Season of the witch: something Wicca this way comes

William E. Brown

William E. Brown is an occasional contributor to World.

Georgia congressman Bob Barr is on another witch hunt-literally. He uncovered a dark military secret: For two years pagan rituals have been permitted by the Pentagon at several military bases around the country. The monthly rituals, practiced by adherents of various groups connected to the Wicca movement, are carried out at a Boy Scout camp inside Ft. Hood near Austin, Texas, and at half a dozen other installations.

Mr. Barr's concerns are ridiculed by Wiccans as right-winged, narrow-minded bigotry. But that's not the whole story. What is lost in the reports of this conflict is the growing influence of Wicca over the past few years.

Followers of Wicca are working hard to erase negative stereotypes of witches and are finding extraordinary success. Today, they look more like the good witch Glenda than the wicked witch of the west. Wicca has grown in numbers, influence, and entertainment value, and beautiful witches seem to be everywhere. They are hip, they are slick, and they have power.

Drawing on the nature-worship religions of tribal Europe, Wiccans seek to restore a reverence for the divinity within all things and a return to celebration of the cycles and natural rhythms of the earth. They adamantly argue that Wicca, frequently referred to as "Paganism" or "the Old Religion," is not Satanism. The Principles of Wiccan Belief states, "We do not accept the concept of absolute evil, nor do we worship any entity known as 'Satan' or 'the Devil.'"

Wicca, as a modern movement, traces its roots to 1962 when two disciples of Gerald Gardner, a well-known British witch, immigrated to the United States and began teaching Wicca. Just two years later, the situation comedy Bewitched premiered on national television. Beautiful Elizabeth Montgomery fought the battles of the everyday housewife with humor, creativity, and supernatural powers. Bewitched ran on prime-time television from 1964 until 1972 and was nominated for 23 Emmy awards.

But it took a while for witches to find a place in the popular spotlight. Followers of Wicca were few and concerned about prejudice from a decidedly Christian American society. But while witches stayed out of the popular limelight, Wicca grew quietly as New Age philosophies spread.

Now, witches are back with a vengeance that can be measured in the millions of dollars. On television, reruns of Bewitched are still regular viewing along with newcomers Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Charmed (starring Shannon Doherty). The surprising box-office success of Practical Magic, staring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, and the likely success of the upcoming I Married a Witch, also starring Nicole Kidman (the new "witch babe") with husband and Scientologist Tom Cruise, signal the beginning of a witch-flick genre.

The popularity of Wicca in current culture is no accident. The emphasis on tolerance, freedom, and power bring it into the mainstream of American spirituality. Wiccans celebrate tolerance for others and the freedom to believe and worship as one wants. They have a natural animosity toward Christianity because Christians claim to have "the one true right and only way." But the promise of power and control drives Wicca to its current popularity. In the back of any girls' or women's magazine are pages dedicated to horoscopes, numerology, and other expressions of psychic insight. Add to this knowledge the Wiccan practice of casting spells for personal advancement or problem-solving and you have nothing less than the ultimate empowerment.

New Age Wicca is not new; it bears a strong resemblance to old-time Transcendentalism, cut from the same theological cloth as the Eastern religions. Wiccans claim, "We are not bound by traditions from other times and other cultures, and owe no allegiance to any person or power greater than the Divinity manifest through our own being." This worldview is, as C. S. Lewis describes it, "the natural bent of the human mind. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself."

Without revelation, our natural response is to deify not only the world around us but ourselves as well. Depravity is replaced with divinity and reincarnation provides the hope for the next life. The Apostle Paul, however, reminded us that truth begins not with the earth but with the person of Christ: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Colossians 2:8).

While Bob Barr may not win his legislative battle in the current pluralistic environment, Christians need to be aware that the roots of Wicca run deep into ancient soil. Witches are trying hard to shed their scary image, but the quest for empowerment apart from truth will lead to something wicked this way coming.

© Copyright World, 1999. Used by permission.