Archive for the ‘Ritual and Initiation’ Category


Why Women Can’t Be Magicians

9 January 2012

In her fascinating book Pythagoras’ Trousers, Margaret Wertheim makes the claim that most physicists are male to this day because physics, like organized religion, deals with a knowledge of the “magical” core of the universe.  On a more mundane level, I got to wondering why men often proliferate as magicians (the entertaining sort).  It turns out that 95% of magic club membership is male.  Why?

Peter M. Nardi offers a collection of explanations for the trend in his article “Why Have Women Magicians Vanished?”  He quotes a number of practicing male magicians, some of whom actually claim that women’s anatomy and clothing is what inhibits them from performing magical tricks (e.g., where do you hide the doves if you have to wear tight-fitting clothing, especially around your breasts?).  Such technical problems may exist, but they don’t do much to give a deeper explanation of the dearth of women in the field.   Nardi gets closer to the solution when he says,

Magic has always been presented as something of a fraternity, and for the longest time, magic clubs did not allow women to join (following the trend of most private clubs of the era). The traditional role of a male magician and his female “assistants” is not a social role that is easily transposed into female magician and her male “assistants.” This makes the road to being a successful female magician even harder since they have to create a whole new paradigm of what it is to be a magician in order to succeed.

While Nardi doesn’t elaborate, this insight is at the heart of the problem, in my opinion.  A good male magician must not only appear to control the physical world through magic, he must also demonstrate that he can control the social world, a social world symbolized by his female assistant.  Just as he waves his wand and controls the physical elements (fire, water, hankerchiefs, coffins), so he controls the fate of the young woman, his subject.  Her cheerful demeanor glosses the fact that she assents, almost hypnotically, to the will of the magician.  Through the female assistant the audience is encouraged to trust the magician, and thus social control is asserted.

That is to say, women can’t be magicians, at least of the traditional variety, because it is unacceptable for them to exert social control.  They have no male assistant, no medium, by which to charm the crowd.  They do not stand above the earthly elements, above actual men, above the social world.  Women are not free to work the spectacle.  They must remain the spectacle.


The Ultimate Men’s Summit, June 10-19

6 June 2011

Later this month we’ll witness the most ambitious attempt so far to recapture the glory years of the mythopoetic men’s movement.  The Ultimate Men’s Summit, happening online from the 10th to the 19th, will showcase over 75 presenters and field questions via telecom.  The line-up is a veritable who’s who in men’s work: Sam Keen, Warren Farrell, Bert Hoff, Bill Kauth, Herb Goldberg and (“Leader of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement”) Robert Bly.   I encourage you to sign up for the conference HERE.  Registration is free.

I’m looking forward to the event, though the limitations are quite apparent in my mind.  The cast is dominated by psychologists and self-help gurus.  While a couple of men’s rights people should shake things up, the therapeutic feel of the conference won’t invite too many critical questions.  The conference is being pulled together by Shift Network, an organization devoted to an “evolution of consciousness” that includes “open exchange,” “restorative cycles,” and “global spiritual pluralism.”  Therefore I can all but assure attendees that the New Age ethic of the organizers will make room for a wide array of perspectives, sexualities and social groups, though they will leave prowling on the perimeter the usual suspects: liberal feminists, conservative pundits and orthodox Christians.


Yale University and the Sexual Harrassment Case You Knew Was Coming

18 May 2011

For a number of years Yale has established itself as a university pushing the boundaries of sexual discourse and mores. In 2012 the school celebrates the ten year anniversary of Sex Week at Yale (SWAY), a conference devoted to exploration of all issues sexual. Past speakers have discussed everything from condom use to bisexuality to genital piercing to destigmatizing sex work (provided it is one’s “chosen” profession). The language of “mutuality” tends to lubricate the conversation, ethically speaking. But not entirely: a recent presentation at SWAY encouraged men to “Think of yourself as a hunter” in order to get into women’s pants.

The necessary counterpart to Yale’s licentious conference exerted itself this week as school officials banned a fraternity from campus for five years over a chant they deemed to be sexual harrassment. Delta Kappa Epsilon, the expelled organization, had included as part of October’s initiation rites the following chant in front of the Yale Women’s Center: “No means yes, yes means anal.” The misogynistic chant was followed by another about necrophilia. It was the first phrase, however, that was cited as the basis for expulsion of the fraternity from campus.  Sadomasochistic fun during SWAY week?: okay.  Sadomasochistic humor during hazing events?: not so okay.

Much as corporate capitalism requires an ever-expanding national government to stimulate and regulate it in equal measures, so Yale University’s sexual openness demands a political counterpart to baptize and chastize.  Sexual permissiveness requires increased policing, therefore it comes as no surprise that administrators orchestrated a crackdown on the first public transgression.  Delta Kappa Epsilon initiates, being libertines in the wrong way at the wrong time, will have to take the fall.


Recovering Childhood in Worship: Two Male Leaders

27 April 2010

Intriguing to note how male worship leaders in Evangelical Christian circles have started to lead congregations into times of childishness before God.  I don’t want to sound too biased against the trend by calling it “childish”; I simply mean that these leaders in their worship pursue a sense of renewed innocence, child-like dependence, and simple joy in the presence of God the Father.  Perhaps the phenomenon exceeds the male/female divide, but I see it led most often by male worshipers.  Let me offer two examples.

David Crowder became prominent in the late 1990s through affiliation with the Passion organization.  As one of the most creative songwriters among Evangelicals he implemented Casio keyboard loops, samples, and a keen sense for the catchier elements of independent rock.  He also worked the sound “La la la la la la” into a surprising number of songs.  What normally would have been associated with the Smurfs, Crowder was able to make into a chorus of abandonment before God.  Generally he places it at the end of a song, a kind of childish doxology of sorts, as in the concluding seconds of “O Praise Him,” or live, at the end of other songs, such as this one.  Crowder’s lyrics are relatively poignant for a modern worship writer, which may explain why he offsets the more substantial words with nonsensical sounds.  The former attunes the worshiper, the latter releases one into God’s presence.

Jason Upton, a charismatic worship leader known for a prophetic, almost militant style in the footsteps of Keith Green, has employed an even more diligent pursuit of renewed childhood.  When I saw him last in 2007, he was touring with an interesting blend of worship.  He sang some very aggressive and warlike songs.  Then, about half-way through, he described to the crowd that he had been sensing a need to “just be a child in God’s presence,” to cry out, “Abba, daddy, Father.”  Upton proceeded to lead a number of Sunday school songs and original ditties, including a song he wrote with his daughter about a dog hanging its head out of a moving car’s window.  Upton assured us that it was okay to let God give us a new innocence, that it didn’t please Him to be serious and morose all the time.

I can only offer a couple of suggestions as to what might be going on here.  Leaders like Crowder and Upton sense a need for abandonment before the Almighty.  They lead a kind of drama in worship that allows worshipers to re-chart their own value as a child, loved and protected by their Father (who probably must heal the damage done by earthly fathers).   The intensity of the worship environment needs a kind of release valve, a stepping back into the Garden of Eden (or playground), even if only for a song.  Crowder and Upton have a special ability to do this, I suspect, because they are men.  They themselves have an aura of masculine authority out of which they grant permission to others to be innocent babes again before God.  Secular rock stars have the ability to allow others to let their hair down, drink and debauch.  Male worship leaders use their charisma as entertainers to do something far more significant: identify others very overtly as children of God.


Permanent Bachelorhood Loses One of Its Leaders

9 October 2009

swingersvaughnVince Vaughn, one of America’s most outstanding bachelors, announced this month that is tying the knot with Canadian real estate agent Kyla Webber.  It seems that Vaughn’s movie, Couples Retreat, may have been therapeutic.  What happened to the lovable party animal from Swingers?  What will become of the Frat Pack? 

Interestingly, he told that he decided to get married not in order to find greater fulfillment, but to have kids.  He is actually sprinting towards responsibility.  He isn’t letting out many details about his relationship, but seems excited mostly excited about the new possibilities of a responsible life. 

On the other side, he has expressed ambivalence about whether the relationship is going to change him.  Good luck on that. 

The anthropological observation of importance here is that many men in America today are experiencing a mid-life crisis.  In contradistinction from a generation ago, however, these men are making moves towards resposibility, not irresponsibility.  Men today get married and have a child, where the boomer escapees were running from their wives and kids.  The midlife crisis today is not a new adolescence.  It is the late departure from it.

The political right – as in Kay S. Hymowitz’s recent article – continues the drumbeat for earlier marriages.  Certainly a wife and child and mortgage will force men to grow up.  Maybe.  But in a world where marriages are dissolvable as aspirin tablets, will this really do this trick?  Besides, men like Vaughn are going into marriage these days with the caveat that they don’t have to change their immature ways.  The a-woman-will-whip-me-into-shape days are over.  Which is why bearing children has become the real test of maturity.  Offspring are so, well, concrete.

In the end, maybe the only weapon the cause of maturity can wield is the promise of a better life.  Being a man is better than being a boy.  Attending a city council meeting is better than watching Southpark.  Wooing a woman is far superior to beating off to Maxim magazine.  Raising a child is more satisfying than being one.  If Vince Vaughn can come to that realization, why not others?


Rumpelstilskin, as Interpretated by a ManKind Project I-Group

1 February 2009

For those of you who don’t know, I am part of a ManKind Project (MKP) I-Group, which seeks to pursue healthy manhood in a small group format.  Besides some more modern therapeutic techniques, the I-Group utilizes “non-linear” methods like ritual, poetry and working out emotions through kinetic activities. 

Last month I brought to the group a classic fairy tale which, to no surprise, none of them had heard in years: rumpelRumpelstilskin.  I used the later version from Grimms’ compilation, one you can read here if you’re also having a hard time recalling the story.  I had rediscovered the story in a German textbook (the story was originally named Rumpelstilzchen) and was struck by its multifaceted presentation of important life themes.  Although (or maybe because) the story features a girl as the protagonist of the story, I wanted to see how a men’s group would respond to it. 

After telling the story with as much flair as I could muster, I launched a basic question: “With whom did you resonate most?”  Most of the men immediately said, “The girl.”  “Why?,” I asked.  “Because she was exploited again and again, and she did what she had to.” 

But upon my pushing for more details it seemed that, while they liked the story and felt it to be somehow important, they couldn’t put a finger on why they resonated with the girl, or anyone in the story for that matter.  We spent a chunk of time picking apart the significance of each character.  All of them are men, and most of them seem like evil bastards.  But did they have to be interpreted that way?

My own conclusion, one I had come to earlier, was that this story had pretty thick social meanings attached to it.  I suggested to the men that any girl who heard the story would be learning about what it is like to be a woman in the world of men.  Though people would expect her to have magical powers (even turning straw into gold), she would have to hope for resources beyond her, powers to deceive, manipulate and, through them, to survive in an androcentric world.  Maybe it helped us peer into the world of women and the demands we as men make upon them.

mentalkThis seemed to make sense to the men, but it didn’t make sense of it for a men’s group.  Where was the value in it for us?

Still, I stayed with this tack.  I wondered aloud if there might be a way to understand the story as an address to (or at) homosexuals.  Could it be that both girls and boys alike in old Germany were being warned about strangers, in particular “strange little men” who had their own magic at work, but were, at best, strange, at worst, conniving paedophiles?  The I-Group could agree to this hypothesis, at least cognitively.  Or, I mused on, we could queer the story by telling it a little differently, that this strange manling, Rumpelstilskin, was trying to deliver the girl-queen’s son from the world of oppressive men; that the reason he wanted to take the boy away in order to initiate him into a different kind of manhood, one not based on the patriarchal tyrrany exhibited by the girl’s father and king. 

This time no response from the I-Group. 

The problem, I realize now, was not that these hypotheses were uninteresting to them.  Nor were they unsavory (I would describe most of them as more consistently to the political left).   The problem was that my interpretations were primarily sociological, not psychological.  In a group dedicated to personal health (of five heterosexual men), social ramifications played second fiddle to personal application. 

With the evening coming to a close, one of the older members of the group began a very productive line of thought along Jungian lines.  He suggested that, perhaps, the bizarre character of Rumpelstilzkin could be interpreted as  one’s “shadow,” that part of us which we suppress but comes out anyway as a kind of dangerous but creative alter-ego.  That shadow must be honored in order to deal with crises in life.  One must deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to meet the demands of the “king” (or father), that archetype which would direct us in life directions.  The king’s men who go out through the kingdom to figure out Rumpelstilskin’s name are expressions of the “warrior,” the get-it-done part of the soul (or, externalizing a bit, maybe the king’s men can be our warrior brothers in ManKind Project).  And, lest the shadow dominate our lives too much, at some point the shadow must be “named,” exposed for what it is in the limits of its power. 

Now, you’ve got to admit, this is a pretty dang good interpretation.  Thanks to the last minute personalizing hermeneutic, everybody felt edified by the activity, myself included.

Still, I feel a little uneasy about how the personal so often operates independently of the political.  Can we hear the story of Rumpelstilskin and find in it something that speaks to us and addresses the situation of others? 

– – –

Next session we’re hoping to do some mask-making.  Yes, I know you think that’s weird.  If you find wearing a tie and watching ESPN makes you a whole man, more power to you.  For some of us there are shadows to name – and who’s to say you don’t have one?


Wild… er… Responsible at Heart

5 September 2008

When John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart came out in 2001, Evangelical men latched on to the existentialist bad-boy path to Christian manhood.  According to the book, the problem was that men in the churches had become sissified by a sentimental, moralistic, inauthentic environment.  The solution could be found in pursuing the “wild” road of authentic, manly living.  Eldredge’s indebtedness to the mythopoetic men’s movement shows through, albeit in a superficial way: William Wallace and Luke Skywalker replace the ancient fairy tales, Jesus Christ replaces the “I” to some extent.  Wild at Heart struck that perfect marketability for Evangelical men: conservative family values + shame-healing + anti-Victorian backlash + self help group therapy + badass role models. 

Seven years later, men’s ministries are holding Wild at Heart retreats, the latest cropping up in Peoria, IL.  Such men eagerly report that they go on such weekends to buck the system, to get fierce, to prove to themselves that they can be, well, “wild.”  It’s interesting, then, that the primary way these men demonstrate their wildness is by (to quote them) “learning to communicate.”  They admit their failing as husbands and fathers.  They confess their well-hidden wimpiness.  They acquire new skills to speak honestly with God, themselves, and their loved ones.  

Nomenclature aside, let me applaud this wildness.  Truth be told, most men struggle with fear their whole lives, often fears of emotional vulnerability.  Moreover, it seems that in this age young American men struggle with a fear of responsibility (a.k.a. permanent adolescence syndrome).  Christian men are no exception: they don’t cultivate inner strength, they don’t take risks, and so in self-defense insulate themselves from any kind of shame or public accountability.   Let us grant that it takes courage – maybe not the courage of a broadsworded Scot, but courage nonetheless – to put oneself on the line and say, “Yes, I’ve run away from my God-given responsibilities.” 

Masculinities trade in fecund contradictions.  Evangelical men, for this reason and that, spend time being irresponsible to the world around them, if only for a Saturday, in order to recapture the strength to dive back into their world of responsibilities and responsiveness. 

[Keep an eye out for future posts on John Eldredge.]