Magical Christianity
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“Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Hephzibah. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. …And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger.” 2 Kings 21:1-2, 6 KJV

It is hard to find a gathering of young people without encountering discussions about fantasy characters. These may be wizards like Harry Potter, a character created by British authoress J. K. Rowling, or Gandalf, the famous wizard from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien, also British. Lest one be tempted to think that it is necessary to have a first initial “J” and be British to write about wizards, there is also the “Twilight” series by American authoress, Stephenie Meyer. The popularity of these characters is evidenced by the fact that all of these authors have become wealthy through the sales of their works.

Subsequent to the mind set that sees a world developed on the foundation of the scientific method, a contemporary view seems to have developed that allows that science is not able to explain all. Those who build on that later foundation often claim to be open to exploration of alternative understandings. Some, although reluctant to embrace a hierarchical model, are nonetheless open to a spiritualized religious universe that embraces the idea of unexplainable fantasy realms where scientific norms and explanations are suspended to allow the flow of alternative energies. Others carry this concept a step further by believing that individuals may be endowed by nature or nurture with the ability to direct these energies for spiritual or magical purposes.

This is not a new concept. Even the Bible contains references to such individuals from thousands of years ago. The description of Balaam, whom Balaak hired to curse Israel, is that of one who used sorceries and divination and is one example from the Old Testament. (See Numbers 22) From the New Testament, we find a sorcerer named Elymas, who challenged Paul. Those who pursue these alternative spiritualities are not portrayed favorably in scripture. This is because then as now, they often align themselves against the monotheistic practices of the Old and New Testaments. In the past, this was a given understood by all. However, in the present response which claims openness to spirituality, hostility to consideration of any spiritual metaphor that includes Christianity remains a powerful undercurrent. For many, the origins of this animosity are lost to antiquity. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis, today, each party knows that the other party is the enemy and can recite a list of injustices perpetrated by one party or the other, but they cannot trace the origin of the conflict back to who struck the first blow.

What is perhaps, also not apparent is how much the different spiritualities have influenced one another. Perhaps we can see evidences of this in the rites and rituals of Christianity. But in order to understand how this can be possible, we must first understand the source. Wizards, sorcerers and diviners strongly believe that if the words of incantations or spells are recited in precise order with correct intonation then the material and spiritual worlds can be bent to their will. Corollary to this is the use of ritualistic objects in a prescribed manner to achieve a similar outcome. Sometimes both are combined for the same purpose.

Even Christians are intrigued and tempted to try these methods. Whether dabbling with Ouija boards or placing a key in a certain place in a Bible, the anecdotal accounts of Christians, especially young people, experimenting with these alternative spiritualities are many. Unlike magic, which is based solely on deception, these forces seem very real and enticing with their promise of supernatural insights. (See Genesis 3:5) But perhaps the greatest danger to modern Christian spirituality is a more subtle influence on the foundational understanding of the Christian faith. Maybe incantations and spells have become integrated into the Christian faith, also.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a fellow Christian from another denomination about the subject of one of the rites of Christendom. He asked how my denomination performed baptisms. I recounted the process including immersion and the recital of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (See Matthew 28:19) He became very upset over hearing this. He maintained that we were not properly baptizing because we should be saying “in the name of Jesus” as the Bible says in Acts 2:38. He maintained that unless this was done, the Holy Spirit could not be received. To put it in alternative terms, he felt that if the incantation were not properly performed then the magic could not happen. Unfortunately, some see the rites of the Christian church in much the same way. They see them as little more than magical incantations that will miraculously change evil to good or place supernatural abilities under our control.

Those who feel this way tend to be very concerned that the rites of the church must be performed in an exact manner with no deviation for time and place. The rites are seen as gateways to greater spiritual power. Like my friend, who felt that a precisely performed baptism granted power based on the words recited, some today feel the same. Some may feel that a foot washing service magically grants humility. Others might feel that a baby dedication or a christening service magically changes a secular baby into a Christian one. Still others might feel that a Eucharistic service performed according to ritual grants a magical cleansing. This may also have been the feeling of the ancient Israelites who took their sacrifices to the altar day by day. However, this is not biblical.

Just as now, there was no magical cleansing, only a symbolic reminder of guilt. As Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:1-4, NIV

There is a danger in imbuing these symbols with magical significance. The rituals can become ends in themselves. They can become integral parts in a religious worship based more on form than on reality, a works based faith that can never provide remission of sin and guilt. We can create a danger that because we have performed the rites faithfully and precisely according to established practice then we are spiritually “complete.” Like a magical protection, we have the “whole armor of God,” (See Ephesians 6) and we are magically inoculated against evil or falling short of heaven.

This can be a sure formula for disaster for the Christian. When the rites are all performed and the magical protection or favor does not happen, a faith based on these things can become forfeit. We may even blame God for failing to respond to the “magic.” When this happens, it is not God’s fault. We may feel that He has let us down. However, we have created unrealistic expectations in ourselves and others by taking the symbols of our faith and turning them into magical talismans they were never intended to be. This is Hollywood Christianity.

In reality a cross is simply two pieces of wood used to slowly execute criminals during the days of the Roman Empire. But today, Hollywood has transformed it into a magical talisman capable of vanquishing vampires simply by displaying it in their presence. While vampires are not real, many Christians nonetheless wear this symbol of the death of Jesus as though it truly were some kind of magical amulet. Recognizing the irony, the comedian, Lenny Bruce, mused, would Christians be wearing little effigies of an electric chair if Jesus had been put to death as a criminal, today? One might also ask would Hollywood movies then show vampires being turned to dust by these little electric chairs?

Perhaps we develop these understandings because we feel it is easier to try to manipulate the world around us than it is to change ourselves from within. Maybe it is time to move beyond our magical notions regarding the rites and rituals of our faith. Hebrews, chapters three and four, talks about a rest made available to us. In the past that rest was not entered into because of unbelief. Ritual for ritual’s sake will not produce that belief. It comes through a choice to open the heart to the possibility of transformation through relationship with Jesus. Change does come when that happens, and it cannot be manipulated by ritual.


 

Scripture marked (NIV) taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.

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Magical Christianity — 20 Comments

  1. wow...PTL. this was a most intriguing article. The Lord hit home to my understanding with this message. In a glance I can see why I left the church/God so many times. So I thought that He wasn't doing what He said He would do even when I prayed hard enough or studied my lesson or went to church, kept the sabbath like I was supposed to etc. God forgive me and the church. I learned in some underlying way that "doing" the right things would produce results God wanted and then He could continue to bless me. I got the message that "the doing" was more proof of Christlike living than having "Faith" which I now understand would produce real living proof that Christ lives in me. So today my patient Father is undoing all of the incorrect understandings and teaching me (in many lessons of trials) how to have genuine belief. This article has hit home. Oh and I had to look up what the word monotheistic meant. Doing so lead me to understand what other words like gnostic, pantheism etc mean. I definately will have to read this again to allow the Holy Spirit to lead me to an even better understanding. Thank you Stephen and, God continue to bless you in your contribution to this web site. Awesome food!
    Denise

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  2. Stephen, I would love to believe that such things don't affect the Adventist church but I believe it actually does in many subtle ways and some that aren't so subtle. In fact I have seen in some of the comments submitted to this blog hints of this mentality. So thank you for bringing this problem to our attention.

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  3. Stephen,

    I can think of an area in which "Magical Christianity" has influenced Christian churches, including SDA. That is the area of Spiritual Gifts. I think of music. If one "has it", then they are gifted as a musician. If one can play an instrument "naturally" and spontaneously, then they can play better than one who acquired it through study and education. Often, this can cause trouble in the church. I have been labeled and categorized in the latter, especially since I understand musical fake books and can improvise from those scores. No, I am not playing the organ right now. I am developing other skills.

    The same holds true with preaching, helping, administration, technological savvy, etc. One who learns these abilities is second - rate to those who have been "gifted". This phenomenon has caused so much division and in-church fighting, especially with music, that it is disgusting. This is even more exasperating when church leaders, pastors, and elders ascribe to such a philosophy and make it a part of the culture of the local church.

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    • David, thanks for your comment. You have given me food for thought as I had not been aware of this controversy. I play an instrument as well, and I also must work hard at it to maintain my proficiency.

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  4. I enjoyed this article very much. I found it very thought-provoking and I consider it to be solid food appropriate for those seeking spiritual maturity. I agree with you that too many persons, even within Adventism, believe that our ordinances possess supernatural power in of themselves. However, I also believe that if we are going perform these ordinances, in obedience to the commands of Christ, then we might as well get them right – in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Otherwise we run the risk of spiritualizing them to the point where how we do them becomes irrelevant. Then we excuse ourselves and say that the form does not matter (immersion versus sprinkling for example) it is only the sincerity that counts.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Jacob. Some believe sprinkling, which in many cases is more like pouring, evolved as a result of ministering to soldiers mortally wounded on the battlefield. Not having been baptized but believing it was necessary for salvation, the soldiers would desire baptism but could not survive to reach the closest place to be immersed. The clergy then would pour water over them in lieu of immersion. Would we deny such an individual baptism by "sprinkling?" And what of the elderly who are too fragile to be immersed? Is it fair to these individuals to teach them that baptism is required for salvation and then deny them any form of baptism because they cannot be immersed? Perhaps in such cases it is better to grant peace to a dying soul and then allow God to determine whether or not He will keep them out of heaven because they were "sprinkled" when they could not be immersed.

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      • Stephen I think what you have said here is a perfect example of what legalism really is which has as one of its problems a mindset that considers adherence to details of law more important than being Christ like. It seems to me that Jesus addressed this kind of an attitude when His disciples were being charged with breaking the Sabbath because they were hungry. In response Jesus said, "But if you had known what this means,`I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt. 12:7 NKJV). The whole event (Matt 12:1-8) is very instructive concerning how we should apply the law including all the rites and rituals we observe. Matter of fact Jesus used the reference to Hosea 6:6 (I desire mercy and not sacrifice) more than once and He called mercy one of the weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23).

        It is for this reason that the Seventh-day Adventist Church considers these rituals as ordinances rather than sacraments. If at all possible I believe a person should be baptized by immersion rather than sprinkling or pouring because of the symbolism involved. I also think that prior to baptism the person should understand what the ordinance is teaching them and what they are proclaiming to have faith in.

        While we usually think of baptism as symbolizing the new birth experience but it also teaches where all of that comes from. Water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit as a cleansing agent in the same way that fire does. When we are baptized we are surrounded, immersed in, by that symbolic medium so sprinkling doesn't properly convey that teaching any more than it does being buried and resurrected again into a new life.

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  5. On Sacraments - Faith and Superstition

    In the Augustinian view of sacraments, further developed in the Middle Ages and leaving its traces in many churches even today, the elements are not only visible signs of invisible grace, but actually contain grace administered by the priest and transfered in baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord`a Supper). Even if faith is said to be a condition of receiving such grace - which in case of infant baptism is not possible - in case of the the Lord`s Supper, faith is more or less directed to bread and wine believed to contain such invisible grace.

    True faith is directed to Christ in a personal relationship which the Lord`s Supper is intended to deepen in remembrance of His substiutionary death on the cross, looking foreward to His second coming (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Grace is not offered as an invisible entity contained in mater. Grace is offered by Christ personally at the Throne of Grace in the heavenly sanctuary. We are invited to enter there by faith to receive grace directly from Christ, our heavenly High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16; 6:19-20; 10:19.22).

    There is a difference between faith (Glaube) and superstition (Aberglaube). As the above essay pointed out, we have to be aware not to get caught into the trap of making the elements itself the center of our belief, forgetting that they are only symbols directing our faith to our heavenly High Priest personally.

    Winfried Stolpmann

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  6. We have a problem, though.

    We as SDAs are very fond of (or have been) holding out that God is very particular. Ever before us is the idea that God likes particular things and that he likes them done in a particular way and that to deviate from this is either sin or simply displeasing to God; and will risk a non-answer.

    Exhibit number one is usually Cain and Abel.

    I think one way this affects us nowadays is in our Sabbath observance.
    If the Sabbath is merely an arbitrary observance created and maintained by divine fiat, then we will always have problems in our approach to it.

    Another way is in the insistence (rarer nowadays) that the "ACTS model" of prayer is the one that receives the best results.

    Yet another way this affects us is in our traditional treatment of "truth" as "information" (which we then assent to in our minds). We then become obsessed with getting the right information (which is important) without ever having it transform us. We dare not "believe" in "error", but we remain untransformed.

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    • Andrew, thanks for bringing this up. It seems to me that an attitude of regarding certain ways of praying like a magical formula is still promoted by some ministries and in some books. These make people feel that if they pray "just right," God will provide the exact answer they seek.

      It seems to me that a good antidote to this type of attitude is Ellen White's definition that "prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend."

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      • Inge...Fortunately, God is our Friend, but not "our buddy up there." I don't beleive there is an exact "formula" in our approach to God, either in prayer or with ordinances, but at the same time, we need to approach Him with the dignity and deference and awe He deserves, which I might add, is far above what we sinful mortals comprehend. Seeing that angles cover their face and feet when they approach Him, it would do us well if we contemplated their attitude.

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        • But Herb, don't you treat your friends with dignity?

          Too many times we treat God like a lion in a Las Vegas show--majestic and awesome, nice to look at and a wee bit tame, but deep down, if you get too close...

          When we come to know and love God, we will treat Him with the respect that flows from His transformation of our lives and the appreciation and devotion that brings.
          But you have got to know God first.

          This is why I am wary of giving people formulas to approach God. I urge people to talk to God directly--and if you are familiar with non-Christians, you will know that this alone is very difficult for some people. Yet other Christians (even SDAs) are ashamed of their humble/feeble prayers.

          We need to get people to reach out to God.

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  7. We see, too, how our religion can devolve into idolatry--as if God's hands are tied by the correct performance of our rituals. We please Him so that we don't get a bad mark and thus go to hell.

    The Word of Faith movement (which has influenced our church) is a good example of this. Ritual binds God to do what we ask.
    This way we can "keep an eye on God" and "guarantee" his goodness if you will.
    Furthermore, under this view, God must be appeased in order to be dealt with.

    This destroys his character in the long run and our faith in the short run. Even if God were to operate "by the book", we wouldn't like Him very much.

    As someone who has struggled with perfectionism in personality (and compounded by a Church that is hazardous to perfectionists because of its behaviour orientation), this article hits home. It wasn't easy.
    A religion of rules and rites and regulations is easy. A Holy Spirit filled religion is hard.

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    • Hello, hello...I stumbled onto this site looking for something totally unrelated. What a refreshing article Magical Christianity.... If I might add to some thoughts.....

      We humans enjoy what we consider "the safe walk" within Adventistism. I have no criticism here at all.

      I think it is because we live in constant fear...except of course, those who have discovered that God is a very kind Person.

      We are so accustomed to fear, we chase it....trying to catch as much as we can. Thinking, perhaps we can over come it, or tame it. Regardless "who" is behind it....if we are conquerors, than our perfectionism will subside and we can live in a sense of peace.

      Knowing God...enjoying living in His presence...sharing His sorrow and pain (that which I have failed Him terribly) yet with His permission to you and I to continue the walk/the journey of relationship.....only this will destroy the idolarty within that sin has indowed us with.

      God's Blessings'
      Deborah

      I come from the world of the craft....now a Christian...a SDA...what a pleasure and privilege.....

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      • Deborah, how very nice to meet you. Your kind post reminds me of the verse "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18, NIV. Blessings.

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        • I agree with you Stephen as long as we don't take that text too far and conclude that fear is evil and that it is to be totally avoided. The one thing that fear gives us is a resistance to doing very dumb things like taking foolish chances for a thrill. Therefore in my opinion what 1 Jn 4:18 is talking about is fear in relation to the world. We are not to fear those that can kill only the body (Mat 10:28). Further we are to, "come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16 NKJV) and that is to be done without fear.

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  8. all these brillant minds, I can see Jesus Laughing at us,trying to understand what He made simple.He Love us and died for us and He is alive Now and forever.The wises Man that He Gave Wisdom to told us the conclusion of the matter ecclesiaster 13. One shepherd, Jesus Christ is His Name.

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