Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

This stale boredom: acedia in a time of lockdown

By Richard D.G. Irvine

The listlessness that comes from staring at the same set of walls, as the days seep into one another. Difficulty summoning any interest or energy to do anything – in fact, the sense that there’s very little point getting out of bed in the first place. Inertia. From a monastic perspective such struggles echo in history.

Back in April, Fr David Foster, a Benedictine monk I met years ago during my PhD fieldwork at Downside Abbey, and now teaching at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, described the sharp shifts in emotion as Italy struggled with the wave of COVID-19 infection. The sudden decision to close places of learning feeling almost like an unexpected holiday; excitement quickly engulfed by the fear and uncertainty about the situation, anxiety of risk from the infection and grief amidst the rising deathtoll. And then lockdown. “Now, inevitably, it has begun to shift to a kind of stale boredom. Cassian of course had just the word for it – acedia. Yesterday I just went to the end of the drive, simply to look outside and enjoy (really enjoy) the sight of the wisteria in the road. That is the real pity – to miss the spring colours and smells.”
His words capture the feeling of constraint even within the monastery grounds; while monks might be thought of as experts in self-isolation, life for Benedictines is not typically one of total confinement to the enclosure. Yet in recognising and naming the struggle – this “stale boredom” which so many of us have been confronted with – what was striking was the way in which he reached back into the history of the monastic experience. John Cassian, born around 360AD, compiled and digested the teachings of those ‘desert monks’ who had withdrawn from society to live lives of prayer on the Nile Delta. In his Institutes he describes the dejection and weariness that was a frequent foe of the monks, and was denoted by the Greek word ‘acedia’ – the word itself might be translated as ‘lack of care’, though the struggle itself is a complex state that’s hard to pin down. He also explains that some monks associated it with the ‘midday demon’ described in the psalms they chanted (Psalm 91(90)) refers to “the scourge that lays waste at noon”).

The despondency of midday, when time feels motionless and directionless, is most vividly described by the monk Evagrius Ponticus, a key influence on Cassian: “First it makes the sun appear to slow down or stop, so the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then it forces the monk to keep looking out the window and rush from his cell to observe the sun in order to see how much longer it is to the ninth hour, and to look about in every direction in case any of the brothers are there. Then it assails him with hatred of his place, his way of life and the work of his hands.” This description resonates with the sluggishness of time in lockdown, the frustration and torpor of days with no end in sight.

Though I am currently on lockdown myself in Scotland, I have been taking the opportunity to connect online and on the phone with my friends from Downside Abbey, a community of Catholic Benedictine monks in South West England. Since the suspension of public church services as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the community have massively expanded their social media outreach as an effort to build connections with those who can no longer physically visit the monastery. (I have written about this outreach here.) A key part of this has been an attempt to offer support and spiritual resources to people who find themselves in the unprecedented situation of lockdown. As one monk explained, the audience that they had in mind was precisely “people asking themselves, what on earth am I going to do? … there’s a very real danger with that sense of confinement and isolation”.

A healing service broadcast live from the monastery on youtube and Instagram focussed directly on the ‘inner wounds’ of those struggling in lockdown. “We pray for those suffering from despondency and a sense of aimlessness, constrained as they are sometimes in very tight conditions”, dejected by circumstances that “seem, as it were, to be indefinite as well as unlimited”. Here again we are in the presence of the ‘midday demon’: a crushing sense of the monotony of directionless time and unvarying space, making it hard to keep purpose and meaning in sight.

Downside Abbey 2019 by Oscar Mather, Lynch Architects

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Epidemiology and Religion: Aetiologies of Contagion

By Paul-François Tremlett

We are all becoming acquainted, at some level, with epidemiological theories of viral transmission, as we try to understand the gravity, and see a way out, of our current crisis. Perhaps uniquely in the humanities and social sciences, the field of religious studies has been working with these theories for some time. This is because religious beliefs have, at least since the 1990s, been represented repeatedly in epidemiological terms as viruses and contagions. Indeed, these metaphors for religious beliefs and their transmission have been constitutive of new atheist and evolutionary psychological theories of religion which owe much to the work of the anthropologist Dan Sperber. Sperber argued that

… individual brains are each inhabited by a large number of ideas that determine … behaviour … An idea, born in the brain of one individual, may have, in the brains of other individuals, descendants that resemble it. Ideas can be transmitted, and by being transmitted from one person to another, they may even propagate … Culture is made up, first and foremost, of such contagious ideas … To explain culture, then, is to explain why and how some ideas happen to be contagious. This calls for the development of a true epidemiology of representations (Sperber 1996: 1; italics in original).

Sperber’s controversial rendering of learning and transmission in terms of a disease model was taken up by Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett among others. They proposed that religious beliefs had special properties that made them cognitively attractive and ensured their continuing propagation in human populations, even in “modern” ecologies assumed to be hostile to religious transmission (Bering 2003; Boyer 2003; Dawkins 2007; Dennett 2006). But what are the effects of talking about religious beliefs in this way?

Forgive me if my answer to this question includes a detour to Manila (one must travel these days any way one can).

On the 14th March 1902, a ship from Hong Kong arrived in Manila and, despite observing quarantine restrictions, shortly after, cholera was discovered in Farola, a barrio near the mouth of the Pasig river. It was the beginning of a cholera epidemic that spread through Luzon and lasted until February 1904, claiming over 109,000 lives. The Filipino historian Reynaldo Ileto (1988) has focused on the entanglement of the medical campaign launched to arrest the spread of the cholera bacillus with the US military campaign simultaneously waged against Filipino nationalist forces. Many of the Filipinos fighting the Americans were participants in religio-nationalist movements. Their conceptions of health and freedom were as much the targets of the quarantine measures as the cholera itself. Medical knowledge and discourse de-legitimated local forms of knowledge and experience which were rendered as “backwardness”, “ignorance” and “superstition”, and indeed provided ideological cover for some of the larger claims of Empire. And, if the cholera epidemic provided cover for the American Empire in the early twentieth century Philippines, the ideological effects of anthropologists, new atheists and cognitive psychologists talking about religious beliefs using terms imported from medicine surely include disguise for an attempt to establish new protocols and procedures to determine who is and is not qualified to speak about religions – in short to advance, under cover of objective science, a particular constellation of power-knowledge.

It is important not to misunderstand the point I am trying to make. I am not a relativist arguing for the equal validity of different forms of knowledge and experience. Rather I am arguing for vigilance, for every claim to knowledge is a move in a war of position. And every move has consequences.

Bering, J. (2003), ‘Towards a Cognitive Theory of Existential Meaning’ in New Ideas in             Psychology, 21: 101-120.

Boyer, P. (2003), ‘Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-Products of Brain Function’ in Trends in Cognitive Science, 7 (3): 119-124.

Dawkins, R. (2007), The God Delusion, London: Black Swan.

Dennett, D. C. (2006), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, London: Penguin.

Ileto, R. C. (1988), ‘Cholera and the Origins of the American Sanitary Order in the Philippines’ in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, (ed), D. Arnold, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sperber, D. (1996), Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.

Death of a Founder: Louis Theroux and ‘America’s Most Hated Family’

Louis Theroux, the journalist and documentary filmmaker, has never shied away from controversial topics, communities, and individuals. His 2007 documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, which documented the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), served as an especially notable example. Following its success, Theroux recently returned to the WBC for a follow-up documentary, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, which aimed to give an insight to the current climate of the church, particularly following the recent death of its founder, Fred Phelps.

The WBC is commonly associated with the Phelps family, who are at the centre of the church’s practices, activities, and public engagement. While there are other members beyond the Phelps family, the WBC consists of fewer than 100 members, and largely stands apart from other forms of Baptist denominations. The Phelps and other WBC members have become known as a hate-group in public discourse, particularly due to their use of highly discriminatory language and actions directed towards groups including the LGBTQ+ community, Jews, Muslims, and the American military. The WBC have become renowned for their public protests, during which they hold inflammatory signs (including ‘GOD HATES FAGS’, ‘YOU’RE GOING TO HELL’, and ‘ABORTION IS BLOODY MURDER’), which have drawn significant attention from the media (ranging from news coverage to comedic parodies).

During his original documentary Theroux spent a significant amount of time meeting Fred Phelps and his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, and concentrated on the homophobic beliefs and actions of the WBC. For his return in Surviving America’s Most Hated Family, Theroux stated that “embarrassing secrets were said to be coming out” about the WBC, specifically concerning the issue of apostasy and the excommunication of Fred Phelps prior to his death.

These issues were the thrust of Theroux’s documentary. On the surface, very little has changed, as demonstrated by a WBC picketer’s “GOD STILL HATES FAGS” sign (“God hasn’t changed, and he’s not going to”, he explained). Religions, however, particularly New Religious Movements, are dynamic categories. They are in a constant state of change depending on its members, social environment, and practices. Theroux was successfully able to probe the issue of apostasy – three of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s children (two daughters and one son), have recently left the WBC, and have been subject to ‘shunning’ from their family and the church. Notably, Megan Phelps-Roper discussed how she decided to leave the church following conversations with outsiders on Twitter, and has since presented a TED talk on her experiences of the WBC and why she left.

Arguably the most interesting aspect of the documentary is the second “embarrassing secret”: the shunning of Fred Phelps. Before his death in 2014, it is alleged that Phelps approached the residents of the ‘Equality House’ (a house near the WBC painted in Pride colours as a form of protest), and told them that they were “good people.” Given Phelps’ reputation for highly homophobic sermons, such an action seems at odds to the discriminatory activities with which the WBC are typically associated. It is believed that, as a response, WBC members voted to excommunicate Phelps from the church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theroux was less successful in gaining substantial information on this issue. Beyond the accounts of Shirley Phelps-Roper’s apostate children, WBC members were not forthcoming with details, and mostly avoided his questioning on the topic.

Westboro Baptist Church 1955 [via Wikimedia commons]

The excommunication of a leader is highly significant, particularly one that directly informed the core beliefs and practices of their community.  Scholars of new religions have committed a significant amount of research on the notion of ‘charismatic leaders’, those who attract devotion and dedication from their followers (see Barker 1992). The death of a charismatic leader raises several possibilities for the future (and survival) of a movement. For the WBC, this issue has an even greater impact due to Phelps’ “loss of charisma” (Wessinger 2012). As Theroux correctly observed, any acknowledgement of his excommunication from the WBC would suggest a fallacy, or that Phelps had “fallen” by straying from the core message of the church.

The Weberian (1948) model of routinized charisma suggests that a movement succumbs to routine bureaucratic authority following the death of the charismatic leader. However, due to Phelps’ excommunication, it is currently unclear how his charismatic authority may or may not be preserved. His loss of charisma is already making its mark on how the WBC is organized – Theroux suggests that Shirley Phelps-Roper has been “sidelined” (having previously acted as the WBC’s chief spokesperson). Furthermore, whilst the Phelps family continue to be at the core of the WBC membership, there are a small number of new members joining the church, which seem likely to influence the future direction of the WBC.

As previously noted, the day-to-day activities of the WBC are largely unchanged, with its members continuing to pursue their controversial picketing. Yet the excommunication and death of Phelps is resulting in significant organizational changes ‘behind the scenes.’ Theroux’s latest documentary offers us a glimpse of this transition, but the full impact of the WBC’s rejection of Phelps remains to be seen.

 

References

Barker, E. (1992) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London, HMSO.

Weber, M. (1948b) ‘The Social Psychology of the World Religions’, in Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. W. (eds and trans), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, London, Routledge, pp. 267-301 (this edition 1991).

Wessinger, C. (2012) ‘Charismatic Leaders in New Religions’, in Hammer, O. & Rothstein, M. (eds), The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 80-96.

Why do we teach Religious Studies? Because Religion Matters.

The figure dominating this image, a highlight in the Kansas State Capital building, is that of John Brown (1800-1859). He was an infamous abolitionist who believed that armed conflict was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Here he holds a Bible in his left hand, and a Sharps rifle in his right; he is a Moses-like figure straddling a river of blood between the waring Union and Confederate armies.

I grew up in abolitionist-founded Lawrence, Kansas over a hundred years after these events, but John Brown remained a figure in the collective memory of local myth. Along with many of my peers, I cheerfully and enthusiastically joined in rounds of the lively folk song:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,
But his truth goes marching on.

One of the truths I learned growing up in a land of passionate and largely unchallenged belief was that religion has incredible power to motivate people. It brings out the best in people – and the worst. I learned that many people with passionate beliefs do not practice what they preach. However, others provided amazing inspirational examples of being willing to die for their moral principles.

But another thing I experienced was that the people around me often did not know much about what was going on around them, about their neighbours, or about the myths and history which continue to influence contemporary decisions. Because freedom of belief was a Constitutional Right, we did not often challenge others to explain their beliefs or behaviours.

And religion does matter – whether we are believers, atheists, or something in between, it is implicated in our societies if we like it or not. We need tools to understand the role it plays in creating political, social, economic and environmental problems. Religion also has the potential to inspire us to solve many of the global challenges we face today.

Today, Religious Studies offers us the interdisciplinary tools to understand and interact with those who may believe and practice things very different than ourselves. We use the tools of history and the humanities to better explore and understand ourselves and others. We also use the critical investigative tools of the social sciences to get an evidence base for what people are actually saying and doing, what these actions mean, and what might be the best ways to engage. In Religious Studies, we practice identifying the best available tools to address our questions in a disciplined, critical and evidenced based way.

To this end, my colleagues Hugh Beattie and Graham Harvey and I have designed a free FutureLearn course to highlight Why Religion Matters. This course is not a list of beliefs and practices of world religions to encourage greater tolerance. This course aims to give you the skills to critically engage with the world around you. It aims to encourage you not make assumptions, but to educate yourself to ask and engage actively with the meaning-making assumptions of both others – and yourself.

Hanging out with my former PhD supervisor, David Bebbington (photo J. Maiden)

Quadrilaterals in Waco: reflections on the ‘Evangelicals and the Bible’ symposium

By John Maiden

On 19-20 September I visited Baylor University in Waco, Texas, for a symposium on ‘Evangelicals and the Bible’ in history. The event was to honour the contribution of Professor David Bebbington to the historical study of evangelicalism following his “retirement” (inverted commas explained below). I studied my doctorate under Bebbington and his work has been an important influence on my research. He is particularly known for the ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’ of the four characteristics which have marked evangelicals: Biblicism (emphasis on the authority of Scripture); Crucicentricism (centrality of the atonement); Conversionism; and activism (e.g. in evangelism; on issues of social justice). The quadrilateral, as Bebbington explained, was never intended as a wider ‘definition’ of evangelicalism, and it first appeared in the context of a book specifically on British evangelicalism. However, it has since been taken up by various scholars of North American evangelicalism, and even global evangelicalism. The symposium consisted of three plenaries (including one from the Man himself), various panels, tributes and a Q and A. During the latter, it was announced that Bebbington is to be Director of a new initiative for scholars of global evangelicalism, which will involve an annual conference at Baylor – next year, on evangelicalism in Latin America.

George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco (photo: J. Maiden)

George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco (photo: J. Maiden)

Not surprisingly, one theme was the ‘state of the Quadrilateral’ itself. Brian Stanley’s excellent plenary on the applicability of the Quadrilateral to Global South evangelicalism in the twentieth century argued persuasively for its ongoing utility for researchers. In the discussion, though, I suggested that Pneumatism (which I define as emphasis on the Spirit’s post-conversion work and empowering presence, and the reality of a supernatural ‘alive world’) has been for many Global South evangelicals a ‘fifth mark’, as important as the other four. In my own paper on charismatic renewal and the Bible in Britain and New Zealand I argued also that pneumatism has commonly been a fifth important mark of post-1945 evangelical charismatics in the Global North. I suggested that pneumatism might be deployed flexibly as an alternative, additional fifth characteristic, one which is relevant not only to charismatics and Pentecostals, but also, for example, Holiness evangelicalism, and strains of more Reformed Calvinistic evangelicalism. But could the argument for a fifth characteristic be made even more widely? Is it applicable to early Evangelicalism? Bruce Hindmarsh’s recent work may indicate that certain ‘spirited’ aspects of eighteenth-century evangelicalism deserve greater emphasis.  That is, of course, a much bigger question!

Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, like so much of his work, continues to define the study of evangelicalism and the questions that people are asking about it.

The OU at 50: Religious Studies

By Gwilym Beckerlegge

I had just been appointed as a part-time OU tutor (now known as an Associate Lecturer) to teach a new module, ‘Man’s Religious Quest’. My first tutorial was about to take place in Bolton in February 1978. The night before, I received a phone call from one of the students I would meet on the following evening. He could not easily get to Bolton so would I pick him up as I would be driving through Wigan? We were consequently locked together in a shared car journey during which time he grilled me, not about the arcane mysteries of the study of religions, but about whether the new module had been placed on the right level, whether its assignments were appropriate to this level, substitution regulations, and about OU life and its demands in general. The problem was that he seemed to speak fluently in a language made up almost entirely of acronyms, which he assumed I, as an OU tutor, would understand. It got little better once in the presence of my new class, all of whom seemed to have strong views about the demands of the new module, backed up, I am sure, with persuasive comparisons with other modules they had taken to date, all unfamiliar territory to me at that time. Before long, they were thoroughly immersed in what they agreed was one of the most fascinating modules they had taken. Simultaneously, I and my family became immersed in the OU and fluent in ‘OU-speak’ as that first tutorial was succeeded by many more over the following sixteen years as I taught a succession of Religious Studies modules.

What I saw of our students over the sixteen years of being a tutor more than convinced me of the worth of the OU and the value of its social mission. Apart from meeting some amazing and gifted people, in addition to taking regular tutorials, the OU gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in commenting on students’ work, supporting students with disabilities (then done through one-to-one tutorials in the student’s home) and students taking modules in prison whom I also visited. I came to realize what the potential reach of the OU could offer my own subject, Religious Studies, one that has not always attracted the attention it deserves in the school curriculum, despite the best efforts of many gifted RE teachers. Consequently, I seized the opportunity to become a full-time, OU regional academic in 1993, which took me into a new role, working with the team of Arts tutors in the region where I lived. Many, together with some of my full-time regional colleagues, became the colleagues with whom I worked most closely and over the longest period of my career. By then, the OU had won the battle to establish itself as a university in the eyes of government, other academics, employers, and the wider public. So many students wanted to register for the Arts level 1 module in the early years of the OU that many ended up in a queue for the following year. I always retained a respect for the generation of academics who had built the OU when the outcome of this new venture, and thus the effect on their careers, was far less certain. In the same year I joined the OU, Religious Studies was granted departmental status within the OU Faculty of Arts.

When I began to apply to universities for admission, like many others in the 1960s whose families had no previous experience of higher education, I knew very little about university courses and what they would involve. I simply wanted to pursue my interest in the study of religion, just like any other Humanities subject. Not knowing at that time how else to pursue the academic study of religion, I embarked on an undergraduate Theology degree in 1968. Once into my first term – yes, that quickly – it began to dawn on me how large the mismatch was between the curriculum of my chosen degree and my emerging interests. Had I but known, the first autonomous department of Religious Studies in the UK (one unconnected to an overarching department or faculty of Theology) was established at the University of Lancaster in 1967. This department, under the leadership of Professor Ninian Smart, exercised a considerable influence on the growth of interest in the study of religions in the 1970s through its involvement in projects to strengthen RE in schools and a prestigious BBC TV series on different religious traditions. My degree in Theology did enable me to take options in the history of religions, including the Hindu tradition. It thus helped me to discover that I wanted to study Hindu movements in India from the nineteenth century to the present-day, and I moved to Lancaster to continue postgraduate study there. Strongly influenced by my experience at Lancaster, I wanted to play a part in promoting the study of religions of the kind associated with Religious Studies. My professional life at the OU has been closely intertwined with the fortunes of Religious Studies.

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An Economy of Gnosticism in Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California, is the only place in the world today that all four gnostic religions are active. I recently had the chance to do some fieldwork there. Contemporary gnostic religions have had little attention from scholars. By “gnostic religions”, I mean, quite simply, groups who describe themselves as both “gnostic” and a “religion”. I’m sure many scholars will disagree with both of these designations, but it’s a complicated question and so I’ll address this in a future post. For now, the four groups I am talking about are the Ecclesia Gnostica, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Gnostic Movement of Samael Aun Weor.

If I were a certain kind of scholar, I might speculate that there is so much gnosticism in LA because Hollywood is the symbolic centre of the archonic media matrix where the illusory world of the demiurge is created. More prosaically, LA has long been a centre for religious innovation due to being multicultural, liberal and relatively cheap. People were going West in search of new ways of life long before the Hippies emerged from Haight-Ashbury to catalyse the spiritual revolution of the New Age movement. Moreover, contemporary gnostics mix esoteric ideas with Christianity, and so appeal much more to American Baby Boomers than to their relatively secularised European counterparts.

For example, the Ecclesia Gnostica performs a Gnostic Mass weekly in the Besant Lodge of the Theosophical Society, a converted silent movie theatre underneath the Hollywood sign. If you didn’t look closely at the portraits of Theosophical founders on the wall, or recognise the Jungian additions to the liturgy, you might not realise this wasn’t a regular Anglican ceremony. Services have been performed weekly by Bishop Stephan Hoeller, now aged 87, since 1977. Hoeller’s gnosticism is a formalisation of the ideas of depth psychologist Carl Jung, a process of reuniting with the divine aspect of the self.

While they have some associated groups, the Ecclesia Gnostica is largely confined to Los Angeles. This isn’t the case with the other groups. The Apostolic Johannite Church, for example, have a number of branches around North America, though they are currently strongest in Canada. They also focus on a liturgical mixture of Christian and esoteric traditions, though here the focus is more on a Rosicrucian rather than Jungian tradition. Interestingly, their presence in LA is not as strong as in other major US cities, probably because the Ecclesia Gnostica has been so successful there. The Apostolic Johannites are keen to stress their appreciation for and connection with the Ecclesia Gnostica, but this is not reciprocated.

The high degree of competition in the gnostic marketplace also affects the Gnostic Movement, a loosely connected constellation of groups stemming from the teachings of Columbian teacher Samael Aun Weor in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although relatively recent in comparison, and originating in Spanish-speaking areas, the Aun Weor groups have been the most successful in spreading internationally, with small but constant presence in many European countries. Last year, I undertook their First Chamber (a series of 33 introductory lectures) with a group in Edinburgh, which also deserves its own post. But in LA, these groups cater in the main to a Hispanic clientele, which is a large proportion of the population of this bilingual city. In Europe, most Gnostic Movement groups present the material in a form more appealing to a New Age or individualised spirituality discourse, though there is always a clear Christian aspect, and indeed there are some groups which perform the Gnostic Mass and dress in vestments just like the Ecclesia Gnostica (notably the Igreja Gnostica do Brazil). So perhaps the adaptive framing of the Gnostic Movement is the reason it has spread in the Americas and Europe, unlike the other contemporary gnostic religions.

The fourth and final example is least likely to be accepted as a gnostic religion, by scholars and the other groups, in large part as a result of its infamous founder, Aleister Crowley. Yet the Ordo Templi Orientis, or rather its ecclesiastical wing, the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, has many features in common with them: performance of the Gnostic Mass, roots in late Victorian occultism and claims of apostolic succession – that is, a direct lineage of bishops back to St Peter. The Pasadena branch, the Star Sapphire Lodge, put on public performances of Crowley’s version of the Gnostic Mass weekly. Yet, as with the Gnostic Movement, the modern OTO is more concerned with legitimising themselves among competing Thelemic groups through connections to their founder, rather than apostolic succession, as with the Ecclesia Gnostics and the Apostolic Johannites. However, it is clear that their use of sexual magic is as much of a problem, however, and there is open hostility towards the OTO and the Gnostic Movement from the apostolic gnostic religions.

Los Angeles, then, is a microcosm of contemporary gnostic religion. More, it is a microcosm of the complex genealogy of the term gnosticism with its Christian and esoteric usages, the influence of Jung and other perennialist scholars, and its selective but enduring charm.

Disciplines and Dialogues: the present and future of Yoga Studies

By Theo Wildcroft

It’s a busy time for yoga scholars and writers at the moment. Next week sees the UK launch of independent scholar Matthew Remski’s new book: Practice and all is coming: abuse, cult dynamics, and healing in yoga and beyond, and last week saw the combination of two significant academic events: the SOAS Yoga Studies Week , and a two-day reading workshop for a future Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, co-sponsored by SOAS and the Open University.

Sadly, it was a busy working week for me, so I missed much of the Yoga Studies Week, but it kicked off strongly with the Open University’s own Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop (SOAS), giving a lecture on new and interesting trends in yoga research. Apparently, my own research was highlighted, so I’m even sadder to have missed it! Other lectures I’d liked to have seen included Finnian Gerety (Brown University, USA), talking about sound and silence in yoga and meditation, Andrea Jain (Indiana University, USA) talking about yoga and neoliberalism, and Gudrun Bühnemann (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), whose work on yoga-related visual media is always fascinating.

Yoga Studies is a small but growing field, and highly interdisciplinary in nature, including Sanskritists and other philologists, Indologists, health scientists and the full range of arts, humanities, and social sciences found at your average Religious Studies conference! This means that Yoga Studies events are intellectually stimulating, but also a rare chance to hang out with friends one doesn’t see very often. The workshop was entitled Disciplines and Dialogue: The Future of Yoga and  Meditation Studies. The aim of the Handbook’s editors, Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O-Brien-Kop again, was to take each draft chapter and discuss it in turn in live peer review. I haven’t worked on a proposed text like this before, and it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience. Each chapter had a reader, separate from any blind peer reviewer already assigned. The reader summarised the chapter so far, with suggestions and comments, the writer responded, and then the group as a whole discussed how the chapter might evolve, and how it might sit within the greater volume. As the workshop title suggested, it was also a chance to have wider discussions about the field and future possibilities.

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Fertility Cults and Material Religion podcast

Our own Marion Bowman took part in a podcast discussion with Professor Maureen Carroll, Jessica Hughes and Emma-Jayne Graham, “‘Mater Matuta and her ‘Sisters’: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion”. This was recorded during last week’s London event of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion at The Open University 

Rastafari in Motion | Jewish Rastas?

By Hilde Capparella, PhD student in Religious Studies

My doctoral research focuses on diasporic and transnational contexts of Rastafari. I am interested in de-essentialising Rastafari, and over the next year or so I will be conducting fieldwork in Rome and London with different Rasta communities and groups. I see my approach as one that focuses on religion in motion, and it is an approach I began to develop when I decided to investigate Rastafari in Israel for my Master’s Thesis. In March 2014, I conducted two weeks of fieldwork in Israel, where I was hosted by a Rastafari family living in Ashdod.

Upon my arrival, I was surprised to see that their house was completely covered with Rastafari symbols and colours (see picture below). My senses were also submerged in the sounds of Reggae and Dub music playing in the background 24 hours a day. It is important to note that Rastafarianism appeared in Israel through books, radio, and  television, promoting reggae music and culture. During my short stay, what amazed me was to hear how the Rastafari language (the Dread talk) was used and mixed with Hebrew in everyday life, creating a new form of language.

Through my fieldwork, the main question I wanted to answer was why they embraced Rastafari so passionately. Despite identifying as Jews, they felt Rastafari to be more flexible than Judaism. In addition, because Rastafari relies on the Levitical code of conduct, for them it is easier to embrace Rastafari practices and symbolism, as it is already, in a certain way, part of their culture.

The most significant and emotional event during my stay was my participation in the Sabbath.  During this ritual, the whole family wore items with Rastafari symbols and colours. Whilst the parents were wearing the Tam (Rasta hat), their son was wearing a Kippa (Jewish hat) with Rastafari colours. During the prayer, they explained that because they embrace Rastafari they replace the Sabbath wine with grape juice, as Rastafarians cannot drink alcohol. They emphasised that, for them, Sabbath is a time to pray and stay with family and friends more than a time to go to the temple. In fact, after the Sabbath celebration, their friends came to visit them.

The picture at the top of the post was taken during that day. Just before to take the picture they all naturally united their fingers together doing the Rastafari gesture. This sign was first adopted by King Selassie, and symbolises Solomon’s Seal (or Star of David) to emphasise the King’s geneological link to King Solomon. King Selassie was the king of the Falasha, the Jewish of Ethiopia, despite growing up as an Orthodox Christian. Therefore, the symbol was adopted by Rastafari worldwide is used to signify their bond with Selassie. However, for Christian (generally Orthodox) or Jewish Rastafari, it symbolises also the link with the Selassie dynasty from David, to Jesus, to Selassie.

Through this short piece of fieldwork, I discovered a new blend of Rastafarianism and Judaism. As my doctoral research proceeds, I expect to expand on these findings.

Photos by the author.