Burn the Witch

I currently live in a little community called Salem. For better or for worse, I’ve yet to see any witches skulking about, even on Halloween (when you’d expect at least a small one asking for candy). Maybe the infamous events of 1692 in another Salem are still fresh on everyone’s collective mind, or maybe the opposite is true: we think so little of magic and witchcraft in our age of reason and science it’s too silly even to pretend to be a sorcerer.

Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously, magic has been discarded by the average person as something incredulous at best or non-existent at worst, banished to the realm of myth — yet the Bible very much treats it at reality. From Genesis 41:8 (Pharaoh’s court magicians) to Acts 19:19 (sorcery in Ephesus), witchcraft is presented not only as real, but also as decently prevalent. The world of the ancients is steeped in magic. Witches practiced a number of forms of magic, including divination, necromancy, conjuration, astrology, and others. And all of it was soundly condemned by the word of God. Exodus 22:19 is arguably the most famous of such passages: “Suffer not a witch to live.” Similar condemnations and prohibitions are found throughout the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:26-28,31; Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 28:9; 2 Kings 9:22; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 8:19-20; Micah 5:12; Nahum 3:4; and Malachi 3:5 to name a few (and to provide a taste for the scope of its treatment in the OT). The New Testament retains the classification of magic as something evil and ungodly in places like Acts 8:9-25,19:19; and Galatians 5:19-21. Sometimes the Bible associates it with the worship of false gods, as in the Torah, and sometimes it’s a simple “don’t you dare,” but the message is clear: witchcraft is real, and it is evil.

Some of the more “enlightened” folks of the twenty-first century will take issue with this. Surely we can’t base reality on a several-thousand-years-old book. We can’t know what that magic looked like, so we must bear in mind the words of author Arthur C. Clarke in Clarke’s Third Law: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Even if the witches weren’t simply advanced beyond their contemporaries, we are, and so surely our increased knowledge of science will tell us how they did what they did without resorting to some sort of supernatural explanation. After all, says this worldview, even miracles are only things science has yet to explain.

Not so, says the biblical paradigm — thus launching a thousand witch hunts.

The Inquisition burned many at the stake, and two of the most common charges were heresy and witchcraft. Two hundred years before the Salem Witch Trials, two German inquisitors composed the Malleus Maleficarum — the Hammer of Witches, a book attributing everything from a lack of faith in women to a healthy female libido to magical origins. I doubt many real witches were ever successfully prosecuted through the ages, but it didn’t stop men and women alike from being (perhaps mostly falsely) accused of sorcery.

In one regard, identifying a witch may be easier in our own day and time — most will admit it up front. Magic seems to have captured the imaginations of many, and for some, just dreaming about it isn’t enough. Those few flock to religions proud of a magical heritage and active witchcraft, such as the various strains of Wicca, shamanism, paganism, and druidism. Most practitioners are proud of their magic and, while they may not be listed under “Wizard” in the Chicago phone book, they don’t hide what they do, either. Just as in ancient times, magic has become part of household religion, with deities worshiped ranging from Hecate to Odin to the Triple Goddess and back again. Entire families of witches exist, parents raising their children in Gardnerian Wicca the way others raise them in Christianity.

It is, in a word, not good. (OK, that was two words.)

The Church can ill-afford to embark on more disastrous witch hunts, and we are far removed from burning anyone alive. Our job is to share the love of Jesus with all those who need it, witches included. We need to show the dangers of magic and offer a better way (not “more weight”). Everyone needs the salvation offered by Christ. We all need to lay aside everything and anything which interferes with our relationship to God.

Some place certain magic-related books, movies, and games in this category. The only reason I ever read the first Harry Potter book, in fact, was because my father wanted to know how truly evil the books were, so he bought a copy, tossed it to me, and said, “Here. You read faster than I do. Tell me what you think.” Most things like that, I feel, present no threat to anyone. Fantasy is precisely that: fantasy, not reality, and it’s not difficult to distinguish between the two. Additionally, any fan of fantasy can tell you about good Christian fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?). As long as a person remains oriented to reality, no harm will be done by reading books about wizards. (Even if such things do inspire on kid in a million to pursue real magic, they will quickly learn the true thing is nothing like the storybook version.) The risk is truly minimal, and the rewards of sharing fairy tales with your children are priceless.

Even so, remember: there is no distinction between white magic and black magic in the eyes of God. All magic is sinful; all seeks power from sources outside of the Almighty. May we keep from sinning while showing love and mercy to those who, like us, fall short of perfection.

So don’t gather the firewood for the witch hunt.

Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.

Oh, the Humanities!

Most of you know I did my undergraduate work in English. It caused a slight row with my father, since it’s an infinitely impractical field, but the longer he’s taught science, the more he’s realized the value of my degree. My crowning achievement as an English major was writing close to twenty pages of feminist criticism on a book with no women in it. I won awards for other papers, but I consider that one the pinnacle of my literary career.

It was easier than you’d think, honestly. Ursula K. Le Guin is known foremost for her Earthsea novels, but she remains a celebrated author of fantasy and science fiction. The book of hers I read for my essay, The Left Hand of Darkness, is sci-fi — but complex sci-fi, something you can sink your critical teeth into. It explores many widely-differing themes, from the nature of war to linguistics and back again. The book is responsible for teaching me how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question, a lesson which has shaped me more than I would have thought possible. First and foremost, however, it is a book about gender-y things: sex, gender, engendered behaviors, masculinity, femininity, the hegemonic constructs of each, gender roles, you name it. Not bad for a book with only one man, no women, and a planet full of people who could be either one at any time. (Read it; you’ll understand.)

The discussion of dualism in gender comes from Le Guin’s Taoist beliefs. In her novel as in Taoism, light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness is the right hand of light. They are complementary, two halves forming an organic whole. She juxtaposes this on gender, just as in yin and yang, and concludes all are both. A truly human, human being is both masculine and feminine and exhibits qualities of both, with different genders (not sexes, genders) being dominant as the situation merits. It’s a fascinating, intriguing, holistic view of human identity which finds the other in the self and the self in the other without overt reduction to sexuality. It’s a Taoist harmonization that reinforces the Christian imago Dei, for both male and female were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

Of course, such things as literature and gender studies teach us about humanity (in the senses of both the species and the quality of human-ness), but they don’t pay the bills so much. They’ll never provide the cure for cancer or the next source of renewable energy. Unfortunately, they only teach us who we are, what it means to exist in the human condition (hence we call them the “humanities”). Our society runs on the practical, so we promote STEM fields exclusively and trod the rest underfoot.

This is a tragedy. And like a great Shakespearean tragedy writ large, it will end in the deaths of an entire species, for we can cease being human long before we die.

We’re not overly concerned with that, however. Here in the West, we’re far more preoccupied with how to make money. If a thing will make us rich, we’ll do it, and there’s little money to be had in jotting down verse or debating the Napoleonic Wars. In America, we’re particularly beholden to our specific brand of free-market capitalism, and, right now, the market is hot for the inhuman. We buy and sell phones, computers, and social media websites, all in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, placing a higher premium on things which substitute for people than on people themselves. We make money hand over fist by removing the human element at every turn: Facebook friends fill in for bosom buddies; robots replace line workers; pornography stands in for actual sexuality and making love to another human. And we let it happen in part because we got rich doing it, because it had a market and we supplied to meet the demand.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” — 1 Timothy 6:10a.

Even if we don’t necessarily view it all in such capitalistic or economic terms, we will attribute the advent of this brave new world to simple practicality. It’s efficient; it serves a purpose; it’s convenient.

The practical is the enemy of the beautiful.

Beauty comes in many forms, both in the arts and humanities and in ordinary life. Few things, to me, can be as beautiful as a Beethoven violin concerto, a poem by Shelley, a painting by Monet or Waterhouse, moonlight on snow, a sunset on the plains, or the colors of the leaves of autumn in the mountains. None of those things have practical worth. Such sentiment has no cash value. And yet the smile of a child, the sleek elegance of a shark, the deep brown of the eyes of a lover, the dizzying depths of the Grand Canyon, and the serenity of the calm Pacific all mean something to us. They are all beautiful, all precious treasures.

I think it’s because beauty points us to God. It’s a reminder of the divine, proof a Divinity shaped the cosmos and rendered it beautiful. The quality of beauty has no evolutionary value (or at least none which has been convincingly proposed). It doesn’t help me survive or find a mate by sighing appreciatively at the sunrise or having a sonata reverberate in my head. There’s no advantage there. But they do remind me I am loved by God, that He values me enough to place me in a world of unsurpassed beauty for my enjoyment and gave me the gift of the ability to create more beautiful things. Beauty teaches me I am human, but Something Else exists which is not, which is transcendent, and which invites me to glimpse Him and know Him and love Him.

As our world turns from divinity, turns from God, it turns from the beautiful and the whimsical to the practical and the marketable. It is one of the greatest tricks Satan has ever played on us: convincing us to ignore beauty in pursuit of utility. He has torn our gaze from what points us to God and gotten us to look instead at that which keeps our hearts from Him. He has caused us to abandon our humanity, to ignore that blessed gift from a loving God, and made acting as random automatons — and treating others as the same — something to be desired.

Brothers and sisters, rebel against the prevailing paradigm. Refuse the worldview and opt out of the market. Rejoice in beauty. Read poetry. Listen to Bach. Paint landscapes. Be fully alive. Act as a human being. And love the God who saw fit to make you a human being alive in such a beautiful world.