Witches: Our New National Obsession?

Jan 03, 2019

Recent years have seen a surge in people who self-identify as witches. From Netflix’s wildly popular The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to articles in Harper’s Bazaar, it’s hard to avoid this growing cultural obsession. Though it may sound exotic, many Christians are already dealing with questions raised by this issue. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss some constructive approaches to these surprising new conversations, sharing from personal experiences with neighbors and social media.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your co-host, Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: I'm your co-host, Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, here we are. It's the time of year where decorations are up. Those yard ornaments are making their appearances in some neighborhoods. People are gathering gifts, getting their family together. Of course, the holiday that we're referring to is the winter solstice. No. It's a ... Yeah. Christmas, obviously, the expectation there. A couple months ago ... I guess it just a month ago, we were together at Georgia Tech. I casually mentioned to you, I said, "Hey, have you noticed the huge uptick in pagan holidays and witches and Wicca, and all that?"

You said, "Oh, yes"; then, you took off on a whole other rabbit trail. Fill us in on your interaction with the witches of the world here in the last several months, and we'll take our conversation in that direction as we ... rather than do a Christmas episode, talk about witches and Wicca during this holiday season.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, maybe not what you were expecting ... your listeners out there. Well, yeah, it's true. It's funny, I can bring in my connection here with a Christmas story. Actually we were, my wife works with on our ... she's on our neighborhood board. This is one of these features of adult life that you never think you'll enter into, but lo and behold, here we are in our neighborhood, and my wife is on the neighborhood board, and planning neighborhood events. There was an objection to a Christmas party. It wasn't to the party itself. The party was fine. It's a party where Santa will make an appearance. This is mainly for the benefit of the children.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Sure, Cameron.

Cameron McAllister: Anyway. Sure ... Well, I'm pretty excited about it, myself. Anyway. As they were making these plans, one person, in particular, voiced a concern about the word Christmas, and would prefer it to be called a Holiday Party. The reason for this is that, this person, and, indeed, this couple, identified themselves as Wiccan. It was interesting because I have noticed an uptick in questions on the occult, various pagan holidays, and all these different practices. There's some distinctions here, but I've noticed an uptick in questions about that as I've been on the road.

Now, these kinds of questions are emerging in my own neighborhood. It was a really interesting grass roots kind of moment for that, as well. We had some conversations in our house that we didn't think we would be having about, "Okay, how do we navigate this? How do we talk to these people and resolve this respectfully?" There was some, "Do we compromise here? Do we change it?" It was just an interesting conversation we did not think we would be having.

Of course we're both very excited about the prospect of ... These people have become friends of ours now, and spending time with them. Given the fact that, as you know, Nathan, our very occupation, the fact that we work as frontline apologists makes some of these hard questions, or the deeper questions about what we believe, almost inevitable. We'll see ... I think there's some more really interesting conversations that are in the future there.

Both on the road, and in terms of what I'm seeing online, and then of course there's ... We can talk about this a little bit, but then, now there's a growing number of articles that are corroborating this general feeling that Nathan and I have had here about this, where there was a Newsweek article about the fact that people identifying themselves as Wiccan, that the number has really increased into the millions now, which is a huge, huge surge. Then, I think there was even a recent Pew Research article, as well. Now there's actual, there's data that is backing up some of what seems to be the case. Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and we're getting some denominationalism within the-

Cameron McAllister: Oh, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... area, also. I was looking. I was trying to do some numbers analysis, here. I think in 1990, there were saying, "Hey, you had about 8,000 self-identified witches, or Wiccans in the US."

Cameron McAllister: Just tiny numbers.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Now, you're looking at, Barna Pew put it maybe at about the one to one and a half million self-identified Wiccans. A couple places they're really shining, and we had talked some about our high school experiences, and who the artists were, as it related to this. Then, you started following, keeping an eye on some of this on-

Cameron McAllister: Instagram.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Twitter, or Instagram.

Cameron McAllister: Yep, yep.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Then, you, quickly, during that week we were in Georgia, had a lot of witch traffic on your Instagram feed. You want to fill us in on a little bit of that?

Cameron McAllister: It was ... Yeah. I have to ... I'll add some qualifiers in here. Just, this was just a thought experiment. I thought, "For a week here, I'm just ..." I had read a few articles, and part of what interests me here is that there's a number of different fields intersect with this growing interest. One of them touches on the arts, and actually fashion, which might sound surprising to some listeners, to others, I don't think it will. There was even an article in Harper's Bazaar? I'm probably not saying that correctly. I'm-

Nathan Rittenhouse: It's your Austrian upbringing there.

Cameron McAllister: I'm a Philistine. Yeah. Anyhow, there was an article on witchy fashion, written by a fairly prominent novelist. As I looked at ... and some of these articles named prominent witches, that is public witches who have millions of followers. I started following some of these accounts. It's very, as far as visually going, it's very visually striking, very, obviously, it draws on a lot of elements of Celtic lore and Celtic Paganism, and integrates those. It also touches on feminism and female empowerment. In popular culture, one manifestation of this would be the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which Netflix has recently debuted. If you haven't heard of-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Debuted or revived?

Cameron McAllister: Well, revived, but it's a much, much darker take on the material, the source material, probably a more honest take on it, but-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Also, would you say Game of Thrones fits into that, also?

Cameron McAllister: Yes, it would be-

Nathan Rittenhouse: A dark witchcraft kind of-

Cameron McAllister: ... I, yeah, I think so. Yeah, there's certain elements.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I know nothing about it.

Cameron McAllister: Well, I actually, I've never ... I have not seen a single episode of Game of Thrones, nor have I seen an episode of Sabrina. I've seen clips a bit here and there. I've got some friends who have followed it. I mean, I've done a little bit of reading up on it. What's interesting is that, Sabrina, for instance, there, was actually sued the Church of Satan at one point, because-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Oh, yeah. Based out of Chicago.

Cameron McAllister: Right. Because they felt that there were some copyright infringement with the statue of Baphomet, which is the goat headed figure, which will be familiar to some of you. They felt the show was also giving a very jaded view of what Satanism is all about. I mean, it's hard to say some of this with a straight face. The show, there's a lot of people saying things like, "Hail Satan," in the show. There is a lot of occult practices in the show. This stuff is not tame. It's actually, a lot of it is quite dark.

I found myself, when I followed some of these accounts on Instagram, yeah, suddenly the witch traffic just went up dramatically on my phone. Eventually I just ended up unfollowing much sooner than I thought. I thought, "Okay, I've seen enough. I've got ... I think I've gotten enough of a glimpse, here." It is extraordinarily dark, as you would imagine. Some of it looks a little bit more tame, and packages itself as empowering, and cutesy. What strikes you, as you look through this, is that it actually comports most of this really well with the growing amorphous sense of spirituality, especially in young people, nowadays, where you don't want to disown spirituality, but you do want to disown the institutional church, or dogma, as people will say.

This, in a manner that's somewhat similar to New Age, although this has got a little bit more of an edge to it publicity-wise, this allows you to take spirituality and make it your own. This also brings with it the added prestige of power. It looks fringe. It does look dark. It does look edgy. There's an interesting conversation on the side, to be had about how, in many ways, witchiness has intersected with feminism. There's been a real interesting alliance that's taken shape there, as well.

Yeah, I mean, it began with getting more and more questions on this, and then, quickly, I think I've just ... The more you followed some of these leads, you just see it seems to be this growing trend. Yeah, that little thought experiment was a pretty interesting experience.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, as we're talking more about hipster witchiness here, I guess-

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... and the aesthetic side of it. If I could just throw a whole other angle and curvature in here from the side, is to put the agricultural element in, that maybe you didn't pick up in on Instagram. The whole seasonal new moon celebrations, I mean new moon celebrations, we have those in the Old Testament. This is nothing new under the sun. The new moon celebrations and the idea of the solstice celebrations ... We're coming up here, probably by the time this is released we'll already have had the solstice on the 21st, literally, when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky at noon. We're at the farthest point with the tilt of the Earth in our elliptical orbit around the sun, where we're the farthest point out. It's the shortest day of the year. We'll start coming back around into the days lengthening.

I'm not a witch or a wizard, but it's something I'd pay attention to. It's a fun thing to know about. If you're growing anything, you'll notice your chickens are going to start laying more eggs. As the day length increases, your plants are going to grow in more vigorously. It's a very important agricultural ... The day lengths, even in the fall, as the days shorten it kicks off breeding season for different types of animals at different day lengths. Our existence on the planet is deeply connected to the movement of the Earth in relationship to the sun. There's that element of it.

I think what that does is that this whole Wiccan thing is drawing from a perceived and felt disconnect from the Earth, in a lot of ways. It would be interesting to know, off the top of our heads, what percentage of our listeners could tell us the current moon phase right now, as you're listening to this. Do you know what phase the moon is in? Do you know what phase the moon is in, Cameron?

Cameron McAllister: No, I would be part of the segment, I would guess pretty big segment, pretty disconnected from all of that. Yep.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, I would guess it's a majority. Yeah, it's a waxing crescent moon we're recording here. I only know that because my kids always talk about the moon when we get out of the car at night. There's this sense of we're disconnected if you read about the new moon celebrations or how to celebrate a solstice, there's a lot of this, like you said, femininity. There's also a deep connection to herbs and essential oils, and crystals, and very earthy things that we use to facilitate connection with the Earth and with each other.

Cameron McAllister: Many of these photographs, actually have, yeah, the sad subject, namely the witch in a natural backdrop, right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, I guarantee if you know anybody who's serious about gardening that they, if they aren't practitioners themselves, know people who take planetary and moon phases extremely serious for their planting, and then also for the production and harvesting of certain crops. You have that whole almanac, old school, sort of thing. All I'm trying to do is push this, say, "Yes, it's prevalent in the artsy digital space, but I think there's are even deeper, more historic roots even within what we would perceive to be Christian communities of the [moon] cycles and what types of food production you can do based off of that, and whatnot, is deeply ingrained in our American experience, even if it doesn't say Hail Satan, it's alive and well.

Cameron McAllister: It's good that you said that, because everything that I said before runs the risk of sounding somewhat dismissive. Or, it also runs the risk of me saying that this is all very superficial. The fact is there is a superficial side. There's the publicity side to it. You're right, there is a deeper side to it, as well.

I think of an answer that Peter Kreeft gave a number of years ago at a Q&A that I thought was extraordinarily wise, and it was not what I was expecting him to say at all. All those years ago somebody else had picked up on this. This has been gaining steam, this trend, this growing interest in paganism and Wiccan traditions; although there's another conversation there. Wiccanism is kind of a poor man's version of some of the Druidic Celtic traditions. It's not ... Wicca is actually fairly modern in many ways.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, what mid-20th century-

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... for it's official naming?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. If we're getting real technical there, some people would have some qualms. Somebody asked Peter Kreeft, and they said, "What about this growing interest in witchcraft and paganism? It's really terrifying." The question was voiced in a real stark tone of concern. Peter Kreeft said, "You know what? I'm apt to ... there's a kernel of something good in almost everything. I'm Augustinian enough to think that." It seems to me that, in its own misguided way, there's a grain of truth there, and that is, the world is enchanted. There is more to reality than meets the eye. We are more deeply dependent on the cycles of nature than we think.

I think he's right about that. That is some of the ... At the heart of the movement, there is this Edenic longing, if you will. A writer as popular as, say, Wendell Berry often reminds us of the fact, like you mentioned, Nathan, I'm not aware of what moon cycle. I'm barely, I'm not ... unlike you, see, Nathan, for listeners who don't know, Nathan is quite a rural ... lives in a rural community and is, actually, I would say you're a farmer. For me, I live in the suburbs-

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think real farmers would disagree. I do enjoy thinking about the way things are produced.

Cameron McAllister: Well, you grow a lot of your own food. You've got chickens. You've got some-

Nathan Rittenhouse: And bees, and things like that.

Cameron McAllister: See? And bees. See, but, for me, I'm pretty disconnected. I don't know where really most of my food comes from. It's very depersonalized. It's very cut off. I go into a grocery store. All of that, Wendell Berry has pointed out for years and years he's been beating this drum. He, himself, was a farmer and lived in the same place his whole life in Kentucky. He's pointed out that what that does is that actually affects your view of reality. You lose sight of the ... And, we've talked about this on the podcast before ... but you lose sight of the fact that, as a human being, you are still incredibly vulnerable.

We think we have all this control. We don't, which is why people who are concerned about the environment, who are concerned about ecological damage, and are concerned about some of our wasteful habits that are, frankly, not sustainable, they have a more, in many ways, a much more holistic view of human flourishing here on this planet, a planet that has marvelous resources, but one that still needs to be stewarded. I know that, Nathan, you've got some really good thoughts there, because, after all, as Christians, I know you've mentioned, I want you to expand on this a little, many Christians have a knee jerk reaction in these kinds of conversations, particularly about environmentalism. Some of you may already be stiffening in your seats, or wherever you are.

You've mentioned to me before, Nathan, that Christians need to be really leading these conversations. I'm wondering if you could, yeah, just expand on that notion. I think you're right, but I have a lot to learn from you in this regard.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, I think we discussed this back when we talked about hurricanes and the weather-

Cameron McAllister: That's right, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... when I was making the point that a Christian interest in the environment is not based off of cultural or sociological movements. It's based theologically and that we have a mandate to care for these things that existed way before Al Gore did. It's a sense in which the beauty of the earth and the fertility of it, and the production and the movement of the heavens is something that has been celebrated for a long time. Maybe I can loop this back around into your Augustinian notion there of, "what is this tapping into that is good and true?" It is the sense that, A, to use a Charles Taylor phrase, it is a haunted world.

Cameron McAllister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: That it isn't easily reduced in just the material components of reality, that there is more to it than meets the eye. There is that connection. Also that, the physical Earth, a lot of this Wiccan, neo-pagan movement is very strong on the femininity and the mother earth language that really the ... There's the desire there to worship connected to life and growth. It's simply, just to use a basic definition of what we would say is sin, is when we use something that was created for good, and then use it for the wrong purpose, to violate the purpose for which that gift was created. We do want to affirm the goodness of the Earth. I mean, it wasn't a witch who did that first. God was the first one who affirmed the goodness of the Earth.

Cameron McAllister: Right.

Nathan Rittenhouse: The fact that there is a God lets us know that there is a spiritual realm and a spiritual reality. I don't believe that the whole thing is a farce and completely made up. I think there are real spiritual powers there. Maybe this would've been a good conversation to have back around, oh, the end of October, say. It's not to my ... The reason that I think that it is wrong is not that I don't think there isn't some truth to this. I think that they are just lesser powers, lesser spirits, and the vision is far too low of what could be. That might sound like a shocking thing to say. I believe that if we look at what it's tapping into, it's a lesser form of something that's superior. I don't live a life afraid of witches. I operate in the presence of the Most High God, and filled with and surrounded by, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Game on. You know what I mean?

Cameron McAllister: Right. Yep.

Nathan Rittenhouse: It's not that I trivialize it and say, "Oh, that doesn't exist." It's just that I think it's a lesser form of the fullness of what it is that God wants for humanity. It does become a corruptive and inward seeking view of self that allows me to have a sense of transcendence without demanding anything from me morally, or putting any transcendent restrictions or barriers upon me. It gives us that feeling of connecting with something bigger than ourselves, while at the same time it doesn't dictate. That appeals very nicely to a liberal millennial ethos.

Cameron McAllister: Right. I think rather than responding with fear. I think we need to respond with healthy caution, because this stuff is not, as you mentioned, there are spiritual powers at work. It's not harmless. Even when it's packaged to look harmless or empowering, or it comes to us as a growing awareness of our connection to the Earth and its cycles, we need ... Yeah, we do want to exercise proper caution. Also, we can go into these conversations, and we can talk to men and women about these concerns and show that we, as Christians, take them seriously as well and that, yeah, we have a creation mandate. It's written right into the Word of God.

I think we also, where the conversations will get uncomfortable is that the kind of flexibility that's built into so much of this. It's interesting, you had mentioned before, Nathan, and I had been thinking about this, whether on the dearth of apologetic resources, for instance, that deal with some of these growing pagan interests, and, in one sense, it's not surprising because it's hard to codify this stuff. We're so used to thinking of ... We're so used to confronting different beliefs, different philosophies that are systematized-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, structured beliefs.

Cameron McAllister: Exactly. This precisely what so many of these men and women who are embroiled in this stuff are resisting. Interestingly enough, there's so many different elements we could bring in here. There's that, the conversations, I think, get uncomfortable when you start to get back to the real hard specificity of Christianity, and of the claims of Christ ... Who He is, the way, the truth, and the life. I think we need to not back down from that. We need to do so with love and generosity, but we need to not back down. We need to be clear on where we stand. I also think that you see a growing ... There is a shadow side to all of this, as well, even reflected outside of the church, in the sense that there's a growing anxiety when it comes to some of these dark forces.

There was an article recently, I'm not sure whether you saw it, Nathan, but I don't think it arrives ... it doesn't arise in a vacuum. There was an article in The Atlantic called American Exorcism. This was making the rounds. Basically, the Catholic Church is fairly guarded about the numbers because they want to protect the church from unneeded sensationalism and so on, and so forth. What's happening is, the demand on exorcists in North America has gone up dramatically, as well. Now, I don't think that's incidental. The journalist who wrote the piece interviewed a number of different scholars, many of them not Christians. They all said the same thing, "Yes, in times where there's a real ... Where Christianity is waning in influence, people seek religious surrogates, spiritual surrogates, and often that's when they will turn to the occult." This is basically just the historic record bears this out.

You see there's a growing anxiety there, as well. We've got a number of films coming out, as well, that dramatize, that are supernatural thrillers, supernatural horror films that look at the dangers. There's even a horror series called Ouija about the misadventures of people who dabble with a Ouija board. In some ways, it's interesting for me to look at this and think, "Wow." You would think, "Everybody keeps talking about how increasingly secular the West is, and all that." You'd think, "Oh we've outgrown all of this stuff," but, of course, we haven't. All that to say, there's real anxiety here, too. I think that also, the public imagination shows that there's a recognition that this stuff is not harmless, as well. And so, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: No, and just to throw some anecdotes in here. I'm aware of some stories of people who became Christians because they were what they considered just playing around with this stuff, and then got to a point where they were deeply uncomfortable with the spiritual interactions that they were having and needed desperately to get out of it. It's one of those things that seemingly can start off in a goofy, playful way, but then, quickly, there's a shift where there starts to be a question about who's the master of whom sort of thing. There is that darker experiential side, and as humans made in the image of God we have the ontological capacity to engage spiritually. Again, it shouldn't surprise us as Christians that we have these experiences. I think there is a reawakening of the spiritual element of what it means to be human that is, maybe, helpful in the midst of all this.

Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. I would agree. Probably a conversation that may surprise some of our listeners. Now that we've mentioned it, you're probably, if you haven't noticed these trends already, now you'll begin to see them. It's something that I think Nathan and I both would agree should be on our radars as Christians. We may prayerfully consider how much you want to engage. Especially for those of us who work a lot with young people, or maybe we have children, I think it's worth considering, not in a spirit of fear, but healthy caution. Also, to pray for opportunities to speak into this when we can, and to grow, and to think about how we can reach people.

Every time in history comes with unique sets of challenges. This is one that I think is surprising a lot of people. We think it's valuable to discuss it. It's certainly been an interesting turn of events that I think that our team have noticed on the road, as questions have shifted a little bit on this one, and that I've, yeah, indeed I've noticed in my own neighborhood.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Before we wrap this up then, let's speak just for a second and say, "Okay, so how do you engage the friendly witch next door?"

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: On one hand, I think there's ... Actually even C.S. Lewis and others have written about how to think through some of this, where there's a healthy and an unhealthy fascination with it all. I think you have to do a survey of your own spiritual maturity. I think we can be conversant in it within having some sort of grotesque-

Cameron McAllister: Morbid fascination.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... morbid, yeah, morbid fascination with it. I think what you will find ... And, again, not having a lot of experience in this, but, starting a couple years ago, I would ask pastors in cities, "Hey, what segment of the population are you not reaching very well?" They would say, "Witches." I was just down in New Orleans, and of course you can-

Cameron McAllister: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: ... all in the street there pretty easily. Talking about the broader, you're in Georgia, and you have a Wiccan neighbor, you know?

Cameron McAllister: Yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think asking a lot of questions seems to be the right move forward, because, first of all, this is a group that's highly resistant to being categorized and defined by anybody else. We can't come in with a blazing structure of, "Oh, this is what we think it means when you say you're this." I think we need to tread carefully there. Then, on the other side of that is to listen, and to pick up on vocabulary that is, actually, Christian vocabulary and spiritual vocabulary. It's affirms the goodness of creation category, that is actually Christian language. If we can speak back into some of those conversations using the terminology of the rich Christian theology that we have, I think we might have some surprisingly beneficial interactions and conversations there.

A definition that's helpful for me comes from John Jefferson Davis in, I forget which one of his books. He's a theologian, teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He uses the definition of salvation as when our true self is in proper relationship with ultimate reality. When our true self is in proper relationship with ultimate reality. That's a very workable definition across all religions, and, specifically, within this, as we think about what is a human? What is proper relationship to ultimate reality? You're having a quasi spiritual, quasi physical manifestation who's proper relationship to the physical world, ultimate reality, physical and spiritual in that way. I mean, there's really some good links to latch into that, and then, as a Christian to think, "What is my true self? What does it mean for me to be made in the image of God? What is my proper relationship to ultimate reality, while believing that ultimate reality is actually a personal being?"

It's good to toss in here that, as Christians, we do believe that spirit precedes matter, not the other way around, which is totally different than the way that we are cultivated to think in Western ideology. When we start thinking about that, my proper self being in proper relationship to ultimate reality, we can have deeply salvific and Christian conversations almost without using the language that might be stereotypical of the billboard driving down the interstate.

I think, as you said, this provides some really wonderful opportunities. I think it's not something to be afraid of. I think it's something to be realistically cautious of. It's something that we can pray about. If we look at the ministry of Jesus, he has extreme authority and power over other spirits, and deeply engages in the spiritual world. Let's not be surprised when we're called to do that, too, as his followers.

A little something to think about, other than the Christmas lights, as you come into this season of life. We appreciate you thinking out loud with us. That's what you're listening to, Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hopes.

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