Magic, Religion and the Kingdom of God

This week I’m preaching on Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus and the encounter with Bar Jesus the magician.

The Magicians of Acts

There are three encounters with magicians in the book of Acts. All are highly conflictive. It is also interesting to note that all three magicians are Jewish. This is noteworthy because magic is something that was forbidden in the Mosaic law which locates the Christian Apostles on the side of Moses in opposing these magicians, something obviously important for a new religious tradition claiming to be the authentic heir of the old.

Looking Out from The Empirical Box

The topic of magic and religion is an interesting one. As I work through T.M. Luhrmann’s book “When God Talks Back” what interests me is how she approaches evaluating the Vineyard churches she is studying. She has to fit what she is encountering into a framework and the dominant framework of her field (modern scientific anthropology) will use the categories of medicine and social science. She spends a lot of time translating the processes and outcomes she’s studying into psychological categories. Haunting the book is the question of whether these Christians are actually reaching outside the box.

Magic and religion pose different challenges to a secular framework. Because both claim to be beyond the visual scope of empirical examination both are subject to a priori dismissal. The fact that people are unwilling to give either of them up keeps them in the discussion.

A good description of the box is from David Eagleman’s excellent book Incognito.

The materialist viewpoint states that we are, fundamentally, made only of physical materials. In this view, the brain is a system whose operation is governed by the laws of chemistry and physics—with the end result that all of your thoughts, emotions, and decisions are produced by natural reactions following local laws to lowest potential energy. We are our brain and its chemicals, and any dialing of the knobs of your neural system changes who you are. A common version of materialism is called reductionism; this theory puts forth the hope that we can understand complex phenomena like happiness, avarice, narcissism, compassion, malice, caution, and awe by successively reducing the problems down to their small-scale biological pieces and parts.

Eagleman, David (2011-05-31). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Kindle Locations 3470-3475). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Does the human mind interact with the universe?

In the early 1950s, the philosopher Hans Reichenbach stated that humanity was poised before a complete, scientific, objective account of the world—a “scientific philosophy.”28 That was sixty years ago. Have we arrived? Not yet, anyway. In fact, we’re a long way off. For some people, the game is to act as though science is just on the brink of figuring everything out. Indeed, there is great pressure on scientists—applied from granting agencies and popular media alike—to pretend as though the major problems are about to be solved at any moment. But the truth is that we face a field of question marks, and this field stretches to the vanishing point. This suggests an entreaty for openness while exploring these issues. As one example, the field of quantum mechanics includes the concept of observation: when an observer measures the location of a photon, that collapses the state of the particle to a particular position, while a moment ago it was in an infinity of possible states. What is it about observation? Do human minds interact with the stuff of the universe?29

Eagleman, David (2011-05-31). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Kindle Locations 3740-3750). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

And then this great radio illustration.

As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.

Proud of your new discoveries, you devote your life to developing a science of the way in which certain configurations of wires create the existence of magical voices. At some point, a young person asks you how some simple loops of electrical signals can engender music and conversations, and you admit that you don’t know—but you insist that your science is about to crack that problem at any moment.

Your conclusions are limited by the fact that you know absolutely nothing about radio waves and, more generally, electromagnetic radiation. The fact that there are structures in distant cities called radio towers—which send signals by perturbing invisible waves that travel at the speed of light—is so foreign to you that you could not even dream it up. You can’t taste radio waves, you can’t see them, you can’t smell them, and you don’t yet have any pressing reason to be creative enough to fantasize about them. And if you did dream of invisible radio waves that carry voices, who could you convince of your hypothesis? You have no technology to demonstrate the existence of the waves, and everyone justifiably points out that the onus is on you to convince them.

So you would become a radio materialist. You would conclude that somehow the right configuration of wires engenders classical music and intelligent conversation. You would not realize that you’re missing an enormous piece of the puzzle.

Eagleman, David (2011-05-31). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Kindle Locations 3758-3776). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Both magic and religion attempt to deal with what is outside the wiring of the radio.

Are magic and religion distinct? Are the separate?

From a perspective that intentionally or unintentionally attempts to limit discussion or accept existence to the box within the empirical universe magic and religion are both outside the box. Both magic and religion attempt to engage asserted entities beyond empirical space and time. Both attempt to express agency over those boundaries and both  assert the capacity for humanity to live and work in both the physical and the metaphysical. In this way we can understand locating religion and magic within the same sphere.

Can We Distinguish Between Magic and Religion

David Aune’s work “Apocalypticism, Prophesy and Magic in Early Christianity” explores some of these issues by surveying the literature on the subject. Here are some distinctions between magic and religion

Recognizing the difficulty of drawing a hard and fast line between magic and religion, anthropologist W. J. Goode has formulated a number of “nondichotomous empirical differences” between magic and religion’s:

(1) magic tends to, adopt a manipulative attitude toward “extra-ordinary” reality, while religion tends to adopt a supplicative attitude,

(2) magical activities tend to be used instrumentally for specific goals, while religious activities tend to be regarded as ends in themselves,

(3) magic tends to emphasize individual goals, while religion tends to focus on group goals,

(4) magical activities tend to be private and individual, while religious activities tend to be carried out by groups,

(5) magic tends to develop professional-client relationships,while religion tends to emphasize the “shepherd-flock” or “prophet-follower” relationship,

(6) magic tends, in cases of failure, to introduce substitute techniques, while substitution is less characteristic of religion, and

(7) magic tends to act impersonally with minimal emphasis on emotion, while religion tends to make greater use of emotion and to evoke attitudes of awe and worship.

Goode is exceedingly wary of formulating universally valid statements about either religion or magic unless they are carefully qualified; his discussion has not received the attention it deserves.

Perhaps the most common way in which magic has been distinguished from religion, both by behavioral scientists and historians of religion, is based on a supposed difference in attitude toward supernatural powers: magic is said to be manipulative and coercive, while religion supplicates and venerates (the hazards of such psychologizing, however, remain generally unrecognized). Historians of religion, frequently concerned with formulating universally valid generalizations, have shown themselves particularly vulnerable to this notion.

I think these are some really helpful observations.

What is Magic For? 

Magic was acceptable in the ancient world. In ancient paganism Magic was a part of the royal court and magicians were advisors. Read the book of Daniel.

Christianity, following the lead of Moses frowned on magic and when Christianity became a dominant part of royal courts religion publicly replaced and sometimes suppressed magic. Secularism following Christianity continued the ban on magic, not so much by moral means but more by mockery.

Magic, of course, has never gone away even after it has gone out of public fashion and continues to play a role in many people’s ordinary lives often through what we call superstition.

Religion and magic, however, always had a public relationship and it is helpful to understand that relations. Again, back to Aune’s book.

Hopfner in four major categories: (I) protective and apotropaic magic, (2) aggressive and malevolent magic, (3) love magic and magic aimed at the acquisition of power and control, and (4) magical divination.

The goals of Graeco-Roman magic then, very generally, may be characterized as providing protection, healing, success and knowledge for magi¬cal practitioners and their clients, and harm for their opponents. Formulated in this way, it can be seen at once that the goals of magic are very similar to the goals of religion. The difference lies primarily in the way in which goals are achieved. Graeco-Roman magic provided an alternate means whereby goals and benefits sanctioned by religion but not easily attainable through prescribed religious observances, could be achieved by individuals in ways which pretended to guarantee results. In other words, those who failed to achieve the particular benefits promised by religion not infrequently turned to magic for an alternate means (and one generally regarded as socially deviant) for achieving their goals. What must have been a common situation in the Graeco-Roman world is encapsulated by Plutarch: “People with chronic diseases, when they have despaired of ordinary remedies and customary regimens turn to expiations and amulets and dreams” (de facie 920B).

Magical practices and practitioners were generally illegal throughout the his-tory of the Roman empire’, though that which the Roman authorities regarded as constitutive of “magic” varied considerably from one period to another. Opposition to magic was based primarily on social rather than religious grounds.

It’s fascinating to see the continuity between the ancient world and our own in terms of both the motivation behind magic and the constant critique of magic. People don’t want to live with it but can’t seem to live without it.

Jesus and Magic

Jesus of course is known for his miracles. One’s disposition towards these miracles (historical vs. legendary) tend to reflect one’s worldview, how one relates to “the empirical box”.

While wonder working was certainly a component of the legitimation of Jesus, remember the Pharisees pondering how someone who wasn’t fulfilling their political/moral expectations could be empowered by God so some postulated that Satan was his backer. The focus of Jesus ministry was not on setting up a wonderworker cottage industry, but on the message of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. The assertion was that in Jesus God was doing a new work. The heirs of Jesus’ ministry therefore carry on that ministry

The Holy Spirit Bringing Harm

Criticism against magic in Acts is very strong (as it is in Moses). In Acts 13 Paul “full of the Holy Spirit” comes against Bar-Jesus in a highly negative way and a negative miracle is performed.

Negative miracles in and of themselves are very interesting in the Bible. The only negative miracle I can think of Jesus performing is cursing the fig tree. Everytime I teach on this someone will express sympathy for the poor tree, usually from a wooden chair. 🙂 Possibly the pigs drowned in the exorcism could count. Few seem to express sympathy for the pigs.

Jesus doesn’t hurt anyone with a miracle and rejects the appeal of his disciples when they want him to bring judgment down on a Samaritan town.

Yhwh in the OT is often criticized for negative miracles, as is God in the book of Revelation.

Here Paul essentially curses the magician and he becomes temporarily blind. There is a lot of irony in this (the seer becomes blind) as well as links to other stories (Paul’s temporary blindness, Jesus and other apostles healing the blind, the Luke 4 manifesto, etc.)

It has often been noted that the miracles of Jesus are often a sort of playing with time, a quickening. Storms end, Jesus ends it sooner. In the feeding of the 5000 the sower overtakes the reaper (Amos 9:13). Jesus’ healing are undoing the age of decay. Jesus’ resurrection is the advent of the age to come in his flesh.

Perhaps we can understand negative miracles along the same lines but in reverse. Bar-Jesus becomes what he is, blind. It is sort of a golden rule in reverse. You become what you are so you can’t perpetrate it any longer. It is sped up judgment.



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon, philosophical reflection, Quotations. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Magic, Religion and the Kingdom of God

  1. Pingback: The Punitive Work of the Holy Spirit |

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