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Wicca's Charm | Reviews | Praise | Excerpt

"MY PLACE IN SOCIETY has become so altered. I work, I contribute, but I have become invisible," a woman laments to a friend. A mother of grown children who works as a nurse, the woman has just had a hysterectomy. She uses ritual in a small outdoor ceremony to deal with feelings of loss after the surgery and to seek direction. After taking off her clothes, she covers herself with red-clay rune symbols (A note on terminology: I explain terms like these throughout the book, but I have also included expanded definitions in the glossary.) and buries the organs removed from surgery in part of her wedding dress. She and her friend perform a Wiccan ritual. They both play flutes after placing crystals and a feather on the burial spot.

In another corner of America, a chestnut-haired seventeen-year-old sits at the Starbucks inside a popular bookstore chain in Charlotte, North Carolina. Deana and her blonde friend, Ellen, share a large Frappuccino and discuss how they became Wiccans. Deana's parents regularly attend a local Presbyterian church and have sent her to church camp since she was a young child. They don't know she practices witchcraft. Her mother thinks she is Buddhist, and she says her father just gets angry that she doesn't like going to church.

"After I read the book about love spells, what really began to attract me was that Wicca respects nature, that God is in nature, that it focuses on protecting the environment, and that it empowers women," she says.

The girls take drugs, perform Wiccan rituals, and celebrate Wiccan holidays. They tell me that their behavior would cause alarm among most students at their high school, but they see themselves as progressive--breaking new religious ground.

"A revolution can take place slowly," says the blonde. "I don't think we will see a mass movement toward Wicca, but slowly over time it is going to become a regular part of the culture." (Undocumented quotes such as this one are from personal interviews conducted by the author and used by permission or from statements made by individuals in public venues.)

Asking Questions
I first encountered Wicca as a magazine reporter. During an editorial meeting one September, I was asked to write a piece about Halloween, and soon the conversation turned to Wicca. My editor's questions might be yours: "What is the deal with all those TV shows that feature teenage witches?" "Is interest in witchcraft a growing trend?" On that Friday afternoon he asked me to find answers for him and write a short article about Wicca.

When I stopped at the bookstore to purchase a book on Wicca, I was stunned at the variety of books to choose from. I wondered who these people were that practiced Wicca and whether I should be wary of them. At the time, when I heard the term Wicca, I thought, Oh, Wiccans are those scary people who are part of a cult and worship the devil. In a reflective moment I might have singled out a few kids in high school who wore black all the time--they might have been Wiccans.

When I began my research, I started to meet many people who called themselves witches, and at first they unnerved me. I wasn't used to meeting people who claim to cast spells; it all sounded rather sinister. But as I began to meet and talk with both young and older Wiccans, I found that their involvement with Wicca was not at the beckoning of some cultlike leader. My stereotypes of these people soon began to embarrass me, and my curiosity propelled me to do more research. I would soon find out that Wicca could no longer be characterized as a bizarre, marginal religion. As I began to understand in the bookstore, it is a widespread and increasingly popular spiritual practice.

Prompting Dialogue
Neo-Paganism--which includes the modern practice of witchcraft also known as Wicca--is an overarching term for earth-based spirituality incorporating nature worship through a revival of the polytheistic worship of ancient gods and goddesses. Wicca is also known as "the Craft," and most Wiccans believe in the manipulation of the supernatural through rite, ritual, and spell casting.

It is difficult to gauge the numbers involved in neo-Paganism. People can be reluctant to identify themselves as neo-Pagan, and many enter and leave neo-Paganism without ever being counted. One Wiccan I spoke to told me she guessed there are 5 million adherents. Covenant of the Goddess-- the oldest and largest interdenominational organization of witches in the United States (Wiccans have traditionally organized themselves according to the different types of witchcraft they practice--somewhat equivalent to Christian denominations. But those distinctions are becoming less pronounced as more young people practice Wicca on their own or don't observe any particular tradition or practice.)--estimates from a 1999 poll that there are almost 800,000 Wiccans and Pagans in America. Perhaps more accurate would be the estimation of sociologist Helen Berger, who spent ten years as a participant and observer of the neo-Pagan community. She estimates that in 1999 there were between 150,000 and 200,000 Pagans;3 it's likely there are many more today.

By Covenant of the Goddess's estimates, female witches outnumber males two to one in the United States, and much of the recent growth among Wiccans has been among women. These figures, however, do not include the growing segment of the population who would agree with most neo-Pagan beliefs but would not identify themselves as neo-Pagan. The number of adherents is constantly in flux, but as we will see later, there are other ways to gauge the growing interest in neo-Paganism.

One neo-Pagan Web site, lists nine thousand covens on its site. A coven is a group of people who convene for religious, magic, or psychic purposes; it usually refers to a meeting of witches. Covens range from a gathering in which witches are systematically taught about magic to a coffee klatsch of like-minded Pagans (Refers to the religion of Paganism or the modern practitioners of this religion. When the term is lowercased--'pagan'--it refers to ancient pagan peoples or pagan practices.). Some witches meet in covens, while others are solitary practitioners.

You may have the same fears and questions about neo-Paganism and Wicca that I did when I began my research. What may surprise you is that Wiccans are just as likely to be in Topeka, Kansas, as in San Francisco, California. They may very well be living in your neighborhood. You may also be surprised to learn that Wiccans and neo-Pagans are among the more fascinating and thoughtful people I have met. Their wonder at life, its rhythms, and the unspeakable beauty of nature is something we can all learn from in our crazy, fast-paced world. Many dance to the beat of their own drum, like it that way, and revel in their eccentricities.

Indeed, most of the people I met while writing this book would not fit common pointy-hatted, green-faced stereotypes. The witch in the Dairy Queen, whom you will meet later, provided me with fascinating insight into the Wiccan subculture. You'll also meet a brilliant academic who moved to Greece because she felt marginalized by academia. You'll meet a sixteen-year old student at one of America's top private schools who says that Wicca is the only thing that makes sense to her. You'll read why a former witch in Salem, Massachusetts, embraced the gospel message. You'll encounter a well-known author who grew up in the Christian church but couldn't find her place there. And you'll read about the Princeton University student who flirted with Wicca but became a Christian while studying in Spain. It is never easy being an outsider writing about other people's spirituality. As a Christian I can never see Wicca from the inside because there are limits to how much I can participate. I cannot invoke their spirits or take part in their rituals. And so I am grateful to all of the Wiccans I encountered for telling me their stories.

When I started my research, I wanted to interview Wiccans exclusively. But as anyone who has spent time within the neo-Pagan community knows, it is a diverse group. Where there are Wiccans, there are eclectic Pagans or Goddess worshipers. (Eclectic Paganism draws on a variety of pagan symbols and rituals to create a spirituality, while Goddess worship is a form of neo-Pagan spirituality whose practitioners worship the Mother Goddess only; in America, Goddess worship is largely rooted in feminism.) And the list could go on.

So although I have titled this book Wicca's Charm, I have included interviews with Pagans of all different stripes. I have not attempted to cover every aspect of Wicca, let alone provide a comprehensive view of neo-Paganism. If I had, this book would never have been written. Wicca's flexible principles differ from one practitioner to the next, so I have tried to describe these different spiritual practices as I encountered them. I refer to practitioners of Wicca as Wiccans or witches, depending on the preferences of those I interviewed.

I also use the terms neo-Pagan and Pagan interchangeably. My own interest in Wicca stems from a desire as a journalist and as a Christian to understand why Wicca attracts people. My Christian convictions and participation in the Christian community prompted me to see whether people turned to Wicca because they perceived Christianity as a patriarchal and dogmatic religion or whether they had burned out on Christian culture, particularly evangelical culture. I was surprised to discover that even if I didn't ask any questions about the church, Wiccans always mentioned it. After a while I asked everyone I met about their impressions of the Christian church and faith.

As we'll see, I found that Wicca speaks to those interested not only in the supernatural but also in environmental causes and feminism--issues that are all too often neglected by American churches. Many of these seekers are looking for a spirituality that addresses these issues.

I don't believe witchcraft is the answer to the struggle these seekers are facing, but the Christian church hasn't exactly offered a welcoming alternative for them to consider, although the gospel message itself offers them great hope and answers to their questions. Sadly, rather than reaching out in love, as Scripture commands, to those who are different from those within the church and who may be seeking spirituality through Wicca or Paganism, the church seems desperate to protect and distance itself from such people. But pulling up the drawbridge and lobbing arrows at Wiccans from the parapets of Christendom just drives people away. Yet out of fear and ignorance, many Christians have refused to engage in dialogue with a Wiccan family member, neighbor, or friend. Wicca's Charm is not only an exploration of Wicca in America but a reflection on how Christians treat Wiccans and Pagans.

This book chronicles what I saw and heard as I spent a year researching and talking with people. My background as a reporter--a journalist's-eye view--has guided me in telling the story of how and why Wicca has become popular at this time in history. My beliefs as a Christian have guided me in finding out why many people are drawn to Wicca and bypass the church. My hope is that this book will help Christians and Wiccans alike understand what divides them, will prompt a dialogue between Christians and seekers, and will speak truth into a confused and confusing belief system. I invite Wiccans to join in the journey as well and read this book with an open mind. As a parent, you may have picked up this book hoping to learn more about your teenager's recent decision to practice Wicca. As a Christian, you may want to have a better understanding of why a Wiccan friend is more drawn to witchcraft than the church. As a spiritual seeker, you may want to know some of the background of both Christianity and Wiccan spirituality. In the end, my desire is for you to become better informed about this spirituality that has come to the fore at this juncture in our history. Our culture has tilled the soil, making it fertile enough for the seeds of Wicca to grow. This may be of concern to some, and for others, cause to celebrate. But to dismiss this spirituality as fringe or something practiced by an insignificant minority group would be to miss the point of what is really happening in our culture.

Model Behavior
The fact that I was writing this book caused all sorts of odd reactions among my friends and family members. Most of them were rather concerned about me--"You're writing a book on what?" I know some people must have thought I was really strange, especially as I met with Wiccans in a variety of settings during my research.

Despite these varied reactions, I took comfort in the story of the apostle Paul at Mars Hill in Athens in ancient Greece. He waded into the pool of pagan thought and religion. And he spent time there. He complimented the religious zeal of the pagan Athenians as he walked by their temples and idols. He knew their literature. His words and actions were so intriguing to the pagan Greeks that they invited him to speak at Mars Hill, a place of honor where new ideas were exchanged and challenged. Paul knew Greek literature so well that he quoted from their own pagan poets to explain the gospel. The line that Christians know--"In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28)--is straight from the mouth of the pagan poet Epimenides who lived in Crete in the sixth century BC. This would have been very familiar to Paul's audience.

This scriptural account of Paul in Athens enables us to freely embrace truth in any form, wherever it is found. Paul's precedent of quoting pagan poets empowers Christians to do the same and indicates that morsels of truth and insights from general revelation may be found in non-Christian sources. If you were to follow Paul's approach when talking with a Pagan teen today, for example, you might quote a line from the well-known neo- Pagan Wiccan writer Starhawk. But it takes time to read Starhawk's The Spiral Dance and see how her yearnings can be met by a relationship with Christ. How astonishing that seems: An ancient equivalent of Starhawk was quoted in the Bible!

One starting point in responding to the growth of Wicca is thoughtful confrontation with the issues it raises: What are our responsibilities to one another, to other living things, to the health of the planet? What is our place in the cosmos? Where do justice and human dignity come from? Is Wicca all that different from Christianity or spirituality in general? You may also be asking how Wicca is different from Satanism. You may want to know why your loved one is Wiccan and what you can do about it. I grappled with such questions as I learned more about Wiccan history and practice and talked with people across the country. As you read their stories and grapple with these same questions, I hope you will find some helpful answers.