With the Gaia ponderings of Lilith Fair and the post-apocalyptic blow-up of the Burning Man festival in the desert of Nevada, the summer of 1997 seemed to suggest that Neopaganism had reached a cultural critical mass. America, having long viewed itself as a “Christian nation,” showed signs that it was decidedly not. With its moral compass adrift, and its cultural North Star no longer fixed upon Puritan or Enlightenment foundations, America seems to be searching for something spiritual it can sink its teeth into. Among the most hungry are its youth, a growing number of whom are finding in Neopaganism a spiritual home attuned to their way of thinking. Offering a spiritual outlet in keeping with the zeitgeist of a postmodern and post-Christian America, Neopaganism is not only culturally plausible —it is “cool.”
At Lilith Fair, this summer’s most talked-about musical event, concert organizer and singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan played her current hit single, “Building a Mystery,” whose lyrics speak of being in love with a man involved in a Goth/ Rastafarian variant of Neopaganism:
You come out at night
That’s when the energy comes
And the dark side’s light
And the vampires roam
You strut your rasta wear
And your suicide poem
And a cross from a faith that died
Before Jesus came
You’re building a mystery.
Many adolescents are setting out on a quest to resacralize their world—to restore a sense of mystery after the disenchantment of modernity. Disenchantment occurs, Max Weber explains, when “there are no mysterious forces that come into play, but rather when one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” Norman Lear laments, “We have become a numbers-oriented culture that puts more faith in what we can see, touch, and hear, and is suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the mysterious.” Neopaganism is a rejection of the consequences of modernity: secularization, disenchantment, and rationalization, and American teenagers, on their own search for the mysterious, can be seen as isomorphic with the Neopagan project, serving as the vanguard in the rejection of modernity.
Not only is “high school chic” ascendant in the marketplace of fashion, music, and entertainment, but American high schoolers are among the most uniformly progressive in terms of their moral commitments. The 1996 Survey of American Political Culture included a study of Americans’ core commitments and found people fitting into six categories depending on their commitment to self vs. others, truth vs. relativism, and traditional moral codes vs. personally established codes: traditionalists (11 percent), neo-traditionalists (16 percent), conventionalists (15 percent), pragmatists (14 percent), communitarians (19 percent), and permissivists (27 percent).
It will not surprise anyone who reads Rolling Stone, Spin, Sassy, or Details to learn that the vast majority of adolescents were permissivists, the most lenient in their attitudes toward traditional morality, the most relativistic in their world views, and among the most hedonistic when it comes to negotiating between their personal interests and the common good. We might postulate that this is simply a phase they are going through, like skateboarding, and hope along with their parents that they will outgrow it as they assume the responsibilities of work and family. Didn’t the sixties’ hippies become the eighties’ boomers? Perhaps, but in this case it is not likely. Today’s teenagers are instead giving shape to an America with a different set of priorities and an alternative religious sensibility.
Let me set some personal context before exploring these issues further. First, this article is not an exercise in youth-bashing or parental hand-wringing. I love teenagers. I spent the last three years working in a college preparatory school, and there is no group of people I would rather be with. Second, I am an avid Sarah McLachlan fan and thought Lilith Fair was the single best concert I have ever attended. Third, I am a father of two teenage boys, ages 15 and 18. Finally, I am a sociologist interested in understanding the cultural implications of a society that is progressively divorced from any traditional commitments to notions of God, the transcendent, or absolute truth. Adolescent culture is in this sense a part of the vanguard culture—the shape of things to come—in sync with the wider postmodern drift of American society. They are “Generation Next.”
Neopaganism is a loose description of modern variations on ancient beliefs from pre-Christian mystery religions. The closest general description of their common beliefs is that of Margot Adler who is both a National Public Radio reporter and Wicca witch: “The world is holy. Nature is holy. The body is holy. Sexuality is holy. The mind is holy. The imagination is holy. You are holy. A spiritual path that is not stagnant ultimately leads one to the understanding of one’s own divine nature. Thou art Goddess. Thou art God. Divinity is immanent in all Nature. It is as much within you as without.”
Neopaganism has at least six common elements
Animism, or the view that Nature (always capitalized) is sacred and that all things are imbued with a certain vitality, “divine spark,” or life force. Spielberg’s Star Wars series carried this idea, as have many of Disney’s recent children’s films.
Pantheism, or the view that divinity is inseparable from Nature and is immanent in Nature. Pantheism, C. S. Lewis noted, is “humanity’s natural religion.” Thomas Molnar adds, “Immanence alone, without transcendence, is more readily grasped; pantheism seems better suited to the natural inclination of the mind. Indeed, all pagan religions are, with variations, pantheistic: The world is all that is, and since experience tells us how small a part we are of this totality, we draw the conclusion that we are playthings of hidden forces… Pagan wisdom consists in the attempt to understand this life and to properly place human beings in the order of powers.”
Polytheism, or the view that reality is multiple and diverse. There is a spirit in Neopaganism of radical inclusivity. It stands in direct contrast to the exclusivity of orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: “Monotheism is but imperialism in religion,” Margot Adler quotes in Drawing Down the Moon. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows two Greek gods speaking about another god who looks very much like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel portrayal of God at creation. One Greek god says to the other, “It’s called monotheism, but it looks like downsizing to me.”
Subjectivity, or the view that spirituality is to be based on your own subjective experience and personal vision rather than objective dogma or written creeds. One Neopagan web page quotes R. A. Wilson: “There are no commandments because there is no Commander anywhere.” Or compare the Witch’s Rede: “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: An it harm none, do what thou will!”
Reintegration, or the view that the goal of spirituality is to relink or reconnect the self with Nature. There is a strong element of “holism” in Neopaganism—everything is related. “Neopaganism is the return to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between spiritual and material, sacred and secular,” Adler explains.
Self-Divinization, or the view that autonomy is spirituality—the “Thou art God/dess” sentiment or the Whole Earth Catalog’s “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Here you can become somebody; here you can become god. Molnar writes, “Despite all the evidence, a good case can be made for the proposition that what attracts members of a weakened Christian civilization to Oriental creeds and occult doctrines is not Buddhism, the Tantra, the Tao, the Zen, Brahmanism, or shamanism. Much more important, it seems to me, is the presence in each of these new religions of the pantheistic world view and the hope of self-divinization, or at least self-elevation above the status of mere creature.”
What advice would you give to newcomers?” one inquirer recently wrote to a Neopagan website. The reply? “Cherish diversity! Find fascination in the strange and unusual. Live passionately. Explore everything, especially things forbidden. Read voraciously. Grow a garden. Establish and maintain altars in your home. Go camping and hiking in the wilderness. Work on yourself.” Neopaganism appears to offer something more than a mere set of beliefs. It offers an identity—one that is unique, radical, empowering, ecologically sensitive, non-judgmental, and non-institutional, one that favors sexual exploration and promotes personal autonomy. Here you will be loved whatever your sexual orientation or personal convictions. Here you can make a difference through the worship of Mother Earth and by restoring mystery to life.
For many teens, Neopaganism has provided a welcome relief from the nihilism of the Seattle grunge scene, which has effectively died along with many of its leaders. Neopaganism lets people connect with a spiritual force bigger than themselves without demanding any sacrifice of personal autonomy or desire for independence. There are no hard statistics on teenagers’ involvement with Neopaganism, and it is still in some sense an underground movement. But in a cursory sampling of Wita Internet Classified ads (Wita, also known as Wicca, is perhaps the most widely known and most influential of the Neopagan groups), over a third were between the ages of 13 and 22.
Adolescence in the past has primarily been about identity formation—“discovering yourself.” But in a postmodern context where there is no belief in an essential self to discover, you simply “design” your own self. Nothing is reliable or what it seems. Witness one tequila ad in which a beautiful brunette walks in a bikini on a beach to-ward the viewer. “She’s brunette, beautiful, and walking toward you,” the first page of the ad says. Now, turn the page, and the ad continues: “She’s a he. Life’s harsh, your tequila shouldn’t be.” Nothing is really real, so have a good, stiff drink. Peter Berger paraphrases Dostoyevsky: “If God does not exist, any self is possible.”
The purchase of clothes, entertainment, and music represents the trinity of adolescent identity trademarks. They are the symbolic means of seeking and displaying answers to two basic questions: “What kind of person do I have to be to get someone to want me and love me?” and, “What kind of person do I have to be to accomplish something significant that others will value?” These two desires—what it means to be loved, or the search for security, and what it means to be recognized, or the search for significance—constitute what I describe as the “adolescent project.” With the fragmentation of youth culture, the symbolic identity trademarks of clothes, music, and entertainment are the means used to connect socially.
Today’s teens, having grown up in an advertisement-saturated society, are walking billboards for their latest identity exploration (from Rap music’s identification with Tommy Hilfiger to Goth culture’s black T-shirt and nail polish). The search for security and significance is won, supposedly, through independence, differentiation, and conspicuousness. Declaring yourself a “witch” fits this quest to a T.
This past May my son David attended the New England Young Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College. His roommate at the conference was another aspiring poet, named Andrew Campbell, then a sophomore at Vergennes Unified High School in Vergennes, Vermont. Andrew was 16, a Wiccan witch, and leader in the Central Vermont Open Coven. The poem he submitted to the Conference was a Neopagan hymn, “Return to the Goddess.” An excerpt:
When Earth is just another
Womyn we abuse
And the fires we circle
Are circled with booze
We don’t realize all
The connection we lose
I return to the Goddess
Earth Mother, Goddess of the Moon
Queen of Heaven, Green Lady of the Earth
All life is born from within Her womb
All comes to death, and She gives rebirth
Andrew and I have talked. He is typical of many who are attracted to Neopaganism—bright, articulate, sensitive, well-read, technologically savvy, and deeply committed to ecology. Though witches are against proselytizing —Neopagans do not speak of “conversion” but rather of “coming home”. Andrew is a winsome and engaging witch. We talked for some time about the doors through which teenagers are drawn toward Neopaganism. Some are direct and others more indirect —some provide the possibility of engaging Neopaganism, others encourage the plausibility of its essential beliefs.
The growth of the Internet parallels the growth of Neopaganism. Michael Williams, in an article entitled “Virtual Community: How Paganism Found a Home on the Net,” writes, “Divided into decentralized, local groups who share similar concerns, it spent its formative years surviving on a meager diet of movement-wide communication via two fora: Green Egg, the first truly general-interest neo-pagan journal and the pagan festivals at which hundreds of followers from a multitude of traditions spend a few days each summer living together.” The Net bridged the gap, providing anonymity for the curious, resources for the seeker, and fellowship for the follower.
A 1980 survey of Neopaganism found that a high percentage of its practitioners were involved in computer, scientific, and technical fields. This finding is reinforced by the techno-paganism surrounding the Burning Man festival (“Bonfire of the Techies” reads the headline in the August 25, 1997, Time magazine).
The interest in ecology is an important attraction. “Ecology is probably the biggest concern of all witches,” Andrew Campbell writes in his website. Controversial witch apologist Laurie Cabot writes in Power of the Witch, “Witches have never forgotten the basic truth about creation: The world is not our enemy; neither is it inert, dumb matter. The Earth and all living things share the same life-force; the Earth and all living things are composed of Divine Intelligence. All life is a web of interconnected beings, and we are woven into it as sisters and brothers of the All.” Christianity, industrialism, and militarism are all found guilty of raping Mother Earth: “Now the Earth is a Witch and men still burn Her, stripping Her down with mining and the poisons of their wars.”
Another draw for some is Neopaganism’s celebration of sexuality and acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Here the stigmatized and culturally marginalized find a warm and embracing haven. Neopaganism has strong links to feminism and is a strong advocate of gender-neutral language and attitudes. Neopagan attitudes are infused within gay and lesbian literature.
People disagree about the apparent affinity between Goth culture and Neopaganism. Goth is an adolescent subculture and parallel musical genre. The tell-tale signs of Goth culture, according to a sarcastic description in Vox, the British music magazine, are an “exaggerated sense of self-importance; superiority and persecution complexes; affliction chic; solipsistic belief that no one understands your existential suffering; black clothes, eyeliner, and nail varnish; crimped hair; bracelets and piercings; ultra-conservatism posing as radical anti-pop purism; half-baked superstitions; self-righteous, petulant hatred of parents, any other species of people, and the sun, in that order, and, of course, the vain desperation to shock the above with crap hair.”
Stephan Couchman, in describing what makes a song Gothic, writes, “Gothic lyrics often delve into the Arcane and Mystical. Whereas Death Metal lyrics sometimes feature Satanic or outright Magickal imagery, Goth occasionally delves into the discussion of obscure, forgotten deities or the outright glorification of Wicca.” Andrew Campbell disagrees, however, stating that his Goth friends often view Neo-paganism’s worship of Nature as simply “too hippie.” But, as a door to Neopag-anism, Goth culture provides a way to explore the darker mysteries of life. “Goth seems a good way to work out teenage angst, be morbid and obsess about death, and shock your parents and peers,” writes Jon Savage in Details. Some people do question the intellectual seriousness of Goth, pointing to its fascination with fashion or penchant for cheap suburban adolescent rebellion (such as shock-rocker Marilyn Manson’s “Anti-Christ Superstar”).
Other more indirect doors to Neopaganism are such TV programs as The X-Files or Millennium and such films as The Craft or Spawn. Gaming and science fiction are other indirect entrance points. Dungeons and Dragons now seems like child’s play compared to the video games available for home computers or the role-playing games now on the Internet. Rather than providing a direct encounter with Neopaganism, these forms of entertainment create a cognitive plausibility, the acceptance of an understanding of reality that makes Neopaganism a user-friendly alternative spirituality. Consider this video game advertisement in Mondo 2000 aimed at adolescents: “Obsidian. Your rules do not apply here. You arrive, a stranger in a strange land. Confused, disoriented, you make way through the twisted, surreal world in search of your partner, Max. All you carry with you is the knowledge you’ve grown to accept as the truth. But you’re about to discover that what the truth is depends on what world you’re in. And in this world, things don’t necessarily work the way you might expect them to. The characters don’t exactly act the way they’re supposed to. The laws of physics have somehow become warped. What is up and what is down is merely a matter of opinion.” Neopaganism provides its followers a powerful blend of science, technology, and religion.
Neopaganism is the spiritual voice of popular culture. Cultural critic Camille Paglia writes, “If you look at it from my perspective, popular culture is an eruption of paganism—which is also a sacred style… We are steeped in idolatry. The sacred is everywhere. I don’t see any secularism. We’ve returned to the age of polytheism. It’s a rebirth of pagan gods. Judeo-Christianity never defeated paganism, but rather drove it underground.” Now that the culture of Judaism and Christianity is in decline, what was once underground is now resurfacing as a viable means of spiritual communion. This communion, moreover, is a dearly sought-after commodity. Jewel, another headline musician at Lilith Fair (whose debut album Pieces of You has sold 5 million copies to date), asks “Who will save your soul if you won’t save your own?” Many teenagers are finding Neopaganism the perfect answer.
Jewel’s question strikes a resonant cord with contemporary Christians. The fact that the soul is recognized on the American pop chart—or even mentioned in a culture that has been a spiritual wasteland—should signal a new measure of openness. Yet the mention of Neopaganism in Christian circles incites the dual response of conspiracy theories and hysteria: red lights flash and spiritual alarms go off. The new paganism is viewed as particularly dangerous, and images of Frank Peretti’s demons engaged in aerial combat with angels sets the emotional backdrop to thoughtful reflection.
Such reactions are an illustration of Christianity’s own complicity with the spirit and structures of modernity. Modernity itself, with its equally dangerous tendencies of secularization, disenchantment, and rationalization, scarcely raises a Christian eyebrow. We prefer the practical atheism of capitalism and the technohumanism of industrialism to anyone who sees spirits in trees or rocks. We would do well to reread C. S. Lewis: “Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.” Churches in New York City report finding a repeated spiritual sojourn among their new converts from secularism to Neopaganism to Christ. Neopaganism was, for them, a way back to spiritual reality.
How then should the church respond to the potential growth of Neopaganism? First, the church must humanize the Neopagan believers rather than stigmatize them. A number of years ago, I was asked by Christianity Today what would be my first advice to the evangelical church in their response to the gay movement. I answered, “Get to know someone who is gay.” If we have a name and a face—if we are loving a real person, with real struggles, real fears, real loves—we will henceforth speak of them in tones far different from those whose first impulse is political sanctions. Watching someone die of AIDS will change our tone of voice.
The same is true of Neopagans. We don’t burn witches today. Instead, witches have legally guaranteed religious liberty—as it should be in a civil society. The legacy of the Salem witch trials serves to remind us, however, of the continuing danger of mass hysteria and scapegoating. We don’t burn witches today, but we still use witch-burning and demonizing rhetoric. It is time to change our tone of voice, to humanize rather than stigmatize.
Second, believers must recognize that the growth of Neopaganism is an indictment against the church. We must repent of spiritual and cultural culpability rather than reproaching those who are attracted to a world that, in their mind, is more spiritually animated, more holistic in experience, and more compassionate in practice than the cognitively truncated, privately marginalized, politically judgmental stance of many Christians. Thomas Molnar states, “The spiritual vacuum that prevails in modern society with the complicity of the church makes it quite natural for people to turn to pagan religions and the occult, even as two thousand years ago people turned from paganism to more emotion-laden creeds and to Christianity.” Evangelical churches are too often business enterprises before they are spiritual communities. Neopaganism is resurfacing as the cultural grip of Christ has weakened among Christians and the culture they shape. It is time to repent of our responsibility rather than reproach the pagan, who is only acting as pagans know best.
Third, we need to reappropriate the reality of the incarnate Jesus in our daily lives. Theology that fails to be embodied in daily life is not theology rightly understood. Christians need to move beyond cognitive theological abstractions to a resacralized daily existence in which the Unseen Real has more weight and reality than anything else. Worship is frequently a measure of our sense of the sacred. Sadly, worship in many churches is a chatty form of fellowship. From the building’s architecture to the order of service we are too often geared for entertainment rather than anything that has to do with giving worth to a holy God.
The power of the L’Abri community in Switzerland was not the philosophical wisdom of Francis Schaeffer but was rather the fact that they counted on God for everything. Incarnation was not only a theological premise but a methodological practice. What does it mean for us to model Christ’s incarnation? At the very least it means a visible integrity of character, an attitude of humility, and a commitment to real presence. French social theorist Jean Baudrillard describes postmodern society as “hyperreality,” where the counterfeit is seen as more real than the real. In this expectation of pseudorealities, it is only the embodiment of Christ’s incarnate presence in a life lived in total submission to his will and in total reliance on his power that will serve to counter the immediacy of the Neopagan reenchantment of nature. In this same direction, Carl Braaten argues that “the outcome of the encounter of the Gospel with our neopagan culture will be decided by the strength of our Christology.” I would simply add that it must not be the Christology of the systematic theology textbook but the Christology of “Patrick’s Breastplate:”
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Finally, we will not have anything to say to the Neopagan if we don’t have a biblically strengthened view of creation and our stewardship of it. We do not worship nature like the Neopagan, but we are to respect it. Again and again there is evidence of the church’s complicity in the commodification of nature. We demythologize the poetry of the Psalms, which speaks of nature created to give glory to the Creator. Instead we use nature for our own glory totally divorced from its creational intent. I admit that I hate recycling. The idea of sorting and storing garbage is against my compulsive tendency toward neatness. Whom am I serving with such laziness? What will I have to say to the Neopagan if I don’t first sort through my own thinking about this?
Neopaganism will, I believe, be a growing challenge to the church. Its challenge can be an opportunity to recommit our practice once again to biblical first things. The church will, by God’s grace, be stronger for the encounter.