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Cults and identity

21 November 2010

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about vampire cults (Vampire community? | Khanya), which at the time I did not realise went beyond fans of vampire fiction, and actually involved people who seriously believe that they are real vampires, and that fictional vampires are, well, fictional.

This is linked to the question whether celebrity cults are “religious”.

The Other Journal at Mars Hill Graduate School:

The idea that celebrities are “kind of” gods has a long history. Film stars have been talked about as goddesses since Hollywood began, and we are all very familiar with the term diva for female opera singers and, more recently, any successful female performers with high expectations and a penchant for drama, which comes from the Italian word for a female deity. In popular music we have our “rock gods” and “pop idols.”

Hat-tip for this to Andii Bowsher, and has written some interesting comments at Nouslife: on worshipping celebrities -or not:

So it comes down to the way that identification and identity construction takes place in our culture. However, the relation to authority is different from traditional religion as we have often known it -or is it? Is it just that the way that different socially-powerful institutions are able to ‘capture’ the narratives operating at a popular level? In this case, the media, fashion and entertainment institutions rather than churches, monasteries, courts or guilds.

There have been some quite interesting discussions about this on nurel : New Religious Movements — a discussion forum for those engaged in or interested in academic research into new religious movements, and I, for one, have learnt quite a lot from them.

One of the most interesting comments there came fvrom Jesper Peterson, who said

I make my daily bread researching small “identity groups” of “self religion” based primarily on very idiosyncratic readings of both popular culture and more traditional religious material, so I am frequently engaged in similar terminological discussions, defending the pervasiveness of detraditionalized religion and thus the importance of such research. I think John’s argument regarding vampires and the “vampire community” (from John Laycock’s book, which I have read and like a lot) is valid and parallel to similar work on satanists and witches, appropriating a negative term as a positive self descriptor.

Nevertheless I must agree with Steve that the issues of authenticity and indeed community are real, insofar we deal with loose relations not easily measured by academics. When are “invented religions” ironic? when are they “real”? when is the feeling of community something imagined, and when is it manifest in networks of “real” communication and social practice? As such, I actually think that Laycock’s use of the emic term “vampire community” is problematic, as it (perhaps inadvertently) imports a partly subjective, partly rhetorical sense of “community” into academic terminology. I would always use community in the plural and reserve other terms, like “milieu” and “occulture”, for the ephemeral networks. Community implies a unity that should be researched before it is stated.

Secondly, numbers. Such communities, groups and networks are small – perhaps their influence is more widely felt, but they are small. This shouldn’t mean that we refrain from studying them (quite the opposite, really), but I am very aware of the danger implicit in studying them for several years, as they often swell in the “academic imaginary” into something they’re not. I am not surprised that nobody knows of the satanic groups I am working on, and I would expect the same for vampires. On that note, we shouldn’t be so empathetic that we forget just how counter-intuitive these identity appropriations are for many people. They might feel right, and we might understand why they feel so, but a majority still understands “vampire” or “satanist” as something monstrous and react accordingly. We should understand that too.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 November 2010 10:36 am

    In other words, if I understand right, the issue is no longer with ‘vampire’ but with ‘community’. As such the question does in fact relate to the discussion we were having about ‘ekklesia’ and ‘community’. In a personal email you wrote:

    ‘I don’t really see the distinction you make between “gathering” and “congregation”. I regard them as near synonyms, with the community referring to thos who gather or congregate, but also referring to what the church is doing when it isn’t sitting in its pews (if it has them).’

    The distinction was merely size. A congregation I had in the 50-200 range whereas a gathering could be any size. This was not from a definition point of view merely a useful way of seeing things: Few people would call a group of 3 people a congregation, but I am happy to use it as gathering. Secondly I was taking Paul’s invocation to ‘not stop gathering together’ as being the issue rather than ‘not stop going to congregational meetings’, which is very different.

    So, where does community overlap with this? A community doesn’t have to gather formally or informally to be a community. How do we define community? And how does that overlap with how we see ekklesia?

    • 21 November 2010 7:49 pm

      I still don’t see much difference between “gather” and “congregate”, and whether vampires do so, I have no idea.

      I suppose that in the sense described by John Morehead they could be called a “community” if, as you say there is a network of them. But I object to concepts like the “left-handed community”, because though people may share a common characteristic, it does not necessarily mean that they are all in communication with each other. Similarly, “gay community” excludes people who, though they may be gay, do not feel themselves to be part of a community based on that characteristic,

      • 21 November 2010 9:33 pm

        The differences between ‘gather’ and ‘congregation’ I think are more related to what people think of when the words are used, rather than their actual meaning, which I would agree bear overwhelming similarity. Within Christian spheres calling a group a ‘congregation’ tends to imply some characteristics which would be different for a group that was merely a ‘gathering’. Quite possibly different backgrounds would use those words differently.

        I agree with you on some of the uses of the term ‘community’, which are used to mean ‘external grouping based on a characteristic’ rather than some sort of sharing together. Especially so in the two examples you use, gay-community and left-handed community.

        If, on the other hand, a group of people who all call themselves vampires share some sort of life together then I would call them a community. Similarly, a group of people who congregate once a week to sing and listen to a talk but otherwise don’t share their life together, I might have a problem calling a community.

  2. 21 November 2010 10:41 am

    Let me unpack ‘A community doesn’t have to gather formally or informally to be a community’ – what I mean by that is that it doesn’t have to gather as a single organic unit. In other words a community can be a community if there are network relationships that bond it together or if there are multiple disparate gatherings alongside that that network. In fact I think it is the network relationships rather than the gatherings that make a community a community. As you put it ‘what the church is doing when it isn’t sitting in its pews’.

    Hence ‘vampire community’ relates to a group of people who have network relationships and who self-call themselves vampires. Gathering together as a homogeneous (or otherwise) group is irrelevant.

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