Interview with Drew Jacob

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After setting off the latest round of debates in the Pagan blogosphere, Drew Jacob kindly answered a few questions regarding his stance on the Pagan label and community:

What makes your practice different from modern Druid orgs and Celtic Reconstructionists?

That’s a fun question. A lot of people have looked at my post and said, “Well, you’re not Wiccan, but you’re still Pagan. You must be a Reconstructionist or something.” I’m not.

There are a lot of differences between the Old Belief that I practice and the way Celtic Reconstructionists practice. For one thing, we use aspects of traditional etiquette. You won’t find a CR article talking about bowing, but we bow toward the altar when we enter or leave the temple. You won’t find a CR group that uses a traditional apprenticeship system, but that is the backbone of what we do. Most Celtic Reconstructionists focus on understanding aspects of myth and ritual. That’s beautiful, but that’s only a tiny percent of what’s known about the ancient Celtic cultures. The social structures are just as important, and we found that they are an exceptional foundation for a modern community.

In the Old Belief reconstruction is a method, a process that is used to fill in gaps in what’s known. It’s something that people who enjoy research do, and it benefits the community. But it isn’t something we expect all our members to do. Most people come for the practices and ceremonies that have already been reconstructed by others.

In the end, we don’t really know what the Celts did, but we do know they were as syncretic as everyone else, so is setting yourself apart from other Celtic Pagans just trying to be different to stand out? Be a special snowflake?

It’s an effort to be as honest with the community as we can be. People can define Paganism however they want, but the fact is that when we call ourselves Pagan and focus on a Pagan-identified audience, we get a lot of disappointed guests. None of my students feel like they are part of the Pagan community, and most of our community members don’t, so why would we lie and say we’re part of it?

I let the community steer me on this one. A few years back I assembled a document that exhaustively described all the branches of Celtic religion from the Iron Age to today. I included everything, even Celtic Christianity and Romano-Celtic syncretism. I asked the students to discuss where in this document our tradition, the Old Belief, would fall. They came up with some really astute observations that helped us define ourselves. They told me we didn’t fit with the “Pagan” groups. So really, it was a matter of community consensus.

Isn’t this just semantics? Does the label really matter? Why not just be a team player?

I feel we’re being a great team player by wearing our own team’s jersey.

Do you feel you have inherently different values than the Pagan community? If so, in what way?

I do sometimes feel that way. Paganism is very much rooted in a modern worldview. That works great for understanding a modern movement like Wicca or OBOD. It doesn’t work well for understanding a different culture, especially an ancient one.

Whenever we look at anything that is “ancient Celtic,” we’re looking at it as outsiders. People often forget that. It takes a serious effort to try to get your head inside the culture. But it is possible, and it’s amazing how much your perspective changes when you learn a bit of the language, live some of the social customs, and really put effort into it.

I’ll give an example. I once shared a traditional Scottish prayer with a small class of mostly Pagans. The prayer refers to the sun as “a queenly maiden blooming.” One of the people present told me she didn’t think of the sun as female, she thought of it as male. Another person told me she didn’t like the prayer because the sun should be older, because older women are beautiful too.

Those are all valid perspectives, but both of them evaluated the Celtic lore in terms of how it matches the person’s existing modern worldview. I suggested the opposite: re-evaluate your worldview based on the Celtic one. It’s uncomfortable, but you learn more about yourself and the Celts if you try to see things their way. I suggested they both talk about the sun as if she’s a young woman for a few weeks and see if it brought any insights.

You say you found your temple began to thrive once it left the Pagan community. Are you certain that is what made the difference?

We continue to keep a close relationship with the Pagan community. We still attend the Twin Cities Pagan Pride every year, for example. So we can see side-by-side how much interest we get there versus how much interest we get at Irish Fair.

I can say for certain that we get more interest from non-Pagans than Pagans. None of my students are Pagan and at this point I’d say less than half of our Temple community considers themselves Pagan.

Do you think your community would be where it is today if it had remained involved in the Pagan community?

We have remained involved. We understand that we have some things in common with Pagans and we like to support our fellow polytheists. That won’t change anytime soon.

But I know that most of our growth has come from outside the Pagan community. If we had stayed within the Pagan community we would not have the accomplishments that we have today.

In your opinion, would identifying and interacting with the Pagan community do your temple harm today, in terms of cohesiveness, politics, drama, membership, harmony, engagement, etc?

Those are two different questions. If we identified as Pagan, it would be dishonest. It would misrepresent who we are and what we do. Pagans would come expecting us to be like ADF or a Celtic Reconstructionist group, and then they wouldn’t get what they expected. Anytime a group misrepresents itself it does harm.

But interacting with the Pagan community? I have absolutely no qualms about that. I love the Pagan community, and I delight in its events, its style, and the many friends I have there.

As far as cohesiveness and drama, that has never been a concern with our relationship with the Pagan community. Any well-run organization handles its politics internally. If a group is concerned that their membership will fall apart because they go to a Pagan event, they should really re-evaluate how they’re running their own organization. Don’t blame the Pagans!

Do you worry that your separation from the Pagan community cuts you off from Pagan support systems, such as legal aid?

Do Muslims worry that they won’t get legal aid from Pagan support systems? Most of our members don’t identify as Pagan, and our integrity has to come first. If our community needed legal aid we would turn to one of the organizations that other non-Pagans turn to, such as the ACLU.

I’m really glad that Pagans have legal defense funds to protect them. But keeping access to those resources is one of the worst reasons to say you’re a member of a religion.

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