From Blondie to Swedenborg, with Several Stops Along the Way

Here’s an interview with me about my book Swedenborg: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, by the religion writer Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times. I think the last time I was in the Times was in 1977, in a review of the Blondie album. Nice to be back.

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8 Responses to “From Blondie to Swedenborg, with Several Stops Along the Way”

  1. Gary,
    I am thrilled that you wrote a book about Swedenborg. I saw a review of it in the N.Y. Times. Here is what I wrote to the author:

    Mark,

    Thank you for that piece on Gary Lachman. As a fan of Blondie and a New Church (or Swedenborgian) pastor it is cool to hear about that connection.

    You should know, though, that readers of Swedenborg are not generally interested in occult or esoteric things. They would not necessarily be pleased to have Swedenborg’s biblical interpretations labeled “bizarre.” The substance of Swedenborg’s voluminous writings about the Bible and life-after-death is that the explanations of these things are not bizarre or esoteric but ordinary and rational, consistent with science, reason, and the typical beliefs of average Christians.

    Far from being strange, Swedenborg’s explanation of the many fantastic and hard-to-accept things in the Bible bring them back to reality. They show, for example, that “the Apocalypse” is not a gruesome, world-ending event but a dramatic way of describing humanity’s spiritual evolution. His descriptions of heaven closely mirror the basic outline of most Americans’ expectations, as shown in opinion polls, depictions in movies and literature (such as the end of “Titanic”), and research on “Near Death Experiences.”

    Readers of Swedenborg are therefore mostly mainstream, well-educated Christians with conservative views on most religious topics. They do not believe in or practice anything occult or esoteric. Swedenborg never started any denomination so people read his works in many different churches. Several denominations have sprung up world-wide but none are large. Swedenborg’s view was that a person’s professed religious persuasion is not what determines their salvation, but rather the kind of person they really are, and so people are saved from every religion.

    I am the pastor of a New Church congregation in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, with about 3,000 parishioners, some of whom read the Times, and we are grateful to see Swedenborg’s name crop up.

    Thanks for writing about Gary Lachman!

    • Dear Jeremy,

      Many thanks for your comments. I know many Swedenborgians dislike the occult connection, and I make mention of this in the book. Yet, although I recognize that many of Swedenborg’s followers do not want to be tarred with the ‘occult’ brush, I also think that presenting an ‘occult free’ Swedenborg only gives us a partial picture of a truly remarkable man, a kind of ‘Swedenborg lite’. Along with his scientific and theological pursuits, Swedenborg studied Kabbalah, the Hermetica, and Neoplatonism, the three central sources for the western esoteric (or inner or occult) tradition. Unfortunately, in our times, the word ‘occult’ has acquired several unhappy connotations. It really only means ‘unseen’ and, as you may know, Isaac Newton, the father of modern scientific thinking, wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity, one of the most ‘occult’ or unseen forces I know of (neither myself or anyone else has ever seen it, yet it seems to work…). Respectable scholars such as Joscelyn Godwin, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Marsh Keith Suchard, and others have traced Swedenborg’s ‘occult’ studies. And you have to remember that in Swedenborg’s day, the ‘occult’ was considered a prestigious pursuit; they were the ‘occult sciences’. This only changed in the 18th century with the rise of materialist science, against which Swedenborg argued (and his argument was carried on very forcefully by William Blake).There are also the many stories of his paranormal powers. One of the aims of my books is to show that the occult isn’t about satanism or spells, but is a body of knowledge about man and the world, which is exactly how Swedenborg, Rudolf Steiner, Jung and other people I’ve written about see it. All the best, Gary

  2. Thanks for that explanation. Those are good points. It’s true that things have picked up connotations in our time that wouldn’t have applied to 18th century sensibilities.
    But is Marsha Keith Suchard a respectable scholar? I think that what she writes about Swedenborg’s involvement with the Kabbalah is little short of slander, based on no evidence whatsoever.

  3. Well, I do consider Marsha a respectable scholar, having read and reviewed her book and having met her while sharing a panel discussion on Swedenborg and Blake at the Blake Society here in London. Here’s the review of her book Why Mrs. Blake Cried ( http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/why-mrs-blake-cried-by-marsha-keith-schuchard-469652.html). Obviously these are contentious grounds, but to say she provides no evidence is, I think, not true. My experience with the Swedenborg Society here in London, where I’ve given many talks, and to whose journal I’ve contributed several articles, is that some people are interested in exploring different possibilities in Swedenborg’s life and work. Others feel these other avenues, which include his interest in the occult sciences and with what we can call erotic spirituality, take away from his central importance as a progressive theologian. I had a conversation about this with Lars Berquist some years ago, and he took me to task for emphasizing the ‘occult Swedenborg’. This can only be good, and makes clear what a seminal figure he is.

    All the best,

    Gary

  4. Seminal figure. That’s a good way to put it. I guess that the argument about Schuchard is best expressed in Jim Lawrence’s brief article: “A Detective Story: New Contestations on Swedenborg’s Biography”

    http://www.shs.psr.edu/news/index.asp

    Again, thanks for writing a book that merits a review in the NY Times!

  5. Gary, I read the book. Would like to continue the conversation on your last sentence: ….I am now inclined to follow him on that journey within…” Any chance of talking over coffee (or tea) at Swedenborg House in London? I fly into London from time to time. p.s. I am fourth generation in the followers of Swedenborg; my great grandfather was a minister in London at end of 19th C. All the best, Michael in Tucson.l

    • Dear Michael, Thanks for your remarks. Please don’t fly to London just for coffee – or even tea – but if you are in the neighbourhood, maybe we can meet. I’m friends with some of the people at Swedenborg House. It’s a lovely place in a great area of our journey town. I’ve given talks there several times. All the best and good luck on your journey within. Gary

  6. Hi Gary,

    I just realized you have a new book out now. Your earlier book is the one my wife and I have read (despite my comment on your 2012 book).

    I generally think that when it comes to Swedenborg, “all press is good press.” Even if people who write about Swedenborg may “get it wrong” (and who decides what’s “right”?), at least it makes people aware of Swedenborg’s existence. Then they can go look for themselves, and gain what benefit they’re going to gain.

    The real crime is not that Swedenborg may sometimes be misrepresented, but that so many people are not even aware of his existence.

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