The Re-Enchantment of Britain

You may despair at the increasing interest and acceptance of the paranormal, eastern mysticism and paganism in our society, but evangelist Steve Hollinghurst says it represents a real opportunity for the Church

As a boy, I remember watching Scooby Do on TV. Each week the plot was basically the same; some ghost or monster was causing terror, but the Scooby gang would unmask them as someone like the local estate agent trying to get a property at a knock down price.  It was fun, but also an expression of a modern, rational world that believed the supernatural had been banished by science and reason.

This was bad news for Christianity, with claims that God did not exist and that Bible accounts of the miraculous were simply stories believed by superstitious people. Secularisation theorists confidently spoke of the end of Christendom and Britain becoming an atheist, rationalist country.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, commitment to Christianity has indeed declined, but we are not a rationalist, atheist country.  Instead, interest in the paranormal, magic, eastern mysticism, Paganism, healing and fortune telling are becoming mainstream. Where science had sought to disenchant our world, a re-enchantment has been occurring.

TV programmes now reveal a very different attitude from Scooby Do. The young investigators on Buffy the Vampire Slayer might call themselves the ‘Scooby Gang’ in homage, but their demons and vampires are very real and they use spells, as well as strength, to overcome them.

The character of Willow in this popular seven year series, along with programmes like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed and Hex, and films like The Craft, promote witchcraft as a belief for contemporary teenage girls with some effect. 

The psychic investigators from Glasgow University portrayed in Sea of Souls have a plot structure as predictable as Scooby Do, except that they begin each week convinced the paranormal phenomenon is not real only to ‘prove’ it true with sophisticated computer imaging equipment.

Other programmes, such as Afterlife, show mediums as modern day investigators of crimes and traumas, and new series keep coming. Then there’s the publishing phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code. According to a survey conducted by ORB in 2006, 22% of the population had read the book and, despite all the learned articles attacking the books claims, only a third of those readers didn’t believe it contained some truth.

This isn’t confined to fiction. Britain’s Psychic Challenge fronted by Trisha Goddard created a reality game show format in which psychics competed to see who could perform the best. There have been several sympathetic documentaries on mediums and a range of programmes like Haunted Homes, in which psychic investigators seek to record ghostly phenomenon and a medium is called in to banish the restless spirits.  Needless to say, all these programmes have to have a resident sceptic to create balance, but the clear message is ‘we think this is probably true’.

Recent surveys show the rise in such beliefs, especially amongst teens and young adults. For instance, a 2006 poll by Populus showed that whilst only 21% of over 65’s believed in restless spirits, the figure rose to 46% among the 18-24 year olds. Similarly, whilst 22% over 65’s had had some experience of fortune telling, tarot, astrology, psychics or palmists, the figure rose again to 46% of 18-24s.

All of this is supported by growing sales in the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section of high street bookstores, increasing numbers of fairs across Britain and a range of therapies and self-improvement courses both for individuals and businesses.

Does this mean that nearly half of current young adults have become practicing occultists or Pagans, or that we have become a ‘New Age’ society? No. Whilst commitment to such things is rising amongst young adults, it is true only for a minority. For most, these areas represent an interest that is sometimes dabbled in, but not a major part of their lives.

What we need to understand is that (apart from some forms of Paganism), such beliefs don’t form religions one belongs to like Christianity or Islam. Instead, they operate more like eastern religions in that they have a small group of dedicated practitioners who provide ‘spiritual services’ to a much wider group of customers. Indeed, it’s this approach that has enabled such beliefs and practices to slot so easily into our consumer-driven society.

How then should Christians respond? Traditionally the Church has produced material which has sought to show how such beliefs and practices are not compatible with Christianity, and should be avoided.  But this approach is aimed at Christians; how should we respond to the many non-Christians who find these beliefs more appealing than our own faith? 

I have been working as an evangelist in this area for a number of years now – indeed, I became a Christian in my late teens having been heavily involved in this world myself. I have met people who are clearly being damaged by their involvement and others hooked on spiritual power (a failing I have encountered in Christians too!)

However, the vast majority of people are simply looking for spiritual reality, healing, meaning and ways to live better lives. A number have been church members who often tell me they found no spiritual life in the church, leading them to explore these new areas. Most have no religious background at all, but are sensing another dimension to life. They are intrigued by what they have seen, read and heard about, and are looking for more.

The problem facing the Church is that these people are unlikely to look at Christianity because they perceive it as a dead religion. We know this is not true, but how can they discover that? How might this rise in spiritual interest outside the Church become an opportunity for people to discover the transforming spiritual life that comes from following Jesus and having his Spirit at work in their lives?

If people are no longer coming to church or Christian events, and few are, then we need to be where the people are. That’s why I have been training churches to run stalls at places like the mind, body and spirit fairs. I want people to have an opportunity to meet Christians who will listen to them, pray for them, show them the spiritual wisdom in the Bible and the wealth of the Church’s spiritual tradition; and give them a chance to discover for themselves the experience of God in Jesus.

What I’ve discovered is that the language and culture of church fails to communicate and so we have to learn new ways to do this. But once the initial mistrust of Christians is overcome, people are very open to explore our faith. I often find that God is already at work in people’s lives, sometimes in dramatic ways. People tell stories of how Jesus has appeared to them or of angelic encounters that have made them more open to Christianity.

I find myself asking people hard questions about their faith journeys and, needless to say, they ask hard questions of mine too! But we do this gently, as with friends whom God loves. We don’t have to agree with them (though you will find more in common than you might expect!), but we do have to respect them and their spiritual journey, just as we would want them to respect us and ours. 

In the end,  if it is true (as we believe) that in Christ God was fully present and through him our lives can be transformed and filled with the reality of God’s Spirit, then those who taste will indeed discover that he is good, and those who seek will indeed find. Let us be the gateway to such a discovery for the many in our world who are seeking and the many more dabbling at the edges.

* The Rev Steve Hollinghurst is Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at Church Army’s Sheffield Centre. Many of the issues raised in this article are explored in more depth in his forth-coming book for Canterbury Press, Mission-Shaped Evangelism