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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?

+ + Magical Thinkers + +

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!)

Jacques Ellul

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

+ + Magical Thinking + +

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.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Thank you, Steve. I, too, want to believe in magic. The persistent hope in this blog was a great way to start my morning.

  • Ron says:

    I love the way you think. I love the way you put your thoughts into words.

  • Cheri Scherr says:

    I believe in magic. There are some things that have no other explanation. I also hope you can make funner an accepted word.

  • Ron Wells says:

    A Few months ago in these pages, Jared Ayers wrote of his pleasure in reading The Chronicle of Narnia to his children. I took that as a prod to read again the books I first read seventy (!) years ago, when I was in the sixth grade.
    Pertinent to Steve’s post today, I would mention how Aslan reassures the children, that while there is evil magic in this world, there is a “deeper magic” to which he points. And, we know which one will prevail in the end.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    I love this so much. A delight to read. And I want to believe in magic too.

  • Tom Boogaart says:


    I have a number of friends who are on the road to disenchantment, and I too have walked a ways down this road. They feel that the congealing of energy after the big bang and the subsequent formation of the various systems over billions of years explain how life emerged on this planet, and they have a hard time imagining how God is involved in all this.

    For me the experience of the sacraments has slowed my walk down this road, for they suggest that this complex universe is in its essence water for our cleansing/healing and bread for our nourishing. This universe produces and sustains life in all its forms. The sacraments suggests to me that energy is not a material force but a manifestation of God’s love. When I partake of the sacraments I begin to think that the people of Israel had it right: The world is full of the glory of God; the world is full of the love of God.

  • Lena says:

    No, I don’t believe in magic. This odd article and way of thinking is upsetting. Why did approximately half of the Conservatives in the RCA denomination leave? I’m betting it has to do with “teaching” from leadership such as this.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’ve been thinking about this. In cultural anthropological terms, magic comes actually closer to science, or technology. It was a way to get nature predictably to work, and it was as consistent with the world-view as science is today, the worldview that did not divide the world up into natural and supernatural. Magic sought to exploit the deepest secrets of nature, of a much more complex nature than our Newtonian nature. So I think you are using the word “magic” here in too many ways actually to be useful, if I may be so bold. On the one hand, I’m totally with Ellul (and Barth and Miskotte). On the other hand I believe there is far more to the “natural” world than we know or measure or scientifically comprehend. Even the obvious, how a dried seed can hold “life” for centuries while a crushed insect loses it immediately.

    • Lena says:

      What does the Bible say about magic? Google it and find out.

      • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

        Lena and Daniel, lighten up a bit! Let a little levity and joy into the conversation. Isn’t the whole point of “magical” to move beyond a cold, analytical, rational, and literalistic life? This isn’t an attempt to write the definitive piece on magic. Yes there is the natural/supernatural discussion. We could debate the distinctions between miracles, wonders, marvels, signs and more. Of course, we know the ancient Israelites’ take on witches and the like. Is that what I’m talking about here? Obviously not! Can we look for surprising beauty, inexplicable acts of the Holy Spirit, a God-filled universe? I hope so!

        • RZ says:

          Yes! Let’s celebrate the surprising beautyt of God’s unknowable message-sending. Call it divine or call it magic.It simply is . Thank you!

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    European cathedrals are full of “green men.” It’s fun to find them, like a treasure hunt. The Green Man was a complex figure that evidently slid rather comfortably into Christianity, if the cathedral stone masons are any indication.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Yes, Debra! I believe our resin reproduction was taken from one of those figures on an English church. Interestingly in the kerfuffle about Charles’ coronation invitation, I found that while the face has been found on buildings in England since the middle ages, the Green Man didn’t receive his name or his spritely character until 1939 as an expression of hope, vitality, abundance, and beauty at a time when dark clouds were looming across Europe.

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