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.

Identity Crisis

I love books; this is no secret. And I especially love books with immersive worlds, wonderful places where I can drop in, lose myself, and become part of characters’ lives. A lot of teen and young adult books are great at this, as many of them establish classification systems for their characters. One of my favorite things to do is to take some quiz or test to find out “my” group. For example, my Divergent faction is Abnegation (although Erudite was a contender). In the Harry Potter world, well, I’m a “hat stall.” I’ve been Sorted into all four Hogwarts Houses at various points in life. My first was Gryffindor, much to the protestation of my friends (who said Ravenclaw) and the surprise of my family (who said Slytherin). I’ve never felt particularly brave enough or cool enough for Gryffindor, though, which may be why I keep retaking the test. Today I thought I would take it one final time, one last tie-breaker between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, my two most common results. So, where did it put me?

Hufflepuff. Not a bad place for a pastor.

The ubiquitous nature of this theme of (group) identity in literature geared toward young people makes me think, though. And when you add that to an astonishing number of personality tests currently available (ranging from the scientific to the Facebook app), it begins to look like our culture has developed an obsession with identity. Our own identities, to be exact. We can’t follow the mantra of “To thine own self be true” if we don’t know who our selves really are — and if our society places a value on anything, it’s individualism. And so we subject ourselves willingly to batteries of aptitude tests, personality quizzes, and a host of other assessments. We create new “identity labels” for things like sexuality and gender and then place most of our self-perception/-conception in those categories. It’s not enough, for example, for me to just call myself Chris; no, I am Chris of the Abnegation and House . . . Hufflepuff? Gryffindor?, a biological male with a corresponding gender identity, heterosexual, Caucasian (or, if you prefer, European American), political moderate conservative who is registered as a Republican.

We also place a great deal of our identities in other, external labels. We define ourselves by our jobs, so much so that the unemployed and the retired can often lose a sense of who they really are. Think, too, of those whose primary identity comes from being a mom, a dad, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a wife, a husband. If the other part of that relationship disappears, how will they then define themselves? Who will they become? Who are they at their core? Do they still know? Can they set aside those past roles, both vocational and relational, and recover the fundamentals of who they are?

The one place every Christian should find his or her identity is, of course, in God. Before we can relate to anyone else, we must remember we are human beings made in the image of God, the imago Dei. This means, in part, we are rational beings crafted for relationship. The primary relationship we have is with God, so our first identity is simply “one made in the image of God to have a relationship with God.” And out of that relationship comes our next level of identity (for the Christian): a born-again, forgiven child of the Living God. No other aspect of our identity should clash with that or call it into question. When “Who are you?” is answered with “I’m a Christian,” the asker should never have a follow-up of “Yeah, but this part of who you are isn’t.” Every facet of our lives is wholly given to God. Nothing is withheld.

From those twin cores of identity comes the foundation upon which we may build all other dimensions of who we are. I can be in a relationship of any sort with a fellow human being because of my identity as one in a relationship with God and created to do so. I don’t lose who I am when those human relationships fail because I still have that primary relationship with God. A loss of job doesn’t destroy my identity because I can work for the kingdom of God no matter what my career is. My sexuality and other desires are rightly ordered by God; my political affiliation should reflect how I believe God wants me to view that aspect of culture. This is the identity, the true self discovered when I abide in Him and He in me (John 15:5).

Can it go awry? Of course. Sin can impact every way I have of thinking about myself. My sexuality can be distorted, perverted, broken. I can become very passionate about things which are absolutely evil, and I can truly believe those evils are who I am deep inside myself. But I can always take a step back, remember I was born into a fallen world and sin affects even what I want most in life, even how I label myself. If I can take it back to God, surrender that to Him, He can overcome my sinful predispositions and restore me to my true self, remind me of my real identity.

So whether we’re Dauntless or Ravenclaw, remember who you are by remembering whose you are.