Manifestations of the supernatural outside the realm of typical Christian experience have piqued my curiosity for a long time. My interest began during missionary service in Liberia, West Africa, as I gradually became aware that African life was permeated with spiritual realities in ways that we Western missionaries could barely comprehend. A few years ago, I looked for resources to aid ELCA missionaries in understanding such things as sorcery, witchcraft, exorcism, good and bad spirits, and the living-dead, and edited a collection called Readings on the Spirit World.
Recently I have done some poking around to see what’s out there in terms of alternative spiritualities in the US, particularly in the Chicago area. My observations reflect the level of expertise of a tourist.
Almost a year ago I met a former witch who has been a Christian for twenty years. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she had taken classes in witchcraft and occult practices in Berkeley, California. Then, after years of intense involvement, she became a Christian. We talked about spiritual hungers which are not satisfied by an intellectual, “from the neck up,” approach to Christianity. We brainstormed about ways to reclaim the use of ritual involving physical elements and our body-selves, to enrich Christian experience and satisfy our longings to be whole persons in whole communities of faith.
When I embarked on an exploration of New Age “stuff” in the Chicago area, I quickly discovered that bookstores are a major source of information: publications, services, classes, networking, and so on. Some are specialized bookstores, such as Prairie Moon in Arlington Heights (“Feminist Books & Woman Friendly Space”), Planet Earth in Evanston (“An Oasis of New Age and Metaphysical Stuff from All Around the Planet”) and Sanctuary Crystals in Alsip (“Rock Shop, Mega Metaphysical Book Store & Spiritual Learning Center”). However, standard bookstores also have huge sections of books on New Age and other religious topics. For example, Borders Bookstore has as many books on Paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft as does the specialty shop, Turtle Island Books on the north side of Chicago. I was fascinated by a book written by a Pagan mother on how to practice Pagan religion as a family. It included such practical things as helping one’s children explain to their friends why they don’t celebrate Christmas.
The best single source of information about Chicago area New Age practitioners and programs is a free publication, The Monthly Aspectarian. It is widely available in many bookstores, restaurants, and health food stores. The January 1997 issue includes an article about the GaiaMind Project, calling for simultaneous global meditation and prayer during the January 23rd, 1997 Astrological Alignment. Another feature article is a first-person account of empowerment by the Wolf Spirit. The calendar of events announces Chicago area workshops on basic shamanism, Sufi-style spiritual dancing, healing touch, divine love meditation chanting, reiki, astrology, hypnotherapy, yoga, and many more. Advertisers offer expertise in all of the above, plus past life regression, Feng Shui (The Chinese Art of Placement), Astro-Weather, and all manner of healing. “Bishop David Robinson” advertises himself as “A Prophet Healer and Spiritualist Reader of the Ancient Order of Melchesidec [sic].”
Advertisements for psychic fairs caught my attention. I checked out one held at Amelio’s Italian Restaurant in Palatine. The “admission fee” was the purchase of a meal at the restaurant, which has great food at modest prices. The psychic fair consisted of half a dozen psychics, mostly women, seated at tables in a side room of the restaurant. One, Marlena Rocklady, served as hostess and cashier and sold semi-precious stones said to have special powers. New customers were invited to scan literature about the psychics or just look around and see to whom they felt drawn. The psychics used various methods (palm reading, face reading, Tarot cards) and each claimed to give guidance toward spiritual fulfillment. The price for “readings” was $1.00 per minute plus $5.00; thus a 15-minute reading was $20. I tried to eavesdrop on some of the conversations as I sat around, hoping I looked like a paying customer awaiting her turn. Though I did not purchase a reading for myself, my impression was that it was a relatively inexpensive way to get something similar to pastoral counseling without religious requirements. Marlena Rocklady told me she thought psychics practice the Biblical gifts of the spirit (e.g. word of wisdom, word of knowledge) but at a more advanced level.
I was in Eugene, Oregon at the time of the Winter Solstice in 1996 while visiting my daughter and her family for Christmas. Eugene is a great place for people who want to explore organic foods, nontraditional approaches to healing, feminist bookstores, and alternative religions. Ecological issues are very high on the public agenda.
There were numerous celebrations of the Solstice in Eugene; the one I attended was a gathering of a local group of Wiccans, or witches. As I prepared to go on a dark, rainy evening, my daughter reminded me that my Christmas sweatshirt wouldn’t exactly be appropriate at a Pagan ceremony!
The meeting was in a former church building which had been converted to an art gallery. We gathered in the former sanctuary. It still looked like a church to me even though the furniture and symbols had been removed. I was dressed casually in slacks and Birkenstocks and at least half of the twenty or so women were middle-aged and looked much like me. Only the leader, Norma Joyce, and a few others wore distinctive dress. (I later came across a book, The Goddess Celebrates: An Anthology of Women’s Rituals, in which the same Norma Joyce had written the chapter titled “Ritual Creating and Planning.”)
The women stood in a circle. The group participated in “energy raising” with songs and chants, and rituals using lots of candles, as well as incense, water, and salt. Some of the strongest themes were extreme feminism, the Goddess, and the four directions linked with the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The tone was quite relaxed and friendly with a good dose of irony and humor. The purpose, in addition to celebrating a major event in nature, seemed to be to strengthen women to meet life’s challenges with the aid of spiritual power in community. Many of the women had found Christian churches disappointing, if not a source of oppression and great pain. In their view, using a former church for a Wiccan ceremony was a triumph of true spirituality. Although they named themselves as witches, there was almost no evidence of stereotypical witchcraft. My overall impression in these few explorations is that there was a lot less “weirdo stuff” than I expected. The people participating were rather ordinary folk, with the same spectrum of dress and manner as one sees in a grocery store. I saw a lot of similarities to familiar religious practice, especially in its more extreme feminist and/or creation-oriented expressions. We churchy types need to ask why people are seeking to satisfy their spiritual hungers in such diverse ways, and what there is in our own traditions which needs to be re-introduced, strengthened, or modified.
Bishop H. George Anderson observed, in his column in The Lutheran (January 1997, page 52), “The good news is that we are living through the biggest religious revival our country has seen in 40 years. The bad news is that it is happening mainly outside the Christian church… People are looking for something, and they are hunting around the edges of traditional religion to find it.”
In the spirit of this publication’s title, let’s talk. What resources do we have in the Christian tradition that address these spiritual desires and quests?