I’m not sure exactly when or where I learned it. Was it overt, clearly stated in some book or class? Or did I more intuit it, sniff it out?
Magic is a bad theological term. Avoid it whenever possible.
I suspect this has to do with our Reformational roots. Magic was associated with the dark arts, the occult, paganism. And maybe just as much, it brought to mind hocus pocus, Catholic sacramentalism. Besides, we are humanists, learned people, gatherers of knowledge. None of this “eye-of-newt”* stuff for us.
Increasingly, however, I am drawn to the term magic.
I want to believe in magic. In our current context, I notice that “magical” is a favored, sacred adjective. Is that the power of Disney? Friends return from a European riverboat cruise and describe it as magical. A ceremony honoring an injured veteran or a retiring teacher. A dog reunited with its owner. A descant in the closing hymn of worship.
Magical! All of it. Joy, beauty, thrill, power, amazement. Something ineffable. Something apparently unquantifiable. Something holy, or nigh unto it.
We might conjecture that our attraction to magic is pushback on our coldly technological world. Magic consoles us, telling us that there are things beyond measure and analysis. With AI, for example, we want to hold on to the idea there is something essentially, mysteriously human that no computer will ever be able to learn. But we fear that perhaps we are simply neural networks all the way down. Can baseball be fully understood with sabermetrics or are there intangibles and magic X factors?
Is magic just a fizzier, funner (yes, I know that’s not a recognized word, but I’m on a campaign to make it one) term for what we used to call “god of the gaps”? It covers those inexplicable gaps until science is able to explain them?
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In all honesty, it was writers and names who appear with some frequency here on the Reformed Journal that caused me to ponder magic and notice how I use and live the term.
In Tom Boogaart’s writings, I often hear him lamenting that we now live in a disenchanted universe — desecrated by our own doing. Glory, the holy, God — each has been deemed ancillary or unnecessary. Of course this has major repercussions for the way we live with and care for non-human creation. But the implications go much beyond that.
Interestingly, if I’m hearing Tom, he lays this disenchantment less at the feet of science and more at our barren understanding of the sacraments. How can we live in an enchanted world where God’s glory is among us if there is nothing enchanting in our sacraments? (As Daniel Meeter has observed, for modern, American Protestants miracles can happen everywhere except in church. “Uncle Lou’s leg grew longer. I found my car keys. My neighbor beat cancer.” But, the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial, an object lesson!)
Then recently Jason Lief brought Jacques Ellul into the conversation on The Reformational, Jason’s substack newsletter. If I’m reading Ellul-through-Lief accurately, our world hasn’t been demythologized at all. The intensity of our conflicts and the vehemence of our rhetoric display that we are fighting about “holy” things, no matter how “secular” the issue might appear. All of our wars are still “wars of religion.”
For Ellul, then, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of freedom from all these religions — an iconoclastic smashing of the idols that claim to be magical. As followers of Jesus, we don’t have to win the latest wars of religion, but instead trust that Jesus has already undone all the empty magic of the world.
Boogaart, and many others, want to bring back magic — or at least re-sacralize the world. Ellul and friends say that Christ has released us from all the false magic around us. I’m not convinced they’re as much at odds as it might appear. Is Ellul possibly calling upon us to trust in Narnia’s deep magic? I don’t know.
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Still, I am thinking about magic — and noticing the magic I live with and hope for.
1. A few summers ago, we encouraged the children in our congregation to look for the “Green Man”** and even had a reproduction gargoyle. Some people worried we were preaching paganism. Our aim wasn’t to bring back pixies and sprites, but instead to cause the kids to watch for and enjoy the wonder of creation.
2. Like Abraham, I sometimes bargain with God in my prayers. On the news I’ll hear that food and supplies for 20,000 are headed to some crisis where 50,000 are in dire need. I’ll pray, “God, what if those supplies stretched to aid 40,000? Who’d be the wiser? Seems like you’ve done this sort of work before. Well, okay, how about at least 30,000?” Or I’ll pray, “God, what if all the bullets manufactured today would have an undetected defect that would cause them to miss their target? Or if all the missiles launched today would be duds? Okay, what if you’d make only 25% defective or duds? I’ll even take five percent!” Does it work? I don’t know, but sometimes I still pray like that.
3. I’m relatively convinced that partaking of the Lord’s Supper actually makes me a better person. A long term study has proven difficult. But short term, its impact appears to last until about Tuesday afternoon, sometimes even into Wednesday.
4. I’ve written about how I wonder if the large stone or metal crosses found in the town square of almost every French village aren’t merely cultural artifacts from days gone by, but somehow silently radiate the love of God. The teeny sign of the cross I discreetly thumb on my grandchildren’s foreheads at farewells. The minister’s raised hands at the benediction. All of these things “do something.”
Do I truly believe this?
Yes, kind of, more or less, depending on the day. It’s magical thinking, no doubt. I’m not claiming it proves anything or could ever be proven. But to disprove it is difficult, too. I’m simply saying I want to believe in magic.
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* I was today years old when I learned that “eye of newt” is not a bodily part of an amphibian, but another name for mustard seed. So perhaps Christians do go in for eye of newt.
** It’s only conjecture, possibly even magical thinking, but was King Charles III inspired by our children’s times in worship to adorn the bottom of his coronation invitations with the Green Man. We’ll never know for sure.