I have just done an initial read through of “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue” by Gus DiZerega and Philip Johnson. My reactions to the book are quite layered, and I thus feel it most appropriate to write more than one review of it, focusing on a different train of thought triggered by reading it.
When reading both the introduction and the section on the Culture Wars, I was reminded of a talk I saw by Slovak theorist Slovoj Zizek entitled “Maybe We Just Need Another Chicken.” The title refers to a tale Zizek often tells about a man who visits a mental hospital with the complaint that he sometimes thinks he is a chicken. This is not the first time he has been through treatment, and the staff remind him that he knows damn well he’s a man. “Yes, I know,” the man replies. “But I don’t think the chicken knows it yet.”
The point of the story is actually to highlight the elements of our feelings that must remain buried in order to maintain civility. Zizek goes on, in his usual ponderous way, to make the case that this tacit ignorance of certain factors is not really a bad thing, so long as it is acknowledged and recognized as an act, that the conversation isn’t fully authentic. On the other hand, there is much concerning the notion that we live in a “post-ideological” era, a point of view which both Zizek and I agree devalues the political nature of controversies such as those involved in the Culture War.
This “post-political” perspective was one of the first things which jumped out at me when reading the introduction. Oddly, the first place I noticed it was not in Philip Johnson, but in the introductory note by Don Frew:
Unlike relations between other faiths, the relationship between Paganism and Christianity has been mythologized into an epic struggle between good and evil, leading on both sides to a continuing demonization of the “other.”
What the statement that “both sides” of the Pagan/Christian divide have “demonized” each other does is ignore the power dynamic in mainstream society that favors Christian over Pagan. Frew’s constant use of the word “faith” highlights this subconscious dominance. “Faith” is appropriate to Christianity. It is simply a null category in a belief system favoring experience to intellectual comprehension.
To “demonize” someone, it seems to me, you have to have a lack of experience with that group. Unless an individual had been raised in total isolation from any of the influences of Western Culture, they’ve encountered Christians of many varieties. If they’ve ever “come out” in a predominantly Christian environment, their beliefs were probably met with derision or outright hostility. Young people who decide to study Paganism or other, more occult paths may have even had to deal with the “Deliverance Ministry” or heard of others who did. People lose their children, their homes, their jobs, even their lives because Christians have not only failed to accept them, but don’t even want to try.
Let me put it another way. Say there were a group of kids in a particular school that belonged to a certain club. Part of this club’s ethos was that they were better than everyone else, simply because they had joined up. Some members of the club took this to the extreme, and started using their putative superiority to actually beat up and harass anyone who hadn’t joined yet. The other members of the club said little, either because they were philosophically in sympathy, or they feared losing the privileges accorded to group members, or simply wanted to “keep the peace” within the club. Then, one day, the milder members decided to start reaching out to those out to those who wouldn’t join, not in any attempt to coerce them into joining, but because they saw that the animosity between “ins” and “outs” was having a negative effect on the school.
What would the “outs” think, what would they be forced to think in the interests of self preservation, when they saw the “good ins” coming? Anyone whose ever been robbed on the street can tell you this: you assume that anyone approaching you late at night wants to mug you. To do otherwise is to invite bodily injury, or an unpleasant and lonely death.
Have the “outs” in this story “demonized” the “ins” as a whole? No. They have a rational aversion to dealing with a member of a group which has persistently beaten them up. If the “good ins” turn around and claim that they are the victims of prejudice, the response would be something like “where were you when I was getting beaten?”
Pagans have not “demonized” Christians. We are the “other” in a predominantly Christian culture. (Even atheism is really an argument with Christian theism, not any other religion.) Christians have, however, as a general rule, demonized us. This is not some dim memory shaded with myth, like the Catacombs. This is a daily occurrence, where children are taken away and jobs lost right in front of us.
The tacit agreement to not talk about the power dynamic also shows itself in Lanie Peterson’s response a the end of the book. She asks why Gus DiZerega “raised the specter of Falwell and Robertson” at all in discussing the Culture Wars. The answer is simple: these are the representatives of Christianity that most non-Christians see. It is assumed, since atrocities such as Proposition 8 in California pass, that their perspective finds at least partial sympathy within the greater Christian community that votes. (If anyone tells you they voted for Prop 8 for non-religious reasons, they are kidding themselves. The question is so purely metaphysical that the only secular response would be to vote “no” simply because the issue is meaningless to anyone but a Christian.) If more moderate Christians don’t want people like Robertson speaking for them, then it is their responsibility to speak up, loudly and in force, against their ideas.
This is not to say that, on this one issue, I think the project of the book fails. Indeed, it’s a very informative read. But the omission of an acknowledgment of the political context does make it less satisfying than it could be. Now that I’ve gotten the “chicken” out of its coop, subsequent reviews will be less abrasive.