This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 39, number 4 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Despite its title (and, for that matter, much of its content), Witches of America, by Alex Mar, is not primarily a book about witches. It is primarily a book about Alex Mar.
Mar is a New York writer and documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on contemporary religious themes. Her first documentary film (which gained rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010) was American Mystic, featuring three out-of-the-mainstream “spiritual” characters—a pagan priestess, a spiritualist medium, and a Sioux Indian devoted to his ancestors’ way of life.
The connections she established in making that film whetted her appetite to understand novel and minority beliefs—and not just the belief systems, but also the believers’ subjective belief commitments. With that interest in mind, she sought further and deeper explorations, beginning with the pagan priestess she had featured in her film—a woman with whom she had developed a personal friendship, and through whom she also gained access to further occult contacts and connections. Witches of America is Mar’s account of the occult groups and spiritual adventures she encountered while pursuing that subject.
Mar wanted to know what made her priestess friend tick — and especially what were the subjective processes that made her able to embrace her beliefs so completely that her whole life became organized by them and around them. That was the factor in all these “far-out” religions that both fascinated Mar and repelled her. In the first place, she was attracted to (and longingly envious of) the certainty her subjects displayed and the integrity of single-mindedness that came with it. It brought a kind of coherence to their lives, and Mar knew instinctively that her own life was lacking that coherence. At the same time, she was very much under the influence of her own sophisticated skepticism, concerned about what her “smart set” friends might think, and fearful of full-tilt devotion to anything that by “objective” standards might seem to be dubious or delusional (her self-cancelling mix of attraction and aversion resembles the classic “approach/avoidance syndrome” in psychology).
Mar demonstrates that double-minded mentality early in her book:
I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends—several of them artists, writers and filmmakers—who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any type, particularly the spiritual variety.
At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe—communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream, but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers. (p. 4)
That is the dilemma that haunts Mar. Her effort to resolve it shapes the narrative of her book, as she moves among various exotic believers, hoping to encounter a kind of belief that she could embrace deeply enough to sample its benefit of doubtlessness. She clearly longs to savor the fruits of faith but is unable to move beyond her skeptical sophistication to take the necessary leap of faith. The dramatic tension of that quest is what drives her story forward—in fact, the book could have been more accurately entitled “my spiritual quest among some witches and other neo-pagans in America.”
Her personal seeking sends Mar from one occult group to another, as her friendship with the pagan priestess opens opportunities to make connections with a variety of occult enthusiasts (not all of them “witches,” by any means). Mar records her experiences with these groups in considerable detail and often digresses from her personal story into background information on their histories and leading figures.
In effect, then, the book combines two different genres of literature. On the one hand, it is an autobiographical account of Mar’s yearning for, and search to find, an existential certainty in life. On the other hand, as she tells that tale by means of her spiritual travelogue through the far-out groups (and characters) she encounters along the way, we also get a compendium of fascinating information on what these groups do, how they do it, and how they think about it (plus some history as a context).
Mar’s Spiritual Travelogue. Over the course of the book, Mar leads her readers through accounts of her participation in the activities of: (1) the “Feri” magical tradition; (2) a modern chapter of Aleister Crowley’s “Ordo Templi Orientis” (OTO); (3) people who follow Afro-Caribbean practices and seek “possession” by voodoo “deities”; (4) a public pan-pagan festival in California; (5) a feminist, “Dianic,” women-only sect of witches in the Midwest; and (6) an alleged group of necromantic grave-robbers in New Orleans. In navigating those experiences, Mar also seeks entry-level initiation into Feri magic and the esoteric mysteries of the OTO, and actually is accepted, trained, and initiated into both traditions.
Mar’s episodic, first-person accounts of what it’s like to be immersed in different branches of the occult world was more interesting to me than her personal spiritual search (which was tediously self-defeating), and it is the element of her book that is likely to be most fascinating for Christian readers.
Mar’s Double-Minded Personal Quest. But Mar’s personal quest, her grasping at the brass ring of settled certitude in life, is her real story, the narrative engine (and other half) of her book. I would be remiss if I didn’t take note of that subjective struggle — and the highly revealing “answer” to which it finally led her.
Mar’s wrestling match between the two halves of her divided self is another version of the “sophisticate’s dilemma”: how to grasp the believer’s sense of certainty without giving up one’s sophistication; how to fully accept a new belief without abandoning what one already believes to be true. At every stage of her spiritual tour, Mar is dogged by that conflict. She makes several attempts to jettison caution and plunge into full acceptance of a particular path, but always finds that the same doubts arise, and her own sense of belonging to a different (and disapproving) culture bars her way. Nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, she is still stuck in the same place where she began: “Right now I feel as if I exist in a liminal place, a borderland between two zones: one occupied by smart, upwardly mobile agnostics, and the other by possibly unbalanced super devotees of obscure practices. I am lost in the middle, still unclaimed…I haven’t found a way to be completely myself while testing this divide” (174).
Mar makes her final attempt to break out of that impasse when she undergoes the OTO’s “Minerval” initiation, in the course of which three initiates spend four tortuous days and nights together in the middle of the Louisiana swamp: “In light of my…lingering doubts that I’ll ever metamorphose into a believer—a believer of anything—I think I’m viewing this journey into the swamp as a Hail Mary pass. Please! Bully me! Shove me ahead! Push me into belief!” (255).
Mar’s final chapter recounts the considerable horrors of that ordeal before the initiates are finally extricated from the swamp to undergo a ceremony in which each of them is given secret signs, a secret grip, a secret word that “contains pieces of all the Order’s mysteries,” and a red-leather, gold-embossed copy of Aleister Crowley’s magnum opus, The Book of The Law.
In the wake of that initiation, things finally come to a head — and a conclusion—for Mar. As the initiates and initiators linger, drink, and socialize after the ceremony, she fights off fatigue while engaging in a heated discussion about “meaning” with one of her initiators. “We argue for a long time about ‘meaning,’ and his belief that everything we do is in the context of a ‘meaningless universe,’ and that everything we make—our art, our work—has nothing more than relative value” (273).
In the still unresolved middle of that discussion, fatigue overtakes her, and she simply slips into unconsciousness. When she finally awakens the next afternoon, still on the floor of the Temple, she has come to her epiphany. This is the passage with which she closes her book:
We don’t need a consensus on what does or does not have meaning. Instead, these are all…strategies for staying alive. Some are simply more elaborate and inexplicable than others…I have as much ritual in my life (as the Pagan priestess) because I have built that ritual, built it around the thing I live for…the collecting and scrubbing and remixing and chiseling out of other people’s stories. And this…necessarily draws me out of myself and mixes Me up with Them, and we all become part of a new beast in the writing of it.
When you have that feeling, of an encounter with something greater than yourself—however subtle, whatever form it takes — trust it. It is evidence enough. Any other line of thinking is a trap (274; emphasis added).
And with that, she resolves her internal crisis with a collapse into solipsism: the only values that exist are the values that we create or imagine. Because she assumes that any feeling of “an encounter with something greater than yourself” is also self-created, she ultimately counsels unquestioning acceptance of any such experience that comes along.
Thus we see at last the ironic progression that is built into modern unbelief: radical skepticism leads to radical solipsism, which leads to radical gullibility. It’s “Chesterton’s Paradox” all over again: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing—he believes in anything.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as our whole culture slouches toward the nadir position, Alex Mar turns out to be the poster girl for our cultural condition. —Brooks Alexander
Brooks Alexander is founder of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP). He is the author of Witchcraft Goes Mainstream (Harvest House, 2004) and coauthor (with Jeffrey Burton Russell) of A History of Witchcraft (Thames and Hudson, 2007).
“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John — or you and me — and ask, ‘What do you know?’ He doesn’t even ask, ‘What do you believe?’ He asks, ‘What do you want?’ This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want.” —from You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith