Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

Prayer and Magic

Daily rant: In a class on anthropology, a religious student has protested the anthropological definition of magic as an attempt to control the supernatural, in her mind, God, and thus Christians do not do magic. My response?

One thing to remember about words like "religion" or "ritual" or "magic" is that these are frequently used words that everybody uses all the time. Since we use them all the time, we have very particular definitions for many words: what picture enters our heads when someone else uses them, what they do or don't mean (which leads to a lot of arguments sometimes), and so on.

That's why it is one of the most important things to do when people begin talking about something: Agree on a common definition. You can't really get anywhere without agreeing on that, and there is no point trying.

For example, if I said to you... "I bought a chair." Think about that for a minute. A chair. Very common. Very concrete.

But I guarantee, some of you will think of a cartoon chair with a wooden back, or maybe a padded recliner, or maybe the chair you are sitting on right now, or a kitchen chair, or a swiveling chair, or...
Just that one simple word, "chair" and immediately people picture very different things. But the one thing they have in common is that you can sit on them. So a chair is something you sit on, right?

But not everything you sit on is a chair. You can sit on a couch, on a stool, on a toilet, on a rock, on a garden wall, on a bench, on someone's lap, and none of those are chairs.

So if the definition of something as simple and concrete as a chair can be so tricky, then vague concepts like "religion" or "magic" can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, can't they?

Most people in our shared culture, contemporary American mainstream culture, have firm ideas on what they think magic is.

There's the magic of a beautiful day or falling in love or holding your baby's hand.

There's the magic of the movies and CGI effects.

Magic is stage illusion like what David Copperfield does, illusion, stage magic, sleight of hand, legerdemain, a trick of eye and hand, for deception or entertainment. Pick a card, any card. May I have volunteer? I think everybody is aware of this kind of magic.

Magic also what you read about in Harry Potter or see in the movies, in "The Lord of the Rings", with people flying around and turning people into toads. A lot of videogaming use magic, World of Warcraft for example. Ding dong the wicked witch is dead. Grimm's fairy tales. This kind of magic is also something everyone has heard of, from childhood. Some think it's total BS, some would like to learn how to do it (fly or become invisible), and some avoid stepping on a crack so they don't break their mother's back (many superstitions are people thinking of this kind of magic).

This is the kind of magic that Muslims, Jews, and Christians are forbidden to do, according to their different scriptures (although the Christians are using the Jewish laws against it). And so if someone is Jewish, Christian or Muslim, they take great offense to someone saying magic is involved in anything they do. Magic is forbidden in those religions.

This discussion could be an entire class on its own. One of the most common classic classes in Anthropology programs is called "Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion." I took it myself as a grad student. It's a survey of practices associated with the supernatural and preternatural all around the world.

So part of what is occurring here is that we have run up against one of the basic taboos (forbidden things) in our culture, at least among those who are Muslim, Jewish or Christian. It's at the same level as Jews or Muslims eating unclean food (pork) or Hindus eating beef. For Christians, doing magic is not only against scripture (Do not consult soothsayers, etc.), it also implies you are consorting with demons, because magic is of the Devil, thus it is a road to Hell.

Here's something to consider.

The author is using the word "magic" in a particular way used in anthropology. But it is also a very very general way. He simply means "an attempt to control some aspect of the supernatural." He didn't say control an attempt to control God, he said "some aspect of the supernatural."

Luck, good luck or bad luck, could be considered supernatural. Don't walk under a ladder, hang a horseshoe up for good luck, and so on. Crossing your fingers. Step on a crack and you'll break your mother's back, and we avoid stepping on a crack or we could hurt Mom. That's magical thinking and a magical act: magic.

Doing any kind of ritual before an athletic competition, or before an interview for a job, or anything involving luck, would be defined as an attempt to control some aspect of the supernatural: God's Will for one thing. Throwing coins into a fountain or wishing and blowing out candles on a birthday cake would be considered magic.

Now remember, I am trying to explain how anthropology looks at it, not how YOU should look at it.

King Solomon built the Temple using evil spirits. Roman and Jewish authorities accused the followers of Christ as being magicians and sorcerors because of the healing and miracles they performed. The Three Wise Men were Magi (Magicians).

Jewish wise men work with the mystical system called Kabbalah, and Catholic monks in the Middle Ages practiced magic the Crusaders brought back from their wars in the Middle East. Queen Elizabeth had a official court sorceror named John Dee, and Protestant Scottish witches helped raise a storm that sank the Catholic Spanish Armada to the bottom of the sea. It is a complicated world. Even today there are curses uttered by churches like the Westboro Baptist Church that pray to God to destroy their enemies...other Christians and U.S. veterans.

Anthropology would define prayer as a kind of magic, because the person praying is not just thanking God for food, health, etc. (a prayer of gratitude), and not just praising God out of love and worship (a prayer of praise). Prayer is also of the third kind: Prayers of petition: what you want or DON't want to happen. Please give me a job! Please don't let her die! Please help me! Control or influence? Sometimes it is a fine line when dealing with people. People can't hardly control themselves, so it is ridiculous to think we could control God. But influence...? In either case, it's an attempt to assert your will on the supernatural. That would be magic, according to how anthropology defines magic.

It's not necessarily how a Christian would define magic. Prayer of any kind is not magic to a Christian, it is merely talking to God. But trying to influence God's Will? That's what an anthropologist would call magic.

There are many actions in the Bible, many of the miracles, that anthropology would call a magical act (turning water into wine, bread into the body of Christ, walking on the water), EXCEPT that a Christian would differentiate such acts based on whether the person did it through the agency of God (a miracle) or the Devil (magic). That's how such acts are defined in Christian culture: was the nonordinary act done through the auspices of God (a miracle) or Satan (magic).

It makes sense, right? Thus Christianity has a difference between permitted and forbidden acts, just like every other religion does, and in fact just like every culture does.

Remember, this is a class in anthropology, and so all of this is from an anthropological point of view. I am not trying to change your minds about any of it, or make you think like an anthropologist. I am not trying to change your mind about your religion or beliefs. --My job is to teach you anthropology, not to believe in it. You have to make up your own minds. Science is wonderful at explaining physical reality, but it is a cold companion for a search for the human soul.
Tags: anthropology, christianity, magic, religion

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