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Years ago, I was driving around Los Angeles and noticed something — instead of a coffee shop on every corner, I saw a large number of psychics and tarot readers. It seemed like they were everywhere. I know it is like that outside of Los Angeles, of course, but this was the first time I’d really noticed the shops. Available and open to anyone who might wander in. And now, tarot readings aren’t just offered in-person or over the phone. You can get readings online, often for free, which means that it does not seem like tarot is everywhere; it is accessible anytime, anywhere. Tarot card sales have soared in recent years,1 and card designers are being enthusiastically supported on crowdfunding sites, some reaching their fundraising goals in mere days.2 Various card designs can be bought at stores like Urban Outfitters, Target, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Amazon. Fashion designer Christian Dior had a fashion collection inspired by tarot,3 and Vogue published a beginner’s guide to tarot in 2016.4 With the COVID-19 quarantines and various restrictions, tarot has continued to gain popularity. On TikTok, #tarot has almost 35 billion views, and the trend is growing. We now find ourselves in a culture where magic and witchcraft are not only easily accessible but are popular and celebrated, sometimes even by Christians.5 How can we reach those involved with tarot to reveal truth found in Scripture, not in cards? Let’s take a look at how we got here, and how we can respond.
FROM GAME TO OCCULT TOOL
Most of us recognize the modern-day tarot card deck — seventy-eight cards full of vivid imagery and bright colors. But tarot didn’t start the way you might think. It got its beginnings in fifteenth-century Italy as a somewhat complicated card game called Tarocchi. Tarocchi decks were made up of typical face and number cards, plus twenty-two tarot cards (now known as the Major Arcana in tarot decks). Tarocchi was fairly popular in Europe until the late eighteenth century, when it shifted from a card game to a tool used for cartomancy (fortune-telling using cards) and divination. Interestingly, it was a Protestant pastor who was likely responsible for tarot’s occult ties.6 Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin apparently saw a group of women playing Tarocchi at a party and claimed the cards were connected with an ancient text, the Book of Thoth, which was believed to have been written by an Egyptian god. Gébelin published his thoughts in 1773, and his ideas became popular and widespread.7 A few years later, another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, published books about the divination of the tarot. Then, former Catholic deacon turned occultist Eliphas Lévi connected the dots between tarot and ceremonial magic.8 Eventually, by way of a secret society in England, the tarot deck most widely used today was born.
THE GOLDEN DAWN
At the turn of the nineteenth century, a group of Freemasons founded a secret society called The Golden Dawn. It was an idea sparked by documents called the Cipher Manuscripts, a manual of sorts related to magic, astrology, and alchemy.9 The Golden Dawn proved influential in the English occult revival, led by some key members, including mystic Arthur Edward Waite and writer Aleister Crowley. Waite commissioned artist Pamela Colman Smith, who was also a Golden Dawn member, to illustrate the tarot deck. Waite believed that the tarot was a means of mystical renaissance.10 The deck Waite and Smith created became known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and it is the most popular deck in history.11 Most tarot decks are fashioned after its imagery. What was special about Rider-Waite-Smith is that every card, including the cards in the Minor Arcana, were illustrated. Most of the books I have read about tarot used the Rider-Waite-Smith deck to explain tarot’s meanings. Yet there is controversy with the deck, as it is considered somewhat outdated because “it is not diverse, generally featuring straight white people.”12 Today, there are cards to suit anyone’s desires, ranging from highly sexualized to Christian-themed. Despite its lack of diversity, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck sets the tarot standard. Crowley created his own deck, Thoth Tarot, and he eventually exposed the Golden Dawn’s secrets to the world, including the mysteries surrounding tarot.13 Thus, tarot as we know it today was born: more than a game, more than a mere diversion. Now, tarot is mystical and divine, an ostensible gateway to truth and knowledge.
THE DECK AND THE DRAW
Understanding how tarot works can help us see why it might be attractive to some for divination and self-awareness.14 To see the cards is to see yourself. Tarot decks are made up of seventy-eight cards divided into two sections, the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. Arcana is Latin for “secrets” or “mysteries.” Think of the tarot as unlocking the mysteries of life. The Major Arcana is comprised of twenty-two cards that represent life’s biggest events. For instance, the Fool card indicates a beginning, and Death card an end. The Wheel of Fortune card alludes to change while the Lovers Card points to potential partnerships. Each of the twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana is important, and when one appears in a tarot reading, great attention is usually given to it.
On the other hand, the rest of the tarot deck, known as the Minor Arcana, fills in the gaps between big events. The fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana are divided into four suits, which are typically wands, cups, swords, and pentacles (these names vary from deck-to-deck). The suits are usually connected with the elements fire, water, air, and earth. These cards indicate personality, emotions, and responses to events we face in our lives.
As for readings, it all begins with the shuffle. During the shuffle, the person being read is supposed to concentrate on what they want to know, the wisdom they are seeking. Liz Dean, author of Tarot by the Numbers, recommends broad questions that “allow for all possibilities,” otherwise, “you limit your expectations of the reading and potentially block other information from coming through.”15 Then, the reader draws one or more cards to create a spread. Spreads usually range from one card to ten. Some readers will pick one card to answer a single question. Other times, ten cards are drawn for more clarity about oneself, their situation, or their future. Once the spread is laid out, the reader will ask their client relevant questions about the cards, such as “Are there any serious changes happening in your life?” Then the reading has begun. What exactly is a reading? One author puts it simply: “Tarot is storytelling at its base. You are using the tool of the cards to elaborate someone’s story.”16 But reading is not limited to storytelling — it is now becoming a spiritual practice.
TAROT AND ICONIC PRAYER
Visio divina (“divine seeing”) is when a person reads Holy Scripture and then dwells on an image, usually religious in nature, while praying.17 The goal is to see God’s will and hear the Holy Spirit’s voice. And now, some Christians are using tarot cards as part of their visio divina spiritual practice.
Brittany Muller, author of Contemplative Tarot: A Christian Guide to the Cards, combines Christian tradition and theology with tarot as a means of worship, and she encourages other Christians to do the same. Muller’s experience stems from a mostly Catholic upbringing, a deconversion, and then a reconversion to Catholicism. She picked up her first deck of tarot cards when she “wanted nothing to do with Christianity,” and yet, she says she felt seen by the cards and found them to be “full of surprisingly Christian imagery.”18 Indeed, tarot cards do contain some Christian images, from crucifixes to angels to even the Devil himself. When tarot cards are seen through the Christian lens, Muller says that Christians can find a “deeper and more fulfilling kind of self-reflection” than they might find in other meditative practices.19 She encourages others to use tarot cards to “slow down and take a breath,” saying that “the true magic happens when this intentionality becomes a habit.”20 Muller never believed tarot cards were divination tools21; instead, she sees them as tools toward greater peace and presence with God.
Seemingly in response to potential critics, Muller addresses the elephant in the room: why should Christians use a tool of the occult in their prayer lives? She writes:
A deck of tarot cards is nothing more and nothing less than a set of seventy-eight little works of art, and all art — even secular art — can lead us to God. God lives in all things and has the ability to speak to us through all beauty. The practice of visio divina is the practice of being moved by a work of art and entering into a moment of unspoken prayer with a God who wants to know us, and this can be done with tarot.22
She gets some things right here. God does have the ability to speak to us through anything He so chooses, including art. And art can certainly lead us closer to God. I experienced this myself when I first saw Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life paintings in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. when I was about 14-years-old. I was moved to tears and had what I can only describe as a religious experience because I stayed in that room for the entire time we were at the gallery. I just couldn’t take my eyes away from the canvases that take us from the birth of a man to his death. I know many others who have had similar experiences with art, and there are even artists who use their gifts as an apologetic for Christ.23
But tarot is more than art. It is art designed with divination in mind. Alongside Christian imagery is occult imagery, including pentacles, wands, and astrological signs. Despite Muller’s desire to cleanse the deck with Christian meanings, it’s still an occult tool. It is admirable that she desires more unity with God and that she hopes to strengthen her relationship with Him. However, just as a Christian shouldn’t use a Ouija board to hear from the Lord or go to a psychic as a means to receive a prophetic word from God, Christians should avoid using tarot to enhance their prayer lives. There are other, less risky means to meditate on God’s Word and pray. Visio divina is an ancient practice, and explicitly Christian images abound that would most certainly be a good alternative to tarot cards.
A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO TAROT
It would be easy here to simply tell you, as a Christian, not to engage with tarot, and that is indeed the overarching message, but there is more to the discussion. On one side of the coin are skeptics who say that tarot readers are nothing but frauds who take advantage of people. On the other side of the coin are those who say that tarot readers may very well have access to the spirit world. It is possible that both are correct. Some tarot readers are good at reading people, not cards. They observe the situation, they ask good questions, and they make inferences based on the client’s statements and appearance. Other tarot readers probably tap into the fallen and dangerous spiritual realm when they perform a reading for a client. Either way, the spiritual realm exists. We know that because Scripture tells us it exists. Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”24 We should not mess around with worldly spiritual forces, and tarot does just that with its occult imagery and its fortune-telling essence.
One of the more interesting developments in tarot reading is the Christian following that it has amassed. There are so-called Christian cards and Christian readers. Yet something is amiss. Sorcery and magic are against God’s Word. Spiritual forces of the world are not the spiritual forces of God. Yes, God has given us spiritual gifts ranging from mercy to prophecy to discernment, but Satan bends the truth. Discernment and prophecy are distinguished from fortune-telling and divination in Scripture. They are not one and the same. We see clear condemnation of occult practices in the Old Testament (see 2 Chronicles 33:6, Leviticus 19:31, and Micah 5:12). The New Testament also condemns witchcraft (see Galatians 5:20, Acts 19:19, and Revelation 21:8). On the other hand, spiritual gifts granted by the Holy Spirit that lead to His truth are celebrated in Scripture (see Philippians 1:9–10 and Hebrews 5:14). Indeed, those gifts help Christ’s followers distinguish between good and evil. If we want wisdom from God, we need only ask (James 1:5). We are to test the spirits (1 John 1:4). God will not use something He has condemned to spread His wisdom and knowledge. It is against His character.
If you are a parent who has a child, talk with them about fortune-telling and magic. Ask them what they think about witchcraft. With recent films like Hocus Pocus 2 and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, opportunities for discussion and truth-telling abound. Teach your children what Scripture says. When you encounter tarot decks in a friend or family member’s home, ask them questions about why they have it. Approach the situation with gentleness. Don’t make any assumptions about why they have the cards. Instead, seek to understand. If you have a deck of your own, I encourage you to consider getting rid of it. There really is no reason to hold onto it. In fact, get rid of any occult tool you might have lying around your house, including Ouija boards. Finally, if you are looking for ways to enhance your prayer life, do not use an occult tool to do so. Visio divina can be helpful in your pursuit of a closer relationship with God but avoid occult icons like the imagery found in tarot cards. Set yourself apart from things of this world. Take heed this warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8–10). Tarot will not send you on a path toward righteousness but on one toward destruction. Find restoration for your soul in God’s Word, not in a deck of cards created by man for his own pleasure and self-knowledge.
Lindsey Medenwaldt is Director of Ministry Operations at Mama Bear Apologetics and serves as a consulting editor for the Christian Research Journal. She has a Master’s in Apologetics and Ethics from Denver Seminary, a JD from St. Mary’s School of Law, and a Master’s in Public Administration from Midwestern State University.
- Joel Lang, “CT Tarot Card Designer Has Seen a Boom in Interest During the Pandemic,” CT Insider, January 27, 2022, https://www.ctinsider.com/living/article/Tarot-cards-rise-in-popularity-as-people-seek-16800747.php.
- Heather Greene, “A New Aspect of the Tarot Boom: Diversity in the Deck,” Religion News Service, November 12, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2021/11/12/a-new-wrinkle-to-the-tarot-boom-diversity-in-the-deck/.
- Carrie Goldberg and Violetta Laze, “A Tarot Card Reader’s Take on Dior Haute Couture,” Harper’s Bazaar, January 26, 2021, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/fashion-week/g35312699/dior-haute-couture-tarot-cards/.
- Steff Yotka, “Tarot 101: A Beginner’s Guide,” Vogue, August 4, 2016, https://www.vogue.com/article/tarot-101-beginner-guide-how-to-small-spells.
- According to Pew Research, 29 percent of Christians believe in astrology, and 40 percent believe in psychic power. Claire Gecewicz, “‘New Age’ Beliefs Common among Both Religious and Nonreligious Americans,” October 1, 2018, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/01/new-age-beliefs-common-among-both-religious-and-nonreligious-americans/.
- Brittany Muller, The Contemplative Tarot: A Christian Guide to the Cards (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022), 12.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 12.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 12–13.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 14–15.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 15–17.
- Lauren David, “The 5 Best Tarot Card Decks, According to Professional Tarot Readers,” Insider, April 14, 2022, https://www.insider.com/guides/hobbies-crafts/best-tarot-cards.
- Melissa Cynova, Kitchen-Table Tarot (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2017), 6.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 16–17.
- I consulted a number of books to research the following information, including Jessica Dore, Tarot for Change (New York: Penguin Life, 2021); Michelle Tea, Modern Tarot (New York: HarperElixer, 2017); and Steven Bright, Tarot: Your Personal Guide (New York: WellFleet Press, 2018).
- Liz Dean, Tarot by the Numbers: Learn the Codes that Unlock the Meaning of the Cards (Beverly, MA: Fair Winds, 2022), 13.
- Cynova, Kitchen Table Tarot, 17.
- For more about iconic prayer, see Nathan A. Jacobs, “John of Damascus and His Defense of Icons,” Christian Research Journal 42, no. 3/4 (2019), https://www.equip.org/articles/john-of-damascus-and-his-defense-of-icons/, and “A Historical and Biblical Defense of Icons with Nathan Jacobs,” Hank Unplugged Podcast, episode 89, https://www.equip.org/hankunplugged/a-historical-and-biblical-defense-of-icons-with-nathan-jacobs/; see also Stephen Freeman, “Venerating Icons — It’s So Much Other Than You Think,” Ancient Faith, November 18, 2019, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2019/11/18/venerating-icons-its-so-much-other-than-you-think/.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 3.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 24.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 22.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 3.
- Muller, The Contemplative Tarot, 25–26.
- See Makoto Fujimura, Art+Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).
- Bible quotations are from the NIV.