Saturday, September 10, 2016

Magic and Fantasy Fiction Part 2--Christianity and Magic

(The FIRST title page above is a 1520 copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum," a manual on witchcraft originally published in 1487. The manual presumed all powers of ascribed to Witches were real and could only be explained as being a result of being in league with the Devil. NOTE the Catholic Church condemned this book as heresy not long after publication. It nonetheless remained popular and went through multiple editions. The SECOND title page is from the "Discovery of Witchraft," first published in 1584, which concluded witchcraft is almost entirely a result of charlatans or overactive imaginations and has almost no basis in reality.)

Christianity has had a strong cultural influence on how magic has been seen throughout the centuries. Before examining that influence in some detail, it's worth repeating a few pertinent details from my last post on this topic and fleshing them out by looking at magic as seen in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Magic in the real world (as opposed to fiction) mostly but not exclusively relied on a view of nature that believed spirits inhabited all parts of what we would consider the physical universe--a.k.a. animism. Magic originally consisted of actions performed to appease or control the spirits, which always had the option of rebelling against any attempt to direct them. Spirits seen to be more powerful would eventually be worshiped by a formal priesthood in polytheism, but before the composition of the Hebrew Bible, there was no systematic distinction made anywhere in the world between religion and magic. Biblical condemnations of magic in the Hebrew Bible should not be seen as essentially different than its condemnations of idolatry or worship of gods other than the one Creator.

Magic was also linked to the annual cycle of time, especially in the ancient Pagan solar calendars. So the spring equinox was seen as a special day demanding particular rituals, which were required to cause the fertility of the ground to progress during the year. Likewise the winter solstice, which has the longest night of the year, was seen as requiring special ceremonies to cause (or encourage) the sun to in effect come back from hibernation. And so on.


While ancient magic and religion saw spirits in everything, some spirits were believed to be stronger and more important than others. Some places were seen as important, too--as especially powerful or magical or even "holy" in the eyes of those who believed in them. Certain symbols were seen as having special powers as well. Many objects were thought of as what we would today describe as "magic" (which was really the same in non-Hebrew thinking of ancient times as "holy"), including rings and amulets and swords from what we would consider normal in literary fantasy. But many other things were also in that category--ancient idols especially were seen as representing not just a means to worship the gods, but as talismans of the power of the gods (if not in fact the actual gods themselves). In short, an idol was a magical device, an especially powerful one.

The Hebrew Bible does not spend a lot of time focusing on spirits or magic in its overall scheme. Magicians opposed Moses in Egypt, in a passage that highlighted the fact they did at least appear to have some power--but it was nothing compared to the power of God. Likewise with Daniel in Babylon, whose God-given power to interpret a dream (a very important form of divination at the time) easily exceeded anything the Pagan competition was able to perform. These passages do not develop any real systematic study or theology of how actual magic would work, but neither do they deny the existence of magic. Magical practices are simply forbidden and made to look feeble in contrast to Divinely-sanctioned contact with God.

Note the Israelite worship calendar given in the Torah does not directly oppose the idea that some times of the year are special, a deeply ingrained Pagan belief. But it gives an entirely different set of special days than the Pagans of the period had, with an entirely different rationale. The Hebrew calendar of worship is about remembering the acts of God in the PAST, instead of an attempt to get him to perform something in the future, which was the focus of the Pagan calendar. There are numerous other differences, too many to detail here, including the fact the main spring celebration, the Passover, was about death and deliverance in Hebrew tradition and not at all about the Pagan celebration of life and fertility that occurred at roughly the same time of year (and which involved rabbits and eggs)(note also the Hebrew calendar was lunar instead of solar, so it was different in nearly every way from the Pagan nations around it).

The ancient Israelite worship system does not bother to address the issue if among the vast array of locations in the world whether some places are actually in fact better for worship of spirits than others. It simply and repeatedly tells Israel that THEY are commanded to worship at one place, which is special in relation to all others, the temple in Jerusalem. And even that place is given several historical references as to why it is special, as a place where Abraham was ordered to take Isaac as a sacrifice and also where God appeared to King David. So there is very little sense in the Bible that even the Temple Mount is in any way a special place in the Pagan conception--a place where especially powerful magic (or worship) can be performed (see King Solomon's prayer in I Kings 8:27). Nor is any other place seen as special or "magical" in indisputable terms in the Hebrew text.

The closest thing to any physical object in the Bible having a special spirit or ability would be Moses' staff, which he could turn into a serpent whenever he wished (God commanded that the staff would have that ability, according to the Bible). And Aaron's rod, which budded after being a dead stick for who knows how long. The Ark of the Covenant, in spite of the Indiana Jones treatment of the subject, is not in fact treated as having any special power in the Bible. It is not credited with the victory of the Israelite army at Jericho, even though the Bible says the priests carried it before the army. The most that could be attributed to the ark is one particular guy died when he touched it as it nearly slipped off an ox cart (2 Samuel 6:7). But the Bible specifically says the LORD did that to the man, as opposed to ark itself.

The Hebrew Bible on multiple occasions takes a specific shot against the view that Pagans had concerning their idols--that they were repositories of living spirits. On the contrary, says the Bible, again and again, idols "have eyes, but do not see; mouths, but do not speak" (in Psalm 135:16 and elsewhere). In other words, the idols were just physical objects and had no spiritual reality backing them up at all.


The Christian Scriptures took this particular Hebrew view and modified it in the New Testament in particular ways. First, in the life of Jesus a large number of spirits are mentioned. These though are not seen as occupying every single thing in the visible world, but only human beings and only on one occasion animals (but only after what seems to be unusual circumstances, the evil spirits making a special request of Jesus). These evil spirits are described by the terms "demon" and "devil" and are described as falling under the command of a specific head, the Devil, or Satan (who is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but in rather disputable terms).

In human beings, these spirits, these demons, are accredited with being the cause of multiple illnesses, especially those along the lines of what we would call "insanity" today. However, only some of the people Jesus cured had demons cast out of them. MOST in fact are not so described. Indirectly, the Gospels thus support the idea that most illnesses have causes that are in no way connected to the spiritual world.

Also mentioned in the New Testament are angels. In the New Testament, as opposed to the Old (where they do in fact also appear on numerous occasions, but with little explanation) they are specified as "ministering spirits." In other words, they also occupy a realm of things ordinarily invisible to the human eye.

So the New Testament in effect allows a theology of magic to be made by stating that the power of magic IS in fact performed by spirits like the ancient Pagans believed. Spirits are around us, but invisible. But these spirits do not happen to live in every single object. They are at most only around some things and not every single thing. They can in fact, Biblically speaking, really only be expected to dwell in human beings and not in other living creatures or physical objects. The Bible text however does attribute to them as having at least some powers that extend outside their demon-possessed hosts. They are always evil, so magic, which comes from them, is also always evil from this reasonable Biblical interpretation, even though they can and at times will pretend to be good.

In this theological view, what we call "magic" is never attributable to God. Even if Divine power does things that appear to be the same as what magic would do (such as turning the Nile River bloody, which both God and the Egyptian priest-magicians could do in Exodus), God's power is described by one set of terminology, while "magic" refers to power designated as evil. 


And for most modern Christians, the power derived from the study of nature (also known as "science") would be described by yet another set of terminology, even though that particular division isn't Bible-based. In fact, many believers in God who were scientists have stated that the laws of physics are really manifestations of the will of God. Could we apply this same reasoning to apply what is called "magic" to being just another manifestation of the will of God?

As the Bible defines the term "magic," no. Please note I believe fiction writers are free to create alternate definitions of magic for the purpose of storytelling, but for my fellow Christians, what the Bible says about this topic is important. We may in fiction decide that people can fly if they can manage a happy little thought, but we also should know before we write fiction, what the facts are.

"A manifestation of the will of God" isn't what the Bible says about "magic" and related terms at all. Magic was linked to worship of other gods--that is why it is designated "evil." Let me assure all readers, lest you think
delving into Greek and Hebrew original words in Bible texts somehow changes this situation, it doesn't. The fundamental position of the Bible is that spiritual power derived from sources other than God deserves special terminology to set it apart from God's power--unlike the power of science (which actually does receive indirect mention in the Bible, believe it or not).

This legitimate (and sharp) Biblical dividing line forms part of the reason why some Christians are so dead set against even the term "magic" or related terms like "sorcery." For some people, if magic is ever used by any fictional characters at all, it is seen in light of the theological view I described above, i.e. that magic is always bad, period. But please note that literary magic taken as a whole has a great number of differences between it and the Christian theological view of magic I described above.

Literary magic, just to name a few of the most common differences, is full of creatures with special magical talents (like unicorns)--the Bible does not indicate that any living person has any more access to evil spirits than any other--not by nature (it may be true of people hypothetically, but the Bible at the very least doesn't 
directly comment on that possibility, which probably but not certainly indicates it isn't true). Nor does it show that ANY animal is in fact in league with evil spirits or otherwise "magical." 

Literary magic also tends to strongly fall in line with the view I mentioned in my last post, that magic power is simply that, power, and spells and potions and whatnot, instead of appeasing spirits, are involved in transfers of invisible powers mostly on a quid pro quo basis (this view was influenced in the West by certain Greek philosophical considerations, by the way). Literary magic is also filled with enchanted objects, things like special scrolls, rings, and swords.

The Bible's view does not give one shred of reason to believe that even though spirits are real, they attach themselves to physical objects. They only are interested in living human beings from what the Bible reveals and not any physical thing. There are therefore no real magical or holy symbols of any intrinsic value (the only value they have would be what people assign to them). No pentagram is condemned, Biblically speaking. Nor is the use of the sign of the cross commended. Nor is there any reason to believe a spell would always work--just like the ancient Pagans believed, a REAL spell is an appeal to a spirit which that spirit may or may not accept--not a quid pro quo exchange. 

Nor are there any holy (or unholy) places. All places in the world, with the possible exception of the temple mount in Jerusalem, are ALL just like any other place, spiritually speaking. Nor are there any special magical days--the Pagan high calendar would seem to be as much a product of human imagination as their notion that spirits lived in the idols made of wood, metal, and stone, which in fact could neither speak, hear, nor move. 

You may note how very modern my explanation of what the New Testament says about evil spirits seems to be. It is very close to the modern "scientific" or materialist view, which would say there are no spirits at all, anywhere. And that the entire corpus of Pagan and magical thought was entirely the product of human imagination. Modern scientific man would agree with me that there are no holy (or magic) symbols or holy (or magic) places or objects or any days with any special magical (or holy) value.

Note that in apparent harmony with a modern view, First Corinthians 8:4 specifically affirms that idols are "meaningless." However, the same Biblical author (Paul) in the same epistle later says that things offered to idols are offered to demons (I Corinthians 10:20). How can both things be true, a view that is essentially modern in asserting Pagan holy symbols are meaningless, yet still accepts the existence of evil spirits? 

Simply this, that idols were primarily physical objects cooked up by human imaginations (as were other false ideas, like animism itself). But that's not all they were.

The New Testament affirms that there ARE real spirits around, searching for an opportunity to get their metaphorical hooks into humans exercising their imaginations as they engaged in such activities as Pagan worship or the practice of magic (which were originally aspects of the same thing). Note the primary identifier of such worship or magic is that it involves turning away from God and seeking other "powers." It is NOT true that the most important thing about it is that the relationship involved is a quid pro quo exchange. Thinking that "quid pro quo" is the basic definition of magic would be to read too much literary magic into what real magic actually was (and is).


Note that early Christian teaching tended to see the powers of darkness as already defeated by Christ. Such powers as represented by witchcraft as a result were not something the early Church talked about very often, even though they condemned them on occasion. In addition, the real significance of some things we think of as Christian, such as the symbol of the cross as a holy object, or the idea there were holy places (almost like magic places, but CHRISTIAN brand...ahem), crept into Christian thought over time. The first major significance assigned to the sign of the cross that I know of was from the (future) Emperor Constantine, around 300 years after Jesus walked the earth (who was a Pagan at the time he saw it). The first holy places centered around places historically linked to Christ, also hundreds of years later--but they at times were also seen as having special powers in a way with obvious parallels to Pagan thought.

By the time of the Dark Ages in Europe, the Pagan view of magic had largely been overlaid over what I consider the Biblical theology of good and bad invisible spirits with no real connection to physical things. Some magic practitioners of the period and afterwards sought to find the direct help of the angels, who are always good in Biblical theology. Or to force the intervention of God through certain specific rituals or symbols. These are things the Bible itself never recommends--instead, Christians are told to seek God through prayer, which is directly asking the Divine Creator of all for something and which requires no ritual or special day or special symbol. 

Please note though, that these people who sought Divine or angelic power through ritual or symbol considered themselves to be working for God's glory. Even though to at least some degree, there is no question they in fact were borrowing concepts taken from Pagan practices. 

Borrowing Pagan practices and importing them into the worship of God I would agree could be called "white magic" (though that term is ALSO borrowed from Paganism--it does not exist in the Bible), because the influence of magical thinking really is there. However, strictly speaking, it is an error from the Biblical point of view to define any attempt to reach the one true God as "magic," even if it employs a method that parallels things found in magical spells. "Magic" by Biblical definition is seeking power outside of God. Seeking God wrongly is not advisable, not a positive good, can be very much like magic in its methods, and even can be dangerous in that it may court God's judgment. But it is not in the final analysis the same thing as the magic the Bible condemns.

So, is it correct to call certain Christian practices that call on God to perform certain acts in exchange for other acts "white magic"? No, not really. 


I would say there is more "white magic" in specific rituals and symbols which are supposedly Christian than in calling on God to act in a belief He will be required to respond as promised. Symbols and rituals have stronger parallels with Pagan magic, even though not even these are actually what the Bible condemns as "magic" if they are intended to reach God. 

Of course, what I said about God's promises is assuming what is pursued by the Christian has at least some basis in Scripture. Imagining God to have promised something not in Scripture at all is bad and dangerous, but it's closer to heresy than to magic. That's true even though I agree that God is no one's genie--He in fact decides how to answer and when and it is a theological error to think a believer can force God to do anything. Thinking so parallels magic in some ways--but nonetheless wouldn't be the same thing even if Pagans had believed they could force their gods to act (which they mostly did not believe).

So h
ow about an exorcism or spiritual cleansing? Are these things "white magic"? Is it wrong to attempt to do these things as a Christian? Is it acceptable to attempt to clear a room of evil spirits by commanding them to depart? 

The Biblical Epistles are the marching orders of Christian churches, as opposed to historical books like Acts and the Gospels, which tell us what happened without always expecting us to do the same. The Epistles give no clear commands to perform any exorcisms or cleansings, nor any instructions on how. So I would say that it probably isn't a good idea to attempt such an action, even if Jesus and the apostles did so. 

That Jesus walked on water does not mean I can do so, too--if I were to be called out on the water, like Peter was, then I can expect to succeed there. But the Bible does not have a general command to walk on water and it also does not have a general command for Christians to go out and perform exorcisms, not from what I see. Though there are Christians who disagree with me about that based on certain interpretations of the Gospels and Acts. Even though I know where they're coming from, I think they are mistaken.

HOWEVER, as much as I am not pro-exorcism, I would not agree, based on the New Testament that addressing a demon is in fact somehow praying to it. Jesus himself addressed demons and certainly did not ever pray to them. Claiming that addressing a demon is itself intrinsically a form of magic or a prayer to that demon is a false statement not based in any objective New Testament teaching--a false statement that might actually qualify as slander. Since again, Jesus and the apostles addressed them when they performed exorcisms and they were definitely not praying to them.

After the time of the apostles, in which miracles were apparently common and into the late Roman Empire, very little appears in church writings about events we could describe as miraculous. In this same period, neither was very much written about magic. But beginning in early Medieval times, magic began to be the subject of some legislation. Medieval law did not attempt to legally banish all of what I would label as "magical thinking," but did provide some legislation that forbade the use of spells to hurt someone. The emperor Charlemagne was especially insistent on laws against the damaging use of magic from what I've read. 


Note that once Christian armies (or at least armies who fought in the name of Christianity--baptizing someone does not "magically" mean his thinking is no longer Pagan) defeated in battle the armies of Pagans, like Charlemagne defeated the Saxons, the overt Pagan rituals were forbidden. The Pagan priests (such as Saxon priests) were no longer allowed to openly perform the public worship they had done in the past. Folk magic, not practiced by any formal priesthood, took over among people largely Pagan in their allegiance. Magic continued to uphold a number of ancient rituals and developed new, clandestine ones. This period is part of why our modern thought separates magic from religion so thoroughly. Formal religion was one thing at that time, formally approved by the governments of the period. "Magic" was performed by a different set of people under different circumstances, in private, quietly, a surviving remnant of Pagan thought.

But it's worth repeating that the two systems were not fundamentally different in the Pagan era--once upon a time, magic and religion were two aspects of the same thing. It was the entrance of Christendom upon the world stage that sharply separated them.


By the late Middle Ages thinking on magic in Christendom itself went through a radical transformation. The book Malleus Maleficarum (the witches' hammer, as in what would be used against them) in 1487 perhaps more symbolized that change than caused it, but it affirmed that certain people, mostly women, were in league with the Devil and acquired from him a number of supernatural powers (it also discussed how to find and prosecute such witches). These powers are never mentioned in the Bible, as are a number of other allegations in the book--for example, that witches slept with demons or turned people into animals.

This concept, that witches were dangerous traitors to the human race who yielded great power still influences a number of literary traditions about witches (think: Wicked Witch in Oz). Though of course most modern, Western people believe such a view of witchcraft is sheer fiction. 


And we should note it largely WAS fiction. While there are real modern witches who are practicing a revived attempt to worship ancient gods and goddesses and perform ancient rituals, they CAN'T really do the magic that Malleus Maleficarum claims they routinely do. And it's worth mentioning that the witches don't believe that they report directly to Satan or other demons as the Malleus reported (though as a Christian I believe they do, simply unknowingly).

This particular old view of witches has never entirely disappeared from the world. People remain at least vaguely aware of it and it inspires some of the terror that certain Christians, Evangelicals in particular, still feel today. However, based on what the Bible actually specifically says about it, a pentagram that the Malleus would see as powerful witches' symbol is in fact nothing, totally meaningless. But to someone convinced that witches really exist in the Malleus Maleficarum sense, even looking at a pentagram or going near it would be to court danger. The idea that the very mention of witchcraft or magic in literature could represent another potential hazard is bound up in this late Medieval concept of witches--that they were in league with the Devil and certain images and objects (and ideas) need to be scrupulously avoided, lest Satan use them to take possession of you. 

This Medieval concept included believing that certain books or symbols had magical evil power and certain places were favorite haunts of demons. But this idea, that there are special places or objects that have special meaning in the demonic world is ITSELF imported from Paganism. It isn't part of how the Bible portrays the spiritual world. 

Biblically speaking, caution about evil spiritual influences is justified. Terror about certain physical objects or places or even the existence of certain literary characters who practice magic is NOT.

Modern sources often credit the Enlightenment with ushering in the current Western scientific view that there are no spirits at all in the world. But the Protestant Reformation had a prior influence, which arose from the Bible texts being re-examined. Not so much in the earliest days of the Reformation, but a bit afterwards, a number of Protestant Christian thinkers began to affirm that the actions described as "witchcraft" were in fact a giant scam, like circus palm readers. Or the product of overactive imaginations. Note they were taking about witches in the 
Malleus Maleficarum sense.

They also eventually concluded that the persecution of such people is a waste of time and was fundamentally wrong. That spirits may exist, but special spiritual places, special dates, and special symbols or objects with magical or spiritual (demonic) power were in fact largely fake. (The earliest example I know of this thinking is captured in Scot's "Discovery of Witchcraft," for which I gave the title page above--note it was originally produced less than 100 years after Malleus Maleficarum).

Protestant thinking of the period, inspired by what the Bible actually says, definitely helped pave the way for the modern view that spiritual power is nothing at all to be concerned about. That it is total fiction.

However, please note that the Bible's condemnation of magic remains pertinent for a Christian who believes the Scriptures. And the New Testament's linkage of such powers to evil spirits remains valid for a Christian who believes the Bible. There is such a thing as magic which we can accurately describe as "real." It ISN'T all entirely made up or the product of charlatans, even if Malleus Malificarum is bogus. What it actually is always involves turning away from God to acquire spiritual (or magical) power, whether that definition lines up with a modern way of thinking or not. 

So, it's worth repeating one last time, a quid pro quo exchange is NOT the fundamental definition of magic, Biblically speaking. That's true even though systems of spells designed to appeal to the animistic spirits employed a lot of quid pro quo. Magic according to the Bible is linked to seeking supernatural power outside of God, whatever the means.

My sincere apologies about the length of this post, but I made it as short as I could. To wind it up by turning back to the original purpose of this series of posts: 


Are there any ACTUAL hazards from the magic seen in literary fantasy fiction? Or to rephrase that, what is the relationship between magical fiction and real magic, if any? Is it possible for books that portray magic to cause any real person actual harm? If so, how? 

These last points and others I will, God willing, cover in the next post in this series. Please stay tuned. :)

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