Tarot has been having a “moment” for a few years. I wandered into the moment when I watched an episode of something in which an old, dying woman read the cards for her new, young friend. It was a movie moment reflecting the present tarot moment — watching an old story using the old deck-full of stories to draw us into the drama of a life unfolding — and normalizing the latest emergence of this mystical method for finding guidance.
I hope this is where the tarot moment is leading. According to Liz Worth, “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself…It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.” Hopefully, it is like a mirror that can lead to deeper reflection which opens up clogged or burned spiritual pathways so people can ultimately see Jesus for who he is.
There are many Christians who are sure meeting Jesus is not what is going to happen if someone gets into tarot. The practice is associated with divination—unlocking the secrets of the future by occult, supernatural means. Divination is prohibited in the Bible, even when people in the Bible are doing it! Paul exorcised a woman used for divination!
Tarot cards were originally just a deck of cards, but some mystics, psychics, and occultists began to use the cards for divination. Many people still use them this way, and that is how they are popularly understood. You can meet diviners on YouTube. They promise to access spirit beings to find out things about one’s life or future. Usually, the practice of reading tarot cards starts with the questioner cutting the pack of cards or sometimes just touching it. The psychic or card reader then deals out some cards, face down, into a pattern, called a “spread,” on the table. As the cards are overturned, the psychic or reader constructs a narrative based on the cards’ meanings and their position on the table. The narrative has always placed heavy emphasis on fate and “hidden knowledge.” Jesus has a better way.
Writing a new story
People are looking for a new story, their own story, in an age when making new stories from old ones is a primary industry – at least in the dying Western empire. So tarot is very intriguing, since each tarot card is a story in itself. The experience of a reading is like connecting one’s story to one in progress. And reflecting on or telling about the experience is an interesting story in itself.
There are so many apps for tarot! Using them results in many stories. One woman downloaded Galaxy Tarot and casually got to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. One day she was killing time before a phone interview for a job and flipped over the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them. “It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement. What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’” She went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work, but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”
The apps meet a need — and people will pay to have it addressed. The “metaphysical services” industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influences that create culture, according to Goop, #wellness.
Another woman said, “I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I ‘believe’ in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?”
Another said: “I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime. It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said tarot helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.” If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Some see it as empowering for traditionally disempowered Christian women. Which is why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards.
The Guardian notes the increased popularity of tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women. People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”
A brief history of tarot
Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a card game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (slaves who became sultans) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations and figures of people you’d likely see in a Mardi Gras celebration..
Sometime between 1750 and 1800, French occultists reimagined the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests. For them, the cards combined multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong top note related to the Kabbalah. These decks were the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.
When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts (above). The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include the familiar cards: Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune often prominent.
The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much in the unlikely mystical origins as it is in the cards’ ability to wallop you with elemental symbols. Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The cards are crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. They elicit stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones. Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater, has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle YA novels.
How does the church relate?
“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”
This truth does not mean people will use tarot in a mature way and not be drawn into harmful connections with spirits who hate them. But it does mean people can find ways of discernment in a myriad of ways. We (meaning Circle of Hope) affirm seekers of all kinds, coming from all the corners of the earth and have a wide view of how we each find the truth and our personal way along the Way.
“The internet explains how millennials have turned to the occult – but not why”, says Amelia Tate. “My reading came at a time of uncertainty when I was making big life decisions. Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice (avocados weren’t even invented back then, right?). Where else do we go? We’re the most secular generation yet. “ She quotes an expert saying, “’Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion,’ says Stuart Vyse, a behavioural scientist and author of Believing in Magic: the Psychology of Superstition. Vyse has found that liberal millennials in particular are drawn to divination.”
People who feel they are alone in the world to find their way have an even more anxiety-provoking path ahead than everyone else. If they are separated from family and the church, or the past in general, then practices that promise a spiritual moment and some mystical direction which don’t require too much thinking or relating can be very attractive. Jesus offers an immediate connection, too, but it is not as controllable as tarot can be. A connection with Jesus, though filled with wonderful moments, also requires an ongoing relationship with God and his people and a lifelong openness to spiritual growth and service. So it might seem very demanding, if immeasurably deeper. It is possible that people are drawn to divination because they never met a Jesus-follower who loves them and is not the stereotype they fear. Our cells have repeatedly been easygoing places to make relationships that undo their prejudice and make a difference.
Amelia Tate ended with, “Yet despite my scepticism and cynicism, I can’t deny that lighting a candle and reading the tarot cards was comforting. It was enjoyable to hand over a big life decision, however fleetingly, to some ancient illustrations. I recommend it. And I don’t believe the answers are true – but I believe in them nonetheless.”
I can feel what Amelia is saying. And I can imagine how she would feel totally out of place anywhere she can imagine as Christian. I do not have a conclusion that can encompass everyone who is navigating the perilous seas of our time like she is. But I think a lot of them are alone on a raft of their own making. Our community, loving and accepting, is a safe place to explore their yearnings. A lot of people are permanently skeptical, or so they feel. Hopefully, our teaching maintains our dialogical character and our love provides an invitation to imagine with us, not withdraw into suspicion.
For some, tarot is a comfort and a way to know themselves and their direction better. For most it is a moment, a stepping stone into what is their deepest and truest self. I think it would be better to skip it altogether, especially if you are prone to depression, anxiety or other illness – you’ll get a better “reading” from your therapist or cell group. What’s more, the practice could be dangerous, since it has been connected to divinization for centuries; delusions abide there, as well as spirits who are out to harm us. People have recovered from such entanglements, but it is probably best to avoid being entangled to begin with, since we all have a path laid out for us by Jesus.
I was surprised by how much is out there about this subject! Maybe the fad is already waning, since even I am aware of it. My exploration encouraged me nonetheless, since I uncovered many good-hearted people searching for love and meaning as well as many people trying to provide wisdom for starving people. I don’t think the cards have easy or clear answers for them. But neither do I, as a Jesus follower. I tried to think of some “card” from the Bible for all the seekers I uncovered that might inform their search. I landed here:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).
The greatest truth and love are found in the Father’s lap. Life is not revealed in the cards. If you use them to meditate on your journey or to find direction, listen for the Spirit bearing witness that you are God’s beloved child with Jesus leading your way through whatever you face.