Jason’s recent editorial at the Wild Hunt has spurred me to write here, after a three month hiatus. In his article, Jason makes some good points about the growth of Pagan affiliation in the U.S. compared to its relatively small level of infrastructure and influence. On the question of how to create more engagement among the estimated one million or so Pagans, his answer is better funding for more targeted journalism.
In a related post, Thorn does a remarkable job of laying out the numbers involved in making a living as a spiritual teacher. She ends her piece with this insight:
A big fish in a small pond creates ripples that have impact, but they share the same ecosystem as all the other members of the pond. And outside the pond? Probably no one has ever heard of them.
I have been grappling with these issues since I started Serpentine Music in 1992 and began teaching in 1994. In the 1990s things looked very different, as both Jason and Thorn have pointed out. The publishing industry was stronger then and so was the workshop economy, so between big advances and reasonable speaking fees it was possible to earn a decent living as an author and teacher.
In 2000 I had a couple conversations with Carl McColeman (then the music buyer for New Leaf Distributing), about what it was going to take for Pagan music to become as big as New Age music. Carl had just written an article for New Age Retailer on the topic. We both agreed it was only a matter of time before the market for this music grew to something like the size of the market for books like The Spiral Dance.
We turned out to be wrong, partly because we didn’t foresee the tanking of the music industry, but also because we weren’t thinking big enough. The market for Pagan music never grew to the size we had hoped, but meanwhile its lyric imagery and values were absorbed into the musical mainstream quicker than we ever thought possible. From early artists like Sinead O’Connor, The Pretenders, and Tori Amos, to more recent bands like Florence and the Machine and Arcade Fire, popular music has become filled with songs of shapeshifting, of communing with nature and spirits, of the seasonal festivals. To a certain extent, all musicians are Pagan now.
So the current market for books, music and workshops has made a certain kind of leadership and livelihood nearly impossible to sustain. Yet on a cultural level the influence of Paganism in this country is profound and far-reaching. Our small pond is rapidly being absorbed (some may say siphoned off) into a much larger waterway. And here is where I disagree with some commentators: I don’t see this as a problem. I see this as a huge win.
Learn to Breathe Outside the Pond
If anything, this is a time in the U.S. when spiritual affiliations are getting even looser and less important than they have been for the past 40 years. And when people do feel the need for more spiritual support or community infrastructure in their lives, they are likely to either get more training to carve out their own path, or go back to a version of their childhood faith. Soon after our conversations, Carl returned to his roots and became a Christian mystic.
So I don’t think trying to engage the larger Pagan population with more Pagan-focused journalism will work. On the other hand, the mainstream press is full of casual and profound mentions of Paganism, in every conceivable context. Take this recent example from The Guardian, where in an offhand comment about the fashion industry, Glenn O’Brien of GQ says, “Creative people are natural pagans…It’s the only way you get to talk about Venus and Mercury and Jupiter.”
Unquestionably, we need good journalists reporting on every level of society and culture. Just like we need authors and teachers to remind us how to live a good life. But I think we lose the battle for influence as soon as we start pitching things exclusively to a Pagan audience. One million Pagans don’t even see themselves as an audience—they are Iowans, or lapsed Catholics, or doctors, or yoga moms.
If you are a teacher and writer who happens to be Pagan and would like to make a living at teaching and writing, here is your challenge: meet people in other ponds. Develop totally unrelated groups of friends, and figure out how to talk about what you do so that they can understand. Speak at industry events where your religious affiliation is at most a side note. Sharpen your game, retool your ideas, become a better communicator, learn from others who are a few steps ahead of you. If you can translate your spiritual beliefs into a heartfelt approach to whatever else you do, people will listen.
The rapidity with which the larger culture is absorbing Pagan values is very exciting, but it also means that even in our small pond we need to be more ethical and informed. That’s why Cherry Hill Seminary is such a treasure, and why active bloggers like Jason and Thorn who keep raising the level of online discourse are too.
The number of people who read this blog will always be small, but my goal here isn’t to pump up pageviews or even necessarily to reach more Pagans. It is to develop my ideas, to practice different kinds of writing, to share experiences that have shaped my life. And ultimately, to create stories that are good enough to speak to everyone who finds solace and inspiration in the great big Church of Green and Blue.