Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Teaching Company Free Lecture on Witchcraft

A friend recently passed along a free lecture that can be listened to online or downloaded to your computer or iPod. I haven't listened to it yet, so I can't comment on it, but it is on my listening list and the description sounds interesting:

A Free Lecture for Halloween! A Gift from The Teaching Company

To thank you for your continued support of The Teaching Company, we are offering this free, 32-minute lecture on "The World of Witches" for you to enjoy as Halloween approaches. Join Teaching Company Professor and medieval history scholar Teofilo F. Ruiz of UCLA as he presents this fascinating exploration of a 16th-century description of how to become a witch.

Professor Ruiz (Ph.D., Princeton University) was selected by the Carnegie Foundation in 1994-1995 as one of four Outstanding U.S. Teachers of the Year. Highly praised by our customers, he has crafted three courses for The Teaching Company on medieval Europe. This lecture is from his course The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition.

In this lecture, you will learn what Europeans believed witches did and how it was thought that people joined covenants of witches. You will explore the nocturnal gatherings of witches and wild accusations of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and sexual excesses characteristic of the "witch craze." Why did Europeans in the late medieval period seize on a widespread belief in witchcraft and Satanism?

You may download this lecture and listen to it at your computer, transfer it to your iPod or MP3 player, or burn it to a CD.
Access your free lecture online between now and December 31, 2007. Please feel free to send the lecture link to friends who might also enjoy it. It is free for them as well.


The Teaching Company

Forthcoming Film Version of "Devil's Knot"

My friend and colleague Mike Hertenstein of Cornerstone Festival and the imagination think tank Imaginarium recently made me aware of a news release on the production of a film version of Devil's Knot that tells the story of the West Memphis Three discussed previously on this blog:


The team behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Dimension Films has reached an agreement with Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, the team behind the hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, to write the screenplay for Devil's Knot, a film that will be based on the book of the same name written by Mara Leveritt and the actual events surrounding the 1993 murders in Arkansas of three 8-year-old boys and the subsequent convictions. Derrickson will also direct the project, which will be produced by Elizabeth Fowler, Paul Harris Boardman and Clark Peterson (Monster). Production is expected to begin towards the end of 2006.

Dimension to Adapt Devil's Knot
Devil's Knot is the riveting story based on true events surrounding the brutal murder of three eight year-old boys in a small, rural and socially conservative town in Arkansas, which is plagued with corruption and violence. The story follows the trial of three teen suspects with alleged ties to satanic rituals who are ultimately convicted of the crime, in spite of the mishandling of the crime scene and forensic evidence.

"Our goal is to make a movie that is extremely engaging and is also an accurate portrayal of what really happened," said Boardman.

"This story is as fascinating as it is important, and we intend to respect it by staying true to the facts," said Derrickson.

Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Dimension Films, stated, "Scott and Paul are incredibly talented filmmakers and I’ve been very impressed with the work they have done since I first worked with them. Their expertise in bringing true events to the big screen is an excellent match for this compelling real life story."

Elizabeth Fowler stated, "I am honored and thankful that there are filmmakers like Derrickson and Boardman who have the insight and sensibility to accurately portray the events that occurred. I am confident that the filmmakers will handle this project brilliantly and couldn't be happier about working with Dimension."

"This is one of the most compelling true stories I've ever encountered," said Clark Peterson. "The reality of what happened in West Memphis is truly astonishing."

Saperstein and Matthew Stein, senior vice president of production, will oversee the project on behalf of Dimension Films.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rethinking Evangelical Postures on Halloween

I am late in making my contribution to the latest synchroblog touching on various facets of Halloween. My contribution will be simple. The thrust of my thinking has been presented before in that while many evangelicals view Halloween through the lens of occultism and Paganism there are serious problems with this line of reasoning for historical and cultural reasons. I direct the interested reader to this previous post for my historical and cross-cultural comparison of Halloween with Mexico's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). I also recommend a review of my post at TheoFantastique on rethinking horror films as many of the arguments there apply equally well to Halloween. In addition, there is the recent interview at TheoFantastique with Jack Santino that considers the perspectives of folklore and festival considerations related to Halloween and other festivals of death.

Beyond my reflections on such topics I'd like to recommend two helpful resources. The first is a book by friend and colleague Lint Hatcher titled The Magic Eightball Test: A Christian Defense of All Things Spooky. This book is a great read, and a wonderful addition to any library. The second resource, and I may be jumping the gun here, has also been spearheaded by Lint, with the cooperation and contributions of like-minded colleagues, and that is a new website titled ChristianHalloweenFan.com. I strongly encourage readers to review these two resources so that evangelicals might move beyond fear-based and ignorance-based reactions against this marvelous holiday. Perhaps there is more to Halloween in positive ways, such as festival and the spiritual, than many evangelicals have been willing to grant.

Other Synchrobloggers on This Topic:

The Christians and the Pagans Meet for Samhain at Phil Wyman's Square No More
Our Own Private Zombie: Death and the Spirit of Fear by Lainie Petersen
Julie Clawson at One Hand Clapping
Vampire Protection by Sonja Andrews
What's So Bad About Halloween? at Igneous Quill
H-A-double-L-O-double-U-double-E-N Erin Word
Halloween....why all the madness? by Reba Baskett
Steve Hayes at Notes from the Underground
KW Leslie at The Evening of Kent
Hallmark Halloween by John Smulo
Mike Bursell at Mike's Musings
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Removing Christendom from Halloween at On Earth as in Heaven
Vampires or Leeches: A conversation about making the Day of the Dead meaningful by David Fisher
Encountering hallow-tide creatively by Sally Coleman
Kay at Chaotic Spirit
Apples and Razorblades at Johnny Beloved
Steve Hayes at Notes from the Underground
Fall Festivals and Scary Masks at The Assembling of the Church
Why Christians don't like Zombies at Hollow Again
Peering through the negatives of mission Paul Walker
Sea Raven at Gaia Rising
Halloween: My experiences by Lew A
Timothy Victor at Tim Victor's Musings
Making Space for Halloween by Nic Paton

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Doug McConnell's "Missional Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Witness"

As I mentioned in my last post on the National Student Dialogue Conference, I really enjoyed the plenary session that involved Dr. Douglas McConnell who heads up the intercultural studies program at Fuller Seminary. Doug presented a talk, now being revised as a paper that may be part of a collection for publication, titled "Missional Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue: An Evangelical's View of the Do's and Don'ts of Theological Dialogue." In his talk McConnell addressed four missiological perspectives and then used them to suggest guidelines for consideration in a missional approach to dialogue. His guidelines are reproduced below for our consideration:

1. Interfaith dialogue provides a forum in which the claims of various religious traditions, texts and structures may be interactively studied. To achieve this, all participants must be committed to understanding both the context and content of the various viewpoints.

2. Recognizing the indigenous nature of faith traditions requires an increased sensitivity to the symbols, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. The goal of dialogue is to identify that which is culturally determined in order to deal with the truth claims of the participants. In so doing prejudice may be identified and at least factored into the discussion.

3. To ensure the integrity of both the dialogue and the rationale for involvement, participants should be encouraged to view the process as an important aspect in the cordial, faithful witness of their faith. Dealing with one another respectfully, while being honest about our faith based desires to see others come to accept our respective faiths.

4. Because relationships carry more than cognitive categories, each participant should be affirmed for who they are and what they believe, while avoiding the desire for universal affirmation of the truth of what they believe. Disagreement must be accepted as a valid response to preserve the integrity of our witness.

5. Interfaith dialogue is a process of discovery, not a competition of truth claims. As such it allows for truth encounters without requiring conversion. As the texts and traditions are studied respectfully, the conflicting claims must be examined as part of the growing understanding. The result will likely be a feeling of ambiguity rather than certainty with regard to the faith of others.

6. Interfaith dialogue must also be seen as a public engagement. The attitudes and behavior will inevitably be interpreted differently by insiders and outsiders, antagonists and protagonists. The manner in which the participants conduct themselves and communicate the content of the dialogue should be carefully considered to attempt to avoid the extremes of triumphalism and accusations of heresy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Summary Reflections on National Student Dialogue Conference

This last Friday and Saturday I had an opportunity to be part of the National Student Dialogue Conference on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue co-sponsored by Standing Together and Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Overall I think the conference was very well done and it represented a good initial attempt at what I hope will become an annual conference that attempts to both model good dialogue and to step back and reflect critically on this dialogue process.

The conference was fairly well attended with student representatives from Brigham Young University as well as several evangelical educational institutions including Biola University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Denver Seminary, and Azusa Pacific University and others. The conference involved five plenary sessions where knowledgeable and articulate Latter-day Saints and evangelicals came together to discuss a given topic related to Evangelical-Mormon dialgoue. While each of the sessions was valuable, given my work in intercultural studies I enjoyed Friday evening's plenary session the best which involved Dr. Douglas McConnell, a missiologist from Fuller Seminary, and Robert Millet from Brigham Young University, addressing the topic of "Missional Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue." McConnell's presentation documented the importance of missiology's insights for the dialogue process, which included aspects that dovetailed with my workshop. Millet was his usual warm self, and I appreciated his presentation of his own set of principles that guide his discussions with evangelicals.

In addition to the plenary sessions the conference included breakout sessions that involved a panel discussion of evangelical pastors from the Utah area, student discussions among evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, and various workshops. My own workshop was titled "Are We Ready For This?: Critical Reflections on Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue and Its Critics." I would be happy to send a copy of my outline via email that served as a handout at the conference to anyone who requests it, but following is a summary of various highlights of my presentation.

My workshop is a distillation of segments of the course I am teaching at Salt Lake Theological Seminary on interreligious dialogue with application to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. (Those interested in taking this course for personal enrichment or academic credit can contact the seminary to enroll before the last class session on November 30.) The perspective of my workshop was to look at aspects of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, as well as missiology, and to see how this might inform Christian dialogue with new religious movement. Particular application is made to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. At the beginning of the dialogue conference Greg Johnson noted that the gathering provided an opportunity to step back and be reflective on the dialogue process, and in that spirit I offered the following reflections and critique to both dialogue participants and its critics.

Definitions of Dialogue

As I watch Evangelical-Mormon dialogue in its various expressions it seems to me that while we have been engaged in dialogue we have not been proactive and reflective in defining what we mean by the process we are engaged in. A thoughtful definition of dialogue will be helpful for those engaged in it, and those that are critical of the process. In my workshop I presented three possible definitions of dialogue for considration, one by John Stott, another by John Taylor, and one by Leonard Swider. Stott's definition may be the most comprehensive and helpful:

“Dialogue is a conversation in which each party is serious in his approach both to the subject and to the other person, and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct.” – John Stott, “Dialogue,” Christian Mission in the Modern World (Falcon, 1975), also the definition stated at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele in 1967.

In my view it would be helpful for those engaged in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue to step back and consider a definition that could be agreed upon by all participants and then presented as a guide to the observing public so that everyone understands what the dialogue process is and is not trying to accomplish. With this consideration in mind it may be that critics of some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue are defining dialogue more in terms of debate rather than a dialogical process. Again, reflection on a definition of dialogue will be helpful in addressing assumptions for all involved.

Types of Dialogue

I also discussed various types of interreligious dialogue, and noted that the type that evangelical and Mormon scholars have been engaged in, as well as the public dialogues of Greg Johnson and Bob Millet, appear to be the type that scholars call "theological" or "discursive" dialogue. Theological dialogue takes place when when “systematic thinkers” of religious traditions “wrestle with the contemporary meaning of their religious tradition in relation to the intellection and theological challenges of other traditions and cultures.” Discursive dialogue is defined as a (shared) quest for clarity and understanding. This type “approximates what has been called the ‘theological type of dialogue,’ or the ‘intellectual-theological approach.’”

Where a typology of dialogue is concerned it will be helpful for recognize not only where present forms of dialogue are best classified, but also that other forms of dialogue exist, and that some of these need to be developed as well, such as "inner dialogue" or "the ongoing dialogue, discussion, and disputation that takes place not only between people, but within ourselves,” as well as "dialogue in community/the dialogue of life" or that which takes place among “ordinary people, in the course of life itself, and in the context of their communities.” Might these types of dialogue be explored in greater ways among people in churches and wards? We might also be thinking about what "missional dialogue" would "look like," and although it overlaps with theological or discursive dialogue, yet given its interdisciplinary nature and differing perspective it might make for a different form of dialogue as a compliment to those presently going on.

Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue

In addition to definitional and typological considerations it would be helpful to consider ground rules for interreligious dialogue. In a previous post I listed Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue," and I won't repeat them here, but I direct the interested reader to the decalogue for consideration. Readers should not that Swidler did not have Christian dialogue with new religions in mind, and as an article by John Saliba has noted (see my interview with Saliba on this topic), given the unique circumstances and challenges between Christianity and new religions, modifications would have to be made to Swidler's ground rules. Nevertheless, it might provide a good starting place for consideration. Having a set of agreed upon ground rules for discussion would be of benefit for dialogue participants and observers of this process. I suggest that Swidler's decalogue be considered for revision and adoption by dialogue participant as an aid to facilitating the process.

Challenges to Christian Dialogue with New Religions

While there a variety of challenges in Christian dialogue with new religions, and these have been discussed most helpfully in an article by John Saliba mentioned in my workshop bibliography, my workshop focused on one main challenge, that of the heresy-rationalist paradigm for evangelicals as they interpret and respond to new religions. In this paradigm the new religions are considered heretical religious systems, and after a doctrinal contrast a biblical refutation is offered, often coupled with a rational argument and apologetic as to the perceived shortcomings of their worldview. For the Christian doctrinal and apologetic considerations are important, but I suggest that the paradigm of heresy refutation is reductionistic and it limits the understanding of new religions and consideration of other perspectives and forms of engagement. An interdisciplinary perspective and holistic approach is needed, and this will aid in the understanding of new religions, and assist with forms of engaging them, including interreligious dialogue.

Missions and Interreligious Dialogue

If the process of interreligious dialogue, as well as the general understanding of them by evangelicals, can be broadened and improved through a broader framework of analysis, how might this be accomplished? In my workshop I suggested the missional helix of missiologist Gailyn van Rheenen, a four strand helix that includes theologies, cultural analysis, historical perspective and strategy. Interested readers can see van Rheenen's discussion of the helix here. The helix is of value in that it provides a helpful tool for analysis of ministry strategy that is informed by the interdisciplinary field of missiology with the appropriate question of analysis not being merely "Does it work?" however variously defined, but more appropriately, "Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?"

Dialogue as Emotion or Attitude

Finally, in a discussion of missions and interreligious dialogue, I shared a thought by Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary. In an article discussing the challenges of interreligious dialogue, Muck discusses it as a communication methodology, intellectual strategy, and teleological argument. These facets can be seen in the various expressions of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, but one facet of Muck's discussion intrigues me, and I'd like to throw it into the mix for our consideration. Muck suggest a fourth alternative, that of "interreligious dialogue as an emotion or attitude toward people of other religious traditions." Muck notes that the affective or emotive aspect of interreligious dialogue is often missing, and he suggests that we must [m]ore fully [integrate] and [appreciate] the role emotions play in theology and human relationships and interreligious dialogue" and that this "is a step we must take together."

Workshop Q&A

My workshops which involved the same material repeated four times in an effort to maximize audience exposure, was largely well received as gauged from the feedback and questions from participants. There were a few in attendance who were critical of my views, and these came from representatives from the counter-cult community. Most of the questions were critical, yet fair, and it did give me an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. However, one critic in my final workshop demonsrated the problem that an uncritical embrace of the heresy-rationalist approach presents to a fair consideration of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue as well as the value of missiology to the study of new religions. For example, when I suggested that a review of the book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel, 2004) and the Lausanne issue paper on postmodern spiritualities might be consulted for a discussion of the foundational background issues undergirding my workshop, this critic suggested that I was "elitist" with such a recommendation, and that it is unreasonable to expect that evangelicals will read a lengthy book on such topics. Instead, he suggested that a brief tract might be more beneficial. While I recognize the need to present an easily understood summary of a cross-cultural missions approach to new religions, nevertheless, complex subjects can be oversimplified so as to be simplistic, and it is in no way out of bounds to suggest that someone read a book that expounds the background and foundation for my views. Critics simply have to be willing to do their homework and bring a sufficient level of background information to the table before discussion and critique can take place.

I hope that Standing Together will review the comments and feedback from conference attendees and make whatever adjustments are necessary so that this event might take place on an annual basis. It is also my hope that those involved in private and public Evangelical-Mormon dialogue might consider constructive criticism such as that which I presented in my workshop so that we can work together to make the dialogue the best possible form of interaction.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dumb Supper, Mourning Tea, Grieving, and Connections with the Dead

One facet of my recent trip to Salem interested me quite a bit, and I think it merits a separate post. It involves two aspects of the Festival of the Dead celebrations, including The Mourning Tea, and The Dumb Supper. The festival website describes the Tea like this:

"Don your finest mourning attire and hearken back to a time when mourning customs were elaborate and extravagant. Music will fill the air with sweet sorrow as the resident bards of the long black veil recite a selection of odes to the somber beauty of Death’s final waltz. High tea complete with courses of traditional tea sandwiches and desserts will be served.

"Share your favorite photos and tales of your family members, friends, mentors, or other loved ones who have passed away. You will be invited to place a photo and description of your loved one into our Salem Witches’ Book of the Dead, used to honor and invoke the ancestors. Through the sharing of these pictures and stories, those who have crossed over will live on in the hearts and minds of those who remain for generations to come."

And the Supper is described in this way:

"Join the Salem Witches as we honor the dead with a dinner observed in utter silence. Salem Witch Christian Day invites you to a banquet of sumptuous cuisine where the only sound heard is music chosen in memory of the departed. Bring photos and mementos to summon the souls of your loved ones on the other side as you partake in the most solemn of all the ceremonies of Witchcraft. The Dumb Supper is an ancient tradition where the dead attend the living for a magical night of communion!

"The evening opens with a ceremony welcoming the dead, after which attendees are guided into the sacred space where the feast is served. From this point on, no one may speak. By remaining quiet, you will open your heart and mind to those who have crossed over."

As I read culture I try to do so with Christian eyes that see the Spirit of God moving and where I might come alongside, and sometimes it is happening in ways that might not be seen by many other Christians. In this case I believe the Tea and the Supper represent significant parts of the Festival of the Dead that are similar to what I observed at Burning Man Festival with participants who memorialize lost loved ones at the Temple. Readers can read my previous comments on this aspect of Burning Man here, but in my view given Western failures at providing appropriate venues for the grieving process, and virtually no sense of connectedness and honor for deceased loved ones and ancestors, it appears that other cultures (such as Mexico with its Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead) and subcultures (such as Burning Man Festival and Salem's Pagan and Wiccan community with aspects of its Festival of the Dead) meet real needs that facilitate healthy and much-needed rituals and points of connection with the dead.

Conservative Christian readers should not misconstrue my meaning here. I am not advocating communication with the dead (so please don't post comments or send emails accusing me of necromancy or perceived scriptural violations), but I do believe there is a place, particularly within Protestantism, for new rituals associated with death that help the living better deal with grief, and maintain a sense of connectedness and honor for the dead beyond our Western tendency toward individualism and "gone and nearly forgotten" attitudes that privilege the living over the dead and do not provide for a sense of ongoing connectedness with family, ancestors, and lost loved ones.

I would love to experiment with a local and contextualized version of some of these things in my Utah context. I wonder whether a Christian community can be found with the interest (and daring) to put together a communal and memorial meal that involves ritual such as a Book of the Dead or the creation of a temple-like structure with personal offerings that are burned in memory and love for the departed. It would seem to me that several segments of Utah's population would resonate with such an event, whether Latter-day Saints with their emphasis on family in this life and beyond the grave, the Neo-Pagan subculture, and various other groups that make up Utah's people and community mosaic.

Last year Cornerstone Festival took an initial step in this area when they contextualized a Dia de los Muertos offrenda or family altar of offerings for the deceased, but unfortunatley they were met by charges of necromancy and syncretism by conservative Christian elements. (Readers should read my summary and response to such charges in my previous post on this topic.) There is a need to move beyond such shallow, knee-jerk reactions and to engage in more careful cultural and theological reflection. In so doing, perhaps a festival subculture like Burning Man outside Reno, and a Neo-Pagan subculture like that at Salem, have some valuable things to teach us about attitudes toward death, the dead as well as the living.

My Trip to Salem: Magic, Mystery and More

Yesterday I returned from my trip to Salem, MA. As I mentioned prior to my departure, I flew out to spend some time with my friend and colleague, Pastor Phil Wyman of The Gathering. Phil has been described by the locals as a "revolutionary pastor," and that is certainly true in my experiences with him during the week. I lost track of how many times we were walking around Essex Street and the surrounding area when a Witch or Pagan would call out "Hey, Phil!" and would then proceed to thank him for helping to create a better environment between Pagans and Christians in Salem. Phil and his church members are now preparing for the Brimstone Chronicles, an event that presents a Christian perspective on death and the afterlife as part of the Festival of the Dead events in the city.

While I was visiting Phil I had the opportunity to share my story with his church members on Sunday morning, and to have a teaching time on Sunday night on why I as a Christian enjoy Halloween. The feedback was positive, and I enjoyed meeting members of Phil's church.

With the Halloween season this is the time of year to visit Salem, and the rise in tourism was in swing while I was there, but this will continue to rise as the calendar moves closer to Halloween. As I walked along the streets I had the opportunity to visit lots of shops and to meet a variety of interesting Witches and Pagans. Some of these folks include the gentleman I am pictured with in this post, Christian Day, who is the moving force behind the events associated with the Festival of the Dead. I had an opportunity to discuss a few areas of common interest with Christian, and I hope to keep in touch with him. In addition, I spoke briefly with Dr. Rose Wood who has a Ph.D. in science fiction literature. I mentioned my research in the area of religion, pop culture, and speculative fiction, and she shared her well informed perspectives on this topic.

I also had a chance to do a little sightseeing and I used the opportunity to visit the Salem Witch Trial Memorial and cemetery, and it provided for an interesting time of historical reflection as well as a somber mood as I stood in the place where one of the hanging judges from the sixteenth century with trials was buried, and also stood over the grave of one of the pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Salem is indeed filled with a lot of history, an element of the macabre, and a great place to interact with Witches and Pagans. I hope I can return in the near future.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I'm Off to Salem: Excited About Witch City

Tomorrow morning I leave well before dawn for a trip that combines research "business" with pleasure. I am flying to Salem, MA, sometimes called "Witch City," to accomplish several things. First, I will be visiting with my friend Phil Wyman who is engaged in some very interesting interactions with local Neo-Pagans. See Phil's post on this here. Second, I am looking forward to taking in various aspects of this historic city, including some research on the witch hunts and trials, meeting with local Neo-Pagans and Witches, and enjoying the tourism associated with the Halloween season. I return next Wednesday afternoon and then prepare for the National Student Dialogue Conference in Salt Lake City so I will not be posting on my blogs until after this time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

West Memphis Three: Interview with Defense Attorney Dan Stidham

In previous posts I have mentioned the case of the West Memphis Three, the three teens (now adults) who were convicted in 1994 for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas as an alleged ritual murder perpetrated by members of a satanic cult. Despite the sensationalism surrounding the trial, and that two documentaries and several books have been written as a result of this case, it has received little national mainstream media coverage, and next to none in the Christian community. Dan Stidham was the defense attorney for one of the accused, Jessie Misskelley, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions related to this fascinating and troubling case.

Morehead's Musings: Judge Stidham, thank you for making time in a busy legal schedule to share a few thoughts related to this case. For readers who may not be familiar with it, can you summarize the case for them beyond what I've mentioned in my introduction?

Dan Stidham: John, it would be an almost impossible task to try and briefly summarize a case that is so complicated and fascinating as this one. When I am invited to speak about the case on college campuses, my basic presentation generally lasts anywhere from 4-6 hours. I usually will turn down any requests for a speaking engagement that won’t allow me at least 4 hours as my powerpoint presentation alone takes at least 4 hours divided into two segments, this just to get through most of the slides and answer a few questions.

The only “one-stop,” if you will, reliable and accurate account of the entire case is Mara Leveritt’s brilliantly written book, Devil’s Knot, and it certainly is not a short read. Once you pick it up, however, you can’t put it down.

The only way I can describe the case in just a few short words is to say that the WM3 case has become an icon for “Injustice in America.” It is a chilling account of just about everything that can go wrong within our criminal justice system if we don’t have the proper safeguards in place.

Morehead's Musings: For those interested in learning more about the case I recommend two HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, as well as the book that you have already mentioned by Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West The West Memphis Three (Atria Books, 2002). But there are a a few aspects of this case that I would like to focus on in our interview if we could. First, I am struck by the lack of any significant emphasis on forensics in either the investigation or the trial, and this in a case of triple murder that should have been filled with forensic evidence. Why was this evidence lacking, and why didn't either the Prosecution or the Defense pursue this area in more depth?

Dan Stidham: John, that is an outstanding question. The lack of any physical evidence in this case, a fact that has always been quite candidly admitted to by the Prosecution, is utterly amazing. The convictions are based entirely upon the ridiculous and confusing confession of a mentally challenged teenager with an I.Q. of a five year old child which was corroborated by no real physical evidence in the case at all. The confession itself is just so plainly and patently lacking of any real substance every person that I have ever talked to who actually bothers to read it in it’s entirety is left scratching their heads wondering how this alone could result in anyone’s conviction in our modern day criminal justice system.

I was asked to prepared a synopsis of the evidence in this case after the trials, and it was later updated after I was finally able to consult with some forensics experts on the case post trial after the airing of the initial HBO film. This synopsis appears on the wm3.org website and the link to that page is:


Justice is supposed to be “blind,” but the reality of the situation in Arkansas in 1993 was that is was not. There was no State funded Public Defender system yet in place at the time of the slayings and no Death Penalty Resource Center or Capital Defense system in place at the time of the trials in 1994. In fact, the County and the State fought a rather protracted legal battle over who would be responsible for the legal costs associated with the trials. The County prevailed, and two years later my law partner and I, Greg Crow, finally received $19.00 per hour for the 2000 plus hours that we had expended on the case in defending our client. We had been told that we would receive an average of $50.00 per hour for our work on the case. In addition, we had no money whatsoever other than what Mr. Crow and I could pay out of our own pockets to retain experts which resulted in my having to beg experts to assist us. Two of the best, Dr. Richard Ofshe and Warren Holmes, answered the call for help because they were so convinced after reviewing the case file that my client, and the other two Defendants, were absolutely innocent of these crimes. Ironically, it took two HBO documentaries on the case before other “Freedom Fighters” started showing up to help. I find it less than amusing that some of the same “experts” who refused to even talk to me back in 1993, because I didn’t have $15,000 to retain them, have now rushed to volunteer to work on the case. What a difference a few movies makes!

The State of Arkansas, obviously understanding the shortcomings of the Arkansas Crime Lab and the quality of the Medical Examiner’s office, consulted with experts and laboratories from outside the State. We did not have that luxury. They had unlimited funds and legions of investigators. We had one volunteer investigator, and all our experts were volunteers. Simply stated, we had no funds with which to defend our client.

At trial, Misskelley’s confession with all it’s impossibilities and factual inconsistencies, coupled with the “Satanic Panic” and hundreds of autopsy and crime scene photographs of the victims that were paraded in front of the juries prevailed over the tremendous lack of any real physical evidence and all the examples of “reasonable doubt” that we were able to demonstrate including evidence of alibi. The crimes were so brutal that someone “had to pay.” It is clear that the juries wanted to punish someone really bad. They did. The three Defendants were poor and expendable, and Damien Echols was the perfect “patsy” with all of his pre-trial and Courtroom antics with the media, and displayed in front of the jury.

Morehead's Musings: There have been forensic developments in this case since the trials. Can you touch on some of this?

Dan Stidham: There are some astounding recent developments in the case. There are some things that I can’t discuss because of confidentiality, and there are others that I simply don’t know about yet because we are waiting for more test results to come in. I can confirm what has been published in recent Court filings which are public record and other things that have been reported in the media. First, there has been some DNA recovered from some items of evidence in the case that does not match any of the three convicted men. Secondly, a hair recovered from a ligature that was used to tie up one of the victims has been linked by DNA to one of the victim’s stepfathers.

This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the hair from the stepfather was not found on a victim that was not his own stepson. This is important in and of itself, but even more important when you think about where the hair was recovered from. It was lodged in the knot of the ligature itself, making the inevitable explanation by the State that it was merely a normal stepfather to stepson “secondary transfer” so ridiculous that one wonders if they will even have the courage to argue it. I can’t go into any more detail, but there are other significant forensic and evidentiary discoveries as well that will shed significant light on this case and make it even more obvious than it already is that the WM3 are innocent of these crimes. And speaking of “courage,” that’s all this case really needs. A little “courage” to do the right thing would go along way right now. I pray each day for someone to simply accept the challenge.

Morehead's Musings: Another area that intrigues me is the prosecution's claim that the three teens allegedly perpetrated this crime as part of an occult ritual which they did as members of a cult. This would seem a foundational part of their case, and yet as the first documentary reveals, the prosecution's "expert" on the occult and Wicca did not possess the necessary education or credentials to discuss let alone substantiate the prosecution's claim, and there is a wealth of good scholarly material available that debunks the existence of satanic cults and occult ritual crime. Why weren't competent scholars brought in to counter this foundational aspect of the prosecution's case?

Dan Stidham: First of all, as you point out, there is no such thing as “Satanic Ritualistic Homicide (SRH)” This is a mere invention by the so-called experts of the day back in 1993. According to the FBI and other research done in the U.K., there has never been a single case of SRH ever documented on the planet.

I know what you are thinking, “What about David Berkowitz and other Serial Killers who have proudly professed that they killed in the name of “Satan.” The difference is that these killings were the work of one deranged individual who suffered from some rather serious and profound psychological disorders, not the work of an organized group of Satanists who are sacrificing children, or even adults for that matter, as part of an organized Satanic Ritual. The “Devil” told me to do it, or the “Devil” in the form of the neighbor’s dog as in the Berkowitz case, are not the same thing as SRH.

Are there Satanists in the world? Sure there are. Do teenagers dabble in the occult? Sure they do. However, there is no evidence that any known group of Satanists have ever engaged in cult style ritualistic slayings. If you buy into the Prosecution’s theory, as set forth by the now “famous for lack of credentials,” Dale Griffis, then you would have to be compelled into believing that the West Memphis Case is the first ever case of SRH ever documented any where in the world.

I remember years ago watching Geraldo Rivera devote an entire episode of his show to the topic. He even had a Catholic Priest on the show as an “expert.” They told millions of viewers that there was a large group of Satanists in this Country that were kidnapping thousands of our children and killing them in “Satanic Rituals” all around the Country. There was a time when every missing kid was generally believed to have been the victim of SRH. These Satanists must be real good at hiding the bodies! Maybe they know where Jimmy Hoffa is?

I do know this, the three teenagers convicted of these horrible crimes, one of which who is on Death Row, are not sophisticated enough to pull off the robbery of a Seven-Eleven, much less a triple homicide. If anyone does believe that they were even remotely this capable, then I suppose that they would also have to believe that:

1. The kids were so sophisticated that they were able to kill all three victims, and sexually mutilate one victim which resulted in a tremendous amount of blood loss by that particular victim, while not leaving any of their own DNA behind at the scene; and

2. They were so sophisticated that they also managed to put a hair from one of the step-fathers inside a ligature binding one of the victims so that they could frame him for the crime 15 years later.

Morehead's Musings: Some of the unfortunate chapters in history include the American witch trials and the satanic panics of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a good scholarly body of literature on these topics that might have provided background considerations for the prosecution's argument for motive. Why weren't these considerations brought into the defense case, and in retrospect, do you feel like the socio-cultural context of Arkansas with its fundamentalist Christian population might have produced conditions that led to a contemporary witch hunt with the conviction of the West Memphis Three?

Dan Stidham: In order to answer this question, you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious "cults." He had a dual expertise.

The conditions were quite obviously very ripe for this kind of thing to happen in Arkansas in 1993 because it did happen here in Arkansas. But I do not believe for an instant that this type of situation is unique to Arkansas. The atmosphere that allowed this type of phenomena to occur can, and does, happen anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I am na├»ve, but I think that this type of thing happens more as a result of simple unadulterated intolerance to anyone different than that held by the mainstream in society, rather than due to any particular set of religious mores, or beliefs. It’s a matter of being “different,” outside the mainstream of society, wherever that happens to be. Is Arkansas different than New York City or L.A.? You bet it is. When you are in L.A., you see a thousand “Damien Echols” walking down the street and no one seems to think anything about it, or even care. People wearing Black clothing and listening to Heavy Metal Music are the norm in some places around the Country, but not in Arkansas in 1993.

Intolerance can raise it’s ugly head in many other contexts besides religion, i.e. race, age, gender, sexual preference, etc., etc. We see examples of this throughout history, both ancient and recent. Also, it is worth pointing out that the similarities between this case and what happened during the Salem Witch Trials almost exactly 300 years ago is absolutely stunning.

Remember, the first “Witch Trial” occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, not West Memphis, Arkansas! Will history repeat itself again, I hope it won’t, but unfortuneatley, I bet it will.

Morehead's Musings: As I have researched the witch trials and satanic panics, and then looked at the situation surrounding this case, it seems to me as if Christian sociophobics and the creation of an evil social other played a large role in arrests and outcome of this case. And yet curiously, while various Neo-Pagans, celebrities, musicians, and people from the general population have rallied around this case to raise awareness and raise funds for appeals, I have not been able to track down much if any concern for social injustice from Christians on this issue. Has your experience been different? Might the concerns about an alleged satanic cult involving a Wiccan confirm the worst fears and stereotypes of Christians and this then turns away any consideration of speaking out on this issue?

Dan Stidham: My experience has been quite different from the inside looking out as opposed to only being exposed to the case based on what I saw in the media. I get a lot more letters, emails, phone calls and other outpourings of support from people all over the World that you would identify more as “Christians,” than I do from people whom you would describe as “Pagans, celebrities and musicians.” The difference is, simply put, that the media shows up when “celebrities and musicians” take a stand on social issues. When John Doe Citizen starts a “WM3 Awareness Group” in Russellville, Arkansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Ft. Meyers, Florida; or Fort Hays, Kansas, the media just doesn’t seem to care. But these are the folks who fight the fight in the trenches every day. Out there organizing fund raisers and raising awareness in their communities about this case.

Having said that, the “celebrities and musicians” who do get the media attention are an integral part of the fight for justice in this case. These are folks who have figured out that they have a unique power to change things in the World, and they are not afraid to step up and fight for what’s right. For this, I admire them greatly. They also have more resources to assist than most other folks. While I have not met them all, many of the “celebrities and musicians” that I have encountered while working on this case have left me in awe of them when I consider the magnitude of their impact and contributions to the case. I am not in awe of them because they are famous, but instead because they are famously compassionate about social justice, and the plights of others less fortunate. The more I got to know them, the more I realized that they don’t fit the stereotypes of “celebrities and musicians” and are really no different than anybody else and are truly wonderful human beings.

Morehead's Musings: Do these three young men have any hope of appeals left?

Dan Stidham: Yes, tremendous hope is still out there. While this fight is far from over, I am more hopeful today than at any other time during the past almost 15 years that I have been working on the case. Thanks to the generosity and hard work of the people I described above, in response to your last question, we have finally put together a team of lawyers, investigators and forensic experts that are second to none. I can tell you without hesitation that they are the best I have ever seen.

Morehead's Musings: How can interested readers get involved in helping with this case?

Dan Stidham: By just remembering that everyone counts and everyone can make a difference. There are support groups all over the World who are dedicated to this fight. The best place to start is the http://www.wm3.org/ website. It is filled with information on how everyone can help. Also, please continue to pray for Justice, not just for the WM3, but for Justice for the victims’ families who deserved so much better than what they got in terms of an investigation and closure for the death of their loved ones. We can also never forget that a killer is still out there, and this killer needs to be brought to justice.

Morehead's Musings: Judge Stidham, once again, I think you for making time for this interview, and thanks as well for being the only attorney from the original trials who has continued to be involved in working for justice for these young men.

Dan Stidham: I sincerely appreciate your kind and generous words and the opportunity to talk about this very unique case. I hope that you will allow me to thank some very special folks who have inspired me to keep moving forward in this case, even in it’s darkest days, and on the days when it seemed no one cared, and I was all alone in the fight. There were only two days that I wanted to quit. Not just quit the fight, but quit the legal profession as well. This was the two days after the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed Misskelley’s confession in a 7-0 decision. After licking my wounds for a couple of days, I emerged with an even stronger resolve to keep fighting, thanks to the support and encouragement from my family who never complained about all the time I was gone from home working on this case.

Also, I cannot thank enough the people from whom I got all the emails, letters and prayers from. They may have been complete strangers at the time, but a phone call or a letter of encouragement, out of the blue, would sustain me for weeks and even months. Sometimes these strangers became friends, good friends. “Good friends” are like my own family to me, and I have made many good friends from all over the world. Regrettably, I have lost touch with some of these folks over the years, but all of them have become my heroes in this case. My “heroes” have names like Bruce, Mike, Joe, Mara, Lanette, Grove, Burk, Pam, Mark, Richard, Warren, Kathy, Lisa, Eddie, Kevin, Winona, Laura, John, Mandy, Michael, Ron, and a very wonderful and special person whom I have never even actually met, at least not in person, because she lives all the way on the other side of the planet, way “down under.” She inspires me on an almost daily basis, and I must say, Jill, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

John, I thank you, for your interest in Justice, and your interest in this case.