Friday, January 02, 2009

REVIEW: Switching to Goddess

Switching to Goddess: Humanity’s Ticket to the Future by J. Lyn Studebaker (O Books 2008), trade paperback.

This is a treasure of a book. Written with a light touch, at times humorous enough to make you lol, Switching to Goddess by J. Lyn Studebaker brings together scholarship now known about how Goddess religions were suppressed in antiquity and suggests ways we can bring Goddess back for our own well-being and for the survival of the planet.

Studebaker (who blogs as Athana on Radical Goddess Thealogy) doesn't mince words in her bold assessment of where "war-daddy god" worship has gotten us and why we need to return to the female divine, whose cultures have been associated with peace, equality, and risk-taking. She doesn’t tip toe around difficult issues, and isn’t afraid to directly and strongly criticize Christianity and the Bible, for example. Though she often writes in a slangy style, you’d be wise not to be taken in by the flip language: Studebaker is no intellectual lightweight. The offbeat language helps make the book more accessible and enjoyable, but behind it a strong intellect and Goddess interpreter is at work.

Studebaker has completed all coursework for a PhD in cultural anthropology, has taught archeology and anthropology at Ohio State University and has a master's degree in prehistory and archeology. Before taking us on a worldwide tour (with pics) of ancient Goddess cultures in the Near East, the Indus Valley, Old Europe, Southeast Europe, and Japan, the author introduces us to cultures surviving today (also with pics) that have many traits in common with ancient Goddess societies. These surviving cultures include the Moso on the China-Tibet border, which served as a model for ‘Shangri la’ in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, and whose people eschew marriage for a system of "free love"; the Basques of the Pyrenees mountains on the Spain-France border, whose language and customs differ greatly from the rest of Europe’s; and the Hopis and Pueblos, native to the American Southwest. As a point of comparison, Studebaker also discusses what she calls our "kissing cousins," the sexy, peaceful bonobos, who, along with more violent chimpanzees, are humans' closest primate relatives. Bonobo societies, she says, "look suspiciously like an animal version of guiding goddess societies...."

One of the great contributions of this book is its careful tracing of the change-over from the Mother-modeled guiding goddess to what Studebaker calls "war daddy," which includes not only Abrahamic monotheism headed by a male-only deity, but also belligerent, domineering male gods in polytheistic societies. In a chapter called "Good Times," the material under the subhead, "Just Any Ol’ Goddess Won’t Do" is one of my favorite parts of this book. Studebaker writes:

The mere presence of goddesses in a society, however, doesn’t guarantee peace, prosperity, and plums for breakfast....This is so important that I’ll probably repeat it more than once: just any old goddess won’t do. It has to be a special kind. For starters, it can’t be one with a jealous god hanging over her right shoulder....And above all it needs to be a guiding mother goddess who not only gives birth to everyone and everything in the universe (including any other gods and goddesses) but who also serves as a guide for our behavior.
This means that most goddesses that existed in pantheons after 4000 BC to 300 BC (depending on the culture) are no longer guiding goddess models. (This book uses the abbreviations BC and AD so I will use them in this review, rather than the BCE and CE sometimes used in discussing Goddess cultures.) Studebaker gives us some excellent, easy-to-understand, diagrams of this switchover from guiding goddess to war god cultures under a sub-head, "Who Popped Us in the Chops Ma?" in a chapter called "Bad Times." Figure 6.1, "Black Box" shows us when each culture entered what Studebaker calls the "Black Box," during which time the culture underwent drastic change but we can’t (yet?) define exactly what happened to cause this change (although she does discuss several theories). Figure 6.2, "The Switch from Guiding Goddess to War Gods," shows at what points in time cultures in 5 different geographical areas entered the black box, and when they exited the box. Another fascinating time chart is in the chapter called "Home Again." Figure 9.1, "A Generalized Look at History, Goddesses, Gods, and Society," summarizes by time period (beginning in 10,000 BC and ending in the present) characteristics of religions compared with characteristics of societies.

Another of my favorite parts of this book are 3 sections in the chapter "Good Times," called "Go Directly to Jail, Do Not Pass Go," "Backlash," and "Tricky-Dickies." Studebaker recalls the initial publication of books in the 1980s about ancient Goddess cultures:

The second someone suggested goddess was equal to god...all hell broke loose. The result: since the 1990s, a backlash of unprecedented proportions has raged against the Neolithic and Bronze-Age Great Mother Goddess
She goes on to give examples (and names names) of professors of religion, anthropologists, archeologists, and a "writer-combo team" whose attitudes and books represent backlash against Goddess scholarship. Studebaker refutes what she calls their "folderol," and warns about the trickiness of the backlashers’ tactics, writing:

They throw page after page at us of confusing, stuffy, tangled academic language that boils down to this: before 4000 BC the world might not have worshipped goddesses. Which of course is something you can say about anything archeologists dig up....In archeology all we can ever do is go with our best bets.
She gives examples of backlasher claims, such as "just because a figurine is breast-bedecked doesn’t mean it’s female"; or that breasts must be a certain size for the statue to be considered female even though the statue lacks a penis; or that even though figurines have two heads or two faces, one shouldn’t assume they represent goddesses–they could just be "ordinary women."

Yet another of my favs is the subhead "Bounceback #2 Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," in the chapter, "Fight." Studebaker enumerates the many ways various cultures’ gods, in order to gain power, tried to take over the Goddess’s role of giving birth. Most of us are familiar with at least two examples of this: God (aka Yaweh) enables Adam to give birth from his rib to Eve, and Zeus gives birth to Athena from his forehead. In figure 7.1, "And the Dude Bore a Nine-Pound Blonde," she lists these plus 8 other births from various parts of gods’ bodies in a number of cultures. She then discusses other stages of Goddess sabotage and obliteration that frequently followed.

Because war god religions are threatening to both people and the planet, and because it has been shown that human beings appear to be hardwired for religion of some sort, Studebaker has set a goal of the year 2035 for switching to Goddess. She gives us all tremendous help in accomplishing this in the information and motivation she provides in Switching to Goddess.

Part of the information is contained in the extensive and extremely helpful appendixes. For example in Appendix C, "Questions from the Peanut Gallery," she anticipates questions people may challenge her with and gives responses. These are arranged alphabetically. Some examples:
BUDDHISM "For bringing peace and harmony to the world, wouldn’t Buddhism work as well as goddesses?"
Like Jesus, Buddha decreed for his followers lives of sensual deprivation. Also like Jesus, he suggests humans deserve poverty, primarily. In contrast, the Guiding Goddess demands we enjoy the senses she gave us, and that we pull everyone together in abundance—the way healthy siblings do....What’s more, Buddhism is not always the cornucopia of peace and purity many in the West believe it to be....
"But you said culture is highly resistant to change. So how are we going to shift to Goddess by 2035?"
....Almost all of us, however, already live in partially-goddess societies. The starvation/war gods are simply thin overlays....Our job is to pull out the old goddesses from beneath the starvation/war culture dirt layer and dust them off again.
"What is it?"
....In choosing how to behave [in any situation] answering the question "In this situation, what would a healthy mother do vis a vis her children" is likely to scare up good moral behavior. Not just men, but all of us need to learn from this [Mother Model]. Since I’m a non-mother woman—I’ve never had children—I need to learn from it too. But even mothers themselves need to learn from the Mother Model.
There are more than 30 of these Q & A’s. One way to make use of them is, as you’re reading along in the book's chapters, if you have a question–particularly a point where you think you would give Studebaker a good argument, go to Appendix C and see if she has already thought of your question and responded to it.

Also helpful while you are reading are 6 maps placed between the end of the last chapter and the beginning of the appendixes. Included in the other appendixes are a chart on "The Origin of the Starvation Culture," associated with the changeover to war gods; a list of "War Gods Around the World"; a list of "Guiding Goddesses We Can Return To," also from around the world; a list of blogs in "closed countries"; a chart of world religions showing the numbers of adherents and what percentage this is of the total; suggestions for "Things You Can Do to Flip the Switch" to Goddess, alphabetized by what may be your occupation, nationality and other identifiers—don’t miss this one; a list of some relevant websites and blogs; a "Goddess Reading List" with books and more websites and blogs; and last but definitely not least, "Cruelty in the Bible: Short List." In addition, there is an extensive bibliography and an index.

These back materials plus the charts and pictures throughout the book make it ideal for classes, whether they be in universities or outside academia in small private groups. Switching to Goddess is an excellent book for newcomers to Goddess spirituality–whether enthusiastic or skeptical. And with its new (to me, anyway) material and fearless yet humorous writing style, it will also be a treat for many of us who have been Goddess-involved for some time.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.