Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.

Missing Apocalypses

Sharknados aside, we seem to be in a lull of apocalypses at the moment. In the run-up to the change of the millennium and 2012, we perhaps had our fill of dire predictions of the end of all things. Funny how the fears seem to run so high when the Grand Old Party is telling us what to believe. When we settle down and try to wrestle with real-world issues with real-world ideals, the need for watching it all burn seems to settle down in the back seat and let the adults drive for a while.


I recently came across The End Times Bible (now out of print). Published in 1999, this Bible had a not-so-subtle message that the end of all things was nigh. As it had been before, and, knowing human nature, will be many more times again. I imagine myself, in a Left Behind fantasy, watching a neophyte trying to make it in the post-apocalyptic world with a Bible. References to the end times are rare in Holy Writ, and dreadfully obscure. Reading Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsey you might think the Bible has step-by-step directions for negotiating the wrath that is to come. As if the Bible were a recipe book and you wanted chocolate-chip cookies. Ironically the world is full—over-full in point of fact—of people with advanced degrees in Bible who’ve spent years and years of their lives learning to uncover the minutest hints that the Bible gives. Most of these folks are unemployed and wouldn’t mind sharing a bit of that simplistic apocalyptic pie baked up by the premillennialists. And yet, the world goes on.

Even as I was researching The End Times Bible, however, I began seeing references to the next apocalypse. Some are hopefully suggesting 2019, since, apparently, God likes round numbers. The reprieve we’ve been feeling, I have no doubts, is only temporary. In the course of human events we will have alarmists elected to high offices and once again panic will begin to build. The Maya let us down, and Howard Camping up and died. No worries—there are other arcane civilizations and the world knows no shortage of prophets in button-down shirts. Still, I’ve kind of enjoyed this little vacation without having to hush the irrational fears that God’s non-biological clock is inexorably ticking.

The biblical world is a simple one, in its own way. Created in six days just a few thousand years ago, it topples off its pillars and ends in a fiery demise in some millennial scenario, if only it can keep its own story straight. And like any good story, children will come back to it time and again.

Out with the Old

It’s become a time-honored tradition, as an old, secular year ends and a new one, brimming with potential commences, for various pundits to sum up the past twelve months for us. And since there hasn’t been a year without religion since Adam and Eve were created, it stands to reason that the religious year in review is yet another perspective to take on this mid-winter’s day. The New Jersey Star-Ledger, my state’s answer to the New York Times, ran a 2012 top stories in religion feature on Sunday, the one day that anyone might be tempted to pay attention to things spiritual. The list reflects the view of A. James Rudin and it features several stories, most of which tend to show the embarrassing side of belief. Rudin begins his list with an amorphous Islam as reflected at unrest in the Middle East. One of the misfortunes I often deal with in my editorial role is this association of Islam with violence. There are deep roots to the trouble in the Middle East, many of them planted and watered by Christians. Religious extremists, however, are the more sexy side of the story and they always abscond with the headlines.

I should take care with my word choice, however, because yet another of the stories—dominated as they are by Christians—concerns the Catholic Church’s continuing troubles with hiding away child molesters (number five). The number two story, also about Christians, is also about sex as well. That story highlights the chagrin of the Religious Right at the recognition, long overdue, of same-sex marriages in three states. Gender plays a role in story four, the succession of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, but also the related story of how the Church of England still refuses to recognize women as bishops. A deity who can’t see past genitalia should be troubling to any believer. Yet a full quarter of one commentator’s top religious stories are concerned with sex. That’s how the world sees the issue.

The remaining stories Rudin points out have to do with Jewish-Christian relations, aging pontiffs, and the growth of Nones in the US religious marketplace. Anyone who spends time reading contemporary accounts of religion will be familiar with the Nones—that increasing number of people who declare no religious affiliation. Ironically, those involved in such scandals as we often see in the headlines are troubled by the number of people opting out of traditional religions. I almost wrote “opting out of faith” there, but that’s not really the issue. The Nones I know, and there are many, don’t necessarily not have faith. They have lost confidence (if they ever had it) in religious institutions. Interestingly, Rudin concludes his list with the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, along with the death of Sun Myung Moon and a few others. The Newtown tragedy remains the least and most religious event in the past year. And unless those of us who survive do something about it, these dead will have died in vain. Let’s hope 2013 has something better on offer.


2012 + 1

2012I just watched 2012. The conceit that the world will end last year must be getting tired by now, but I’d been curious about the movie since it came out three years back. As I suspected, there was plenty of religious banter as the putative version of us prepared for the end of the world. I noted that the little boy of the average family that managed to make it all the way to China to seek rescue bore the name of Noah. When the animals were being airlifted to the rescue station with its titanic boats meant to float out the world wide flood, it was clear that the myth of the ark was alive and well. (As I hope all of you reading this in the future are.) So this disaster movie turned out to be a bit of harmless fun, but I nevertheless shuddered at the implications. Those chosen to survive were, naturally, those who could afford to find a place onboard the secretly constructed arks. As even some of the film’s characters recognized, those who had money could buy a place on the ark, and of course they did. I do wonder what their brave new world would have been like. The whole idea of wealth has to do with the perceived value of specific commodities, and apart from our last minute stowaways, you can bet that everyone on board wanted their assets valued highest. Once the waters receded, if I recall the story at all, sacrifices would be made. Even the opening of the decks and the buzzing of helicopters like doves and ravens did Genesis proud.

The end of the world is a funny concept. Those of us who experience the world as mortals can’t really image the place without us, so I suppose it is natural enough. Nevertheless, the tone of the last four apocalypses I remember has been distinctly religious. There was a serious scare (perhaps local, because no internet existed) when I was in tenth grade. The next one I recall was Y2K, a silly episode where even priests I knew were seriously worried. With the Camping and Mayan “predictions” coming so close together, some no doubt supposed the Big Guy had it in for us all. When Christians tell the story it’s always the version with God glaring at us, belt in hand. Remember what Homer Simpson says of the song he wrote: “I’ve come to hate my own creation. Now I know how God feels.” Our cultural sense of disapprobation could be better addressed by helping those in need rather than building arks (or tax write-offs) for those who require no more to live like petty emperors. Emphasis on petty.

The world didn’t end and I wasn’t really worried that it would. The fact is we don’t need God to design an apocalypse for us because we’re very good about engineering our own. Unequal distribution of goods and services throughout a world where means exist for alleviating the suffering of countless numbers of the poor and disadvantaged has already created a purgatory on earth. We don’t need a Mayan calendar, or a New Testament whose message of compassion is overlooked in favor of its putative apocalypse, to show us the end of time. But since we made it to 2013, perhaps we should consider this a stay of execution. Let’s use our post-apocalyptic future wisely and hope humanity will live up to its name. And maybe it’s time for a new calendar.

No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?

Bleak December

Tragedy follows on tragedy in 2012. Maybe the world really is ending this year. Not even a week after a man accidentally shot his own seven-year-old son in western Pennsylvania, a gunman kills twenty school children, six adults and himself in Connecticut, and still the “Religious Right” advocates our God-given sanction to own guns. Various commenters rail that guns don’t kill people—please allow the evidence to disagree. Loudly. Violently. Twas the fortnight before Christmas and all through the school… Nightmare before Christmas indeed.

As a nation we have outlived our need for guns. The only real threat out there is other people who have guns. Even a simpleton can see that it is an insane spiral because no one trusts the other guy. A miniature arms race. A cold war within a nation, state, town, or school. Like the journalists who write the sad stories for the papers, I think of Virginia Tech, Columbine, and children who will never grow up. Wikipedia has an entire article entitled “School Shootings.” America has its own sub-page. I think of other children scarred for life because some people think that it is our right to “protect” ourselves. From what? Still, they’d swear it on a stack of Winchesters. Having been shunted around from job to job and apartment to apartment, I’ve lived next to many people that I found unstable and thank local laws that they were unarmed. The sack on Santa’s back this year is a sack of serpents, and it has been opened and there’s no way to get them back in.

If the Church wanted to make itself relevant again, all denominations would band together and demand stricter gun control. No, it won’t stop every madman from massacring children, but if the Christian community really believes the Gospel it claims, it is far better to die than to kill. The next world is supposed to be better than this. The mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, appears to have been the owner of the guns. Probably they made her feel safer. She is now cold in the morgue because of them. Along with a classroom of children in the school where she worked. As the families of the murdered face Christmas this year, they will think that 2012 is the year the world ended. If only it would. But then, nature, and gun-ownership-rights activists ensure a future much more bleak than that.

Nikodem Nijaki's photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

Nikodem Nijaki’s photo of shoes on the Danube Promenade

The Last December

December 2012—it is supposedly the last month in the world. Yesterday did dawn with the date being 1212012, but since the local tree farm opened its gates yesterday, my family set out to select a tree anyway. As we wandered amid the pines it was clear that for many the iconic sign of Christmas is the tree. We learned on our first year in New Jersey that you’d better not wait until reasonably close to Christmas to pick out a tree—we visited this very lot then only to discover that precut trees were all that were available (and they were from Pennsylvania) and we had established a tradition of picking our own. Getting to know the tree first. Walking around and looking from all angles, trying to learn if it was healthy or too dry. Were there any gaping gaps that would be an obvious problem? Hard to tell when the tree is wrapped up in fishnet plastic and tucked into a corner like an old umbrella. Here, so close to the Big Apple, you need to claim your tree early. If you don’t want to cut it down right away, you can tag it—claim it as your own and come back later to chop it down. We weren’t the only ones taking great care in selecting.


Tree farming is a business with a long view. Trees don’t mature overnight. When it’s the last month of the world, one must take these weighty things into consideration. Even before this terminal date, you would need to make an awful lot of money in just one month of the year to keep the business going. Maybe they need a green Christmas. Of course, greenery in winter symbolizes life in the midst of death. The germanic originators of the tradition were keeping a very appropriate pagan idea alive when they dedicated their trees to Christmas. Last year when we couldn’t have a real tree, it felt like we’d lost a friend. Our tree farming friends know that feeling very well.

The “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs and bumper stickers have begun sprouting up in yards and on bumpers in their annual exuberance. Funny thing is, Christmas has its base in ancient pagan customs. To hear the Bible tell it, Jesus’ birth was an understated event. The only people who had an angelic concert were some shepherds (we don’t know how many) on the hills outside of a small town. And, as far was we can tell, it would have probably been in April. As the days grow wearily short, however, we need a little light to keep us going. That was the pagan wisdom behind the Yule Log and various festivals of light to encourage nature to bring some brightness back. These short days can be difficult enough even in the age of artificial light and constantly glowing electronic screens. And knowing this is the last month of the world, we want to festoon our trees with tiny pinpoints of expectation and hope that nature somehow gets the message that we’ve had enough of darkness and wish for a 2013 redolent with light. But we’ll just have to wait and see.