Monday, October 27, 2014

Christianity and Magic #3: Faerie

So, I’ve talked about maleficium and natural magic, but there’s a third form of ancient magic that needs to be addressed. What on earth should Christians do with fairies and fairy magic?  As strange as it sounds fairies have been a part of western culture just as long as magic has. They’re odd creatures really. They were definitely not pagan gods, they were never worshipped, but they were also something different than an animal. Belief in the fairies, the little people, the fair folk, stemmed from a radically different view of the earth and of space. We already talked last time about how the main view of the earth until the Enlightenment held that it had some form of life of its own, but there was also a belief that it held its own share of spiritual creatures.
This is a really weird view, and it’s difficult for the modern mind to grasp, but the ancients and the Medievals didn’t believe in space. Aristotle taught in his Physics that nature abhorred a vacuum, that there was always something everywhere. Now, you translate this to a European Christo-pagan setting fairies start to fill up some spaces quite nicely.  ‘Cause, see, there was also this guy named Plato (channeled through a man named Plotinus, introduced through a Christian lens mainly through St. Augustine) who held the belief in something called a Great Chain of Being. When this idea was adapted by early Christians the belief held that between God and man there are a whole bunch of other beings (or things that have being), and below man there are more things that have being. A super simplified image of this concept would look like this: 
God >> Angels >> Man >> Animals >> Plants >> Rocks. Or like this:

Things have more being the more spiritual they are, and less being the more material they are. So, you combine the two ideas, Great Chain of Being and Nature hates a vacuum, and you start to get a picture of a world where things like fairies can exist.

The example chain that I gave you would have been considered ridiculously simplistic. For example, there are actually different classes of angels, each created for a different purpose, all forming a sort of intermediary chain between man and God. The spiritual world was teeming with life, just like the material world was. So, then you have man in this Chain, filling up spiritual and physical space. We're these strange hybrid creatures in this cosmos teeming with this great diversity of being that leads all the way up to God – ultimate Being. It’s a bizarre idea, there were even theologians who asserted that there needed to be a specific number of human converts to Christianity before this world could come to an end – both to fill the perfect number of humans that God desired to fill heaven, and to replace the fallen angels. Read Anselm’s Cur Deus Hommo, it’s weird. But this doesn’t explain fairies very much yet.

Ok, so, given this kind of a world, where every inch of the spiritual and physical universe is filled with something, faerie was considered part of that something. Faerie wasn’t a creature, it was a place that existed on earth, but also not on earth, and its creatures were both otherworldly and tied to this planet. Faerie isn’t really something you can define with much accuracy, and neither are faeries, but I can make some sweeping generalizations about what all of this was believed to be. Faerie was a place where the fairies lived and it was a place that human beings were not supposed to go to. It was not a bad place, or an evil place, it was just a place that human beings did not belong. Faeries themselves were not evil creatures, they were not demons, rather they were more like sentient expressions of nature. They had their own magic, their own lives, and their own rules that they were bound by. They weren’t good either. Just like you didn’t actually want to go to faerie, you didn’t want to meet one of its inhabitants. Faeries are not sweet little things with butterfly wings like you see in all the Victorian paintings, 
This is sweet... it's also not a traditional fairy.
they were unpredictable creatures who ruined crops, stole children, made travelers lose their way, killed people and dyed their hats in the blood, and so on. Faerie magic was a magic of illusion, of trickery, of harm sometimes, but also potentially of great help. If a faerie took a liking to you it could make sure your crops grew, or your house was protected, or that you recovered from an illness. Faerie magic was a lot like natural magic. The magic of herbs resided in the herbs, and the magic of faeries resided in the creatures themselves. They too were creatures of God, they lived along side man, but had nothing to do with his spiritual destiny.
Things like this were Faeries, and they didn't like you

What should we make of these things? Honestly, I’m not sure. On the one hand some authorities in the church considered them to be folk superstitions, and believed that any alleged interactions people had with them were probably with demons. On the other hand there were authorities in the church who believed they could exist. Scientifically speaking, of course, there’s no evidence that these things exist, there’s also a lot of evidence that Aristotle was wrong. Nature does not abhor a vacuum, there are empty spaces. Faeries aren’t necessary to fill the gaps. But, I see no reason for Christians to adopt anything other than a traditional attitude toward the mention of faeries. People weren’t seeking these things out; in fact most fairy lore is teaching people how to avoid these things or how to make them leave you alone. Maybe fairies are real (while science hasn’t proven their existence, it certainly hasn’t disproven it either), or maybe they are just demons preying on the superstitious, but there certainly has never been a traditional desire to seek them out, and I see no reason to change.

However, I believe there’s a difference between Faerie as a dubious reality and humanity’s interaction with the fairy tale. In my next post I’ll argue that not only are fairy tales not spiritually dangerous, but they're actually spiritually and morally edifying! Don’t throw your Grimm Brothers and Disney films out just yet J

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Christianity and Magic #2: Natural Magic

                Last post I talked about the kind of magic that the Bible condemned - maleficium. Today I want to talk about something called 'Natural Magic'. An good grasp of natural magic is important for understanding a couple facets of western culture. First off, though, it’s best to define what natural magic is. Natural magic was a form of magic that was used with the intention of understanding, predicting, and controlling the natural world. It involved the quest to summon or tap into natural powers in the earth. It involved such disciplines as astrology, medicine, and eventually alchemy. Now, on the surface this sounds a bit like maleficium, like summoning infernal powers to do your bidding. I hope to show, however, that natural magic is a fundamentally different, and biblically unobjectionable practice.
           I think what’s most important to understand when considering natural magic is that it stemmed from a radically different way of viewing the natural world. When the ancients and the Medievals thought about nature they thought of it as an organism[1]. The earth and the heavens were alive and had a sort of intelligence. In ancient paganism these manifested themselves as different sorts of deities. When Christianity came to the west, however, the earth and the heavens retained their life and their intelligence but now as members of a created order. This wasn’t just a case of newly converted Christians retaining an older pagan system. Instead it was an instance of Christians seeking what true things the older pagans had discovered (these things were expected to be true in observation and not contradictory to the Bible). As far as early Christians were concerned the living earth was compatible with a Christian worldview. This was not pantheism, it was simply the belief that if God gave life to plants and other animals, why couldn’t the earth have a sort of life? Why couldn’t the heavens?
           This seems very strange to modern people. The main reason is that we’ve abandoned the view that nature is alive. We don’t think of it as a living organism, we think of it as a machine. There was nothing, however, unbiblical or sinister in the act of viewing nature as an organism. In fact, many verses in the bible seemed to support this view!  Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” Psalm 145:1 “All your works praise you, LORD; your faithful people extol you.” Even Christ in Luke claims that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Early Christians took for granted that, while there was an element of poetic license in these statements (and many other statements like these), there was also an element of truth in them. Christ seems to be very serious when he claims that stones would cry out in praise of God, so it seemed fair to think that there was some sort of life inherent in nature.
          So, natural magic. Like maleficium power does not come from the user, rather it resides in the object. The important difference, however, is that in this case these are natural powers. When God created the world, the living universe, he imbued it with its own powers (like he gave humans the power of reason). So plants, herbs, stones, the stars, etc all have their own life, their own secrets, their own properties and powers. Certain herbs could affect miraculous cures for diseases, the movements and positions of the stars exerted mysterious influences over the earth, and the natural magician attempted to learn those secrets and to use them.

You may have noticed this already, but in the ancient and medieval world there was no clear distinction between science and natural magic. There was no place where you could really say magic stops here and science begins. Natural magic and science as we understand it were closely intertwined. Alchemy is, perhaps, the example of this way of thinking that is most easily accessible to contemporary people. Most people are aware that there existed at one time a group of men who conducted chemical experiments designed to discover the philosopher’s stone – a stone that could turn all materials into gold. There was a practical side to this endeavor. Alchemists would play with metals and chemicals, conducting experiments just like a modern chemist – yet they were nothing at all like chemists. They believed that the universe was alive, that some metals were more perfect than others, that the universe had spiritual as well as material properties. In the end you could not be a successful alchemist if you weren’t also a virtuous and pious man. But if you were successful you would be able to exercise a transformative control over nature – turning lead to gold, changing people’s appearance, and healing sickness. Such were the efforts of the great magicians Paracelsus, Richard Boyle, and Isaac Newton himself[2].

This seems to be very different from maleficium. It’s founded on a view of the earth that, at the time, seemed to be supported by both the Bible and the best educated men leading all the way back to antiquity. While a pagan conception of this view of nature lead to a sort of pantheism a Christian conception gave full glory and power over creation to God. As Christians it seems as though our only real objection to this sort of magic (the magic that gave us herbal medicine and clockwork figures) lies mostly in the realm of the practical. Most of this stuff simply didn’t work, because it didn’t have a sufficient understanding of natural causes. We understand the physical workings of the world better now – no one would deny this. It seems to me, however, that natural magicians, while praising our material accomplishments, would mourn the loss of their spiritual view of nature, and, quite frankly, I think Christians should mourn this too.

Thanks for reading. This is such a huge topic, and there’s so much to be said about natural magic in particular that I just don’t have the time or scope to deal with. I have some good sources though if anyone wants to learn about it from real people. A few good places to start would be the works of Francis Yates, Keith Thomas, Richard Kiekheff (his Magic in the Middle Ages is interesting), and Benjamin Lipscomb’s Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology.  Next week I’ll do some posts on a topic that a special place in my heart: Faerie and literary magic. I hope to culminate in a post on how I think Christians should regard the magic in Harry Potter on Halloween. It should be fun!

[1] This was affirmed by the greatest thinkers of the past: Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato, etc.
[2] All of these men were well documented alchemists, even Newton, who was actually more interested in alchemy and theology than he was in physics (and a secret heretic!). He definitely did not have a mechanistic view of the universe, and even believed that gravity’s force was more mystical than it was material. Actually, fun fact, quantum physics is kind of backing up this view again. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Sentence Movie Reviews: October 2014

I thought I'd do another one of these. I haven't really been watching movies latley, but there were a few I'd seen that were well suited to this abbreviated format! :)

The Secret of the Kells:
It has Irish paganism, Celtic Christianity, and beautifully illuminated manuscripts. There is literally nothing that you shouldn’t love in this quirky animated movie. 8 invading barbarians out of 10.

Justice League War:
I never fully realized how cool Wonder Woman was until I saw this film. I still hate Superman (but he was barely in it). 7 Batmans saving the day out of 10.

Guardians of the Galaxy:
I expected this movie to be fantastic and I was not disappointed. Rocket Raccoon and Groot are literally my bae (that’s how kids use that word, right?). 9.5 awesome mix tapes out of 10.

Like, omg, this teenage rom com totally turned out to be an early 2000’s adaptation of Emma. It was not horrible, and there’s something to be said for that. 6 awkward relationships out of 10.

Wreck it Ralph:
This was not my favorite Disney movie, but it was still super cute. You kept rooting for Ralph throughout the movie, even if some of the other characters were super awkward – plus, I can now answer those questions in QuizUp! 7 product placements out of 10.

The Lego Movie:
Um, I didn’t want to watch this movie, I thought there was absolutely no way it could ever possibly work, that it was literally the worst idea ever. Somehow they made it awesome, and I’m not sure how. 9 master builders out of 10.

The Amazing Spiderman 2:
Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is cute, and I really liked the soundtrack. It was ok, but not super memorable. 7 dead girlfriends out of 10.

Rio 2:
I discovered that Buster from Arrested Development voiced Blu. After about 10 minutes, however the novelty wore off – one was enough. 5 endangered species out of 10.

The Grand Budapest Hotel:
I watched this on a plane… so I have no idea if I can really recommend this movie… but the (probably) heavily edited version I saw was really good. It was so bizarre, and not the kind of comedy that I expected it to be, but it was a good movie. 8 cakes out of 10.

The Good Shepherd:
Ug, this made it on my top three least favorite movies ever list. It was just another long, pointless, pretentious piece of ‘artistic’ crap (I’m looking at you Blade Runner, 2001 Space Odyssey). 0 CSI agents 10 (no really, it was horrid). 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Christian Perceptive: Magic Pt. 1

     DISCLAIMER: Ok, I'm finally going to do it. I will take the plunge and start a post series on what I believe a Christian view of magic should be and how we should deal with it in literature (I'm lumping books, film, and T.V under the heading of literature, because that's just how I do). Also, I think this will be fun because Halloween is just around the corner! This first post will be an exploration of what magic is, how it has been defined  historically, and what the Bible actually says about it - but in a blog form and not an intellectual paper form. What follows are my own views and opinions. I am not an authoritative expert. I did take a class last semester that touched on this topic, so I'm not completely un-educated. At the end of the day, however, I urge you to follow the dictates of your own conscience. 

I know that a lot of people in the Christian community have a lot of reservations concerning magic. Now, you wouldn’t really think that this would be a problem; this is the modern world after all. We live in an age of science and technology; we don’t need to resort to superstition in order to explain the world any more. And in some ways that sentiment is true. Science and technology have allowed us to explore the world. We have made incredible natural discoveries. However, this has led to a rather ignorant attitude about magic and the culture of spell craft that existed well into the seventeenth century (yeah, you read that right).

Now there are several reasons that Christians especially should have an accurate understanding of what magic is and what it isn’t, which I will be exploring in a post series of sorts. The first reason, and the one that most Christians are apt to point out (rightly so) is that sorcery is explicitly forbidden by the Bible. For example one can consult Isaiah 8:19-20, Deuteronomy 18: 9-12, Leviticus 19: 26, 20:6, Revelation 21:8 etc. There are bunches (that’s a good academic word, right?) more that all basically say the same thing: don’t practice sorcery or divination. That seems pretty straightforward, only it actually isn’t. Before you break out the torches and pitchforks let me say this. The reason these verses aren’t straightforward is not because they’re ambiguous, because they’re not. The reason they’re harder to understand than you’d think is because contemporary society has no idea what magic actually is. When the Bible says ‘magic is bad’ what the ancients heard when the word magic was used and what moderns hear are very, very different.

I can say with all confidence (and I will in another post) that the magic condemned in the Bible is not Harry Potter magic, or Star Wars magic, or Narnia magic, or even fairy tale magic. The Medievals had a much better word for what the Bible condemns: maleficium (lit. wrongdoing). This word, maleficium, was not a general word for bad actions, but referred to sinful acts of a peculiarly spiritual variety. It refers specifically to intentions. In this kind of magic powers are used, tapped into, whatever, for specifically sinful intentions. Curses, spells, charms, potions, etc. were all incredibly prevalent in the ancient and medieval world. There was a trade in them that had probably been around as long as humans had. You used them to protect yourself from harm and to hurt your enemies. Most of these practices, practically speaking, were probably harmless but they rested in a tradition that was spiritually dangerous. In the traditional understanding of magic you needed to know the right words, and you needed to have the right tools, but ultimately the power did not rest in the caster. The ancients and the Medievals believed that there were powers in the world that, if you knew the right things, you could tap into and use. This was the kind of magic that was expressly forbidden in the Bible because, as it turns out, there really are dark spiritual powers that are more than willing to take advantage of human beings who invoke them carelessly (or carefully).

It’s perfectly true that this idea of maleficium is condemned by the Bible, and not just the casting of spells but the calling of spirits as well (for more obvious reasons). However, the Bible’s condemnation isn’t so much against the practice of calling on greater powers (or else prayer and the performance of miracles would be suspect too) what's being objected to as the sinful intentions behind these acts. Why did people practice maleficium? There are several reasons, each as ugly as the next. Malice, greed, bitterness, lust, and pride. The fact that you’re calling on dark powers to help you realize your own evil desires is sinful because it acts as a sort of inversion of holy prayer and miracles. Instead of maintaining holy desires and relying on the power of God, human beings chose to foster sinful impulses and turn to evil supernatural forces to help them realize their goals. It’s your intentions, just as much as your actions, that matter. And on this point I agree with those who say we should have nothing to do with magic. Magic, properly understood, is without a doubt condemned by God. It is real, and it is dangerous in so much as those who play with that sort of thing open themselves to demonic influences. As such it is to be avoided and condemned.

     What I want to explore, however, is whether all magic is like what I’ve described above, or whether or not the English word magic is a sort of blanket term that refers to a sundry of different practices, and whether any of them are acceptable for Christians to engage with and in. Keeping in mind what exactly the Bible is condemning as I move forward, I will posit that, yes, there are different sorts of ‘magic’ that the Bible says absolutely nothing about, and that good Christian men and women have explored. In my next posts I’ll be looking at Natural Magic, Faerie, and Literary Magic specifically. It should be fun! :) Stay tuned!

Christianity and Magic Posts:
Natural Magic
Fairy Tales
Literary Magic
Harry Potter

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Theological Musings: The Fruit and the Bread

     My friend is in a poetry class this semester and she wrote a poem (weird... how that happened) that I thought had some really interesting ideas. It's a sort of dramatic monologue in which the Serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit. The way she does that is interesting in and of itself, but what really caught my attention were the parallels she made between Eve's consumption of the fruit and the sacrament of communion. 

     This may sound a little strange, but I think she's stumbled across something incredibly fascinating. I'm sure many people are familiar with the idea of Typology - the idea that important doctrines and New Testament occurrences are symbolized, or pre-figured, in Old Testament stories. The big example is that Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac (and his gift of the Ram in the thicket) is a typology for Christ's sacrifice. If you're not sure what a typology is there's a lot written on it other places, like here  In Genesis I think there are a lot of 'twisted' typologies. Paul brings this up when he talks about how Christ is the Second Adam. He says:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin ...death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come... Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5). 

That's a lengthy quotation I know, but it illustrates the point I'm trying to make nicely I think. Adam was a type of Christ. It is from Adam that all humans were given physical life, and it is through Christ that all humans can receive spiritual life. But the idea of a twisted typology comes with the fall. Adam's sin resulted in spiritual and physical death for all people. whereas Christ's death resulted in the forgiveness of sin and the gift of spiritual life for those who would accept it. In Christ not only are the effects of the fall reversed, but the actions of the fall are reversed as well.   

This twisted typology extends to other aspects of the fall story and the redemption story. I'm not going out on much of a limb here, this is sort of a traditional understanding of the parallels between the fall and the redemption. Mary is often cited as a redemptive type of Eve. In Genesis God says "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed," (Genesis 3: 15). St. Anselm identifies the typology represented here quite nicely, saying, "And, as sin, the cause of our condemnation, had its origin from a woman, so ought the author of our righteousness and salvation to be born of a woman." Eve's disobedience precipitated our fall, but Mary's faith and obedience gave birth to our redemption. Another twisted typology is in the trees that are present in both stories. The devil conquered man with fruit from a tree, while he himself was conquered when Christ was raised on a tree. 

There are many types in the fall account that appear and are redeemed in the story of Christ. I think that the fruit can be rightly considered one of these twisted types. In the Genesis account Eve relates God's instructions concerning the fruit to the Serpent, saying: "From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;  but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die." (Genesis 3:2-3). So here we have a command from God "Do not eat." When this command is disobeyed, when the fruit is eaten, the consequence is that human beings are spiritually separated from God. I think that, if you look at the very beginning of the redemptive work during Maundy Thursday (during Passion week) that you have the typological fulfillment of that event. During the Last Supper the consumption of the fruit is redeemed in the consumption of the bread and wine. In this instance you have God in Christ giving the command "Take and eat." When this command is obeyed it serves to restore the spiritual communion between man and God and believer with believer.* The action of the fall, the severing of the spiritual communion between man and God,  is reversed in the action of communion. 

I'll end with this quote from St. Anselm, who is my favorite: 
We do no injustice or dishonor to God, but give him thanks with all the heart, praising and proclaiming the ineffable height of his compassion. For the more astonishing a thing it is and beyond expectation, that he has restored us from so great and deserved ills in which we were, to so great and unmerited blessings which we had forfeited; by so much the more has he shown his more exceeding love and tenderness towards us. For did they but carefully consider bow fitly in this way human redemption is secured, they would not ridicule our simplicity, but would rather join with us in praising the wise beneficence of God.

*I am aware that this statement may appear to offer a false view of communion, but that's only, I think, if you view the communion office as merely symbolic, which I do not. I believe that the Eucharist is not merely meant as a commemorative event, but is actually a spiritual act of worship that restores the individual's communion with God in a deeply spiritual way. I do not believe that taking communion is in anyway tied to Salvation, merely that the Eucharistic feast is meant to connect the believer with God, but different views of communion and what I believe is a whole different blog post - or maybe several.