September 14, 2012

Sacred Mushrooms

Posted in Greco-Roman Paganism, History, Nonfiction tagged , , , at 11:16 am by caelesti

Sacred Mushrooms: Secrets of Eleusis by Carl A. P. Ruck

Thesis that psychotropic mushrooms were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
There is a more in depth version by same author called Road to Eleusis but I thought I’d get the main gist of it by reading shorter version since it ties in with Mysteries of Demeter: Rebirth of the Pagan Way
I thought that while Ruck made some interesting points about the role of mushrooms in ancient religions, he went too far. He incorporated everything that remotely resembled a mushroom including crosses. It just became ridiculous. The fact that the publisher seems to be focused on drug-related books (as advertised in the back of the book) did not add to his credulity. Obviously he was more motivated by the promotion of psychedelic drugs than the search for the truth about the role in ancient mystery religions.

I think the use of mushrooms or other entheogens in Eleusis may have been possible, but I would rather see this explored by a less biased and more academic source.

Read 2009

Mysteries of Druidry

Posted in Druidry/Celtic Paganism, Mythology, Nonfiction, Religion tagged , , , , at 10:53 am by caelesti

Mysteries of Druidry by Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers has an original and insightful take on Druidry.
I’ve read a lot on Celtic religion- both ancient and modern and gotten rather jaded- it gets to be a lot of the same stuff. He does have a early chapter with introductory information, which makes it fairly beginner-friendly. His strength is the instructions for contemplative spiritual practices such as “peaceful abiding”
Overall the scholarship was quite good, and he included footnotes, though there were a few Victorian ideas like Lugh being a sun-god, and personal interpretations asserted as fact, like Maeve of Connacht being the same being as the Morrigan. I also disagreed with his opinion that one must have a college education to be a Druid, it’s rather elitist, and it is only one way to be educated.
This is a great resource for both beginners and more advanced practitioners and friendly to different traditions of Druidry.

Read Aug/Sept 2010

The Color of Water

Posted in Judaism, Memoir, Nonfiction, Racial/Ethnic Issues tagged , , , , , at 10:02 am by caelesti

Growing up, James McBride knew nothing of his mother’s past. His father was black & his mother was white, but she left her previous life behind her and refused to discuss it. Finally as an adult, he convince her (Ruth McBride) to tell her story, and share it in this memoir. She grew up the daughter of a Polish rabbi in Suffolk, Virginia, and fled to the North with her African-American lover. She married twice (both husbands died) and raised mostly by herself 12 children, defying the grim odds of poverty. I thought the Color of Water was quite well-written. The chapters alternate between James’ recollections of his childhood, and his mother’s narrative. She is (or was?) a strong, determined woman, and a stern but loving mother. I found it interesting, for one because in my generation, interracial relationships & families are seen as no big deal for the most part. But Ruth faced stares of puzzlement and hostility as she led around her children around New York City.

December 15, 2009

While Europe Slept

Posted in Europe, Nonfiction, Politics, Religion tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:20 am by caelesti

While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within by Bruce Bawer

While I’d heard news stories about cultural tensions with Muslims in Europe esp. France I did not realize the full extent of these problems.  Bawer details many outrageous human rights abuses especially of women, children, gay and Jewish people by Muslim immigrants.

He blames European countries’ policies of multiculturalism & cultural relativism for being so “tolerant” of Islam that they turn a blind eye towards extremism. He claims that any criticism of Islam is suppressed as being racist.

He points out that the U.S. is used to immigration and encourages new citizens to see themselves as Americans, and embrace common values of democracy and equality, but Europe was not prepared to integrate large numbers of immigrants from drastically different cultures, and native Europeans have a lack of confidence in their cultural values stemming from the World Wars and guilt over colonialism.

One big caveat I have with “While Europe Slept” is that Bawer does not cite his sources- no footnotes. It seems odd, especially when he mentions specific incidents and quotes. That said, it has sparked my interest to further research Islam in Europe. I think he raised some valid criticisms of European policies, though I do think he has a bias against the E.U. that didn’t seem especially relevant to this book. His dismissal of any real racism or discrimination towards African & Asian immigrants in Europe seems unfair and dishonest.

Read July 2009

March 9, 2009

Pagan Christianity

Posted in Christianity, History, Nonfiction, Religion at 2:27 pm by caelesti

Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna

Where do church traditions like preaching sermons, the practice of Communion or even having a church building and a paid minister come from?
If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of these things, read this book to find out! Most of these practices are of pagan origin, absorbed from the broader culture or added in intentionally to increase the status of the church. Viola believes these practices should be rejected not only because of the non-Christian origin, but also because they are harmful to building Christian communities. He supports his claims with Biblical citations.

Before you pick up “Pagan Christianity” there are some things to keep in mind- it is focused on Protestant traditions, and aimed at an evangelical Christian audience. Despite this, I think it would be of interest to anyone curious about where various aspects of institutional Christianity come from.
Frank Viola is a prominent organizer in the house church movement, and he is upfront about that. George Barna, founder of the Barna Group,

The book was quite well researched, with plenty of footnotes. It may not go into as much depth on each as an academic work would, but I think it’s great that the authors brought this information to a mass audience.

January 29, 2009

Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion, Unitarian Universalism at 10:10 pm by caelesti

Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age: Why I am a Unitarian Universalist by Jack Mendelsohn

There are some books I have a hard time reviewing, because they have so many ideas in them that no one thing sticks out, and I have trouble remembering what struck me, positively or negatively about the book- this is such a book.
Mendelsohn covers a lot- the history of Unitarians & Universalists, their relation to Christianity, the religious education of children, the nature and existence of God, ethics and social justice

His reactions to traditional Christian doctrine in his youth that he recounts was something I really identified with- I had many of the same responses- rejecting original sin, hell, needing someone to “die for our sins”. I questioned the Trinity, parts of the Bible and communion.

Despite the diversity of views in the UUA, I suspect some of his beliefs are pretty typical of many UUs: a belief in a very transcendent, Deist-like God, doubt about the afterlife, an emphasis on living a good life and use of reason in religion as with other areas of life. Reading about his theological views helped me clarify my own beliefs. I don’t really see the point of believing in such a distant God- if that was the only conclusion I could come to I would probably just be an agnostic or atheist. In the end of the book he discusses prayer- why bother praying to a “God” who is more like the force of gravity than a conscious being with willpower?
He gives examples of petitionary prayer that are rather absurd and extreme- but I don’t think asking the Divine for help in some way is necessarily like that

If that is the philosophy that makes sense and works best, more power to him. But I do think the UUs who essentially worship logic are missing out on something.

July 9, 2008

Religious Literacy

Posted in History, Nonfiction, Religion, Sociology tagged , , , , , , , , at 8:58 pm by caelesti

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know- and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero

Perhaps this book is preaching to the choir when I picked it up- I am pretty knowledgeable about various religions, though there’s always more I could learn. But I’m well aware that my knowledge and literacy is above average- I just didn’t realize how much! Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies realized the extent of this ignorance when he encountered college freshmen who didn’t know things he thought of as common knowledge, like the story of Noah & the ark, Moses, and the Sermon on the Mount, let alone basics of world religions like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. (This reminds me a bit of Prof. Alfred Kinsey who realized his students didn’t know very basic info about sex!)

It wasn’t always like this- Prothero details the United States’ robust history of religious learning, how the early schools were all sectarian. Even when public schools were started the textbooks were filled with Biblical references and theological lessons. Colleges and universities were founded primarily as places to educate future clergy, and all students were instructed in theology. But as the country become more religiously diverse, it became more difficult to have religious themed curricula. Since denominations couldn’t agree on theology, ethics was emphasized more, in fact religion was boiled down to just ethics. In higher education religion came into conflict with the growth of science, and it was seen as enemy to intellectual freedom and inquiry. Finally as more concern over church & state separation arose, religion was pushed even further out.

Prothero doesn’t want us to go back to the days of singing hymns in classrooms, or leading students in prayer. But by neglecting the teaching of such an integral part of American and global culture, language, music, history and politics we ill-prepare students to deal with the world as it really is. High school and college students should all take a course on world religions-Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism and another on Christianity and the Bible. He supports this with Supreme Court decisions that have determined that teaching about religion is constitutional- as opposed to making judgments about which religion is right (or if all of them are wrong) I definitely agree these things ought to be taught. He makes the point that giving all religions equal time as some liberals argue makes no sense, students need to know more about larger religions they’re more likely to run into, like Christianity.

I learned a lot from this book about the history of religious literacy and it made me realize how secular my upbringing was, despite being brought up going to church/Sunday school. Growing up I took it for granted that discussion of religion was taboo in school. But as a student at a Lutheran-affiliated college I was required to take classes in religion. No one told me what I had to believe, but I found it was a great opportunity to learn more.

To put on my Pagan hat, I realize that Prothero is talking about “world religions”- not New Religious Movements (NRMs) that Paganism would be classified under. But at the same time, I’m rather miffed that his Glossary of Religious Concepts all Americans Should Know included Scientology (a pyramid scheme that somehow managed to get status as a church) but not modern Paganism, which a lot more people follow, and gets more press.

March 17, 2008

Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Posted in Christianity, Feminism/Gender, Nonfiction, Religion tagged , , at 4:44 pm by caelesti

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: a Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

A traditional Southern Baptist wife and mother, Sue Monk Kidd had never really questioned her role as a woman in the church or society as a whole. Yet a series of incidents led her to realize all was not right, and that she needed to look for spirituality outside of mainstream religious institutions. Whereas before she was taught that authority was only in the Bible, she came to see her own experiences as valid- that she was her own authority. I found the book to be an inspiring source of ideas for developing one’s own personal spirituality- creating ritual, sacred spaces and concepts of Deity.

One thing I found refreshing about this book, is that Kidd does not bash men or blame them as a group for inequality. She acknowledges that both men and women are hurt by patriarchy- that men need the Divine Feminine as much as women do. Nor does she say mainstream Christianity is wrong per se, only that it has its limitations and needs to strive towards balance in matters of gender as well as between human beings and the natural world.

The main criticism I do have of Dance, is that I question the accuracy of some of the information on ancient religions and cultures she presents as facts. However this is a memoir, not a scholarly work so I’m going to cut the author some slack in that area.

February 26, 2008

Fragile Branches

Posted in Judaism, Nonfiction, Religion tagged , at 11:10 pm by caelesti

Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora by James R. Ross

Judaism and Jewish culture have been interests of mine for quite some time. This book was lent to me by a neighbor, and it reveals groups of people who identify as Jewish- regardless of how the rest of the global Jewish community might think, tucked away in seemingly unlikely places. Ross, a journalist travels everywhere from the South American Amazon to parts of Africa and India to find people practicing Judaism. In some cases, like the Ayabudaya tribe in Africa, a visionary leader led his people to emphasis the practices of the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Though they had converted to Christianity, they stripped away belief in Jesus, began observing the Sabbath and holidays and keeping kosher to a degree.

The Karaites in the southern state of Kerala, India, again converted to Christianity but turned to Jewish practice. Karaites are a sect of Judaism which accepts the Torah but not the Talmud- the later writings and commentaries of the rabbis as being authoritative. In South America we find people who believe they are descendents of marranos- Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but continued to secretly practice Judaism.

James Ross sensitively depicts the struggles of these often isolated minorities- the “fragile branches” of the title- who try sustain their faith often without many resources or contact with the outside Jewish world. Who is a Jew, and who determines Jewishness? Once this was a simple question, but as Jewish people have spread throughout the world, and non-Jews become intrigued by the religion, the question becomes more complex. Some of these far-flung diasporans have gone through official conversions with rabbis and have become accepted as Jews while others do not have access to rabbis, or the rabbis they can find refuse to convert them. The Marranos (they use the pejorative term with pride) may insist that they are already Jews, that they do not need conversion, while anthropologists are skeptical that the religion could have survived in secret.

All in all, Fragile Branches was a fascinating and eye-opening journey through the hidden and obscure corners of Jewry.