Many years ago when my kids were kids, we were living in the wild city of New Orleans at a time when it attracted all the big name performers around the country. It so happens that we lived near the University of New Orleans who hosted magician David Copperfield. It is true that many university students near ends of terms go out in search of a magician, but I wasn’t able to prove that connection.
I nabbed three almost-front-row seats for the boys and me; their mom wasn’t interested in seeing Copperfield. I think she was jealous at how much makeup he could wear and “get by” with it.
I’d been intrigued with magic from the time I was a kid. I asked for and received for several Christmases or birthdays beginning magicians’ magic kits. It was a sad sight seeing me blunder even the simplest tricks as I eventually discovered that this could not be the profession for me–a parallel discovery to the realization that I wasn’t cut out to wear tank tops. Oh well, that’s for another church social event where something stronger than coffee is served.
My inability to perform magic tricks didn’t water down my interest in magic, though. No ma’am; no sir. Though Houdini was deceased before I ever heard of him, I became intrigued with him and with the amazing illusions he had performed–until the last one went terribly wrong and killed him. I read every book I could get my hands on about Houdini at the Halls Community Library–both of them.
Even with my avid interest in magic, I don’t think I was ever able to see any of the greats in person until the opportunity to see David Copperfield came along, and I enjoyed every millisecond of the performance. The boys and I waited in a bit of a line to meet him after the show, shake those magic hands–which were gloved for public contact, and get our programs signed.
The auditorium in which we watched the master magician do his work wasn’t terribly large so we felt very much a part of what was going on–even the finale when the lights flashed once and instantly came back on to reveal that a huge motorcycle that had been on stage was now on the walkway separating the good seats from the cheap seats. Jarrett, Carson, and I talked for months about how Copperfield could have done what he did before our very eyes, as it were.
The Bible generally takes a dim view of magic, mainly because the illusionary part was generally overlooked–both by performer and audience–leaving there to be the strong possibility in the minds of the people written about in both the First and the Second Testaments that evil forces were at work in making wonders happen. More often than not, anyone who could perform wonders at any level was regarded as a witch and condemned by so-called faith communities as akin to the demonic forces, invisible but nonetheless powerfully and relentlessly at work for evil.
Not all ancient cultures shared the Hebrews’ distaste for magic, which is how we ended up with tales such as Aladdin and the magic lamp. Should we be concerned about magic in our time?
Magic is illusion and is to be distinguished from what we might call “the miraculous.” Miracles are performed by mediums of God or mediums of evil–at least the way most biblical stories dealing with the subject view it, and there are two basic types of miracles either “side” may perform: miracles of the mind and miracles of the material world. There are numerous samples of these in Judeo-Christian scripture.
In our high tech age it is no easier to determine what is illusion and what is not than it was in ancient times. Maybe the stakes between understanding what is real and what is not are higher than ever, though.
The general pattern for interpreting biblical events that occur, or appear to occur, without human involvement is to call the good ones God’s work and the bad ones the work of evil. Many scientists, beginning at least by the time of the Enlightenment and certainly running into the very hour and place where we live, have tended to spiritualize miracles. “There’s no such thing as the miraculous,” many of them, not all of them by any means, reason, “so the account is either fiction, OR there’s a logical explanation for what happened though those closest to the event didn’t know or couldn’t understand the facts.”
Let’s have a look at three stories from the life of Moses: the burning bush, his brother’s walking stick or staff that turns into a serpent, and the parting of the Red or Reed Sea. First, in order of appearance, the burning bush.
The broad background of the story is that Moses is out tending sheep in the desert, and he sees along the barren, dusty landscape a bush that seems to be burning though not being consumed by the flames. Out of this burning bush, the voice of God calls out to Moses and gives him his ministry challenge of leading his sister- and brother-Hebrews out of Egyptian enslavement. God isn’t merely speaking through the bush, but also hearing through the bush so that God hears Moses’ protests at having been given such an assignment for which he feels utterly ill equipped.
What happened as a result of all that isn’t part of today’s sermon. We’re only concerned with the burning bush. How could a bush of any type be on fire and not burn up? 1) Some would say that when God is involved anything can happen; since God wanted to get Moses’ attention this burning bush was the means through which God chose to communicate with Moses. 2) Others would say that it was a beautifully told fictional tale filled with spiritual truths. 3) Still others, those who seek synthesis, would say there was a bush in the desert areas where Moses would have traveled with gleaming orange and red leaves that with sunlight and wind looked at a distance like it was on fire though it really wasn’t covered with flames at all. If this were anything more than symbolic, and don’t minimize the importance of symbolism, it would have to be classified as a God-ordained nature miracle. It wasn’t magic; it was miraculous, and the forces of God and good brought about the miracle.
Second story from the life of Moses. I want to read a little scriptural snippet for you at this juncture. Moses and Aaron are about to get an audience with the mighty Pharaoh and dare to tell him that the God of the Hebrews sent them to let him know that he, the Pharaoh, had to let the Hebrews go free, which was going to be big news, and funny news, to the Pharaoh who hadn’t heard a word about an emancipation program from any of his gods.
God told Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh would almost certainly ask them to perform an act of wonder to prove that they had connections to some divinity.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’ So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.
I guess that’s the no-more-arguments way of showing who’s the boss!
So, it turns out that these were all “tricks,” acts of magic except the final part of the episode when one trick snake ate all the other trick snakes. Or were they trick snakes at all? Some snakes, including many cobras, will play dead and completely stiffen up, so I am told, when threatened, and the same effect can be gained by pinching the back of the snake’s neck. Please be aware that I am not suggesting you try this at home.
If this is what Aaron was doing, when it was time to show the Pharaoh a trick, he simply threw the frightened, stiffened snake on the ground at which point it awakened and attempted to slither away to an escape. As to Aaron’s snake eating the others, well some snakes as we know are carnivorous and if hungry enough will eat their own species. Eating several other snakes all at once seems a bit of a stretch, but even so there was nothing magic or miraculous here in this case at all–simply a knowledge of how things work in nature.
The third bit of potential magic from the life of Moses was his parting of the Red Sea or the Reed Sea so that the Hebrews running for their lives from the Pharaoh’s recovery troops could get to the other side as dry as stale pita and with not even a speck of mud on their sandals. Of course, as the story was remembered and told, the second the last Hebrew was safe on the other side, the waters closed back in and drowned the Egyptians along with the horses they were riding and the horses that were pulling their finest war chariots. In this case, God was clearly working through Moses who used his staff to strike the waters causing them to open for the Hebrews. Good magic huh? Or, good miracle.
The suspicion toward magic and miracles was carried into Jesus’ life and culture. Magic wasn’t so much an issue despite the portrayal of Herod Antipas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but miracles were big deals; and the source of the miracle that any miracle worker was able to work had to come either from God or from evil so there was frequently much talk about which source was behind the feat. Those who really wanted to insult and diminish Jesus would accuse him, in terms of the miracles he performed, of being in service to powers of evil and darkness rather than in service to God.
Generally, those suspected of needing deliverance from the dark side were forced into exorcisms so that they might be freed from the control the evil was exerting over them, even if whatever it was they were doing along the lines of wonders weren’t hurting anyone. Case in point: the Apostle Paul and the clairvoyant slave girl whose peerings into the future were making big dennarii for her owners.
Paul described her as having a “spirit of divination”; today, we’d likely call her a psychic. In her day, psychics were rare; in our day, they are numerous despite the fact that Patrick Jane on his show “The Mentalist” has a job as a psychic even though he insists that there’s no such thing as a psychic.
The enslaved fortune teller got on Paul’s nerves, and if the truth is spoken that’s the only reason we know anything at all about her today. The writer of the book of Acts remembered how much Paul had claimed to be irritated by her. It’s really odd, and her ability to see into the future undergirds Patrick Jane’s view of the psychic life, that Paul was so put out with her.
This was her offense. When she saw Paul and his entourage, she began following them around saying the most horrible thing: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Heavens! Wash that girl’s mouth out with soap. I have no idea why this irritated Paul; maybe he wanted to hog all the attention and make his own announcement of who he was and what he was about. It seems to me that he should have appreciated her insight and affirmed her for being on target rather than condemning her as a lunatic controlled by an evil spirit who allowed her to know facts about other people before they’d made known those traits themselves.
I don’t think it would bother me if when I entered Concord Mall, a self-proclaimed psychic would follow me around yelling out, “This guy is a decent preacher over at Silverside Church, and if you hear him he will affirm you on your spiritual quest and confront you with the reality that God loves you no matter what.” I mean, what’s to be upset about? And I’d save so much money on teeshirts.
Anyway, Paul got so tired of hearing her that he suddenly turned on her and performed an emergency exorcism. Not everyone agreed that the spirit in the girl was evil, and in any case several people in the crowd where Paul was a visitor thought he had no right to do what he did. Most upset were her owners who saw their easy cash going up in smoke. Her owners brought official charges against Paul and Silas in particular, and the magistrates found in favor of the hometown plaintiffs.
The punishment far exceeded the crime. The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas stripped in public and beaten with rods until they could barely stand. Then they were put in the city’s maximum security prison with their feet in stocks. Moral of the story: never harm a harmless psychic, even if you don’t agree with Dionne Warwick that they actually exist and deserve a daily phone call from you.
After Jesus’ execution, his followers were left in a pretty pathetic situation, and as they took stock of what they had to work with regarding the continuing of his ministry, they didn’t have much. This is why many critics through the years say that they had to recreate Jesus completely to make him and his mission palatable to a next generation.
The last two memories they had of him, working backwards, were his execution and all that was involved in how Rome got him to a cross and just ahead of that they had the memory of how he, at the end of a Passover meal, he had asked them to remember him when they gathered in community and nibbled a piece of bread and sipped some wine. My work isn’t done, but the Romans are going to kill me. Remember me and what I’ve tried to teach. Let the bread you eat always be a symbol for my body, which will be broken; and let the wine you sip from a common cup always be a symbol for my blood that will be unjustly shed by a godless government who believes its capacity for brutality and terrorism are greater than God’s love. They are wrong, and if I have to die because I won’t play along with these paranoid Romans, then I shall.
That sounded rather dramatic and moving the first few times they remembered him that way, but it lost its appeal and inspiration. Some of the early theologians said, “Geez, you wouldn’t think the Lord’s Supper boring or irrelevant at all if you understood the real magic that’s involved in it. The bread literally becomes Jesus’ physical body, and the wine becomes his blood–even though they still look like unleavened and a little fruit of the vine. When you come to the table, you are ingesting the body and blood of the Unique Child of God. Wow! What true follower of Jesus or wanna be follower of Jesus could turn down an offer like that. “Transubstantiation” they called it, and some groups within Christendom still believe in such magic; it’s magic or a miracle that happens when the properly appointed priest prays the proper prayer over the elements. The last thing Jesus wanted was that kind of veneration of anything physical, especially a set of claims that would have the earliest followers after his death accused of cannibalism as a result of this very belief.
There are still plenty of those who consider themselves Christian who just aren’t satisfied with the plain ole every day Jesus who died in agony and defeat and who eschewed religious pomp and circumstance. What he envisioned as a piece of bread was just that, a piece of bread. What he envisioned as a sip of wine was just that, a sip of wine, very plain everyday foods. There were foods on the able around which this first “Last Supper” too place, but Jesus ignored those. There was a reason for that. You see, if Jesus’ concerns aren’t a part of the everydayness of our lives–the routines, the less than interesting repetitious acts required of all of us–the chances that Jesus’ concerns will be a part of the momentous aspects of our lives are practically zilch. If all we want from him are miracles and magic, he knew there would be no loyalty to his teachings when the going got tough; and for all who attempt to live by the teachings of Jesus in a world that loves hatred and hates love, there will be tough times and no magic to either rescue us or entertain us. Amen.