This is Faith in Play #71: Good Witch, for October 2023.
The word “witch”, according to the dictionary, has connotations of evil magic, ugly appearance, and a nasty disposition. Yet in our usage we have lost this aspect of witches being evil and ugly. Indeed, if you attend enough game conventions you will meet girls and women who claim to be witches who seem very nice and not at all unattractive. I knew a girl four decades ago who did not want to be involved in Dungeons & Dragons™ because she had been, she said, a white witch–a person who believed she was doing good with her magic, but who realized that she needed Jesus, and left witchcraft behind.
I suspect that L. Frank Baum gave us the cultural basis for the concept of the good witch who was beautiful to look at, as his The Wizard of Oz introduced a Good Witch of the North who in the film version became the beautiful Glinda (who was the Good Witch of the South in the books), and so a generation grew up with the idea that some witches are good and beautiful. This notion was picked up in the television series Bewitched and other media, to the point that in her book series author J. K. Rowling was able to use Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as a setting where both good and bad people are taught to use their innate talents and abilities as wizards and, of course, witches. “Witch” no longer has the negative connotations it once had.
Yet there is an aspect of our faith that abhors witches. How do we reconcile this? Three points come to mind.
The first is that language changes. The King James Version used the word “ghost” in many passages to render the word we today render as “spirit”, which is where we get the notion of the “Holy Ghost”. To modern children that can be confusing–a ghost is a spirit of a dead person, so the Holy Ghost which came after Jesus died must be His ghost, and it stayed around after He came back to life. Obviously that’s not what we mean by “Holy Ghost”, but it’s not because the translation was bad, but because the word which once referred to any kind of spirit changed meaning over time to refer to the departed spirit of a dead person. In the same way, the word “witch” no longer necessarily refers to wicked ugly women who work curses and potions and turn princes into frogs, but simply to women who use magic, possibly as an inborn ability, or possibly as part of a different religion.
The second point comes from that: there is a new religion in the world called Wicca which has effectively co-opted the term “witch” for its adherents. It does so to give the impression that it has ancient roots, although honest practitioners recognize that it was created in the early twentieth century and has little if any connection to witchcraft of the past. That does put these people in the same category as the witches of the Bible, though, because what God was against in ancient Israel was the practice of other religions. Witches then were people who worshipped other deities, and sought power from gods who were not god, and communicated with the spirits of the dead. God is opposed to His people seeking power or even information from spirits that are not Him or sent by Him.
However, that doesn’t mean that witches are wicked or evil in some way that is different from every other person who worships a god who is not our God, who fails to recognize the authority and victory of Jesus Christ. The world is full of unredeemed people who are as good, in moral, ethical, and practical terms, as most Christians. What distinguishes us is not so much our moral standards as our trust and love for God and each other. Wiccans have rules of morality and ethics which sound good, and many of them make for good neighbors and decent friends.
Still–and the third point–whatever their intentions, whatever their motivations, witches are people who want power. We talked about such Seekers three years ago. What matters here is that those who are seeking power are inevitably doing it for selfish reasons–even if they hope to use it to help others, it is so that others will recognize that they have value and can help them. In a sense this is strongly in contrast to spiritual gifts: the Holy Spirit gives gifts as He chooses to individuals who then use them to help others and give the glory to God; the white witch (or wizard) seeks to learn powers to use to help others so that they themselves will be glorified.
That in one sense is the essence of evil; in another sense, it’s a rather natural ordinary human sort of evil. It is often the selfishness that drives politicians, but also lawyers, doctors, professionals in many fields, athletes and artists, and even ministerial candidates. That someone’s religion makes them avowedly seekers of power only makes them more honest about it.
In Middle Earth, Tolkien’s wizards were metaphors for angelic beings. In most Christian fantasy, magic is a metaphor for spiritual power, whether divine or diabolical. The only problem with good witches in our games and stories is that they help promote the notion that it is good to seek power apart from God, and a well-written story can avoid that. The only problem with good witches in reality is that they promote beliefs contrary to Christian faith, which puts them in the same category as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, Agnostic Naturalists, and Atheists: potentially good people who are lost and leading others astray, who need salvation.
So don’t be too uncomfortable with good witches used as characters in games and stories; these can be very useful metaphors for spiritual power in the world. Equally, don’t be too uncomfortable with people you meet who adhere to witchcraft as their religion. They are not more lost or more dangerous than the vast masses of other lost people in need of Jesus out there.