Sep 22, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Religion of Ecstacy

There has been a good deal of discussion, in recent weeks, about Sarah Palin's connection to the Pentecostal church Assemblies of God, and even to a possibly heretical sect of that church. Much of it, in both the blogosphere and the mainstream press, has been extremely critical of her participation in the church. Some of those concerns are, I think, quite valid. There are possible ties to dominionism; a philosophy which seeks to tear down the Jeffersonian wall and establish a Christian theocracy. For those who hold the First Amendment dear, I should think that would be a reasonable area of inquiry, when assessing Palin's viability as a candidate. As would concerns about how her religious beliefs may inform her political positions on issues like reproductive freedom and the environment.

However, I am somewhat dismayed to see how much of the coverage of Palin's religious background has focused on the religious practices themselves. It would seem that Steve Waldman at Beliefnet agrees with me. He recently called on a Washington Post cartoonist to apologize for mocking Palin's Pentecostalism.

Did the Wa they [sic] run a cartoon ridiculing Joe Lieberman for thinking that God spoke through a burning Bush? Or Barack Obama for thinking that Jesus rose from the dead?

Here's a general rule of thumb: if you look closely, every religion's practices and beliefs seem idiotic to those who aren't part of that faith. Yet they're profoundly meaningful to those who believe.

Really best not to go there in a political campaign..

The video posted at the beginning of this diary puts Palin's church under scrutiny. (If the YouTube version is deleted, as a number of versions of this have been, Vimeo also has one posted, which seems to be holding.) It cannot help but raise eyebrows. Some of the things depicted in the video: speaking in tongues, a cell phone anointing that apparently "blitzes" phone call recipients, intense emotional outpourings... None of this should come as a shock to anyone who's ever been in a Pentecostal church, but to those who haven't it can't help but seem very foreign and strange. Somewhat alarming is Palin's connection to a minister whose claim to fame is having driven a "witch" out of a village in Kenya. Horrible, but not inconsistent with some of the Christian/indigenous hybrid religions that occur in the wake of missionary work in tribal cultures. And, it's certainly not the worst of those. Which is to say, no one died.

What strikes me in viewing that video, and not for the first time, is how much Pentecostal ritual looks like the ecstatic religious practices of many non-Christian, tribal peoples. At moments, I could swear I'm watching a National Geographic documentary. As I've pondered this issue over the last week or so, I've been forced to reconsider some of my own negative impulses regarding Pentecostalism. Full disclosure: I was a born again Christian for a brief period in my youth and attended a number of Pentecostal services. It never moved me as it appears to do many of the believers in that video. I left that experience deeply disenchanted, on many levels. Bitter, even. But time, distance, and years of studying a range of religious and mythical beliefs have enabled me to put the experience in some perspective.

One of the staples of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity is the claim of a "personal" relationship with God and/or Jesus. That didn't resonate for me then, and it sounded strange to my ear when I heard it repeated in that video. But, the more I watched, the more it made sense to me that people in those services are having a very personal and transcendent experience. It is those very intense outpouring, the glossolalia, the sometimes violent tremors, that more mainstream and secular viewers find most disturbing. But, they are what I find most fascinating. Quite simply, because they look like elements of some shamanic practices.

The use of rhythmic drumming, singing, and dancing, are elements of many tribal rituals. This is covered somewhat in Graham Hancock's Supernatural. While Hancock's book focuses largely, even disproportionately, on the use of psychotropes, he does get into some discussion of trance dancing and the evidence that it is depicted in paleolithic cave paintings. These techniques have been used since time immemorial to alter consciousness and "pierce the veil." Many who have had these ego shattering experiences have the tangible sense that they have touched the numinous; that they have seen "god."

This experiential connection is seminal to the defining practice of Pentecostals: speaking in tongues, or glossolalia.

The most scrutinized and least understood aspect of the Assemblies of God Church and Pentecostalism in general is the ancient practice of "speaking in tongues."

"Speaking in tongues is a heavenly language," said Donna Morgan, a member of the Pennsylvania-based Freedom Valley Worship Center who embraces the experience. "That we're going to God and Jesus intercedes for us."

"It's almost as if I'm able to tap into God's heart and what he wants," said Amber Crone, who is also a member of the Freedom Valley Worship Center.

But, glossolalia is not the exclusive province of Pentecostals, who base their belief in the practice on the second chapter of Acts.

1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.

6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

According to Wikipedia, glossolalia appears in a variety of religious traditions.

Aside from Christians, other religious groups also have been observed to practice some form of theopneustic glossolalia. It is perhaps most commonly in Paganism, Shamanism, and other mediumistic religious practices.[68]

Glossolalia was exhibited by the renowned ancient Oracle of Delphi, whereby a priestess of the god Apollo (called the Pythia) speaks in unintelligible utterances, supposedly through the spirit of Apollo in her.[citation needed]

The Jewish religion has various citations of unintelligible speach beginning with the verse in Psalms 81:6...

I should note that Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance (whom I'm convinced is a reincarnated Delphic Sibyl), is often described as singing in glossolalia, but which she describes as her own language. I find it fascinating that many people hear comprehensible words and stories in her vocalization.

Beyond tongues, there is another form of Pentecostalism, which reflects deeper mythical underpinnings. Not practiced, to my knowledge, in Sarah Palin's church, but rooted in Appalachian Pentecostalism is the practice of snake handling. Billy Ray Cyrus explains:

It's hard to miss the layered symbolism in both the practice and the scripture upon which it is based.

It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to judge negatively some of the more outré charismatic Christian practices and simultaneously justify pagan and shamanic practices here and around the world. Graham Hancock posits a connection in Supernatural (pp. 495-498).

Despite the advance of science, which has no space and no patience for the supernatural, roughly two out of every three human beings alive today continue to hold strong beliefs in supernatural entities and in the existence of spirit worlds. Hindus and Buddhists recognize the veridical existence of limitless non-physical realms, entities, intelligences, and states of existence. Traditional Jews believe that Moses talked to God face to face, as the Torah states, and received from him "heavenly writings" in the form of the Ten Commandments. Muslims are taught that Muhammad had encounters with a majestic supernatural being, later identified with the Angel Gabriel, whose apparitions were preceded by a "peculiar sound like the tinkling of bells," and who subsequently revealed to the Prophet the entire text of the Koran.

. . .

Since religious beliefs are so important, it should not be controversial to state clearly what the evidence shows about their ultimate source and inspiration. And what the evidence shows, if we probe deeply enough into the foundations of all the world's great religions, is that they rest upon a bedrock of supernatural encounters and experiences involving powerful and charismatic individuals with the gift to communicate what they knew to others. Although such beliefs quickly crystallize into dogmas passed on from generation to generation, it is clear, even from the few examples given above, that they were not originally conjured out of thin air, or arrived at through scholarly study, or deliberately devised to assuage supposed human needs, but that they arose in every case solely out of attempts to describe, depict, and explain the supernatural experiences of their founders -- who were, by any standards, shamans of the highest order.

. . .

In the case of all the great religions of the modern world, the original supernatural experiences and revelations of their founders are now so far in the past that salaried priests, ministers, rabbis, mullahs, and bishops have taken over entirely -- presenting themselves not just as adminstrators but as true and exclusive intermediaries between humanity and the otherworldly powers.

. . .

What hope do we have of rediscovering the truth? In a sense it is always there waiting for us. Indeed, it is our birthright. Shamanic ecstasy lies at the root of all religions and, Weston La Barre admits, "the nature of the shamanic ecstacy may be illuminated by attention to ancient hallucinogens..."

But hallucinogens are not the only path, as Hancock, himself, admits. I would suggest that some of the practitioners of Pentecostal Christianity are periodically accessing the hidden world through their own ecstatic rituals, even if the confines of their over-arching belief system do not allow a fuller exploration of those experiences. For some it may just as easily be mimicry; a "fake it 'til you make it" approach. Either way, it is a personal experience best not judged by those who don't understand it. Again, I quote Steven Waldman:

It's impossible to know about the absolute genuineness of someone's speaking in tongues experience -- just as it's impossible to know whether a Christian is faking when he describes being saved, or a Catholic is faking when they claims to believe in transubstantiation, etc. In interpersonal relations, it's an easy call: just assume they're telling the truth and go about your business.

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