Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Reconstructionist Book Problem

Somewhere recently I saw a comment about how one has to, in order to be a good reconstructionist, read the academic books rather than the "popular" ones. Because only those will actually teach you how to do the religion.

I wonder sometimes if people who say this actually read academic books. Because they have jack shit about how to actually practice the religion they're studying in the here and now. I mean, I can read all about the procession of fifty priests with offerings for the Wagy, but not only am I not a priest, I am not fifty priests. I can read about theories of ritual structures built around standing stones, or their astronomical alignment properties, but I don't have a Stonehenge in my backyard and even if I did we have no actual knowledge of what was actually done there, rather than what might have been done there and some interesting facts about star alignments.

A lot of my personal work involves going through academic books to come up with information for how to celebrate various festivals, yes. But that work is primarily as an interpreter. I pick up pieces of knowledge out of academic tomes - the overwhelming majority of which is completely irrelevant to a modern day practitioner, since we lack large communities of co-religionists, civic support for religion, institutional temples or worship spaces, or other things that get studied academically - in the awareness that the knowledge I have is incomplete, does not encompass the majority of the population practicing that religion in ancient times, and so on.

And then I try to make something useful out of it. Something that we can do now. Something that connects to the world now. Which is a process of translation, interpretation, synthesis, interpolation, and making shit up to fill in the obvious holes. And that is not something that comes out of academic books - that's something that comes out of a process fed by academic books and a whole heap of other stuff. And it's a great heap of actual work, to boot.

And doing that work not only shouldn't be everyone's job, it can't be. (I personally know several people who - upon learning that they'd be expected to basically take an independent-study college class in order to be a part of their religious community - wound up leaving the relevant recon communities entirely. Not for lack of devotion; for lack of any community support at all, ever, in this regard.)

The thing about popular books - aside from the fact that many of them are cruddy, but that's a different problem - is that they're attempting to solve this actual problem: synthesising data into something that can actually be put into practice. Yeah, it's not gonna be as deep an understanding of ancient practice as reading everything in its bibliography and everything else besides, but it might have little things like:

* a functional festival calendar
* with ideas about how to celebrate each of the festivals
* structures of basic rituals
* context for devotionals
* and an outline of worldview/ethics/approach
* in terms that will be accessible to a broader community, enabling shared practice and celebration, which is after all a big part of the entire point.

A good and accessible library of such things will be, for purposes of actually conducting oneself in a religion superior to the academic books in their bibliographies, because they will have put the pieces together into something that can actually be done, rather than handing someone a crate containing disassembled car with half the parts missing and saying "Go for a drive!"

And even if they're not going to produce as well-informed a practitioner as someone who has read everything in their biographies ... well, reading them will take a lot less time, and be a lot more direct to the actual goal of having a religious practice and community.

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