The Pagan Bubble

Teo Bishop of Bishop in the Grove has a guest column on today’s Wild Hunt titled The Pagan Bubble, which I encourage you to read for yourself. It was inspired by a conversation with his step father, who told him “I read your blog, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”

Teo describes how much of our conversation as Pagans – especially on the internet – is insular and isolated:

this talking to ourselves about ourselves is debilitating. We become steeped in our own lore, influenced by our own memetic waves, and stuck within a vocabulary and symbol system that could really benefit from a Universal Translator. We are well versed at talking about who we are to each other, but I’m beginning to think that we are (or, at least, I am) unpracticed at talking about who we are to people who do not share our vernacular.

I think Teo has a valid point that we need to be better prepared to explain who we are, what we do and why we do it to people who are immersed in a mainstream culture still heavily influenced by Protestant Christianity. But religious bubbles have existed ever since religion became a formal, organized thing, and they persist for good reasons.

The mainstream doesn’t need a bubble. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the mainstream is a bubble so large those inside it don’t realize there’s anything else. In the Wild Hunt comments, CUUPS National President David Pollard called that what it is – privilege.

Remember how the mainstream media explained all the details of the recent papal conclave (not always correctly) because even though Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination, most Christians (including many Catholics) don’t understand its intricacies. Go over to the Patheos Evangelical Channel and read some of the debates on Calvinism vs. Arminianism. I grew up in a Baptist church and I still have to look up some of the terminology.

These bubbles are necessary in order to promote deeper discussion and deliberation of religious concepts. The average American (including more than a few Pagans) doesn’t know what we mean by hard polytheism vs. soft polytheism because it isn’t important to them. But for those of us whose spiritual practice centers around a reciprocal relationship with one or several deities, it matters a great deal.

We need our Pagan bubble because it’s safe space – and comfortable space. I love going to Druid camp because I know I can strike up a conversation on the nature of the gods or the spirits of the land and people will know what I mean. I know they’ll respond thoughtfully, and even if they see things differently than I do they’ll still be respectful.

The most successful religious bubble of all time is Judaism. Shortly after 600 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians and many of them were taken back to Babylon – modern day Iraq – as captives. Over time, some of them became more Babylonian than Hebrew – they were assimilating. In order to maintain their identity, they not only maintained their worship but they also adopted distinctive rules of conduct, dress and diet.

It was a very effective process. A small tribe of people who held their own land for perhaps 600 years, who were exiled for 2500 years, and who have been persecuted throughout history, are still alive and well and are considered one of the five major religions of the world.

Do we need a cultural bubble? While it’s impossible to completely separate religion and culture, as the Jews have shown there is value in adopting distinctive dress, foods, music and such. But here’s where it gets problematic – we’ve all run into Pagans whose appearance and behavior bear a strong resemblance to a Halloween caricature of a witch. There is magic in putting on a uniform… but that magic will be weak unless there’s some study and practice behind it.

Teo made a comparison to the “gay bubble” that he knows well. But I don’t think that’s a perfect analogy. If the gay bubble went away, gay people would still be gay. Their culture might become indistinguishable from mainstream culture, but gay men wouldn’t suddenly start wanting to have sex with women. If the Pagan bubble goes away, what would keep you Pagan?

Our mainstream society’s values are frequently at odds with our own. It promotes conformity, consumption, and the domination of the many by the few. It offers distractions and illusions and its attraction is strong.

If the Pagan bubble goes away, what would counteract popular culture? Is your connection to the old gods and to Nature strong enough? Is mine strong enough? Is the connection of the average Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, or Hellenist strong enough? Or would we meld into the mushy mainstream? This is one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for group practice – it provides reinforcement of what it means to be Pagan.

Teo asks “might we be better served by the deconstruction of our ghettos?” I don’t think so. But while we need the Pagan bubble, our bubble needs to be permeable. We need to be able to explain the essence of our Paganism to Catholics and Evangelicals and Buddhists and the ever-growing Nones. There are Pagan ideas the rest of the world desperately needs to hear, like the sacredness of Nature, the Divine Feminine, the multiplicity of the Divine, and a proper definition of sovereignty. These aren’t exclusively Pagan concepts, but we’re in a good position to articulate them.

Our bubble needs to be permeable both ways – we need to be open to good ideas and helpful practices no matter where they originate. We’re quick to borrow from other minority religions – sometimes too quick. Most of us have a positive view of Buddhism. But a good idea is a good idea, even if it comes from an atheist or a fundamentalist Christian.

Only a few of us grew up Pagan. Most of us are Pagan because we’ve been called by something or someone: by Goddess, by a particular goddess or god, by our ancestors, or by Nature. We need the safety and the reinforcement of our Pagan bubble to nurture that call and to help us learn and grow. But we don’t need to learn and grow so we can become a big fish in a small religious pond, we need to learn and grow so we can transform the world. That’s only possible if our bubble is permeable.

Write and rehearse your Pagan elevator speech. Figure out how you’ll respond to those who are genuinely and respectfully curious. See how you can present Pagan concepts to the mainstream world, with your life as well as with your words.

But spend as much time as you need in the Pagan bubble.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Markus Skogsberg

    Love this post! I read Teo’s post at TWH and was about to respond when I saw your respons, and you’ve pretty much written exactly what I was going to write. I think your comparison (sp?) with the “jewish bubble” is spot on.

    From my perspective, Sweden’s pagan scene is fairly small, the pagan bubble is desirable. Something to strive for even, as a way to strengthen our community.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog

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

      Thanks, Markus. My understanding is that Sweden is a very secular country – is that a fair assessment? How are the Pagans viewed by the mainstream? Or does anyone in Sweden really care?

  • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

    I agree, the Pagan bubble needs to be permeable. I often listen to newbies at the local moot asking “but what do you mean by…” and realise that those of us who are immersed in Pagan culture can often forget what it was like to be a newbie, let alone an interested outsider.

    But, for all the reasons you state, we do need the Pagan bubble. Plus we need less Paganism 101 books, and more advanced discussion of Pagan culture, theology, ethics, ritual, and life-ways. Fortunately this is happening, both in books and the blogosphere.

    I notice you used a term from the UU bubble there – “elevator speech” – I know what it means (though it’s called a “lift pitch” among Unitarians in the UK) but I would imagine that most people outside UUism would not know what it means. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a brief explanation of your religion that, if asked, you could say in the time it takes an elevator (lift) to travel between two floors of a building.

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

      We haven’t yet developed a lot of depth in Pagan theology and practice. We’re making strides, but we’re still a very young religion. I’m all for interfaith work and outreach, but ultimately, my biggest interest is learning and growing as a Pagan and a Druid.

  • KarenD

    As an aside, elevator pitch is a pretty common business term in the US; a quick search on Google will turn up a number of articles on how to perfect it. This is the first time I’d heard of it being connected to UUs.

    I found Teo’s piece interesting, but it strikes me as more of an internet phenomena than anything else. Or possibly it’s just a blogger thing, I haven’t decided yet. I don’t live in any sort of Pagan bubble, though I do live in a very liberal pocket of New England, with a sizable college population. I can and do identify as a bisexual Neo-Pagan polytheistic medievalist, who also attends steampunk & SF conventions, and nobody out here bats an eyelash. Mostly, my friends and I are concerned with work, relationships, our homes and the health of our pets, and not so much with internet debates on what to call ourselves.

    • http://tommyelf22.wordpress.com/ TommyElf

      “Mostly, my friends and I are concerned with work, relationships, our homes and the health of our pets, and not so much with internet debates on what to call ourselves.”

      Spot on!

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

        Tommy, you embody that ideal better than just about any Pagan I know.

        We still need to get together some time, either in person or over Skype…

        • http://tommyelf22.wordpress.com/ TommyElf

          John; I am not so sure that I embody that ideal any better than anyone else. Its just a matter of living one’s Life. I’m a firm believer that when you live your beliefs, that those beliefs become such a part of you that no label or a debate over the meaning of a label will matter. The basic aspects of living in a modern society comes to the forefront. Pagans are no different than anyone else. Debating beliefs doesn’t pay the rent, it doesn’t put food on the tables for the family, it doesn’t pay the bills – well, unless you’re getting paid to be in such a debate…

          Now, all that I just wrote there….and about seven dollars (US) will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

          I agree – we need to get together for that interview for the podcast. The tough part is trying to mesh schedules when I’m in the last 1/3rd of my classes. Keeping the students on schedule is a major focus (particularly this semester).

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

            The issue of debating religion comes down to intent. If you’re debating to convince the other person you’re right and they’re wrong, you’re wasting your time. I like to debate religion in an attempt to learn more about what other people believe and do and in order to refine my own beliefs and practices. While I don’t like learning I’m wrong about something, better that than continuing with something that doesn’t work.

            I learned a lot in this debate with Morpheus Ravenna http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2012/12/sovereignty-before-the-gods.html . It was more of a discussion than a debate, but it started with her saying I was wrong. When I read through her points, I realized I hadn’t expressed myself very well, but I was also flat-out wrong about some things. It was a good experience.

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

      I think that’s the ideal Teo was trying to get to: “a bisexual Neo-Pagan polytheistic medievalist, who also attends steampunk & SF conventions, and nobody out here bats an eyelash.”

      We have to be “hard core” Pagans when we’re together, and at the same time be able to tailor our message to our audience when we’re talking with non-Pagans.

      • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com thalassa

        I don’t know about that–that “we can’t get there by melding into the mainstream”…I made my career in the military by being so damn good at my job until the fact that I was openly Pagan wasn’t even something to blink at, even when I worked with people that were openly Pagan and were given a hard time for various reasons connected to their emphasizing their otherness. And I don’t think that is just the military thing, because I’ve rarely been given a hard time over my religious beliefs (sure people have disagreed, but its been a mutually respectful dialogue), despite living and working in some very conservative environments.

        I don’t need to be other to be Pagan, I’m Pagan because of my beliefs, not because there is a bubble for people that share them. Sure, the bubble makes it easier to be Pagan, but its not a necessity. Certainly, the realm of Pagandom is great to have as a retreat (among other functions), but I don’t live there. I live outside with most everyone else, and its been my experience that people carrying their bubble with them tend to entrench the idea of otherness, and that otherness leads to misunderstanding, fear, and intolerance. Being seen as a person that happens to be Pagan has stood me very well in terms of fostering constructive religious discussions….as a result, though my personal blog covers quite a bit of Pagan topics and discussions and looks at secular topics from a Pagan POV, I have a pretty varied readership which includes a number of non-Pagans.

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

          I didn’t write that last comment very well. I’ve edited it to (hopefully) make it a little clearer. What I wanted to say was that while being productive members of the mainstream society is a good and necessary thing, when it comes to religious matters, we need to focus on being the best, deepest Pagans we can be.

          • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com thalassa

            Gotcha! Thank you for clearing that up…and I agree. I also agree with your idea that the bubble should be permeable, and I would add (although this could be implied by the bubble metaphor) transparent (as much as possible, and excluding the nature and content of oath bound material) and accessible. I think often, as a community, we unintentionally fail at those last two.

            I think Teo hit on part of that–we do have a lot of jargon that goes along with Paganism, and jargon hinders both transparency and accessibility. Perhaps, we need consider that one of the things that makes us a better Pagan (and gives us a better bubble in the long run) is the ability to communicate our wider ideas and values as individuals and communities to the wider public. I blogged about the idea of how to develop a Pagan elevator speech a while–to lose the jargon, to frame the conversation positively and on the offensive (rather than defensively–HecateDemeter has some great posts about “framing” in this context), and what sort of “big tent” points that one could include, etc.

            But, the other thing that hampers transparency and accessibility is fear…when fear keeps us in the closet, we lose an example of a person that happens to be Pagan. In the long run, I think being seen as a person first, a person that happens to be Pagan, will serve us better than staying in our bubble being good Pagans. We need more visible examples of people that are Pagan actively engaging the the big wide world as people, rather than as Pagans. We need doctors and lawyers and teachers and soldiers and plumbers and secretaries and whatever, that are Pagan to be visible, just as much(if not more so) than we need Pagan authors or speakers.

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

            Nice continuation of the discussion on your blog – thanks!

  • Markus Skogsberg

    John: Yes, compared with the US Sweden certainly is very secular. Very few go to church, even among those who are members – at least among members of the old state church, which is by far the largest denomination.

    Heathenry/forn sed is the largest pagan path and the most public one. We’ve been fairly successful in getting air time and paper coverage, but people are often unaware of us even so. After initial surprise the most common reaction is a sort of friendly curiosity. There is some confusion, unfortunately, with the role playing world and we’re sometimes seen as “larping religion”. Fortunately though the racist fringe has largely collapsed and fewer and fewer connect us with them.

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

      Glad to hear the racist fringe has collapsed. We have some of that in our Paganism(s) here, but very little – at least in my experience.

  • Pingback: The Pagan Bubble Remix | musings of a kitchen witch

  • Hilary

    As a Jew who occastionally wanders into the Pagan channel – thanks for the compliment. I never thought about Judaism like that but you’re right. Libby Anne over in the atheist channel asked several of her Jewish readers to open up that bubble a little to let others look in, and so far it’s gone very well.

    Yes, there are times when you need the bubble, you need that one place where everybody knows the lingo, picks up the body language, and you see yourself mirrored around you instead of the dominant culture shown back in your face at every turn. But if nothing new is ever allowed to flow through, you can end up with fundamentalist orthodoxy – our black hat fundamentalist ultra-orthodox can be exibit A, check out Mea Sharim in Israel. With no boundaries, you loose all distinction and get lost in assimilation – the other extreme that Judaism has to avoid if not to disapear.

    This is very off topic, but as a follower of the Torah, albiet a very liberal feminist follower, I’d like to apologize for some of the stupid things Christians have done with the Old Testament. We can’t control what Christians do with that text, but it still bothers me when I see them use it for violence against other religions.

    For the record, I can quote the passage in the Talmud where the rabbis arguing about the spiritual value of Pagans come to the conclution that a Pagan who follows some basic ethical teachings of the Torah is considered as righteous as the High Priest of Israel, even if said Pagan doesn’t worship Adonai. This was written in pre-Islamic Babylon, so I’m not sure what type of Pagans they are talking about. The rabbis in the Talmud asked that the Pagan rules in the lands they lived in during exile aknowledge our God (and us) and not curse our God (or us), refrain from murder, theft, adultury/incest, animal cruelty, and set up an honest court of law. I know there is room to argue details over those points, but it’s still a better starting point to work out a working relationship then ‘turn or burn.’

    I’ve just wanted to say that to a Pagan audience for a while – there is a critical passage in the Talmud that states that a Pagan who studies ethical laws, keeps them, and doesn’t curse us, we consider to be as righteous as a High Priest of the Temple. This is the basis of “The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.”

    Anyway, have a good night.

    Hilary

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

      Hilary, thanks for bringing a Jewish perspective to the “bubble” question.

      You have no need to apologize for fundamentalist Christians’ misuse of the Old Testament. Their inability (or unwillingness) to understand your book is their fault, not yours.

      There is a local rabbi (Reform) who occasionally speaks at my UU church. After hearing him a couple times, I learned to see Jews as Jews and not as proto-Christians. Modern Pagans and all-but-ultra-orthodox Jews have much in common. “The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” speaks strongly to my sense of universalism.

  • http://www.oldways.org Greybeard

    Perhaps there is something of a bubble, but its not an impermeable bubble. People go in and out all the time. There is now a pagan journal in scholarly philosophy and workshops on paganism in scholarly literature conventions. Some would opine that the world of high scholarship and journals is more isolated than pagan or other religions. Crossword puzzles have known clues and words that crossword aficionados all know but the rest of the world (except Google) does not.

    I have been writing and publishing pagan material and teaching workshops at pagan gatherings for 25 years, and I don’t know what you mean by “hard polytheism vs. soft polytheism.” Perhaps that is an even more limited term of art for certain on-line forums. Or maybe its a new buzzword for the “in” crowd. The “in” crowd always creates buzzwords to identify each other and separate themselves from the “out” crowd.

    I really don’t think we pagans are isolated or in a bubble. I see the Pagan version of Easter explained regularly on general discussion (non-pagan) web sites. If there was a bubble, the bubble has burst.
    Blessed Be
    Greybeard

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

      Hard polytheism is the idea that the gods and goddesses are distinct, individual beings. Soft polytheism is the idea that all gods and goddesses are aspects of one great God and Goddess or God/dess. As far as I know, the terms were created by reconstructionists to differentiate themselves from duotheistic Wiccans.

      • http://www.oldways.org Greybeard

        Thanks, John. I went and looked that up on Google and Wikipedia to find out if the Wiccans or the reconstructionists are the “hard god” folks. The Wiccan theology I learned back when I leaned it was what is now apparently called “hard” polytheism. More recently I have heard more than enough of that “all gods are aspects of one god” mush. To me that is a symptom of lack of clear thinking, and smacks of the “Jesus in a dress” kind of semi-paganism. My reading of Gerald Gardner would put him in the “hard” group, a Priest who chose a single God and Goddess, but who was clear that they were distinctly separate from the others. I get so tired of the mush that has become so common lately.


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