Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Witchful Thinking” first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Touchstone.
Witchcraft Goes Mainstream by Brooks Alexander
Witchcraft Goes Mainstream: Uncovering Its Alarming Impact on You and Your Family
reviewed by David Haddon
In Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, Brooks Alexander—who converted from the counterculture to Christianity in 1969 and went on to found the Spiritual Counterfeits Project—turns his attention to the accelerating self-paganization of American society. His personal relationships with neopagans in the San Francisco Bay area and his study of historical and modern witchcraft make him a reliable guide for Christians who want to love their neopagan neighbors.
But I think that his acute analysis of the subversive appropriation of elements of the Christian story by contemporary media storytellers in the course of their re-imaging of witchcraft may be just as important.
Witches and neopagans themselves have found it impossible to agree on definitions of witchcraft and neopaganism, but nevertheless claim to intuitively recognize those who worship the way they do. Therefore, instead of trying to define these movements by their doctrines or practices, Alexander cites their common attitudes.
These attitudes begin with the rejection of established society and include:
• Rejection of Christian monotheism in favor of the animistic, polytheistic,
or pantheistic powers believed to be available “for enlightenment and
Modern witchcraft provided a haven for spiritual seekers attracted by the forces of nature and disaffected from Christianity even before the New Age movement of the 1970s. Despite its recent origin with Gerald Gardner’s Wicca in 1939, many modern witches claim to be the remnants of a pre-Christian religious tradition stretching back to a peaceful matriarchal society that worshiped the goddess.
Alexander refutes this myth in detail, and serious neopagans concerned about the credibility of their religion in the academy have acknowledged it to be untrue. But many witches still passionately believe in their myth, and Alexander devotes two chapters to sorting out the history of medieval and modern witchcraft.
An equally false Christian myth about modern witchcraft is that it is a form of Satanism. But most neo-pagans do not believe in Satan any more than they believe in Christ. Although Alexander warns against the danger of demonic incursion from practicing trance states in order to hear from false deities, he does not pursue reports of demons or of sexual practices in neopaganism.
Alexander shows that the mainstreaming of neopaganism in America is a fait accompli.
He estimates the number of neopagans in America in 2004 at between 400,000 and 1.5 million, a significant size for a group until recently so marginal. Witchcraft groups have found official acceptance on college campuses, on US military bases, and, most significantly, in interfaith organizations.
The 1986 ruling of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Dettmer v. Landon that the mail-order “Church of Wicca” was a religion facilitated some of this, but it may be largely a result of the increasingly anti-Christian attitudes of American society, including:
• The widespread rejection of Christian morality and the exclusive
claims of Christ;
What is most disturbing is that much of the interest in modern witchcraft now comes from teenagers and college students. Spin magazine’s 1998 “Grrrl Power” issue rated witchcraft the top interest of teenage girls. Silver Ravenwolf’s Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation has sold 150,000 copies to become the all-time bestselling title for occult book publisher Llewellyn.
Central to Witchcraft Goes Mainstream is Alexander’s analysis of how a series of movies and TV shows between the 1960s and the end of the 1990s transformed the image of the witch, made witchcraft into a teen fad, and finally stripped the Christian narrative elements current in popular entertainment of their Christian meanings.
While the transformation of the image of the witch from that of an old hag bent only on evil into a sexually attractive young woman who may be either good or evil was the most striking change, it was not the most significant. The two most important works in this series were the movie The Craft (1996) and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003).
The Craft “revolutionized the media’s approach to teenagers, reshaped the media’s imagery of good and evil, and redefined the public’s idea of modern Witchcraft.” Buffy then took “the biblical concepts and images in popular entertainment, emptied them of their biblical meaning, and turned them into mere components of a pagan narrative universe.”
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a 16-year-old high-school girl in Sunnydale, California, destined by an ancient prophecy to be the current “Chosen One.” With the help of her friends, the unlikely young heroine slays the vampires and counters the demons emanating from the “Hellmouth” under Sunnydale.
The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, “a dedicated pro-feminist, environmentally sensitive, gay-friendly, antireligious, atheistic unbeliever,” consciously works to instill these convictions in his audience. He uses the Christian imagery of apocalyptic conflict, demons, and vampires already familiar in popular fiction while thoroughly de-Christianizing it. In a Salon magazine interview, Whedon explained: “I am an atheist, but . . . I do use Christian mythology. . . . I grew up around Christianity and Judaism and those are the prevalent myths and mythic structures of my brain.”
Buffy’s end-times confrontation between the forces of good and evil, for example, comes from the biblical account of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan over the spiritual fate of humanity that culminates in the victory of Christ over Antichrist in John’s Apocalypse. But Whedon’s version lacks any implication that the conflict is between God and Satan, and the biblical themes of temptation, fall, judgment, and redemption that gave meaning to the conflict have disappeared.
Likewise, the vampirism, demons, and demon possession that Whedon portrays in Buffy lack the concern for the redemption of the individual souls of the vampirized and the possessed that had given a Christian significance to previous popular fictions from Dracula to The Exorcist.
Whedon does not care about the Christian story and wants to tell another story, but he uses Christian narrative elements to tell his tales because he is familiar with them. Thus, argues Alexander, “the real story is the dismemberment of Western culture’s Christian legacy—its ‘digestion’ by secularism in a process that empties Christianity’s cultural contribution of its Christian content and then renders its disconnected components to be used for other purposes.”
This “digestion” parallels the “commodification” of religious traditions in a consumerist society that Vincent -Miller warns of in his recent book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Commodification permits the consumers of religion to treat religious elements as interchangeable beads, as it were, that can be taken out of their traditional context and strung onto anyone’s religious necklace. Miller has illustrated the noxious effect of religious commodification by noting that about half of Canadians affirm both the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation and the Christian doctrine of resurrection.
Miller sees commodification as the natural, unconscious bent of members of a consumerist society. Alexander sees Whedon’s artistic license as a self-conscious act, but would likely agree that Whedon himself is influenced by the same consumerism whose impact on religious traditions Miller deplores.
One difference between Miller’s example of Canadian “commodification” and Alexander’s examples of Whedonian “digestion” is that, in the first, at least the nominal meanings of the contradictory Buddhist and Christian doctrines are retained, whereas in Buffy the meanings of the Christian elements disappear. But the underlying process is the same: appropriation of an element originally from a religious tradition, without regard for its meaning within that tradition or its congruence with other beliefs one holds.
Thus, Alexander argues, Whedon’s studied promotion of witchcraft, feminism, and lesbianism among teenagers, deplorable as it is, may be less significant than his careless degradation of the Christian narrative elements that have carried the Christian story, or meta-narrative, beyond the Church and into the stories of popular culture.
At the least, Alexander’s insight suggests that Christian critics should consciously resist the temptation to read Christian meanings into such artists’ works. Instead, they must carefully analyze just how the artist is using the Christian elements. The application of Alexander’s insight to the much disputed works of J. K. Rowling, for example, might help us to finally determine what they mean.
In his concluding chapter, “Witchcraft, Christianity, and Cultural Change,” Alexander cites the emergence of what James Herrick, in The Making of the New Spirituality, calls the “New Religious Synthesis,” with its point-by-point contradiction of the Christian tradition, as evidence of the convergence of the “Spirit of the Age” with neopaganism.
The convergences of long-term and recent anti-Christian trends, together with the evil spiritual forces motivating them and the deep-seated human desires they appeal to, form a humanly insurmountable threat to Christian evangelism and continued Christian influence on American life. Only God can deliver American Christianity from European-style marginalization. And repentance, fasting, and prayer are essential because the Culture War is ultimately a spiritual battle.
Seeing the spiritual condition of modern America as much like that of Rome in its decadence, Alexander quotes Augustine’s description of the contrasting loves of the citizens of the City of God and of the City of Man and then comments:
Alexander is greatly exercised about a media storyteller such as Joss Whedon because he considers his stories a powerful hindrance to the transmission of Christian faith to the next generation. The spread of neopaganism is “the spread of an existential infection (in Augustinian terms, the spreading corruption of our ‘loves’).” But “the carriers of that infection have been stories told by others to our children while we were busy preaching to the world.”
Alexander fears that a strong Christian influence on American society cannot survive the displacement of the Christian narrative from its privileged place in the culture. Herrick’s book documents that displacement over centuries in the high culture of the West, and Alexander’s media analysis documents that displacement in mere decades in the popular visual media of America.
And if Christ is seen as just one more face of Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces,” Christian faith will not be transmitted to the rising generation.
Thus, Alexander remains intent on warning us of the mischief being inflicted upon the young by secularist and neopagan storytellers. I think his warning is warranted, but perhaps he reckons without the power that its truth bestows on the Christian story and without the Augustinian insight that only Christ can satisfy our restless hearts.
On the other hand, his warning should encourage Christian storytellers to boldly join the “battle of the narratives” by telling the new stories that will bear the exclusivist Christian message to our culture in the twenty-first century.
What C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and many others did with their stories in past centuries needs to be repeated again and again until Christ returns.
David Haddon is an author from Redding, California, who has written for InterVarsity Press and Baker Book House and whose articles have appeared in Christianity Today, National Review, and Learning. He holds a B.S. in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and an M.A. in politics and literature from the University of Dallas.
“Witchful Thinking” first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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