Pagans sang Christmas carols at the Yule ritual, and it totally caught me off guard.
The song sheets handed out to the attendees contained three classic, Christian favorites, re-written with Pagan, mostly Wiccan-themed lyrics. We Three Kings, Away in a Manger, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen were retitled and reworked as Moon of Silver, Away From The Harvest, and God Rest Ye Merry Paganfolk, respectively.
Perhaps Pagan re-adaptations of Christian hymns are not big news to my readership, but I was completely taken aback. Shocked, even. After all of this discussion about needing to keep Pagan traditions distinct from Christian traditions, and hearing Pagans emphasize the importance of defining ourselves outside of the Christian paradigm, it seemed bizarre–almost absurd–to hear Pagans sing these melodies as though there was no Christianity attached to them.
When I lived in Nashville, the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) capital of the nation, there was nothing that made my skin crawl more than to hear a Christian band assume a style, a look, or sometimes an entire genre of music that had been originated in the secular, “non-Christian” world. The tactic was rampant in the CCM industry. It happened all the time.
If a secular rock band topped the charts with a new, unique sound, you could bet good money that there would be a Christian look-alike band performing a similar song within six months. But their song would be sprinkled with Christian theology and dogma. Instead of being in love with a lady, for example, the singer would be in love with the Lord. Or, there would be a subtle mention of salvation, or heaven, or how great it felt to be saved.
No matter how well styled the recordings were, the songs ended up sounding, to me (a liberal, Episcopalian Christian at the time), like little more than generic-brand, Christian propaganda. It bothered me to think that my fellow Christians, by and large, were not producing music that would stand up on its own, while at the same time being theologically relevant. So, Christian or not, I preferred to listen to the music of an original sinner over a saved sinner rip-off.
With all that in mind, imagine how strange it felt to stand within a circle of Pagans, candles in hand, incense burning in the cauldron, and to hear everyone sing, to the tune of We Three Kings,
Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone
Queen of Heaven on your throne,
Praise we sing Thee, Love we bring Thee
For all that you have shown.
It was like Nashville all over again.
The CCM performers lacked a genuine, authentic, artistic identity; something which made them distinct, gave credence to their message, and was thoroughly memorable. After my experience at the Yule ritual, I question whether Pagans are experiencing a similar absence of definitive and relevant identity.
If we are not clear about what we are, on what we believe, and on how those beliefs inform our actions, we borrow. We borrow because it’s easier than doing the hard, creative, introspective work. We borrow We Three Kings instead of actually writing Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone. We borrow instead of innovating.
But if we don’t have enough fire and passion for our religious traditions to create something new, to fashion something from nothing in order to express exactly what it is that we’ve encountered in the quietest, darkest, deepest recesses of our soul, then why are we doing this? Have we encountered something worth writing a new melody for? Or, are we just performing ritual theater? Are we just engaged in religion role-play?
I need something more than that.
Pagans can make a different choice than the CCM artists did. We can take the spiritual, ecstatic experiences and encounters with nature, with our Gods, Goddesses, Spirits and Ancestors, and channel those experiences into new, thoroughly original and relevant songs — songs that don’t sound like Medieval dirges or Protestant hymns — and breathe some much-needed life into Pagan ritual, Pagan worship, and Pagan celebration.
Religion can lead to beautiful, brilliant art. If it isn’t doing that, there’s reason to pause and take a closer look at what the religion is truly offering its adherents. The creation of art is, after all, very much connected to the experience of worship and unity with the Sacred. The two are closely related.
Are our traditions inspiring us to create? To sing out loud? To rejoice at being alive? If the answer is “no,” or if we are in any way ambivalent, what does that mean for the future of Paganism? And, what can we do to ignite a creative fire within our circles and groves?