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Holy Magic

August 12, 2013

“‘Holy Magic’” Proverbs 2:1-11; 24:3-5; Matthew 5:1-12 © 8.11.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is a good detective story, but it has more to offer. The book is a repository of many things medieval: lore, ritual, superstition, history, philosophy. The main character is a man named William of Baskerville, a kind of 14th century Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, Baskerville is talking with Nicholas the glassworker. He shows Nicholas his newly-invented corrective lenses. “What a wonder!” Nicholas exclaims. Then his excitement becomes toned down as he adds: “Yet many would speak of witchcraft and diabolical machination….” To that Baskerville replies: “You can certainly speak of the magic of this device…. But there are two forms of magic. There is a magic that is the work of the devil and which aims at [human] downfall…. But there is another magic that is divine, where God’s knowledge is made manifest through [human knowledge], and it serves to transform nature, and one of its ends is to prolong…life. And this is holy magic…” (paperback: 98).

Baskerville was right to celebrate human knowledge as a way to get in touch with and appreciate the knowledge of God. We are those who bear the image of God, endowed with a spirit that will not give up seeking, inquiring, poking, prodding, and dreaming. God on a good day—in fact, the best of days—looked in a mirror and saw a human being. We are mirrors of God, and everything we do is to shine with the light of God’s glory and nature. Everyone who looks at you, at me, needs to see in us the reflection of the Creator.

That’s not always the case, of course. We have known people, especially those who claim to be Christians, who can act so badly and immorally that they make us doubt the very existence of God. And the use to which we put our knowledge doesn’t always match our identity as God’s image-bearers and stewards. We employ our technology in “diabolical machination,” demonic plots to hurt others. The writer Gregg Easterbrook pointed out near the end of the 20th century how it took 14 billion, 999 million years for humans to evolve and only 57 years between the time we could announce our presence to the universe by radio and the invention of nuclear weapons that could wipe us out. Knowledge gained; knowledge abused. Hardly “holy magic.”

But the fact that we can twist knowledge and its offspring technology to evil purposes ought not make us suspicious of its pursuit or discovery. There has been in some parts of the Church a strong anti-intellectual current. In the last century, we had those who lamented the so-called “secular humanist conspiracy.” The heirs of those folks are still with us or maybe they’re the same people. They rail against sound science in the classroom or try to get books removed from public and school library shelves. About the latter issue, almost half of the top 100 novels of the 20th century have been objects of ban attempts. These include books by Faulkner, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Aldous Huxley, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck; the list goes on ( The Harry Potter novels have also been targets, and last year, novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Like Water for Chocolate were challenged or even removed from school lists and libraries. One particularly interesting case concerned Persepolis, a book by Iranian author Marjane Satrapi. It was removed from all Chicago public schools for this year until students mobilized a media campaign in opposition to “banning a book that’s all about the freedom of speech.” The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom reports: “Students took to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, checked out all library copies of the book, wrote blogs, sent e-mails, wrote investigative articles for the student newspaper, contacted the author, staged protests, and appeared on local radio and television programs. Eventually, the school [district] issued a letter telling high school principals to disregard the earlier order to pull the book” (

About this matter, a blogger on the website Bookfinder wrote a few years ago: “Parents should have a keen interest in what their children read, and as such help guide them to make good decisions.  But I think libraries should be free of censorship and screening….  It makes me wonder if the people complaining about these books shout as loudly about the violence on TV (even in the news), sexuality in advertisements and coarse language in music….” (“Banned Books,” April 16, 2009

Thomas Friedman, a columnist and author, once observed that book banners, whom he termed “book burners,” misunderstand what America is about. “The freedom of thought and the multiple cultural and political perspectives we offer in our public schools are what nurture the critical mind. And it is the critical mind that is the root of innovation, scientific inquiry, and entrepreneurship…. America will always be a strong model for how a nation thrives in the modern age, as long as our culture of curiosity, free inquiry, and openness endures” (“Book Protesters Misunderstand America,” The Birmingham Post-Herald, 9/2/02: C2).

As I recall, one of the reasons Mr. Dursley disapproved of Harry Potter so strongly was his imagination, which one could certainly argue is kin to curiosity, openness, and intelligence. Dursley’s ilk are all around. “Trust me,” they say. “Don’t think for yourself or find out for yourself. Don’t read that book or article or see that movie about anything that might challenge your current viewpoint. It will poison your mind.” Knowledge is seen as dangerous. And you know what? It is dangerous. Dangerous to intolerance, prejudice, suspicion, ignorance, and submissiveness. Watch out! Learning changes you. You may discover that some of the ideas you cherished are not supportable, you know, wrong. Or your status has been quo for a long time and the rut is getting deeper and deeper; then, pow! Something from a book, a video, a conversation, a seminar, the Internet gives you a new and welcome perspective. And it’s like a light came on. Knowledge is the willing servant of metanoia, change of heart, change of mind, an about-face in living.

The Reformed tradition, of course, has welcomed knowledge as the gift of God. We do not believe faith and knowledge are enemies. They need each other to be complete. John Calvin, our primary theological forebear, once said: “Is this what believing means—to understand nothing, provided only that you submit your feelings obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge…. We do not obtain salvation either because we are prepared to embrace as true whatever the church has prescribed or because we turn over to it the task of inquiring and knowing…. It would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’! For faith consists in the knowledge of God and Christ, not in reverence for the church.” Faith without knowledge is fanatical, and knowledge without faith is cynical.

Knowledge gained and used rightly is a great good. It is, again, the gift of God. We are to be stewards of knowledge as much as we are of the sea and the air and the land. That means at least three things.

First, knowledge is to be an instrument of mercy. “Knowledge is power” says the inscription over the door of a building at the University of Montevallo, where I was once campus minister. “Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus. It occurs to me that the powerful—the learned in this case—are those in a position to be merciful. After all, mercy is “refraining from harming or punishing offenders, enemies, persons in one’s power….” It’s not those who are subject to others who can be merciful; it’s those who are able to control and influence events and people, who have resources, who can decide and choose and affect others by their choices.

The startling claim of Jesus is that those who are merciful are those who are happy and are to be congratulated. Contrast that with the prevailing wisdom: blessed are the rapacious, the greedy, the social climbers, the insiders who use their knowledge for personal gain and leave others hurting. Who is it today that you and I have power over because of our learning and knowledge? What is the “quality of mercy” asked of us by our Lord?

Second, knowledge is a trust from God. That means it’s not ours to do with as we please. We are caretakers, and there will come a Day when we are called on to give an account of how we used what we were given.

When I was a college student at Georgia, my arrogance about my good grades and level of accomplishment relative to the rest of my family reached truly astounding proportions. I was the superhero of ego. My late sister Carol Ann decided to deflate my balloon-sized head just a little. One Christmas, she gave me a small plaque that said simply: “All knowledge is from God.” In that one act, she reminded me that I was violating the trust of God by claiming that it was by my might and power that I did what I did. We are, all of us, accountable for the use we make of this precious trust. What will we say on that Day to our Lord?

Finally, knowledge is never for domination, exclusion or terror. We have all seen those movies set in olden times when sorcerers created fear and exercised power over kings by reciting an incantation in some strange tongue, known today of course as “jargon.” On the old sci-fi series “Babylon 5,” and its sequel “Crusade,” the heirs of Merlin, known as technomages, used technology to give the appearance of magic, and like old-time sorcerers, frighten others. Indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

But knowledge and technology are to be used not to dominate, but to partner with God to fulfill his purpose for the flourishing of humanity and all his creation. So those with knowledge and skills are called to share them with their neighbors for the neighbor’s good and to promote harmony and understanding.

A wonderful example is Living Waters for the World. That project brings people from all over the nation and world and different faith traditions to Oxford, MS to train in building and installing water purification systems. The technology is appropriate to its location, like a village in Haiti, and is maintained by the local people. It consists in a triple-filtration arrangement that will fit in a suitcase and is mounted on a piece of board in a pump house. In areas where electricity is inconsistent, it’s solar powered. Living Waters helps prevent illness and show the love of Jesus by bringing clean water and also education in hygiene to the places the volunteers go.

Closer to home think of efforts to bring Internet access or at least faster speeds to rural areas and small towns. Or say there’s a ten year-old who has grown up with technology. She could download an app for a smart phone as soon as she could hold it. He knew how to set up an Internet router and modem and connect them to a 50 inch TV, a Roku streaming device, a stereo, and a switching system almost as soon as he was on solid food. But in the church and community there are people of earlier generations for whom technology is a must-have, but also a mystery. When the kids help their elders with household tech, and so build relationships and understanding across generations, that is using knowledge properly.

What seems like magic to you or me in today’s technology? In turn, for whom are we wizards, sorcerers because of our know-how in whatever area of life? How are we sharing, how can we share, what we know?

I celebrate human knowledge. It is indeed “holy magic” when rightly used. Thomas Traherne, a 17th century mystic, celebrated with confidence, joy, and vigor the power of human understanding. He wrote: “All things are penetrable to the soul of man/All things open and naked to it…. There is not a sand of the utmost Indies which I cannot apprehend/Nor a thought in any part of eternity but I am fit to know…. [Human] understanding is an endless light and/can infinitely be present in all places/and see and examine all things, survey the/reasons, surmount the greatness, exceed/the strength, contemplate the beauty, enjoy/the benefit, and reign over all it sees and/enjoys like the eternal Godhead” (The Christian Century, 7/30-8/6/1986: 694).

So—“Do you believe in magic”?


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