Tag Archives: occult

Good Wrinkles

Since I was late getting my Banned Book in order this year, I went to something that I could read within a week. While my bus time is generally reserved for non-fiction reading, I had to pick something fairly easy so that I could get back to more serious stuff. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was published the year I was born, and I’d never read it. It has ended up on banned and challenged lists every decade since it was published, so I was prepared for some radical stuff. Instead what I found was a well-written book for young readers that quoted the Bible quite a bit and even had a worldview that was appropriate to the Gospel of John. When the Murry children try to name the forces that fight the encroaching darkness, the first name offered is Jesus. The differences between good and evil are the subject of discussion among the characters and it’s pretty clear there’s an obvious distinction. So why is it a challenged book?

Never underestimate the sententiousness of the self-righteous. Objections to a medium, and characters—perhaps best understood as guardian angels in the book itself—perceived as witches, have led to the now familiar accusations of the occult. Here is a book that quotes the Bible, upholds the distinction of good and evil, and encourages children to fight for the former rather than the latter. Yet it also teaches tolerance. Parents who want children to think that only those like them can possibly be righteous start to shudder a little at that. The only good heretic is a dead heretic.

When I saw just how benign A Winkle in Time was, I had to think back over my own Bible. In addition to stories of horrendous violence, explicit sex, and with even a “witch” or two, the Bible contains diverse views. Paul argued with Peter in public, after all. Madeleine L’Engle was concerned about the book burning tendencies of Nazis. We now seem to think that the place for illiteracy is in the White House and, more recently, Alabama. Reading the news convinces me more and more each day that a steady diet of banned books is just the catholicon our society needs. Different viewpoints, like the rays of the sun, will shrink the mildew that finds its ways into dark corners, rotting the very fabric of our universe. A Wrinkle in Time may not sway adults in the same way it has engaged the wonder of children for the past half-century, but it is a start in a battle against darkness that is never-ending. There’s always time to read a banned book.

Magic Tricks

Magia SexualisTo a scholar who has spent many years studying ancient religions, new religions hold a strange appeal.  After all, we are trained to look at obscure texts from forgotten cultures and to decipher the mute clues they have left behind.  New religions have the benefit of being (generally) documented in ways that ancient religions aren’t, and often exist in societies more literate than those of the remote past.  Finding out about them may be easier, but understanding them may be just as difficult.  In my research on magic, I was led to Hugh B. Urban’s Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism.  I’ve always found Urban’s work engaging, and since this book is one of the few academic studies to investigate magic seriously, I was eager to see what he had to say.  As usual, I wasn’t disappointed.
Sex magic is frequently at the heart of magical beliefs.  Urban shows that this has been the case from ancient times.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient Syrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Aramaean religions aren’t surprised by this.  Those cultures inhabited a world pummeled by magic, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sex might have had something to do with it.  The majority of Urban’s book, however, concerns figures starting in the nineteenth century who introduced new religious forms of sexual magic into the occult circles of their times.  Focusing on a specific practitioner in each chapter, he brings us up to the present with some familiar, or often less familiar, names.  Magic, by its very conception, is a religious idea.  Even if some of the more notorious modern magicians such as Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey took religion in a darker direction, it was still religion.  The founding of Wicca by Gerald Gardner naturally receives some attention.
As Urban notes from the beginning, sex magic is not a topic for titillation.  It involves some transgressive, but also original thought about something that is so basically human that we all know about it even if we won’t discuss it.  And the dark practitioners have seemingly exhausted the vaults of extremism regarding sexuality that even a straight-laced, nay even Presbyterian, culture may find itself with no further options.  Where does one go when the foulest of profanities has been executed?  Certainly not back to the beginning, for we’ve come too far for that.  The postmodern world deconstructs itself leaving us to wonder if there can be any magic left at all.  It is no wonder, I should venture, that Harry Potter was gathering steam even as Urban wrote his book.  Magic will, by its nature, always find a way.

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.


The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Washed Out or Burnt Over?

AwashInASeaOfFaithIs America a Christian nation? The answer to that question will no doubt raise ire in some part of the room. People, speaking mostly without data, will assert yes or no, generally based on opinion and sensibility. It is refreshing, then, to read what an historian uncovers by asking the right questions. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People is a book that asks the right questions. On the surface, yes, colonial America was settled by disgruntled Christians from various religious conflicts in Europe. Actions, however, are notoriously louder than words. Butler examines church attendance patterns and affiliations among these early (and later) settlers and finds that they weren’t nearly so Christian as one might think, listening to the rhetoric. Indeed, for people struggling to survive in a new land, religion might well have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. Throughout the book surprising changes of perspective appear. When clear thinking is railroaded by political agendas the issues often become clouded.

A good example of this is Butler’s exploration of the survival of magic and occult traditions. It is not unusual to hear, anecdotally, that the Enlightenment did away with superstitious thinking. In fact, the data point elsewhere. Not only did Americans bring magic and occult practices with them from overseas, they actually continued to develop them in the New World. At times these beliefs substituted for congregational religion. At others, they subsisted alongside it. There was a “sea of faith” here, but it wasn’t always very orthodox. It wasn’t until fairly late in the history of the country that church attendance could be considered the norm. At the same time, many read back into history that “we’ve always been like this.” Not so.

The “myth of the American Christian past” was born out of wishful, and one suspects, political thinking. The country’s founding by Deists led to a fear of Deism—a fairly new phenomenon that descended from that self-same Enlightenment. Still, America could give birth to Spiritualism and a host of new religions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the United States as fertile soil for religions rather than a Christian country. Certainly, by the numbers, Christians have been in the majority since statistics were kept, but, if the anachronism may be pardoned, the “nones” are not a new phenomenon. They were previously just those to be converted. Through much of history, we’ve been a people who didn’t think too much or too deeply about religion. Only when the issue really became politicized did the past become distorted. We have Dr. Butler to thank for providing a clear view into what history actually reveals.

Gods in Spandex

OurGodsWearSpandexOne thing leads to another. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics stirred an interest in comic books that I hadn’t felt since before my college days. Often excoriated as puerile, escapist doggerel for pre-pubescent boys, comics have grown to be respected members of adult society. I often wonder what the draw might be. Hollywood has certainly cashed in on it with any number of blockbuster flicks each year coming from the brains of the comic book writers and artists. So I picked up the quirky book by Christopher Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner entitled Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Reading it was kind of like looking in a mirror that has been buried in dust for a few decades. I hadn’t realized that my tastes in childhood comics was a reflection of a longing for the divine world with healthy doses of science fiction, and even H. P. Lovecraft, thrown in along the way. Knowles ties in a remarkable breadth of material to demonstrate that our superheroes are, in the final analysis, gods. That point may be taken in any number of ways.

The academic world suffers from a fear of respectability. That may seem a strange assertion, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life among academics and I know that many of them are insecure and tentative. Does all this reading, writing, and analysis ever get read by anybody? Does anybody take me seriously? Academics are haunted types. So when a subject as vulgar as comic books arises, scholars are reluctant to touch it. It might look like we actually enjoy reading the funnies. Still, popular culture has demonstrated an unexpected depth to much that we read in the strip world. As Knowles points out, a deep undercurrent of the occult and esotericism runs through many hero story lines. Several heroes began their lives as classical gods, only to assume the spandex and become incarnate humans with special powers we long to have ourselves. We would fly, if we were given the chance.

Our Gods Wear Spandex may never be viewed as an academic book by most. It has too much visual interest and not enough recondite footnotes. All the same, it is a profound look at what people really desire. We worship gods because of their special powers. If God were one of us with our humiliating weaknesses and limitations, would we ever worship him or her? Of course not. We only seek to appease those who are stronger than we are. Entire governments and ecclesiastical bodies are built on that very principle. Heroes are like us. Mortal, and yet, with something more. They die. But like the gods, they can come back. Reading Knowles it becomes clear just how much religious thought pulses through the veins of the comic book world. We may be grown up and sophisticated. We may have left behind childish things. But when our backs are to the wall, who doesn’t secretly wish they were Wonder Woman or Superman? And maybe that wish is a prayer.

Home Grown

In a seedier neighborhood of Midtown stands a five-story apartment building that would be easily overlooked on an ordinary day. Back in the late nineteenth century an investigator of the Lincoln assassination, and lawyer, by the name of Henry Steel Olcott began to meet in this apartment with a Russian mystic who came to be known as Madame Blavatsky. Their base of operations was call the Lamasery. The “religion” that resulted from their collaboration came to be known as Theosophy.

I remember distinctly when I first learned of Theosophy. I was attending an academic conference and as I passed along the bookstalls I noticed the Theosophical Society with their table of wares. A newly minted doctor of philosophy, a nagging worry sprung up in my head: was this a form of philosophical thinking that I should’ve learned about? Had I somehow forgotten lessons on Theosophy? Should I rush back to the library (this was before the Internet, let alone Wikipedia) and find out what Theosophy was? Well, I did make the effort and soon learned that it was considered an occult group and therefore I need not concern myself any more.

What I hadn’t fully realized is that although Theosophy did indeed integrate some elements of the Spiritualist movement, it was in many ways America’s introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism. America in the nineteenth century had some experience of Islam, but generally the only religions that were widely recognized were Christianity and Judaism. Anything else sounded occultish and vaguely heathen. Olcott and Blavatsky raised awareness that religions elsewhere in the world did not necessarily conform to American tastes. There was more to religious belief than met the eye.

Theosophy never made it big in the New World, but it continues to survive to this day. America has become the premier place for new religions to emerge. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a religion like Mormonism—a distinctly American belief system—gaining an infant foothold anywhere else in the world. Although largely identifying ourselves amorphously as “Christian,” Americans are great religious experimenters. And Theosophy was a faith that grew out of experimental ideas in New York City with tendrils stretching all the way to India and China. The movement even bestowed upon Gandhi his famous epithet of Mahatma. The words inscribed on his Serbian monument would serve us all well to memorize: “non-violence is the essence of all religions.”

Occluded Religion

In my youngest days the word “occult” conjured the most perilous kind of fear in my inexperienced, Christian heart. It sounded malevolent and sinister, suggesting Hell, Satan, and the coercion of the divine. Therefore it took considerable time to pump up the courage to read Occult America by Mitch Horowitz. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic—I learned in the course of my many years studying religion that “occult” is very difficult to tease out from “religion.” What I really feared is what others would think of me as I sat on the bus reading Occult America while heading to the Lincoln Tunnel. The word “occult” refers to the “hidden” or “secret” nature of certain religious practices. In ancient times it might refer to the Gnostics or Mandaeans, while in more recent days it might be used to describe Rosicrucians or Theosophists. Unconventional, yes. Evil, hardly.

Horowitz takes his readers through a whirlwind tour of some very colorful characters and, perhaps more importantly, shows just how deeply rooted occult practices are in the most Christian nation on earth. Few people realize just how influenced high office holders in this country have occasionally been by the occult. It seems a hard-and-fast rule that to be elected president you must be a professing Christian, strongly preferable if of the evangelical, Protestant flavor. Ronald Reagan made a great show of that while being personally convicted of the efficacy of astrology and some popular mediums. And Reagan has not been the only one. Still, politicians have to keep their more unconventional religious beliefs secret. The populace likes a straight shooter, devotionally speaking. The fact is that even what many people think of as regular Christianity has been seasoned somewhat with occult.

I can recommend this little book for getting a sense of just how deeply the occult has tunneled into the American psyche. The chapter on the ouija board took me straight back to a very straight-laced Grove City College, bastion of conservative evangelicalism. When I matriculated (which sounds vaguely occultish in its own right) the yearbook was called The Ouija. It was explained away as the combination of the French and German words for “yes,” but everyone knew, given what yearbooks are, that it had that spooky, occult vibe. By my senior year a more fluffy, evangelical-safe title of The Bridge replaced it. And many heaved a great sigh of relief. Christians thanked their lucky stars that they’d been delivered from the evils of the occult just as they were lining up to elect Ronald Reagan to a second term in office.