Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.


Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at:

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

The Truthiness of Consciousness as the Sacred

Here Be Monsters


Seven or so minutes into David Robertson’s interview with Rice University’s Jeffrey Kripal, Kripal cuts to the heart of an issue that plagues contemporary religious studies scholars: Do we have the tools and will to seriously examine experiences of the fantastic in the present age?

In my response today, I hope to achieve two things. First, I want to discuss Kripal’s presentation of the field’s latent crisis of emic/etic perspective regarding religious experiences. His explorations of the fantastic should be exciting to many listeners. Go right ahead and take a look at Mutants and Mystics (2011) or Authors of the Impossible (2010). They are worth your time, and I believe it is possible that in the interview he undersold the significance of attempts toward understanding the resurgence of supernaturalism in our present era.

Second, I think it is necessary to challenge the way Kripal avoided the field’s problem with sui generis approaches to religious and paranormal experiences. Elevating consciousness as a replacement for older comparative, phenomenological categories such as the holy, sacred, or numinous does not escape the established critiques from folks like Russell McCutcheon or Tim Fitzgerald. It only defers judgment until some future moment when science can better explain consciousness or paranormal experiences in material ways. Or, worse still, it takes the gambit that scholars can never truly understand our world through observation. Many beginners in religious studies are advised to consider naturalism as the cornerstone of our field. If we supplant it by admitting that consciousness is sui generis and unknowable, as Kripal appears inclined to do, then are we not trying yet again to move religious studies out of the humanities or human sciences and back into the realm of theology? (Or simply rehashing the arguments over comparativism between Paden and Wiebe from the late 1990s?) Though our field may not fully embrace the scientific method as its methodology of choice, its premises of knowledge acquired through empirical observation and verification remain the philosophical bulwark for our work.

In sum, Kripal’s approach identifies new territory for scholarly exploration of paranormal experiences, but it also limits those explorations by failing to heed the lessons learned in previous expeditions. Ironically, the monsters were marked on the map; we should have believed the stories.

The Lasso of Truth

wonder woman with lasso

Supernatural. Paranormal. Fantastic. What are the boundaries for discussing these phenomenon? Do we take a skeptic’s approach and deconstruct an informant’s experience with the lenses of scientific reductionism? Shall we build a social world that frames phenomenal experiences to explain them away as historical products of pre-scientific thinking and superstition? Are we bound to believe the stories in full or analyze them as if they were so?

I see one version of our field’s history as haunted by these questions. It is a procession of ghosts fighting over the issue of the experience of the religious–the sacred legacy stretching from James and Durkheim through Otto to Eliade and J. Z. Smith. Modernity’s crisis of truth, the onset of relativism and deconstructionism, has meant that religious studies has been continually frustrated over the issue of authenticity in its sources and subjects. How can we know that ancient religious agents really believed the bear would lie down and offer itself to the hunters as a sacrifice (my favorite example from J. Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion)? Perhaps this is the thorn in our side from our Protestant legacy. We are left to forever doubt our own interpretative models and be stuck between the absolutism of the insider’s emotion and the skepticism of the outsider’s inability to be or think like the insider.

Kripal’s presentation of the key issue in the study of the fantastic goes like this: If something fantastic happened in the past, then we are better able to feel sympathy for that experience because it is historical. If we cast it aside or call it superstition, then we do so without harming a living informant. It is a difficult part of our work when we must listen to an informant tell an extraordinary tale and then reserve judgment on whether we think the story is true. It is not just that telling someone face-to-face that you do not believe their story is difficult. In practice, this breaks the boundaries for gathering observations. We can then be won or lost as listeners who also believe or understand. Historians are blessed with a distance that fosters objectivity rooted in naturalism and skepticism. Within the field, supernatural explanations do indeed seem to fall beyond the pale as truths. The “ontological shock” of the past is not accessible in the present.

When studying living agents, however, Kripal argues that our field has been largely “unwilling to take the fantastic seriously in the present.” This lack of seriousness can be a micro-aggression of disbelief or scoffing at an exaggerated tale. Or it can be the scientific dismissal of an experience by explanations rejected by the observer themselves. But it was real to me, they might say. Are we to reply “I do not believe you”? The question of the authenticity and reality of these experiences are the heart of the issue for those who experience the supernatural or paranormal. Thus, Kripal says he does not “understand how as scholars we can just bracket [the question of ontological truth]. I understand why we can’t answer that question, but I don’t agree that we should just push that question off to the side.”

Indeed, for most of the last century ethnography demanded that observers bracket their own worldviews. Were you pursuing your interpretations (the etic) or the interpretations of your subjects (the emic)? Even modern concessions to the role of observers in influencing the things they document, as in the work of Karen McCarthy Brown, do so in ways that highlight the distance between the ethnographer’s world and the world of her subjects.

Kripal says that to deal with the paranormal, observers cannot be phenomenologists secluded from the truth claims of their subjects. Truth–that of the informant and the observer–is collapsed into a shared faculty of experience called consciousness. “These most extreme and fantastic religious experiences,” he says, “might well be our best clues as to what the nature of consciousness really is, below or above our social egos and these sort of superficial forms of awareness that you or I are in at the moment.” Kripal need not believe the particular details of alien abduction or out-of-body teleportation because the mode of experiencing these events is real–it is our consciousness and that makes it “the ground of all religious experience.” It is “the new sacred.”

There are plenty of ways to discuss this remarkable exchange, but Kripal falls back on the narrative that led our field to criticize Eliade or Otto’s claims that the sacred was sui generis. Consciousness, he says, is sui generis.

Part of the effect of this radical move is that Kripal is binding his informants with, to borrow a popular culture reference, a lasso of truth. He compels them, wills them to be truthful because the ground of the experience cannot lie to them. After all, it was their experience. If I am following correctly, our informants merit our trust not on the details of their experience, but rather on the mode of experiencing. Those experiences then fall either on the side of the ego and the everyday or the side of the extraordinary where consciousness is universal, groundless or “empty.”

Shall we put aside the issue that we have not explained how to differentiate between types of experiences apart from the informant or the observer’s explanations? Or how groundless experiences in our consciousness are anything other than wordplay for the sacred? How have we improved our lot by this shift to the term consciousness? Have we not just substituted ego and emptiness for homo faber and homo religiosus?

Like Kripal, I think it is unlikely that most (or perhaps any) informants are describing an experience from our world when they narrate an alien abduction. So I fail to see how we can do significantly more than say they have told him a story they believe is true. As observers receiving such a story, I find it our duty to walk the line that holds us from letting the veracity of a claim dictate our field’s observational models or orientations. A single informant’s truth is anecdote, not evidence. Nor does a body of similar anecdotes become truth through the weight of repetition. If corroborating evidence fails to appear, it does not rob an anecdote of meaning or significance. For we do not set our business upon the truth-claim, but rather on the value of the story. Though Kripal acknowledges his informants’ desire to place ontologies at the center of their experiences, this should not compel us to then reassert the grounds of our field’s ontologies. Should we not feel uneasy when told that it is appropriate to do so? Have we really escaped the trouble of sui generis critiques by replacing the sacred with an something that Kripal says cannot be measured or known “in principle because it is not an object”? Though we need not be utter materialists or empiricists to do our work, are we not placing our interpretations at risk when we place them on immeasurable and unknowable foundations?





Fox Mulder and his iconic “I want to believe” poster from The X-Files

Let me try another tack to conclude my thoughts on the issue of truth and its relationship to scholarly discussions of the paranormal and supernatural. In the pilot episode of his television show The Colbert Report in 2005, Stephen Colbert introduced western audiences to truthiness. “We’re divided between those that think with their heads and those that know with their hearts,” Colbert said. “The truthiness is that anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” Truthiness is the simulacrum of the truth we wish existed “in our gut.” Or, as he said in an interview for The Onion, “Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”

So how should we then perceive experiences of the paranormal? Is it the truth of the sacred in the gut of religious studies? Or is it a semblance of truth that feels better than the materialistic, reductionist alternative? Are these our only options?

In Authors of the Impossible, Kripal attempted to show how both religious and scientific registers came to be seen as failing to explain paranormal experiences for a wide range of pseudo-religious personalities. For folks like Charles Fort, for instance, science had all the answers. Later, science became a target of great skepticism, a “trickster” that appeared to offer answers but could not actually explain much that mattered. In Kripal’s hands, this argument takes a new shape: if science cannot address consciousness and it is universal, then perhaps it is that substance or ground upon which the sacred can also be found. It seems to have a sense of truth to it. It feels like it could make the fantastic possible. But how are we to be sure?

Pivoting in the last few minutes, Kripal argues that the thing that we need to truly understand paranormal experiences is symbolic imagination. In our efforts to embrace difference and “demonize” sameness, we seem to have lost the ability to appreciate radical experiences. We are too interested in reducing the world to scientific claims and are insulated from the opportunities of experiences that break the mold. This is the mystical invitation–the root of much inspiration for authors of science fiction and comic books in Mutants and Mystics–that reveals the paradigm shift Kripal asks for: to have the field deal with the paranormal. Can we treat the fantastic seriously on these terms? Let us know how you feel in the comments.

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

“The Last Word…?” A Response to Bruce Lincoln’s interview on “The Critical Study of Religion”

First, let me say how pleased I am to be asked to respond to Professor Lincoln’s interview. Lincoln’s work was a tremendous inspiration for me as a beginning graduate student back in the 1990s, and it has provided a continuing source of provocation, reflection, and productive engagement for my own research over the last two decades.

There were several things that I appreciated about this interview. First, it was invaluable to hear some of the historical and biographical context for several of Lincoln’s seminal works, such as the story behind his “Theses on Method” and his reflections on Discourse and the Construction of Society (a book that I still use regularly in my own classes). Second, I very much appreciated his thoughts on pedagogy and the continuities between his approach to scholarship and his approach to the classroom. As a long-time teacher of religious studies at a large state university, I have always drawn inspiration from Lincoln’s serious, thoughtful, often argumentative, and yet always stimulating pedagogical style.

Finally, as with all of Lincoln’s writings and public talks, I very much admire the clarity and precision of his language.  Whether one agrees with him or not, Lincoln is an exceptionally clear, direct, and incisive speaker; there is never any excess verbiage or obfuscating jargon, simply a straightforward, articulate, and often passionate marshaling of evidence in service of well-reasoned argument.  I was particularly struck by the elegance of Lincoln’s concluding remarks on the critical study of religion. I think he is largely correct to say that the academic study of religion has long been characterized by an uncritical, feel-good sort of approach that has for the most part failed to ask more difficult, unsettling, and irreverent questions about religious claims: “Religion is a really powerful force in world history and a very complicated entity. I think it’s in need of serious critical study that isn’t eager to put the best face on the phenomenon, that doesn’t want to assert coherence and meaning and beauty and comfort but is prepared to see contradiction, ideology, self-interest, social and political forces of less than wholesome nature as at least part of the complex entity that is religion.” I could not agree more with this statement and very much hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up Lincoln’s challenge.

I do not have a great deal in the way of critical comments on Lincoln’s interview. Instead, I simply want to raise some provocative questions in the hope that these might inspire some discussion and debate among readers. In particular, I want to highlight one point of apparent tension – though a productive tension, I think – in Lincoln’s comments. This came up several times in the interview and particularly in the juxtaposition between Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship and his discussion of pedagogy. In the latter, Lincoln described his pedagogical style as one of conversation and argumentation rather than monologue, in which no one has the final answer on a given topic: “I like to argue with people. I don’t like monologues. I don’t like my own monologues. I don’t like other people’s monologues. I think they’re boring, and I think they’re evasive. I think challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place…The task is to say we’re colleagues and we have some issues we care about, and none of us have a final word on it.”

This approach to pedagogy appears to be in some tension with Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship in the interview. Here, again, he acknowledges the need for respectful conversation with religious practitioners: “I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is of a serious conversation.”  Yet he also makes a strong claim to have “the last word” in this conversation: “The first level” of critique, he suggests, “is who has the last word. As a scholar writing for scholars, I think scholars have the last word and that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. But I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another.” This sentiment is echoed, I think, in Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” particularly thesis number 13: “When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood…one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

I would like to raise two sets of critical questions here. First, can one really engage in a “serious conversation” in which one always has “the last word”? Or is that perhaps a “misrecognized monologue,” to use Lincoln’s terms? And what are the potential political implications of the assertion that scholars “have the last word”? As someone who has worked extensively on colonial India and on British and European Orientalist scholarship on Hinduism, I have to say that any claims to having the last word make me uncomfortable. After all, nineteenth century British Orientalists also claimed to have the “last word” on Indian religions, and that word typically went hand in hand with the project of imperialism. Challenges to Orientalist representations of India, in turn, came not only from later and more careful scholars, but also from religious practitioners, Hindu reformers, and others – and not only from elites such as Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi, but also from ordinary “subaltern” folk, peasants, tribals, etc. The result was a far more complex cross-cultural conversation that involved “scholars” and “believers” alike in messy and ambiguous ways.  I don’t think that acknowledging this fact means that we allow the religious believer to “have the last word” or to “define the terms in which they will be understood.” It simply means that we need to reflect critically on our own terms of understanding as well as those of religious practitioners (a point also made in the ninth of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method:” “Critical inquiry….ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other”).

This leads to my second question. Lincoln’s approach works well with cases that are long ago or far away, which is primarily the kind of material that he analyzes (with the exception of pieces such as his essay on the Lakota Sun Dance). But does it work as well with cases of living practitioners or ethnographic encounters, in which the scholar forms complex human relationships with religious adherents who may at times seriously disagree with the scholar’s “last word” or the academic terms in which they are understood? Moreover, does his approach allow enough space for the possibility that one’s own theoretical presuppositions may have to be rethought as a result of encounter with other religious lives?

To cite just one alternative example, a rather different sort of approach is suggested by Saba Mahmood in her work on the women’s piety movement in Egypt. The ethnographic approach that Mahmood proposes rests on a principle of “humility” and on “a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty can remain stable” (The Politics of Piety, p.199). Rather than imposing the theoretical apparatus of liberal feminism onto these Muslim women, Mahmood offers a model of reflexive conversation that allows her own academic assumptions to be challenged and rethought as a result of the exchange: “[I]t is through this process of dwelling in the modes of reasoning endemic to a tradition that I once judged abhorrent that I have been able to dislocate the certitude of my own projections and even begin to comprehend why Islamism …exerts such a force in people’s lives. This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making another lifeworlds extinct or provisional” (ibid).

Of course, one could legitimately argue that Mahmood also overcorrects a bit on this point: that is, she largely renders her informants immune from critique and downplays the asymmetries of power at work in the women’s piety movement itself. Nonetheless, she does offer an approach that does not necessarily claim to have the last word, but instead asks the scholar to subject her own theoretical assumptions to critical scrutiny, reflection, and possibility of change.

So I would like to end with a final question that might perhaps inspire some further discussion from readers. Does critical scholarship of the sort Lincoln proposes really demand that we insist on the “last word”? Or could it also proceed along the lines that Lincoln suggests in his pedagogy, as an ongoing, critical, and yet self-reflective conversation in which “none of us have a final word on it?”  Again, my questions here are not meant to be damning criticisms of Lincoln’s work or of his comments in the interview. Rather, they are merely intended to provoke some additional debate, in keeping with Lincoln’s observation that “challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place.”


Lincoln, Bruce. “Theses on Method.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225-27.

______. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
____. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. New York: Palgrave/ MacMillan, 2010.

The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement


Social scientists frequently employ contested categories or concepts (Beckford 2003, 13) in the description and analysis of ethnographic data. In other words, a conceptual gap often exists between emic self-description and etic secondary formulation. Informants don’t always acknowledge or accept scholarly terms and definitions. Using Gladys Ganiel’s recent and informative interview as a springboard which with to address her and sociologist Gerardo Marti’s book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), the following response considers such a conceptual gap by briefly exploring the politics of secondary appropriation, i.e., the implementing of first-order terms for second-order purposes. Before weighing the implications of informant resistance to secondary definitional work, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM) and its terminological correlates (e.g., emerging, emergence, or emergent) intend to describe.

According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in post-modern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). With the use of secondary terms such as emergence Christianity or even “the ECM” we witness emic rejection but subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. But Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading(s) in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is a helpful example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning, in a quasi-collaborative sense, through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is too simple a qualification. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

[An extended version of this post can be found at the author’s blog site.]

Works Referenced

 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see and for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.