Tag Archives: Catholic

The use and misuse of the word ‘occult’

crucifix
Image by Flickr user Photodeus.

Last week, several news outlets latched into the story of a Colorado house where cleaners preparing the house for sale found something a little unusual: animal bones. But several reports said they also found “occult items.” So, what exactly were the occult items?

chains
candles
bottles
a machete
a crucifix

… Really? These are not occult items. They’re household items, particularly if it’s a Catholic household. It’s easy to dismiss the use of the word “occult” here, because it doesn’t connect to anything.

But even stalwart publications like the New York Times aren’t immune to throwing this word around when it suits them. The article describes South Korean CEOs who rely on “the occult” — in this case, fortune-telling — when making business decisions. Although this may be unfamiliar to Westerners (at least those who don’t remember that First Lady Nancy Reagan had an astrologer), according to the piece, many South Koreans believe in physiognomy or speak with fortune-tellers, so it may not be so taboo there. But here, the word “occult” — which doesn’t clearly apply to what’s going on in Korean — serves to stigmatize something that may be common practice there, and alienate readers from this Asian culture at a time when Korean exports from Samsung and other companies are booming. We need to be finding common ground with counterparts in other cultures, not demeaning their beliefs.

Polish Catholics launch new exorcism magazine


Poland’s Father Aleksander Posacki with the debut issue of a new magazine devoted to exorcisms, called Egzorcysta.

This week, a brand-new magazine launched in Poland: Egzorcysta, a magazine all about exorcisms and spiritual warfare from a Catholic perspective. Poland is one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, with nearly 90% of the population belonging to the Catholic Church, and 50-60% observing the faith regularly.

But Poland has been a Catholic stronghold for a long time. Why the sudden increase in interest in exorcisms? Here’s what Father Aleksander Posacki, one of the magazine’s contributors, said:

“The rise in the number of exorcists from four to more than 120 over the course of 15 years in Poland is telling.

“It’s indirectly due to changes in the system: capitalism [which Poland adopted in 1989] creates more opportunities to do business in the area of occultism. Fortune telling has even been categorised as employment for taxation.”

Egzorcysta‘s chief editor, Artur Winiarczyk, added: “We are living in a time that is a veritable tornado of occultism, esotericism, divination, magic, energy healing and many other phenomena that suck people in.”

Unfortunately, what seems to be “sucking people in” is the exorcists themselves, who first convince people that their troubles (which could range from a bad string of luck to a serious mental illness) are the result of demonic possession — and then convince them that an exorcism will solve their problems.

This new magazine gives pro-exorcism Catholics an even wider platform to sell these claims — and to define the conversation around the practices of minority faiths and occult workers, whom Winiarczyk is suggesting could be causing people to become demonically possessed. For example, one article in the new issue calls New-Age practices “the spiritual vacuum cleaner.”

Of course, any religious organization has the right to publish what it likes, and promote ideas that are in line with its beliefs. That’s how they maintain a following. But when that comes at the expense of other, legitimate faiths and practices, that threatens Polish people’s right to freedom of religion.

It places a special burden on young people who might be questioning and exploring their faith — particularly those with more conservative, Catholic parents. If a teen is exploring paganism, the occult, or new-age ideas, and the parent believes they’re “possessed,” what then? And how does an exorcism resolve anything?

Polish Catholics oppose “Demon” energy drink — and bone-marrow donation?


Polish Catholic extremists say Demon — and Darski — are promoting evil.

Polarizing singer Adam Darski, also known as Behemoth frontman Nergal, is back in the news. This time, it’s because he has elected to become the face of the Demon energy drink in Poland. As usual, his Catholic foes are not amused.

According to a Polish website called “Satanism Shall Not Pass:”

Demon … was “promoting evil, atrocities and the destruction of human souls.” Franciszek Kucharczak, editor of the Gosc Niedzielny, a respected religious magazine warned: “We have to fight against evil. We cannot keep quiet and let young people be absorbed into destructive ideals.”

… it’s a beverage. It contains water, sugar, caffeine, and vitamins. Not “evil,” whatever that means.

At any rate, Darski explained that he’s not a huge fan of energy drinks in general, but that he wanted to support Demon, in part, because the company gives money to the DKMS foundation. That’s the foundation that helped Darski find a bone-marrow donor for his leukemia treatment in 2010.

Darski is a big enough celebrity — especially in Poland — that his promotion of both this product and of the DKMS foundation could bring in more funding, and more bone-marrow donors, to save people’s lives. That seems the opposite of “evil, atrocities and the destruction of human souls.”

Now, if I thought Poland’s conservative Catholics were this savvy, I would suspect them of heightening the publicity around the Demon energy drink in order to save adults and children with leukemia. But I’m not sure that’s the case. More likely, they’re grandstanding over something that has little to do with real problems facing the Catholic Church today — and trying to get in the way of a product whose proceeds may help people survive bone cancer.

As an aside, the Telegraph article also claims that Darski/Nergal has left Behemoth. Not so; they are getting ready to rehearse for their next album.

“The New Satanism” in heavy metal


Pelle Forsberg, guitarist for black-metal band Watain. Photo by Flickr user Tiffany Peters/TiffanyFoto.

Heavy metal has always had a reputation for being Satanic. That reputation came from a number of places: the stage makeup used by Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper, KISS, King Diamond, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral panic sparked by folks like Bob Larson and Tipper Gore (and echoed in churches nationwide), the explicitly Satanic lyrics of bands like Slayer.

But how many heavy-metal musicians are Satanic? Fewer than you might think. Many bands play up the demonic/evil angle because it’s theatrical and emotionally resonant. But these are metaphors; it would be a mistake to assume the musicians themselves practice Satanism in any form. As in mainstream society, among metalheads there are Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, pagans, Hindus, and so on — in proportions that are not widely out of sync with the culture they live in. The primary exceptions may be among those in the early Norwegian black metal scene. There, a number of musicians claim loyalty to Satanic ideals, in part to rebel against the dominance of Christianity and the takeover of old Norse and pagan traditions.

Over at Invisible Oranges this week, Joseph Schafer examines what he calls “The New Satanism” in heavy metal. As Schafer points out, metal and Satanism actually had very little to do with each other until recently:

Only a handful of pre-’00s metal musicians profess to be actual Satanists. Even fewer claim to worship the devil—most out-Satanists in metal music follow(ed) Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, which does not believe in Satan as an actual entity.

More contemporary bands talk about satanism than ever—the Decibel tour celebrated theistic satanism as much as the magazine that sponsored it. And art fueled by genuine faith has a powerful character -— one distinct from music just about opposing the conventions of others.

And perhaps theistic satanism is the most interesting thing about these bands. Musically, Watain, The Devils Blood, and In Solitude all harken back, instead of pressing their genres forward. Performing in live animal blood is not new, neither is torches—that’s all descended from Mr. Brown. Their individual knacks for excellent songwriting is overshadowed by their collective ability to work the press in their favor while keeping up mystique.

Still, what’s behind that “mystique?” Many fans claim it’s just smoke and mirrors; that Watain, for example, probably really isn’t Satanic, they’re just trying to maintain an image. Still, many outside — let alone inside — the scene would be hard pressed to tell the difference. How do you know when all the blood and animal bodies are there for theatrics, and how do you know when they’re there as part of a genuine ritual?

In an interview with Invisible Oranges in 2010, Watain frontman Erik Danielsson had this to say:

These things have been used throughout all of mankind’s existence as a way to commune with something that is greater than life. What we’re using is, as the way I see it onstage, not a bunch of dead animals. … The important thing is that it has lived, and now it is dead. And therefore it represents a state of in-between. It represents a state of putrefaction that is very relevant in the magickal context, in the context where you actually can correspond with something that is beyond life, that is beyond reality. That is what these things are onstage for.

On the one hand, that sounds like a perfectly legitimate spiritual explanation. On the other hand, it seems like Eriksson is tipping his hand, since on the whole, Satanists do not practice animal sacrifice. Watain isn’t claiming they kill the animals (and they certainly don’t do so onstage), but the use of these animals seems to serve the same purpose. So perhaps it’s primarily theatrics, after all.

Ultimately, does it matter if heavy metal musicians are practicing Satanists? Satanism, whether it’s LaVeyan, theistic, Setian, or something else, is a legitimate and protected spiritual practice in many places (even though it is also in a minority position in those places, and is treated very poorly). Will these bands “convert” listeners to Satanism? That’s not particularly likely — listeners who were already drawn to the faith are probably also going to be drawn to music that echoes what they feel, just as Christian metal bands don’t make fans Christian; Christian fans seek out Christian metal.

We have to remember that there is no harm in listening to music, in celebrating music in the arena, in engaging in theatrics to express shared feelings about the world. For every example of “Satanism” in heavy metal, there are other examples that we revere: Greek Tragedy, Japanese Noh theater, horror movies. It is our understanding of heavy metal music, and of the use of Satanic imagery within it, that is the problem — not Satanism itself.

Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic?


Are the themes of child sacrifice in The Hunger Games enough to label it “occult/Satanic?” Some groups think so.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has earned many accolades, and is one of the best-selling young-adult book series since Harry Potter. This week, news broke that the books garnered a different type of honor in 2011: they’re among of the most-challenged library books in America.

Challenges happen anytime someone would like to request that a book be removed from public libraries. (Banning is when they actually are removed.) In this case, individuals and groups challenged The Hunger Games books on several grounds: “unsuited to age group and violence,” “anti-ethnic; anti-family,” and “occult/satanic,” earning the series the #3 spot in the 2011 top-10 list (which also includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and many recent releases.)

The Wall Street Journal caused a ruckus last year when it published a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon decrying the violent state of young-adult fiction, including The Hunger Games.

We spend a lot of time here at Backward Messages examining what types of content are appropriate for kids, particularly in the context of video games. There’s plenty of evidence that such fiction does not harm kids, and that in general young people are good about recognizing the difference between fiction and reality. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in last year’s ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, had this to say about violent content in kids’ fiction:

California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.

High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls. 1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp. 187–189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed. 1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208–209 (1997 ed.).

Are Lord of the Flies and The Odyssey still taught in classrooms? Is The Hunger Games more violent or offensive?

Actually, all this is beside the point I wanted to make, which is that I had to think long and hard before I figured out what about The Hunger Games would qualify as “occult” or “Satanic.” Finally, I realized they must be talking about the competition itself, and the requirement that each district (potentially) sacrifice a boy and a girl each year, some as young as 12.

Given that Abrahamic religions have been responsible for some pretty horrific tales of infanticide, child sacrifice, and fratricide, it’s tricky business calling a book “occult” or “Satanic” if it contains those themes — particularly since no occult or Satanic faiths practice human sacrifice, particularly child sacrifice.

Some may recall the religious furor over Harry Potter, which Catholics recently rescinded. Hopefully, those who challenge The Hunger Games for its themes — which also, by the way, painfully illuminate a number of pending problems in our society — will eventually come around as well. A series that’s getting more teens reading — and reading about ideas and possibilities that really matter — shouldn’t be challenged; it should be celebrated.

What’s behind our “teen witch” obsession?


Why do we fear the occult — and the teenage girls who dabble in it? Sady Doyle has some clues. Photo by Flickr user alicetiara.

In my research for Backward Messages, I came across more than one story about groups of teen girls who became temporarily obsessed with the film The Craft. This was before Harry Potter. Indeed, it was before Charmed, the show which brought young, attractive, savvy witches to television screens everywhere. Having a teenager suddenly enthralled by witches definitely worried some parents — but most admitted it was a phase, and it passed.

Still, truths are hidden in our scary movies (even if The Craft doesn’t really fall into that category). Sady Doyle, who writes at the blog Rookie, tackles this topic personally and gracefully in one of her latest posts, “The Season of the Witch.” In it, she writes about her own teen obsession with witchy films — as well as the cultural anxieties that are often behind horror films and our fears of them.

Before there was The Craft, there were the Salem witch trials, which started because the young girls of the town were engaging in unearthly, demonic behavior—such as “screaming” and “throwing things.” You know. The sort of thing you’d never do as a 12-year-old, especially not if you were stuck in a freezing-cold Puritan settlement where the funnest activity was churning butter.

Doyle smartly addresses the stories of cultural figures like Annelise Michel, a teenage girl who died in Germany in 1976 of neglect and starvation because her staunchly Catholic parents insisted that her adolescent behavior (and epilepsy) was the work of demons possessing her. In a more fictional account, there’s The Exorcist, which Doyle views thusly:

Once you realize that The Exorcist is, essentially, the story of a 12-year-old who starts cussing, masturbating, and disobeying her mother — in other words, going through puberty — it becomes apparent to the feminist-minded viewer why two adult men are called in to slap her around for much of the third act. People are convinced that something spooky is going on with girls; that, once they reach a certain age, they lose their adorable innocence and start tapping into something powerful and forbidden.

In our society, women’s sexuality and the occult remain two subjects many people understand less well than they should — and we fear what we don’t understand. It makes sense that these two should be combined, or serve as metaphors for one another, in our films and fiction.

The question remains: why do we fear teenage girls so much? I’ve seen this asked many times, but haven’t found a comprehensive answer. Certainly, it is a topic we revisit in horror films. What’s interesting is, some films are obviously there to allow people to explore these fears in a safe, fictional way. And other films — such as The Craft — help teenage girls come to grips with fears about how their bodies and minds are changing as they enter adolescence and, eventually, adulthood. Although it would be great to leave these fears behind, we haven’t — and this is how we’re dealing with it, for now.

Do these films contribute to actual girl-hatred and girl-fear in our culture? Or do they simply reflect and (hopefully) exorcise the fear that already exists? I suspect it’s more the latter. What do you think?

Televangelist Hagee says humanists, pagans fill “mental hospitals and singles bars”


Cornerstone Church pastor John Hagee. Photo by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman.

John Hagee, televangelist and senior pastor at the evangelical megachurch known as the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, TX, apparently has it in for pagans, witches, Harry Potter, secular humanists, and lesbian parents. In one of his latest semons, he rails against these evils and the problems he says they cause:

Secular humanism is a pagan god and America is bowing at the shrine. It has filled our drug rehab centers. It has filled the divorce courts. It has filled the shelter for battered wives. It has filled the rape crisis centers. It has filled the mental hospitals and singles bars. It has filled the penitentiaries and the [guest rosters] for the brain-dead television shows from New York. Think about that. We’re in a moral free-fall. When your children can be taught witchcraft by Harry Potter, that Heather has two mommies, you can substitute Christmas for a midwinter holiday. Call it anything you want to, but don’t call it Christmas. Kick God out of the Christmas event…

It goes on from there.

Now, I know such remarks are not meant to be based in facts or logic, and to expect otherwise is to be both foolish and disappointed. These are comments directed to a specific group of people whose values center on faith and the teachings of the Bible, and Hagee’s words are right in line with both.

And yet, here we are, almost in 2012. Our understanding of both pagan faiths and non-religious belief systems, such as secular humanism, is better than ever. But to folks like Hagee, and the people who follow his work, these beliefs all fall into the same junkpile, the one with the big neon sign labeled “evil.” Or at least labeled “morally corrupt.” It’s all a big slippery slope that starts with rejecting religious dogma and ends with jailtime. (What are the beliefs among prisoners in Hagee’s home state? According to one census, 30% are baptist and 18% are Catholic. Hmmm. Ooops, there I go, injecting pesky “facts” into the discussion again.)

Still, it bothers me (and, I suspect, many pagans) that folks on the fence would hear Hagee’s very compelling sermon and come to believe that secular humanism is bad. Or that secular humanism is paganism, since Hagee seems to conflate the two. Or that paganism is bad. Or that Harry Potter teaches witchcraft to kids. (Memo to Hagee: Catholics don’t believe that anymore.) Or that kids learning witchcraft is bad.

Or, you know, that Christians were the inventors of the winter holiday.

Then again, this man claimed that New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina because God wanted to prevent a planned gay-rights rally from taking place.

Fortunately, Hagee has some highly placed critics, such as Bill Moyers, who challenged the name of one of Hagee’s organizations: “Someone who didn’t know better could imagine from the very name Christians United For Israel — CUFI — that pastor John Hagee speaks for all Christians. Well, he doesn’t.”

Are there people who take pastors like John Hagee seriously? Why do they do so? And what’s the best way of injecting reason into the debate?