Wednesday, March 30, 2011


"...One of the shaman's jobs was ensuring that solar eclipses would be temporary. Nice work if you can get it." ~Robert Wright, The Evolution of God

It has occurred to me—with a combination of humility, seriousness, and not a little amusement—that I am the village shaman. (Perhaps I should say a village shaman.) The calling of the preacher traces its lineage back into the mists of pre-history, to the emergence of the tribal wise man, the shaman, the witch doctor (from which profession the line evolves and finally divides, leading, on the one branch, to the humble parish pastor and on the other, the medical doctor – who, for some reason, ended up making more money.)

Although in most religious communities the clergy person is charged with the task of passing on the sometimes narrow, dogmatic beliefs of a particular creed, I mean, for the sake of this discussion, to set that aside. I am speaking of the more general sense in which those who are called to lead various “flocks” are looked to as “wise” men or women – the ones who are expected to say something worth listening to regarding how to find meaning in life and a purpose for the living of one’s days, including:  “How do I go on now that my Mildred’s gone?” “Do I have to take that chemo?” and “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

For thousands of years the primary means of receiving this dispensed wisdom has been in a weekly address of between fifteen minutes and an hour or more in length. (We can take today’s standard sermon length and add five minutes for every fifty years going back in time.) My seminary professors would no doubt remind me (and I agree) that a sermon is not about the preacher’s personal philosophy or homey tips for living. (As one of them liked to say, “Remember, preach the good news, not your good views.”) But I’m speaking here of a kind of “folk” understanding of the preacher’s task.

Although one has to be either a megalomaniac or mighty humble to stand up before hundreds of people every week and presume to talk, uninterrupted, for fifteen or twenty minutes about the meaning of life(1), I think there is something to the premise I am putting forward here, both as a description and an expectation of the preacher’s assignment: The average parish pastor plays the role of something like a tribal shaman.(2) When I’m in the pew and not in the pulpit I do expect to get a word to instruct my life in one way or another.

My intention here is neither to ridicule nor to puff up the importance of my profession, but to observe, both from the inside and the outside, that all societies have had and continue to have their shamans. I write at a time when the persuasive power of the church and its preachers is (at least for the time being) waning. I know there are – and always have been – other “wise” ones to whom the community looks. I was going to list some candidates here, but let me ask, instead, who is your shaman? Is it important for someone to play that role in our lives, whether religious or secular? To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?”

Where, dear reader, do you get the good word?



For many, the word "shaman" is synonymous with "charlatan." For this discussion, however, I mean it in its more objective anthropological sense as "tribal wise person."

1. "In some cultures shamans have struck anthropologists as psychotic, people who may indeed be hearing voices that no one else is hearing…. The Chukchee used to describe someone who felt driven to the shamanistic calling as 'doomed to inspiration.'” –Robert Wright, The Evolution of God

Martin Luther said that “after every sermon the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he’s just done”

2. This is one of the reasons that clergy who are charlatans, or who exploit for their own gain or sickness are so devastating: they’re messing with people’s understanding of life itself. Another post for another time.


Anonymous said...

I just caught a short snippet the other day on the TV (I wish I could remember where) saying that many people today have replaced having a religious identity (I am a Christian) with brand identity/loyalty as a way of defining who they are (I drive a Subaru, I drink Starbucks, I wear Nike). Again, I really would have liked to follow up with this. I mention it only because your blog triggered my memory of this comment. It is only tangentially related to your topic.

Of course you know how Paul answers the question you pose at the end of your blog -- we preachers are not called to be "wise" at all, the way most people would define it. Indeed our message will sound, especially in the context of what many people hear, and want to hear, from their preachers, as so much foolishness. Jeff

Joseph G. Crippen said...

Ah, well, one of my shamans (and it's a short list for me), the wise ones from whom I look for wisdom, guidance, insight, and Good News (with capital letters), is you, my friend.

Richard Jorgensen said...

Right back atcha, Joseph.

Warren Hanson said...

You've posed a thought-provoking question. A good one to ponder. I guess I believe in the shamanhood of all people. No formal training required, just good, sound, everyday wisdom. For these things, I turn to my friends, old and new. I have been able to watch my old friends grow in wisdom over the years. And I seem to choose new friends based upon their depth, kindness, and wisdom. Aren't those three words part of the shaman job description?

Anonymous said...

You sure pick great topics to write about. I think preachers are looked to more than ever for words of wisdom in this world of word-noise. The prayer from the pew each Sunday is, "For God's sake, please stand up and say somthing truly important today." It's tough but somebody's got to do it.

I was shocked one day to realize I'd become a shaman to the comfirmand I was paired with as a mentor. It was very uncomfortable, frankly. Too much pressure.

Shamans in my past--- my college campus pastor, a former pastor, Simon and Garfunkle (at the time), Bach, poets in general, and yes old friends who dare to speak truth, kindly. Bill G

Richard Jorgensen said...

As always, a wise and thoughtful reflection, Bill. Thanks.