Snook, Jennifer Stephanie. American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2015
I should say from the outset of this review that I think you should buy this book. I think this book will, despite its flaws, prove to be very important in the next great discussion of what Heathenry was, is, or can become. It is the first major ethnography of Heathenry since Mattias Gardell's 2003 Gods of the Blood. It strives to move beyond a strict examination of the politics of race and rather explore the concept of identity in American Heathen Culture.
Snook's central thesis, on the adoption and negotiation of identity is, while not groundbreaking, solid. Her determination not to make the book strictly about the race question is an admirable failure. She fails to adequately address Theodism and the incredible impact it has had on the modern practice of Heathenry. Finally, her own biases sometimes lead her to emphasize the political and not the cultural importance of identity. Still, her observations are solid, and the themes she picks out to address: Heathenry's ambivalent relationships with Neopaganism, particularly Wicca, within its own negotiation and adoption of identity through the growth of reconstruction techniques, and finally in its relationship with matters of race and authenticity are all salient points and worthy of examination. I just wish there was more of it.
Her examination of the interplay of Wicca and Heathenry is I think the one of the stronger chapters in the book. She rightly nails down the classic pendulum swing of conversion, first far away from Christianity until, as if pulled by gravity, a Heathen finds their way home. And the ubiquity of that concept, of the idea "coming home" is not lost on Snook. This chapter is, ranked in terms of strength, second only to her examination of Gender and Heathenry in Chapter 5; which was remarkably astute, challenging, and worth the cost of purchase on its own merits.
In tackling the rise of the reconstructonist toolset within heathenry, and the concept of Worldview was weak in that Snook clearly isn't attached to the concept, and her normal narrative style remains divorced. Stylistically, the chapters suffer from this disengagement, and I think her observations suffer as well. Her examination of the Social media phenomenon clearly have some moments of astute observation, but I believe her own disinclination to suffer some of the less than polite corners of the social web to get to some seriously meaty case studies in the way identity is defined through the use of mockery and invective as a tool of social control. Relegating the antics and accomplishments of Do You Even Heathen Bro to an end note fails to really underscore the way it dominated Heathen discussion during its heyday, and the way that others responded to it. It is a clear case-study defense of her thesis, and I think she has done a disservice to herself by not digging a little deeper.
If her purpose was to find nuance in the approach to racism within Heathenry, she should have dedicated the bulk of the book to discussing it. Otherwise, she should have lightly broken down the arguments and left it to other works. As it stands, her chapter on race suffers from trying to carve a middle ground. Snook spends the majority of the chapter covering the folkish - universalist debate. She highlights the way that the debate tends to marginalize heathen engagement and construction, much in the same way that the question of Abortion does in modern American politics, but even as she astutely points out the growth of Tribalism and the way it depoliticizes the question of race and identity, and how it is even now being coopted by the Folkish wing of Heathenry. It is frustrating watching someone so astute come so close to the truth. In adopting the language and ideals of Tribalism, Folkish heathens have ultimately lost the debate. They now have to encode their prejudice and racism in the language of new ideals, which, over time and emphasis, will fundamentally change them. If Heathenry becomes the multi-generational project that I and others believe it to be, then the term folk will, in the space of a couple of generations, no longer carry connotations of race and rather come to mean what it originally meant: the holders of a common cultural tradition. Not of my tribe, but perhaps of my people.
My final criticism of the work is centered on the concept of bias. I'm not accusing Dr. Snook of being biased, I'm saying it outright. And, I stress, that this isn't a bad thing. Where Dr. Snook's biases lead her to be engaged are when she is most astute. When her natural inclinations and disposition appears challenged, I find her work to be weakest. Clearly, she has a strong passion for politics, social justice, and women's issues, and I find when she is addressing those topics she is at her best.
I said at the beginning of this review that I think you should buy this book. I still do. I believe it will become seen as an important work, despite its flaws. I think it will prove to be the catalyst for discussion, and that it will spawn many responses. My own hope is that they can meet or exceed the level of Dr. Snook's work, and that, rather than address the particulars of her observations and/or conclusions, those responses instead use it as a spring board to tackle what it means to be Heathen.