There’s this guy named Teo Bishop who left Christianity to become a druid and he just reconverted to Christianity and apparently the sky fell and wait, I wasn’t paying attention, but who is Teo Bishop again? Are y’all as lost as I was hearing about this news?
Let’s back up. Once upon a time there was a fellow named Matt Morris who was a Mouseketeer from a good Christian family. When he got older, he wrote some songs that got recorded by big-name artists like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. But our mouse-eared little Matt was leading a bit of a double life–as Teo Bishop, owner of Bishop in the Grove, a website dedicated to spiritual wanderings and pagan leanings. BitG’s first post happened toward the end of 2010. Between then and now, he’s been featured on numerous pagan blogs and alternative-religion sites. Last year Matt Morris admitted that he was in fact Teo Bishop and began to integrate his two identities–which doesn’t appear to have been too traumatic for anybody.
Then, a week or two ago, he announced he was going back to his childhood religion, Christianity, and it looks like he caused a bit of a kerfluffle in the pagan community.
I admit, I’m way out of the loop with paganism; I used to be very involved in that community both online and IRL, but by 2010 I was settling into a chronic back condition* and not paying a lot of attention to stuff anymore. So it’s like Mr. Bishop sparked and flamed and burnt out before I even really knew he existed.
So what’s the fuss, really? As a blog commenter so astutely put it,
Mr. Bishop’s importance to and within the pagan community has been greatly over-played by both mainstream and pagan media sources. He had no organic standing of any depth in the community as a leader or elder of any sort. His entire career as a pagan spanned three or four years at most and was a fairly tentative exploration and discernment period. It was clear from his writings that he never really left Christianity.
Certainly I’ve never seen any books by the fellow, nor seen people quote him at length to support their positions, nor even seen a YouTube video of him or heard of a podcast by him. Silver RavenWolf he is not, nor Gerald Gardner, nor Drew Campbell, nor any of the other major figures in paganism. He’s an outlier at best, and that’s not an insult but a simple assessment. I’d never even heard of the guy before his reconversion. Maybe druids are a little more “up” on him, but when I check out their blogs, I see more confusion than anything else–“who is this guy, even?” and “why is his reconversion a big deal?” sort of comments and posts. It reminds me of that Patheos blogger who converted to Christianity from atheism last year (if you’re curious, R2D’s friend Dan Fincke, the Camel with Hammers, neatly dissected the reasons given for that conversion).
I’m seriously thinking that if Teo Bishop weren’t a pop-music songwriter, we’d never have heard of him on the scale we have here; he’d just be one more poorly-self-defined hipster dude trying on a new identity and starting a blog amid much pomp and energy before vanishing off the face of the earth. But because he’s written some songs people like, he’s like the new celebrity star of paganism. It’s baffling to me.
It’s hard not to think that a lot of the brouhaha is because of the direction of his reconversion. A lot of people are leaving Christianity–them’s just the facts. Many of them stay nominally Christian but reject church attendance and 99% of Christianity’s major teachings. Many become atheists. Some head into other religions like Buddhism and yes, paganism. In my direct experience, most of the pagans I’ve known have had backgrounds in Christianity and came from good Christian homes; a few folks came into it from having been raised as Nones or atheists; and a fewer number still were raised in it.
One of my earliest gaming buddies, Jesse, was one of those kids raised in what I realize now was either an extreme form of hippie-ness or else paganism (not that there isn’t a lot of overlap). Maybe I should have guessed from the art and symbols around their place, but you know how kids are, but remember, I was raised in a deeply Christian society and it wouldn’t have occurred to me. He’d host us sometimes at his family’s comfortable little forest cabin, where they lived like, I kid you not, hobbits in a homemade house with a goat out back and a vegetable garden and a huge spread of trees to wander around in. They never had chips or soda on hand, but his mom was really sweet and made sure we had healthy snacks to eat (which confused us very much; I don’t think I’d ever had “healthy snacks” before) as we gamed around their likely-handmade picnic table in their kitchen with its hanging herbs and braided onions and garlic strands on their walls. I’d never seen anything like their kitchen and I’m sure I was very distracted, which is probably why we’d often relocate to the backyard where the goat was paddocked and game around the table there, beside the family firepit.
Jesse was a handsome, sturdy, flame-haired boy with penetrating hazel eyes and a soft Southern accent, and though he started out gangly and awkward, he grew into his build very well as he moved into his teens and early adulthood. He became a full-bore druid very soon after I’d moved away, but stayed with the gaming group until he went rogue and converted to Christianity.
A long time ago I got curious about him and looked him up online and discovered a photo of him–older, but the hair was there, and the hazel eyes gazing back at me were those I’d loved dearly as a friend once, but long ago. But there was a strangeness about the look of him, a sort of vagueness, a sort of “I’m doing this and I’m not even sure why” feeling of discombobulation I got from the expression. Like a vague sense of unease that I can’t describe except to say “wishy-washy.” Sheepish, maybe? Knowing this is probably a huge mistake but not seeing any other way to go right then? It was like he was the boy from the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, ensorcelled and held in an icy castle by a possessive witch, and I suddenly wondered if I was the little girl who was supposed to journey there to rescue him.
I’d seen that same look on Big David’s face when he got back from The Farm, too, just this broken husk of a young man who’d suffered so much at the hands of “good Christians”–like he had no idea how to proceed now, like he didn’t know what to do with himself religion-wise. I don’t know how to define that look, but I know the feeling behind it, that haunting, ethereal, lost-child hungriness.
Whatever it is, I see the same exact look on Teo Bishop’s face in that NYT photo: that same uncertainty; that same lack of assurance; that same childishly hangdog knitted-brow look of vague confusion and need. Am I reading too much into one photo? Maybe, but there are others of Mr. Bishop, and they all seem to have the same lack of confidence in them that I saw in my old friends’ eyes those times. I’m not sure this young man has ever really had much of an idea of where he was going. As he himself wrote,
Truth be told, I feel compelled to use these words — God, Christ, Jesus — and I feel somehow as though my life is being and has always been drawn into close connection to the Beings which stand behind those words, but I don’t know what that means exactly or how to explain it.
In other words, don’t look for him to do a Mike Warnke-style tour anytime soon or start bombastically witnessing at people about how he was a Satanic Wiccan high priest organizing orgies and gang-rapes and dealing drugs, which is a relief really; to say it more plainly, this wobbly of a 180 is no more a “victory” for Christianity as it is a serious “loss” for paganism–neither of which, we should remember, it needs to be; it’s his life and his choice, and his decision to return to Christianity is no more compelling to anybody else than, say, a choice to start selling a multi-level marketing product like Amway. He doesn’t really have a reason to offer for his re-conversion beyond some intuitions–and again, he doesn’t really owe anybody any explanation, though with an navel-gazing narcissism that is already grating on me, he explains his vague ideas of maybe managing a type of “Christo-paganism” (to which I would reply that Christianity is already technically quite a bit pagan, as anybody who even knows the least bit of history would have been able to tell this guy) and makes a dramatic statement about maybe having to “make a choice” between the paganism he’s dabbled in these last few years and some form of formal Christianity–which makes me think that there may well be some dramatic post coming in his future in which he painstakingly walks us through this choice when–not if–he decides it simply must be made.
Basically, he was raised in Christianity. Christianity didn’t give him whatever it was he was seeking, so he went off to seek that thing somewhere else. He thought paganism would give him that thing. But it turned out not to be the right thing either. So now he’s gone back to Christianity.
And part of me wonders if he even knows what the hell it is he’s been looking for all his life that he thinks a religion can, will, or even should provide for him.
People sometimes just need directions. When I was deconverting, I openly wished for a guru at the top of some mountain that I could climb and suffer to reach, someone who could just look at me and tell me what I needed to do. I was positive if I could just find the right approach, the right teacher, ask the right questions, read the right book, practice the right religion, I’d finally find what it was that I needed. I had this vague, nameless, dreadful emptiness inside me that I couldn’t even identify, and I was positive that this emptiness was a spiritual hunger needed to be fed by something–I just needed to find out what. I flitted from religion to religion to religion to religion–even sat zazen for a bit (which was actually really good for me)–but never found what it was. I went from Catholic to evangelicalism and almost into a David Koresh-style cult of extremist fundamentalists with that Farm place thinking that Christianity was the answer, but it wasn’t–and the further into Christianity I went, the worse things seem to get and the hungrier I felt. I left Christianity entirely and thought surely I’d find my answers in some other religion, but no.
It was not until I realized that this hunger was not something that could be filled by anybody but myself that I finally began to recover from religion. I needed to learn that when I got that feeling like I just wanted to be held and told everything would be okay, that I needed to be the person to give me that, in fact I was really the only person who could, and that it didn’t mean nearly as much when someone else did it. It’s the difference between a kid hearing self-esteem mantras a million times from parents and teachers, and the same kid getting that unique thrill of accomplishment that comes of finishing a large and complicated project and doing it perfectly. You can get told stuff all you want, but it isn’t till you can tell yourself that and mean it, till you can say it and know it’s true and not just wishful thinking or sunshine up the butt, that it becomes meaningful. Religion is really good at telling people stuff, but I think in the end I knew that what I was being told wasn’t meaningful to me, so I kept searching and searching.
I concede that I could be very wrong, but it seems like that’s where Teo Bishop may be right now: flitting back and forth like a little lost child looking for its mother, trying to find that thing he’s sure is out there waiting for him to find it to complete and feed him at last.
And I don’t think that religion is going to give people like Teo, like me, like my dear gaming friend Jesse, what they need. Especially when you see someone flitting back and forth like that with religions, or relationships, or jobs, you may well be seeing someone who is looking for something external to feed a hunger that can only be fed internally–but they don’t know how, or have the skills necessary to feed their own hunger. Ever seen someone who can’t cook for love or money? They end up eating canned convenience “food products,” fast food, or going out three meals a day, and they still have this vague unease with the whole situation because they kind of know deep down that home cooking would taste better, cost way less, and be worlds healthier for their bodies. But they don’t know how to cook, so what options do they have? In the same way, someone who totally lacks real introspection skills may find him- or herself flitting from place to place looking for food. And that may well be filling for a while, but eventually, it’s going to be obvious that something is missing.
Maybe I’m seeing all this in this story because that flitting-in-hunger is exactly what happened to me.
What I had really been seeking all those years of religious entanglement was intimacy with my own self. I wanted what psychologists sometimes call authenticity–living true to myself, knowing my boundaries, understanding my convictions, having a code of morality that I’d arrived at not because someone’d told me to do it but because I’d considered the options and knew this was the best way for me to live, knowing where I wanted to go with my life and how I planned to get there, and understanding my strengths and weaknesses and working with them rather than against them. That’s not stuff anybody can give you. It’s not something a religion can feed you. It’s something you have to figure out for yourself. There aren’t any easy answers, though Christianity lies to people with its promises of easy answers and its black-and-white conceptualizations of relationships, societies, culture, and mores, and American society especially lies with its head-inflating, special-snowflake “self-esteem” bullpuckey that kids know means diddly-squat and its insistence on filling every waking moment (and quite a few that ought to be spent sleeping) with entertainment and explosions because dog forbid some precious angels have to come up with some way to fill the time without an electronic device somewhere nearby or have to endure five minutes of quiet time to just think without social networks clawing at their minds.
But who talks about stuff like authenticity? We’re not a culture much given to ideas like that. For all our over-disclosure, for all our narcissism, we’re no more capable of feeding ourselves than we were fifty years ago (or hundreds of years ago). We stuff “self-esteem” down children’s throats like that’s all it’ll take, but we don’t teach them how to suffer frustration or failure, nor how to accept and respect their weaknesses as well as their strengths, nor how to find in themselves what they need to entertain themselves, nor how to just breathe in and out and be part of the moments of their own lives.
No, we still think there’s something external out there, some magic artifact or spell, that if we just find it, everything will be great.
And I just don’t think that’s true.
So when Teo Bishop went into paganism, it seems clear that he felt drawn there for some reason. He thinks pagan gods drew him to themselves. That’s fine; it’s not like anyone could tell one way or the other. But whatever happened in the next few years, he didn’t find what he sought. Sometimes that happens. Most of the long-term pagans I’ve known would say that anybody going into paganism expecting a guru-on-the-mountain experience is probably going to be really disappointed; the gods of paganism tend to be way less hands-on than the Christian god, and though you run into “personal god(s)” types of pagans, most of them take pride in having a belief system that requires them to handle their lives themselves and find their own answers. That can be really scary for someone not used to a paradigm of self-sufficiency.
And without centuries of apologetics behind paganism to explain why those gods seem just as distant as the Christian god does and smooth over the ruffled edges where theology maybe doesn’t match up to reality, like Christianity has, it’s not hard to imagine that Mr. Bishop didn’t find his answers in paganism. As Dan Fincke wrote regarding Ms. Libresco,
But she sounds from that self-description like someone who was an emptier philosophical vessel to start with who then was exposed to robust Catholic tradition and philosophy and thin, blogworthy, atheistic philosophy and under those conditions she not-so-stunningly opted to believe the more rounded out philosophical option of the two.
This description seems like it works for Mr. Bishop as well with a few changes of religious terms; when a poorly-developed and fairly tentative infant spirituality collides against two thousand years of polished arguments in the head of someone who needs something that paganism doesn’t actually promise or provide, I don’t know why anybody would think anything different could happen than what did actually happen. (Not for nothing is it said that education is the bane of religion.) And, too, it was the religion of his childhood, and our nostalgia and rose-colored glasses are powerful forces indeed.
Seriously, was anybody shocked?
So no, Teo Bishop’s reconversion to his childhood religion doesn’t impact me at all. Doesn’t matter in the least, either. I truly hope that whatever it is he’s been seeking his whole life, that he finds it. Part of me hopes he drops off the blogosphere so he isn’t performing for the crowds, so he can find out what he needs and honor it. I don’t think he’s going to find it in Christianity any more than he found it the first time around in it, any more than he found it in paganism, but the nice thing about being an adult is that you get to make your own way and your own decisions** and it doesn’t ultimately matter what I think about his life because he’s the one stuck with it, not me.
I’d like to stress that it’s not a good idea to regard someone’s joining or leaving a religion as a defeat or victory for anybody. We all have our own baggage and ideas, and we come at spirituality from so many different places, with so many different needs and expectations and hopes, and we utilize spirituality in so many different ways in our lives. A conversion or deconversion means only as much as the reasons behind it. And especially when it comes to converting to religion, the conversion speaks to the convert’s own perceptions of need and hope. Really the best thing we can do is to love each other through our transitions.
In the same way, it doesn’t bother me when someone who claims to have been atheist converts to Christianity, obviously. It seems like most of the loudest Christians I run across tend to claim they were atheists. And it doesn’t really matter to me–you can see their confusion as they realize that I don’t really care what they were before converting; what matters is their reasoning for converting, and even that matters if and only if they want me to consider making the same choice they did. Otherwise, as long as the person’s happy and not doing anything to “pick my pocket nor break my leg,” as the saying goes, let that person go and be happy.
In the end, all we’ve got that we know for sure we’ve got is this one lifetime. All we can do is the best we can with what we know. I’d ten times rather someone do a little flitting in the search that will likely end at his very own doorstep than see him hunker down in something dissatisfying and force himself to carry along in it for years, wasting his precious lifetime on something he knows isn’t quite what he needs. In the end, I wish him well, truly I do, and hope that one day he does find what he seeks and needs.
* Early-onset arthritis, and yes, it sucks very much. If you’re under the age of 30 and you’re reading this, please get up and go do a cartwheel for me and think about how wonderful it is to be able to move like that even if you can’t do cartwheels very well, because if I ever try to do one again, it will cause a level of pain that normally one has to watch a Nicholas Sparks movie to provoke. If anybody looks at you funny, tell them you’re doing it for me. This is important, people.
** Particularly as touching the idea of pizza for breakfast.