Emilia Writes

...... Things

Reading: A Poem

by Emily McAvan, originally published in Identity Theory.
I love how you
delight in book-stores,
the flick of your fingers
as you caress pages,
the look in your eye
when you find something you want.

As I watch you move from shelf to shelf,
I think to myself that
our bodies are like books,
already, always,

passed from one reader to another,
(though some are
more gentle than others),
tossed aside or
lovingly re-read
again and again

and I wonder what
it would be like to have you
spread my legs
and open me up and
read me from start to finish
Emily in Love

—Breaking Again

A song I wrote for my lover

Interview with Emily McAvan on The Postmodern Sacred

TheoFantastique: Emily, thank you for your time in discussing your book. I have enjoyed your work in this area and was glad to see your fine research come out in book form. Can you briefly define what you mean by “the postmodern sacred,” and how our “terminal identity” plays a part in forming this?

Emily McAvan: What I was really getting at in naming the postmodern sacred is the virtualisation of religious belief and practice in the digital world. With the proliferation of virtual technologies, ever present internet connections, right in the palm of our hand or in our laps, there’s a sense that these form what Scott Bakutman called “terminal identities.” Identity is produced, mediated by, both the kinds of content available and the way it’s delivered, which for me has an impact on the way we experience religion today.

I set out to explore those through a variety of media texts, particularly science fiction and fantasy, terming them collectively as the postmodern sacred because of the religious implications of the stories these texts are telling.

TheoFantastique: How does the postmodern sacred adopt a particular epistemology in relation to those of “real world” religions, and how might this inform clashes from certain religious segments of society over expressions of the postmodern sacred such as those in the past over Harry Potter?

Emily McAvan: In terms of epistemology, way of knowing, the postmodern sacred takes a kind of syncretic approach, pulling together signifiers from various traditions without having any master ideology. Quite naturally, this upsets people who want to maintain their singular purchase on truth. The interesting thing with Harry Potter is, okay it’s a representation of witchcraft on the page and the screen, and yes the Bible says not to suffer a witch. So what? It’s fiction. So why the conflict? The answer I think is that fiction is a way of telling truth slant, to quote Emily Dickinson. Harry Potter gives a little too much life to witchcraft, fires the imagination a little too much, for the comfort of some people.

TheoFantastique: Some scholars have argued previously that at times the experience of film may approximate a religious experience. In your book you take this further and argue that the process of consuming religiously- or spiritually-inflected texts is a form of spiritual experience. How is this so, and how does it relate to more traditional expressions of religiosity? Also in connection with this, how are these encounters with the postmodern sacred in media forms of “second-hand experience of transcendence and belief?”

Emily McAvan: Well, one of the main differences from traditional religious practice is that there’s no communal expectations involved really, no institutions forming. There’s no priests or rabbis. It’s not there’s no ties there – popular culture fandoms definitely create bonds between people – but not to the same degree, not the birth, life, wedding stuff for the most part. This is why I call the postmodern sacred a supplement, an addition and replacement in the Derridean sense. It adds to, and displaces.

But at the same time, of course a text that is drawing on Christianity or Buddhism or whatever for its symbolic power is always a degree removed from the intensity of religious mystic experience. The numinous, as Rudolph Otto termed supernatural elements, is onscreen, it’s not with you.

TheoFantastique: You note that the postmodern sacred is willing to play with the sacred. Is it this element, perhaps through a willingness to go so far as to play in ways that threaten to transgress conceptions of the traditional sacred that make it so appealing to the postmodern mindset?

Emily McAvan: It absolutely is. It can combine, recombine, religions in fairly plastic ways. In that sense, it’s transgressive and indeed pleasurable. Rather than stake out a single religious tradition, it’s perhaps easier – and definitely more profitable – to play with disparate signifiers.

TheoFantastique: In your chapter on “Virtual Religion” you note that the postmodern sacred “temporarily suspend(s) the ‘rational’ laws of the universe that prohibit Gods and monsters from existence.” Does this represent a curious mix of the embrace of an Enlightenment rationalist metanarrative along with a postmodern skepticism of metanarratives, which is then applied to Gods and monsters, as well as to things like the paranormal in expressions like The X-Files as well? How is the postmodern sacred “caught somewhere between belief and unbelief…”?

Emily McAvan: Well, when something’s onscreen, there’s a certain vacillation between belief and unbelief, the suspension of disbelief. When you have a God or a monster onscreen it incarnates the supernatural in a certain sense. As we see with the Harry Potter example, to portray the numinous onscreen in hyper-CGI detail is a powerful thing, there’s a kind of concreteness that these new digital technologies give to the unreal, the supernatural.

TheoFantastique: You state that “we are dealing with a post-Christian polytheistic pop culture, one that feels free to pastiche from many difference religious and mythical traditions.” Can you share an example or two?

Emily McAvan: Sure. Think about the melange of religious signifiers in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. There’s vampires, King James style language, as well as various demons from fairy tales, and so on. Buffy dies in a kind of Christ-like fashion, but when she comes back from the dead she describes a Zen-like nirvana state where she felt nothing. Angel goes to Hell. And of course at the linguistic level, the infamous Buffyspeak way of talking on the show is in dialogue with diasporic Judaism I think, it’s a kind of unacknowledged teen Yiddishkeit. So the point is, there’s all of these signifiers floating around the series from various religions, all of whom incarnate a certain kind of belief in their concreteness onscreen. So what does that mean? It means that we don’t have a singular Christian purchase on truth, that ideas of the supernatural are diffused, perhaps even confused depending on your point of view, between all these traditions. Spirit, the sacred, becomes relativised.

TheoFantastique: One last question if I may. You write in your conclusion that: “The postmodern religious culture finds itself somewhere between a fundamentalist belief in a singular God, a pagan belief in everything, and a modern skeptical belief in anything – three often incompatible belief systems.” But you go on to note that these incompatible positions have adopted elements of the other. Is this the inclusive and syncretic aspects of postmodern spirituality at play?

Emily McAvan: It absolutely is. Traditions begin to take on elements of each other. For example, the fundamentalists are far more postmodern than they would like to believe, especially the American Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. New Age style self-help talk has permeated so much of the culture, and it has changed the way that people think about God and spirit. “Spiritual, not religious” is for more than the Oprah crowd now. The thing is, though, it’s in many ways unacknowledged, which produces an interesting tension in these religions between their Christian elements and the Eastern-influenced New Age elements they’ve taken on. It’s inclusive, but unintentionally so.

TheoFantastique: Emily, thank you for your fine work, and the time you’ve carved out for this interview. I hope your book does well as people explore science fiction and fantasy in more depth.

My favourite songs of 2013, roughly

1.  Janelle Monae - Dance Apocalyptic

2.  Haim - The Wire

3.  Lorde - Royals

4.  Icona Pop - Then We Kiss

5.  Annie - Back Together

6.  Chvches - Gun

7.  Coin - Atlas

8.  Daft Punk - Get Lucky

9.  Basement Jaxx - What a Difference

10. Chvrches - Recover

11. Haim - Honey & I

12. Daughter - Human

13. Broods - Bridges

14. TheDream feat. Kelly Rowland - Where Have You Been

15. Say Lou Lou - Julian

16. Goldfrapp - Drew

17. Lana Del Rey - Young and Beautiful

Download here, available for a week or two


I would write a love poem
but touching words instead of your skin seems foolhardy.
Kisses cannot be a better fate than wisdom
where there is nothing wiser than love.

The work of knowing you is my enlightenment.
Light me up.

My girlfriend writes me poems and they are as beautiful as she.

The G_d of Small Things

So I woke up at 4am this morning, sick, and watched my Twitter feed intently, fretting about my friends in New York.  Hoping that Hurricane Sandy would not turn out to be that bad.

And as I lay in my bed, my room lit by the glow of my smartphone, I wondered about G_d and hir role in natural disasters.  If you believe in a G_d, then where are they?  Can we locate G_d in the storm (as fundamentalists are wont to do, storm as punishment for our sins) or in the avoidance of tragedy, in the thousand tiny near-misses that preserve life?

If it’s the first: what about human free will?  It’s hard not to see the increased ferocity and frequency of hurricanes is a result of human activity, of our pollution, our morally bankrupt capitalist system.  There’s numerous times in Tanakh when G_d allows catastrophe to strike the Jewish people, but the idea is rather less popular now—especially among Reform Jews.  Would G_d “want” that?  Why?  Does that make G_d not good?

If it’s the second, G_d as mercy, the alleviation of pain, then we might well ask: why did G_d not intervene explicitly and prevent the thing in the first place?

It all comes down to theodicy, which Mirriam Webster defines roughly correctly as the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil,” to which we might add suffering in general, because the suffering of good people is what pre-occupies us as much as the existence of evil.

Most of us have inherited something of the “strong” view of theodicy, which is that G_d is good, omnipotent and omniscient and evil is explainable either as punishment for sins or part of G_d’s mysterious plan, everything happens for a reason etc.  G_d might “let” horrible things happen as a warning for us to change our ways.  

But what if G_d is not strong, but in fact rather weak?  This is the view of some Jewish theologians writing after the Shoah, where the idea that the six million deserved their treatment at the hands of the Nazis is repugnant.  Jewish tradition teaches that G_d listens when the Jewish people collectively cry out in suffering, but a weak G_d would be unable to respond in any large way, just to shift history a tiny little bit.  That G_d would be in the exceptions, the escapes, the good fortune, the relief of pain.  Just as there are horrors in human history, there are countless wonders, too.  Coincidences, and the inexplicable irrational goodness of some people in inhumane situations.

Which of these is more compelling?  I think the strong view of theodicy is unsustainable, that it makes G_d abusive, the perpetrator (at worst) and bystander (at best) of horrors.  

Instead, I’m reminded of our active role in the world.  Much of Judaism talks about the way in which we collaborate with G_d in creation.  We’re not just created, but creating, and Israel, after all, is G_d’s bride, partner.  Just as our collective actions have led to devastating climate change, so too can they begin to heal the world.  

And really, they must, because theist or not, it seems fairly clear that the human race is in for a very, very rough time if we don’t find another course.


Pluot murder scene.

Niecelet, in the living room, with the lead pipe piece of fruit


Pluot murder scene.

Niecelet, in the living room, with the lead pipe piece of fruit

To the pure all things are pure.

—Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the Only Fruit

This is What Makes Us Girls

(by Emily McAvan.  I wrote this in May 2012, originally posted at Tiger Beatdown, back when I was still using “Manuel” for a surname).

when men open doors for me
yearning for my smile

and my lover cups my hips, pulling me to her
whispering “mine”


when my mother looked at my skirt and said “you’re not going out in that”
and my father said I was dead to him,
an embarrassment to the family

and  they gave him a job instead of me,
and again, and again,

and when they spoke over me, boys and beards alike,
wrote their words and theories on my skin
called me hysterical, unreliable, psychotic,


the psychologist asked me what underwear I was wearing,
and the doctor told me to get undressed
while another refused to treat my impure body at all

and strange men pulled at my crotch and my breasts, groping, reaching, tearing,
or the taxi driver said I could pay with sex
and I ran like hell
stumbling in the darkness
wishing I’d worn flats

and their fists hit my chest, and my body crumpled
they call me slut, whore, cunt
and everyone blamed me, anyway.

And you, my sisters, you closed the doors to shelters
and my bruises healed alone

organised conferences and
wrote books
while my words went unheard

and you told me die tranny bitch
called yourself radical

and never once realised how much

you are like the men

you hate.