Murphy PIZZA. Paganistan: Contemporary Pagan Community in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2015. Hbk. 150. £60.00 ISBN 978-1-40944-283-7.  Reviewed by Hans GUSTAFSON, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University (MN) and the University of St. Thomas (MN)

          Murphy Pizza (who self identifies as a “neo-Pagan practitioner”) gives a unique insider’s sociological account of the phenomena of the community self-identified as “Paganistan” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area of Minnesota, USA.  Despite her involvement as an insider, Pizza takes care to recognize her biases and critically distances herself from the content of her research when appropriate.  In so doing, she traces her journey into this unique community and accounts for what eventually led her to “self-exile” for various reasons documented in the text (e.g., disintegration of community due to Social Media among other factors).  My interest in this work arose directly out of my professional position as an academic scholar of interreligious studies who was born, raised, and currently resides in Minneapolis.  In addition to teaching undergraduate courses in interreligious thought, I remain active in the local interfaith community through networking and collaboration.  In short, I hoped to gain insight into the local community of Pagans.  Pizza hopes that “encountering Paganistan’s travails and contradictions will open up new avenues for interfaith dialogue and intra-group conflict resolution” (6).  

Pizza contends that Paganistan is a unique Pagan community in its own right (especially when contrasted against other significant Pagan communities in the US such as the one in the San Francisco Bay Area).  She writes, “the forces that typically pull religious communities apart – theological differences, personal disagreements, differences in practices, status-seeking and undermining authority – are embraced in Paganistan and are somehow transformed into a unifying energy that makes community larger and stronger” (5).   One of her aims in this work is to “present the theoretical puzzle pieces in such a manner that a theme can be more clearly determined with regard to how a religious community hangs together and grows when religious beliefs, theology and practices are not necessarily agreed on by all members” (5).  Perhaps herein lies a comparative theological and interreligious lesson for non-Pagan communities wrestling with cohesive commitment despite differing religious worldviews and practices.

Pizza attempts to describe the complex notion of Pagan identity in Minneapolis-St. Paul as a mix of what might make up other religious identities in the area: “Minnesota-nice,” passive-aggressive behavior, “Scandinavian grandmothers in the kitchen growing up, Lake Wobegon stories’ stereotyping, Lutheran-turned-Pagans who still have potlucks on freezing days complete with ‘hot dishes’ (casseroles), as well as gradually absorbed lore and sacred stories of the local Ojibwe and Dakota nations” (32).  A particularly instructive section of the book explores the way in which contemporary Pagan groups in Paganistan maintain their identity by “creatively looking forward while being inspired by the past” (48).   In this way, the innovative impulse of the groups come out in a manner Pizza likens to Rabbi Mordechai Kaplans’ description of Reconstructionist Judaism: “honoring the traditions of the past, but adapting the same traditions to be applicable to modern existence” (49).  Pizza succeeds in conveying the intra-Pagan diversity that exists within Paganistan that, despite its internal differences, seems to work nonetheless.  Further, this tension between honoring ancestral tradition and innovation “stimulates success: Pagans who innovate and walk the edges and Pagans who do their best to maintain ancient cultural continuity are not working at cross-purposes” (52).  An underlying argument for why this succeeds is the mutual up-building of both, for “rather than acting as an opposing force to innovation, reconstructionisms are in fact themselves innovations” (53). 

An overarching question of the text asks, “what brings and keeps Paganistan together?  What not-entirely-conscious process is at work among the members of Paganistan to keep it intact?” (43)  Pizza provides four main “gates,” which are too elaborate to review here, but she also helpfully diagnoses how some of these gates engender community dissolution and anti-social behavior, the opposite of what is often the intended outcome.  Above all, during Paganistan’s heyday, Pizza shows how the uniqueness of Paganistan creates space for a variety of personalities, practices, and interests.  She writes, “Pagans come [to Paganistan] because a lot of folks in the community share their interests, and they stay because room has been and is made for them” (55).

Pizza provides a wealth of stories, incidents, reports, figures, and groups that make up the rich and diverse landscape of Paganistan roughly between 1999-2012. One is struck immediately with the creativity, innovation, and fluidity of these groups and their traditions.  Pizza reports on specific festivals, practices, gatherings, beliefs, practices, rituals, and stories.  One can easily get lost in all of it, but Pizza pulls it off.  Due to the robust blending and borrowing that goes on between and among traditions, both old and new, under the general rubric of Paganisam, a brief explanation of the terms synthesis, syncretism, in/enculturation, complementarity, and convergence would have been helpful.  All the more, since Pizza argues that “Paganism’s cultural norm …. is polyaffiliation” (75) and that the pattern of “appropriation” and “borrowing” is “inevitable in a culturally diffuse and religiously pluralistic society like the USA” (75).  Although this made indeed be the case, it is not a self-evident claim.  Thus some data might have been helpful regarding trends in American religious identity.  However, chapter five does a splendid job of providing several well-written miniature case-studies that show “the interweaving of past influences, present innovations, and the personal narratives and experiences of the practitioners” (84) of Paganistan’s tradition-creation and meaning-making process.    

Pizza’s instructive Afterword provides an analytical snapshot “of cultural patterns, intended to raise questions for a new guard of researchers to pursue” (120).  These include: the tension between personal procurement of material possession versus selfless commitment to the good of the community, the waning desire of younger generations to be affiliated with congregations (a phenomenon most religious traditions in the West are now familiar with), the destructive and anti-social implications of online Social networking (e.g., Facebook), and the rise of “the nones” and SBNRs (spiritual but not religious).  Despite the clear challenges and shrinking of the Pagan community in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pizza ends on a chord of Pagan optimism by turning to a seasonal metaphor perhaps all Pagans (and many non-Pagans) can resonate with: “any religion that takes nature and its seasonal turns as its divine metaphor will accept that this [present] period of quiet will result in new growth” (137).  Anyone who has lived through a frigid and world-stopping Minnesota winter will know well the fury with which spring can emerge (sometimes rather late) as it robustly bursts forth with life and growth. 

This sociological study is a welcome addition to the continual examination of the religiously unique tapestry of Minneapolis-St. Paul, a great northern city that has given rise to innovative new religious movements such as Eckankar, is the home of well-represented indigenous traditions such as Dakota, Ojibwe, and Hmong shamanism, has one of the longest running Muslim-Christian dialogues in the country, and has federally elected officials from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.  It is no surprise that a diverse neo-pan-Pagan group (which includes Wicca, Heathenry, Ásatrú, Druids, etc.) that finds common ground in Paganistan should emerge and flourish in this region as well.  Perhaps this book can constructively serve (however minor it may be) these Pagan practitioners during this time that Pizza has identified as a “period of quiet” and emerge again in a robust fashion to engage in interreligious exchange and community building.