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Weak Church, Wiccan Charms
Why growing numbers of people are drawn to Pagan spirituality, and how the church needs to respond
By Catherine Edwards Sanders
"Imagine losing all your friends at once," Margaret Ann* told me. "I was totally on my own. Soon I went from being angry to just immersing myself in Wicca. I eventually moved to Shamanism, and now I practice Druidism." The clatter of dishes and the chatter of students at the Brew Ha Ha coffee shop in Newark, Del., faded into the background as Margaret Ann, surrounded by four friends from the University of Delaware Pagan club, told me her story.
She had grown up in the church with very dedicated Baptist parents and was baptized when she was 14. She loved animals and was the type to rescue wounded birds or abandoned kittens, but she found that most of her fellow congregants were indifferent when it came to caring for animals and the earth.
At a Christian retreat in high school, a boy in her youth group stoned a snake to death for sport, and the other kids just laughed and encouraged him while Margaret Ann became increasingly distressed. The others could not understand why she cared so much.
Frustrated with her fellow youth group members' lack of interest in the natural world, Margaret Ann nevertheless joined a Christian fellowship group when she went to college. She did everything with the group, and all of her friends were part of it.
One evening at the end of her sophomore year, Margaret Ann saw an ad for the film Practical Magic on television. It aroused her curiosity about witchcraft, so she started to look on the Internet for more information. She bought Wiccan books and soon felt as if her heart had arrived home. Wicca emphasized a love of nature, and Margaret Ann felt that it encouraged her love for animals.
"I have always been blunt, so I told others about discovering Wicca. My family ganged up on me and refused to discuss it with me at all," she said.
An anonymous note appeared in her campus mailbox telling her that Jesus still loved her; but she found that her Christian friends suddenly deserted her. She eventually dropped out of college altogether, returning only when her Christian friends had graduated.
My heart was heavy as I drove away from the coffee shop. Stories like Margaret Ann's prompted me to go beyond my reporting assignment on the contemporary practice of Wicca in America. I wanted to get at why people are embracing Wicca and other Pagan religions today, and what the Body of Christ can do about it.
Neo-Paganism, or just Paganism for short--which includes the modern practice of witchcraft also known as Wicca--is an overarching term for earth-based spirituality that incorporates nature worship into a 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. Most scholars agree that Wicca originated in England in the 1950s with a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner. He coined the term "Wicca" and claimed it was the ancient pagan religion of the British Isles that he had simply resurrected. This claim has since been disproven.
Statistics tell us that two-thirds of practicing Pagans are women. Estimates of the total numbers of practicing Wiccans in America vary wildly, as people can be reluctant to reveal their spiritual inclination publicly. Conservative estimates put the number at somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. A poll conducted by a large Pagan group put the number at almost 800,000, while some Wiccans claim there are as many as 3 million of them. These numbers reveal a growing spiritual hunger for something that is not being met by traditional means.
The charm of Wicca
They are drawn, they told me, because they want a religion that is real. They were tired of "sitting in pews" and wanted something more. Because of their desire for a "real spirituality," I found that most were willing to be subject to the scary side of Wicca. Sadly, many don't think the gospel is real, for they didn't encounter the incarnate Christ at church. Most had the impression that Christianity was a religion only of rules and knew little about the Holy Spirit. Turned off by apathetic Christians on the one hand and a cartoonish view of evangelicals on the other, these seekers find their way to Wicca.
The reason that two-thirds of Wiccans are women is that in the early days of the women's movement, Wicca found agreeable companions in feminists searching for spiritual sustenance for their political movement. Goddess worship, for many, became their spiritual outlet. The church was seen as the repository for an oppressive patriarchy, and feminists believed that Christianity should change along with political and corporate structures. Wicca's deification of the earth as Mother Goddess and rejection of monotheism in favor of pantheism appeal to feminists, and its female-centered rituals build a sense of solidarity for its practitioners.
At a conference in Seattle I heard National Public Radio commentator and Wiccan, Margot Adler, speak. She said that in the course of writing her own book on neo-Paganism she met a woman who told her, "Just the idea of a [Mother] Goddess and I felt this great weight drop from me I felt the last prejudices against my female body falling away." I met many women who had been deeply wounded by a church experience and considered Wicca to be a safe place for them.
Teens are also looking for a sense of community and solidarity. Sarah*, a freshman at a northern Virginia high school, told me she was drawn to Wicca because so many of her friends were what she called "airy"; their chief concerns were boys, shopping, and clothes. And those were the professing Christians. As an intelligent and inquisitive 14-year-old, she found this off-putting. Where were the kids interested in deeper topics? At her high school, they were the Wiccans.
Teens are very Web-savvy, and the explosive growth of Wicca online has fueled its growth among teens. Information about Wicca used to be hard to find, but now a teen in Topeka can converse with a Wiccan in Salem with the click of a mouse. Their virtual community is often more meaningful to them than their high schools, which can be inhospitable places to the spiritually sensitive.
Other teens who embrace Wicca are looking for a spirituality that fits what they already believe. One teen in Washington, D.C., told me she liked Wicca because it was "malleable." Some, but surprisingly not most, are simply looking to rebel to frustrate their parents.
Many young people keep their interest in Wicca a secret until they get to college and join one of the many Wiccan and Pagan clubs on campuses. One college student told me that her Catholic parents forced her to go to church all her life without ever providing her with a satisfactory reason. She told me she embraced Wicca because it was "real" but would not likely have done so had her parents' devotion been based on anything other than tradition and obligation. Young people are looking for authentic spirituality, and this presents a contemporary challenge to parents and youth leaders.
How Christians can respond
I also tell parents that, even if their child is the last person they could imagine being interested in Wicca, it is likely she will have a classmate who is. When I asked a group of evangelical churchgoing 17-year-old girls whether any of them had Wiccan friends, they all raised their hands. Equipping our young people with compassion and understanding for Wiccans in their midst will allow them to reach out to their friends with love and provide a good example of holistic Christian living something many Wiccan teens have never encountered.
Wiccans also feel like the church has opted out of a great issue of our time: caring for creation. Since they deify and worship the earth as the "Mother Goddess," Wiccans are usually steps ahead of the church when it comes to thoughtful stewardship of the environment. However, while Wiccan arguments are driven by a pagan and pantheistic view of the earth, Christians have much more compelling reasons for environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, Christians too often ignore our God-given charge to care for the earth.
God's redemption is not limited to human beings. It is cosmic. Romans 8 talks about the fallen state of creation, groaning and waiting until Christ returns and renews it. Christians without an environmental concern are disobeying God. He cares for creation and wants us to take care of what he created so lovingly. To do less grieves him!
Wiccans also have a conscience when it comes to the poor and the effects of globalization. An entire branch of Wicca is called "Reclaiming" witchcraft. You'll find Reclaiming witches protesting the IMF, G8, and World Bank meetings. They feel that these meeting are made up of governments and civil servants beholden to corporate fat cats wanting to get rich off the backs of the global poor. Whether they are right or wrong, Christians also have a duty to examine the decisions made at these meetings carefully and hold leaders accountable when their actions exploit the poor, widows, and orphans. During my reporting, I was amazed at how many Christians readily denounced these people as crazy or uninformed without listening to anything they said.
Wiccans believe in justice for women, the poor, and the environment, and they desire a spirituality that is real to sustain them as they advocate for these things. Sound familiar? Perhaps that's because it is a lot like the gospel message Jesus preached.
But Wicca itself falls short of providing a basis for Wiccans to take social action. It is not enough to say that rape is bad according to me. Or that exploiting the poor goes against my taste. The exciting news of the gospel message is that it provides a basis for right and wrong. Only because we have a transcendent Creator, who is perfect goodness and declared what is absolute good or bad, do we have grounds to condemn anything. The fact that all human beings are made in the image of God provides us with a basis to respect women and help the poor, while the pagan, pantheistic view of Wicca places human beings no better than inanimate objects such as rocks or trees.
As for spiritual reality, only Christian truth possesses a deity that took on human flesh, was real, and existed among us. Nothing is more real than Jesus and his Holy Spirit. He has given us the victory over the spirits of this world.
Margaret Ann is still a practicing Druid, but she has one Christian friend and they grant each other mutual respect. Sarah eventually left the practice of Wicca once she encountered some thoughtful youth leaders at church. She told me that she hoped other Christians would take seekers like her seriously. "The church has to realize that there are a lot of curious people like me who won't accept the easy answers," she warned. "We need people willing to come alongside us as we look into things like Wicca, not to condemn us."
Like Paul on Mars Hill, we can use Wiccans' God-given curiosity about unknown gods to point to the God they can know intimately.
Catherine Edwards Sanders is the author of Wicca's Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality, just released by Shaw/WaterBrook Press (a division of Random House).