Tag Archives: A

A is for Appropriation

An ethical issue which keeps appearing in my work is about appropriation: the taking of an object, word, or practice by a cultural group who did not create it. There are many areas of life in which appropriation is possible – cultural appropriate, artistic appropriation, musical appropriation – but I am mainly concerned about religious appropriation. When I wrote about appropriation before, I was writing from my perspective as a member of the Neo-Pagan community; now I want to talk about some of the complex situations I have considered since.

There are some cases which, I think, are widely agreed to be appropriation among those who agree that it exists. (There are, of course, people who don’t think that it exists as a concept, or who insist on distinguishing between appropriation and misappropriation, not accepting that it is all morally problematic. I am not discussing these perspectives in this post because I think that the facts that a) ideas move between cultures and b) sometimes the use of one culture’s idea by another culture is harmful to the first culture have been demonstrated elsewhere, including by evidence which I provided/linked to in my previous post.) For example, the wearing of ‘Native American headdresses’, a very specific piece of ritual kit used by some, and only some, Native American groups, as fashion accessories, obviously degrades and damages Native American cultures, not least by lumping them all together and, frequently, treating them as historical rather than owned and practised by living people.

One of the aspects of that case is the power imbalance between the Native American groups involved and the white Americans who are wearing headdresses as a fashion. The specific history of relations between these two cultures in that place has irrevocably shaped any cultural interchange which happens now. In other cases, the use of cultural material by another group is accepted, even encouraged, by the people from whom it is taken, and this kind of sharing can be advantageous: although it could be interpreted in other ways, recent reports about the popularity of Korean cultural products, especially music and TV shows, in China could be read as this kind of story (especially if it is the case that Korea’s cultural popularity has been instrumental in producing a trade deal which is advantageous for Korea). The popularity of some American cultural products worldwide is clearly good for the USA; but MacDonald’s channels money in a way that the worldwide sale of dream catchers, an originally Ojibwe sacred item which has been taken up, made and sold by many other people, both Native and non-Native, American and non-American, as a ‘New Age’ fashion accessory.

In religious appropriation, then, what are we talking about? Sometimes it will be the same thing: objects, food, music. Sometimes images appear in inappropriate places: Buddha as a tattoo, Kali on a toilet seat. Sometimes it will be practices: yoga might be the classic example of this. Sometimes words, ideas, or stories move between cultures: terms like ‘karma’, originally part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, now circulate freely and detached from their context in Western discourse. The latter is especially a problem if, like me, you think that  the meaning of words is derived from their use in particular contexts. (A blog post later this year will deal with this idea in more detail.) A pattern I observe among Quakers is a push to use words which prove how inclusive we are. Using ‘Allah’, for example, in a list of names of God alongside Spirit, Light, Christ, and maybe some from other cultures (Inner Buddha Nature, Tao, and Krishna all appear in real examples) probably does not so much reflect the presence of Muslim-Quaker dual belongers in the community (although there are a few around) as it reflects a desire to demonstrate willingness to respect the religion of a group much denigrated in British mass media at present. The desire comes from a place of goodwill; but whether a Muslim, or even an Arabic-speaking Christian who might also use the word ‘Allah’, would really agree that it belonged in that list is another question.

Christians have some specific tangles around this issue. Setting aside the appropriation from other cultures, people seeking resources for a change to their tradition often go back and look for forgotten materials in their own history to appropriate for new purposes. This can be very effective – Christian feminist work on medieval women mystics might be an example – although there is still a moral dimension to ensuring that the past is represented as accurately as possible. However, because the Christian past includes material which is Jewish, there is also the complexity of interactions between the cultures. Christian persecution of Jews, Christian failures to recognise how Judaism has changed since the time of Jesus, and Christian cultural power in many of the places where Jews now live are all features of this landscape. For those working in Christian traditions and seeking to interpret the Bible now, the Jewish context of the documents is vitally important – but some apparently obvious ways to use this are problematic appropriations. For example, Christians holding Seders – read about this from a Jewish, interfaith family, Lutheran, or Anglican perspective.

What should we do about appropriation? I think we need to be aware of it, to name it and discuss it both within our religious communities and when relevant topics come up in the course of interfaith work. When considering whether to use material from another religion, whether it’s a single word or a book or a practice, we need to ask questions like: What do I stand to gain? What is my real motive – showing respect for the tradition, desire for the exotic, proving the superiority of my understanding? If I do this, what impression will I give to those who see and hear me? What hidden lesson might I be teaching alongside the message I intend to impart? What potential for damage to people and the relationships between people does this have?

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A is for Atheism

Let me start this post by saying that I’m not worried about atheism. I get asked about atheism, and its Quaker cousin non-theism, quite often, and the people who ask frequently think that I’ll have some very strong opinion on the matter. If they’re not Quakers, but they know that I am (or if they know that I’m Pagan, or both), they often assume that atheism is a threat to me. You believe in God, the argument goes, so people who don’t are a problem to you.

This is not actually the case. People who simply go around not believing in God aren’t a problem to me, or even to my belief in God/dess, at all. It often turns out that the god they don’t believe in – it’s a man sitting on a cloud, nine times out of ten – is a god I don’t believe in either. Anyway, some days I don’t believe in God. Not believing doesn’t stop me going to Meeting for Worship, and I can see why that might puzzle some people, but the general upshot is that I’m completely relaxed about the existence of atheists.

It gets more interesting once we start to look at how many different kinds of atheists there are. Obviously, one way to think about kinds of atheists is to think about the gods they don’t believe in – a lot of atheism that’s media-popular at the moment rejects a particular picture of a Christian or monotheistic God, for example, but doesn’t get round to rejecting the kind of Goddess-is-World deity which many Pagans talk about. Another way is to think about what atheists do believe in – to focus on science or humanism, for example. This can be misleading, though, because religious believers are also perfectly capable of thinking that humanity is good and science contains useful truth.

There’s a tendency in all these cases to over-emphasise the opposition between ‘atheists’ and ‘believers’. This leads to the creation of a category of ‘theists’ – very few people call themselves ‘theist’, rather than identifying as a member of a specific religion, unless under the influence of philosophy of religion or in reaction to atheism and non-theism. It also leads to a huge amount of confusion when the existence of non-believing religious practitioners is discovered.

Again, though, atheists who are also religious fall into several categories. Some are moral – where the traditional moral atheist leaves behind religious belief for moral reasons, saying, “Any all-powerful deity which exists is too evil to be worshipped”, some people who reject the deity for other reasons still see a need for religion to maintain morality. I think this is weakening as it becomes clearer that full moralities can be produced from humanistic reasoning, but it’s around in a few places.

Some are aesthetic or social practitioners. If you don’t believe intellectually, but you really like stained glass/flowing robes and swords/Evensong/intricate images of Krishna/etc., you might well keep participating. If you don’t believe intellectually, but you really like Seders with the family/Christmas carols/church weddings/the youth group/etc., you might well keep participating. Indeed, this latter category in particular contains a lot of people, and in some religious traditions has a long and noble history.

Some are non-realists or fictionalists. I’ve yet to settle on the best name for this group, but it includes Don Cupitt and many Quaker non-theists. For these people, ‘God’ doesn’t exist as an external reality, or as something ‘supernatural’ (whatever that means), but is a useful fiction, or a poetic image for something which is real but hard to describe. This group can be very keen to talk about God, and to try and dig down to find out what believers ‘really’ believe. In my experience it often turns out that believers believe in ‘something which is real but hard to describe’ and are happy to say that the language they use about God is poetic or metaphorical.

Listening carefully to another position often turns out to help clarify your own. People who identify as atheists, of all the kinds I have described above and more, can have useful things to say about religion. In the public sphere, though, I could wish for some more listening and less noise, on both sides, and for a much more careful examination of positions before anyone sorts people into opposing teams. There are many more useful and interesting ways to disagree about religion – and a lot else going on in Theology and Philosophy of Religion as disciplines – than a debate over ‘God’ ‘existing’.

A is for… Art

Yes, I know I did a Pagan art post last year. Yes, I know Quakers aren’t exactly known for their artwork. Nevertheless, there are Quaker artists, and I have three pieces of Quaker art to share with you today (with thanks to the people who put these images online). You may have seen them before, and they might not be representative; I picked them for my own idiosyncratic reasons.

The first is J. Doyle Penrose’s 1916 painting The Presence in the Midst, known to me as the Jesus ghost picture.

A classic Quaker Meeting for Worship is happening in a large room with white walls and big windows. In the foreground, women and childen sit in prayer; the men are on the other side of the room. On the right, the front of the room, some people of both genders sit on benches, while above them hovers the transparent but recogniseable form of Jesus.

The Presence in the Midst

I might have doubts about Jesus, and be glad that we dress differently and have mixed seating and cushions and no recorded ministers, but I still find that this picture captures something about what it is like to be in a gathered or covered Meeting for Worship (one which is going well and Doing Its Thing).
(Image from Arch Street Friends.)

My other two pieces of ‘art’ are actually more like architecture: I’ll illustrate them, but you’d have to visit to really get the idea.

The first is a Meeting House, Come-to-Good Meeting House in Cornwall. (The name is apparently a corruption of something in Cornish, but it has a certain ring to it.) It wasn’t, I think, thought of as very special at the time when it was built; it was just a normal building for that time and place. Now, like many other meeting houses in the country, it’s a historic building with all the charms and challenges which that involves.

a thatched building, with white walls and green shutters on the windows, sits in the sunshine

Come-to-Good Meeting House

We visited relatively often during my childhood, and I remember the excitement of climbing into the gallery, and the smell of thatch. Inside (there are a few good pictures in a Google image search), it looks not so dissimilar from the meeting house in Penrose’s painting.

(Image from Wikipedia.)

My final piece of Quaker art today is James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace, in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

A blue square of sky can be seen in the ceiling of a white room; a patch of sunlight falls on the wall.

Inside the Skyspace

The Skyspace is essentially a box – a square white room – with a hole in the top – a window in the very thin ceiling which creates the illusion of ‘sky’ as a picture, or directly in the top of the box. It’s both an exploration of the classic Quaker use of ‘Light’ as a metaphor, and a place which encourages connection to the Light.

(Image from Go Inside To Greet The Light, a Facebook page for the film made about the Skyspace.)

There’s a lot of other Quaker art, but hopefully this provides a taster.

A is for… Advices and Queries

Advices and Queries form the first part of Quaker Faith and Practice (which can be read in full at the link). It’s published online, as the first chapter of the big red book, as a small red booklet, and in Welsh (also as a small red booklet). It’s an appropriate place to start, as it’s probably the first Quaker text most people read.

(It wasn’t the first Quaker book I read, although I first read it a long time ago; that was probably Thy Friend, Obadiah.)

Advices and Queries consists of exactly that: the draft version of our current text (accepted by Britain Yearly Meeting in 1994) was called Questions and Counsel. There’s lots of good stuff in there, but you can read it for yourself and this is my blog, so I want to pick out some which are meaningful to me.

I struggle with a lot of it. I see a tendency in myself to become defensive in the face of the questions. “Are you open to the healing power of God’s love?” No, I’m not. Maybe if God got on with actually healing one of the things that hurts me, I might be more prepared to negotiate. I think this answer is only partially true, though; it comes from a place of suffering, and of feeling that my emotional responses to suffering are incorrect. (A is also for Anger, not a word Quakers like.) In the ways I act, I can sometimes spot my openness to God’s love as a healing force: bringing my suffering to Meeting, week in and week out; holding f/Friends in the Light as they struggle with all sorts of issues; and the patience and determination I use to stick with the processes of healing, be they spiritual, allopathic, or psychological.

To some other parts of the Advices and Queries, though, I can respond with a whole-hearted Yes. “Do you welcome the diversity of culture, language and expressions of faith in our yearly meeting…?” (I’m still working on my knowledge of the world community of Friends.) My favourite Advice is still that offered in relation to marriage, but applicable to so much more: “In times of difficulty remind yourself of the value of prayer, of perseverance and of a sense of humour.”

(In fact, I think that should be the motto for the Quaker Blog Project!)

All of it is much quoted, so I’m not going to be able to pick out a bit that you won’t have heard before. Instead, in closing, I’m going to pick out the bit I must like to follow, which is: “seek to know one another in the things which are eternal” (I’m not quite so keen on bearing the burden of each other’s failings, although I’m very glad that people put up with mine!). In blogging, I try to be truthful, though one cannot capture the whole truth in a post; I hope that it helps you to know me in those things which may, insert some philosophical qualifiers here, be eternal. I will be reading other blogs with interest in pursuit of the same goal.

A is for… Appropriation

Appropriation is looking at something from somewhere else, going, “ooh, shiny!”, and taking it to use yourself.

Appropriation happens all over the place – among musical styles, among art styles, between cultures and religions, from the past to the present.

Appropriation has ethical implications, especially when a more powerful group are taking things from a less powerful group.

Appropriation can deal with concrete things – artifacts, practices – but it also happens with words, styles, concepts, ideas, which are harder to identify.

Appropriation can hurt people: it can take away culture, make mock of religion, and support many forms of oppression.

Appropriation of the harmful kind is done by white Western Neo-Pagans like me, as the Lakota have made clear.

Appropriation is often done thoughtlessly, without realising the harm or the insult caused.

Appropriation is often defended as an expression of respect, or a form of learning from others, or just something that happens.

I don’t think it’s wrong to learn from others.
I don’t think it’s wrong to admire what is good and beautiful in other traditions.
I don’t think it’s always wrong to share what you have learned.

But it is wrong to pretend to be what you are not, or to know what you don’t,
and it is wrong to use other’s ideas without acknowledgement,
and it is wrong to perpetuate historical forms of oppression.

It is right to learn first, and with respect, and only what is freely taught.
It is right to be clear about your sources, and acknowledge them publicly.
It is right to continue to struggle with this issue.

A is for… Art

I’m not an artist. I write poetry and take photographs, but all music and most visual arts are beyond me. I’ve tried just enough, though, to appreciate something of the skill and effort which goes into producing such things, and in this blog post for Week 1 (rather late, I know!), I want to write some brief appreciations of pagan visual artists from around the Web. (Music will have to come later, there wasn’t room in this post!)

a pendant in a display box. the pendant shows a picture of the Goddess Brigid, with flame and distinctive cross, behind a crystal surface.

Bridget Crystal Art Pendant by Mickie Mueller

Mickie Mueller produces beautiful artwork of a range of Goddesses among other subjects – I also own one of her Rhiannon images – and you can find them all in her etsy store.

disks of antler, inscribed with runes, are scattered across a leather background

red deer stag antler rune set

Lupa works mainly with animal parts and spirits (which unfortunately means that the shipping laws will probably always prevent me from buying her work). I do always enjoy her artwork posts and photographs, though, and appreciate her writing and editing.

three images on a white background: a woman with long, blonde hair, with petals in it, labelled Blodeuwedd; a woman in a bright yellow dress holding a small bird between her cupped hands, labelled Rhiannon; and a woman with dark hair, wearing a red dress and coiled metal armbands leaning forward, her hands out of view, labelled Cerridwen

Welsh Goddess Trio

The artwork for Thalia Took’s Goddess Oracle Deck is stunning. Experience suggests that I wouldn’t actually use it as a deck, so I’m not upset that it hasn’t been published as such; the images are so rich and vibrant that they serve as meditation focuses alone. Look at this one of Gaia, for example.