Christian Witchcraft: And Other Ways Magic Religion Pervades the Church
The Monstrous Crew
Christians have a history of responding to the occult, or anything that smacks of the occult, with superstitious fear. We need not be afraid of folk magic practices…but we do need to properly evaluate their presuppositions.
Ever heard of Christian witchcraft? It’s something that I first stumbled across at the start of this year, when a friend asked my opinion on a blog series that was sparking a lot of discussion among her friends. Let it never be said that anyone who asked Suzannah Rowntree for her opinion went away disappointed. Not only did I answer my friend at the time, but after mature deliberation and some stimulating discussions with the rest of the Monstrous Regiment, I’ve decided to present some further thoughts in a podcast. I should note that significant contributions have been made to this episode by fellow monsters Cheryl Hannah Nicholson and Elisabeth Summer.
Allow me to start this episode with a disclaimer. Christians have a history of responding to the occult, or anything that smacks of the occult, with superstitious fear. So if Christian witchcraft is something that you have felt drawn to or have explored yourself, I’m not here to scream condemnation at you. On the other hand, for the benefit of our trolls, let me make it clear that none of the Monstrous Regiment are witches in any sense of the word. Anyway, I may not agree with some of the presuppositions of Christian witchcraft, but I did try to keep an open mind as I listened to what Christian witches had to say. In fact, as I read the blog series my friend sent me, I actually found a lot of things that I agreed with.
Agreement #1: Something Is Wrong With Rationalistic Materialism
For instance, the blogger described feeling alienated by the clinical, rationalistic, materialistic way the Christian faith was practiced in her church. As we’ve discussed on the Monstrous Regiment previously, this is a real problem; and I blame the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a European philosophical movement in the 17th and 18th centuries which built on the thought of the medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas had separated the cosmos into two separate realms: nature versus grace. Faith versus reason. This is how we got the modern dichotomy of religion versus science. Aquinas stated that the truth about the natural world can be discovered via reason, but the truth about the supernatural realm can only be discovered via revelation. But the problem with revelation is that it has to be handed down from on high; we can’t go in search of revelation, we just hope and pray for it. Therefore, the only way humans can actually seek truth, in practical terms, is via reason. And since the realm of faith and the supernatural was now closed off from reason, therefore the only realm that men should bother to understand at all is the natural, materialistic realm. And so in the Enlightenment we got an immense focus on using only one’s reason (rationalism) to understand only the natural world (materialism). And this process continued to the extent that ultimately, western philosophy wound up denying the presence of any supernatural realm at all.
The Christian church was deeply affected, in a couple of different ways. Some Christian traditions succumbed to the cold bright idolatry of logic and rationalism, and some embraced the fervid emotionalistic traditions of the Romantics, but there was never really an attempt to re-integrate these two faculties – faith and reason – into one harmonious life in a world that was created both spiritual and physical. The Roman Catholics had it a little better than the Protestants because they clung to Thomas Aquinas’s pre-Enlightenment model which tried to hold faith and reason in greater harmony, but it was Aquinas who had inserted the thin edge of the wedge to begin with. So, in most of modern thought and life you still have this radical split between the spiritual and the material, and it’s bad for us because it’s not how we were created to be.
CS Lewis once said, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” I believe he was wrong. You are not a soul. You are not a body. You are an embodied soul, an enspirited body. In the resurrection, we will still be embodied souls and enspirited bodies. I believe that when we are in Heaven we will actually be discontented, because our spirits will yearn to be enfleshed again. We’ll want to feel the wind on our faces and taste the tartness of strawberries again.
We were not created to be split in two between bodies and souls. We were not created to pick one, but our modernist worldview forces us to do that. The Christian witches I’ve listened to are dissatisfied with this picture. They know they live in a mysterious spiritual world, and yet too often Christians ignore the spiritual realities that surround us. Christians have it perhaps a little better than other rationalists: we believe in a God. We acknowledge the existence of the supernatural, in a theoretical way. But too often, we either live as though that doesn’t matter, as if God is the only spirit in the cosmos and even He has no spiritual connection with us as in cessationism… or we fall into the opposite trap, letting ourselves become prey to superstitious fear of the supernatural. It’s true that we live narrow and blind lives. And I understand that hunger for something more.
Digression: Why Christian Witchcraft?
This hunger for something more is just one of the reasons why Christian witchcraft might be appealing, especially to women who in the rationalistic church are simultaneously expected to be more in touch with emotions and spirituality while also being taught that these things are dangerous. I asked my co-monster Elisabeth Summer to explain some more of the reasons why Christian women might be drawn to witchcraft. Let me quote her at length.
What is driving this impulse to look for more beyond a faith that is supposed to be (and is) all-sufficient? We know that what Christ offers lacks nothing, so I think we must ask ourselves how our religious establishment and practice is failing those who love Christ and do not want to abandon him but are not finding his fulness in our services. The proposed causes and reasons below are not drawn from statistics and research but are areas in which modern “orthodoxy” has denied adherents the fullness of Christ.
1. The Sacred Feminine
One thing that is not particularly prevalent in most pagan religions historically is an elevation of women. It is, ironically, Christianity that offers such almost exclusively. However those pagan practices that seem to attract women are those that not only value women but in some cases treat femininity (by which I do not mean arbitrary externals narrowly defined as feminine in conservative or transgender circles, but the very fact of being female) as uniquely sacred and uniquely powerful. While elevating females above males is ethically just as problematic as the reverse, a religious environment that treats being a woman as a feature and not a bug is powerfully appealing to women raised in communities where we are considered less trustworthy or valuable than men. When we are raised to believe we need a male intermediary between us and God, it must be intoxicating to encounter a practice of spirituality in which our very femaleness is itself divine.
2. A Place in a “Coven”
Human beings were created for fellowship, not simply the enjoyment of the company of others but the intimate, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip partnership of individuals who pursue a mission together and suffer for it. In conservative Christianity, a woman’s calling can rarely be shared with other women. Our “role” is by definition a private and exclusive one, the home. We can talk about our private struggles (in a limited way) and we can read the few portions of Scripture deemed to be applicable to us, but rarely are we in the trenches WITH one another. Female driven pagan religions (and let me emphasize again that these are in the minority) promise a circle of true sisterhood that extends deeper and wider than reminding one another to do everything with a grateful heart and never ever complain about our husbands. Whether these religions can actually deliver on this promise is a different question, since highly ritualised religion is always very restrictive the deeper in you go, but women need and long for deep fellowship with one another. I do not know if there really ever were any women who did dance naked together by the light of the moon, and if there are I do not wish to be invited. But I do think there is something to the symbolism of women completely and openly vulnerable to one another with all flaws on display, linked without embarrassment around something set aflame. There should be no place that offers the purest realization of this longing more fully than the Bride of Christ, but there are few places lonelier for women than the institutional church.
3. Exploration and questioning allowed and encouraged (with no male mediator)
When one has been raised in a religious environment where critical thinking is discouraged, challenging, questioning, or doubting are treated as apostasy, may incur social or eccelsiastical penalties or cause feelings of guilt, it is unimaginably freeing to encounter other forms of spirituality where questioning is encouraged. Whether other spiritual systems actually deliver on this promise of freedom is another question, but the promise itself is alluring.
4. Fostering of innate abilities that are not recognized in the Reformed church
The children of God may be gifted in ways not recognized or approved of by the rationalistic or superstitious church. Highly intuitive people with gifts related to energy, healing, highly tuned perception bordering on the predictive etc may be gifted by God in ways *not yet* explained by the scientific method yet fully compatible with the design of God’s universe. This can happen to men or women but unfortunately for both, these types of giftings, when recognized at all, are often dismissed and rejected as witchcraft by a church which has relegated anything meaningfully and recognizably supernatural to the pagans despite our rightful dominion in those areas.
5. A sense of power and control over one’s own destiny
While the illusion of control over the elements or over spirits may be a poor substitute for freedom in Christ, even the idea can feel intoxicating to people who may not have been allowed to choose their own clothes under the representation of Christianity they have previously lived under. When you have been told what to wear, what to eat, what expression to have on your face, where you will live, and who you will marry, how appealing would it be to think that you can influence the things that happen to you? What a promising antidote to the powerlessness that is to some degree, so universally a part of the female experience. It is faithlessness to try and take into our own hands the sovereignty that only God can wield, but it is an overcorrection that people who have been kept in ignorance and fear are often vulnerable to.
The National Post put it this way: “Unlike many traditional religions that invest power in all-powerful leaders (usually men), the traditions of magick and witchcraft trade in personal power and are both accessible and highly individualized. A witch creates her own life, controls her future and heals herself. It’s a belief system that perfectly complements the rise of fourth-wave feminism. …The more marginalized and powerless we feel in the grand scheme of things, the more appeal there is in practices like witchcraft – especially for women who are still greatly underrepresented in positions with the authority to elicit social and political change.”
6. Permission to fill a wider role
It should be (and is!) christianity which offers people individuality in the eyes of God, yet the church usually insists on a strict and arbitrary definition of femininity; demanding strict adherence to an extrabiblical “role” that assigns to all females the same narrow and limited number of tasks; while robbing these tasks of most of their inherent creative potential. Ultimately the aspects of parenting that require education, wisdom and thoughtfulness are assigned to the fathers, leaving women with the feeding, the tidying up and the making of more children. When other religious communities promise opportunity for the expression of individual gifts and interests, we can expect to find women drawn to that promise.
7. Permission to be a sexual creature in one’s own right
Female-centric neo-pagan religions may appear to treat women as sexual beings in their own right. Meanwhile the church treats us sexual objects for the consumption of men and often implies or directly teaches that women ought to be somewhat ashamed of their sexual appeal and sexual desire. It is communicated that we should be shamefaced (some people literally use this word) about our female bodies, and that the most righteous women are those who seem the most sexless. The freedom to acknowledge our own sexual drives without shame and as something created for us as part of ourselves and not just to make us better possessions for someone else is not something we should find primarily offered outside the church. But that is the sad reality.
8. Arrested development
The main reason we are vulnerable to all these appeals is that we have no countering faith of our own. Male intermediaries are placed between us and our God and we are considered rebellious and masculine if we seek to know him, or learn about him, on our own. We are not always forbidden from learning theology but, as one man who is the leader of an influential anti-abortion movement once told me, “It wouldn’t be wrong for my wife to study theology, but it would be weird if she did.” We are expected to accept the teaching of our husbands, fathers, and pastors, or else be labeled as rebellious and emotional. While it is not true that women are more easily deceived than men by nature, it does prove to be true that anyone kept artificially immature will be easily deceived by nurture. I have known many christian women who do not know how to bank or pay bills, are afraid to drive very far, and in general live with lives more restricted than most teenagers. Once we have the courage to break out on our own and defy these extra-biblical conventions, many of us have no intellectual training, theological or otherwise, or any intellectual discipline. Not by any inherent deficit but from deliberately enforced atrophy. If women are to make wise choices, think critically, and walk in disciplined faith, they must be given religious and intellectual training and discipline.
End Elisabeth Summer quote. Her comments ring true for me as regards conservative church contexts. Even if you haven’t seen this impoverished view of women in your own church, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Where it isn’t actively being preached, the mere fact that we fail to speak out against it provides it with a safe haven to grow. I’ve been tremendously encouraged recently to see more and more individual men and whole churches vocally rejecting this paradigm, and it fills me with enormous hope for the next generation. But for many women, the damage has already been done, and I think it’s these women for whom various forms of witchcraft, Christian or not, will have the most appeal.
Definition: What is Witchcraft?
So let’s define a term. What does “witchcraft” mean, specifically in the context of “Christian Witchcraft”? One definition that I saw recently includes a lot of attributes that are obviously good and God-honouring, like
- A desire to heal others
- A love of nature and animals, and
- A naturally intuitive mind
On the other hand, it also included things like “A love of divination” which, with the exception of Holy Spirit-led practices like casting the Urim and Thummim is outright forbidden in Scripture. Or, quote, “Tantric and connected to primal nature”, which seems to presuppose the Buddhist or Hindu concept of monist pantheism – ie the belief that God is an impersonal force connecting us with each other and the world. I want to be completely clear here: this is not an orthodox Christian concept. Orthodox Christianity insists on a clear creator/creature distinction. This is vitally important, and we’ll come back to it in a minute. For now, let me just acknowledge that pantheism is not necessarily a part of Christian witchcraft.
Here’s something else I’ve seen used to define Christian witchcraft. Philip Carr-Gomm in The Book of English Witchcraft is quoted as saying:
“It seems more likely that what we think of as the witchcraft of earlier centuries was a type of folk magic practiced by individuals. (that is, rather than by Satanist covens. Quote:) To stave off illness and starvation, bad weather and harvest failures, people have always turned to the supernatural – using chants and dances, blessings and the ‘sympathetic magic’ of ritual enactments of success, in an attempt to attract beneficent forces and to repel malign ones. Beliefs and practices of every age – of the Druid and Anglo-Saxon wizards, of every kind of pagan and even Christian practice – were included in this folk magic, which was not termed ‘witchcraft’ by its practitioners, since it was designed to repel the magic of witches, who were believed to be evil and the cause of misfortune. It was only in the twentieth century that a reversal of meaning occurred, and the term ‘witch’ started to be used in a positive sense to designate followers of the ‘Old Ways’ who used folk magic for benign purposes.”
Note that Carr-Gomm points out that Christian practices were used syncretistically in this practice of folk magic. We actually have a very well-known example of this kind of Christian folk magic still extant in the church today: the incantation that you’ll find in many hymnbooks under the title “St Patrick’s Breastplate.”
It’s a great example of the integrated pre-Enlightenment worldview, in that it includes an invocation of the Holy Trinity, for instance:
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
BUT it also includes an invocation of what we would see as the materialistic natural world:
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
and so on. Now I haven’t finished thinking through all these topics, but at present I don’t see a problem with this integrative worldview. Theologians like Saint Augustine and John Calvin themselves believed that the “natural” world was full of spirits; Augustine believed that holy angels inhabited the stars, and Calvin believed that angels animated the animals. I do have a problem with Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, but we’ll get into that a bit later on.
Here’s another definition of “witchcraft”, according to Arin Murphy-Hiscock in her book The Green Witch:
“…a practice that involves the use of natural energies as an aid to accomplishing a task or reaching a goal… For the sake of this book, the term ‘witchcraft’ refers to the practice of working with natural energies to attain goals, without a specific religious context.”
So…what is Christian witchcraft? It’s a practice of folk magic involving an integrative perspective on the spiritual and the physical. As a result it involves working with “natural energies”, as well as religious practices designed to affect the world around us, such as various forms of prayer and ritual.
The big question many of our listeners will have is, is this something that is forbidden by God? After all, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Does this mean that anyone who uses the word “witch” to describe herself should die? Well, I don’t know about you, but when lives are at stake, even hypothetical lives, I prefer to be very very careful in defining my terms.
One of the most indepth passages on witchcraft is in Deuteronomy 18:
“There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD.”
I’m a fantasy author and a homeschool graduate, so I’ve seen this passage used a thousand times to convince me that I shouldn’t be writing books with magic in them. And guess what? Not only am I aware that this passage exists, but I’ve actually studied it on a word-by-word level in the original Hebrew! That’s how I know that the word “Enchanter” comes from a word which literally means to hiss or whisper, and is used to refer to soothsayers and diviners. “Witch” comes from a word that literally refers to one who prays and worships, and more figuratively to whispering spells. “Charmer” comes from a word denoting binding and joining together, though whether it means tying together a charm or allying oneself with demons, or both, it’s difficult to tell. And “wizard” comes from a word meaning a false prophet, one who has a familiar spirit.
Think about it: worshiping, prophesying, being filled with the Spirit, are all things which Christians are supposed to do! The question is not whether we’re going to worship someone, but WHO we are going to worship. The question is not whether we’re going to have spiritual power, the question is WHICH spirit is going to grant the power.
All the things prohibited by Deuteronomy 18 share one thing in common: an attempt to use demonic power. That is what is being prohibited here. Not the practices of folk magic which have come to be known as witchcraft today, not Christian rituals or attempts to use natural energies, but specific practices aimed at contacting and worshipping demons.
Which raises the question: is there such a thing as natural energies? Are they demonic, angelic, or neutral? And can Christians learn to use them?
Agreement #2: There May Be Something In This Talk of Natural Energies
Another quick disclaimer: nothing I say here should be taken as an endorsement of any kind of approach to health. I really, really do not have the knowledge or expertise in this area to say anything authoritative. All I’m trying to do here is evaluate the claims being made, not scientifically or medically, but ethically.
So for instance, it’s said that your body has an intracellular matrix with electrical charges in it, and that the body can be benefited by a process of “grounding” – walking barefoot on moist earth – to help normalise those electrical charges. This is a scientific claim accepted by plenty of Christians who have nothing to do with witchcraft or folk magic. Similarly, if it’s true that various crystals vibrate with some kind of energy, then it’s not inconceivable that they could have some kind of effect on our bodies.
My sister and I run a small business selling gemstone jewellery, and I often hear from buyers who want to know if a certain stone will help them with anxiety, infertility, or just give general success and protection. Well, handling gemstones didn’t stop my sister from getting terrible anxiety for a while. I doubt that a specific gemstone could help my friends with endometriosis to conceive. As for success and protection, those are things that only God can give. He is the One who ultimately determines the course of our lives. When Daniel was in the lion’s den, he needed something a bit more powerful than a labradorite bracelet to protect him from his enemies’ evil intentions.
Still, once we rule out serious medical problems and things that only God can provide, it isn’t inconceivable that scientifically observable natural energies might in some cases assist healing. This isn’t an area I’ve studied, so I asked Monstrous Cheryl Nicholson for her input. Cheryl is not a witch, but she does work with energy medicine and quantum medicine.
Cheryl points out that we have no problem with setting an intention and expecting a healing result in someone who is far distant as long as we slap the word “prayer” on it. She says, and this will be a lengthy quote,
“We know that Newtonian physics affects the body but seriously doubt that quantum physics does. When you marry quantum forms of healing to the gifts of the Spirit ( words of knowledge, gifts of healing, miracles, discernment, etc., ) then you really have something. We just need to be very careful that it is grounded deeply in Biblical thinking and be prepared for a LOT of pushback, not only from Christian brothers and sisters, but also from the kingdom of darkness who doesn’t want to see the Church claiming this territory.
God created us as integrated beings. So how we do physically is dependent on our spiritual, mental, emotional states as well— something western medicine ignores unless they can drug it. From a quantum perspective, everything is energy. Crystals can bring the right resonance to the body to assist it in healing.
Light is a wavelength that our body uses as a nutrient to create energy in the mitochondria. Your bones, muscles, ligaments, fascia, etc., are crystalline in structure at the molecular level. In fact, the fascia acts like a highly vibratory fiberoptics network in the body, which produces semiconductor molecules and passes information from the brain at the speed of light, compared to the much slower nervous system. The mitochondria has a crystalline structure, we use specialized carbohydrates that are crystalline for cell to cell communication, the membrane potential of the cell membrane— all these create biofields of energy that is measurable.
Christians have been told for a long time that this is demonic. They have unquestioningly accepted what they have been told. Meanwhile, man is religious, and in the absence of Christians they append their own views.”
According to Cheryl, much of this is scientifically measurable right now. I should once again disclaim that I can’t judge the quality of her research and don’t mean to try. What I can say is that the claims being made are scientific claims that can be researched, and then proved or disproved. Rather than getting out our pitchforks and torches, maybe we just need to test these claims.
But we also need to go beyond a purely materialistic worldview. We need, as Cheryl points out, to ally our scientific understanding with a spiritual understanding. We are spiritual beings, we are inescapably religious, and Christians need to know how the spiritual world and the physical world interact so that pagans don’t wind up with all the authority in this area. Not only will a more integrated worldview result in a better understanding of the spiritual world, it will also result in a better understanding of the physical world as well.
For instance, in his book Unholy Spirits Gary North cites a series of scientific studies done by the Franch statistician Michel Gauquelin in the mid-twentieth century which suggested a link between the position of the planets at people’s births, and what happened to them later in life. Quote, “Gauquelin studied the birth times of famous Frenchmen, and he found a statistical correlation between French scientists and medical men with the astronomical position of Mars. Soldiers, it seems, are mostly Jupiters, as are politicians.” Now Gauquelin didn’t claim to be able to predict the future, and he rejected traditional astrology. After all, traditional astrology would have linked soldiers not with Jupiter but with Mars, named for the Greek god of war. But his findings did suggest some kind of statistically significant planetary influence on mankind, and although (according to North) other scientists were able to replicate his results in their own studies, they were unwilling to take Gauquelin’s work any further because it suggested something that went beyond their own materialistic worldview.
Again, I’m not saying that I believe in Michel Gauquelin’s findings. I’m not scientifically trained. What I’m saying is that Gauquelin had a hypothesis that could have been scientifically tested, but that work was never done because the scientific establishment cannot accept even the possibility that the cosmos is inhabited by powers we cannot see. But for the Christian, that shouldn’t be a problem. The Bible speaks of heavenly bodies in such a way as to suggest that they have something to do with the angels: the sun moon and stars were created in Genesis 1 to rule over the day and night; the stars are said to have fought against Sisera in Judges 5, and sang together at creation in Job 38. They are capable of falling from grace, as in Revelation 12:4 where the devil brings one third of the stars with him when he’s cast out of heaven. In the Old Testament, pagan nations and sometimes Israel would worship the “host of heaven,” but in the New Testament, the same host of heaven appears to sing before the shepherds at Jesus’ birth. So while we would reject much of pop astrology, with its attempts to predict the future and to help us manipulate our lives to become more lucky, we can recognise the possibility that there may be a kernel of truth here.
Caveat: Even If These Things Are Legit, How Important Are They?
Now some of what we’ve been talking about here doesn’t necessarily come with grave spiritual consequences. For instance, if it’s true that some crystals have health benefits, then that’s first of all a scientific question that can be answered using the scientific method. But then, if we want to move into questions such as astrology, where we’re talking about spiritual influences, well then, suddenly we aren’t just dealing with lumps of rock and electrical charges anymore. We’re also dealing with persons. Persons who are either good or evil, who are either obedient to Christ, or in rebellion against him. This is something the Bible spends a lot of time talking about: spiritual warfare, the roles of angels and demons (see: the book of Revelation) and how we should do battle in the spiritual realm (see: the book of Ephesians). The Bible is inspecific about what impact a lump of rose quartz might have on our health, but it is highly specific about the dangers of demonic influence and the absolute necessity that we be filled with the Holy Spirit.
If we want to re-integrate the spiritual and the material in our lives, then we must look first of all to what the Bible says about these things. And yes, that will beyond a doubt lead us to acknowledge that the world around us is far stranger and more filled with life than Enlightenment materialists would ever admit. But it will lead us there only after it’s filled us with the wisdom and power and discernment of the Holy Spirit.
Now I know it’s maddening when someone says “look to the Bible to answers” and then doesn’t give you any help in doing that. We do need to do a whole episode sometime on what the Bible has to say about the spiritual world, but to tide you over till then I’m going to recommend you three excellent, orthodox, Biblical books on this topic.
- The Adversary by Mark I Bubeck, an excellent spiritual warfare handbook
- Unholy Spirits by Gary North, available free on his website, an in-depth discussion of a Biblical covenantal perspective on the spiritual world
- The Unseen Realm by Michael S Heiser, an eye-opening exposition of some of the Bible’s passages on the supernatural.
Example: As Above, So Below
Let’s talk about astrology in a bit more depth. As a matter of fact, the church in the Middle Ages didn’t have a problem with astrology. John of Ibelin, the thirteenth-century Crusader noble, built a magnificent palace in Beirut that is now long destroyed. In that palace was a room that showed the skies. The traveller Wilbrand described it as a single ceiling, no doubt with the sun in the centre and the zodiac around it with everything necessary to determine where the sun stands in the zodiac at any year, month, week, day, or second. This ceiling was an astrological tool as well as a work of art, probably used regularly by a court astrologer to advise the lords of Beirut about what the stars’ influence meant for their actions.
It was believed to be quote “scientifically” true that the planets had an influence on events, psychology, plants and minerals, and this was not seen to be a demonic influence. CS Lewis explains in The Discarded Image that the medieval Church frowned upon three practices: first, predicting the future based on astrology; second, believing in astrology deterministically, to the exclusion of free will – you couldn’t say “it wasn’t my fault, the stars made me do it”; and third, worshiping or invoking the planets as gods. In other words, the church worked hard to distinguish best scientific theories from clear heresy. Kind of like how some Christians today believe in evolution but try to separate it from the social Darwinism or atheism that it naturally produces.
But a significant part of how astrology was understood in the Middle Ages was deeply problematic and syncretistic. The problem was that their whole concept of astrology was monophysite at root. Monophysite means “of one nature” and in the sense that I’m using it, I’m referring to the idea that everything that exists, from plankton to Almighty God himself, is part of a great chain of being. The skies and their inhabitants were believed to be higher on this chain of being than humans. The belief was that if the skies took a certain configuration, then on the earth, things would automatically take a similar, reflective configuration. Events in heaven and events on earth were linked. And so a whole branch of magic developed specifically in order to exploit this link to manipulate the heavens, to manipulate God. “As above, so below.” Because heaven and earth were linked, then not only could heaven influence earth, but earth could influence heaven. Do the right rituals, manipulate things on earth, and you can manipulate the heavens. It was a promise of godlike power.
But this is not a concept you could ever arrive at through Scripture. Just because the Bible suggests that the holy angels do indeed have something to do with the stars doesn’t mean that we can manipulate them or in fact God through using the correct rituals. There is no chain of being up which humans can climb to become deities. The Bible is very clear that God transcends his creation. We cannot control him, we cannot manipulate him or his servants the angels through prayer, through ritual, or through anything. He is also immanent, he is with us every moment of the day, but that’s because he, being all-powerful, has stooped to take on flesh and live among us. Not because we were able to climb up the natural order, climb up the tower of Babel to look him in the eye as his equal.
Remember how I said that the creator/creature distinction is vitally important? This is why. As RJ Rushdoony shows in his books The One and the Many and The Foundations of Social Order, this actually has deep ramifications for how we live our lives. If we can evolve to a higher plane of being, if we can climb up and make ourselves gods, then we can control and manipulate not only the heavens but the people around us. History has proven again and again, in ancient Egypt, in imperial China, in ancient Rome, that a monophysite worldview leads to the deification of the leader, the emperor, the pharaoh, the state. Man becomes the state, the state becomes god, and people become slaves. The same pattern replicates in the family, with the same tyrannical results. Remember that Bill Gothard diagram of the umbrellas that goes around Facebook every now and then, where you’ve got a massive umbrella labelled Jesus, and a big umbrella labelled Husband, and then a little umbrella labelled Wife, and the teeny-tiny umbrella right at the bottom labelled Children? Yeah, so that presupposes the monophysite chain of being idea. Or rather call it a chain of umbrellas. The actual idea being taught in that diagram is that the wife and children cannot access God directly through his chosen mediator, Jesus Christ. They are lower on the chain of being, so they have to go through the father who is closer to God and has more divinity within him. And of course you can have matriarchal versions of this as well as patriarchal.
The point is, the only cure is to break the chain of being. Stop trying to ascend to divinity. Stop trying to lord it over all the less evolved humans who don’t have your special insight. Instead, wait for the spirit of God to come down to us. Wait for the spirit of God to touch each of us. We can’t manipulate him. We can’t control him. We can’t climb up to him. We can only know him as a friend and a father.
Foundational Disagreement: Ethics, Not Ritual
And here at last we come to the central issue. Here on the Monstrous Regiment, we’re always banging on about a covenantal, ethical/judicial worldview. And we often talk about power religion as the antithesis to this worldview. But that’s only one of the ditches we can fall into on this topic. The other one is magic religion.
Here’s an example. Imagine you sit down to breakfast with three-year-old twins. Suddenly, both of them decide that they need a drink of milk. They were fine up till a minute ago but now they’re in the last stages of death by dehydration, so you tell them that they need to sit down and ask nicely and you’ll get them a drink of milk when you’re ready, buuut they don’t believe you. Twin number one throws herself bodily onto the table, grabs the milk and pours three litres into a quarter-litre cup. That’s power religion – ignoring ethics in order to use force to get what you want. Twin number two reacts differently. She sits down in her chair like you told her, and bellows at the top of her lungs, “PLEASE MAY I HAVE A DRINK MAMA”, again like you told her. But when you don’t respond instantly, she has a meltdown because she said the magic word, she performed the ritual, and milk didn’t appear in her cup. That’s magic religion: performing certain actions in the assumption that this will entitle you to a certain response.
Power religion says, “I’m not going to obey God’s law because if I do that I’ll miss out.” Magic religion says, “I’m going to obey God’s law because that will entitle me to X or Y blessing.” Covenantal religion says, “I will obey God’s law and have faith in Him for the consequences.”
Magic religion looks on the outside, not at the heart. So long as you went through the motions and said the magic words, then it doesn’t matter if your heart is rebellious. As a result, magic religion often relies on dressing a certain way, eating a certain way, timing your actions a certain way, repeating or avoiding a certain formula of words, avoiding certain inanimate objects etc, as a substitute for true covenant obedience. As Gary North observes in Unholy Spirits, “The spirit of the law has no place in demonic rituals. It is the form that counts, above all.”
Many people turn to Christian witchcraft as a relief from the dry formalism of life in the modern church. However, magic religion ultimately results in an equally dry formalism closely akin to what these folks are running from in the first place. In his book Miraculous Movements, which investigates how the Gospel is spreading developing Islamic nations, Jerry Trousdale explains:
The notion is very foreign to a Muslim that a person can approach God and ask for things, as a child might ask of his father. Muslims note that marabouts (Muslim priests found in many parts of Africa) will give sick or demonised people bottles of things to drink, or string to tie around their bodies, to protect them from evil and give them health; but Christians presume to pray directly to a God that they seem to know personally and ask him to heal or deliver people, and it happens. That sort of involvement of the Supreme God in the needs of people by the prayers of simple Christians is the single most powerful reason that Muslims turn from Islam to the loving God of the Bible.
This is the problem I have with incantations like Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. Don’t get me wrong, I like the song, I like the tune, and I don’t think you’re going to hell for singing it. What I’m concerned about is the idea that singing that song can somehow create a bubble of divine protection for you. Ritual does have a placein Christian practice – after all, the Lord’s Supper is a kind of ritual – but empty, formalistic ritual is at the centre of the magical worldview.
Yes, even rituals laid down by the Lord himself in Scripture can be corrupted. Here’s a key passage to understanding the difference between the magical worldview and the covenantal ethical/judicial worldview: Isaiah 1:10-17:
“Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
The people of Israel were putting their trust in rituals. They reckoned that if they made the right sacrifices and celebrated the right sabbaths and recited the right prayers at the right time, they could put God under an obligation to them. All those things God says he’s sick of, are things he told them to do! They were good things, and yet the Israelites wanted to use them as a form of magic. If they just went through the motions, then they could rig the system, they could force God to bless them, despite the evil they were doing in their hearts and in their lives. The author of Hebrews discussed these rituals, calling them “gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.” The ethical/judicial worldview insists upon a perfect conscience.
I affirm, with Paul in Galatians, that whatever a man sows he shall reap. Blessing does come from obeying the law, but God blesses us in his own time and his own way, and he is never fooled or manipulated by hypocritical formalism. There is no way to rig this system. What the magical worldview presents is the promise that the system can be rigged: through ritual. Say the correct words. Go through the correct motions. Make the right kind of smells. Burn the herbs. Wear the bracelet. Hang up the charms. Postpone the business deal until the auspicious day – and regardless of the state of your conscience, you can make the universe give you success, or protection, or a baby.
The truth is, you can’t use rocks and stars to get the blessings of the covenant. No amount of ritual will do us any good if we aren’t obeying God from a pure heart, doing justice, loving mercy and all that. Again, there is a place for ritual in recognition, remembrance, and an opportunity to dwell upon and celebrate truth. But ritual is not in and of itself truth, nor does it create truth or reality. It is an expression of something that is already flowing through and out of us, not a means to generate that thing if it is not present. Otherwise everyone who wore a white dress and a gold ring would be a true and faithful spouse.
Application: Magic in the Church
The hard truth is, magic religion is hugely widespread in the Christian church today, and not primarily among Christian witches.
It’s also present among many people who want to abandon or shun witchcraft altogether. Some folks overcorrect, showing fear of the innate power of certain objects, words, or rituals. For example…
- A friend who was having trouble with her child received the advice that the child’s toys should be searched in case any of them might represent a demonic totem or idol.
- I was once seriously told that Christmas trees are idols and that bending down to put a gift beneath the tree is an act of bowing and making a sacrifice to a false god.
- My favourite example, someone once asked ex-Buddhist monk Ellis Potter if colouring mandalas in school would draw children to Buddhism, to which he responded “No more than they’ll be drawn to Jesus by coloring crosses.”
And that’s the ethical/judicial point: taking a posture, having a certain object in your house or colouring in a certain pattern, does not turn a Holy Spirit-filled believer into a pagan worshipper, any more than a rote recitation of the sinner’s prayer will turn a sinner into a spirit-filled believer.
We see magic religion in the way that language is judged. I have seen this happen again and again in conservative Christian circles. You say “Black lives matter” and Christians will explain to you at great length that saying such a thing has magically transformed you into a Marxist lesbian feminist; I have personally read thousands of words from prominent Reformed pastors arguing for exactly this, and the same reasoning is applied to words and phrases like “me too”, “social justice”, and so on. There is no Marxist content in the three words “Black lives matter” or in the two words “social justice”, and God knows Marxism has no foothold in my heart, but I wish I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a Christian warn me off using these words because of some presumed incantational power they contain.
We also see magic religion in the Federal Vision and other forms of sacramentalism. Bojidar Marinov explains, that in sacramentalism, quote,
“Man…gets INCORPORATED into the Covenant by some mystical act of God which has ultimate reality outside and above man’s intellect or man’s ethical character. Since that mystical act is not comprehensible by man, in order for man to make sure he is in the Covenant, he needs to perform certain rituals which have no practical nor ethical significance but only mystical significance, which “symbolize” – or actually, TRIGGER – his incorporation.
“In FV it is mystical incorporation that matters, and justification is just a by-product of it. In fact, everything that is ethical/judicial is just a by-product of mystical incorporation. This is where the “emphasis on the sacraments” and “the emphasis on the EXTERNAL covenant” come from: The ritual actions are what matter, for they provide the justification as a by-product. In fact, some FV writers do go to the point of claiming that the physical participation in the Supper itself produces justification and sanctification on its own accord, in a mystical way; see, for example, Blake Purcell’s treatise on the Lord Supper.” End quote.
But for me the most glaring instance of magic religion in Christianity today is the way we’re told to raise children. Homeschooling can be deeply ritualistic. Keep your kids home from school and teach them A Beka curriculum and we guarantee that when they grow up they will follow God. Cover your body from neck to knees at all times and we guarantee that you won’t be sexually assaulted. Court don’t date, and be a virgin on your wedding night, and we guarantee you won’t suffer through a divorce. It’s all empty ritual and too often it results in hypocrisy, in young people putting on a show of holiness for years and years before the facade cracks and we see the true unregenerate heart underneath. I mean, isn’t this what happened to Josh Harris? And yet somehow, so much of the response was finger-pointing at his parents, as if it must have been completely their fault. After all, they were the ones performing the ritual. They must have done it wrong!
Sure, parents can make mistakes, and I’m sure the Harrises did as well, but ultimately our salvation doesn’t depend on how we were raised. Sure, the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is a proverb, an observation of the way the world normally works; not a magical promise. Scripture also says that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” The obvious conclusion we have to draw is that God often, but doesn’t always, use faithful parents to bring their children to a saving faith. Just as the sacraments don’t magically incorporate us into the covenant, neither does homeschooling.
I’ve got no problem with having an open mind about scientifically observable phenomena, even if said phenomena are outside the realm of scientific orthodoxy. I’ve got no problem with the idea that planetary angels may have something to do with our lives. I definitely don’t have a problem with sacraments, set prayers or homeschooling. But I would stay far, far away from any way of thinking about this that says, if we carry out a certain ritual, then God is obliged to bless us in a certain way. God tells us not to be deceived about this: the only thing that will bring us his favour is the gift of Christ’s righteousness and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No matter what rituals we perform in the way of prayer, sacrifice and church attendance, if we don’t love God and obey his commands from a pure and regenerate heart, then he won’t ultimately favour us: he’ll be disgusted by all our observances.
The question is, Are we trying to learn more about God’s world and our place in it so we can bring him glory? Or are we trying to manipulate Him to our own ends, whether it’s through folk magic, sacramental rituals, or homeschool traditions?
God is neither our puppet nor our slave; he is our father and friend. We cannot rig the system. We can only know him, delight in him, obey him, and trust in him to bless us in his good time and his own way.
I’m Suzannah, thanks for listening to the Monstrous Regiment.