Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reality, magic, and temptation

The issue of magic has been on my mind a bit lately, partly because of this post by Jeff Culbreath at W4.

There are, I'm sure, many reasons why contemporary people are attracted to magic. But one attraction of magic has got to be the thrill of making the supernatural real, of having real things happen via something other than the rather boring agency of natural means. To be sure, in an age when we can speak with some truth of the miracles of science, it hardly seems that one needs to turn to magic for that. When I was a child the Internet would have seemed akin to magic. Still, one knows in one's heart that there is some natural explanation for all of this, and one even has some idea of what it is, and that takes the magic out of it. Which is all to the good, in the end.

I imagine that Jesus' followers must have been awestruck when He healed a blind man or made the lame to walk: He really did it, just like that! He has the power to do that. It's real! It's a miracle.

Magic promises that thrill, and promises to give that thrill to the magician: Now you can be the one who can "really do it." That's why, in Acts, Simon Magus (that is, Simon the Magician) offered to pay the apostles for the power to confer the Holy Spirit on people (Acts 18:17-24)! He believed that this "Holy Spirit" thing was a new form of magic power and wanted to be able to do what the apostles did. Peter responded angrily, "Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money."

The difference between miracle and magic is that miracles are the gift of God. Even the extraordinary abilities (e.g., the ability to do some miracles) which God gave to his apostles when founding the church were recognized by Peter as gifts that came immediately from God in each individual case, not as "powers" which the apostles possessed in themselves. There is no techne, no magical art, to receiving or bestowing the gifts of God.

Moreover, God does not always do miracles. Many people are not healed. Most people (to put it mildly) are not raised from the dead.

God bestows His miraculous gifts sparingly to remind us that they are gifts. We seek after signs and wonders, after the excitement of personally seeing the real supernatural in action. (Wow! He really did it! It really happened! She was healed just like that!) But for most of us, the sign that is given is the sign, as Jesus said, of Jonah the Prophet (Matthew 12:38-40). For as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so Our Lord rose after three days in the tomb. Powerful evidence? Indeed. But it happened a long time ago, and the study of it does not, for most of us, bring that special magic thrill. And that's all right.

Meanwhile, we walk by faith, hope, and charity. What we have instead of signs and wonders before our eyes or within our power are prayer, obedience, love, and Holy Communion, which, whatever else it is, looks just like bread and wine.

All these, too, are gifts.


yankeegospelgirl said...

This is a very good video on miracles from a John Piper Q & A:

Lydia McGrew said...

Piper has a great commonsensical manner and approach.

yankeegospelgirl said...

Yeah, I really have yet to find a question he answers where I just flat-out disagree with him. It's been really neat to look at how he approaches things I've sort of wondered about for a long time.