The Minister’s Journey in "Witch Wood"

by Jared Musgrove December 19, 2018

The stuff of pastoring is pretty ancient. The time-tested descriptors and oppositions largely remain unchanged throughout the centuries. I was met with this truth all over again when I dusted off an old story where the pastor is actually the protagonist (how often does THAT happen? At best pastors are sometimes key supporting characters, but we rarely get a pastor-as-hero-and-romantic-lead story). The novel is Witch Wood, a suspense about opposition in ministry.  C.S. Lewis liked the book so much when it came out that he reportedly wrote the Scottish author a fan letter.

Written by James Buchan, Witch Wood is a story about fighting the good fight and standing on the promises of God amid hostility and spiritual conflict. It helps us see the nuances of opposition through a gospel lens.

Set in the 1600s, Witch Wood centers on David Sempill, a young, idealistic pastor who arrives in the rural Scottish town of Woodilee to assume his first pastorate. He has great expectations for ministry. We meet him singing as he first approaches his parish. He weeps with worshipful joy when he first sits down in his study closet.

Yet a foreshadowing comes to David in the words of one of the townspeople: “You see the ills of the land and make haste to redd (bring order to) them, but you have no great notion of what [evil] is possible.” (Admittedly, the heavy Scottish dialect can at times beget a less fluid read but the novel moves at a suspenseful pace that helps).

A Minister Comes of Age

What follows is a minister’s journey from naiveté to growth to seasoned experience. David's sermons and calls for repentance go unheeded by his congregation. He struggles constantly against his own sin, questioning the promises of God. His ministry dreams dashed upon the rock of reality, he even considers fleeing the church. David becomes a fully formed man of character with virtues propelled by God and vices that he knows must be constantly surrendered to God.

David then learns that some in his congregation are stealing away into the nearby woods to revel in pagan rituals. Their identities remain a mystery, but David knows they sit in the worship services and some are likely even on the elder board. His righteous anger rages against the wickedness and hypocrisy.

In his fight against this pagan worship, David leans into the promise of God that his fight is not of flesh and blood, but of the principalities and powers in this dark world. Even in his weaknesses, David fights to surrender himself to God and to persevere despite physical and spiritual opposition. He believes in his Father’s power to overcome evil and the call on his life to “hate what is evil and love what is good.”

David’s fight for the promises of God leads to a myriad of ministry disappointments: He is shunned, attacked, censured, neglected and blamed. As one reviewer states, “making a clear allusion to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the narrator affirms that although [David] had the ‘publican and sinners’ on his side, ‘the Pharisees and scribes were against him.’”

This leads to a climactic encounter with the head elder who has been practicing the pagan rituals. David drags him into the wood, pleading with him to make a final choice between God and the devil. It’s one of the more suspenseful moments I remember reading as an adult.

Eventually, David’s anger turns to meekness as he is stripped of all his worldly gain. He comes to embody the cost of Christian ministry and stands as an example to us all as he shines a light in the darkness of the wood by displaying Christ’s love and fervor in sacrificing himself for the ungodly, certain of God’s promises.

I commend the book to you, pastor. You’re not alone. Even in fiction, there are reminders of the brothers (heroes) who’ve gone before you. And this story of perseverance will feed your pastor’s soul and imagination.

Editor's Note: A version of this article previously appeared at tvcresources.net