By Mike Gleason
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism, by Carl McColman
Alpha Books, 335 pp. (+ appendices and index), 2002
Right off the top, I have to make it clear that I like Carl McColman’s style of writing. Like most writers on the topic of Paganism, he is willing to share his personal opinions. Unlike a lot of those same writers, he consistently reminds us that his opinions are just that his opinions.
I know that a lot of people will be put off by the title of this book. Don’t be! This book, like When Someone You Love is Wiccan (by the same author), is an excellent way of explaining and exploring Paganism. It deserves to be in every library – both yours and the local public library (if you can afford to do so, donate a copy to them).
One of the best features, in my opinion, is one shared by the entire series of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to… books, the use of little “heads up” boxes frequently to clarify words (in this book “Earthwords”), explain pitfalls (“Taboo”), dig deeper into spiritual concepts (“Oracle”), or just give interesting bits of information (“Drumbeats”). This avoids the use of footnotes and/or end notes, which many people would not bother with.
In my review of When Someone You Love is Wiccan, I described it as being a pre-101 book. This book is in the same vein. The ideas are presented clearly, simply, and in a non-threatening way. The Pagan community needs more books like this. This is one of the books that you want to have on hand when you want to explain your beliefs to someone who has no frame of reference other than “B” movies.
The inclusion of “The Least You Need to Know” at the end of each chapter is a valuable tool to reinforce basic concepts. These sections are always short and to the point.
Mr. McColman goes out of his way to relate Pagan concepts to things which anyone can relate to, as is fitting for an extremely basic book like this. For example, on page 151 in the “Drumbeats: sidebar, he relates the four elements to the four “houses” in the Harry Potter books. If there is anyone interested in Paganism who hasn’t at least heard of Harry Potter, I haven’t met them.
Even after all my years of studying and teaching, I would be hard-pressed to be able to come up with a better way of expressing basic concepts. Mr. McColman has a gift as a teacher.
The information presented in this book is extremely generic, as Mr. McColman reminds the reader frequently, as indeed it should be in such a book. Mr. McColman also takes the opportunity to remind the reader, frequently, that Paganism is about what “feels right” for the individual, not about dogma. He reminds us that Paganism in general is very individualistic. He does remind us that, if we decide to follow a specific Pagan path, we will be expected to work within that specific framework which is why he encourages people to take the time to sample the varieties which exist in the Pagan world.
Toward the end of the book, while dealing with the function (or dysfunction) of Pagan groups, Mr. McColman makes a point which is, unfortunately, often forgotten (or disregarded) in today’s ever-expanding Pagan community. On page 304 he says: “…part of the normal journey of any pagan community is learning to work through conflicts and difficulties.” There is a habit, in my opinion, of “cutting your losses” which many people subscribe to. As soon as bumps appear in the road, people abandon a group and move on. Of course, in doing so, they don’t resolve the conflicts; they merely spread them further.
This is not a perfect book, and not everyone will agree with everything Mr. McColman has to say, but as an introductory work, it admirably fulfills it premise.