The Reconstructionist Book Problem, According to Darkhawk

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.


But it doesn’t end there! Here is a possible solution to the problem:

Do you sculpt? Do you dance? Do you make a mean gumbo? Do you paint? Do you sing? Do you write poetry? Do ou produce anything that is of value as a devotional act, within a religious community, or otherwise relevant?

And that’s just the easy, surface stuff. But it requires dropping the idea that “the knowledge pool” is the be-all and end-all of religious work, to start out with, and that all other necessary contributions are to be subordinated to the library.

But go deeper.

Do you have the ability to work a shift at the soup kitchen? Make a microloan to someone needing to reroof their house? Sponsor a kid doing a Read-a-Thon for medical research? Lend a shoulder to someone in mourning?

These hold the potential to be religious acts, as well as the surface contributions to a community that they are up front.

Go deeper again, or maybe a different sort of deep.

When you work, do you dedicate yourself to your job, and then leave your job at work when you go home, not working excessive overtime? When you are with family and friends, do you build sound relationships that are mutually supportive and healthy? Do you pay your taxes?

Because those, also: religious acts. Drawn from my religious background in specific, but hey.

and, to cap it all off, here is Darkhawk’s response to a question posed by another Cauldron member:

I’m not contesting that such people exist. I’m just saying that rather than assume malice we should assume stupidity, or rather, lack of access to other forms of knowledge.

What form of knowledge is required to not greet a new person with “You can’t do this religion right unless you read this academic library”?

What form of knowledge is required to not be snide and dismissive of resources on a religion that are actually written about the religion from the perspective of applicability to practitioners of the religion?

What form of knowledge is required to not treat people who do not have the luxury of academic research as second class practitioners?

Seriously, Darkhawk, stop being so awesome, or I’m going to have to change the name of this blog to “LISTEN TO DARKHAWK, EVERYONE!” 🙂

(Posted with permission.)

ETA: Here’s the link to the entire thread, for your perusal:


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