Magic

Some people are bothered by magic. Magic in stories, that is. I’ve never been of that opinion, and while I’ve lived close to it, it has never been the sort of scruple I’ve allowed to stand between me and a good story. But there are people who do. I wonder sometimes if it is that they do not want stories hard enough, and I think there is a refusal of wonder (like Thomas who did not want to believe) at least implied–if not involved–in this. But, like I said, I’m not much in sympathy with that point of view.

Why not? Because I think it is based on ignorance, and we all have too much of that to be able to afford a great deal of patience with any discernible manifestation. Still, if there is something to be done about it, then let us attempt it. So that’s what I want to do: take on the whole magic thing and reason about it, distinguish, point out things, let light shine a bit into the darkness (out of me, into you:-). Let me argue that it is an unreasonable attitude to shun magic in literature.

Because at the least we have to talk about it. Ignoring it and responding without careful thought is neither wise nor prudent. The only thing that leads to is the unexamined life, and if you prefer that, you deserve it. But the unexamined life with all its false security is in the end a dull life and worse: a life that is not worth living. And magic, in my view, is a rather promising alternative.

The Bible warns against visiting spiritists, mediums, necromancers and such. Do you know why it so warns? If the answer is so that no literature about them might be produced you will be mistaken. Saul, for instance, determined to rid the land of Israel of all such influences, to his praise. But, you know, there were a lot of strange events in Saul’s life. Twice he was reduced by ecstatic prophecy, at one point often tormented by an evil spirit, and in the end, to his shame, he consulted a medium. That’s an awful lot of mention and writing about strange weird magic.

With the question of why the Bible warns about consulting the wicked magicians still over us, let us deal with the fallacy of concluding we should not write about them. The Bible has quite a bit of it. Human writers wrote about magic and God inspired their writings. Now some will be tempted to claim that they had special sanction to do what we cannot. This sort of thinking does not make for good hermeneutics, let me tell you. If you think they wrote under special circumstances you are conflating two things about the Bible which are true but distinct. This conflation results in a false understanding of Scripture.

Scripture is always two things: it is inspired by God and it is written by human beings. God did not write the Bible (except for the ten commandments). Jesus Christ did not pen a word of it, though he well could have. Human beings with no divine nature penned the Bible. Were they divinely superintended? Of course. But to say that is only to speak of the final product–the what of it, not the how of it. Surely the Spirit used extraordinary means to move them along, but it is just as sure that he used ordinary means to do so. What ordinary means? Study, research, interviewing witnesses (all in the case of Luke), Egyptian learning (Moses, Solomon), literary talent (Isaiah! and Amos, to name just two), reflection on life’s experiences (surely Jonah and definitely the psalmists) and on and on. If you don’t take these things into consideration when you interpret Scripture, you will not handle it responsibly. You cannot treat the Bible as if it were a book handed down from heaven from God for the simple reason that it isn’t what it is and you will not get it right if you do. You can’t ignore the original languages it was written in, the literary conventions it uses, the times and circumstances under which the writers wrote. If you ignore that, you will get it wrong. None of which is all that controversial.

What does seem to cause some people difficulty is the corresponding inference that the writers were not sanctioned to do things we must not, or, to put it plainly, that we can do what they did, inspiration excepted. The topics they deal with, they do in exemplary fashion and are, by inference, guides to us. Guides in the use of the Scriptures themselves, and guides in terms of writing properly about the things they write about. Just as we cannot say the writer of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament is somehow bizarre and done “under inspiration” (deplorable expression), we cannot say that the writer of the sad circumstances of the life of Saul was committing a holy impropriety in so doing. He writes to inform our moral imagination. So does literature dealing with magic.

Our ideas of inspiration ought not to be uncomfortable with all this. The Bible is not less than a book written by human beings. Even the part that God directly wrote, the ten commandments, is rewritten into the Bible by Moses as part of his great chronicle and only at that point enjoys inspiration in the sense of the term Paul means. Scripture is not less than a book written by human beings although it is certainly more than that: it is God’s inspired word. So we must at least afford it the reverence of integrity in handling it, and not use it conveniently to excuse our unexamined prejudices against things that disturb us.

Let us consider, then, one of the passages. Leviticus 20.27: A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them. Here is a plain commandment: put people who are mediums or necromancers to death. Why? Because it’s all rot and hogwash and since I don’t want you wasting your time on them, just ruthlessly kill them out of hand.

Hardly. When Saul went to the medium and she conjured up Samuel, I think she really conjured up Samuel. There are things human beings can do which they ought not to do, hidden things, occult things, and things which are so harmful to God’s people’s welfare that they deserve the death penalty. I think we have to take them seriously. I think what they do is real and dangerous, and we should be aware of that. Whether they succeed or not you may perhaps debate if you wish, but what is not up for debate is that something awful must be going on. In some way their magic is real, because their harm is real, because their guilt is real, because God really meant for these people to be stoned. I don’t think there are sins that cannot be committed overtly that still hypothetically exist to be committed in the heart. I may be wrong about that–let me know–but I don’t think I am. And so I conclude that there is real dark magic, and Scripture condemns it.

Do you find that creepy? I do. I find it creepy and thrilling both. It seems to open up something in the universe that in a way I hope I never run into, but in another way I’m glad exists. You see, if the universe is all tame and explained, it is a very limited universe. If it is not, then perhaps it also holds corresponding wonders; wonders that correspond in gladness to the horror of the dark stuff. And that is what I desire, and I think that is what is behind our desire in literature for greater wonder, greater mystery, and why we love to read about it, why it makes for a good story. A depth which is horrible argues a corresponding wonder that is greater and more wonderful than all the terror below it. Evil is, after all, the privation of good.

And God who is not tame is still in charge. We do not get to determine the boundaries of experience. Terrors are present in it, the greatest being that great being who is wholly other. There is a terror of holiness and an awfulness in mystery. It should awe us and fascinate us more than any other thing, and I think that is what God was after with his people. I think that’s the tragedy of the pettiness of Saul, and the tragic irony of his story. He had to go to mediums because the Lord left off speaking to him because he despised, profaned and himself turned away from the greater wonder. The greater magic was gone, and so he went among the shadows and shades, with those who peep and mutter and do not speak with clarity or certainty.

And as long as the evil magic is portrayed honestly as powerful but undesirable, as corrupt and self-defeating, self-consuming, obsessive and degrading, then it OUGHT to be a part of literature somewhere–the better literature, that is. And let us not be afraid of supernaturalism–for that is what it is, that greatest of the greater magic–with all of its rigors. We do not live in a merely natural universe, but one under the aegis of the supernatural. We ourselves are supernatural beings with indestructible eternal souls, let us not forget. If we forget that, are we not less than Christian? God with his deep magic maintains and runs the world, intervenes when he wants and gives supernatural powers to his messengers when he chooses. One day he will raise the dead. Let us not reduce the world to make it comfortable and satisfy our timidities. Nor let us restrict the portrayal of the imaginative possibilities to something dry and dishonest, devoid of real conflict because there is no terror before the greater backdrop of wonder.

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2 thoughts on “Magic

  1. Well said, Joel. Your analysis seems very sound. A presentation of the evil as real, as deep, but also as undesirable seems to be a wise approach. For if the evil is not real, and the evil is not powerful, than why does one need the greater wonder and the supremacy of Almighty God? And one learns this, yes, through the Bible, but also through better secular literature, as you say. Do you think this is also the benefit of Flannery O’Connor’s writing?

    1. If the question has to do with evil as real and the portrayal O’Connor gives as wise, then yes. It is an interesting connection because while I think of her as a supernaturalist, I do not think of her stories having magic. They’re grotesque is what they are. Which is an interesting enough part of experience even if there were no immediately obvious lesson to be gathered from it. I don’t think people who aren’t readers understand that bit either: they don’t understand the value of being exposed to the quiddity of something one would not otherwise get. The varieties of strangeness one gets in literature is one of the great attractions for me, with a range that includes O’Connor, Williams, Peake, Djuna Barnes and the prophet Ezekiel.

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