BUMPER STICKERS appear on cars around my small town: "Born-again Pagan"; "Witches Heal"; "Life is a witch (lavender broomstick inserted) and then you fly."
Do I live in an odd little enclave of weirdos and eccentrics? No, I live in a major metropolitan area. But I live in the midst of a pagan revivaland so do you.
Of course, you could say it's that season. During Halloween, interest in the occult seems overt. Yet catalogs hawking ready-to-worship statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses come uninvited through my mailbox any time of year. Books on spellcasting and pagan ritual can be found in my local library and bookstores. Television and magazine ads trumpet the services of psychic counselors.
What's going on?
In a word, witchcraft.
Like many Christians, I knew little about the neo-pagan movement until five years ago, when I discovered that the name of a Seattle abortion clinic, "Aradia," named after a "goddess of healing arts," also was cited in witchcraft literature as the daughter of the moon goddess Diana and the sun god Lucifer sent to earth to establish witchcraft.
Witchcraft, or Wicca, is a vital part of the growing neo-pagan movement and is considered to be one of the fastest-growing religions in America. While estimates vary, several sources say there are between 100,000 and 200,000 practicing Wiccans in the U.S. today. If one includes other neo-pagans and New Agers, who share many similarities, that figure likely would be higher.
The Quest for Control
A Wiccan high priestess named Shaune Ralph once wrote in Mademoiselle magazine that she cast her first spell because she was unhappy in her job. She made a talisman, or charm, out of a few objects, "charged" it with energy, and waited. A short time later she was hired as a laboratory administrator for a biotechnology company. Witchcraft, she found to her delight, got results.
Experienced church leaders say that to deny the reality of demonic supernatural power in witchcraft is to be misinformed.
"It's real. It works," says Dr. F. Douglas Pennoyer, a cultural anthropologist and senior pastor of Snohomish Free Methodist Church near Seattle. The son of Christian missionaries, Pennoyer has seen the efficacy of demonic powers in other cultures, and agrees there is a strong pagan revival happening here. But he says the "power" demonstrated by witches and other pagans, which at first seems positive or productive, is doled out by Satan for a purpose: to trap the practitioner. Pennoyer likens occultic powers to the euphoria of illicit drug use: It feels good for a seasonbut by the time you realize it's hurting you, it may be too late.
One who's also felt the negative effects of witchcraft is Gene Aven. Aven studied under a California witch in the late '60s and eventually was ordained a high priest in witchcraft. His mentor said the occultic skills he was learning, such as astral projection, would give him power and control, but as he proceeded in "the Craft," Aven felt increasingly out of controlthat he was being controlled. Finally, he left California and wound up in a Washington county jail on burglary charges; while there, a local pastor led him to Christ. "Fear brought me out of the occult," Aven said. "Constant, abiding fear."
What Aven, a father of six, fears these days is that more and more young people are being lured into witchcraft. At one time a frequent speaker in public schools, Aven would ask students (who put their heads down for anonymity) how many were involved in drugs, alcohol, or the occult. Routinely, 50 percent raised their hand for each category. What shocked him, however, was when he spoke to a Midwestern youth group and asked the same questions. Thirty percent of the church kids said they were involved in all three activities, Aven said.
While most neo-pagans claim not to proselytizeand strenuously deny any link to Satanismit seems their influence can be felt more each day.
For example, the holistic healthcare field is an area where many unsuspecting women can fall victim to neo-pagan teachings while looking for natural remedies and therapies. While I wouldn't lump all holistic practices together ("holistic" generally means involving the whole personbody, mind, and spirit), they need to be examined carefully. A great many mind/body therapies venture into areas of pagan spirituality and can be dangerous.
For instance, two Christians I'll call "Betty" and "Carol" decided to return to the workforce after their children were grown. Betty chose retail and took a job in a health food store. Carol was excited to receive training in massage therapy. Neither knew the extent to which she would be entering a New Age stronghold.
Betty loved reading about nutrition and herbal remedies, and sharing her insights with customers. But several coworkers, including her supervisor, were "very into astrology" and met during the full moon to beat drums and practice shamanism, a type of occultism often associated with native cultures. Betty became increasingly uncomfortable with the philosophies and practices of her supervisor and customers, some of whom admitted they were witches. She now works in another field.
Like herbal teas, massage can be a wonderful, relaxing therapy, good for body and soul. But when Carol took various courses to become a licensed massage therapist, she found that some un-Christian philosophies were pushed hard. One teacher in particular, who encouraged students to contact their spirit guides, was gracious, kind, nurturingand evil, according to Carol. "I saw about two-thirds of the class get sucked into his Eastern philosophy," she said, including several Christians. Carol found the course to be so spiritually oppressive that she frequently asked friends to pray for her on the day of that class.
What Do They Believe?
Distilling what neo-pagans, including witches, stand for is a daunting task because the groups represent a slippery list of diverse beliefs and practices. Most, however, believe that everything natural is connected, and that God (or a god) is in everything.
Similarly, neo-pagans and witches believe we aren't limited to any one way or one god. This gets sticky when someone such as Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). This non-inclusive statement is unacceptable to New Age thinking. In their search for power, neo-pagans worship whomever or whatever they please: gods and goddesses of various names and types, nature, or Mother Earth. They "raise power" through rituals and spells, making use of herbs, oils, and other natural elements in their "magic." Modern witches have embraced the term "healer" (hence the bumper sticker "Witches Heal") and have adopted a variety of methods to practice their healing arts. Abortion, herbalism, and midwifery are some of the skills traditionally attributed to practitioners of the "Old Religion"as witches also like to be known.
In effect, much of what neo-pagans and New Agers believe and practice overlaps, and most is contrary to Scripture. Some practices God forbids outright: worshiping other deities (goddess worship, animism), divination (fortune-telling, psychics, tarot cards, numerology), interpreting omens (astrology, horoscopes), mediumship (channeling spirits, contacting the dead), and witchcraft (spell-casting, shamanism).
The Bible is clear that we are not to do these things. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 says, "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD . "
What Do We Do?
As Christians, our first line of defense against neo-paganism is to know and study God's Word, exercise discernment, and pray daily. If we don't know what practices God forbidsand how they're being manifested in our culturethen we'll be more likely to engage in them. We also need to know what God does command us to do, such as "Be filled with the [Holy] Spirit" (Eph. 5:18).
Gene Aven believes most things, positive or negative, start in the family, and that Christian parents must make time for their children. They also must watch how they live their own lives. "If kids experience hypocrisy in the church, they start looking elsewhere for truth," he says.
Pastor Doug Pennoyer would agree. "There's a resurgence in Wicca because people are seeking power in their lives, something that works," he says. "We need to experience the power of God so we're not attracted to the power of the enemy." To do this, Pennoyer says, parents need to pray for God's power in their lives and for their children.
We must tell the Christian stories and show transformed lives, Pennoyer adds, keeping kids busy in wholesome church activities. "Holy, righteous living is the greatest tool in spirtual warfare," Pennoyer concludes.
Missions strategist and author George Otis, Jr. says parents should carefully monitor their children's activities and the games they play. "Almost allmore than 80 percentof the popular new computer games have occult themes," he warns. If they're in your computer, get them out. And don't let the kids tell you they're not that bad, he says. They are.
Music, books, cartoons, and movies also need to be scrutinized for their spiritual content. Much in our popular culture is thinly disguised propaganda for occultism and nature worship.
The Bible tells us that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14) and that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. It's no coincidence that much of what's called "New Age"in all its cloaks and veilsis really old pagan spirituality made attractive in pretty new clothes. But, as Pastor Doug Pennoyer points out, "Neo-paganism is simply old garbage recycled."
As Christians, we must learn to discern what teachings and activities are spiritually healthy and solidly Christian, and what ones may be linked to occultism. To remain naive is to court the possibility of finding a "Born-again Pagan" sticker on the car of someone you love.
ELAINE HAFT is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.