‘You Shall Have No Strange Gods Before Me’

Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites is an engrossing exploration of today’s false spiritualities.

Strange Rites
Strange Rites (photo: Hachette Books)

The decline of traditional religion has been ongoing for several decades. Tara Isabella Burton takes this decline for granted in her new book Strange Rites (Hachette, New York City, 2020). She addresses how “intuitional” religion now dominates American culture. And Burton has also noticed the shift from a culture focused on private to a culture of public morality. This has made virtue more a matter of government policy rather than individual choice. These thought-provoking observations make her book worth reading.

She argues that the United States has never been a conventional “Judeo-Christian” nation, with church attendance declining after the American Revolution and the Civil War. She uses the historical examples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Transcendentalism and the Seventh Day Adventists to show “strange rites” have always been with us.

Catholicism posits that human nature is constant, and Burton accepts this, exploring the occult, wellness and social justice movements as alternative, “intuitional” religions. To use Viktor Frankl’s phrase, it is about “man’s search for meaning.”

One of Burton’s “intuitional” religions is the occult. She credits the Harry Potter series with its growing acceptance. But the Harry Potter series presents its own conundrum. Did it glamorize witchcraft for the young, or was it a symptom? After all, there were also TV shows in the 1990s like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer which portrayed witchcraft positively. Attempts to ban the series about the boy wizard have backfired. Over the past two decades, Harry Potter has become a lucrative enterprise, complete with theme park rides. Perhaps fans think this is just Hollywood entertainment. Or does this show the desensitization of the conscience?

Burton writes that witchcraft has gone beyond wellness and casting love spells, into destroying patriarchy, and seeing Christianity as toxic. In addition, witchcraft now openly embraces the diabolical. For example, the Satanic Temple has posted billboards in Dallas, Houston and Miami this past December, calling abortion a “religious ritual.” Burton writes, “Contemporary witchcraft … embraces darkness — including imagery of the downright diabolical — as a necessary political corrective to what they see as unjust Christian supremacy.” Institutional Christianity is “dismissed and derided as a bastion of toxic patriarchy, repression, and white supremacy.”

Modern witchcraft has embraced progressive politics as a form of liberation, especially for women and minorities. But the politicization of religion is perilous, using the spiritual as a tool for secular ends.

Scripture warns us of the perils of witchcraft. King Saul, facing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, engages from the witch of Endor to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7-25). Samuel rebukes Saul for disturbing him and warns him of his imminent defeat (1 Samuel 28:15-19). King Saul commits suicide rather than lose, choosing death over dishonor. Instead of empowerment, Saul succumbs to self-destruction. His encounter with witchcraft led him to despair and suicide. But in the age of so-called “assisted” suicide, is this an effective cautionary tale?

In the New Testament, the occult is exploitative. An enslaved girl, possessed by a spirit, is taken advantage of by her masters (Acts 16:16-19). In another episode, Simon Magus, who is respected for his magic, comes to repent for trying to buy the Holy Spirit’s power with money (Acts 8:9-24). On Paphos, Bar-Jesus, the false prophet and magician, tries to turn the proconsul away from the faith, but is struck blind (Acts 13:6-12). Rather than liberating, witchcraft is shown to be rooted in exploitation and power. Yet, exploitation and power still seem the way to achieve one’s ends. Are these episodes falling on deaf ears?

But apart from the occult, Burton illustrates values becoming idols. Health, now called “wellness” or “self-care,” has become another source of meaning. “At least you have your health” has been transformed from an old adage into a modern idol.

Burton uses the example of SoulCycle, which goes beyond conventional spinning in its promises of self-improvement. Burton cites singer Lady GaGa and former First Lady Michelle Obama as examples of SoulCycle “alums.” SoulCycle’s motto is, “Move your body. Take your journey. Find your soul.” How is “soul” defined? What does “soul” mean for atheists, albeit practical ones?

All-American religious groups like the Adventists and Mormons have dietary restrictions for spiritual reasons, but now veganism, vegetarianism and other diets have become ends in themselves. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns in its section on the fifth commandment (2289): “If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake.”

This goes beyond a “cafeteria Catholicism” to a “cafeteria spirituality,” where one makes a religion of one’s choice.

In researching this DIY spirituality, I found an example at a local grocery store. Maranda Pleasant’s ORIGIN magazine exemplifies the imprecision of “wellness” spirituality. The magazine is a jumble of quotes from Tolstoy, Gandhi and Einstein, with vegan recipes. Contributors advise “create for passion not for approval,” “Do it for yourself” and “Unapologetically celebrate your authentic self.” The “wellness” culture embodies this narcissistic confusion.

Burton writes that wellness culture “represents a new apex of spiritual individualism … you’re clearing your body of toxins with a juice cleanse, creating meaning on demand, but only in arenas that yield materially beneficial results.” Burton concludes that “for all its claims to positivity, wellness culture is, at its core, nihilistic.”

Burton observes that this nihilism comes from self-centeredness. It calls to mind the words of the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 1:14), “I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” “Self-care” is a doomed enterprise in the face of inevitable mortality. It does not look beyond the horizon of this life, nor is it equipped to deal with disability and suffering in this one.

“Self-care” has grown in popularity with the COVID-19 pandemic and the obsession with physical health. Bodily health trumps all other social and spiritual concerns. Contagion is feared more than eternal damnation.

Scripture, however, brings real healing, beyond mere “wellness” and “self-care.” St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, admonishes (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The body is no longer the end-all and be-all but from and for greater things.

Finally, Burton discusses the current “social justice” movement as a new faith. As she writes, “Social justice isa religion, and — as with any other religion — its potency as a source of meaning and its potential for zealotry are naturally correlated. … It has imbued the secular sphere with meaning. It has reenchanted a godless world.”

This section makes Burton’s book timely and instructive. She concludes that the social justice warrior’s “new world that will inevitably arise from the ashes of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive Christian society will be infinitely better, fairer, and more loving than what has come before.” Burton calls cancellation “collective ritual catharsis,” compares safe spaces to hermitages, writing that they are “quasi-sacred … in which social justice’s narratives of the self, society, and truth reign supreme.”

Divine justice shows a better way. In the Beatitudes, Our Lord said (Matthew 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” The prophet Isaiah’s first vision states (Isaiah 1:17), “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” True “social justice” brings liberation. God, not “human respect,” determines what is right and wrong.

In her conclusion, Burton shows that the “new gods” are the self with its needs, passions and appetites. In Meditation magazine, I found a quote from Love Browne, founder of the All Love Kauai store in Hawaii, that fits this mentality: “Self love is a journey that doesn’t have a destination.” It is egocentric wandering rather than aiming for Heaven. The self, rather than God, is the locus of worship and divinity.

Father Mitch Pacwa anticipated this back in his book Catholics and the New Age (Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, 1992). He wrote, “Instead of attachment to authority figures, New Agers usually desire ideas and practices to help them cope better with life. They are often too individualistic for cults, desiring the realization of their own personal divinity more than paying obeisance to some leader’s divinity. … New Age fads are attempts to awaken the so-called divine energy within each person. When a particular method does not work, you search for the next, knowing that you will eventually find the one that will awaken your divinity.”

For Father Pacwa, the New Age movement had goals, though they were idiosyncratic. Before, one was aiming for divinity; today’s “strange rites” already assume it. The ‘new religions’ are egotistic drifting, with the goal of subjective comfort in an often hostile and uncertain world.

Burton’s Strange Rites is an engrossing exploration of today’s spiritualities. It shows the desperate search and hunger for meaning in our technological, as she calls it, “Remixed” culture. Strange Rites is a powerful and heartbreaking read. It presents the evangelist’s dilemma of preaching the Gospel to relativists. It is an important read in a culture that distrusts institutions, especially churches.

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