Margaret Kim Peterson
Literary witches have been with us from the weird sisters of the Scottish play to the victims of Puritan persecution in The Crucible—from agents of fate to hostages of prejudice. So no one should be surprised when pop culture expands its embrace to include witches along with its friendly fuzzy angels. But while cultures formed by Christianity have traditionally taken a dim view of witches and witchcraft, recent television shows (Charmed) and movies (Practical Magic and The Craft, among others) present them positively. What exactly is the witchcraft they present, and what appeal does it exercise?
In all these shows, witchcraft is a sort of pantheistic nature religion. The witches in The Craft announce, "We worship everything: God, the devil, the earth, trees." One of the witches in Practical Magic explains that witchcraft has to do with being close to nature, and thus with making the soaps and bath salts that she sells in her boutique. In fact, witchcraft involves a lot of accessories: candles, occult symbols, brooms. All of the witches have books of spells, either inherited (Charmed, Practical Magic) or purchased (The Craft). These books sometimes offer recipes for potions (Practical Magic); more often spells that, when chanted in concert, bring forth desirable results accompanied by thunder and lightening. Numbers are important: Chants recited by the three witch sisters in Charmed emphasize "the power of three"; four witches are needed in The Craft in order to invoke the power of the four winds and the four elements; an exorcism performed in Practical Magic requires "a whole coven," which means at least nine and preferably twelve witches.
Witchcraft brings with it a variety of paranormal powers such as levitation, telekinesis, and abilities to see the future and to manipulate the thoughts of others, as well as the ability to perceive, confront, and destroy supernatural evil. Sometimes a witch exercises her powers in trivial ways: a coffee cup stirs itself (Practical Magic), a pencil balances on end (The Craft), an elevator goes to the desired floor, bypassing other people's stops (Charmed). At other times, the powers are exercised heroically, to save a woman from possession by the spirit of an evil boyfriend (Practical Magic), to defend against occult power gone wrong (The Craft), to prevent the ghost of an innocent person from being wrongly captured by the ruler of hell (Charmed).
There is, however, a down side to being a witch. The powers associated with being a witch are sometimes hard to control. The biggest problem is that being a witch makes one "different," and therefore an object of misunderstanding or rejection on the part of many. Most of the witches in these stories conceal, even lie about, the fact that they are witches. One of the witches in Charmed won't tell her boyfriend because she knows he won't believe her. The witches in The Craft are known to their peers, and are derided for it. Similarly, the witches in Practical Magic are taunted and subjected to vicious lies by their fellow townspeople, merely because they are different. One witch is so upset by this treatment that she refuses to exercise her supernatural powers, thus lying not only to others but to herself about who she is.
It is not possible, however, simply to opt out of witchhood. Certain people are born to it. It is not a choice, but a given. Some grow up unaware that they are witches. They are at first confused and conflicted about being "different," but they gradually grow into increased self-acceptance and self-actualization. The one true witch in The Craft has always known she was different, as have the sisters in Practical Magic. However, one of these sisters embraces her identity, but the other one denies and suppresses it in a doomed quest for "normality." When finally she acknowledges and embraces her identity, the implicit parallel in all of these stories between being a witch and being gay is at last made explicit: her delighted friends spread the word: "Sally's out!"
Witchcraft is passed from mother to daughter, and it therefore binds women across generations. As one of the sisters in Charmed notes, "It's a chick thing—it's passed down the female line." All of the witches in these stories either know or discover that their mothers were witches before them. In Practical Magic, not only the sisters but everyone in town knows that the women of their family have been witches for generations. The bonds of witchcraft operate within generations as well, through blood rituals (Practical Magic, The Craft) and mutual participation in casting spells (Charmed). These bonds extend even to the larger community of women. When the sisters in Practical Magic need help in casting out a demon, they turn to the PTA. These women have previously been hateful to the sisters, but they jump at the opportunity to participate in an exorcism. They all show up, brooms in hand, and are greeted by the sisters and their aunts (who are also witches), who welcome them, saying, "There's a little witch in all of us!"
This emphasis on sisterhood is in stark contrast to the way men are portrayed in these shows. The witches in these shows have all experienced abuse or abandonment at the hands of men; they desperately desire the love of a man, and they are deeply afraid that any man they find will abuse or abandon them. Their relations with men are therefore by turns seductive and murderously angry. One of the girls in The Craft becomes so angry with her drunken and abusive stepfather that he has a heart attack and dies. The four girls are all furiously angry with a young man who attempts to seduce and discard them; their revenge is to make him obsessed with one of them so that she can reject him, and then have another one of them seduce and murder him.
The sisters in Charmed were abandoned as children by their father, who in one episode reappears, only to disappear again. They all behave seductively toward men: one sister falls into bed with a man on their first date, another wears impossibly tiny clothes and enjoys being picked up by strangers in bars, and the third falls in love with the most unavailable of men, a ghost.
The sisters in Practical Magic come from a long line of witches who live under a curse, pronounced by a foremother who was abandoned by her lover; the curse stipulates that any man they love will die an untimely death. The sisters thus grew up without father or mother. (He died of the curse; she, of a broken heart.) Now the husband of one sister has died, leaving her alone and her own daughters fatherless. The other sister is so overeager to fall in love that she takes up with a man who beats her and tries to murder her. It takes an entire coven to vanquish this man once and for all, and when he has been finally destroyed, one of the witches turns to another and says, "I wonder if that would work on my ex-husband?"
In all of these works, there is an implied theology, which can be organized under the headings of God, humanity, redemption, and the church. At best, God is one of several comparable spiritual entities, and more often God is replaced by a generalized, all-encompassing spirituality centered in a nature with no one in charge. As a woman who runs a witchcraft-supply store in The Craft explains, "Magic is neither good nor bad; it is both, because nature is both." Spiritual reality is presented as powerful, and thus something not to misuse; but if a person is careful and has good intentions, she may do as she wishes. There is no sense that any spiritual entity might be either so evil or so holy that it would be foolhardy to have anything to do with it.
Human beings are presented in these works as basically good—except for the ones who are evil. The line between good and evil runs between good people and bad people, not through complex individuals. Good people make mistakes, as when witches reject their powers (Practical Magic) or use their powers to do self-centered things like winning the lottery (Charmed); and bad people can put forth a deceiving appearance of goodness (the evil boyfriend in Practical Magic, the bad witches in The Craft); but everyone is either basically good or bad, and it is up to the good to use spiritual power to destroy the bad. Thus in The Craft, the good witch drives the worst of the bad witches insane; in Practical Magic, the witches kill the bad guy and then exorcise his demon, in Charmed, the sisters wreak gruesome vengeance on a variety of spiritual monsters and send a murderer's ghost to hell.
While the bad deserve and receive violent death, good human beings deserve and receive fullness of life, which consists largely of being young and beautiful, having lots of sex, and owning lots of things. Good people are never poor, old, unattractive, or chaste. These are predicaments from which witches rescue people; they are not consonant with life as it ought to be. The single biggest moral challenge confronting all the witches in these shows is the challenge to be true to themselves. They are witches by nature, and they deny their true nature at their peril. Personal growth proceeds by self-discovery and self-affirmation, not by self-denial.
In such a scenario, it is not surprising that redemption is missing. In all of these shows, the good people do not need to be redeemed, and the bad people cannot be. Good people need to affirm themselves and one another, and bad people need to be punished. There is no forgiveness, no grace, no possibility of change offered to the bad, and no challenge given to the values of the good. In The Craft, an older witch explains that the basic principle of the universe is that people get what they deserve. Later in the movie, the bad witches abuse their powers, and the good witch takes her revenge on them, driving one of them insane and causing a flaming tree branch to fall on the others. In Charmed, when the sisters encounter two ghosts, one of an innocent man and the other of his murderer, they help the innocent ghost to a happy afterlife, and push the murderous ghost onto the spear of the ruler of hell. In Practical Magic, the villain is killed several times; the heroine who kills him ends up with the man of her dreams.
The church is depicted in these shows with either indifference or hostility. The Craft is set in a Catholic high school, with a crucifix over the entrance and nuns as teachers, but there is no relationship whatever between the film's background and its story line—it might as well have been set in a Buddhist monastery. Both Practical Magic and Charmed explicitly mention the killing of witches in Puritan New England, as if to establish that Christians are the enemy. Later on in Charmed, one of the sisters approaches a church with trepidation, fearing that something dire may happen if she, a witch, enters the church. In fact, when she ventures through the church door, nothing happens, thus making plain both the impotence of the church and her intrinsic goodness as a witch.
There are a number of appealing aspects to all this. First, witchcraft takes evil seriously. In all of these shows, evil is real, dangerous, and powerful. People really are in peril; they do suffer damage and need to be rescued from evil powers. This is in marked contrast to the religion of niceness into which much of modern Christianity has devolved. If God is nice and Jesus is nice and Christians are nice, there is not a lot of room in the church for people whose experience includes the things that are abhorrent: abuse, abandonment, mistreatment, and injustice of many kinds. Presented with a Christianity that places a premium on niceness, and an alternative spirituality that contends that some things are not at all nice (and grants us the right to be mad as hell about it), many people will choose the latter.
Second, witchcraft spirituality is female-centered. Women are the practitioners, women are the sages, women are the beneficiaries. Witchcraft binds women across generations and social divisions. It unites them in a sisterhood to which men are outsiders at best and enemies at worst. To a generation of young women who have grown up fatherless by reason of divorce, the idea that men are sure to abandon you and your only hope for lasting relationship is with women strikes a familiar chord. It is also the case that many have not experienced the church as a place welcoming to women. The vast majority of formal Christian leadership is and has always been male, and Christian institutions have in various ways and times functioned to exclude women from influence. For many women, the church is a place where they are outsiders at best and enemies at worst. They cannot imagine—and have not been shown—a spirituality that is powerful, feminine, and Christian. Presented with a choice, they will pick a spirituality that is feminine and anti-Christian.
Third, witchcraft is attractive in an age that worships the self. While witchcraft sees evil as a dangerous reality, it locates evil outside the self. There is no sense of sin in witchcraft. Witchcraft enables its practitioners to combat the evil forces in the universe and in their lives, but it does not suggest that there is anything about the witch herself that needs fixing—except, perhaps, that she is not yet sufficiently true to herself. A witch needs more of the good things of life and fewer of the bad things: she needs to be rid of abusive men and catty women, and to find true love, many friends, the perfect body, designer clothes, a beautiful home, a rewarding career, and a sport-utility vehicle.
All this adds up to what we might call (with apologies to Martin Luther) a sort of pagan theology of glory in which spiritual reality and individual spirituality are just what fallen human beings might expect and desire them to be. Spiritual reality is neither good nor bad in itself, but it can be turned to the purposes of anyone who wishes to avail herself of its enormous power. This power can be summoned up at will and turned to the vanquishing (usually by violence) of anyone offensive or oppressive to the practitioner.
Far from challenging human devotion to consumerism, sex, violence, and individual fulfillment, witchcraft is just one more way of having what one wants, and having it now. The contrast with Christian worship of a God who comes to us not in triumph but in dust, who reveals himself to us as he chooses and not as we choose, who calls us from worship of self to faith in Christ and love of neighbor, could hardly be stronger.
Margaret Kim Peterson teaches theology at Eastern College.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.
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