Impure Faith: Borrowers and Wannabes

By Marty, Martin E. | The Christian Century, June 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Impure Faith: Borrowers and Wannabes


Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century


Irony. Pathos. Hilarity. You needed a sense of each of these to appreciate a New York Times story in December about some ritualists in Boulder, Colorado, who were praying to Mother Earth and Father Sky. The devotees burned herbs, beat drums, and offered words expressing reverence for "the red nation," the Native Americans or Indians. Writer David Johnston comments: "All that was missing was an Indian." The 40 ceremonialists whom he visited for his story were white New Agers, part of a movement that imitates, borrows from or snatches Indian ways. But many Indian tribes and organizations, Johnston reports, "far from being flattered by the imitators, have denounced the movement as cultural robbery."

Spiritual "genocide," John Lavelle, a Santee Sioux, calls it. Lavelle directs the Center for Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions. Similarly, the National Congress of American Indians issued a Declaration of War against "non-Indian |wannabes.'" These wannabes live in "trendy, affluent places." Avoiding and rejecting "the faiths of their youth," says Johnston, they had found their inherited, usually Jewish or Christian, religions "boring and not very much fun at all." These self-admitted "baby boomers, middle-class whites" form entities like "the Church of Gaia" or follow would-be Indian spiritual mentors." Johnston quotes one of them who defends their cultural robbery by calling their Native American critics "Indian fundamentalists," who practice "reverse racism."

George Tinker of Iliff School of Theology and himself an Osage puts the Indian case best: "When you uproot something one culture and plant it in another culture, it is not the same thing. The danger is that these mutations of spirituality will make their way back into the Indian world." These New Age variations violate the Indians' communal sense because they are "centered on the self, a sort of Western individualism run amok."

Johnston is able to quote one exceptional but now spiritually ostracized Native American who is ready to share the formerly secret traditions, as he knows them, with non-Indians. But he wants the borrowers to realize all along that "the real enemies were the whites who took our land, the Christian missionaries . . . " In short: you can borrow, so long as you are mad at Christianity.

These Boulder ritualists and their fellow communicants, often in admirable efforts to show empathy with Indians, go beyond merely acting out sympathetic impulses. They also want to "borrow" and "be" Native American in worship. Some of their exemplars in recent years have messed up liturgies at retreats and conventions of Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, United Methodist and who knows what other traditions. One sees and hears them rejecting the boring and non-fun Christian traditions as they beat the drums (badly), dance (clumsily) and invoke Mother Earth and Father Sky (uprootingly). There is hope. Given a bit of time, if the fightingback Native Americans are eloquent and aggressive enough to be heeded, they might even drive some baby boomer, affluent, trendy whites to reinvestigate their own traditions. They might even find the real drama of Christian worship that worked itself out behind what they remembered as boredom, or come to know afresh the terror beyond the "not much fun" of these heritages.

My aim here is, first, to let people be who they are, which means to let them be complex in their roots. Second we need to realize the artificiality of many sudden and wholesale uprootings. Third, we must acknowledge, however, that while wannabeism is flawed, we can and inevitably do borrow, and thus can enrich worship and culture.

To support point one, let me focus on an individual, Black Elk, the best known of the Sioux holy men, well recognized thanks to poet John G. Neihardt's transcription in Black Elk Speaks (1932). As a boy wannabe-poet who grew up one county away from where Neihardt was writing, I began tracking his case over 50 years ago and have never tired of it. …

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