The Shaman’s Doorway


I don’t really do reviews because a review really requires a type of reading and analysis that I don’t really like doing—-

The Shaman's Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth: Stephen  Larsen, John Halifax: 9780892816729: Amazon.com: Books

and I don’t want to be one of those who gives positive reviews for books that support my opinions, and bad reviews for books that don/t. However, this is an interesting book to me for a few reasons. Stephen Larsen’s book, “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” was published in 1976, originally by Harper and Row. Here are a few minor thoughts.

  1. I was a bit surprised that the book wasn’t really focused on shamanism. This is not to say that it did not give weight to the topic. In fact, there were two North American shamans that were give sizable sections in the book.
  2. The greater emphasis was on the role of (ancient) myths in cultures, and archetypes in people. Not surprisingly then, Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung were given a great deal of prominence in the book.
  3. I was surprised at the passionate tone of the book. Although cultural anthropology promotes participant observation, the books that I have tended to read (especially of the more secular variety) write more academically… more dispassionately. The author is one who is seeking a certain amount of spirituality or transcendancy, and has been greatly influenced by the late 60s and early 70s in the United States, where new ways of looking at spirituality have been promoted.
  4. Related to the previous point, the author speaks of his own attempt at dabblling with different paths to spirituality. It is pretty clear that he is not a fan of traditional Christianity, or of other “Western.” He speaks also of his delving into mysticism, and Eastern faiths (especially yoga). He noted problems with these as well.

His main thesis is five stages or types of mythic engagement.

Stage #1. Mythic Identity. Larsen sees this in terms of spiritual possession. This may be seen in ecstatic faiths, psychedelic experiences, shamanism, channeling, demon possession, mass hysteria, etc.

Stage #2. Mythic Orthodoxy. Larsen sees this in terms of religion. Myths move to dogma. He sees this as an “extroverted” view since the answers in life are seen as external to the adherent, in terms of an Ultimate Reality external to the members, that are regulated by dogma and ritual.

Stage #3. Objective Phase. Larsen sees this in terms of science. This is the realm of the scientist, skeptic, and modernist… who believe that myths myths must be verified or tossed out. (Note: I feel that Larsen takes a pre-Kuhn view in seeing science as objective seeking to be embedded in reality and skeptical of myth. Also note that Larsen tends to view the term “myth” to mean things that are NOT real, yet may be useful. As such, he seems to embrace the idea that scientism may be correct, but creating an untenable place for humans who need our myths and archetypes.)

Stage #4. Suspended Engagement. This is the realm of (Eastern) meditation such as in yoga. If (Western) religion is seen as extroverted, this is considered introverted. One seeks truth by looking inward. However, its asceticism tends to deny the naturalness of being human.

Stage #5. Mythic Engagement and Renewal. This is the stage of transformation and dialogue. This seems to be somewhat poorly defined, but appears to be embracing some aspects of Campbell and Jung, along with some components of Stage #1. (The author notes that Stage #1 is difficult for most since it is sort of the realm of madness. He sees some value in Stage #1, but without become lost in the experience of spiritual transformation or ecstasy.)

It is pretty clear that Larsen has issues with Stages 2, 3, and 4. Stages 2 (Western “extroverted” faiths) and 4 (Eastern “introverted” faiths) do not embrace the “naturalness of life.” They seek mind over matter. Stage 3 seeks a desacralized view of the world that is psychologically empty. However, few if any can embrace Stage 1, the realm of saints, shamans, and madmen.

His approach supports a certain “third way” between introversion and extroversion, the naturalness of our humanity seriously, It embraces the myths that are rooted so deeply in our humanity without becoming completely lost in them.

Obviously, I am a Christian and as such I fit into the category of dogmatic religion, or Stage 2. Yet, as I look at what Larsen is saying, it seems to me that Christian mysticism could be seen Stage 5. Christian mysticism includes many of the saints that fit into Stage 1. Yet at the same time clearly do work within the framework of ultimate reality (dogma) from Stage 2, and honor of meditation (stage 4).

Of course, I am not required to agree with his views (and neither is anyone else). However, I do think that there is some value to this model… especially in how it seeks to take myth or archetypes seriously, while addressing our humanity seriously.

As a missionary, one needs to deal with people with any of these five worlds. I would also suggest that a missionary may live in one of the stages, but should not be uncomfortable with any of these stages. Arguably, it may be valuable to follow the guidance of Paul to contextualize (a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks) One could see these stages as different worldviews, and we must be able to understand and interact with all of them.

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