- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, by Brooks Alexander
- About the Author, Brooks Alexander
- The Contemporary Relevance of 'Witchcraft Goes Mainstream'
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream: Copyright and Additional Information
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstream -- Table of Contents
- A Note on Terms and Capitalization
- Introduction: My Encounters With Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 1: "Witchcraft," "Neopaganism": What Are We Talking About, Exactly?
- Chapter 2: The Halloween Witch is Dead: The Changing Face of Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 3: Teens and the Media: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment
- Chapter 4: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment: The Craft, Buffy and Beyond
- Chapter 5: Three Myths about Modern Witchcraft
- Chapter 6: Witchcraft for Real -- Was There or Wasn't There?
- Chapter 7: From Witchcraft to Wicca: 1700 -- 2000
- Conclusion: Witchcraft, Christianity and Cultural Change
- A Final Word From the Author: What Now?
- Appendix A: Witchcraft in the Military
- Appendix B: A Brief Annotated Bibliography for Further Reading
- Witchcraft Goes Mainstrain -- Bibliography
Witchcraft is going mainstream. That’s not a prediction, it’s a description of current reality. As we have seen in this book, much of that process has already happened, and the rest is happening before our eyes. The speed with which this development has occurred is unprecedented. In fact, compared to the normal pace of historical change, it has been almost instantaneous. Even though it took the work of thirty years to prepare the way, the public’s attitude toward Witchcraft was effectively turned upside down in less than a decade (1993-2000). It took place so fast that, if you knew what to look for, you could actually watch it happen.
Changes that rapid and that profound are hard to cope with, much less comprehend. Only by seeing those changes as part of a bigger picture can we step back from them far enough to grasp their meaning. We can begin by asking two questions: 1) What do these changes mean for the future of modern Witchcraft and the Neopagan movement; and 2) What do they mean for the future of our country and our culture?
In 1965, Pennethorne Hughes, a British authority on the history of witchcraft, declared that witchcraft itself was a vanishing superstition. It was, he said, “dying rapidly” under the influence of the popular press, popular education and the popular materialism of general prosperity. According to Hughes, “Witchcraft as a cult belief in Europe is dead. As a degenerate form of primitive fertility belief, incorporating the earliest instructive wisdom, the practice is over.” (Hughes, 1965; p. 217) What makes Hughes’s wrongheadedness so ironic is that in 1965, the counterculture and Neopaganism were both just beginning to find their wings, and British Wicca was already finding fertile ground for its growth in the United States. As usual, the “experts” are the last to notice anything that falls outside the assumptions of their expertise.
Indeed, since Hughes proclaimed its demise, modern Witchcraft has known nothing but advance and achievement. It is a stiking fact that the Neopagan movement, spearheaded by modern Witchcraft, has experienced an unbroken string of breakthroughs and successes over the last 35 years, legally socially and politically. None of this has occurred without friction, of course, and Witches have run into plenty of opposition and hostility as part of that process. Nevertheless, in the context of the ongoing “culture war,” the sum of things is that Neopaganism has not been on the losing side of any major battle it has fought. The few legal skirmishes that have broken out along the way have been victories for the Witches as well.
With such a record of accomplishment under its belt, it is no surprise that Neopaganism is in a confident and expansive mood. Neopagans are very conscious of the fact that our society is changing, and they sense that those changes are opening up new opportunities for their movement to grow and develop. But the kind of explosive growth that Witchcraft experienced during the 1990s brings more than opportunities, it brings problems as well.
Modern Witchcraft’s Two Cultures
It the first place, it has produced, if not an identity crisis, at least a case of identity confusion in the movement. Before 1996, the Neopagan movement consisted mostly of religious Witches, who saw themselves linked together by their common separation from the “mundane” world and all of its (Christian-based) values, institutions and activities. But the release of The Craft triggered the rise of pop-culture Witchcraft, almost literally overnight, and created a crop of new Witches who had no part in the mental universe that traditional Witches shared. Pop-culture Witches, for the most part, had no “initiation” or any kind of occult training; they had no connection to any teaching or tradition; they either couldn’t or didn’t join existing organizations; and they were fully part of the mundane world, with little sense of separation from it, aside from having a rebellious attitude toward society in general.
The division between traditional Witchcraft and pop-culture Witchcraft was almost total at the outset. The new Witches weren’t geting much help from the traditionals; if they reached out to any of the existing organizations, they were likely to be turned away. The traditionals, for their part, were alarmed by the legal dangers of dealing with minors, and suspicious of a flock of fad-witches who adopted the identity glibly, without preparation, or commitment, or even understanding. That division then reinforced itself, as the young Witch wannabes had no choice but to build their concept of Witchcraft based on what they saw on TV, or on the Internet, or just from talking with their friends.
The result has been to create two substantially different and separate cultures within the broad category of “modern Witchcraft.” The “traditional” culture includes the Witches who see their craft as a survival, or revival, or reinvention of older beliefs and practices (such as those Gerald Gardner claimed to have discovered in 1939), and they tend to think of their beliefs as “religious.” The history of this culture has been traced in Chapter Eight, and their movement toward the mainstream today is along the route of interfaith work and inter-religious cooperation. The goal of their mainstreaming efforts is to achieve acceptance as a legitimate religion in the eyes of society and the law.
“Pop-culture” Witchcraft, on the other hand, is much less tied to any specific history or tradition and much less inclined to see itself as “religious.” Having begun in 1996, pop-culture Witchcraft is less than a decade old as of this writing, and is still being shaped by the forces that brought it ino being. New Witch magazine (first Issue, Autumn, 2002) could be considered the journalistic voice of pop-culture Witchcraft, as well as its commercial bazaar. The magazine is packed with advertisments, such as those for Snapdragon Gifts (“Nothing Mundane”) and Mystic Treasures Clothier (“Cloak Yourself in Mystery”), along with book reviews, articles and editorials. Overall, New Witch presents an impression of Witchcraft, not so much as a “religion ” but as a “lifestyle,” propped up by musings that are sometimes expressed in “religious” language.
New Witch: Idol-Making in the Modern World
A recent cover article in the magazine shows hows pop-culture Witchcraft blends idolatry and magic. The article, entitled “Invoking Buffy — Discovering the Magic of Pop Icons,” is a how-to manual for making idols of the mind. The author admits that some will scoff at using TV characters for “deities,” but he dismisses the skeptics (“traditional” Witches?) with his single disdainful reference to them:
Many magickal practitioners sneer at the idea of using pop culture as a means of doing magick. But I believe that popular culture is an extremely effective magickal medium. Any pop culture icon can be made into a helpful focus of magick. Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes an especialy good example. ((Ellmore, 2003; p. 57)
The author then explains how Buffy (or any other fictional character) can be turned into a functioning “god form” for use in occult ritual. According to a theory common among Neopagans, a “god form” is created on a “higher plane” when large numbers of people pour the energy of belief into their collective idea of who or what a god or goddess is. The “god form” that people create in that way, takes on a reality that is bigger than the people who create it. The more people who believe in that “god form,” and the longer they believe in it, the more powerful the “god form” becomes. Thus a pop icon like Buffy — at least for the few years of her popularity — becomes a recepticle for the mental energy of adulation from her fans; by turning the Buffy character into one’s own personal “god form,” one can tap into that accumulated energy and use it for magical purposes. The author then explains exactly how to do that, laying out a series of instructions for the reader to follow.
Once you buy into the author’s way of looking at the world, his instructions make perfect sense. Without the benefit of that worldview however, they seem like utter nonsense childish, let’s-pretend nonsense at best, and dangerous, deluded nonsense at worst. But the article does plainly illustrate three things: 1) it shows where pop-culture Witchcraft is headed; 2) it shows the differences between pop-culture Witchcraft and the “traditional” kind — as well as their similarities; and 3) the fact that this approach finds increasing acceptance today shows how desperate the spiritual condition of our society has become.
Here are the author’s step-by-step instructions (abridged) for making your own personal occult “deity (i.e., mental idol) out of a pop-culture icon.
- Observe your target. You need to observe your target deity very carefully, get an idea of his or her mannerisms and attributes. In the case of Buffy, I read books about her and watched her show, taking careful notes . . . Devise a list of your deity’s relevant characteristics . . .
- Create a shrine. When working with Buffy, I made a collage of images from fanzines, website art and book covers. The collage showed several aspects about her that reinforced my list of attributes . . . I created an altar of Buffy . . . (and) wrote a statement of intent on the back of the collage. It went something like this: “Buffy, through the medium of this collage, I create a link with you. I give of myself to you and in return ask that you act as my guardian when I call on you.” I also dedicated a personal object (something of value to me) that I intended to offer Buffy in return for her help . . .
- Bring it down to earth. After I created my altar, I performed a ritual to Buffy to continue the work of reinforcing our connection . . . I lit the (collage) and my sacrifice on fire and chanted as it burned: “Through the power of Buffy I will focus on improving my independence and will.” I chanted this until the paper had turned into ash. By chanting I was adding energy to the focus of the spell . . .
- Listen to to your deity. After I burned the paper and chanted, I went inside, laid down and tranced out. This means I let go of my conscious mind and followed the energy I’d just released to the god form of Buffy. While in the trance, I felt Buffy’s presence. She and I spoke about my situation and she explained how she’d keep me focused on improving it. She advised invoking her once a day to remind myself of what I was doing . . .
- Know when to let go. I stopped invoking Buffy after the situation I felt I needed her help with had been resolved. Remember that any entity, pop culture or otherwise, should only be used as long as you need it. Otherwise the entity becomes a crutch and you are back where you started. (Ellmore, 2003; p. 57)
In conclusion, the author says that he worked with Buffy for as long as she was useful to him, adding “and then I moved on to other pop culture god forms, such as Harry Potter.” (Ellmore, 2003; p. 58)
Idolatry, Religion and the Two Cultures of Witchcraft
“Invoking Buffy” is a snapshot of pop-culture Witchcraft in the process of evolving downward. The article is startling in its spiritual superficiality, its casual vandalism of symbols and ideas, and its systematic indifference to anything that isn’t of the self, by the self and for the self. And the invitation to demonic presences in “trancing out” and “listening to your deity” is transparent. Yet all of those things, deplorable as they may be, are nothing more than classic qualities of fallen human nature, amplified, simplified and speeded up for modern consumption, and conveyed by means of modern media. “Invoking Buffy” is nothing more (or less) than a graphic picture of the human condition today, reduced to cartoon simplicity.
The fact that pop-culture Witchcraft is a boiled-down version of fallen human nature is one of the things it has in common with other forms of paganism, ancient as well as modern. When “Invoking Buffy” reduces spirituality to the techniques of getting and using power, it just brings the basic dilemma of paganism front and center. C. S. Lewis called pantheism “the permanent natural inclination of the human heart.” Neopaganism is one version of that “permanent natural inclination,” and pop-culture Witchcraft is what the inclination becomes under the influence of our stripped-down, speeded-up society. “Invoking Buffy” shows what paganism comes to when it is stripped of compromises and distractions: make a god; use it up; throw it away.
That plainly illustrates the convergence of idolatry and occultism, but it stretching a point to call it “religion.” And therein lies the problem for the Witchcraft movement. “Traditional” Witches are committed to mainstreaming themselves as a “religion,” and the emergence of pop-culture Witchcraft confuses that picture. It is one thing to seek constitutional freedoms and protections for organized behavior that is identifiably “religious.” It is another thing to seek the same guarantees for a “lifestyle choice” that is sprinkled with god-talk.
The two cultures within modern Witchcraft represent different ways of approaching the mainstream, ways that are not necessarily compatible. Their diverging agendas are clearly an additional source of friction between traditional Witches and their pop-culture cousins. The gap is bridged to some extent by Websites (such as witchvox.com) and publications (such as New Witch) that are read by Witches from both cultures; it is also bridged by large, semi-public Neopagan gatherings (such as Pantheacon) that are attended by both kinds of Witches. But the gap itself is real, large, and ongoing, and it is a source of continuing tension within what outsiders see as the modern Witchcraft movement.
So — is modern Witchcraft religious, or not? The question is impossible to answer in its broad form as stated, and it can be hard to answer even in individual cases. It all depends, as the saying goes, and it doesn’t just depend on how you define “religion.” It also depends on how the Witches define themselves, and on how they actually behave. Keeping in mind that “anyone is a Witch who calls themselves a Witch,” sorting one kind of Witch from another can be a confusing and time-consuming process. As individuals, we can decide whether a Witch is religious or not on a case-by-case basis, weighing the cases as they come up, but social and legal policies need a more efficient way of assigning labels and distinguishing religious Witchcraft from the other kind(s).
The process of defining “religion” for constitutional purposes is already underway in the Federal Courts, and it clearly includes at least some organized forms of modern Witchcraft in its definition. Evangelical Christians tend to bristle at the idea that Witchcraft should hold parity with Christianity as a valid expression of religion. But that issue has been effectively settled since 1986, when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Dettmer v. Landon. The Court declared that the mail-order “Church of Wicca” is in fact a religion, and its adherants are entitled to constitutional rights of free exercise. While that decision has not been directly affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the principles of secular pluralism on which it is based are not likely to be to be overturned.
Witches and Christians
The Witches I have personally had contact with have largely been “traditional,” “religious” Witches — followers of what is essentially Gardnerian Wicca, along with its offshoots and derivatives. After some time spent speaking with those Witches, reading their books and magazines, browsing their websites and generally trying to tune in to their viewpoint, I take their profession of “religion” at face value. Modern Witchcraft is indeed a “made up” religion, but then so are several modern religions. Modern Witchcraft is spiritually wrong, socially subversive, and psychologically dangerous in my judgment, but so (in my judgment) are a number of other religions — ancient as well as modern. And from the biblical standpoint, all human “religions” are really wrong-headed attempts to get to God on our own terms anyway (and thus “made up”), so in the long run the differences between them are more apparent than real. If Mormonism and Scientology can be “religions,” it is hard to justify closing the category to modern Witchcraft. And if I, as a Christian, can sit down to a polite and reasoned “dialogue” with someone who believes in no God (a Buddhist) and with someone who believes in an elephant-headed God of good luck (a Hindu) why would I balk at doing the same with someone who believes that nature is God (a Witch)?
Yet many Christians would balk at the prospect, and would have a hard time treating a Witch the same way they would treat, say a Buddhist or a Mormon in ordinary social conversation, or as a next door neighbor. One reason for that reluctance is that many Christians falsely identify modern Witchcraft with the lurid stereotypes of medieval witchcraft (see Chapter Six). But simply correcting that ignorance is not enough to make the problem go away. There is a tension between Christianity and modern Witchcraft that is very real and not based on misunderstanding — even though it is often misunderstood. In fact, there is more than a “tension” between Christianity and Witchcraft, there is an outright conflict over their respective visions for personal development and social progress. Those two visions are emphatically not compatible, and to the extent that one vision prospers among us, the other will languish. There is a hard kernel of spiritual conflict between Witches and Christians that will not be erased by any amount of education or overcome by any amount of goodwill. My experience in “dialogue” (both formal and informal) with Neopagans has convinced me of one thing: real respect and appreciation can indeed be built between Witches and Christians on a personal basis, but only if both parties can acknowledge the elements of conflict between them, and agree to put them temporarily on hold with the attitude of “we’ll let history decide those issues,” for the sake of making the relationship possible. It takes more work, mutual honesty and goodwill than the average relationship, but it certainly can be done — assuming that both parties want to do it.
Christians are used to the idea of repentance, so we should not be abashed to acknowledge ignorance and bad behavior on the Church’s part, both historically and contemporarily; the greater problem is in separating real bad behavior from hysterical rumors and false accusations. But the most difficult thing of all may be for modern Witches to acknowledge how much of their own religion is built on anti-Christian prejudice, and how much of that prejudice is built on on distortion and outright falsehood. Interestingly, the Witches who are most willing to come to terms with that part of their legacy seem to be the “traditional,” “religious” Witches, while the anti-Christian attitudes of Witchcraft’s Charter Myth flourish unrestrained among pop-culture, “lifestyle” Witches. There are at least three reasons for that difference: 1) religious Witches are generally more thoughtful and more “serious” people who care about things like factual accuracy and the credibility of their religion in the eyes of the public; they also tend to be more aware of the recent scholarship that invalidates the claims of the Charter Myth; 2) as time goes by, more people are attracted to religious Witchcraft because it appeals to them on its own terms, not just for its rejection of Christianity; and 3) as religious Witchcraft mainstreams itself, especially via interfaith involvement, getting along with Christians and Christianity becomes a familiar routine to increasing numbers of religious Witches.
Witchcraft and Anti-Christianity
In any honest conversation between Witches and Christians, both sides need to acknowledge that they are opposed in fundamental ways. Christians have their own theological explanation for that conflict, but even from a historical standpoint, it is plain that modern Witchcraft’s anti-Christianity is basic, both to its origins and to its own self-image. An anti-Christian attitude is inherent in the false history that Gerald Gardner invented to tie his “wicca” back to medieval witchcraft and ancient Goddess-worship. In fact, an element of anti-Christianity is built into the culturally subversive nature of his whole enterprise insofar as the culture he was subverting is Christian-based.
From the beginning, Gardner understood that one of his chief objectives was to alter the image and perception of witchcraft in the public mind. Much of what Gardner wrote and did had the specific purpose of changing people’s attitudes about what historical witchcraft was. Gardner also understood that the image-change he had in mind was part of a bigger picture; it it could not happen in isolation. The public could not come to see medieval witchcraft the way he wanted them to see it without turning the prevailing scheme of cultural values upside down — as Gardner himself had long since done in his own mind. After all, witchcraft’s evil reputation came at the hands of a religious and cultural system (i.e., Christianity) that not only defined witchcraft as “evil, but did so by a standard that defined itself as “good.” You can’t reverse just one pole out of a pair of polar opposites; you have to reverse the whole arrangement. If medieval witchcraft was in fact good, and not evil, then the system that called it evil was evil. There is no way to escape the logic of that relationship.
Gardner himself, of course, didn’t try to escape it; nor, for that matter, did any of his predecessors. When seen from that angle, the consistency of anti-Christian bias among those who have made major contributions to modern Witchcraft is really quite remarkable. Jules Michelet made no secret of his loathing for the Catholic Church and for Christianity, and his attempt to vindicate medieval witchcraft by portraying it as a champion of freedom was really a roundabout way of attacking the Church. Charles Godfrey Leland was an explicit admirer of Michelet and not only adopted his anti-Christianity but bought it up to date by couching it in terms of the newly popular “scientific” study of religion. Margaret Murray made Christianity the bad guy in her completely bogus picture of Witchcraft as a pagan survival hounded by Church authorities. Robert Graves held a smoldering resentment toward Christianity for a variety of reasons and railed at length against “Father-God worship,” which he regarded as the religion of oppressors and barbarians. Gardner, as already noted, extended, refined and intensified the anti-Chistianity exhibited by all of his forerunners, portraying medieval witchcraft as an innocent victim of Christian persecution.
And the tradition continues. Modern Witchcraft first found its identity in opposition to Christianity, and there is still a strong current of hostility to everything Christian that runs through the movement. The song I quoted in Chapter One, titled “Heretic Heart,” is just one example. That song and others like it express an attitude that is widely embraced and openly encouraged within the Neopagan community, an attitude that not only rejects the Christian message but also blames the Christian Church and demonizes Christian believers. Another popular Neopagan song called “Burning Times” sets the false history of the “Charter Myth” to music, depicting medieval witches as freedom-loving Goddess-worshippers in heroic struggle against the deadening, repressive hand of Christianity. It refers to Christians as “those who came to power through domination . . . bonded in their worship of a dead man on a cross . . . (who) sought control of the common people by demanding allegiance to the Church of Rome.” Other anti-Christian parts of the myth appear in later verses: the Pope declared the Inquisition as a war on the women of Europe, nine million of them died in the holocaust of the “burning times ” etc., etc. — the usual litany of bogus facts and erroneous accusations. All of that is familiar enough to anyone who delves into the literature of Neopaganism, and the false history behind it has been debunked repeatedlty, even by Neopagans.
And yet, while that false history is being abandoned, the songs that teach and celebrate it are not — specifically because of the emotions and attitudes they stir up. A Neopagan told me in conversation that “Burning Times” was an evocative, emotional song that had been a moving experience for many Witches during their “conversion” process. Another told of weeping uncontrollably at a recitation of ancient Goddess names in one of the verses of the song. In correspondence, a Wiccan Elder added “Needless to say, I and many of my fellows agree neither with the history nor the sentiment of many of the lyrics, but cannot deny the power of the song in the creation of oppositional identity.”
In any case, there is a level of conflict between Witchcraft and Christianity that has nothing to do with history. The Pagans identify that conflict very clearly (though not its implications) as they celebrate their side of it in song. The conflict is recognized in the lyrics of “Heretic Heart,” quoted at the beginning of this book. A further verse proclaims:
“Once I was found but now I’m gone away from the faithful fold —
the ones who preach that holiness is to do as you are told.
Though law and scripture, priest and prayer have all instructed me,
My skin, my bones, my heretic heart are my authority.
The conflict proclaimed in “Heretic Heart” is the primal antagonism between the sovereignty of God and the self-assertion of the fallen human will. It is the same conflict that is being played out before our eyes on the stage of history in the form of the “culture wars.” To see it in that way is to set it in the largest possible context — the context of God’s purposes toward fallen humanity, and the movement of human history toward the fulfillment of those purposes.
Culture Wars: Rise of the “New Religious Synthesis”
The Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) has been a partisan in the culture wars from the beginning of its ministry in 1973. That is probably the best-known aspect of SCP’s work, but its underlying objective has always been to understand and chart the progress of the cultural changes set in motion by the upheavals of the 1960s. Those of us who became Christians out of the counterculture recognized that the worldview we had found so magnetic was already working its way through other levels of society, and would continue to do so unless the process was somehow interrupted. But how could we write about what we were seeing, in terms that would be meaningful to the average reader? In a word, what could we call the emerging worldview, which we understood as a synthesis of occultism, humanism, secularism and the “religion” of self-deification? There was no agreed upon term for such a combination. Depending on which aspect of the subject we were dealing with, we wrote of “cosmic humanism,” (Alexander, 1982) “occult philosophy” (Alexander, 1984) or “the New Age worldview.” (Alexander and Burrows, 1984)
The idea of a coming transformation in our collective viewpoint is what the New Age Movement was all about, of course (they called it a “paradigm shift”), and its proponents were eager to claim that the change they wanted to see was already underway. Marilyn Ferguson wrote about the “Aquarian Conspiracy” in her book of the same title (J. P. Tarcher, 1980) and the concept of a shift in worldviews became common currency for advocates and critics alike; historian Carl Raschke drew attention to a rising “new religious consciousness” in his book The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness (Nelson-Hall, 1980).
More recently, Professsor James A. Herrick’s The Making of the New Spirituality (2003, InterVarsity Press) has offered a helpful analysis. The title of the book provides a thumbnail term for its subject, but a more focused description emerges in the text. Herrick observes that “dozens of writers and media celebrities . . . have helped both to shape and popularize a medley of religious ideas that I will be referring to . . . as the New Religious Synthesis.” (Herrick, 2003; p. 15) The better part of his book is devoted to describing the components of the New Religious Synthesis, its history and its cultural presence today. We can leave those details out of the current discussion, especially as SCP has commented extensively on many of them at the time they were happening. Herrick’s most valuable contribution may be that his breadth of vision is able to see the construction of the New Religious Synthesis as a long-term project covering centuries; he speaks of “a three-hundred-year long public persuasive process.” (Herrick, 2003; p. 17)
Herrick makes four other points that are relevant to our discussion of Neopagan Witchcraft; they are: 1) his observation that the New Religious Synthesis has been (and continues to be) promoted by a series of talented and persuasive public advocates; 2) his observation that the magnitude of cultural change is masked by the diversity of its manifestations; 3) his observation that the New Religious Synthesis is an active opponent and competitor of the biblical worldview that lies at the heart of Western civilization; and 4) his grim but considered judgment that the New Religious Synthesis is winning the competition.
The first three points will not come as a revelation to anyone who has studied New Religious Movements from an evangelical point of view. Herrick’s main contribution here has been to make those points explicit and to make them indisputable by means of documentation. The distinctive — and disturbing — part of his book is his assessment that “the New Spirituality” is rapidly replacing the biblical worldview as a source of values and attitudes in Western culture; The making of the New Spirituality is ominously subtitled the Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition.
Herrick speaks of “the fundamental, and fundamentally opposed components of two perspectives currently competing for the Western religious mind — the New Religious Synthesis and the Revealed Word . . .” (Herrick, 2003; p. 15) He also says that the opposition between them is total and complete, observing that “(t)he New Synthesis reverses each major tenet of the Revealed Word.” (Herrick, 2003; p. 251) Even though it is referred to as a “competition,” the interplay between the two opposed belief-systems often seems more like a relentless process of cultural decay and decline, against which there is no remedy but renewal. Herrick speaks of “this massive transformation in Western spiritual thought” and “the dramatic shift now occurring from one spirituality to another.” Then he delivers the sobering substance of his conclusion:
So substantial has been the shaping influence of the New Religious Synthesis in contemporary religious thought that it has now displaced the Revealed Word as the religious framework of a large and growing number of Western people. This powerfully persuasive synthesis blends strands of religious thought that began to appear, or reappear in Western religious writing around 1700. Over the past three centuries, and under the guidance of scores of gifted public advocates working in a number of genres and media, the New Religious Synthesis has now successfully colonized Western religious consciousness. The intriguing migration of these provocative ideas from the fringes of religious exotica to Western spirituality’s Main Street is the story told in this book. (Herrick, 2003; p 15)
The migration of these ideas from the fringes to the mainstream is precisely the larger process within which modern Witchcraft needs to be understood. In that context, Witchcraft is plainly part of the wave of enthusiasm for such things that is moving through our culture. The main questions that remain are: where is this wave taking us, and how, as Christians, should we respond?
Back to the Future, Forward to the Past
For the religious Witches of the Neopagan Movement, that wave is propelling them beyond the acceptability they have achieved so far, to outright respectability. The second “Parliament of Religions” in 1993 showed how closely Neopaganism is attuned to the mood and temper of our times. At the 1993 Parliament, Neopagans discovered how precisely their agenda matches the worries and yearnings of the wider religious world; the wider world in turn discovered Neopaganism as an attractive, articulate partner to help spread its message. It was a perfect fit. And for the wider secular world, Witchcraft’s environmentalism, feminism and benediction of homosexuality make it a perfect fit as well. Modern Witchcraft has a bright future as a vehicle for the “Spirit of the Age” — assuming, that is, that the “Age” itself has a future at all.
Eschatology aside, if “pantheism” is the permanent natural inclination of the fallen human heart (as C. S. Lewis said), then resurgent paganism in one form or another will certainly rise to fill the cultural void created by a weakened and retreating Christianity. That doesn’t mean that Neopagan Witchcraft itself will ever be more than a minor (if influential) presence on the religious landscape. There is a limit to the number of people who will be attracted to religious Witchcraft, simply because of the discipline and systematic practice it involves — and that number is probably fairly low. “Lifestyle” Witchcraft, on the other hand, has the potential to achieve a much wider popularity, in part because it doesn’t distinguish itself as sharply from the “mundane” world. And the ideas that Neopaganism represents — the worldview that it conveys — have an audience that is potentially as wide as fallen humanity’s rejection of the Gospel.
If we want to get an idea of what such a development might mean for our culture, there is no need to peer into the future; we can look to the past. We already know what a culture is like that is thoroughly steeped in paganism, and we know how such a culture relates to Christianity. The culture, of course, is ancient Rome, and spiritually, America today resembles Rome in its declining days far more than it resembles America itself a hundred years ago. If you think that is an exaggerated comparison, consider the following. In 1912, Franz Cumont wrote Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans. In it, he described the crumbling classical world in terms that are indistinguishable from the “New Religious Synthesis” that Herrick speaks of — and that Neopagans are a part of. Specifically, Cumont said that “in the declining days of antiquity, the common creed of all pagans came to be a scientific pantheism, in which the infinite power of the divinity that pervaded the universe was revealed by all the elements of nature.” (Cumont, 1912; p. 56)
What Cumont describes is not where we are headed, it’s where we already are. The world-view he summarizes is the essence of “natural religion” and it has already become the prevailing world-view for many of our cultural and intellectual elites. In one form or another, it is certain to be the world-view of the future for most people unless God acts to reverse the process of decay and decline that is currently underway. And it will indeed take an act of God to turn things around; it seems clear at this point that no human agency or strategem is going to do the job.
Three Reasons Why
There are at least three reasons why it will take divine intervention to stop our headlong plunge down the slippery slope of cultural decay. The first (and from a biblical standpoint, foremost) reason is that “we struggle not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) This is not to let us off the hook as Christians from having to respond and act, it is simply to say that the moral, social and psychological symptoms of our decline are just that — symptoms of a deeper derangement — and they will not be affected by our attempts to treat them as problems to be solved. Our cultural crisis is not amenable to policy solutions.
The second reason that no human effort is going to stop our slide into terminal decadence can be summed up in one word: “convergence.” The escalating power and pace of cultural change that we have seen in this book is not just happening to public attitudes about Witchcraft, it is happening to public attitudes about everything, and it is happening at all levels of society. Inevitably, the various counter-cultural currents tend to run together, as their common cultural rebellion brings them into common cause. Like converging branches of an avalanche, separate passions and purposes combine into a social force of enormous momentum and power.
We have already looked at an example of convergence in this book: the 1993 Parliament of Religions, which showed the remarkable coming together of three separate factors: environmental fears, religious yearnings and the ideology of Neopaganism. An even earlier case is the coming together of radical feminism with religious yearnings to create “Goddess spirituality,” which in turn came together with what Gerald Gardner started, to help create the Neopagan movement of today.
Another powerful converging factor today is homosexuality. Neopagans tend to be aggressive in their endorsement of homosexuality and there is a strong homosexual contingent within modern Witchcraft. But along with wanting to change public attitudes about homosexuality, the homosexual community also harbors a strong resentment toward Christianity and bristles with hostility toward Christians — yet another point of harmony with elements that are deeply embedded within modern Witchcraft.
Indeed, anti-Christianity is becoming a converging factor in its own right; many of the movements and enthusiasms of the last fifty years have independently contained their own anti-Christian element. Cultural insurrection in a Christian-based culture inherently involves repudiating some aspects of Christianity, and any movement that takes a counter-cultural stance will inevitably contain some counter-Christian component. The modern environmental movement provides a particularly good example of that connection — a linkage that has also brought environmentalism into harmony with the outlook and attitude of modern Witchcraft.
The beginnings of modern environmentalism are often traced to an article that has been called “the eco-shot heard ‘round the world.” Lynn White, Jr., a medieval historian, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December, 1966. White blasted the Christian belief-system for justifying the rape of nature in the name of our “God-given dominion.” His paper was published the following March in Science magazine, titled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” White argued that Christianity was not just responsible for our environmental crisis, but that it was therefore wrong and worthy of blame. He concluded by urging that Christianity should be rejected in favor of pagan and/or Eastern religious thinking — or some new version of the same. Here is some of what White actually said:
Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny — that is, by religion . . . Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions . . . insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends . . . By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects . . . Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion. (White, 1967)
Notice that in White’s view, the root sin of Christianity is that it fosters “a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” Paganism, by contrast, presumably cultivates a mood of concern for “the feelings of natural objects.” Ignore for a moment the question of whether “natural objects” have “feelings;” that is just White’s animistic sympathy coming to the fore. More to the point, when White assumes that “mood” and “feeling” are the heart of the problem, he highlights the third reason that no human effort is going to turn our culture around: the social forces that are converging to propel our cultural transformation are emotional, not rational, and they won’t be affected by rational strategies.
Changing Attitudes, Changing Culture
Evangelicals are fond of saying that “beliefs have consequences” — meaning that what we believe will determine what we do. For that reason, evangelicals often concentrate on addressing beliefs on a rational level, and on trying to change a person’s beliefs by rational means. It is certainly true that beliefs have consequences, but it is also true, and prior in time, that attitudes have beliefs — meaning that our yearnings and our anxieties, what we fear and what we desire, will determine what we believe. The cultural change we are going through today involves more than replacing one set of ideas with another. It involves replacing one set of fears and desires with another — a much more fundamental process, and a much more difficult one to recognize and respond to.
Saint Augustine understood those deeper dimensions of culture-change. After all, he oversaw one of the most momentous culture-changes in history: the transition from the dying pagan culture of the late Roman world to the emerging Christian culture of post-Imperial Europe. In his landmark book The City of God, Augustine draws his contrast between the City of God and its opposite number, the Earthly City, precisely in terms of their contrasting fears and desires. In Augustine’s own words:
Two loves have constituted two cities — the earthly is formed by love of self even to contempt of God, the heavenly by love of God, even to the contempt of self. For the one glories in herself, the other in the Lord . . . In the one, the lust for power prevails, both in her own rulers and in the nations she subdues; in the other, all serve each other in charity, governors by taking thought for all and subjects by obeying. (City of God; XIV. 28)
In short, Augustine sees any human community (generic “City”) as an organic whole, almost as a living entity. What gives any “City” its character is the sum force of its people’s hopes and worries, their ambitions and their anxieties — in a word, their “loves.” To Augustine, so-called “politics” is a symptom; it is one of several ways that people act out impulses that lie far deeper in themselves. In the same way, the beliefs that people adopt, and the ideas that shape their societies, are also symptoms of more basic inclinations.
What we are seeing in the United States today is a massive shift in the underlying “loves” of the people, as increasing numbers (including many nominal “Christians”) turn away from Christian faith and the love of God, and toward the pagan pursuit of power, pleasure and the love of Self. The result has been growing weakness in the Church — especially in its cultural presence — and growing strength in its cultural opposition. There is an inverse relationship between the cultural presence and strength of Christianity and that of its pagan competition; as one increases, the other diminishes and vice versa.
That is hardly a novel observation; what’s novel is to see the process running in a new direction. Early Christian apologists made the point that the spiritual darkness of occult and obscene religions that flourished in ancient Rome had been pushed by the light of the Gospel to the fringes of society. One of the talking points of Christianity in all periods of history is that it has kept that darkness at its fringes. Modern Christian apologists have warned that the reverse could also occur, and the decline of Christianity’s influence in our times means that the fringes are indeed retreating inward, bringing the darkness that lies behind them to the center of society. Os Guinness compared contemporary Christianity to a campfire in the night that is burning low, allowing animals with their “encircling eyes” to approach behind the shrinking perimeter of light. In The Dust of Death, Guinness said “As we have witnessed the erosion and breakdown of the Christian culture of the West, so we have seen the vacuum filled by an upsurge of ideas that would have been unthinkable when the fires of the Christian culture were high.” (Guiness, 1994; p. 276)
Secular critics of Christianity dismiss such warnings as alarmist propaganda. Secular scholars, however, have documented the connection. In 1979, respected sociologists William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark set out to study the rising wave of cultish religion and occult thinking in our society. They asssumed at the outset that conservative Christianity was part of the pattern of irrationality they were trying to analyze. They discovered instead that Christian belief was a specific antidote to irrationality. By their own admission, the conclusion that Bainbridge and Stark came to startled even themselves:
“Born agains” are much less likely than others to accept radical cults and pseudo-scientific beliefs . . . (while) the group with no religious affiliation is recepive to these unscientific notions. Those who hope that a decline in traditional religion would inaugurate a new Age of Reason ought to think again . . . Our questionnaire research suggests that strong religion prevents occultism. Therefore we would expect to find that interest in deviant cults and in the paranormal was greatest where the churches are weakest — in the Pacific region. In fact, this is the case . . . Apparently when Christianity loses its grip on large numbers of people, deviant religious alternatives arise and get hold of some of the unchurched . . . Therefore, a further decline in the influence of conventional religion may not inaugurate a scientific Age of Reason, but might instead open the floodgates for a bizarre new Age of Superstition. (Bainbridge and Stark, 1980; pp. 26-30; emphasis added)
Bainbridge and Stark’s assessment was rendered some twenty-five years ago; today, the only modification we could make to their formula would be to change “might open the floodgates” to “has opened the floodgates.” Clearly, the “bizarre new Age of Superstition” they spoke of has already arrived. And it arrived exactly the way they said it would — i.e., in the wake of waning Christian influence in our culture. That’s as close to a secular “prophecy” as you are likely to get.
Neopaganism and the “Spirit of the Age”
Our culture-change is driven by a process of convergence. As the cultural trends and social movements of the “New Religious Synthesis” overlap and run together, they are discovering what Augustine already knew — that what draws and binds them together is not their allegiance to a common agenda, but their common participation in a mood or attitude. Their common attitude is one of rejection and refusal toward the main culture, and especially toward its Christian-based concept of moral and spiritual limits. That “gut-level” energy of culture-change is one of the things that is fueling our “culture wars,” in the form of social and political conflicts over such things as abortion, homosexuality and cloning. All of those conflicts arise out of an indignant refusal to accept any limits at all on the right of the self to do whatever it wants in pursuit of its own self-interest. That is the mood and temper of our times; it is the Spirit of the Age, the “Zeitgeist.” Today it is approaching critical mass though the convergence of cultural trends, fads and fashions. The change we are seeing around us represents a revolt by the world-system, worldly values and worldly people against the constraints of Christian culture, and Neopagan Witchcraft is just one part of that general insurrection. Professor Herrick spends almost 300 pages cataloging the varied movements, trends and schools of thought that go to make up the “New Religious Synthesis, and all of them are expressions, in one way or another, of that same Spirit of the Age.
But Neopaganism is not just one among a welter of equals in that picture. It stands out from the crowd, both as an example of our changing culture and as a factor in producing it. Modern Witchcraft is perfectly timed and tailored to be a vehicle for the Spirit of the Age, giving it a more central position and a more important influence than some of the others in the mix that we are seeing.
Neopaganism provides a good example of what’s happening today because it explicitly embodies the “gut-level” energy of culture-change (or, we might call it the “Augustinian level” of culture-change). In attempting to define itself, modern Witchcraft stresses that its real identity is found at the level of mood and attitude. It also teaches its own followers at that level, and it appeals to outsiders at that level in order to spread its viewpoint.
Remember the defining principle laid down by the Covenant of the Goddess in 1975 (quoted in Chapter Two): “Our reality is intuitive. We know when we encounter someone who we feel is worshipping in the same way, who follows the same religion we do . . .” Witches are unwilling to define themselves in objective terms because the identity they share is not objective, but a matter of attitude. The common threads of Neopaganism are less in the details of beliefs and practices than they are in a sense of agreement on outlook, attitude, mood and perspective. Modern Witches are saying, in effect, that they know what spiritual and cultural currents are flowing, and are able to tell when someone is following the same ones they are.
Modern Witches understand that their identity is “intuitive,” and based on mood and attitude. They also understand that the most effective way to spread that identity (i.e., to “re-paganize” society), is not to spread the identity itself, but to spread the mood and attitude it is based on. I have already observed (in Chapter Two) that “the contagious excitement of cultural insurrection is modern Witchcraft’s functional substitute for missionary zeal.” Neopagans know that if the attitude spreads, the ideology will follow.
Narrative and Neopaganism
What is the best way to spread the mood and attitude? It isn’t by preaching and exhortation. It is by telling stories. Storytelling, after all, is the oldest form of instruction that we know of. The traditional knowledge of ancient peoples was preserved in story form — dramatic narratives that were committed to memory and recited on special occasions by priests who acted as the “tribal encyclopedia.”
Writing destroyed that culture of oral tradition — and the order of society that went along with it. Technology has transformed our civilization many times over since then, but what hasn’t changed is our use of stories to communicate values and viewpoints. Today, as in prehistoric times, dramatic narratives are still the most effective tool of communication — and of manipulation. There is no better way of getting others to feel the way that you do — or of getting them to feel in a way that supports your agenda — than to tell them stories.
Academic scholars have recognized the role that dramatic narrative plays in giving shape and substance to Neopagan religion. Graham Harvey of King Alfred’s College in the U.K. studied how imaginative literature is used in Neopaganism, noting that “while no single text is read by all Pagans, the construction and narration of Pagan identity commonly entails reading . . . especially fantasy literature.” His landmark article, titled “Fantasy in the Study of Religion” reached the following notable conclusion:
Paganism is a spirituality centred on celebration of and engagement with Nature. Like many (perhaps most) religions, its experience is more adequately expressed in imaginative stories than in dogmatic assertions. Theatrical rituals and creative stories are closer to its heart than plain descriptions or narratives purporting to say “what witches do”. Thus Paganism is better understood and certainly better taught using these forms. (Harvey, 2000; emphasis added)
Neopagans clearly comprehend the concept; if they didn’t, the reverberating impact of The Craft and Buffy is enough to make the point self-evident to almost anyone, and the point is this: storytelling preaches the message more effectively than preaching does. People get the point of a story more directly, and they get it in a more personal way, because a story moves them at the level of their fears and desires, their “loves” — which, as Augustine understood, is the level from which they act. When Joss Whedon says of Buffy “I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show,” he is only making conscious and deliberate what has always been true of storytelling at its most effective
While Whedon is not a Pagan, his clarity about what he is up to suggests another way of looking at the progress and presence of Neopaganism in our culture — to see it not as the spread of an intellectual ideology, but as the spread of an existential infection (in Augustinian terms, the spreading corruption of our “loves”). The carriers of that infection have been stories told by others to our children while we were busy preaching to the world. From that angle, the “competition” that Herrick speaks of, between the New Religious Synthesis and the Revealed Word perspective, is really a contest between competing stories about the origin and destiny of mankind.
Because the truth is that Christianity, like Paganism, is also “better understood and . . . better taught” using dramatic narratives. For the ultimate example of that, look no further than the Gospels themselves; the very foundation of Christianity rests upon four separate tellings of the same dramatic tale, a tale of temptation and trial, of suffering and sacrifice, of a tragedy that turns into triumph. That is how the Christian faith has always been conveyed; indeed it is how God has always chosen to reveal Himself, both in history and in scripture — the Bible itself is a story, from beginning to end.
Culture War and the Battle of the Narratives
Professor Herrick says that the New Religious Synthesis is winning the competition of worldviews, displacing the Revealed Word perspective as the source of values and attitudes for our cultural elite. The material we have surveyed in this book suggests that the same holds true at the popular level as well, where the culture-war shows up not as a contest of worldviews, but as a battle of the narratives.
The Biblical/Christian story is the familiar one of creation, temptation and betrayal, judgment and fall, sacrifice and redemption, return and restoration. The competing story, much like the New Religious Synthesis itself, is not one narrative but many, all of them having a similar thrust. At bottom it is the story of “the striving human will seeking desperately to launch itself into minor godhood in an evolving cosmos . . .” (Herrick, 2003; p. 279) The basic story-line is well described in the work of the late Joseph Campbell, whose 1988 PBS video series The Power of Myth brought his ideas to millions of viewers. As Campbell famously pointed out, the story of the struggle for enlightenment is essentially the story of a hero, one “with a thousand faces,” the particular face depending on the culture that gives him a name and a history. In our secularized, sophisticated culture today , the “hero” of occult enlightenment wears every one of his thousand faces, and then some.
In the context of Christianity’s cultural dominance, that diversity itself becomes part of the “New Spirituality’s” challenge. In order to achieve its objective, the New Spirituality does not need to replace the Christian story with its own as the ruling narrative of our culture; all it needs is to displace the Christian story from its priveleged position by making it just one story among many, one version of the truth and nothing more, with Christ as just one more of the occult hero’s many masks. If the proponents of the New Religious Synthesis can accomplish that much in the minds of the public, they may be able to interfere with the transmission of Christian culture from one generation to the next; if that transmission fails, the results will be more far-reaching than the fall of Rome.
It has been said that no great civilization is more than one generation away from barbarism, no matter how secure its cultural dominance may seem to be. If a civilization’s underlying values are not passed from one generation to the next, they will not be re-acquired by the generation after that. They are, effectively . . . “history.” That is the crisis our culture is facing at this historical moment. It is a crisis that is being created by the convergence of several factors we have looked at in this book: the self-contained isolation of teen culture; the inherent vulnerability of teens to manipulation; the domination of our culture (and especially teen culture) by the visual media; and the domination of the visual media by stories (and storytellers) that support the New Religious Synthesis.
For many teens (apart from the ones in strongly commited Christian families), the substance of Christian civilization is not being passed on because the Christian story is not being coherently transmitted in their culture, and even where it is accessible, it gets lost in the babble at best. These are the people who need to “get” the tradition of Christian culture in order for it to survive, and right now, they’re not getting it. The message that does come through loud and clear in teen culture, interestingly, is the messsage of pop-culture Witchcraft. For the Spirit of the Age, it seems, the channels are clear.
Today’s teens and young adults are making their bid to be the generation that beats a retreat back across the bridge from civilization to barbarism, by turning away from the tradition that is their legacy. There is no way to know at this point whether their retreat can be turned around, or whether it will turn into a rout — a lemming-like rush back to “the permanent natural inclination of the human heart” in C.S. Lewis’s memorable phrase. If it does, Christians would do well to heed the warning of the Dirge for a New Dark Age: “The twilight is ending; night is descending; and Angels of Light come dancing in the dark.”
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]