What follows is a transcript for the podcast Jamie Wheal With Dr Tara Isabella Burton - Meaning-Making.
Topics within the interview include:
- Why society is in a crisis of meaning
- Could the pursuit of self-actualization result in narcissistic tendencies
- The dark side of structuring a religion of one
- Do we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts?
- The case that Harry Potter is more than a book, it’s an entire theology
Jamie Wheal: I'd love to welcome Dr. Tara Isabella Burton, the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, and her upcoming book, Self-Made, which is an exploration of exactly that for the last 500 years through the Western tradition. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. She was the former religion writer for Vox and has a Ph.D. in theology from Oxford University in the UK. And I would say one of the freshest and most interesting voices integrating highbrow and lowbrow culture. So, both the ancient historical classical perspectives and academic scholarly perspectives with the wildest and craziest stuff like Sleep No More and SoulCycle and Incel Reddit boards.
So, it's my great pleasure to welcome you, Tara, to HomeGrown Humans. Thank you so much for joining us.
Tara Isabelle Burton: And thank you so much for having me on. I'm very excited.
Jamie Wheal: Brilliant. Well, listen, I mean I've got a list of fun topics that I would love to chit-chat with you about, but first I'd love to just hear what is, in some respects, your opening thesis statement as far as you have one that is coherent other than just looking at a bunch of wild stuff these days. What do you think is going on in the sphere of, meaning circa early 21st century? We can keep it to America, weave in anything else. What on earth is happening to us right now?
Why Society is in a Crisis of Meaning
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think we're in what you might call a crisis of reality, which is to say a lack of cultural certainty about what it is to be real, to be authentic, to be true. And in particular, I think that we're seeing, and this is the thesis of my upcoming book, Self-Made, a shift in how we see the truth about ourselves and where we think of that truth coming from, very simplistically, broad, broad strokes overview, over the past 500 odd years, we've largely moved from a society where we think of ourselves as fundamentally given. We are who we are because of our role in the social order, our relationships to one another.
This is what is real about us and increasingly, we're moving towards a culture for a bunch of reasons. The decline in organized religion and particular organized ways of thinking about ourselves, but also more broader cultural shifts. We now I think are more inclined to think of ourselves as who we want to be. Our desires, our feelings, and in particular, our vision of ourselves is increasingly understood, for better and for worse. I don't think this is exclusively positive or negative development as the guiding star for who we really are, we have become who we want to be.
Jamie Wheal: Well, in fact, that really tees up, I think something from one of your most recent pieces in the Times because you have a quote here where you say, because basically you were describing this exactly choose your own adventure, ersatz spirituality. And in this case, you were talking about the current Instagram, TikTok therapy space. And you said the idea that we are authentic only insofar as we cut ourselves off from one another that the truest or most fundamental parts of our humanity can be found in our desires and not our obligation, risks cutting us off from one of the most important truths about being human, that we are social animals. And to me, that very much echoed a piece that I think David Brooks wrote, I don't know how long ago, three, four years ago in the Times as well, which was basically the evolution of marriage and how it was originally, fundamentally, these were political tracks of some kind.
They were peacemaking agreements, et cetera. Then Tristan and his oath, the notion of romantic love. And then, that became the thing and then it became, actually this is supposed to be about my self-actualization and if you don't complete me but also optimize me, I'm going to be triply resentful. And his point was just, hey, I think we might be overburdening this singular relationship and it feels, you were coming at it from the broader social media therapy space, but it seemed like an erosion of oughts and shoulds and almost a foregrounding of entitled narcissism. How do you see this?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely, I think that there is, of course, great good in the notion that our innermost selves, that which makes us distinct should be seen as part of who we really are. I'm not the conservative who says we need to go back to an era where we only define ourselves by our social bonds and everything else is just selfishness. At the same time though, I think the pendulum has swung far too far the other way. I think we are so inclined to think of ourselves as all on our own individual hero's journey and other people as characters in that journey.
And ultimately, our goal, our endpoint is not something that we can usefully communicate because it's not either shared or let's say related to some truth outside of ourselves. If we are looking for self-actualization or our best lives and the only arbiter of what it is to be self-actualized or to live our best lives, our own thoughts, feelings and desires, then we're trapped in this loop of taking what we want and raising it to the level of, as you say, an ought, a should.
I think we lack, for many reasons, a unified civic or societal sense of what we as human beings are for, what are we doing. And so, all too often, the language of self-actualization, the language of finding your individual purpose, living life for you becomes completely private endeavor that's somehow held up to the level of a moral duty for us as human beings that if we don't self-actualize, we somehow failed.
Has The Pursuit of Self-Actualization Made us Narcissistic?
Jamie Wheal: Well, I must say in going back through Strange Rites, there were passages, entire sections actually where I'm like, "Whew, this is one hell of an indictment of millennials and the vapid, superficial ego-stroking, consumptive sensation-seeking behavior pattern." But then, really you roll it up and it's really an indictment of boomers because those were the fucking parents of this generation. And you're like, "Dear God, what did you guys pass on from the late '60s through the '70s and the Human Potential Movement and all of these things and what bastard metastasized things are we seeing now with just a silicon digital commercial layer on top?"
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely. I think perhaps we don't want to just blame the boomers. I think with a more historical look as I've taken in Self-Made, I think we've been seeing waves of this individualism and obsession with personal desire and authenticity for, let's say the Renaissance onwards, maybe the Enlightenment onwards if we're being more charitable. At the same time, the tools that we have now, the internet most prominently and the way in which our desires literally shape what we see and how we participate in discourse in one another is gone into overdrive, our actual, the landscape of so much of our lives.
The internet runs on the very principles that we might say once ideological and now have been made, quite literally manifest. At the same time though, I do think that our culture is bordering on narcissistic, let's say I won't go all the way to say that we are, and yet I think it's also very easy to understand how it happened. I don't think it's just a moral failing on the parts of people who look inwardly or look inside themselves.
Rather, I think we're also looking at institutional failure more broadly that if we don't trust our political authorities or journalistic authorities or scientific authorities, if we're worried about corruption and sex abuse scandals in our churches and misinformation more broadly, of course, you would look inwardly, of course, you would turn to yourself.
It's completely understandable that when institutions have failed and they failed to keep public trust, that tendency to look inside the self, you think, well, anyone else could be lying to me, at least hypothetically speaking, I know I'm not lying to myself. People lie to themselves all the time.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, like you’re your own guru. Yeah.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Exactly. And people do lie to themselves all the time of course. But nevertheless, I think that that's the thought process that gets us into solipsism, that it's a combination of, as you say, this cultural tendency towards narcissism alongside a deep pessimism about what organizations, civic organizations, political broadly construed as polity organizations can do or achieve. We don't have that trust.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I just wrote about that in my last book, Recapture the Rapture, about the meaning crisis and meaning 1.0 being traditional religions and then meaning 2.0 being secular modernism institutions and the fact that both are gone is leaving a vacuum for all of the things that you've done such a fun job tracking. Now, a recent thought, because I was just having a quick email exchange with a buddy in the UK, Ali Bina, who was part of Rebel Wisdom for a while and is now writing his own book.
And in fact, I think he even said he referenced Strange Rites in that, but he wrote an interesting piece lately just talking about the growing backlash of trauma culture, trauma therapy, and the idea that yes, everybody's read Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine and everybody understands the issues in the tissues and everybody's just fetishizing their past trauma.
And really, the fact is this is just one more flavor of the week and regresses into absurdity and the idea of, well, wait, I mean even Gabor Maté who I spent some time on panels with and had good heart-to-heart conversations with is like, if everything comes down to trauma from ADD to addiction, to isolation to the collapse of democracy, then nothing does. And the question is not that, that's now a constant in our equation.
The question is who prevails in spite of it and how do we do that? And so, I was curious, I don't know if you remember Barbara Ehrenreich's book about positive, like pop psychology and how toxic positivity was, right?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yes.
Jamie Wheal: And to me, at first, you just think, "Wow, these are antithetical." One is saying that excess positive self-help is toxic and on the other is, wait, this obsession with trauma is potentially toxic. But arguably, I think there may be flip sides of the same coin that you're pointing out with this solipsistic narcissism.
Tara Isabelle Burton: I agree. I think that this obsession that we do have with trauma, I think comes actually from a broader obsession with this mythologizing ourselves as individuals. I think you can say of any person, you can tell 100 different stories about why they are the way they are, who they are, the societies in which they live, ways in which gender or race or any one of dozens, 100 of other qualities have affected them.
And yet somehow, I think that one of the stories that we're most interested in telling about ourselves, about other people and foregrounding is this almost Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey story of this individual overcoming certain darkness or difficulty that comes from personal relationships. And this might be very much, I mean it is, I'm sure true of all of us that our experiences shape us and make us who we are.
And yet when this one particular narrative that I think does mythologize certain family relationships, certain emotional reactions more broadly, when we focus on that to the exclusion of other truths about who we are and other truths about who we might be and what we might accomplish, not just in the sense of achieving something, but how we might live a good life as well as one of those personally fulfilling, suddenly this narrative of trauma and overcoming trauma, I think crowds out questions that I think are interesting and useful like, what should we be doing?
What does a good life look like? How ought we to live? And these are questions that aren't necessarily based in human... sorry, they're not necessarily based in our feelings, our emotions or our psychological well-being. They can be, but I am, which is to say, I don't think we should stop talking about trauma, but rather investigate why this quite individual psychological narrative is so central to the myth of who we are rather than other stories, other myths even that might look more constructively about what it means to be human and what obligations we might have, as well as the freedom that we seek in overcoming our past.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, it almost feels like we're at peak America, that whole individualist expression. And you're absolutely right to say it's not new. For sure, date it to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, anywhere you're seeing the seeds of those thoughts. But for sure in the US, First and Second Great Awakenings, 1730s and 1740, early 1800s, it was chapter and verse. Our parents and our grandparents lost the plot. They are under the thumb of stuffy, rigid, hierarchical religions. We crave direct, immediate sense of spirit and spirituality in community. And then, oh, also social justice, abolition, women's suffrage, all of these things then springing out of those movements.
So, in the nothing new under the sun category, we've seen this all before. I am curious as to, you mentioned, I mean to me, there's this insidious co-optation of the spiritual marketplace these days, and it feels like, and I'm sure there's many more threads in this, but at least two main currents is the commodification of the prosperity gospel intersecting with digital distribution and commerce, basically online Instagram, shamans, life coaches, all that stuff.
Talk to me about that, what have you, because I live here in Austin. It's a very secular bicoastal place, but it's in the heart of red America. And on the corner of our street to turn to our house is a megachurch. Well, it started out as just a church church and it has become in the last 10 years, an absolute hunking great megachurch and they've got a K-12 school and they've got a coffee shop. And they've got parking garages.
And they've got sports fields and then they've done aggressive roll-ups of all the other underperforming churches for 100-mile radius. And now, that's just the center televangelist station to beam out to all of their subject's things. And then, the cops every Sunday literally block traffic. It's the most weird thing, intersection of church and state, uniformed cops stopping regular people driving down the road so that the Escalades and the Lincolns and the giant shiny SUVs, which is all they are parading out of this thing.
And you're like, "Dear God, how do they capitalize this thing?" And you're like, "Oh, shit, well, it feels to me like there is some... because you make a point in Strange Rites. You're saying, "Hey, actually... you might think that with all of this emphasis on the self and with all this modernization and secularization that the more, like the Unitarians would be kicking ass, the various soft choose your own adventure, mainline Protestant religions would be doing better. They're not, they're collapsing.
And it's the ones arguably like Hillsong, which maybe do super fun and sexy like, is this a Diplo concert or is this church? But on the other hand, the theologies are really regressive and arch-traditionalist. You've got that and you've realized, "Oh, shit, okay." So, my marketing is come or lose your eternal soul, and by the way, tithe, 10% of your income. But the flip side is that the, and that's worked for 1000s of years, that was the pitch, come now or burn in hell later.
But the American twist of the prosperity gospel is not only are we saying this is a down payment on your future salvation, it's you come and you thought Norman Vincent Peal, all those things. You get to law of threefold return, you can prosper in this lifetime, which seems like a total bastardization of Calvinism. And so, you get it now and later and there's not another thing out there that can beat that marketing pitch.
The Dark Side of Structuring a Religion of One
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely. I think that particularly certain megachurches are successful because they blend two very distinct phenomena, both of which are incredibly powerful. And one is, as you say, this promise and a certain self-actualization and prosperity in this life. The idea that you are doing this as part of your complete healthy life that will ultimately get you to your best life. I think particularly with the narratives of things like the prosperity gospel, which is not universal among evangelical churches, but certainly more common there than in other Christian denominations.
But this idea that the universe, God, because you find in both secular and religious versions, but the power out there, what it wants for you is for you to live a life of health, wealth and certain material happiness where you feel fulfilled. And I think you find this also in secular versions of this, wellness culture, for example, you are doing this for yourself. You are doing this to fill your personal need.
Now at odds with this, and here is I think something that is perhaps a good thing and perhaps even these evangelical churches you mentioned are doing well is making a robust truth claim about the nature of the world. And you go to church and the narrative is not believe what you want. Maybe this happened, maybe it didn't, I don't want to tell you what to do, but to say, "Yeah, this is what we believe." And what we believe affects all elements of how we live our lives, the way that we think about our relationships to one another, the way that we think about our relationships to the natural world.
These are truth claims that are being made. And I think that where the Protestant mainline, particularly in the 1950s onwards really lost people was in trying to reconcile Christianity and "modernity", really ceding the idea that there is something true and real to-
Jamie Wheal: So, ceding with a C, not double E.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Oh, yes, yes, exactly. Yeah, exactly. I think that there is something, I think that we do have perhaps a bit of a bullshit detector inwardly about this. I think we do hunger for robust truth claims. Maybe we believe, maybe we don't. But ultimately, we are looking for something that is not just our personal fulfillment or enjoying a Sunday service because the music is good, be it Gregorian chant or Justin Bieber. But I think we do hunger for, as curious beings, what is it all for? Is there a God? What is out there?
And those claims, I think we are warier and warier of making as a culture, again for better and for worse because certainly, there's a plenty of drawbacks to top-down authoritarian dogma, at the same time, the alternative where we all just create our own realities and we all invent our own religions as it were, and look at our relationship with the infinite merely as, well, what makes me feel good, what gets me through the day? How do I personally feel like structuring God in my mental universe?
That comes at the expense of some of the thing, the good things that religion can do and has historically done, which is point us towards an ultimate reality greater than ourselves outside ourselves and towards claims of both metaphysical truth and ethical truth that make demands on us that are sometimes hard but nevertheless claimed to be good like capital G, Good. There are ways in which we might want to sacrifice for one another. We may be called upon to be vulnerable to one another that don't really result in us living our best lives.
And when we C-E-D-E, cede the idea that there can be some reality outside ourselves that might have a greater claim, feelings, it's very difficult to then not have a theology that revolves around what we feel like at any given time because there is nothing else out there, if there is nothing else out there, why not just have our own religions? Why not just make ourselves our own gods in the first place?
Jamie Wheal: Well, and so what's coming up for me is this contrast between something like Hillsong, right? Because again, for those that didn't know and don't know it, big giant, very hip megachurch recently went down in flames for all the predictable scandalous reasons, but had big churches in LA, in New York and the Kardashians went, and Bieber went, and NBA players went and all the things. And it was the hypepriests, I think was the GQ article that I think was a funny one, like designer jeans and leather jackets and earrings but were going to talk about Jesus. And it was also the big dumb hat people.
It was all the Williamsburg hipsters. And so, almost visually and thematically identical to the [inaudible 00:24:38] psychedelic transformational festival crowd. And probably some surprising amounts of overlap as people went checking stuff out. And yet in the [inaudible 00:24:50] psychedelic crowd, they've issued orthodox scripture, ethics, et cetera, but it's a moving target. But somewhere in the center is an organized worldview of what reality is. Maybe it's fifth density and maybe we're going to do this and that. And we're going to vibrate, and we're the star tribe and soul cede people, whatever the fuck they're going to talk about.
But there is a there there, even if it is just determined by the YouTube algorithm. So, if you had to put your money in the meme wars on which expression will prevail, which is a fitter meme. Let's wrap it all up in smoke machines and lasers. But this is old school theology versus everybody gets to choose your own adventure. And we have an amorphous cosmology, often informed by an adult by direct sacramental experience of plant medicines. Which one do you think is more stable, durable, or capable of propagating without degradation?
Tara Isabelle Burton: My answer is twofold, which is that I think we are going to see the amorphous intuitional religion get more and more common, but the center cannot hold, which is to say there's not going to be one thing within that increasingly kaleidoscopic landscape that is able to form some coalition as it were. And so, ultimately, I think it's these older forms of metaphysics of religion, whatever you want to call it. The ones that make the truth claims, the ones that make metaphysical or ethical demands on people are the ones that are going to be able to remain, not always unified, but relatively unified and possibly even come in when the dust has settled.
And we're all in our own religions of one. And suddenly, there's something out there that is going to have momentum in staying power. But I don't think necessarily we are immediately going to see a resurgence of evangelical Christianity tomorrow. But I do think, and I think we are seeing revivals of interest in everything from Traditionalist Catholicism among young people in a slightly different way, the social justice movement, but interest in robust ethically or metaphysically, weighty narratives of how to live.
Jamie Wheal: For you, is that different than what you were describing with the hero's journey, everyone's on their own personal adventure? Is it a categorical difference in how those feel as orienting load stones?
Tara’s Journey Back to Institutional Religion
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yes, yes. And I want to be careful there because when I, and as I've written in Strange Rites, and I don't love talking about the social justice movement just because it leads to culture war conversations that are not always the most interesting to be having. But I think that movement is something that has both elements of the intuitional modernity attached to it as well as a hunger for something more solidaristic and less individualistic. But certainly, I think the experience of being, I'll speak from my own personal experience. I'm an Episcopal, practicing Episcopalian Christian.
And there is something about I don't really feel like getting up right now, and I'm going to go to church. And sometimes I'm not having the emotional response. Beautiful, though the music is that I should be having. Maybe I'm hungry, maybe I want to go to brunch. But here I am and this practice of my life, my time, my existence is not my own. It has gathered up in a sense of the cosmos, a sense of the liturgical year even that is not simply what I make it, that sense and that mode of living to me as someone who came back to Christianity as an adult, did mark, from personal experience a profound shift in how I thought about myself and I thought about the world.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, interesting. Just share to the extent that you'd like to, that notion back to, so where from to now and then how on earth in 2020 to 2023 did you come back to the Episcopal church of all places?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Gosh. Well, so I was raised as many New Yorkers are. It's like Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, not particularly religious, but not religious either. Little Jewish, a little Christian, typical New York upbringing, studied theology because of intellectual interest, probably would've like ticked the Christian box on paper, but didn't think that much about it. And probably was very much involved in the world of New York that I write about in Strange Rites. I did my wellness and my early morning soul cycles and a dabble of witchcraft here, a little bit of tarot there.
And I'm not going to go and say, "All of this was terrible and satanic or something." I don't think that necessarily, but I think that I did come back to a more robust dedicated vision of faith somewhere around 2018, 2019. It was a slow process, began attending church every Sunday and becoming much more conscious of that as a grounding metaphysical and ethical commitment. And I think that the biggest shift, again speaking purely personally, was a sense that narratives of personal freedom or personal fulfillment became less important to me than questions of what does the good life look like.
What are our obligations to one another, and how do we live those out? I became, I think, hopefully, less focused on myself and what I wanted. Obviously, everybody focuses a little bit, everybody focuses on themselves and what they want. I didn't suddenly elevate myself to sainthood or anything like that, but I think that the questions I was asking myself, the way that I thought about the world became, I believe more focused on and interested in the ways in which I do not choose who I am or I do not choose what my life is going to look like.
And I became more interested in what I would call givenness, the ways in which I am a person in the world, in a community with certain realities about myself that I did not pick that nevertheless make me who I am. And part of my understanding of my own ethical commitments comes in obligations that I did not choose to the communities that, familial and otherwise, that nevertheless I am part of. I didn't wake up one morning and say, "Hey, I would love to be my mother's daughter and I would love to be from New York in this way." These are just truths about who I am.
And that doesn't necessarily mean... sorry, these are truths about who I am that nevertheless come with certain responsibilities. And I think ultimately, speaking again-
Jamie Wheal: Fixity of self versus [inaudible 00:32:43].
Tara Isabelle Burton: Exactly, exactly. And obviously, there's a balance, I think to say we are fully fixed as human beings and our own internal selves mean our simply distractions from who we really are. I don't buy that either. But I think that for me, again, purely personally, organized religion has been a really fulfilling, to use a word I'm not sure how I feel about using, corrective or counterweight to a culture that all too often I feel tells me that I should be out there looking for some mysterious actualization that may or may not exist.
Jamie Wheal: Your arc reminds me of a really interesting book by a friend, Alan, Zig Zag Zen. I don't know if you ever came across. It's a fascinating story of psychedelics into '70s of dharma to the West American Buddhism. And it was basically after the freewheeling sixties, find your bliss, do all the things, shoot the moon. There was this huge movement away from all that stuff by the early to mid-70s and saying, "We craved some structure, we craved some discipline. We craved to be within the walls of a lineage." And so instead of zig zag zen, this almost feels like crisscross Christ.
You've been bouncing around but finding your way. Now you mentioned a couple of times a punk show from midnight masses and other Gregorian deep stuff. So, you've been also seeking out the pre-Vatican to old-timey.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Well, I'm not Catholic, so luckily-
Jamie Wheal: Sure. But yeah, you know what I mean.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yeah. Personally, and again, I fully recognize that you could say, well, you're just doing your own version of aesthetics the same way as anyone else is. I do respond very much to the [inaudible 00:34:42] and the 15th century music. Exactly. I do belong to an Anglo-Catholic parish. And I think that while I recognize that it is easier perhaps for me to experience, to feel the presence of God, let's say in a church that looks like that, I am very committed to the idea that it also does, like it doesn't really matter if I am somewhere and there is a church that is... I'm not a big fan of the electric guitar praise music.
But you know what, if that's the church and I'm going in there, I have to check my own dislike for this particular music and say, "All right, this is not the aesthetic that I prefer, but it is not lesser or worse in any way." So, I do one.
Jamie Wheal: Here's a fun one then. What about Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco doing the church of Beyoncé? What was your take on that or your experience of it, but as an academic observer and then also as an Episcopalian?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Gosh. I'm not familiar with this, I'm afraid. Can you tell me a little more about it?
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, for sure. They just basically did Church of Beyoncé masses and they went hugely viral. And so, it was Wednesday, Wednesday evenings, and they were using Beyoncé's songs as hymns and the discussion of triumphant travail and suffering and redemption and all of these things. And then, videos went out and went viral, not too unpredictably. And then, everywhere from LA to Lisbon, all around the world, they sprung up and they started being, offering these. And it was from, I think, Union Theological Seminary.
And it was just this beautiful grassroots movement. It was led by the Black queer community predominantly, but then expanded its embrace to include anybody who felt called to it. And it was just this really beautiful mashup of traditional and pop.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Again, if you say it's an Episcopal church, they're doing what the prayer book and some secular music. I think my instinct is a little bit of wariness of it. But at the same time, I'm aware that, especially we do have a very rich and broad musical tradition within the Episcopal Church. But I think I'm actually going to... I don't know enough about it to have an informed opinion. So, maybe we'll move on from that one because I'd love to know more, but without coming to it, I can't have an intelligent opinion, I'm afraid.
Jamie Wheal: For sure. I covered it a bit in Recapture the Rapture, so it's in a couple of those excerpts, you can dig into it. But as much as anything, I just think it's just fun to know that those mutations are out there and that they're landing for people who might be in the unchurched or recovering fill-in-the-blank category, just on-ramps back. Now, a couple of questions just to conclude this little exploration, and thank you for it. How was this path for you in your return to the church socially? Was it something that your friend said, "Oh, that's nice, Tara, I hope you have a good time."
Or was it something that collectively, a group of you found your way to? How did that live within your otherwise, I would imagine mobile, educated, Cosmopolitan, New York scene?
Tara Isabelle Burton: It was relatively, I would say a smooth transition. I think there was perhaps a bit of wariness on the part of friends of mine who we might, are more in the certain progressive camp like, "Ooh, you're going to church." We associate this with homophobia and other bad things. And I think one of the wonderful things about friendship is that you can have these conversations lovingly. And like I say, "Yes, I'm going to church, but this doesn't mean I'm suddenly a homophobia or what have you." In fact, I think my church is extremely queer affirming.
One of the things that struck me is that people were really, really interested in it regardless of whether they were Christian themselves, Jewish, practicing witches, everything in between. I think there was a real sense that spirituality is something, is a source of incredible fascination for people, whether or not they are themselves members of organized religion. Every time I tell people I study theology at a party, people come around me, and everyone has something that they want to say.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, nice.
Do We Have a God-Shaped Hole in Our Hearts?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Everybody has some deep emotional connection to the idea of religion and wants to take me to the corner and say, "Well, this is what I think and this is what I believe." And I think that that does speak to the fact that we think of ourselves as living in a secular world. A lot of the time, we're a secular society, but really we do have a shared hunger that, without a shared discourse about what that hunger looks like or means. I think this crisis of meaning, as you call it the crisis of reality, as I might call it, is twofold. We don't share a set of common vocabulary or a common way of talking about what meaning is, and what it might look like.
And yet I think that we are all in our own ways acutely conscious of the absence of that and hungry for it.
Jamie Wheal: God-shaped hole in our hearts.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Exactly. And I think it's both the God-shaped hole, but actually, I think it's a hunger for a shared language to talk about it as much as anything else. It's not just a desire for private spirituality, although I think that is true, but also a hunger for some way of understanding, a hunger for language to talk about the hole to begin with. And so, being someone of faith, even in various secular corners of New York has never been that weird or that difficult so much as it's just been, often an occasion for people to, whether or not they're wary of Christianity, want to share their own experiences and curiosity's about faith in general. We're all a little God haunted, I think even in secular New York.
Jamie Wheal: Well, even just what you said, right? You said, "Every time I go to a party and I tell this, people gather," that simply wouldn't have been the case 10 years earlier. And you would've been on the long skinny tale of irrelevant nerd dumb. I got a Ph.D. in theology. People like, "Okay, pass the punch," like whatever. And the fact that your experience is so antithetical to that, I find fascinating in itself that you are providing permission for people to then uncork all of these bottled emotions and yearnings.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yeah. I remember being very worried that my degree made me weird, or no one would want to talk to me at parties, and then it's been completely the opposite. So, I'm glad nobody thinks I'm a big nerd, or maybe they do and just don't tell me.
The Case That Harry Potter is More Than a Book - It’s an Entire Theology
Jamie Wheal: All right, so now we're going to move into the culture war game, but you get to choose your own adventure and promises that we don't get down into the trenches. What I'm interested in are topics that are relevant and germane to people, but that we're continuing to maintain the perspective that we both write about and hold. So, take your pick. J.K. Rowling or Queenan.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Oh, boy. J.K. Rowling.
Jamie Wheal: Okay. Because in Strange Rites, you write this wonderful bit about how, again, millennial spirituality, the intersection of the imaginal fanfiction, all of these cool things. And then, specifically the scenes in the early Trump administration. And I think it was maybe even one of the nightclub, it was one of the mass shooting protests, and there was all-
Tara Isabelle Burton: March for Our Lives.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. There was all Harry Potter-ish, like we're Dumbledore's Army, like Expelliarmus. There was the riffing in the memeing of the generation that came up with that. And as I was reading it, I'm like, "Oh, whoa," I was like, "I think this was like 2018. When did Tara write this?" Because boy, am I waiting for the other shoe to drop. And then, obviously, for folks that haven't been living under a rock on Twitter, which is actually a very good place to be on Twitter is obviously Rowling has put her foot in it a bunch of different ways and become massively non-grata in large swaths of the very community that was championing her memes, ideas, stories, characters, just a few years earlier.
So, if we take... I don't know. We've got Harry Potter land in the middle, and then you've got SJW as a, I would say, in some respects, a hermetically sealed moral universe and outright as an alternate one. How are you seeing that change of events? Because I mean, boy, it'd be an impossible one to have called out in advance.
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think what's fascinating about J.K. Rowling's Fall from Grace as it were, and the culturalship about her books, is that Harry Potter has always been the canary in the coal mine for certain cultural shifts in general. When Harry Potter came out in the late '90s, it was around the time of the dawn of personal internet use at home in America. Suddenly, you had with your dial-up connection or what have you, you had access to certain message boards and fan culture that really didn't exist before that, you might have analog scenes or Treky conventions, but you didn't have this internet access.
And Harry Potter was the first big internet-fueled fandom. And one of the big things that made Harry Potter so successful was that this fan culture and fanfic culture really sprung up around it. You could write your own endings. The Harry Potter universe was this huge, huge world that you could... it was a big sandbox you could play in, and people very much did. And that fan culture of, these are our stories and we can mix and match and rewrite the way that suits us, which I think trickled down to how we think about cultural properties, media more broadly
Thereafter, really started with Harry Potter as the site of the transmission of authority from the author who decides what happens to the fans, the readers who can reimagine, rewrite, rework, remix content.
Jamie Wheal: That's very, very Stanley Fish reader response stuff.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely. When, however many decades later, J.K. Rowling who's, Harry Potter at this point is among the closest thing we have to, I don't know, the Iliad or the Odyssey, is a modern foundational myth that affects how so many of us, I have to admit, I'm not a particular fan, but culturally speaking, if you say to someone, "I'm a Gryffindor, I'm a Hufflepuff," more people know what that means than I think can name the four gospels. Or at least more Americans have seen at least one of a Harry Potter movie than, in one study, could name the four gospels.
Jamie Wheal: There you go.
Tara Isabelle Burton: J.K. Rowling has views that many deem offensive about trans people. She allied herself with what we might call the trans-exclusionary radical feminists in the UK, particularly a burgeoning movement. And a lot of people, younger people who saw in Harry Potter certain values, certain values of inclusion, feel alienated from this universe by the creator's political views that are so at odds with theirs. So, what happens? She gets booted out of her own universe in a way that I think is fascinating because what is Harry Potter, but this, the first instance of fan culture and re-imagining what ownership looks like.
So, it almost feels like a perfectly fitting ending that now, the fans are able to say, "This is our world. We'll reimagine this world if we have to. We don't want to support J.K. Rowling financially." But what does that mean for fan fiction or the stories we tell in that world, which are distinct from the stories that this person might make money from.
And so, I think regardless of the specifics of J.K. Rowling's views, it could have been this, it could have been something else. It almost feels like the perfect conclusion that the fans occupied the world that the author once held.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah. Well, I'm really curious to really just slow the tape down right here in those transitions. And it could just be, we could be overthinking this and it could just be everybody's lost their mind and we've started being increasingly shitty to each other. And social media algorithms of outrage have raced to the bottom of the brainstem. And that's the world we live in. Tada, right? But for Rowling, it's such an interesting thing because there were so many signs and signifiers of unimpeachable progressive credentials. Not only she sow the myth that everyone grew up with and loved of this generation, but she was one of the first and only billionaires to give away so much of her wealth.
She lost her billionaire status. She was pro, social services and high tax rates in England. I benefited from that leg up when I needed it. I want others too. She was a self-described, survivor of sexual violence, which dovetailed powerfully with the whole Me Too movement. And she then retroactively said, "Dumbledore is gay," which got her rafter shift from the right. And then, of course, the right was always saying, this is paganism and Satanism and all the predictable stuff.
So, what do you see, and again, now we can pop out of the, even proximity to the culture wars and to now what is happening as far as belief systems, cultural movements, where is the center? Where are norms? What counts as inside versus outside? And who decides? How did get outflanked on such, what is just statistically, not ethically, but just percentage of a population it applies to, right? Trans right is sub 1% depending on who's counting how, right? I mean 3%, 6%, some say, but just round up and say it's a small fraction compared to all of womanhood.
It's a small fraction compared to anybody of an underclass sense of oppression. How did that happen from your lens, from the shifting sands of belief around her fans' adherence or this generational cohort?
Tara Isabelle Burton: I want to answer this question with... I'm going to take a moment because I do want to be very careful on how I say this. I think that what's significant from a, let's say a sociological perspective here, again, without talking too much about the specifics, and I'm not qualified to be the person to talk about the trans rights activism more broadly.
Jamie Wheal: Sure.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Is that I think that this idea of both representation and harm, which is to say ideas that we might see ourselves reflected in a work of art, and see our identities reflected in a work of art. And that is a major part of the compact between writer and reader. And also, that certain art have the potential to do certain harm to people, language like erasure or invisibility as well, both in terms of the content of the work, but in terms of, in part like authors, public political commitments, that these things all fit together. And I think the way in which it fits together is this notion that our relationship...
I'm going to just take a moment to phrase this properly, that we not only want to, but perhaps morally should, or part of the purpose of art is to reflect to us certain truths, morally loaded truths about our identities as it were. And now, you can say, and I think a fair case to be made is that what is art, what art to be? There have always been questions about the moral quality of art, what is depicted, what should be depicted.
But I think in this particular case, a particular contemporary instantiation of how we relate art, media representation, morality and harm, is this idea that there's ownership on the part of fans that we think of ourselves as having... we think of creators as responsible to us, us the fans in certain ways. You see this in a completely different direction in the success or failure in various Ghostbusters movies, giving it to the fans versus we need representation here, or we don't want one of those movies, that's terribly "woke" because that's a betrayal of other fans.
I don't think this is exclusive to social justice as a movement either, but I think that people who love certain cultural properties are more liable now than 10 or 20 or 30 years ago to feel a of personal emotional betrayal from creators who do not hold up, they're under the bargain either in terms of creating work in a certain way that is satisfying on narrative grounds, but also on representational grounds or in terms of how creators comport themselves in terms of their public politics.
Jamie Wheal: Oh, go ahead.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Oh, just to say, obviously, you have everything from people canceling the Dixie Chicks after, based on their comments on people, people have always had responses to the public political opinions. But I think that sense of betrayal, that we have this contract, and I don't think it's necessarily bad entitlement or good entitlement, but it's a sense of entitlement to a certain relationship has become normative in how fans think about.
Jamie Wheal: There's an analog here between, like the sacred texts, right? Star Wars and that had a blowback from a different fan community. They're like, "Oh, wait, a black stormtrooper and a woman Jedi, this is bullshit, man." That whole thing as well as the subversion of red pilling, which used to meant Gnostics awakening to the powers that be, Think Different Apple Campaign, that thing. And instead became Incel territory. And the same with Harry Potter that we've just been exploring, is it that it's not just reader response, it's not just these are, but these are actually our sacred texts, these are our scriptures.
And once they're instantiated and canonized, then subsequent interpretations become heresy. It's not unlike Valentinus and the early Gnostics. You must burn and pillory them because they are a threat to the established norm of our sacred scripture.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely. I agree with you. I think that there is something sacred texty about Harry Potter in particular because it was such a formative cultural mythos in a way that I think a different author expressing similarly controversial or problematic views would not have necessarily engendered the same response in their readers. But J.K. Rowling was a beacon, of a certain narrative, a certain modern myth. And so, the betrayal, I think was all the more acute for that.
Jamie Wheal: Yeah, yeah. Well, let's at least lightly thematically transition into what you've been writing about most recently with Self-Made because this is one that's been ticking over in my head to take a crack at, and you've just taken a really long thorough one, which is fundamentally, the emergence of what you could call avatarism. I'm not just who I was born, where I was born, race, class, creed, place, all of those things, faith, and all that is I get to be whoever I want to be. And without a doubt, everything from Comic-Con to Burning Man to Facetune filters from my social media profile heading this way soon to a fully instantiated metaverse, right?
The idea that my selfhood is plastic and elastic, and I am in charge of it. What do you see are positives of this post-modern liberation theology like in a new term of avatarsim? I can be whoever I want to be in whatever world I choose to play in, versus a dissent into that solipsistic narcissism, I'm just crawling up the soul of my own reflection.
The Making of the Self-Made Man
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think that the story of, the development of self-making towards what you call avatarism, at its best, at its most liberatory is a narrative of social mobility. The idea that you could be born penniless, you could be born from a disadvantaged background, whatever that looks like, and still rise above it, have certain economic and personal success dictated by your own personal merits ability, what have you. This is a very simplistic narrative. It's also a very significant one. And you look at prophets of self-making, like Frederick Douglass who famously gave a series of lectures on the Self-Made Man, had this vision in mind.
Particularly we in America, this place where this great new thing ought to be possible, can have a vision of someone who is not a born aristocrat and becomes truly noble by virtue of what he can do. And this legacy has been extraordinarily good and significant for so many people from, I call it traditionally marginalized backgrounds, at the same time, and again, very big caveat, this idea that we can become who we want to be more often than not, doesn't actually function in a particularly liberatory way. It either functions in one of two strains, I identified my book, the Traditional American Strain.
And the way it's used is this democratic narrative of work hard and you can be who you want. And in practice ends up justifying wealth inequality by saying, "Well, guess they didn't work hard enough, and guess this millionaire deserves to be there." And ties into this theological understanding that we talked about earlier, this idea that the universe just wants you to be rich, the universe wants you to be healthy, that there is a metaphysical unity between the successful entrepreneur and the energy out there in the universe broadly conceived. So, that's one strain.
The other strain, what I call the Aristocratic Strain in my book that's tended to be more popular in Europe or tended to take hold in Europe, is this notion that, well, some people have some quality innately that allows them to become modern-day aristocrat as it were, that maybe they don't come from the right background, but they simply have this innate quality. We see this in, for example, early celebrity culture, the dandies, Oscar Wilde leading ultimately into Hollywood where these narratives converge.
The idea of it, star power, something. There is something about you that makes you special and better from other people. What is it? And ultimately, I think particularly in the 20th century and onwards, these ideas have converged that the narrative goes something like there is some innate special, superior quality about who you "really are" that you're born with that also through hard work and careful cultivation, you can display.
And by displaying it correctly to the world and working hard and hustling, you're also showing something true and innate about who you really are. It's a careful double motion of, you're crafting it, but it's also within you and therefore real. And I think towards the end of the 2023-
Jamie Wheal: Synthesized and signified it factor.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely, absolutely. And then, we get to the post-war hole era, and suddenly it becomes artificiality and authenticity converge. And you get this real idea, I am who I want to be. I present myself in perhaps artificial or manicured way. I construct my public persona carefully, but it is revealing something deep and true about me that is deeper and truer than the circumstances into which I was born. And that can be liberatory, has been liberatory, but all too often ends up demonizing our own desire.
Because in the absence of saying these other things are really real, have weight as reality, what you end up with is my desire. What I want is the realest thing about me. It is the closest thing basically to a soul that I have and often, the length-
Jamie Wheal: Is my representational self?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yes, absolutely. Or my desire, the force of desire in me is basically my animating principle, my deepest self, my soul. And I think what's fascinating, if you look at the history of ideas of self-making, both this American democratic and European aristocratic kind is that they're always bound up with the language of magic, spirituality, divinity. We are as gods. In the 19th century, a lot of the French dandies saw this as a quasi-occult practice, this self-making, or as one occultist put it, [inaudible 01:02:37] the art of the beautiful personality.
There's a magic to making yourself. And I think that that spiritualized notion, even in our contemporary world is still there. There's a metaphysical religious truth to this authentic artificiality.
Jamie Wheal: Well, I must say you took... Strange Rites is fun and bouncy and you demonstrate your scholarly chops in how you pass the details. But the selection of evidence is mostly contemporary, like pop culture, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. With self-made, you take a long run at this thing. You start back in the Renaissance, you talk about the early Renaissance painters and sculptors and how they were self-made. Like what inspired you or what did you feel was required? What required that much scene setting to get to Kim Kardashian?
Tara Isabelle Burton: My background, I had mentioned I did a doctrine theology, but my doctoral thesis was on Theology and Dandyism in late 19th century Paris. So, I'm a 19th century at heart, and my intellectual background is actually much older, or rather, the periods I studied tended to be older. The more modern work was actually a bit departure for me. And so, what I really loved about Self-Made was the chance to go back into earlier sources and really explore what I think of as a theological crisis, as well as a cultural crisis at its beginning point. And then, tease it into how do we get to Kim Kardashian.
I got to go a little older than my doctoral research as well as a little newer. But I think that if we just talk about the 1960s or we just talk about the rise of the internet or boomers, all of that gets us plenty of insight into our contemporary, artificial, authentic hybrid culture. But I think it's only by seeing this as something integral to what we might call modernity. This tension about what it means to be free or given, what it means to be self-invented versus determined by a social imaginary and social hierarchy. You can't really separate that from the crises of meaning and modernity that come out of new social mobility and certainly new ways of thinking about and talking about God and religion.
I joke that my shtick sometimes is taking cultural phenomena and saying, "Well, this is why it's really all about theology." And as a theologian, I want to do it. But Self-Made, I think is my attempt at looking at Kim Kardashian, saying there's a theological explanation for this, and then starting with Albrecht Durer's Renaissance and going off from there.
Jamie Wheal: I like big butts, and I cannot lie, right? Yeah, the theology of that whole experience. I think people are forgetting even now, especially, like I always felt like there was a watershed when... what's her younger sister? She's got Kendall and Kylie.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Kylie.
Jamie Wheal: When Kylie made it onto the Forbes list as, faked but close billionaire list. And she made it onto the cover. That was a memory-holing of where the entire Kardashian clan came from, which was just a decade earlier, she was Paris Hilton's assistant, and Paris was famous for being famous, almost Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hollywood Square style. And there was huge amounts of contempt directed at Paris. But she's actually the heiress to one of the largest brands on the planet. So, she wasn't nothing, right? She was just super wealthy.
And Kim was just an assistant, sex tape, EShow, later you have the entire Kim generation, but then the next generation of Kylie and Kendall had sanctified. It was almost like the robber barons who then become nobility because they make their fortunes and it all gets conveniently forgotten, two generations back, they arrived on a boat. And it was that reset. And it made me think of... if it's okay, I'd love to just take three minutes, lay out this thought, because it came up as you were describing it.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Please.
Jamie Wheal: Which is there was a really good article in the Atlantic, I don't know, three, four years ago. And it was about the film Reality Bites, which had Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller and Winona Ryder. And it was one of the canon book, or films of Gen X slackerism. And Ben was a slick movie producer, TV producer, and Ethan was the heartfelt guy and who gets the girl thing. It was one of those. And the whole article was then juxtaposing that, that selling out was the cardinal sin of Gen X, selling out. And this is Nirvana, Kurt Cobain. All those things. Don't ever be a sellout. And then, it was juxtaposing that with the Kardashians, where in fact the entire millennial influencer Instagram, all we do is sell out.
In fact, we're constantly selling ourselves. And you can make sociopolitical economic understandings of why that had to be post 08, all that stuff. But nonetheless, the stigma against being for the man, being for the machine, being a capitalist pig, which maybe even their lefty boomer parents might have had, none of that applies at all. And it's clicks, hits, likes, sponsors, free shit, and self-promotion. And if you wind this clock back one step further to like Adam Curtis, that wacky British documentarian who does those insane pieces, but he did one a few years ago on what I thought was really interesting.
He said basically, there was this, the evolution of the self and everything was going great, and there was, up to the revolutions of 68, the summer of 68, where you had the Democratic Chicago conventions, you had Prague, you had Paris, you had all those uprising of socially engaged political activism by the younger generation. And then, he said, and then we got our asses handed to us and nothing happened, nothing changed.
So then, there was this inward turn and it went to the back of the land movement. It went to, if you want to change the world, don't get Maced and be batoned in the streets, go to a retreat, go to Esalen. And so, you had this retreat from socially, politically, ethically engaged activism and inward and again, eastern, mixed, and then neoliberal mixed spirituality. You get this eastern turn, inward emphasis, decrease in political agency and then that bumbles along through Gen X and then arrives into the millennial generation and then becomes hyper-commodified.
And that the inward growth, personal development is everything. It's alpha and omega and there's nothing else to be done except we're all just patsies for the slot machine of capitalism.
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think you're exactly right in your diagnosis. And I think that what we're seeing is a profound nihilism and pessimism that turns into... you might as well sell out. Because, again, among the robber barons of the 19th century with their obsession with new thought and this notion of prosperity gospels, the universe wants you to be rich. And I think that this slightly more nihilistic contemporary version is like, what is the universe of what we make it? So, we might as well commodify what we can.
Jamie Wheal: Wait, say that again.
Tara Isabelle Burton: We might as well commodify what we can while we can, that there's a, selling out is I think less seen as bad or dangerous because there isn't a conception of some truth to be held onto over and against money. We want to live our best lives and be our most authentic selves and money helps us do that. Suddenly, I think that there isn't... why not do that if nothing matters anyway, which I think is the quiet despair at the end of our gospel of self-actualization, that the world is what we want it to be. We are who we want to be. Nothing means anything other than what we choose.
What is holding us back from literally converting some of ourselves, some of our desires, some of other people's desires for us, literal attention on us in the form of clicks and likes. Why not turn that into cash, which we then put back into ourselves. I think we don't have an idealistic enough conception of art for selling out to even be something that makes sense to us on a broader cultural level. That's depressing.
Jamie Wheal: Well, I also wonder, I'm like, "Wait a sec," at the same time that you're describing that, that just might as well get mine. Because if I don't, someone else is, and I'm seeing it all beamed into my screen every day. And on the other hand, we've got, again, on the more social justice side of the progressive spectrum, some increasingly bare knuckles, Marxist, anti-capitalist critiques. Do you see those as entirely distinct sub-communities, or is there some curious overlap?
Do you have this, if we say Instagram influencer is one bucket roughly, and then social justice neo-Marxist is another, do the twain meet or are those actually really separate subcultures even if it's the same generational cohort?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Oh, I think they absolutely meet and overlap. I think that, let's say at their best or at the most idealistic, however you want to say it, I think one of the strongest cases that can be made for the social justice world is that it is a good faith, morally robust attempt to recover certain ethical and moral principles in a world that doesn't seem to have them to call for solidarity in a world that does not seem to often allow for it. But where often, and I do want to be careful only because I always want to be extra careful when wading into culture war discourse.
Jamie Wheal: Sure.
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think that often when it turns to eight... two things are true. One is that the social justice language is so marketable now that every single brand uses it. You're trying to sell razors. You might want to do a, don't be a toxic man razor commercial. You might want to have a commercial about someone teach... I believe this was Gillette that did this, that teaching your trans son to shave for the first time. These are now marketable the same way that other forms of wellness and spirituality have been marketable, that moral seriousness is itself a commodity.
And I think we are seeing that so much more broadly in our media landscape that justice spirituality has been commodified. So, do the idealistic vision of solidarity that we fight in social justice movement also been quantified? I also think on top of that the language of, let's say representation or the language of certain support businesses owned by this group or what have you, that a lot of the ways in which a better world is envisioned is by, in a better and more solidaristic world is envisioned, is still done through the lens of this more, let's say, capitalist worldview.
You could both sell anti-capitalism. I was trolling on Etsy the other day, and I even though I got on this, but there's an account called Pretty in Praxis that sells sexy bimbo stickers that are anti-capitalist, like, don't be a landlord. One of them was like, "Don't be a landlord, be a whore." Their words, and I've just thought, like you're selling this, you're making money on this. You really can't get one form of discourse out of the other very easily.
Jamie Wheal: So, OnlyFans, not Airbnb. Is that what-
Tara Isabelle Burton: Yeah, that's literally what it was. And so, I think that while I can see more broadly and at its best in the social justice movement, a move away from, or a desire to move away from the most obvious, like goop, Gwyneth Paltrow in Girlboss, offenses of modern individualism. I think that the movement is still culturally downstream from, comprised of a generation defined by so much of the intuitionalism and post-capitalist nihilism that they're trying to get away from. And I'm sure you can say that of all movements that they are, we are all subject to the cultural miasma into which we are born. And this is no exception.
Jamie Wheal: That basically seems, I think where we're fucked. What I'd love to give you the last word on and a chance, because this has been one of my curiosities for a couple of decades of academic work and that stuff, is paying attention after tracking the First and Second Great Awakenings to being like, "Well, when is the third?" And obviously, different people have tried stumping for the third and even the fourth and this thing. None have really stuck. They're all somewhat niche arguments. I think the '60s, some people charted that out and said, "Hey, this whole awakening human potential, the whole psychedelic wave one Renaissance, all of that Woodstock to levitating the Pentagon, et cetera.
Those were remarkable signs of comparable social movement. But let's just say for the sake of argument that we haven't yet had the definitive be-all, Third Great Awakening. What's it going to look like? Who's going to lead it?
Tara Isabelle Burton: I think we're in it now though, so I'm afraid, I'm going to come down and say I think this is what we're seeing. And I think that this-
Jamie Wheal: And what are your hopes for it too?
Tara Isabelle Burton: My hopes for it.
Jamie Wheal: What must it do to state our souls?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Okay, the best case scenario is that we have a resurgence of hunger for not just personal spiritual fulfillment, which is what I think we are seeing and where I think it's going wrong, but collective action. I don't think it is plausible to think that we're going to see the girls of Red Scare aside, a resurgence of interest in Traditionalist Catholicism as the next big thing among the hipsters. But I do think that we will see a more cautious small-c conservatism, which among younger people who will be interested and hungry for... we will basically see young people hungry for rules, order, maybe even those pews that they went to as a kid.
I think that so often, you see these youth movements saying, "We want immediacy, we want truth, we want feeling." I think there will be, again, for better and in some cases for worse, a hunger for order among people a little bit younger than us. I think we're seeing versions of that, the much-discussed sexual conservatism of the generation Z and people a little younger who are having less sex or perhaps more wary about certain intimacy.
But I think more broadly, we are going to see in the wake of this much more kaleidoscopic, freewheeling, individualistic, great awakening, and the nihilism that comes out of it, a desire for something real true and binding.
Jamie Wheal: Well, that sounds like that's almost a gloss on the description of your own experience where you said, right, a craving for some structure and some rules and some-
Tara Isabelle Burton: No, I mean, Episcopal Church is not a bad place to start, I'd recommend it. But I do think, and I think we do have the danger as well that some of those political movements and some of those, that hunger for order will manifest itself in much more explicitly authoritarian ways. I'm thinking of the rise of a, I mean, I guess I don't even know if we still call it the, whatever the post-alt-right is now-
Jamie Wheal: It's like Steve Bannon and Opus Dei. It's like that neck of the woods. It's Evola. Yeah, it's the Italian fascist, right?
Tara Isabelle Burton: Julius Evola. Yes. I think that our fashion, I think there is a good faith hunger for order and rootedness that unfortunately can lead to some very, very bad places. And maybe I'll leave it there.
Jamie Wheal: It sounds like then if we're not to descend into arch-reactionary atavism, and nor succumb to the fascist undertones of psychedelic Nietzscheanism of the Übermensch and ascending up and away. We have to hit the Goldilocks middle of tight but loose. We have to have some structures and some ethical obligations beyond our endless self-orientation, and we also need to have enough fluidity and flexibility and inclusivity to create a Mahayana vehicle, a greater vehicle that can hold more of our brothers and sisters.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Absolutely. And I joke that this is why I'm an Episcopalian is we're very good at the middle ground in the Episcopal Church, but I think it's not often as a sexy or as saleable as soundbite as either we need complete freedom or we need hierarchy in order. But I think that, yes, the unsexy measured approach that balances both our need for freedom and self-expression and a recognition that self-expression of our authentic selves involves contending with the facticity that our authentic selves are socially derived from our communities. Both those things can be true.
Jamie Wheal: Fantastic. Well, Tara, thank you.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Thank you so much. It's been a wonderful conversation.
Jamie Wheal: I'm always super geeked. I mean, basically, anthropology plus religion, plus pop culture is my absolute briar patch. So, it's a delight to get to hear your ideas. And also, for anybody that hasn't checked out Strange Rites, do, it's available now. And for your new ones, Self-Made, when does that come out?
Tara Isabelle Burton: That comes out in late June 2023, this year. Gosh.
Jamie Wheal: Isn't it amazing? I'm reading your galleys and I'm like," Oh, boy, I bet you're... you're an old hand, so you know, like most new writers, when I finally finished the book, then I'm done. And you're like, "No, you're like at the halfway". So, much appreciation and encouragement for the final six months and look forward to stay tuned on how that goes out into the world.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Okay, thank you so much. Cheers.
Jamie Wheal: All right. Be well, Tara.
Tara Isabelle Burton: Bye.
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