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Dream Catchers by Philip Jenkins

Nov 24, 2004 05:39 AM
by kpauljohnson


Instead of a review I will provide some excerpts with relevance to 
Theosophists. Jenkins has emerged as one of the leading religious 
studies authors in the US with 17 previous books and with this one he 
takes on a fascinating topic. As the subtitle puts it: How 
Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. The treatment is 
chronological, beginning with the colonial era in which Indian 
religions were regarded as diabolical. Not until after the Civil War 
did the "heathen darkness" approach to Indian religion begin to be 
supplanted by a degree of respect. By the 1920s whites began to 
champion Indian religions but usually through a lens of Western 
interpretation. Theosophical notions about Atlantis and 
reincarnation were a mainstay of such interpretations. Developments 
through midcentury helped prepare the way for New Age enthusiasm for 
Native religion, which the Indian revival of the 60s through the 
present encouraged. Yet with the rise of Westernized popularization 
of Native religion there came increasingly sharp protests by Indians 
against New Agers' commercialization and expropriation. In 
discussing this conflict Jenkins raises questions about authenticity 
and authority that apply to Theosophical history as well as to many 
if not most other modern spiritual movements:

Though the new Indianism was built upon long-established romantic and 
esoteric traditions, it was also shaped by several new factors that 
had gained force during the 1970s. Originally, these ideas were 
quite separate-- neopaganism, Goddess feminism, neoshamanism, UFO 
belief, archaeoastronomy-- but increasingly, between about 1979 and 
1981, they merged into a New Age synthesis. These ideas created a 
demand for guides and gurus, for texts that could offer near-
scriptural authority. (pp. 176-77)

Neo-Indian spirituality illustrates a familiar paradox of 
contemporary religious movements, namely, the issue of 
authority...What makes the Indian packaging of New Age ideas so 
attractive is the appeal to authority and antiquity. It offers a 
connection with the primitive that also implies a grounding in 
fundamental human realities. In this quest for the authentic, 
consumers seek out and accept the authority of spiritual leaders and 
teachers, who are accorded great respect beecause of their supposed 
credentials...Popular presentations of Native spirituality imply that 
authority is derived from racial identity...Indian activists complain 
that most of those marketing Native spirituality have little or no 
claim to Indian-ness, and are thus engaged in cultural theft.(pp. 198-

Throughout recent writings, we find a view of Native societies that 
is highly problematic. In order to assert the value of Native 
spirituality, witers consistently idealize their subjects, past and 
present, ignoring or underplaying those aspects they might find 
unsettling or inconvenient.(p. 219)

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