Marjorie always thought of God as a judgmental "man in the sky who punishes you if you're bad and rewards you if you're good." Then she was introduced to the concept of the "goddess," a female deity who was "nurturing, mysterious, and loving like the earth, or like a mother." Goddess worship seemed to provide Marjorie with the mystical experience she'd never experienced in her lukewarm religious upbringing.
Rena, a middle-aged woman who was hurt and angered by a painful divorce, was led through a friendship with a kind older woman to join a group of 13 Wiccans. "We believed we could harness positive female energy for good," says Rena. "It was fun and different, and they were like my sisters." One of Rena's first assignments was to set up a home altar with a statue of a goddess.
Marjorie and Rena aren't the only ones drawn to goddess worship. According to a recent American Religious Identification Survey, 200,000 to 300,000 women actively practice it in the U.S., with numbers growing steadily. Many more nibble around the edges, intrigued by the promise of a religion that empowers women and values their spirituality. In fact, the Internet features thousands of websites devoted to goddess worship, as well as books, magazines, training camps, college courses, fairs, and membership groups, often called covens or groves.
An Ancient Religion Made New
Goddess spirituality, goddess worship, the sacred feminine, and the feminine divine all refer to a deity most often identified as "Mother Goddess" or the "Great Goddess." Other names used include Mother Earth, Gaia, Sophia, Artemis, Diana, and Isis. Often associated with the earth, the moon, and fertility, the goddess is usually described as an energy force inside every living and nonliving thing.
Popular writers such as Dan Brown and Sue Monk Kidd have helped to take goddess worship mainstream. Brown's The Da Vinci Code, a blockbuster novel with 50 million copies in print, falsely claims Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, that Mary's special relationship to Christ endowed her with the true leadership of the church, and that she carried on an ancient tradition of special feminine holiness.
In her New York Times bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees (slated to become a movie starring Dakota Fanning), Sue Monk Kidd tells the fictional story of motherless 14-year-old Lily, who escapes her abusive father to find comfort in a universal mother/goddess. Bees has sold four million copies and been translated into 23 languages.
Early in her career, Kidd identified herself as a Christian. But in her 1996 memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Kidd describes a gradual awakening to a whole new identity that didn't include Christ. "My soul is my own," Kidd proclaimed. "It is all right for women to follow the wisdom in their souls, to name their truth, to embrace the Sacred Feminine. She is in us."
The Seductive Lure
What lies behind the allure of goddess worship and its sister religion, witchcraft/Wicca? For manyespecially those women who feel marginalized or devalued by what they perceive as the traditional, male-dominated churchits appeal is found in its affirmation of female spirituality. The worship of GaiaMother Earthappeals to those with a strong interest in ecology and nature spirituality, while curiosity about the use of magic fascinates others. Annie, a former witch, writes that she "craved the sense of power and mystery this tradition offered." Rena agrees: "It's very cloak-and-dagger. You feel as if you're part of a secret society." Another enticement is the rituals that claim to harness spiritual power. "People desire a sense of control in their life. They think, If I do this ritual or that spell, then I will receive this result," explains Russ Wise of Christian Information Ministries.
While goddess spirituality seems to promise empowerment, that promise is empty. In ancient pagan centers of goddess worship, women often were forced to work as temple prostitutes in homage to the goddess. Even today, says W. Ward Gasque, a biblical historian, if "you visit temples dedicated to the worship of goddesses, you'll find them anything but centers of women's liberation." A friend of his spent a year in India studying Devi, the Great Mother Goddess. She hoped a feminist religion that included a goddess would offer a more liberating version of religion than the patriarchal ones with which she was familiar. But in the end, says Gasque, she admitted she was disappointed by what she found.
Yet the Jesus of the gospels broke with his culture to speak with, befriend, forgive, and heal women. It's clear from the gospel accounts that God's promise of eternal and abundant life is meant for both men and women. Even though it often shocked Jesus' disciples, women participated in and supported his work, and after his crucifixion, a woman was first to see him alive. Radical for a Jewish man of his time, Jesus clearly treated women with love and respect.
God forbids goddess worship, both in the Old and New Testaments, along with the accompanying practice of magical arts. He clearly addressed this issue with the first of the Ten Commandments: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Deuteronomy 5:7). Revelation 21:8 warns that those who practice magic will endure fiery eternal judgment. While goddess worship is unable to offer salvation from the debt of sin, Jesus offers new life as a free gift, with his own sacrificial death paying the debt for sin: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).
Holding Out Hope
Here's what you can do to reach out to women enmeshed in goddess spirituality:
Listen. Ask questions, such as "What do you like about the goddess?" and "How did you first get involved?" Then listen carefully; beliefs differ. After her son's wedding, Rena met the pastor and found him "very understanding, warm, and accepting." He patiently listened when she argued that Christianity was a "paternalistic trap," then he gently pointed out that reading the Bible for herself might be a good starting point.
Share. If there's interest, share evidence for the reliability of the Bible along with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Emphasize that Jesus was a well-documented historical person; this contrasts strongly with the mythical and metaphorical nature of goddess figures. When a good friend of mine began to explore goddess spirituality, we talked one day about the Bible's view of women. I shared a verse I felt sure would help. Then she surprised me with her next question: "But how do we know the Bible is true? Haven't people added things and changed it until no one knows what the Bible really said?" But thanks to books such as Lee Strobel's, The Case for Christ, I had the answer.
Tell. When the time is right, tell your faith story. Emphasize the transforming power of Jesus Christ, rather than allegiance to a particular church or religion. You might mention that Jesus, too, was very critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious figures of his day.
Not long ago, in a conversation with my physician, I discovered he comes from a religious tradition steeped in goddess worship. I listened carefully as he shared his beliefs. Then he sat expectantly, waiting for me to share mine. He was interested in my story because I'd listened to him first.
Be available. Rena admits the community she felt in her coven was a powerful draw. "That sense of sisterhood, of each woman having a place in the group, unfortunately is missing from some of our churches," she says. "Sadly, Wiccans seem to disciple better than Christians."
That's why it's so important to remember how Jesus offered his friendship to people who were desperate for a friend. "Living out an authentic faith is the most powerful weapon we have," ex-witch Sarah Anne Sumpolec says. "Love and truth walked out in flesh is hard to argue with."
Marjorie slowly realized her spiritual search was leading her to Christ, the ultimate Truth. She prayed and asked God to reveal himself, and she also searched the Scriptures. "Jesus simply treated everyone, male or female, as a human being and a child of the living God," Marjorie says. She abandoned goddess worship when she found the nurturing she was looking for in Jesusnot a judgmental "man in the sky" but a man living down in the dirt and muck with us.
Above all, love. Jesus spent much time with people who were desperate and despised. It was this kind of love that called Annie out of Wicca; she was touched by Christians who invited her to dinner and "treated me with unconditional love. Once I saw this kind of love, I had to wonder where it came from."
Wicca never gave Rena the fulfillment she yearned for. "When you reached out, there was nothing there," she says. "There were secrets, but no knowledge. There was drama, but no love. Only Jesus is substantial." Disillusioned by what she calls its "smoke and mirrors," she decided to read the gospels for herself, finding true empowerment in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
And the goddess? She can't compare. There's a story in The Goddess Revival (Baker) of a Christian woman who visited a church in England and found a handwritten note left on the altar "in honor of the Goddess." She left this reply: "Dear one Jesus, not the goddess, died on the cross for our sins."
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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