Witch at Large: Ruminations from a Grey Perspective

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting - II

November 2014

San Diego, CA 

Day Two:  Saturday Morning

Saturday morning I passed on the “Plenary Panel: Release of PRRI/AAR National Survey on Religion, Values, and Climate Change,” because, although I’m interested to see how mainstream religions are now paying closer heed to our utter and complete interdependence upon other species, weather, and other planetary phenomena, and am encouraged, I decided to pass. 

Instead, I attended the Arts, Literature, and Religion Section on “Writers and Artists as Agents of Cultural Change  “What roles, if any, do writers and artists play in processes of cultural change, and what roles does religion play in an artist’s cultural agency?  Does individual interpretive and imaginative work influence culture or merely reflect it?”

As one of the panelists said at the outset of this series, “We rarely know what we’re doing until someone else tells us.”  That is one of the roles of artists and writers as interpreters of culture as well as in their roles as agents of change – to show and tell us what our behaviors seem to be indicting.

Discussions and analyses have traditionally taken place in pubs and coffee houses.  One panelist claimed that it is in these venues where ideas are transmitted, which may account, at least in part, for my affinities for metropolitan life.  It offers more access to other minds and other perspectives.  With the exception of Emily Dickinson, all the subjects treated were social creatures, very much engaged in the society around them.

According to the presider,  Shakespeare invented the idea of human personalities as agents for social and cultural change.

Each of four panelists spoke about an individual whose life works served these functions:  painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, poets Emily Dickinson and Allan Ginsburg, and musician and songwriter Bob Dylan.

First, and by far the most interesting to me, was Dürer, primarily because I knew so little about him.  One of the panelists remarked that she learned more about Dürer in this presentation than she’d ever known before.  I did, too.  In today’s digital world, few but art historians delve into the works of German Renaissance artists.


However, unlike today when most people (in this country, anyway) are literate, in Dürer’s time (1471-1528) literacy was uncommon.  Ideas, theories, and most significantly theology were communicated by way of imagery.  In this regard, Dürer became a transmitter of evolving early Reformation Christian theology.  For instance, he created several images of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that changed over time.  In some the subjects seemed innocently naked, in some they are shown touching, in one Adam’s arm embraces Eve’s waist. 


Among the other interesting characteristics of Dürer’s art is that he embraced the new technology of etching.  This presages new digital technologies in contemporary art.  He also inserted himself and his friends into his etchings.  Although this was not a fact mentioned by the presenter, I have since found that Dürer created many images of Pagan personages such as Nemesis, Apollo, Diana, and Orpheus, and allegorical figures such as Melancholia and Death, as well as the zodiac. 


Bob Dylan, who was Zen, Christian, and Jew, all advanced and exclusive of each other..  Is he “unknowable” religiously?  His evangelical turn/”conversion” occurred in the 1970s, during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the rise of the Moral Majority.  Dylan was introduced to the born-again creed of a charismatic sect called the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in 1979 when he became friends with Kenn Gullicksen, one of its founders.

My experience with Vineyard Christian Fellowship locally is minimal, except that I’ve noticed they keep a tight focus on their own version of Christianity and conversion, with little involvement in wider community issues.  Regardless of his enigmatic religio-spiritual identity, there is no doubt that Bob Dylan’s artistic output has influenced contemporary society.

Allen Ginsberg, such a mensch!  From his time at Columbia University in the late 1940s, through the publication of “Howl” in the ‘50s, and up until the time of his death in 1997, Ginsberg encouraged new literary and cultural, political, sexual, and religious expression.  A Jew by birth, Ginsberg was one of the founders of the Beat Generation in San Francisco in the ‘50s, traveled to India in 1962, where he studied yoga and meditation, and later embraced Buddhism.  He is tied to Eastern religions and the counter culture, and he lived where the culture around him enabled his ideas to be heard.

The respondent to these presentations asked two questions:  Is it the religion around or the cultural icon that predominates?  Is the artist a reflection or an agent of cultural change?  I would answer “both/and.” 


 More to come.

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries. www.machanightmare.com


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