Saturday, March 31, 2018

Friday, March 30, 2018

The God from the House of Bread: A Bridge Between Christianity and Paganism (Part 3)

The Wild Reed's 2018 Holy Week series continues with Part 3 of Druid author and speaker John Michael Greer's essay "The God from the House of Bread," originally published in the 2012 anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ.

For Part 1 of this series, click here).


The mythic narratives that surround Jesus have the greater richness one would expect from the classical Levant, where fertility deities who die and rise again had been a commonplace of Pagan religious thought for thousands of years before the rise of ancient Greece.

It's for this reason that Jesus is paired throughout his myth with his alter ego John the Baptist. The two mirror each other seasonally; Jesus is born at the winter solstice and dies in the spring, the harvest time in the eastern Mediterranean, suspended above the earth like the ripe grain on the stalk; John is born at the summer solstice and dies in the autumn, the planting time, beheaded in a prison beneath the earth, like the seed that goes to its burial behind the plowshare's iron blade. "He must increase," John says of Jesus, "while I must decrease."

Evidence for this interpretation of Christian myth is abundant in the Bible and other early Christian sources. Jesus's traditional birthplace is in Bethlehem, for example, a town whose name literally means "house of bread" in Hebrew, and the central act of traditional Christian ritual centers on eating the bread that is Jesus's body and drinking the wine that is his blood. (John has no similar ritual attributed to him, since one does not eat the seed corn or the rootstock of the grapevine.) "I have come that they might have life," Jesus says in the Bible, "and that they might have it more abundantly"; any other fertility deity could have said as much, and it's only the intellectual distance that separates us from the context of early Christianity that makes so many people nowadays think that the "life" Jesus spoke of is a spiritual abstraction.

Christianity, it must be remembered, had its birth in the bustling spiritual marketplace of the classical Mediterranean world, where religious metaphors of this sort were commonplaces of contemporary thought. The mystery religions, which offered salvation to those who sought union with a god or a goddess through rituals of initiation and communion, were among the most powerful religious forces of the time, and nearly all of them focused on exactly this kind of agricultural symbolism. Thus it's hardly a leap to suggest, as so many scholars of myth have, that the precise parallels between Christianity and the other mystery religions – and the rich agricultural symbolism of Christianity itself – show that the original Christian faith may well have been something not far from what Owen Morgan claimed it to be: a mystery cult venerating the life force in nature, expressed through a rich mythic symbolism that became associated through a complex historical process with the events of the life and death of an otherwise obscure Jewish religious reformer.

– John Michael Greer
From "The God from the House of Bread"
in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes
(edited by Rev. Mark Townsend)
p. 154-156

NEXT: Part 4

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The God from the House of Bread (Part 1)
The God from the House of Bread (Part 2)
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem
A Day to Celebrate the Survival of the Old Ways
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Beltane: Celebrating the Sheer Exuberance of May
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Prayer Tree

Opening image: Detail from Salvador Dalí's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Student-Activists of 2018 – Leading Us to the Future

Kids were sent from heaven inside
to lead you to the future
Wrap their eyes in blindfolds
and still they'll find their way
Blind their lives with pills and lies
and still they find their vision
And soon they'll leave you to your yesterday

This past Saturday, March 24, I joined with approximately 18,000 others in the "Minnesota March For Our Lives" in St. Paul.

Led by students and other young people, the event was one of hundreds of marches and rallies held in solidarity with the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC., which drew over 800,000 people to the streets of the capital and was organized by survivors of the February 14 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Five of these students – Jaclyn Corin, Alex Wind, Emma González, Cameron Kasky and David Hogg – feature on the cover of the latest issue of Time magazine, with writer Charlotte Alter's cover story entitled "The School Shooting Generation Has Had Enough."

Those who participated in Sunday's March for Our Lives events across the country are demanding that elected officials act to end gun violence in U.S. schools and communities.

One of the most incisive commentaries I've read on the current student-activist generation is the following by Michael Hussein Tallon.

Today has been a day of awakening for me, and I suppose it has been for many of my age-contemporaries, too. As a fifty-one year old man, I don’t cry much, but, wow, have I been a weepy mess all day today watching these magic kids. And that’s the term that keeps coming back to me: These kids are magic.

They somehow don’t seem real. They seem more like fully formed wizards who just popped into existence, as if the shooter who tore through their high school just showed up expecting sheep and found warrior-paladins instead.

But then it makes even less sense, because they aren’t just from Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. They are kids from everywhere. And they keep demanding that the media recognizes that they are from everywhere. These kids, these magic kids, keep saying to the interviewers, GO TALK TO THE OTHER KIDS. GO TALK TO THE BLACK KIDS. GO TALK TO THE POOR KIDS. GO TALK TO THE LATINO KIDS.

Then, as happened time and again today, when the cameras finally turn to the black kids and the Latino kids and the poor kids, THEY talk about other kids.

This isn’t a story about Parkland, Florida and a really smart AP class with great prospects. It’s about a full-on generation shift that caught me, and I’m guessing you, totally by surprise. These magic kids are from EVERYWHERE.

Which begs the question: If they came from everywhere, then how did they happen?

The NRA and their sad, angry ilk have a readymade explanation: They’re actors. They’re following a script. They’re shills of Big Peace. Whatever. All that is insane, of course, but you can almost understand the confusion. The kids just don’t seem normal. They aren’t what we understand children to be, which of course is to say, “They aren’t like us. They aren’t like we were when we were kids.”

And so we cast about for an easy answer.

But perhaps the answer isn’t easy at all. Perhaps the answer is through a mirror darkly.

Millennials (who, believe it or not, are now in their thirties) and these Gen-Z kids have been painted with the most unflattering colors by my Gen-Xers and the Baby Boomers before us. We’re the ones in positions of power in the world and what do we do? We call them all a bunch of crybabies. We give them endless grief for their constant insistence on things like “white privilege” and “non-binary sexuality.”

We mock them for their safe spaces and their sensitivity to being triggered by language. We tell them they need to toughen up. We tell them that the world is a harsh place, as if we know better than them that brutal truth.

I think the reason we are so surprised by these kids is that we’ve spent so many years telling ourselves that they were “snowflakes” who were going to get blown away by the real world, that we missed the coming storm.

God, were we wrong.

The truth is these kids didn’t spontaneously erupt from Florida a month ago. They have been deconstructing the bullshit of our generations for their entire lives, and now they’re ready.

Not for nothing, these are the kids that were born, literally, in the months after September 11, 2001. They came into a world at war. They grew up in the shadow of ever-threatening “Red Alert Levels” and endless “Active Shooter Drills” and the ubiquity of “Rekt” videos on 4Chan. They did not know one day of school before Columbine. They did not know one day of life without the threat of terrorism. They have not known one day of their nation in peace. Like it or not, they have lived every day of their lives, twenty-four-seven, on the battlefield.

We give them endless grief for playing video games. We tell them they should be outside, at school – but for so many of them, the schools and their streets are “soft targets.”

God, I’d stay in and play games where the bullets weren’t real, too.

These kids grew up with the native ability to parse the OBVIOUS racism of Trayvon Martin’s murder, of Tamir Rice murder, of Philando Castile’s murder, of African American teenagers in McKinney, Texas getting the shit kicked out of them by police for being in a “white” neighborhood for a pool party. Just two days ago, they watched Stephon Clark get put down by over-amped, trigger-happy police while he was in his grandmother’s backyard. They can see with their own two eyes that our society is grossly unjust – and so when the camera focuses on David Hogg, we shouldn’t be surprised that this smart-dressed white boy says, TALK TO THE CHILDREN OF COLOR, as he did just yesterday in an interview with Axios. We shouldn't be surprised when he says “Our parents don’t know how to use a fucking democracy, so we have to.”

They’ve seen how badly we’ve screwed up a free society for their entire lives and they are, in their own beautiful way, “calling bullshit.”

The kids didn’t magically arise in a fortnight; their whole lives have been calling bullshit.

They are digital natives with an ability to see the whole grand world. As such, they note that we’re the only economically advanced nation in the world where 30,000 people die from gun violence every year. They aren’t cloistered in their own communities playing kickball, so they know that those deaths are skewed all to hell in the obviously racist, classist ways that are evidenced in the above mentioned state-sponsored crimes of racial bias. They know that Trayvon, Tamir, Philando and all the others aren’t aberrations in the data set.

These kids might just be learning to shave, but Occam’s razor is intuitive. You need to train yourself into NOT believing obvious truths. Maybe Gen-Xers and Boomers have learned to bend themselves into a knot over that, but these kids? Not a chance. Of course they call bullshit on that.

When the “adult” generations sit on our hands and say we can’t just get rid of AR-15s because of the NRA and their power, of course they call bullshit on that.

When politicians who are blatantly sucking money from horrible people who manifestly make their world worse, of course they call bullshit on that.

We adults – and FINALLY with some level of self-consciousness in these matters, I’m speaking as a middle-aged, white, privileged, man – have been so busy lampooning their beliefs, that we missed the point where they just went ahead and actually included everyone into their generational tribe – regardless of their race, gender-identity, sexuality, religion, or class. We’re still arguing about gay wedding cakes and we’re still OBVIOUSLY treating kids of color worse than white kids. Of course they call bullshit on that.

What we missed, and why we’re so surprised that they have “magically” appeared, is that these kids threw our bullshit overboard years ago. They don’t need our rigidity. They don’t ever again need to hear someone say, “Hey, everyone is a little bit racist.” They have no time for our “God-hates-the-gays bigotry.” They have no place for our transphobia.

Grow up on a battlefield and you lose your illusions. They’re well over our befuddling myths of the way the world must be.

Moreover, they know they’ve got a fight ahead of them.

They are looking square into a future denuded of the possibilities we older folks took for granted. They can see, quite clearly, that like plagues of locust, our grown-up generations have stripped the nation’s resources, beshitted the global environment like we had a spare planet tucked in the garage under a tarp, presided over the destruction of our own middle class, and for a kicker, welcomed a parade of nationalist buffoons with fascist tendencies back into power.

These kids can see the tribalism and they know that soon they’ll be ascendant.

Their tribe is different than mine or yours. For now, they’re young, but for all the rest of their time on this planet, they will be multiracial, non-binary, non-dogmatic, digitally native, omnivorously curious, and significantly bigger than either the surviving Boomers or the aging Gen-Xers.

These kids didn’t spring suddenly from nowhere. They’ve been watching us and learning from our nearly countless, self-imposed mistakes. They’ve seen us run in pointless ruts, like cattle through an abattoir, and they’ve decided that’s not for them, and so they called bullshit.

They're calling bullshit and they're not making any safe space with their language for us if you consider this withering fusilade of truth from Mr. Hogg.

“It is truly saddening to see how many of you have lost faith in America because we certainly haven’t and we are never going to. You might as well stop now because we are going to outlive you.”

Yes, thank God, you will. But for as long as I can, I'll follow you into the future. I just hope I can keep up. I have so much to learn.


Related Off-site Links:
Students March to Demand Gun Control Reforms in Washington, D.C. and Across the Nation – Julia Conley (Common Dreams, March 24, 2018).
18,000 March in "Minnesota March For Our Lives" – William Bornhoft (Patch, March 24, 2018).
"They Are Lifting Us Up": How Parkland Students Are Using Their Moment to Help Minority Anti-Violence Groups – Melissa Chan (Time, March 24, 2018).
The Extraordinary Inclusiveness of the March for Our Lives – Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker, March 24, 2018).
What Happens When You Put Young People of Color at the Center of #NeverAgain – Lori Bezahler (The Nation, March 27, 2018).
March for Our Lives and Gay Activism: "They're Definitely Linked for Me," Says Emma González – Beth Greenfield (Yahoo! News, March 24, 2018).
Conservatives Can’t Stop Themselves from Bashing Parkland Students: But Why? – Amanda Marcotte (Salon, March 29, 2018).
After the "March for Our Lives," Student Activists Focus on Midterm Elections – Nicole Hong and Reid J. Epstein (The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2018).

UPDATE: Parkland Survivor Rips ‘Professional Liar’ Donald Trump Over NRA Speech – Lee Moran (The Huffington Post, May 5, 2018).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – February 17, 2018
In the Wake of Yet Another School Shooting, Sign of the Times
Quote of the Day – October 2, 2017
The War Racket

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The God from the House of Bread: A Bridge Between Christianity and Paganism (Part 2)

The Wild Reed's 2018 Holy Week series continues with Part 2 of Druid author and speaker John Michael Greer's essay "The God from the House of Bread," originally published in the 2012 anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ.

For Part 1 of this series, click here).


Very few of today's Pagans and even fewer contemporary Christians have ever heard of the redoubtable Welsh author and Druid Owen Morgan. In his day, though, Morgan – Archdruid Morien of Pontypridd, to use his religious title – was a prominent figure on the far end of British spirituality, with a substantial following in Britain and the United States. Those who like to imagine the Victorian era as a glacial landscape of conformity and sexual repression should stay far away from Morgan's writings, especially his 1887 textbook of Druid philosophy and theology, The Light of Britannia, which argued that Christianity was a Pagan fertility cult.

Morgan himself did not put the matter quite so baldly. He argued, rather that the core of all true religion was the worship of the life force; that the most prominent emblems of the life force – in the macrocosm, sun, and earth; in the microcosm, the male and female genitals; in both, the activities that give rise to new life – were the foundation of all religious symbolism, in Pagan as well as Christian traditions; and that Christianity was simply a reinstatement of the old Pagan gnosis of fertility and new life. He considered himself a good Christian as well as a Druid, and saw nothing inappropriate in attending church regularly; for him, after all, the church was a stone representation of the vagina of the earth goddess, its portal facing east to welcome the virile and penetrating rays of the rising sun: the Bride of Christ, in another symbolism, eagerly awaiting her heavenly bridegroom.

Ideas such as these were far from unique to Morgan, or for that matter to the Druidry of his time. Behind his book lay more than a century of pioneering explorations of the origins of human religion, and the rise of two major schools of thought – one arguing for an astrological and seasonal origin to religion and myth, the other tracing all religion and myth back to what was primly called "the worship of the generative powers" – that many alternative thinkers of his time were trying to reconcile. Some of these had already taken the final, daring step of including Christianity in their synthesis, though none ever quite managed to equal Morgan's flair or his genius for deadpan humor. Despite this, Morgan's own cultural impact has gone surprisingly unnoticed. You can read any number of histories of the rise of modern Neopaganism, for example, and never learn that The Light of Britannia was the first modern expression of a fertility religion that places a single god, a single goddess, and their sexual relationship at the center of its spiritual vision – a pattern that became popular after its publication, and eventually took definite form with Gerald Gardner's invention of Wicca.

The broader tradition of seasonal and sexual religious interpretation has had a little more visibility in recent times, not least because it helped shape important works of scholarship such as James Frazer's The Golden Bough and iconic cultural works such as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Still, such interpretations have been unfashionable in scholarly circles for some decades now. This is unfortunate, for however overblown some of the old analyses may have been – and Morgan's were among the most colorful, it must be admitted – they capture a crucial factor in ancient Pagan religions that is also amply present in the origins of Christianity.

The "strong brown god" in Eliot's "The Dry Savages," mentioned at the beginning of this essay [see Part 1], offers a useful starting place. To any Pagan in ancient times, Eliot's recognition was so obvious that it scarcely required mentioning. Of course rivers were deities – gods to the ancient Greeks, for example, and goddesses to the ancient Celts. Other natural phenomena were equally full of divinity. An ancient Greek who wanted to comment on wet weather would likely as not say "Zeus is raining."

Whatever else Zeus was in classical Greek religion, in other words – and Pagan gods and goddesses were richly complex beings, impossible to pin down with simple definitions – he was always, in part, the sky as a conscious and potent divine being. Poseidon was similarly the ocean, Demeter the fertile earth, Aphrodite sexuality in all its forms, Pan the raw unhuman presence of wilderness, and so on. Even through the elegant literary constructions of late classical myth, it's not difficult to see god and goddess as a distinct force of nature with its own power to shape the weaving of the fabric of human life.

The same principle applies in a different way to a class of beings the Greeks carefully distinguished from the gods – the heroes or demigods, who were born of loves between a god or goddess and a mortal. Each of these embodied one of the realms where the human and natural worlds fused into unity. The twelve labors of Heracles, for instance, echo precisely the seasonal movement of the sun through the signs of the zodiac as reflected in the agricultural cycle – compare Heracles's labors to the tasks of the Greek farmer as outlined, say, in Hesiod's Works and Days, and it's not too hard to make sense of the myth. Heracles, half god and half human, is the divine spirit of farming as what we would now call an ecosystem, half natural and half human, contending with its seasonal opponents, bringing treasures from the underworld, and then dying in the flames of the burning stubble to be reborn. The Greeks called Heracles "son of god" and "savior," and since their daily bread depended on him, this was entirely appropriate.

Another god whose cult thrived in the late classical world had the same titles, of course, and the parallels linking the myth of Jesus with the seasonal cycle of agriculture are at least as precise as those that can be traced in the myth of Heracles. Just as Heracles had his twelve labors, for instance, Jesus had his twelve disciples, whose connection with the signs of the zodiac has been a commonplace of Christian symbolism for many centuries.

– John Michael Greer
From "The God from the House of Bread"
in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes
(edited by Rev. Mark Townsend)
p. 154-156

NEXT: Part 3

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The God from the House of Bread (Part 1)
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem
A Day to Celebrate the Survival of the Old Ways
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Beltane: Celebrating the Sheer Exuberance of May
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Prayer Tree

Image 1: Detail from Salvador Dalí's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955).
Image 2: Owen Morgan. (Photographer unknown)
Image 3: Heracles fighting the Nemaean lion, one of his "twelve labors." (Artist unknown)

Monday, March 26, 2018


Right: Buffy with fellow Canadian singer-songwriters Grimes and Lights – March 25, 2018.

Reports Billboard'sTom Breihan:

Last night, the Juno Awards, Canada’s homegrown version of the Grammys, went down in Vancouver. Arcade Fire were the night’s big winners, but Grimes also took home a trophy. She won Video Of The Year for her Janelle Monaé collab “Venus Fly.” But she apparently didn’t stick around long enough to actually accept her award, later apologizing on Twitter. . . . But Grimes was at the show, and she did speak. This was significant, since Grimes hasn’t been making too many public appearances lately. She’s been working on a new album and making disparaging comments about her record label, and she hasn’t played a full live show since 2016. But last night, she and Canadian music legend Buffy Sainte-Marie [who won Best Indigenous Album for Medicine Songs] took to the Juno stage to speak about the importance of women getting chances in the music industry and to introduce a performance from the electro-pop musician Lights.

Congratulations, Buffy!

For The Wild Reed's special series of posts leading-up to the November 10, 2017 release of Medicine Songs, see:
For Acclaimed Songwriter, Activist and Humanitarian Buffy Sainte-Marie, the World is Always Ripening
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "I'm Creative Anywhere"
Buffy Sainte-Marie Headlines SummerStage Festival in NYC's Central Park
Buffy Sainte-Marie, "One of the Best Performers Out Touring Today"
The Music of Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Uprooting the Sources of Disenfranchisement"
Buffy Sainte-Marie: “Things Do Change and Things Do Get Better”
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Medicine Songs

For The Wild Reed's special series of posts leading-up to the May 12, 2015 release of Buffy's award-winning album, Power in the Blood, see:
Buffy Sainte-Marie and That "Human-Being Magic"
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Lesson from the Cutting Edge: "Go Where You Must to Grow"
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Sometimes You Have to Be Content to Plant Good Seeds and Be Patient"
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood

For more of Buffy Sainte-Marie at The Wild Reed, see:
Happy Birthday, Buffy!
A Music Legend Visits the North Country: Buffy Sainte-Marie in Minnesota and Wisconsin – August 2016
Two Exceptional Singers Take a Chance on the "Spirit of the Wind"
Photo of the Day – January 21, 2017
Buffy Sainte-Marie Wins 2015 Polaris Music Prize
Congratulations, Buffy
Happy Birthday, Buffy! (2016)
Actually, There's No Question About It
For Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Well-Deserved Honor
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Still Singing with Spirit, Joy, and Passion
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "The Big Ones Get Away"

Related Off-site Links:
Buffy Sainte-Marie, A Tribe Called Red, Alvvays, Ivan Decker, and More Win at Juno Gala Dinner and Awards – Leslie Ken Chu (Vancouver Weekly, March 25, 2018).
Grimes and Buffy Sainte-Marie Spoke on Women in Music at Last Night’s Juno Awards – Salvadore Maicki (The Fader, March 26, 2018).

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The God from the House of Bread: A Bridge Between Christianity and Paganism

This year for Holy Week I share an insightful essay entitled "The God from the House of Bread" by Druid author and speaker John Michael Greer. This essay is Greer's contribution to the 2012 anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ (edited by Reverend Mark Townsend).

The "House of Bread" refers to Bethlehem, traditionally understood as the birthplace of Jesus. It's cited as evidence that Jesus may well have been understood as a fertility deity, and the original Christian faith a mystery religion which venerated the ever-returning life force in nature. Greer contends that Christianity was "the most successful of the Pagan mystery religions" before it was "reinterpreted in blindly literal terms."

"The God from the House of Bread," which I'll share in four parts, reflects my growing interest in the ChristoPagan spiritual path (previously explored at The Wild Reed here and here).


"I do not know much about gods," wrote T. S. Eliot in his poem "The Dry Savages," "but I think that the river is a strong brown god." He was a devout Anglican, but Eliot lived at a time when classical education and a self-confidence long-since vanished from today's Christianity still gave Christian thinkers and creative minds room to allow Pagan religious metaphors free play in their work.

The same ease that allowed him and his Christian contemporaries to move at will between Pagan and Christian religious visions was just as common in the nascent Pagan scene of the time. Eliot's contemporary Dion Fortune, whose writings played a central role in the birth of modern Pagan spirituality, also wrote a work of Christian devotional literature – Mystical Meditations on the Collects – without seeing, or being accused of, the least inconsistency. To Fortune, and in a different sense to Eliot as well, Christianity and Paganism were simply different ways of talking about spiritual realities and relationships that could not be reduced to a single symbolic formula.

Those times are unhappily long past. During the second half of the twentieth century, most Christian denominations in the Western world responded to the reemergence of Pagan religion by reviving centuries-old stereotypes of devil worship or, at best, restricting their efforts at interreligious dialogue to a narrow circle of "world religions" hedged in by definitions that exclude today's reborn Pagan faiths. Today it's almost impossible to imagine an Anglican poet anywhere this side of heresy wielding Pagan religious metaphors with Eliot's aplomb. The same narrowing of options can be found on the other side of the newly raised barrier, for that matter. Pagan writers nowadays are far more likely to pen extended diatribes about the misbehavior of Christian churches in the past than to explore, as Dion Fortune did, the interpenetration of Pagan and Christian religious experience.

It's anyone's guess when or whether this sorry state of affairs will end. Still, there are exceptions to the generalizations just made. Some Christians have made serious efforts to grasp the nature of Pagan religious consciousness, just as some Pagans have tried to understand Christianity as a valid religious expression that doesn't happen to be theirs. There are also those who feel called to a faith that blends Pagan and Christian traditions, and despite hostility such ventures too often receive, their number is growing. From such initiatives, with luck and the blessings of the gods, a wider context of mutual tolerance and acceptance may someday arise.

My own background places me in a complex relationship to this hope. I am Pagan even in the strictest Christian sense of the word; that is, I have not been baptized, nor have I ever belonged to a Christian church of any kind. I grew up in a comfortably secular milieu in one of the least religious parts of the United States; among the families on the block where I lived for much of my childhood, for example, only one went to church on Sundays.

When Christianity finally came to my attention, it was by way of the strident evangelical revival that swept over America in the late 1970s, and that movement's passion for dwelling on assorted motes in other people's eyes and ignoring the beams of intolerance, hypocrisy, and political opportunism in its own did not exactly encourage me to take Christianity seriously as a spiritual option. Instead, like much of my generation, I explored other paths – atheism, Asian religions, a handful of the new religious movements – before finding my spiritual home; in my case this was at the far end of the religious spectrum, in the branch of the alternative spiritual scene that embraces the name and draws on the inspiration of the ancient Druids.

The modern Druid movement has a complex and quirky history of its own, reaching back to the eighteenth century, when it evolved out of a collision between liberal Anglicanism, nature worship, and fragments of Celtic tradition. It inherits from its origins a distrust of dogmatism that has made it a haven for eccentrics and a nightmare for would-be systematizers. Even so simple a question as the number of deities Druids worship – one, two, many, none – finds nearly as many answers as there are Druids. At the core of most visions of the contemporary Druid way, though, lies a sense that living nature is the least murky expression of the divine accessible to human beings. We may not agree about much else, but the shorthand creed drafted by one Druid tradition wins almost universal assent: "nature is good."

This apparent platitude has depths that may not appear to a casual glance. It's not a statement of fact, since nature routinely violates most conventional human ideas of goodness. Rather, it's the first postulate in a system of values. By taking living nature as our basic measure of the good, the qualities expressed by nature – wholeness, flow, spontaneity, elegance, and the like – become core values that can be expressed in the life of each Druid. Equally, the central role of nature in Druid thought makes symbols and imagery derived from nature equally central in contemporary Druid myth, ritual, and practice.

This may appear worlds apart from Christianity in its modern forms. In the hands of an almost forgotten tradition of nineteenth-century Pagan thought, however, it forms an unexpected bridge crossing the chasm that now separates the religious visions of Paganism and Christianity.

– John Michael Greer
From "The God from the House of Bread"
in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes
(edited by Rev. Mark Townsend)
p. 151-153

NEXT: Part 2

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem
A Day to Celebrate the Survival of the Old Ways
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Beltane: Celebrating the Sheer Exuberance of May
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Prayer Tree

For The Wild Reed's 2017 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from a 1999 interview with scholar and teacher Andrew Harvey, accompanied by images that depict Jesus as the embodiment of the Cosmic Christ), see:
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 1)
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 2)
Jesus Our Guide to Mystical Love (Part 3)

For The Wild Reed's 2016 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Richard Horsley's 1993 book Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, accompanied by images of Juan Pablo Di Pace as Jesus in the 2015 NBC mini-series A.D.: The Bible Continues), see:
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 1)
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 2)
Jesus and Social Revolution (Part 3)

For The Wild Reed's 2015 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Cletus Wessels' book Jesus in the New Universe Story), see:
The Two Entwined Events of the Easter Experience
Resurrection in an Emerging Universe
Resurrection: A New Depth of Consciousness

For The Wild Reed's 2014 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from John Neafsey's book A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience), see:
"To Die and So to Grow"
The Way of the Wounded Warrior
Suffering and Redemption
A God With Whom It is Possible to Connect
A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life

For The Wild Reed's 2013 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of Jesus that some might call "unconventional"), see:
Jesus: The Upside-down Messiah
Jesus: Mystic and Prophet
Jesus and the Art of Letting Go
Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension
Jesus: The Revelation of Oneness

For The Wild Reed's 2012 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Cynthia Bourgeault's book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), see:
The Passion: "A Sacred Path of Liberation"
Beyond Anger and Guilt
Judas and Peter
No Deeper Darkness
When Love Entered Hell
The Resurrected Jesus . . .

For The Wild Reed's 2011 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Albert Nolan’s book Jesus Before Christianity, accompanied by images of various cinematic depictions of Jesus), see:
"Who Is This Man?"
A Uniquely Liberated Man
An Expression of Human Solidarity
No Other Way
Two Betrayals
And What of Resurrection?
Jesus: The Breakthrough in the History of Humanity
To Believe in Jesus

For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide

For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

Opening image:
Detail from Salvador Dalí's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955).

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Thoughts on Queer Cinema

Is "queer cinema" more than those films
we generally think of as "gay"?

Okay, so here's an interesting question: Have you ever read a review of a film that made it sound way better than you thought it was?

I can give a resounding yes to this question in relation to Armond White's 2014 review of Terence Davies' 1992 film, The Long Day Closes.

At the time he wrote his review, White considered The Long Day Closes "the greatest gay film ever made." He offers some good reasons for this, none of which I find ultimately convincing.

White's contention, however, does raise some interesting and important questions for me: What is the greatest gay film ever made?

Can we speak of a single film in such a way?

What do we even mean when we refer to a film as "gay"?

Is it different from a "queer" film?

I have no clear cut answers to these questions, except perhaps the last two. For me, a "gay film" is a film that focuses on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex individuals, families and/or communities.

Some of my favorite films fit this description (4 Moons, God's Own Country, Wild Side, Undertow, and Hamam: The Turkish Bath), but many do not. And yet, though I wouldn't label these other movies I revere as "gay," I do consider them queer because of the themes, issues, and characters they explore and/or the sensibility they exhibit. (Offhand, I offer as examples, Picnic at Hanging Rock, A Passage to India, The Golden Compass, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, and any number of superhero films – from Superman to the X-Men.)

Questioning and subverting “regimes of the normal”

So, what exactly do I mean by making a distinction between gay and queer? Well, I'm come to understand that to be "queer" is to attempt to expand or go beyond (in thought, word or deed) the parameters of gender, race, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and other socially-constructed (or manipulated) concepts. Laurence Coleman, in discussing vocalist Dusty Springfield as a queer icon, says that embracing this understanding of queer “denotes a spectrum not only of identity and practice but also inquiry.” Accordingly, to be queer is to be a questioner and subverter of what Michael Warner has called “regimes of the normal.” And, as I've already noted, not just in matters to do with sexuality and sexual expression, but also in matters of gender, class, and race.

Now, don't get me wrong, my sexuality is a very important aspect of my life, but I'm more than my sexuality. To my mind, "gay" refers to sexuality, whereas "queer" encompasses sexuality and all the other aspects of one's life and experience, aspects that may well have been shaped in profound ways by one's sexuality. For example, my perspectives on religion, spirituality, politics, economics, and issues of racial and social justice have all been greatly influenced and shaped by my experiences as a gay man. For me, the term "queer" acknowledges this reality, this journey; one that has taken me beyond a solely sexuality-based (i.e., "gay") understanding of myself and my place in the world.

Also, my understanding of myself and my journey as a seeker and embodier of the Divine Presence is always evolving, which is another reason why I'm drawn to "queer." For as Annamarie Jagose suggests, “queer is always [a multi-faceted] identity under construction, a site of permanent becoming.”

Actor and singer Alan Cumming shares a similar view when, in a 2009 piece in Rolling Stone, he advocates replacing the word "gay" with "queer" when talking in broad terms about our evolving collective experience.

Cumming expresses concern that the creation of "gay culture," a culture based on identities defined solely by sex and sexuality, has "led gay people to self-ghettoize" and to lose the status quo-challenging creativity and individuality that were once associated with being "different."

"Queer isn't just about same-sex wedding tackle," Cumming writes. "Queer is about sensibility. You don't need to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. . . . I think if more people embraced their queerness, we'd all be the better for it."

"Queer Movie Night"

My interest in both film and the exploration of an expansive meaning of "queer" has led me to recently form with a group of friends a regular gathering that I'm calling "Queer Movie Night." We'll be getting together once or twice a month to watch a gay- and/or queer-themed movie and discuss it in relation to our experiences as individuals who, in numerous ways, don't fit into any number of "regimes of the normal." As we do so, we'll explore and perhaps expand our understanding of what makes a movie "queer."

Our first Queer Movie Night takes place this Sunday, when we'll be gathering to watch local filmmaker Eric Mueller's 1994 film, World and Time Enough. As the series progresses, different group members will choose a film to view and discuss. I'm thinking the series is going to be both fun and insightful.

Now, whether of not The Long Day Closes will be one of the film's we watch, I can't say. It's certainly not one I feel compelled to share, despite its merits which are well highlighted by Armond White in his review. Indeed, with the exception of his "best gay film ever" claim, White's review is a very eloquent and insightful one. So much so that I share it in its entirety below with added images and links. Enjoy!


The Long Day Closes Is the
Greatest Gay Film Ever Made

By Armond White
The Advocate
July 23, 2014

“Where’s our Bud?”

“At the movies, of course.”

If asked to name the greatest gay film ever made, I’d say, with no hesitation, The Long Day Closes (1992) written and directed by British auteur Terence Davies. It’s the first film explicitly featuring a gay child – and so it is about the innocent essence of all of us. It is also Davies’ self-portrait of his youth in 1950s Liverpool.

The candor and emotionalism of Davies’ recall makes the movie resonate the most poignant parts of everyone’s gradual growing-up process, but especially that aspect of sexual awareness that comes early in life – though it’s usually confessed only in horny hetero teen movies.

The young Davies character, who his mother and three older siblings call “Bud” (played by 16-year-old Leigh McCormick), is openly infatuated with the movies. (It’s part of that outreach toward show tunes, poetry, dance and fashion familiar to every youth seeking escape from an inverted reality.) Sounds from old films echo throughout The Long Day Closes as influences on Bud’s private emotional life (comedies like The Happiest Days of Your Life convey his hope; musicals like Love Me or Leave Me convey his desire; melodramas like Great Expectations and The Magnificent Ambersons express his tragic sense of doom).

But these resonances are also cultural premonitions – the sound clips, as up to date as the sampling in hip-hop records, express an adult knowing of the larger world. They predict Bud’s future and fit both Davies’ personal recall and the outsider status that classically defines gay identity.

Bud’s sense of difference is memorably conveyed in an early scene when he looks outside his bedroom window and sees a shirtless, dark-curly-haired bricklayer who returns his glance with an inviting wink. The flirtation is devastating. Bud’s shrinking reaction to it is a powerful illustration of that self-conscious moment when a gay person’s first rush of affection makes them realize their uniqueness. The crushing beauty of The Long Day Closes is that it confirms what feels unique is, in fact, universal.

In the years since the American release The Long Day Closes in 1993, no other movie dealing with gayness has come close to that moment of self-recognition. (Only André Téchiné’s 1995 Wild Reeds can match it.) Yet watching The Long Day Closes in this new millennium in Criterion’s new Blu-Ray DVD restoration does not throw one back to dark days of closeted self-loathing. The film is existentially liberating, rich with Davies’ emotional embrace of his family, community, and the experiences that comprise his growing up. The embrace is overwhelming precisely because it does not exclude sorrow, loneliness, homophobia, or racism but includes it all as a realization of an intelligent gay consciousness.

The Long Day Closes is a world away from the P.C. acceptance of troubled gay youth half way out the closet as flaunted in TV’s Glee series, and that gives the movie its special relevance. Davies’s tribute to pop culture and use of pop songs is hard won because it’s personal – the language of private feeling. His “Tammy” sequence, where Bud feels betrayed by his best friend then consoles himself by thinking of Debbie Reynolds’ 1958 Top Ten hit, uses the song as the soundtrack for a montage of his mundane rituals (school, church, the movies). It is one of the magnificent moments in all of cinema.

More than a pop song recital, the “Tammy” sequence portrays that special need and succor that lonely kids take from popular music. It is profoundly moving due to that extraordinary – gay – spiritual confession. Although it is also the farthest thing from camp insouciance, where pop pleasure is used to deny sincerity, it works without condemning the defensiveness of camp, that powerful transformation of the banal into the odd, weird, secret and subversive. Davies’s life story personalizes the deep love of pop culture as a life buoy that makes one laugh, cry and saves one’s life.

It is Bud’s wondering connection to the free, adult world that empowers the film’s childhood perspective. He appreciates his family for its sense of togetherness and sensitive acceptance of his individuality. The moments of Bud’s closeness to his mother, a loving widow with regrets (she sings “If I had my life to live over”), the sister for whom he buys “Evening in Paris” perfume and then sings a song (“A Couple of Swells”), and the brothers whose dating rituals he watches enviously or scrubs their muscular backs, take gay consciousness close to the edge of pathology yet dissolves all complication in unconditional love.

Seen today, The Long Day Closes is a paradigm of how gay artists and audiences can see and understand themselves – and of their connection to the larger world. It is an “art” film, meaning that Davies uses such storytelling conventions as slow-motion duration and an elliptical narrative structure that contradicts familiar, simplistic television and exploitation movies. Several times in the film Bud looks into the camera, connecting with a viewer’s remembered moments of oppression, shame and satisfaction. It is a serious viewing experience, but it is the best viewing experience of gay life. It is beautiful and profound enough to set a high-water level for subsequent films about gay life. All other gay movies can be judged by The Long Day Closes.

– Armond White
"The Long Day Closes Is The Greatest Gay Film Ever Made"
The Advocate
July 23, 2014

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Chris Mason Johnson's Test: A Film that "Illuminates Why Queer Cinema Still Matters"
John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday: "A Genuinely Radical Film"
Stephen A. Russell on Moonlight, "the Most Beautiful Gift to Cinema in Countless Years"
On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
Making the Connections
Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
A Lose/Lose Situation