Interview with Pagan Athropologist, Murph Pizza

I had the opportunity to interview Murph Pizza in August at the Sacred Harvest Festival. She is affectionately called Paganistan’s own “resident anthropologist”. Murph secured her Doctor of Anthropology degree about a year ago. Her published thesis is called, “Paganistan, the growth and emergence of a contemporary Pagan community in Minnesota’s Twin Cities”. It is an ethnography, or recent history and an analysis of what kind of patterns, practices, and customs exist in the Twin cities. It is available through the University of Minnesota library, inter-library loan.  She offers insights into Minnesota Pagans, that you may not know or have forgotten… Read on!

Murph Pizza, PHD Cultural Anthropology

What is Pagan culture?

When we talk about in anthropology about, ‘what is culture’, we kind of have working definitions but what we try to instill, when we are talking about culture, is that culture is patterns of learned behavior. They are passed on from one generation to the next, and usually they are passed on systematically somehow. They could be religious traditions, they could be foods or recipes, but anything that is cultural is learned. To be able to see the emergence of Paganistan as a culture you need a long enough span of time to see what is continuing to be repeated, and when are the innovations in the community necessary. That is really interesting to watch.

Is Pagan culture something outside of mainstream culture, or is it totally contained within it?

Subcultures are never completely different from the larger culture that we grew up in, we all grew up in the Midwestern US. That comes with baggage of values and things. We may make the decision when we become Pagan to either continue with some of those or to dismiss some of those, The thing about culture is that a lot of it is learned like back ground noise. There are things that we do as Pagans that reflect that we’re Americans. We are a counter-cultural subculture in that we do see the dominant culture that we live in and think the values they express or the practices they have we don’t support, or we think there is a better way. We think that we instill different or ‘better’ values. So in that sense we are resisting the dominant culture. You never can completely step out of it.

Is there a consensus of values that are ‘Pagan’ ?

I make the argument in my thesis that yes, we do have some bottom, base line Pagan values. If you talk to Pagans, they have this weird cultural thing that we just disagree on everything and we’ll never agree on anything. That is really not true. We really are more alike than we realize. We seem to have a cultural habit of denying when someone says, “Well don’t you kind of share the same values?”, we say . “No, we are all different, and we like that”.  Interestingly, one shared Pagan value is the celebration of diversity.  Diversity is one of the things it is hard to be unified about because, well it is diversity! <laughs>  The fact that we are negotiating that we are sort of the same people and yet maintain our differences, values, paths, practices, etc, is a real interesting tension. I think it keeps the movement viable. It is frustrating when you are in it, but we need to remember that kind of tension keeps us living and breathing as a culture and a religion.

There is another shared value in that there is a genuine love of place, and of the planet. How it is expressed is where the diversity really hits. Some people become politically or socially active, like SuSu does with Coldwater Spring, or some people may just keep it in their back yard. How it is expressed is different but there really is a shared sense that this spinning ball of mud is fantastic and it is all we have got. Let’s teach the next generation to keep it around. So that is just a couple of shared values. This shared divine sense of place and insistence on our diversity.

Do values develop the culture, or does the culture develop the values?

People usually start out with their own set of moral and ethical values to guide them. Then they find people that they share those with, and that is when the rumblings of culture begin. Culture is also made by doing, and by experiencing. It’s not given to you in an envelope saying “Here’s your culture”. Observing things like how people interact, how they talk to their children. The subtle things about why we do what we do. By doing these sorts of cultural values emerge on their own. It is this dance of bringing values to a culture but then through the process of culture, the values develop and get integrated. Cultures always change, they are not static entities. They live and breathe.

This is definitely a maturing culture. The explosive growth that we were seeing fifteen, twenty years ago, with the increase of publications and more solitaries within the culture is really starting to temper a little bit. The growth is not dying at all but it is also not spiking, it is plateauing. Basically the people who are in Pagan culture, and who identify as Pagan, the ones who mean it, are hanging around. The ones who gave it a try, and said, “Well,  I guess I’ll go try something else” are continuing their search. The ones who have found their culture are definitely sticking with it.

In the sense that we have second generation and now third generation Pagan families was something that, back in the early days of Wicca, and Paganism, is something that no one ever predicted. The biggest thing that is going to cause cultural foment, that is change, or shift, or growth, is the children growing up. Seeing what their sense of what it means to be Pagan is so much more natural. Not a big deal, and not something to fight for. It is just something that they have always known. Now that is culture right there. They are like yes, I am Pagan or whatever, that is a sign that the cultural part of being Pagan has definitely been absorbed. When they grow up and they say, well ok, its time for us to start running the festivals and doing the cultural work of mentoring people. This is definitely a generation of people who really see their culture as ‘family’ , and the tolerance that is being instilled in the young people.

Are they idealists or pragmatists?

They are not the big heady dreamers that I think a lot of us were. There is a sense of, “why do you have to do those rituals all the time? , can’t we just hang out and ‘be’ ? “.  At the same time, early on there was some research done by a Cherry Hill Seminary dean, where she interviewed teens, and adults who had been teens and been raised pagan, and every single one of them was still identifying themselves as Pagan, except for one who felt that she was more Jewish than Pagan. They want this, this is who they are. This is not questioned, or questionable. It is like trying to deny an ethnicity, it is what you are and who you are. Those of my generation and past are still in the realm of “this is a choice I have made”. It is essentially who we are, we are celebrating who we are. It will be interesting to see if there is a more settled, more family feel about the culture, and if the social activism is going to go up or down.

Will the institutions in which we measure culture, say things like banks, health clubs, etc. going to keep growing?

I don’t think I am going to see those in my lifetime. Not because we can’t do it, but we are still a resources poor religious community. The religious groups that you see that pop up, and are suddenly very moneyed, putting up colleges and banks those type things, well there are benefactors there somewhere, or there are business interests somewhere, that are funneling tons of money. Some times there is a question of their ethics. Because we are rejecting that kind of influence on our religion its going to be slow to grow. I think the Sacred Path Center is a really beautiful start. I don’t think we are going to see anything like shared Pagan temples, or places of worship. I just don’t think contemporary pagans are ready for that. Well there are some that still talk about it, especially some of the elders say, “It would be great to have a Temple” where all Pagans could go to do whatever”. I know the foment and the diversity that we need to maintain and I just don’t see that occurring. It may take a new form, but it is not going to be a traditional temple or a church. That would be interesting to see what that might work into. In relation to banks, or schools, or other social institutions, Pagans have always been people who have lived among the dominant culture. We don’t necessarily set up communes. Those that tried in the sixties found out real quickly that maybe that is not the best way to go about it, with the scarce resources we have. I think there is something about the strategy of being the only Pagan that works in this part of the hospital or being that works in this restaurant, or health club,  or Pagan that is a member of this organization,  that is really effective.  Maybe even more than having separate institutions.

Like maybe being the loan officer instead of owning the bank?

Well yes, but there is some good strategy in owning it too, it’s just I don’t think we are going to see that right now.

Will we see Pagans openly proselytizing, like TV evangelicals, or is that even possible?

That is one thing that is definitely still a very shared Pagan value, that recruitment or proselytizing, or trying to lure people into joining us is so repugnant to just about every Pagan I have ever talked to. It’s just probably not going to happen. That said, there is something about our religion that people of other religions admire and want. A lot of Pagan I think don’t realize that. The ones who drift our way, who express an interest usually have been looking on their own to try to find something that fits who they are. If we are the fit, great, if not they will drift away again. The idea of, “ No really, Odin loves you and really wants you to come to our bloat. Just our bloat, nobody else’s bloat. And you need to join and bring along your family and give us money”, just the idea of that is still so repugnant. Pagans, since they are used to feeling so not accepted, from whatever dominant culture situations their family comes from really are not so eager to just accept anyone who walks through the door. There needs to be a screening process, even if it just, “Well, they seem smart enough”, or they seem sincere, or maybe are really good talking to the kids. After they have been in the community for a while, or showed up at the festivals, they are considered sincere, so that’s a kind of screening process there.

Is paganism now considered a mainstream alternative, or some people considered it a kind of cult?

We are definitely not considered a cult. When I go to some of the American Academy of Religion conferences, we have our own section now, just on Pagan studies. It is considered a viable, important force. We have a huge body of research now. The scholars of those other religions, and biblical traditions know of me and my work and respect it and consider me a colleague. In academia we have nothing to prove anymore, end of story. We will always kind of be considered a counter cultural force. We are not as large as some of these other long-standing religious traditions in America, but we are definitely effecting dominant culture just by being who we are. We are not considered some ‘wing nut’ cult anymore.

Some researchers claim Paganism is the ‘fastest growing religious tradition’,  is that really true?

You probably could have said that about ten years ago. Actually the fastest growing religion in America, still is Mormonism. They are still kickin’ our butts! We were put second or third fastest growing for a time, but that got kind of sticky,. When you are talking about Pagan culture you are talking about so many things under Paganism that it was difficult to chart. A new census in Europe will hopefully get some clearer results. It is still growing, but not as exponentially as it was. The people who are in it tend to stick with it, but it is less fashionable to ‘check it out’. Those that get involved now tend to be sincere, so growth has slowed a little bit.

What can Pagan culture contribute to the broader culture?

Well that’s one of the things I said in my thesis. We have all these diverse beliefs and practices, and people can rub elbows and not always entirely agree, but manage to get three hundred people into the circle at Sacred Harvest Festival, and all face West. There is no theological bickering that goes on, because at that point it doesn’t matter. There is something then that is not spoken, that is shared, it is just done. That is something we can contribute, that we can have all these diverse perspectives and it is not a failure, it is our strength, absolutely our strength.

Murphy Pizza has been a practicing Witch for thirteen years; embracing the spiritual diffusion of North America, she has described her path interchangeably as “free-lance polytheism,” “Creole Wicca,” or “hot-dish Heathenism.”