Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Sep 8 2011

Conspiring with Truth

For skeptics like Bart Ehrman, the key to undermining the Christian faith is to undermine the Christian text. After all, faith “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”[1] But what if we are not really hearing the word of Christ? What if we are really hearing the word of power-hungry men who conspired in later centuries to give us their particular spin on the person and nature of Jesus Christ?

Peter famously confessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”[2] Christians make that same confession today. In the greater context of the New Testament, we come to understand that Christ’s sonship is tied inextricably to His deity.[3] God the Father sent His Son into the world so that we could believe what Peter and the rest of the apostles believed.[4] But what, exactly, did Peter believe?

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Nov 11 2010

Pop Paganism

Church bashing, pagan priestesses, and religious pluralism – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982) has it all. Offering yet another take on the Arthurian legend, Bradley’s fantasy has been praised for its feminist narrative and honored with its own miniseries on basic cable (2001).

The strongest women of Avalon – all devotees of the mother goddess – hold the destiny of the High King in their hands while fending off the dual threats of Saxon invasion and Christian conversion. The “official” version of the new religion gaining ground in Arthur’s world is cold, misogynistic, hypocritical, and meddlesome. Not all is gloom and doom, however. Bradley, in the voice of Morgaine, offers hope by uniting the two religions under one Gnostic banner. If Morgaine has her way, the most enlightened heirs of Camelot will understand that the Christian God and the Celtic goddess are male and female aspects of a single, nameless Divine. The good old days are behind us, she laments, but the goddess survives in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus.

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Aug 28 2010

Stark’s Battalions

There are a lot of myths about the Middle Ages. I suppose we have the Enlightenment humanists and the Victorian romantics to blame for most of those misconceptions. But the myth-making goes on, especially when it comes to the Crusades of the 11th-13th centuries.

The current impetus, as far as I can tell, comes from two directions. On one side we have Postmodern cultural relativists who are embarrassed by the success of Western civilization. They see Anglo-American support of Israel and two Gulf Wars as painful reminders, if not rehearsals, of the old Crusades in which cross-wearing brutes attacked a more tolerant and more sophisticated Middle Eastern culture. Ridley Scott develops some of these themes on the big screen in his Kingdom of Heaven (2005).

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May 27 2010

Hollywood Hypocrisy: The Prime Directive

In various Star Trek series, the “Prime Directive” ordered a strict policy of noninterference in the cultures of developing planets. For Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, the plot device was aimed squarely at the perceived evils of Western civilization, including traditional Christian faith. Indeed, religion always provided a convenient exception to the Prime Directive. Principal characters, especially in the original series and in The Next Generation, were frequently called upon to debunk religious belief or quash its development.[1] For someone like Roddenberry, tolerance was the first and greatest command unless, of course, an inhabitant of the galaxy happened to believe in God.

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