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Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to Jesus Christ).


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.