Sunday, November 6, 2011

That Old Magic

My brother is the President of the Society of American Magicians Assembly 8 in our hometown of St. Louis. And I like to think I'm partially responsible for that. I was the one who was interested in magic originally. When our Dad took us downtown to buy supplies for his tavern, I was the one who wanted to go to Gene DeVoe's magic shop. "Genial Gene" would do magic to entice us to buy the tricks. And as the one who saved his allowance, I would usually buy at least one trick, like the finger chopper. Eventually, I realized that knowing how illusions were done spoiled the effect for the observer. But my brother got hooked for life. He not only bought the simple little tricks, he also bought books Gene sold explaining how other tricks were done. He bought rabbits to produce from his magical props. And as a teen he built not one but 2 guillotines so he could cut heads of lettuce in two while letting the blade pass harmlessly through the necks of volunteers from the audience. His wife, then his high school sweetheart, was his assistant. And not only did he do shows for our church, he didn't see this as hypocrisy.

Penn Jillette, the larger, louder member of the magical duo Penn and Teller, has a new book out called "God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." In it he expresses astonishment that any magician can be spiritual. And coming from such an intelligent man, that astonishes me. Because it shows a very primitive and limited understanding of religion.

One of the problems of the modern anti-theist movement is that they reduce religion, which they evidently don't understand, to something else that they do, and then they denigrate it. The most common version of this is seen in the thought of Sam Harris. He thinks that religion is simply a defective form of science, as if religion's primary role in believers' lives is to explain how material things work. But if religion was ever supposed to do that, it hasn't for a long time, at least not for most believers. Religion is more interested in exploring questions of "why" than "how." Despite what some creationists think, the Bible is not a scientific book, the writing of it having begun a millennium or so before the most rudimentary form of science existed.The Bible takes pains to be specific that God created the world but is non-specific on the details of how this was done. It doesn't go into the genetic differences between humans and other creatures but focuses on the spiritual difference: humans bear the image of God.

Until recently, the Bible was not interpreted literally by most people. They were more interested in what it said about God and ethics. A third of the world's population claims to be Christian. I doubt that most of them would say its primary attraction for them is what it tells us about how the world works physically. More would say its importance is what it says about how to live, as an individual, as a member of a community and as a child of God.

To me, Jillette's reduction of religion to magic is the same kind of confusion of categories of thought. To begin with, magic means many things. Does he think religion is a form of stage magic? That may be true of some religions that make statues drink milk or weep, but it's not true of most churches. Plus, while Penn and Teller usually explicitly say they are doing tricks, almost everyone going to a magic show knows that's true of all magicians. The fun is in seeing something you know is not possible, wondering how it's done, and enjoying being fooled. Nobody goes to church hoping to be fooled but enlightened. While I know clergy who use magic tricks in the pulpit, they perform them as enacted parables. They neither have the intention nor expectation that people believe they are able to perform miracles. Rather than entertaining by deceiving, they are using visual metaphors to teach spiritual truths.

True, there are televangelists who are known as faith healers. They theatrically claim to know that there are people in their audience who have specific diseases and they touch them. These folks, some of whom are shills and some of whom are genuinely caught up in the excitement, claim to be healed and leap, dance or faint at the touch of the faith healer. Some of these evangelists even sell prayer cloths that they will send to those who write and make a donation. And, yes, some of them use magic tricks. There have been a number of exposes of this kind of scam for decades in print and on TV. There was even a 1992 movie starring Steve Martin that revealed some of the high-tech tricks used. Those that do these things do so for money, the same reason crooked cops, corrupt politicians, or quack doctors betray their professions. They are hardly representative of mainstream religion. You aren't likely to walk into a Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or other mainline church and see that kind of healing service. Nor do such big obvious shows of supernatural power feature very largely in most believer's faith.

I suspect that Penn Jillette knows this. His parents were Christian. So I imagine that Jillette thinks religion is magic in the sense of the first definition of the entry in "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature." Which betrays either a very shallow understanding of religion or an inability to see the very large differences between magic and religion. The key words in the definition that relate to this difference are: "presumably assure human control." Magic is the attempt to control natural or supernatural forces. To that end a person chants words or performs rituals. An especially egregious form of magic involves invoking the names of demons or spirits and making pacts with them in exchange for the accomplishment of one's desires. This is what lies at the heart of the tale of Dr. Faustus and the non-biblical idea of selling one's soul to the devil.

Magic is a parody of religion. We do not summon up demons but call upon God. We don't try to try to bind the powers-that-be with words of power but humbly make our requests to God. We don't make contracts with devils but we do have a covenant with God initiated, not by us, but by Jesus Christ. And it in no way obligates God to fulfill our every wish like a genie. One shouldn't expect a loving God to say "yes" to every request anymore than one would expect a loving parent to give a child everything it asked for. Most importantly, we do not try to impose our will on the universe but say to God "not my will but yours be done." We are not forcing anyone or anything to behave the way we wish but simply asking our heavenly Father within the context of our loving relationship with him.

That said, there are those who do advocate a distortion of Christianity that certainly smacks of magic. That's the Word of Faith churches with their "name it and claim it" theology. Basically, this Prosperity Gospel, started by E.W. Kenyon in the late 1800s, says our covenant with God guarantees our health and wealth. Thus health can be claimed by quoting a Bible verse about healing and claiming it as our divine right. Kenneth Copeland, a leading proponent of this kind of theology, says that the idea that God ever uses suffering for our benefit is an unbiblical deception of the devil! Wonder what he makes of Romans 5:3-5? But in this theology, if we are sick, it is because we let Satan rob us of our rightful health. It is interesting that Benny Hinn, another leading preacher of the Prosperity Gospel, is also a very controversial faith healer.

In the same way, if a Christian is not wealthy, it is because he or she is letting Satan have authority over his or her life. Word of Faith adherents also dispute the picture of Jesus as a poor itinerant preacher but say Jesus and the apostles were wealthy. Of course to maintain such things, one has to ignore or explain away all the verses that say the opposite.

Some in this movement teach that believers are literally gods, not just a little lower than gods as it says in Psalm 8. As preacher Creflo Dollar puts it, if the offspring of horses are horses and the offspring of dogs are dogs, the children of God are gods themselves. Therefore it follows that "a god should never be sick, and a god should never be poor." Such an emphasis tempts its followers to live with a sense of entitlement, if not outright arrogance. As John Piper says, "the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity."

And many would gladly agree to that trade-off. But buying into this "feel good" theology does have a down side. What does a person do when chronic illness strikes or wealth continually eludes one? What if you get cancer? Or you lose your job and savings due to the economy? You can only blame yourself. Because in this theology, you are a god and the only reason your life isn't perfect is that you don't have enough faith to name it and claim it. The idea that what you think determines reality is a classic example of magical thinking.

The answer to bad theology is not abandoning theology but turning to good theology, just as the answer to bad medical advice is not giving up on medicine but getting good medical advice. The problem with the world is not that we don't act like gods; rather it is that we are only too willing to play God. We act as if the universe owes us nothing but good things and we are willing to take short cuts, using whatever power, be it magic, money, position, politics, technology, or brute strength, to make our desires happen. We may theoretically accept the idea that mankind has major flaws but we tend to make an exception when it comes to ourselves. And the only thing worse than flawed people are flawed people who think they really aren't. Confidence doesn't guarantee competence. When faced with a tempting situation to which are attached obvious risks of a very bad outcome, we tend to think "that won't happen to me." Yet everyday people blithely get into recreational drug use, promiscuous sex, ill advised financial moves and more despite the fact that they see numerous examples of the inevitable negative consequences in the news and in the lives of the those around them.

Humility, honest self-examination and a timely reminder of Jesus' call to repent are a vital part of true Christian living. As is the realization that becoming Christlike is a ongoing process, not a fait accompli. It requires prayer and God's grace. It has nothing to do with the accumulation of physical goods but the cultivation of spiritual fruits. It's not about accruing quantities but producing qualities.

Was there a time when religion and magic were the same or practically so? Anthropology and history look at cave paintings, the contents of graves, and representations of ailing body parts presented at the temples of Apollo and say yes. The Hebrews and early Christians largely avoided that because they did not worship idols that could be rigged but worshiped a God who could not be compelled by ritual or invocation of his name to do anything they wanted. What he did was what he decided to, consistent with his just nature and tempered by his love and mercy.

If some religions did start out as magic, it is important to point out that so did science. The science of chemistry began as the magical art of alchemy and that astronomy began as astrology. It took a millennium and change for us to gain the knowledge to make those into sciences. And science is always a work in progress. There is a lot that science cannot explain, like the scientifically verified connection between faith and physical health, longevity and faster healing. The idea that science will eventually explain everything or that we humans can understand everything is by no means assured and thus a statement of faith.

Our biggest problems primarily lie in the moral and spiritual realms. We know what we should do but we don't want to. It's not a matter of lacking knowledge but rather not using the wisdom we have possessed for thousands of years in the Bible. And the Bible is not a grimoire of arcane magical lore, nor a particularly obscure and mystical tome. It is, instead, remarkably practical, telling us what we are, whether we wish to hear it or not, but also what we can be, if we follow its advice. Jesus doesn't promise magical answers to all our woes in this life but assurance that, though we will have trouble, we can find triumph in him. Though, to the world, it may seem as if we possess nothing that cannot be verified by the physical sciences, yet to those who see through the tricks and illusions of this world, we are revealed to be rich in everything that counts: a deep, abundant life, an unshakeable trust in our heavenly Father, an undaunted hope, and the undying love of God in Christ from which nothing can separate us.

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