Tuesday 16 April 2013

An Interview with Dr. Christine Hoff Kraemer

After two months’ absence, I’m back here at Albion Calling with the latest in my ongoing series of interviews with academics operating in the study of ritual, religion, and magic. Today we talk with Dr. Christine Hoff Kraemer of Cherry Hill Seminary, an American Pagan theologian/thealogian and religious studies scholar who received her doctoral dissertation from Boston University in 2008. Having a research interest in the interplay between religion, minority sexualities and popular culture, namely cinema and comic books, she has seen her work published in a series of peer-reviewed outlets, and is responsible for both a recently-released monograph, Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, as well as the edited volume Graven Images: Religion in Comics and Graphic Novels, co-edited with A. David Lewis. We discuss Alan Moore, the pitfalls of academia, and the growth of contemporary Pagan theology.

[EDW] Hello Christine, and welcome to Albion Calling. The first question that I’d like to ask is how you got involved with Religious Studies, and what attracted you to academia in the first place? Was it always a burning ambition of yours or was it one of those things that just seemed to have a will of its own?

[CHK] I was in love with the academy when I was in college. I published my first peer-reviewed article shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree, and then I took a year and a half off school. I spent my entire “break” desperate to get back into school as soon as possible; I was working for a church and often ended up in the minister’s office devouring books of theology. I considered seminary, but in the end I found an interdisciplinary program in Religion and Literature that would allow me to continue the literary and media criticism I’d studied as an undergrad. I had a vision of myself becoming a professor, teaching, having a family, and being able to serve as a leader in my religious community.

To be honest, I think much of the encouragement I got from teachers and clergy about becoming a professor came from their experiences of the academy twenty to thirty years before. I was about halfway through my PhD when I fully understood that, not only was the academic job market a disaster, but many of my professors were living unhappy, overcommitted, highly stressed lives. I’d thought I was signing up for a stable career of teaching and reading great literature, with enough flexibility to also pursue my own research and still have a spiritual and social life. It became clear to me that a professorship was no longer a job, but an all-consuming lifestyle that didn’t necessarily leave time for family, friends, or religious community.

I am thankful that my primary advisor, an ordained Episcopal priest, understood that there was more to life than the academy and encouraged me to find work that I loved. As a result, although I maintain a relationship with academia through publishing, presenting at conferences, and teaching at an alternative academic institution (Cherry Hill Seminary, an online contemporary Pagan seminary), I haven’t felt tied to my identity as an academic. Today, I work as a nonprofit consultant and as Managing Editor of the Pagan Channel at Patheos.com. Patheos has a great model for interfaith public religious education, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.

Many of the readers here have probably seen the flood of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere announcing the end of tenure and decrying the way graduate students and new PhDs are emerging unprepared to make a living. Happily, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) has been responsive to these concerns; last fall, I was able to get funding to bring Dr. Amy Hale to Boston, where she presented on alternative academic careers in the humanities and social sciences. Amy is a Celticist who has made a career of online teaching and consulting while also continuing to do research. The workshop was so well-received that we were invited to repeat it at the national AAR conference. The need for this kind of re-envisioning of the academic life is enormous.

Rather than mourning the end of tenure, I’m more interested in looking ahead toward alternative models of higher education. I think that online and hybrid learning environments (partially online, partially in person) are going to be essential to the academy of the twenty-first century, as will instructors that have real-world experience in their fields. I don’t think there’s any way we can return to an academy based on tenured professorships, but I do think that universities could recognize the special expertise of adjunct instructors who are working in their fields outside the academy and compensate them appropriately.

[EDW] In 2008 you completed your doctorate in Religious and Theological Studies at Boston University with a thesis titled “The Erotic Fringe: Sexual Minorities and Religion in Contemporary American Literature and Film.” Could you tell us more about this project? You’ve since published papers on sexual minorities and religion in The Pomegranate and the Religion Compass; is it an area of research that you'd like to get back to in the future?

[CHK] Thanks so much for the interest in my dissertation! Some of the chapters have been published or are forthcoming as articles; “Contemporary Paganism, Utopian Reading Communities, and Sacred Nonmonogamy: The Religious Impact of Heinlein’s and Starhawk’s Fiction” appeared in The Pomegranate in 2011, for instance. I’m also happy to send the entire dissertation to anyone who contacts me.

The dissertation project emerged organically out of projects I’d pursued during graduate school. As a literary and media critic, I saw my task as spotlighting and giving context to popular works with important social, religious, or political messages, especially those that hadn’t yet received much scholarly attention (Angels in America was the only one of the works I treated that had significant existing criticism). Sexual minorities, gender identity, the erotic as a theological concept, and hybrid media forms were all recurring issues in the works I found myself writing about. It was in looking for the threads of connection between them that I discovered my research question.

I haven’t really stopped writing about religion and sexual minorities since, although in my recent work, I’ve been approaching the subject through the discipline of theology rather than through religious studies. I’ve just turned in a book manuscript entitled Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake to my editor at Routledge—quite the labor of love! I’m grateful to Routledge for taking it on, because Eros and Touch is a risky book, not least because it’s interdisciplinary and so doesn’t fit neatly into existing marketing categories.

In many ways, Eros and Touch came out of my dissertation project and its aftermath. I was reading a great deal of Christian and post-Christian queer theology, as well as writings from sexual minority advocates (LGBT writers, but also BDSM practitioners, polyamorists, and others). The two groups had a great deal of theological overlap, but as far as I could tell, relatively little awareness of each other’s existence. There were a few exceptions, though, notably Marcella Althaus-Reid, a queer Christian liberation theologian who argues that because of their marginalized status, sexual minorities have special insight into social power structures around sexuality and the erotic. (The idea that marginalized groups have a critical role to play in social reform is a key idea in liberation theology.) I admired the focus of queer Christian writers on social justice issues, but most didn’t go as far as the Pagan community tends to in affirming pleasure as a holy birthright. I wanted to add a Pagan voice to the theological conversation, and I wanted to talk openly about the sexual minority groups that many queer Christian theologians didn’t seem willing to discuss, perhaps because they are so controversial.

The final piece of the puzzle came when I pursued training as a massage therapist and was exposed to both spiritual and clinical writing about bodywork. The personal and social impact of touch deprivation came fully into focus for me. In America and the UK, people are socialized to touch others very little, to the extent where touch between students and between teachers and students is nearly forbidden in many public schools. Yet we have clinical studies showing that touch deprivation causes developmental problems, degrades mental and physical health, and encourages violent behavior.

Eros and Touch brings together writings from contemporary Pagan leaders, progressive Christian and Goddess theologians, advocates for the queer and BDSM communities, and therapeutic bodyworkers to present the erotic as a divinely transformative force for social change. I define “the erotic” as intimate, fully embodied, pleasurable contact that can include the sexual, but which also includes many nonsexual forms of contract. My purpose is to propose a system of social and personal ethics, grounded in Pagan liturgy and myth but hopefully accessible to other progressive religious people, that emphasizes the importance of consensual, pleasurable touch for human spiritual and physical health.

Although I’ve written essays and one previous book where I identify myself as a Pagan and a practitioner of religious witchcraft, Eros and Touch is by far the most personal piece I’ve written. In my work as a religious studies scholar and literary critic, I’ve always written in a relatively objective voice and assumed an audience with no particular set of religious commitments. This book is written specifically for a theologically progressive interfaith audience with interests in Pagan studies, body theology, or LGBT/sexual minority issues. I will be praying that it finds its intended audience!

[EDW] Your first published book was an edited volume co-produced with A. David Lewis, Graven Images: Religion in Comics and Graphic Novels (Continuum, 2010), itself based on an earlier conference that the two of you ran. How did this project get off the ground, and was your interest in comic books/graphic novels been something you’ve brought from your personal life into academia? There’s still something of a stigma attached to the medium in the Anglo-American world, a sense that comics can never be “real literature”; did you face any sort of dismissal or belittlement toward your conference?

[CHK] I discovered comics through a college roommate, who directed me to some of the most sophisticated comics works then available and gave me free access to his extensive collection. I mentioned before that one of my missions in the academy is to bring scholarly attention to works and subject matter that haven’t been extensively studied, so I was a comics fan for about five minutes before I started doing writing and research on them!

Dave Lewis is a comics writer as well as a scholar. We met and become friends through the Religion and Literature program at BU, and he was the one to come up with the idea of doing a religion and comics conference. Since I already had significant experience organizing events and had comics as an ongoing research interest, I was happy to join the project. The weekend had good attendance and attracted undergraduates and some members of the public as well as academics; we were especially happy to be able to feature a keynote address and a panel featuring comics creators, in addition to the scholarly papers. Afterward, it seemed natural to develop the conference proceedings into a book. Two publishers were interested immediately, and we ended up signing with Continuum.

I think I started doing comics scholarship right at a tipping point—after two decades of articles in the New York Times Magazine and other publications extolling how comics are a real, sophisticated art form now, academics seem to have gotten the memo. There’s quite a bit of comics scholarship available today, and I think the field is developing nicely [EDW: see such peer-reviewed outlets as the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, European Comic Art and ImageText]. It’s probably where film studies was in the middle of the twentieth century.

[EDW] You’ve now published two research pieces on Promethea, the comic series by Alan Moore in which he explored his own personal occult beliefs through the framework of the Qabalah. One was co-written with J. Lawton Winslade and is included in the aforementioned Graven Images volume; the other appears in the edited volume on Sexual Ideology in the Works of Alan Moore (McFarland, 2012). I’ve long been a big fan of Moore’s work, and think Promethea is one of my favourite of his series – I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to tell him so when I ran into him quite by chance in London’s Atlantis Bookshop one afternoon. When did you develop an interest in Moore’s work and what is it about Promethea specifically that inspired you to conduct research on it?

[CHK] Oh, that’s a good story! I was writing my undergraduate thesis on twentieth-century representations of apocalypse, and I’d already chosen Moore’s Watchmen as one of my pieces (it was one of the first comics that my helpful comics fan roommate gave me to read). I decided that if I was going to write on comics, I ought to have the experience of following a comic series month to month. I headed to my local comics shop and saw the cover of Promethea #4 from across the room—without even getting close enough to see what it was called or who the creator was, knew I had to have it. When I saw it had been written by Moore, I was thrilled; and when it turned out that the main character was a college student writing her senior thesis on comics, it seemed positively meant to be!

A few years later, I wrote Moore a fan letter, telling him a bit about myself, my religious leanings, and my academic studies. A month passed, and then a mysterious package from the UK arrived, containing a stack of Moore’s ritual theater CDs, an unpublished article on chaos magick, two copies of Promethea Vol. 2 (one signed for me to keep, one to lend out), and a warm and encouraging note. I was floored!

Alan Moore’s being an extremely sweet man, though, isn’t why I keep writing about his work. Although Moore’s work has getting a fair bit of scholarly attention over the past ten years, I notice that many comics scholars either don’t take his spiritual philosophy seriously (preferring instead to focus on his politics) or simply don’t have the background to understand and interpret it. Religion and theology represent a gap in Moore scholarship that I can easily fill.

Promethea continues to be one of my favorite works of his, not because it’s the best-written of his works, but because it’s so experimental in both form and content. I think it goes over many readers’ heads, at least initially, so I appreciate opportunities to provide context for it. Additionally, many Pagans and ceremonial magicians have embraced Promethea as a primer for learning about Western esotericism. Religious education has been a major function of the comics form for decades, if not centuries (if one uses a broad definition of “comics”), so it’s fascinating to look at how the form being used in service of a non-mainstream spirituality.

[EDW] Your latest book, Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies, has just been published as an eBook by Patheos Press and released to a positive reception online. Could you tell us a little more about this new project of yours; how did it come about and what are your hopes for it?

[CHK] Many Pagans are hostile to the idea of theology, either because they understand it as a purely Christian construct that focuses on belief rather than practice, or because they fear that written theologies will cause Paganism to become dogmatic and rigid. Neither of these is the case.

I wrote the book for two different purposes. First, I wanted to help Pagans develop a theological vocabulary to describe their beliefs and attitudes, while making it clear that Paganism has theologies (not one theology) and that it is normal for an individual’s theology to evolve over the course of her life. I’m hoping that the book will prepare Pagans to read semi-academic and academic theologies and discuss them in their communities. To me, the ability to have sophisticated intellectual frameworks with which to describe our practices is part of the process of becoming a sustainable religious movement—and it also equips Pagans to communicate effectively in interfaith situations.

The book’s secondary audience is readers who know something about theology but little about Pagans. Most Americans approach religion from the point of view of belief, and while belief isn’t the focus of Paganism, Pagans do have important beliefs about why their practices are effective and worthwhile. Since the first question non-Pagan readers tend to ask people of other religions is, “What do you believe about X?”, the book indulges that impulse while leading them to understand that belief is only one small aspect of most contemporary Pagan traditions.

The book includes discussion questions and exercises for individuals and groups, so I especially hope that Pagan training groups and interfaith study circles will find it useful.

[EDW] You now teach Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary, a Pagan institution that offers Master of Divinities degrees which is, I believe, the first of its kind in the U.S. How did you come to take up this job, and what do you see as your role within it? Would you agree that that the Seminary plays a role in the growing institutionalisation and routinization of the American Pagan community? Furthermore, what place do you feel that the Seminary serves in the Pagan community and in American society as a whole?

[CHK] I was initially recruited for Cherry Hill by Macha NightMare, who I knew through AAR. After coming on as an instructor and developing two of the core Master’s classes, I served as chair of Theology and Religious History for two years and assisted with the development of the Master’s program. I’m back to teaching core Master’s classes in Theology and Contemporary Global Paganisms now, along with the occasional 4-week community education class.

I do think the seminary is moving the Pagan community toward institutionalization, and I also believe that institutionalization is an inevitable process. The Pagan community keeps growing, and with it, so does the demand for clergy services—weddings and funerals, counseling, prison ministry, hospital ministry, more. We owe it to ourselves and each other to have well-trained clergy to provide those services to their communities.

At the same time, I have mixed feelings about the institutionalization process. I believe the Pagan movement needs skilled clergy to thrive, and that we won’t be able to sustain those clergy if we can’t find a way to pay them—and that almost certainly means creating organizations of some kind. I’ve witnessed far too many cases of volunteer burnout to think that we can be survive indefinitely with volunteer leadership. On the other hand, Pagans need to think carefully about how to structure the organizations we create, especially when it comes to power relationships. I don’t want to see the volunteer leaders who built Pagan traditions pushed aside by newly paid, professional clergy; instead, I’d like to see organizations that retain a great deal of power in the hands of volunteers and use collaborative decision-making processes. I’m not against hierarchical organizations, but I’d like to see Pagans creating dynamic hierarchies in which power does not rest permanently with one person or one small group. If Pagans can learn from existing groups that operate without traditional hierarchies—the Society of Friends (Quakers) is just one such group—perhaps we can avoid perpetuating the kinds of rigid religious institutions that many Pagans left their birth religions to escape.

[EDW] It’s a question which I have asked my last three interviewees, but I would be very interested to hear your take on it. How do you see the academic field of Pagan Studies progressing over the next fifty years or so, and what role do you believe institutions like Cherry Hill will play in that, particularly in the context of Markus Altena Davidsen’s criticism that Pagan Studies is already too heavily dominated by practising Pagans?

[CHK] Well, with regard to Davidsen, I’m not sure his complaint is that the field is dominated by insiders so much as that he objects to a Pagan studies that isn’t primarily scientific and theoretically oriented. Davidsen actually names a number of scholars who are also practitioners as successfully producing the kind of scientific work he admires, although I’m not sure he’s aware of their religious commitments. Regarding his criticism overall, I think he does have a point that much of Pagan studies scholarship has been very descriptive. I think that’s normal for a young field, although if his barb drives scholars to become more critical and analytical in their approach to the material, that’s probably a good thing.

My research leanings are in theology right now, though, and theology is inherently an insider discourse, as opposed to religious studies, which has a range of participant-observer approaches. I’d like to think that Pagan theology will have a place in the Pagan studies in the future, just as Christian theology has a place within the academy now. I also sympathize with what Nikki Bado said at the last meeting of the AAR: that for scholars of religion, “insider” and “outsider” are slippery categories. If I am a Pagan and I study Christians, am I an outsider because I do not practice their religion? Am I an insider because I was raised in a Christian church, or an insider because like them, I am a theist? To me, the question of how to deal with one’s personal religious commitments when doing religious studies scholarship is a complicated question to which there are no easy answers (indeed, the excellent book Researching Paganisms is largely devoted to debating it).

At Cherry Hill, we are primarily educating clergy and community leaders, not religious studies scholars. But I think the way Cherry Hill cultivates a distinctively Pagan intellectual culture is valuable and should have a place in Pagan studies, even if we may need to draw stronger distinctions between work intended to be constructive/theological vs. work that is meant to be analytical/scientific. Theology and religious studies are different disciplines, and I myself prefer not to blur them too badly. That being said, I’m thrilled at the constructive scholarship my students at Cherry Hill are doing, the way they’re engaging history and religious studies to bring rigor to their theology and to enrich the liturgy and lore of their traditions.

In the next fifty years, I’d like to see a strengthening and clarifying of different approaches in Pagan studies—not a casting-aside of what Davidsen calls the “religionist” approach, but far greater clarity about the methods we’re using and why. I personally appreciate the approaches that Davidsen calls “scientific,” I would love to see more scholarship in that vein as well as more development of distinctively Pagan theological discourses. I’m a big fan of Constance Wise’s Hidden Circles in the Web, for example – it is genuinely a theological work, not an attempt to approach theology through sociology or history, as other works of Pagan studies have.

Thanks very much, Ethan, for the opportunity to be interviewed. It’s been a pleasure.

[EDW] And thank you Christine for giving us this wonderful interview. We look forward to the publication of Eros and Touch and hope that it is a resounding success.