Cross and Pentacle: Two religions at the crossroads

I was a Jesus Freak, a passionate theologian, and a Southern Baptist minister. I worked hard to convert pagans. The pagans won.

Discovering magic as a witch with an intimate knowledge of western christianity I explore the juxtaposition of these two faiths. Christianity and paganism alike are undergoing dramatic changes with parallel trends, conflicting challenges, and a growing concern for interfaith dialogue.

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Pentecost and the Underworld

Exactly three years after a Pentecost service helped me see that I was a Pagan, I descend into the underworld. I spent last weekend in ritual with a group of Witches, most of them oblivious to the fact that it was Pentecost in the Christian tradition. Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus, tongues of fire upon their heads. They were filled with courage and started preaching, they spoke in languages they didn’t know, sang in the tongues of angels, and prophesied. Pentecost is usually seen as the birthday of the Christian church.


Over the past years I went to services each Pentecost, partially because it is my job as an administrator of a Christian church, but also because it is one of my favorite days in the Christian liturgy. I love ecstatic ritual and Pentecost is as ecstatic as it gets within Christianity. But this Pentecost I spent the weekend with a group of Witches and together we journeyed into the underworld.


We were working with the myth of Inanna, a story I didn’t know well. Inanna is permitted entrance to the underworld but not without leaving behind something at each of the seven gates. She is stripped bare, naked. We, too, were asked to strip ourselves in our ritual, although not of pieces of clothing, but layers of the self.


Some of the layers were easy to release and felt like a burden being lifted. Who my family thinks I am, the backslider and apostate? I gladly laid down that layer at the first gate. Others were much harder, identities that had become precious to me, that I had suffered for. I didn’t want to let those go. Knowing it was only for a time, for this ritual, I stripped them anyways, one at each gate, until I stared into a mirror at my bare self. Who was I now?


And then the music began and the room flooded with an orange energy I have known well for so long. A priestess played a Shruti box while we began singing, ohming, chanting. It felt exactly like worship services in charismatic churches and before I knew what was happening I heard myself singing in tongues. Glossolalia.


I remembered the first time I did so when I was four years old. My family attended an American Assembly of God church in Germany and since I didn’t know enough English to participate in the children’s activities, I stayed in the main service with the adults. At one point my family decided to have me baptised in the Holy Spirit. This concept comes from the book of Acts, where the Holy Spirit comes upon a group of people in the same way it did at Pentecost. Among Pentecostals and other charismatic Christians the Baptism of the Holy Spirit has become a ritual in its own right. It involves the laying on of hands and praying for a person. The baptism is generally considered successful when that person begins speaking in tongues or starts prophesying or both.


Of course I was too young to know any of this when I was taken for my Baptism in the Holy Spirit. But I remember the laying on of hands and a sense of the room flooding in an orangish light. Later that day I sat on my swing at home and sang random words I didn’t know and the experience felt important and loving and deep.


I have felt that same energy in many times and places since my childhood, but I didn’t expect to find it outside of Christianity, let alone in the underworld. As soon as it started I sang continuously, suspended in a timeless state, words that may or may not exist in another human or non-human language, and then I started prophesying like many times before, but this time over myself. I spoke the words out loud, from general affirmations of love, to specific truths pouring out over my life. That part was new. I have been to many Christian gatherings where people prophesy over each other, but I have never heard of anyone prophesying out loud over themselves.


It was sweetness and joy and warmth and blissful emptiness rich with the expansiveness of All. It was the place we called worship, being in the presence of God, being filled with the Holy Spirit. And I loved that place so much and missed it when it went away. It felt like I was at Pentecost and that there must be Christians all around me on their knees, praising God, with tongues of fire on their heads. I opened my eyes. There were candles in the darkened space and the mirrors we had just used and an altar to Inanna.  Witches standing, swaying, singing, sitting, and a priestess aspecting Ereshkigal, but no tongues of fire. This was the underworld. Not Pentecost. We didn’t ascend that night but went to sleep in this state. I felt blissful, light, at peace, and I dreamt I was a young man with a time machine traveling to times and places where great things began.


The longer I reflected on my experience, the more confused I felt by the similarity with Pentecostal worship. What is this state of being? Is it really the underworld, the place of death? Or is it heaven, the place where Christians long to go so they can worship God forever? It’s an ecstatic state, for sure, but the idea that we would spend eternity in this state always felt a little daunting to me. Wouldn’t we get bored eventually? I used to be the first to grab a guitar and initiate a worship session, running this orange energy, and I would often be the last to call it a night. I could hang out in that state for hours; but for eternity? Is this what awaits us after we die? Do we experience this state until (and if) we are reborn? Or is the myth of the underworld just another framework for a pattern of brainwaves that we can produce in this life?


The experience brought up more theological questions than I can answer. One commonality between Pentecostal worship and our journey to the underworld stands out to me, however. In both, we emptied ourselves. In our Inanna ritual we passed through seven gates, shedding a layer of our identity at each, until we were stripped down to the core. Only then did the music start and I entered a state of bliss. And in Christianity we claimed that we no longer lived, but Christ lived in us. We aimed to be dead to sin, even dead to this world, so that we could be alive in Christ. Is this experience then the natural state that comes with emptying ourselves? What do you think?

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Born and raised an evangelical Christian in Germany, I joined the Jesus Freak movement as a teenager and became a passionate evangelist and worship leader. No one was surprised when I went to the US at age 19 and came back a tattooed and pierced fundamentalist Christian, betrothed to a "Chrispie" (a Christian hippie, that is). I was a virgin the day we married. Five years later I graduated bible college with highest honors and post traumatic stress disorder. I deepened both my theology and trauma on the road by traveling the country in a big yellow school bus. For three years I lived as a nomad, playing music and leading bible studies, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine. I learned that Christianity in America encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices, from Amish groups casting demons out of school busses to Roman Catholic priests breaking into government buildings. I saw Jesus in the oddest places. And then everything changed and I ended up a polyamorous Witch in a Pagan community in California.


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