John Drane’s defence of using Tarot among people attracted to the New Age scene is highly controversial. Christianity+Renewal asked him to defend this approach. Is this taking things too far? Is Drane enlightened or deceived? Is this culturally relevant evangelism or is it unwise and down-right dangerous for all concerned? This article seek to promote informed discussion on what Professor Drane regards as a legitimate attempt to share gospel truths to people who are exploring New Age ideas or dabbling with the occult. Huge numbers of unchurched people respond to adverts in national and local newspapers and magazines to get Tarot readings over the phone or in other ways. Their motives are similar to those who consult their horoscope or have their palms read. They seek guidance and information. These forms of divination are clearly doorways to danger. But John Drane and others have decided not to stand outside a psychic fair warning attenders of the dangers of dabbling with the occult. Instead they attempt to engage with pagan culture head-on. Like Paul who quoted pagan sources to explain the gospel to the Athenians Drane and his colleagues attempt to tread this difficult route.
It was in 1997 that I first met briefly with Ross Clifford, principal of Morling College, Sydney, the theological college of New South Wales Baptists. I knew nothing about Australian Baptists, though I had the impression that they were a pretty conservative bunch. Imagine my surprise, then, when Ross asked me if I’d ever thought of using Tarot cards to explore Christian faith. Through my own contacts among New Agers, I knew many people who used the Tarot, so I was absolutely fascinated as Ross told me how he, his friend Philip Johnson, and the students at Morling had been using Tarot to share the Gospel in psychic fairs and other unlikely-sounding places. When I then met people who had actually become Christians as a result, I knew this was something worth further investigation.
Discovering the Tarot
At the time, I was travelling on from Sydney to California, and when I got there I decided to take a closer look. My first surprise came when I tried to buy a set of cards. Three hours after entering Alexandria’s bookstore in Pasadena, I finally emerged with my purchase. By then, the server had uncovered the reasons for my interest, enquired about the life issues I wanted to address, asked how I saw my spiritual side developing - and a whole lot of other questions of a similar nature that he insisted I answer before I could be allowed to buy what I had gone for. ‘We must be sure you’ll get a spiritual tool that will be really helpful for you’, he said as he took my money - though he certainly wasn’t in it for that, at $10 for an afternoon’s work! The difference between this and going to a Christian store struck me right away: I could have bought a Bible in two minutes flat, but I doubt whether anyone would have dreamed of asking about the state of my soul!
The cards I bought were the Rider-Waite Tarot, invented around 1910 by Arthur Waite, an English aristocrat. This is to the Tarot what the Authorised Version is to the Bible: others subsequently designed different types, but the basic pattern of themes always follows that established by Waite. As I looked at the cards, I soon understood why my Australian friends were so excited, for the illustrations on the cards are mostly taken from Bible stories.
Indeed, all the significant ideas of scripture are here, covering everything from Genesis to Revelation: Creation, the Fall, the Tower of Babel, the Temple, prophets, the crucifixion, judgment, after-life, and many more, all depicted in graphic detail. It was obvious to me right away that any Christian who knew their Bible well could easily share the Gospel using these cards.
Can it be that simple?
But - and for many, this is a big ‘but’ - this is the Tarot. Isn’t this about fortune telling, if not even more dangerous occult concerns? How could something with that reputation be used to share the truths of Christian faith? Was it not the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing? That was the big question - for my Australian collaborators as well as for me - and it is the major reason for this article. Our book doesn’t address any of that: it simply uses the Tarot to invite readers to consider the claims of Christ. But we want other Christians to feel comfortable using it as a resource in their own witness, which is why we need to explain what we think we are doing, and why it is worth doing this way.
Back to the Bible
It’s important to me that whatever we do in evangelism today - especially something as radical as this - should have some obvious continuity with scripture. In the book of Acts, Luke records different ways in which the apostles preached the Gospel. They often visited synagogues, where people knew the Hebrew Bible, and where the most obvious question was whether Jesus might be the Messiah. But they also spoke with people who’d never heard of the Bible, as in Acts 17:16-34, Paul’s visit to Athens. That situation had many similarities with today’s supermarket of faiths. Luke actually says that Paul felt really uncomfortable with it all - yet he also insists that, even here, God was still present not just in a general way, but specifically in the ‘altar to the unknown god’ which Paul used (quoting from entirely ‘pagan’ sources) to share the story of Jesus.
This passage challenges the assumptions some Christians make about how God operates. Significantly, Paul took it for granted that God was already at work in Athens, though there were apparently no Christians there. Even in a place saturated with devotion to alien deities, it never occurred to him that this might be a no-go area for God. Could it be that by assuming that the New Age is a no-go area for God today, we are not only limiting our own evangelistic opportunities, but also adopting a very unorthodox theological stance - for if this is God’s world (and that is on the very first page of the Bible!), how can there be places from which God is excluded? And if we think there are, what kind of small God are we worshipping? Could it be that the Tarot is one of today’s altars to unknown gods?
As I reflected on all this, I also considered other stories. Take Philip, for example, sent by God to meet an African in a desert, and who asked the simple question, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:26-40). As it happened, he was reading the Bible. Today’s people are reading - among other things - the Tarot. Maybe we could ask the same question: do you understand what you are reading? If all these images come from the Bible, then there must be a deeper meaning than what lies on the surface. The interesting thing about this approach is that, though the Bible is the last place most people today would dream of looking for spiritual guidance, once they become interested to learn more about the Tarot’s message, the Bible is the very place they need to go in order to uncover its secrets. I have repeatedly found that, whenever I have spoken with spiritual searchers along these lines: they start off wanting to know more about the Tarot, and end up reading the Bible.
But isn’t it all evil?
There’s still the matter of the Tarot’s reputation for sorcery and divination, and in the book we describe Tarot history in some detail. It was invented by Italian nobles in the 14th century to be just a set of playing cards. It was French Protestant pastors in the early 18th century who first used them for fortune telling, believing they embodied some esoteric mystical lore from ancient civilizations. These speculations had no historical foundation whatever. What happened was that something that was originally morally and spiritually neutral was taken over and used for other purposes. That kind of thing happens all the time. Christians have abused the Bible in the same way, to justify everything from the Crusades to slavery, apartheid, and the spoiling of the environment. But we don’t stop using the Bible because it can be corrupted: we pay more careful attention to focus on its ‘real’ message..
Actually, the occult use of the Tarot is not the dominant approach today. Many Tarot readers describe themselves as therapists and counsellors. The Bible stories featured on the cards do literally deal with all of life’s big questions. I spoke on the Tarot at an evangelism conference in the USA, and a participant started jumping up and down, waving his own set of cards until I had to let him speak. He said that he had been a psychiatrist for 30 years,and regularly used the Tarot in diagnosis. “All I have to do,” he said, “is ask a client which card depicts how they feel right now, and which one shows how they would like to be -a nd I have a pretty clear insight into what is going on in their lives.” He was excited, as a believer, now also to have a Christian angle on it.
The Gospel in an unlikely place
So what is the ‘Christian angle’ that emerges here? I’ve already mentioned the many prominent Biblical themes that feature. But there is one other thing. The Tarot has more trumps than regular playing cards, and one card is the most powerful of all: the Fool. Arthur Waite himself described the fool as ‘a prince of the other world on his travels through this one’ and the card shows an individual who holds the key to life in the next world, bearing gifts for those he meets, and yet rejected and unrecognised by those on whose behalf he loses his life. As we comment in the book, ‘The one who uniquely fits what has been foretold is Jesus of Nazareth: he brings eternal gifts, dies for others, and comes from above.’ The uncompromising way in which the Tarot points to the all-powerful One who comes in foolishness and weakness - yet bringing salvation - was the thing that convinced me that this is indeed a key ‘altar to an unknown god ’ that, if appropriately used and understood, can be an effective evangelistic tool in relation to today’s spiritual searchers. We wrote the book to help these people find Christ. We’re not suggesting that every Christian should go out and get a set of Tarot cards. It’s a specialist ministry, and definitely not for everyone. If you’re not sure how to react, then the three of us could certainly use your prayers. Probably some of your friends and family could use the book.
John Drane’s co-authors of Beyond Prediction: the Tarot and your Spirituality are Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson.
Ross Clifford is Principal of Morling College (The Baptist Theological College of New South Wales, Australia). In 1991, he and Philip Johnson founded the Community of Hope, as an outreach to New Agers.
Philip Johnson is CEO of Global Apologetics & Mission, a Sydney-based organisation concerned for evangelism among devotees of new religions. He also teaches Philosophy, Cults & World Religions at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney, and is a visiting lecturer at Morling College.
In 1993 Philip and Ross Clifford began experimenting with the use of Tarot cards to present the Gospel to New Age seekers. Since then they have led many workshops in New Age festivals, and also have an extensive ministry among Wiccan and neo-pagan devotees.