitalize Pagan too. The generic “pagan” as a term for all non-Abrahamic religions is overly broad and outdated, although many publications continue to use it out of habit.

    There’s a whole Pagan channel here at Patheos – come visit some time.

    2) As for your last paragraph, yes, Teo has completed a journey back to Christianity – just not to the version of Christianity some here would prefer.

    As a Pagan who’s gotten to know Teo over the past couple years, I hate to lose him from our community, but I respect his spiritual journey and the transparency with which he’s living it. I wish him nothing but the best.


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