Our Wobbly World

In antiquity, everything depended on tradition because people recognized that their ancestors were the oneswho had survived in a hostile world that wanted to kill them. So smart people listened to what their ancestors said and, Darwin being right about some things, tended to be the survivors, while stupid people ignored seasoned wisdom and wound up getting killed by a hostile world that, sure enough, wanted to kill them.

Is living by tradition therefore perfect? No. Many times, tradition wound up developing into some very dangerous mutations — as, for example, the traditions of Aztec human sacrifice and Moloch worship demonstrate. Jesus and the apostles likewise warn strongly of human traditions posing as the Tradition of God. And it was a world full of reverence for tradition and the Old Ways that crucified the Author of the New and Everlasting Covenant.

Still and all, on the whole, the posture of the ancients (including the ancient believers in the New Faith in the Messiah) was to recognize that, if we see farther than our fathers, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and that running after novelty for novelty’s sake was a stupid idea.

With modernity, and still more with postmodernity, all this changed. Within a relatively short space of time, people came to regard the Old as the Outmoded and to see the accumulated wisdom of the past as ridiculous, even as they began to worship the Young, the New, and the Future. Americans, a people whose entire beginning is predicated on Revolution, have always been particularly prone to this. We are historical illiterates not only about our own revolutionary past but even about our recent past (recall the joke about Paul McCartney having been in a band before Wings, or just watch some old Jaywalking videos). And when it comes to the real historical and cultural bedrock of our civilization (namely, the Christian tradition), we are often so clueless that we will believe anything anybody tells us, just so long as it is not a priest or a bishop who knows what he is talking about.

And so we arrive at a present where, if you toss a little Olde Englysh mumbo jumbo into some religious claim or other, you can get any number of suckers to buy it as a revelation of cool pre-Christian paganism “suppressed” by the Church. All you need to do is look at the sales figures for The Da Vinci Code to prove that.

The funny part is, our culture’s growing allergic reaction to the Christian tradition — and therefore to people who, you know, actually know something about pre-Christian paganism — makes the Allergic ignorant of the debt they owe the Christian tradition for preserving paganism. For it is, after all, the Church that preserved the wreckage of high pagan civilization after low pagan barbarians destroyed it. Indeed, much of the “ancient mystical” paganism our culture tends to enthuse about (think Mists of Avalon, druids, Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge, various Celticized bits of rubbish, Wicca, etc.) is not Greco-Roman (which actually achieved something creative) but Anglo-Germanic and northern European in flavor. The thing is, northern European pagan patrimony to us is a few phallic standing stones. That’s because they spent most of their time getting drunk and stealing from each other, until they finally wandered in a raging stupor down to the Mediterranean to do a bit of raping and pillaging of the decadent Roman Empire.

All that noble Lord of the Rings Northern King of Righteousness mythology doesn’t really get going until these drunken thugs get Christianized by the former Mediterranean pagans they beat up. Then you start to get the groundwork laid for a Christianized Anglo-Germanic culture that can start to embody the virtues Tolkien celebrated in his love of Northern literature. But the very Catholic Tolkien would be the very first to tell Wiccans and fools who seek Lord of the Rings oracles for supposedly “ancient” pagan divination that they are historically illiterate suckers who need to learn what real northern pre-Christian paganism was like — starting with the human sacrifice. Thus Aragorn’s father is neither Arathorn nor the Viking King Gorm the Old, nor even Arthur. It is Jesus Christ, the real Once and Future King.

In short, the real Anglo-Germanic paganism is rather far from the edenic world of sexually free feminists who celebrated the goddess and pursued naturopathic healing arts, basket weaving, and telepathy with dragons until evil, repressive Christian missionaries introduced Guilt and Shame into the world and shadowed all happiness with their terrible cult of blood and sin. But modern “pagans” who are all, like, into ancient wisdom ‘n stuff don’t want to hear about that any more than they would have liked meeting the real Tolkien, who would have gone to Mass — in Latin — to pray for their souls. They want the World of Warcraft version or the Wicca version or the yoga version, which they tell themselves are what the world was like before Christianity gummed up the works.


This shallow silliness is not, of course, exclusive to Americans. The Bertie Wooster wannabes of the Chattering Classes in the Country that Used to be England were a trial for Chesterton a century ago for much the same reason:

The modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas on no authority. Say that a thing is so, according to the Pope or the Bible, and it will be dismissed as a superstition without examination. But preface your remark merely with “they say” or “don’t you know that?” or try (and fail) to remember the name of some professor mentioned in some newspaper; and the keen rationalism of the modern mind will accept every word you say.

These sorts of people have only gotten dumber since, all while congratulating themselves on not believing “the official story.”

Which brings us to today, where people go not to institutions that were historically the repositories of cultural memory (such as the church or the school) to learn about their own historical roots, but to Cracked Magazine, of all places, to discover the liberating truth that all this “ancient mysticism” stuff for which neo-pagans are such suckers is of very recent vintage. Wicca was cooked up a few decades ago by some spiritual dilettante. The company that invented the Ouija board still holds the patent on it. Yoga is just a little older than the Yugo. Mr. Potato Head is older than the Satanism of Anton LaVey, and his cult is, as he himself points out, pretty much Ayn Rand repackaged with smells and bells.

Catholics can, of course, cheer for common sense and truth wherever it is found, even in the odd locale of a web satire site for randy college boys. Indeed, given that college is often now a place dedicated to destroying such cultural memories and helping randy college boys get randier, we may be grateful that such sanity as our culture still possesses is available to young skulls full of mush in some location where it might cross their paths. If some college boy or his ditzy goddess-worshipping girlfriend learns from Cracked what their prejudices, university, or ignorance deny them from the Church, that’s a good thing — not least because it may prompt them to look at actual, ancient, mystical religion such as the Catholic faith. But Catholics should also be aware that the real takeaway from people who willingly listen to Cracked but not the Church is not, “So common sense is returning at last!” but something Chesterton observed a long time ago:

The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles. Left to itself, it does not get anywhere; though if helped by real reformers of the right religion and philosophy, it may get better in many respects, and sometimes for considerable periods. But in itself it is not a progress; it is not even a process; it is the fashion of this world that passeth away. Life in itself is not a ladder; it is a see-saw.

Cracked demonstrates that there is always room for a humorist to make fun of what is fashionable. Phony “ancient mysticism” is fashionable, so Cracked mocks it. Like every reactionary, Cracked can see what is bunk. But like every reactionary, Cracked can’t see what is the true, the good, or the beautiful — or at least they cannot see it in full. So right there on the site with the ridicule heaped on phony ancient religion is ridicule heaped on real revealed religion. It has to be that way in our age, because we have rejected our past — and especially our Christian past — and embraced the age of the New, which must, among other things, find new things to mock in order to fill the needs of the Cracked website for fresh copy every day. A 24/7 information cycle, whether for an adolescent satire magazine or the MSM Noise Machine, is not something conducive to contemplating the wisdom of our elders or the revelation of God. Reflection is the enemy of a world addicted to novelty.

And so we wobble like tops bouncing from new to new. Even the old is interesting only if it is repackaged as the new. We don’t know where we’re going, but we are going to make sure we get there ahead of everybody else. And if we need an ancient religious authority to bestow a mystical blessing on our headlong rush to we know not where, we’ll just invent one. When somebody points out that we just invented a religion, we’ll simply reply, “So what? All religions are invented!” and wobble away like jesting Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” and would not stay for an answer.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Briana

    “Reflection is the enemy of a world addicted to novelty.” <—— No one could have said that better than you just did sir. Wonderful piece overall too. 🙂

  • James

    Great article. But that picture. Why does the woman on the right have a man growing out of her head? lol

    • Jack

      Hilarious! I’d be lying if I said I saw him at first, but now I can see her look is one of concentration. It takes focus to manifest her familiar. Unfortunately for her, the familiar is a thirty-something soccer hooligan nursing a hangover.

  • Jacob S

    “Even the old is interesting only if it is repackaged as the new.”

    I think this pretty well sums it up. Occasionally, I hear someone trying to dodge this by saying they’re just going back to the beliefs of their ancestors.

    I dunno about you, but my ancestors, for the most part, were either a) born Christians, b) Christian converts, or c) people who had never heard about Christianity, cuz no one had made it up there yet – or at least had never made it up there and survived long enough to talk for a bit.

    But we don’t hear about that much because being a Christian isn’t new and exciting – at least to people who haven’t bothered to think about it – and, perhaps more importantly, an excuse to do whatever you felt like doing anyway.

  • John of Roncesvalles

    Regarding the development of “dangerous mutations” of human sacrifice mentioned in the article, literary anthropologist Rene Girard contends that human sacrifice in fact marks the beginning of relgion around the world in his great work Violence and the Sacred, and that the crucifixion of Christ closes the book on that period of human history, or should have.

  • You know, I read that same piece on Cracked the other day, and my first thought was, “This is Mark Shea bait.”

  • Pammie

    Having concentrated in European Medieval History many, many years ago (before most learning became politicised and therefore falsified to a great degree), has at times seemed to have been one of my more impractical decisions.

    For one thing it made watching historical dramas very irritating (especially after circa 1980) as anyone who has tried to get through one of the new BBC redos of “Miss Marple” can probably relate. But the very best thing about it is that it gave me a realistic view of the world that has never shifted one inch.

    The world before Christ was a dark and brutal place. Evidence abounds of the cruelty that existed within barbarian and pagan religions and cultures. Evidence is daily accruing around us what the world will be like again as Christ is dethroned officially as King of this World by our managerial classes and their willfully ignorant enablers.

    Mr.Shea ‘s ability to explain this so well here makes him a good 21rst century Chesterton himself.

  • MarylandBill

    Good article Mark. I must admit to have been flustered more than a few times by various groups making claims that there is just no evidence of. I have seen Wiccans argue that modern paganism is based on a “secret” oral tradition that existed since ancient times. I have had an argument with a follower of Norse Paganism because I referred to the Norse of the 8th-11th centuries as vikings. As far as she was concerned, it referred to just the raiders, despite the fact that viking is really a term that did not come into common use until the 18th or 19th century and has always been often enough used to refer to the culture as a whole.

    I agree with Pammie how so much academic study and research is politicized these days. I remember one otherwise really good Medieval Theology class on the Eucharist where we had to read a review of a book that attacked the book, not because the research was bad (The reviewer didn’t even bother to look at the evidence), but because the book did not fit with her feminist theories.

  • Howard

    As fond as I am of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans, the idea that they were “high paganism” and *so* much better than the “low paganism” of Northern Europe, which only left us “a few phallic standing stones” is an absurd exaggeration. I only hope it was intended as hyperbole, rather than the proverbial “open the mouth and remove all doubt”.

    • John of Roncesvalles

      Not sure I follow. Do pre-Socratics, post-Socratics, and many great Roman thinkers such as Cicero, who have shaped us in so many ways, have an intellectual equivalent in Norse Paganism?

  • Great article! The Chesterton quotes were really enlightening. Unfortunately, I don’t think the world will change (just as Chesterton said) but will continually seek out mythology to entertain itself. That is probably the root of the problem: selfish desires to entertain, rather than seek the Truth.

  • kesseljunkie

    WONDERFUL piece! Truly, brought some real joy to me to read this today.

  • Dr. Eric

    Perhaps we can show this piece to Sharon Lee Giganti and Johnette Benkovic so they can stop looking foolish for claiming that Yoga postures summon demons.

  • Serenitynow

    I must confess I take a decidedly more amused view of the rise of the “original pagan” religions. As Chesterton brilliantly noted, “I am very glad that our fashionable fiction seems to be full of a return to paganism, for it may possibly be the first step of a return to Christianity. Neo-pagans have sometimes forgotten, when they set out to do everything the old pagans did, that the final thing the old pagans did was to get christened.”

  • Mary

    Looking at the comments on the piece. . . . note how many are claims that it’s all wet without a single detail in it.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Neo-paganism is, by-and-large, unserious.

    We do not know anything about the pagan rites practiced around Stonehenge, if any. They did not write anything down. We have no data.

    The folk who gather for ceremonies there today are, as a consequence, forced to just make stuff up.

    Robes, daggers, wreaths, and the lot: It is all plucked out of their heads; and their heads are influenced by the imagination of Hollywood more than anything else.

    Were there anything supernatural about all of this, it would of course be vitally important to get the rites right, so to speak. Without any real historical data to go on, these folk would be in the unenviable position of invoking deities while only guessing what kinds of invocations will bring favor, and what kind will offend the god and bring smiting. That’s a serious concern when a serious deity is involved.

    So why do they go ahead with incorrect and possibly insulting invocations of mystical powers?

    Simple: Because they know perfectly well nothing’s going to happen. There is no serious deity involved. They know perfectly well that their whole belief-system, if it can be called that, is so much unicorn flatulence from end to end.

    And that’s fine with them, really: It is not about reality (that overrated and restrictive concept which predates postmodernism). It’s a Dungeons and Dragons campaign spun out of control for lack of a competent DM; a sort of alternative Society for Creative Anachronism meeting for folk the local SCA chapter pointedly didn’t ask back. Who cares whether there’s anything true about it? That’s hardly the point.

    What, then, is the point?

    It’s about meeting chicks, of course! A social outlet for fellows who otherwise would rarely leave the basement. When everyone’s wearing a toga, the odds are good that your odds are good.

    Of course, with the kind of girls who show up at such gatherings, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.

    The photo atop the article is instructive. Sigh. Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

    • Mark

      “unicorn flatulence”

      Great band name.

  • Nixon is Lord

    Wicca is basically a bunch of ex-Methodists standing around in weird “ancient” robes chanting “Blessed Be” to the goddess of cellulite. It’s about as “diverse” as cream cheese or the state of Idaho demographically, too.

  • Sandra

    The “neo-pagans” can’t really worship in the manner of the true pagans for many reasons, one of them, the “blood” sacrifice is not legal. Really, you can go to prison for what we in the Judeo-Christian seeped civilization and culture would call “ritualistic murder.”

    Even using an animal instead of a human is against animal cruelty laws. Besides PETA would get upset.

    For some things, the life sacrificed was that of a prisoner or criminal, for other things, like to end a famine, the “leader” of the people was the sacrifice. Somehow I don’t see our political or cultural leaders going for it.

    Here is where Jesus, IS the last and TRUE sacrifice, the unblemished “lamb” that takes away all that divides us from G-d, the true redeemer.

    Neo-pagans are children in “dress-up” because the majority of them KNOW to the depths of their souls, as much as they deny to themselves and othes; that there is a TRUTH, and what they do is “fancy dress” and pretending, no more than that.

  • Michael PS

    I know a place in the Western Isles of Scotland, where corn dollies are still, occasionally, hung from trees, usually near a spring or pool. I suspect, too, that the saucers of milk they put out at night are not always for the cat.

    On a winter’s evening, one can still hear old tales told in village pubs of the fairies or “Little People”; tales of bewitchings, changelings and murrain in the flocks. And I have heard such tales interrupted, by those who consider any mention of “na Sithein” as unchancy.

    On Hallowe’en, Hallow fires are still lit and“samhnag” or lighted lanterns, often hollowed-out neeps (turnips) put in windows and over the doors of byres and granaries.

    Are these genuine pagan survivals? Well, paganism has been described as ritual, without theology. “Mythology,” whether classical or Norse, is often an attempt to account for or justify a ritual, whose meaning is buried in the mists of time, or the sense of dread or awe, associated with certain sacred places. It is invariably mediated to us by later (and often sceptical) poets.

  • rose

    A trite, glib, jejune article mascarading as critically profound. And those who appear to appreciate it are already dumbed down by the same culture appearing to be examined here. “Wobbly” at best! Suffice to say and more succinctly put … “if one no longer believes in God, one will believe in anything”.

    For Catholics who wish to “get real”….a better and more fitting spelling out of our cultural situation….something that genuinely fits the profile of a “crisis” type magazine: