Charles Taylor and “The Witch”
Last year, a curious little horror movie made something of a splash in the indie scene. The Witch: A New England Folktale follows an early American Puritan family’s descent into wilderness madness after their banishment from their community. As the story progresses, it becomes less and less clear whether the misfortunes that befall them are of their doing, or are the work of actual demonic forces.
The Witch, with its surreal interludes and conclusion, was deeply polarizing. Horror fans in search of creative splatter were disappointed in the movie’s slow-burning tension, and critics steeped in secular culture didn’t appreciate the film’s endless onscreen theologizing. Some viewers, though, “got it”—and indeed, the movie’s unsettling themes have stuck with me for months.
I’ve recently been reading through A Secular Age, the magnum opus of Harvard philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor’s titanic volume (the full tome closes in on 1000 pages) attempts to answer the question of “how the West lost God” without lapsing into sloppy just-so storytelling (i.e., “religion lost ground as science increasingly carried the day”). In contrast to such deficient secularization theses, Taylor traces a complex web of causal factors back to a discernible tipping point: the emergence of a deeply anthropocentric worldview, one that positioned humans as both the pinnacle of creation and the master of their ultimate destinies. In support of this claim, Taylor explores Reformation-era ideas of the “priesthood of all believers,” the venality of magisterial authorities, and the decentralization of political power away from kings and popes.
But if Taylor is telling the story of “disenchantment,” what then did an “enchanted” world—that is, a world before the anthropocentric shift—look like?
The portrait Taylor paints is utterly mesmerizing: in his telling, the medieval mind saw itself as simply one causal agent among many others (spirits, witches, relics, priests, and so on). With that awareness of one’s own limited power came a profound sense of vulnerability. While modern authors like Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker tell stories of ordinary Christians performing exorcisms and dominating demons, medieval folk viewed the “white magic” of the Church as the only saving shield against the “black magic” of the evil realm. Within this context, sacramentalism made the utmost sense, even to those not steeped in theories of transubstantiation. The physical world was charged with discernible supernatural power, not ruled by abstracted natural laws.
The Puritan family at the heart of The Witch is not only cut off from their religious community: their Reformed theological framework explicitly disavows sacramentalism of this sort. Accordingly, they find themselves trapped in a sort of liminal space between worldviews. The old “enchanted world” of monsters and sorcery still retains its dark power, but the anthropocentricity of Puritan theology has not yet evolved into full-fledged secularity (that is, a science-based trust in humanity as the measure of all things). Caught as they are in this tension, their theological framework offers no basis for defense against spiritual evil: they have no Mother Church to defend them with her means of grace, and no scientific theories with which to dismiss the reality of the demonic. The horrors that follow are a natural consequence of a belief system in transition.
Given the complexity of this undercurrent, it’s not surprising so many viewers hated The Witch. Charles Taylor isn’t exactly light reading—and, more importantly, it’s almost impossible for contemporary Westerners to really grasp the extent of their historical situatedness (C.S. Lewis also probed this challenge). The medieval mind is so distant from our own that we can only comprehend it in fits and starts: we eat, sleep, and breathe a culture of disenchantment. Sacramental theology, as it were, is one of the few sites where premodern sensibilities still retain power.
In short, The Witch is indeed worth your time, particularly if you’re a fan of the genre. While at times it veers toward the lurid and macabre, the film bites deeply because it resists the temptation of historical anachronism. The world of The Witch is a fearsome, haunted place—a world the modern mind can hardly comprehend. If Taylor is right, that world died not at the hands of scientific rationality, but rather by way of humanistic theologies. And that, in a culture devoted to the primacy of reason, is an insight even more counterintuitive than The Witch’s cryptic finale.