If I asked you to choose between asking a 19-year-old kid or a 40-year-old established adult to answer a question about politics, which would you choose? The quick and dirty answer is probably the 40-year-old. We naturally think that experience and age is accompanied by knowledge and wisdom. It has been proven in study after study after study that we view the superficial characteristics of a person to be a deciding factor in their trustworthiness.
We assume that wrinkles in the forehead and gray in the hair belie knowledge beyond our own. But, my dad always told me that assumptions make an ass out of you and me, and I learned that my father – whether I admit it to his face or not – is generally right. Now, I learned he was right not by looking at his forehead or hairline, but by asking him over 2 decades worth of questions and following up with his answers.
The same is true with books. When we look to ask the big questions in life, the books that have been around the longest are the ones we turn to when we want the answers. Obviously, if they’ve been around a while, they’ve got to have some answers. They have to be better than whatever shiny new thing is out there. Hundreds of years, thousands of years worth of trust in these texts must surely provide some sort of quantitative or qualitative proof that they hold more of the answers, the accurate answers, than other texts. Right?
It’s kind of obvious where that line of logic would lead. No, sir, just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It doesn’t mean it’s gospel, except that’s sort of where the expression came from. We say something is gospel when it is the undisputed truth. And we get the word gospel from the four gospels in the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This implies that the Bible, for example, is the undisputed truth. Except that the Bible and everything in it is one of the most disputed texts in history.
But, so are the Koran, the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Talmud, the Upanishads, the Veda, and all the rest of the holy and sacred texts of the world. We argue over scriptures we don’t agree with and blindly accept the ones that sound good and just sort of ignore all the other ones. There are over 700 commandments in the Bible, but most of us can’t accurately name the big 10.
The problem with old texts, especially ancient texts, is that they were written by specific peoples in specific periods and specific instances. Each one telling the story of a culture overcoming great obstacles and leaning on their god or gods for support, guidance, and justice. The even bigger problem with these texts, though, is that very perspective from which they are written. Because of this, cultures that are not part of the book writer’s culture are typically deemed evil and against god. For the Christians, the Greeks and Romans – and all of their gods and practices – were thought of as evil. So worshipping multiple gods, having homosexual sex, challenging the status quo, and a whole host of other ideals were considered evil. But, this can be the case repeated over and over again in each of the other Holy Texts.
But, the wisdom of these books cannot be denied. They have survived this long for a reason. There is beauty and depth and a path to the divine to be found within their pages. There is beautiful language and good advice and serious warnings against harming your fellow man. However, just looking at those beautiful parts is ignoring the harmful parts and the outdated parts and all the other parts in between. Remember the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, the pretty stuff will always be there, but you have to find a way to reconcile the not so pleasant parts.
On the flip side, there are the babies. The books and texts and ideas and spiritual guides that have been written in the last 10, 50, 100 years. These books have not had time to become a true holy text with hundreds of millions of followers and quotable scriptures disseminated amongst the masses. And, for that matter, it has not even been decided which of these dozens of books should be followed, if any were to be followed at all.
In paganism alone we have Cunningham, Crowley, Morrison, Ravenwolf, the Farrars, Bone, Buckland, and dozens more. Each has their strengths, weaknesses, and ludicrous postulations. Are any of their texts singularly able to stand as gospel? I don’t know of any pagan who would say yes. No, what book we consider to be gospel is the one we make ourselves, right? Our grimoire, our book of shadows, our personal compendium of spells, rituals, rites, sabbats, esbats, laws, rules, and religious tenets. This book is put together page by page from the time we enter our path until the time the Goddess calls us home.
Unlike Charmed, these Books of Shadows have not been handed down for hundreds of years, but even if they had does a few hundred years give it any more credence than the book you’re writing yourself right now?
Of course it does! It has had more time to be tested, questioned, debated, tested again, rewritten, and finalized. The difference in a working Book of Shadows, though, is that it can be changed, whereas the more rigid classical texts are – pardon the phrase – set in stone. Another big difference is that our books are not typically seen as the exact word of the Divine, when the holy texts are considered revealed, meaning they are seen as messages sent by God. Which, in some way, is a comfort.
If these books are Divine, then they can simply be followed. There is no room for questioning or changing or updating, because there is nothing new under the sun, as one text puts it. The date may change, the technology, and the manner in which we get in trouble might change, but the trouble never does – or so goes the thought. The Divine supposedly knows all of the ills and evils of mankind and set down laws and guidelines to prevent us from treading that path long ago.
Except, there’s the hitch. They didn’t write the books. The gods did not set pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or metal to stone and etch out the books of past, present, or future. People did. Which is why the classical texts are littered with allegories and cultural misunderstandings, pitting people against people all due to a war or injustice that happened thousands of years ago. But, because it’s a holy book and is older than dirt, there must be a really good reason why one particular group of people is better than the other.
I hope I’ve laid it out that this is both the boon and curse of ancient texts and practices. When we get lazy enough to blindly follow a text, we are doing ourselves and our future generations a disservice. But, young texts aren’t any better. We write our Books of Shadows, our grimoires, our modern holy texts with our own beliefs, grudges, prejudices, injustices, and points of view.
I’ll guarantee that you have spells, rituals, rites, etc. that are tailored to meet your daily needs, but I’ll bet you also developed such a spell, ritual, or rite to take care of a specific situation. That time you wanted a better job or a new lover or wanted to get back at your old lover or thought you’d give worshipping Bast a go; it’s all in there. And while you know the journey you took, your progeny might not. They might get a bit confused about why you’d be worshipping both Bast and Cerridwen and Coyote. They don’t belong to the same pantheon, and unless you’ve done a scholarly job explaining pantheism in your personal book, it could lead to a bit of a miscommunication.
Which, naturally, leads to later misunderstandings, and before you know it your words don’t quite mean what they did when you first wrote them. Modern texts have just as many holes as old ones. The trick is to try and find them before they sink your ship.
19-year-olds could be geniuses who’ve already graduated with a Master’s Degree in political science, while a 40-year-old might be a bum who never got past grade 9. We know appearances can be deceiving, and yet we don’t wholly embrace that when it comes to books. If the leather is cracked and the pages stained, it’s assumed it might contain better knowledge. While the shiny new pagan publication, with its flashy title and gorgeous art, is treated as just another fluff piece. I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to do so: they are both equally adequate and inadequate.
My dad’s wrinkles don’t make him right, my double, triple, and quadruple-checking his answers do. Then practically learning them in the real world cements them. But, he doesn’t have all the answers. He still calls for questions about his new phone or for legal questions on occasion. And, of course, I relish in the chance to program his new tech toy, laughing the whole time about the day when he was the one with all the answers, and I was the silly kid who bought it all.
Each generation learns from one another. Do not shy away from the past, and, likewise, it should not shy away from the future.
Love and Lyte,