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BOOK REVIEW: "Secret Body" by Jeffrey J. Kripal

The University of Chicago Press
The latest book from Jeffrey J. Kripal.
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BOOK REVIEW: Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal (The University of Chicago Press) 2017

Jeffrey J. Kripal’s latest book, Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions is a very bold book. And it is also very personal to Kripal as well, as he confesses his earliest years growing up in rural Nebraska and developing an almost neurotic, monk-like approach to sexuality, as viewed through his strict Catholic upbringing.

Kripal was a pious kid. An anti-abortion activist who would become Karen Carpenter-level anorexic and who would check out a Catholic seminary, only to discover that "just about everyone else in the seminary was gay" and Kripal was heterosexual.

For starters, this Rice University religion professor, who also wrote The Super Natural with Whitley Strieber more than a year earlier, Kripal has a wonderful imagination. Just check out another one of Kripal's books, Mutants and Mystics. He's like a big kid, full of wide-eyed wonder. The joy he has about the subjects he writes about is a reflection of his deep humanity and love of the world around us.

Breaking Secret Body up into three parts: Corpus, Mysticum and Meum, while addressing his writings over the past quarter-century or so, 

Talking about those early years, he – like so many of us – was transfixed by the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on television.

Living just north of Kansas, in Nebraska, the world in which Dorothy Gale lived was dusty with a yellowish hue. But Kripal understood the possibilities that there was more “behind the curtain” than most believed. In fact, like me, Kripal played the role of the Wizard in an elementary school production of Frank Baum’s beloved story – a story with strong, Theosophical overtones, which Kripal now understands helped shape Baum and his views on magic and other worlds.

I may have lived in Nebraska just north of Kansas, but I also lived in that Theosophical, ufological dreamworld called Oz.” Boy, can I relate to that statement.

But in his years as a religious scholar, with his erotically-charged, “Road to Damascus” moment taking place in a hotel room in Calcutta, India in 1989, following his involvement in a Hindu festival celebrating the goddess Kali, Kripal has come to some very scholarly conclusions that notably run counter to more commonly-held beliefs about religion particularly Christianity’s abject fear of Jesus being thought of as homosexual, as Kripal notes that all of the evidence he has researched and investigated points clearly in that direction.

But Christianity still seems to be in a place not willing to take things in that direction.

The Church, with its condemnation of homosexuality and the hellish repressions and subsequent pathologies that inevitably result from such a damnation, has essentially produced its own institutional crisis, if not its moral and financial bankruptcy,” Kripal writes. “No, the debates about homosexuality and Christianity will never go away, for the simple reason that Christianity itself possesses a homoerotic secret shimmering at its very historical and scriptural core. The churches can no more avoid this problem than they can deny th savior himself. Peter once did that. But at least he repented.

With Christianity's many flaws, it was inevitable that this religion that is now essentially a corporate "brand," often embraced by the Right Wing and is an extension of the materialism that is so engrained in American and Western society. Many people felt like there had to be more than what was being offered in mainstream churches. The search continued, and Kripal reminds us of that.

And we know of the post-WWII "Baby Boomer" experience with religion ... by the early 1960's, traditional Christianity in America was played out and many went looking for answers elsewhere. Kripal notes that the mystic East, with an emphasis of Hinduism and Buddhism was embraced not because of "colonial influences" but because of the influence of LSD (think Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary), the 1967 "Summer of Love," the Beatles' trip (just 50 years ago!) to Rishikesh, India to learn about Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. 

"When (Beatle) George Harrison sang 'My Sweet Lord' (to Krishna), he was not enacting an implicit colonial trope. He was expressing a genuine and heartfelt religious conversion. He really was singing to Lord Krishna. He was also trying to sell albums." 

Indeed he did. And Kripal intends to take us on a wild journey over the course of these 400-plus pages, arguing and suggesting that there is more going on - as he noted in The Super Natural with Whitley Strieber, the aforementioned book dealing with more paranormal subjects like UFO encounters and alien beings.

And Kripal returns to that aspect of religious belief in a chapter called "The Rise of the Paranormal" where Kripal echoes some of my own research (and that of luminaries like Jacques Vallee and John Keel) where the "trickster qualities" of otherworldly forces are obviously at play, be it with UFO encounters, "near-death experiences," telepathy, "cryptid sightings" (like Bigfoot), Marian apparitions and dead people appearing in situations coinciding with alien abduction experiences.

Keel and others would say this was part of an "ultraterrestrial" game of some sort. And Kripal, in his more recent writings, has embraced the paranormal angle, which is represented in this collection of Kripal's religio-paranormal-tinged essays where he talks of Strieber's "visitor" encounters, an extension of the multi-millennial-long experiences humans have had with angels, demons, djinn, sylphs, fairies, trolls, elementals, "brownies" "and now the alien or gray," as Strieber notes.

I was fully engaged with Secret Body, since I have long questioned what religion is truly about, be it via a Jungian prism or something else. 

As for Kripal, he notes in a 2015 essay that his present position is that he embraces a "secret humanism" and that "it is our own secret humanity that lies behind and within all of the planet's religions." Contiuning, Kripal puts it out there, saying that we won't likely ever fully understand what is going on, writing: "The prism cannot speak for the light. It can only refract and reflect it." 

And like a chess game, when we are playing and playing but not sure who are opponet is, we might ask: "Just who is playing this game?" Perhaps we are not playing, but are more likely the pawns. 

There is a lot to absorb in Secret Body. I finished it on New Year's Eve 2017 and it gave me a lot to think about going into the new year. I'm just glad there are scholarly writers out there like Kripal, Graham Hancock, Gary Lachman and others, who are taking us in new, exciting directions, going against the grain of the "status quo" and getting their readers to think about the Big Questions of life.

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