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    Bewitching Jesus

    So, Saturday night the news was that Christine O'Donnell "dabbled into witchcraft" before becoming a hard-line evangelical Christian. And you know what? I wasn't surprised at all. Surely I wasn't surprised that a candidate like O'Donnell was attracted to the supernatural, since all of her politics are about magical thinking. I shrugged it off, and Sunday morning I went to church.

    The readings at my Church, as they often are, were about the obligations of the rich to the poor. My denomination, for all its flaws, makes sure to read the entire the New Testament, and a big chunk of the rest of the Bible, on a steady three-years-of-Sundays rotation. Because the person giving the sermon doesn't get to cherry pick the Bible for texts to preach about, issues come up on Sunday about as often as Jesus brings them up in the Gospels. Most of the hot-button culture war issues, the ones now perceived as signature "Christian" issues, almost never get mentioned. Jesus seldom talks about any of them. On the other hand, justice for the poor comes up a lot. It is on Jesus's mind all the time. He will never go more than a few weeks without coming back to the topic.

    So as so often happens to me on Sunday, I was reading along with the day's Biblical passages and getting a set of pretty clear instructions that seem very different from the instructions that many of my vocal fellow-Christians in this country claim to have received. I certainly am not going to speak about their Christianity. It isn't for me to judge anyone else's faith. Nor would many of them perceive me as a "real" Christian. Frankly, America has freedom of religion precisely because Christians can't agree on what the real Christianity is; the religious disagreements are older than the country. On the other hand, at least some of my duties as a Christian seem too clear to escape. If a mob's forming to drive the outsiders out of town, I had better not be in that mob. If the poor need food, I had better not be lobbying for them to be fed even less. I'm not the Christian I'd like to be, much less the one I ought to be, and I'm not the one to explain what God wants. But I know what I feel is expected of me, and it takes me a long way from what some of the Christian political movements in this country advocate.

    But as I was leaving church and thinking about the many different Christianities in this country, I thought about Christine O'Donnell again, and her travels from occultism to her specific version of Christianity and how unsurprised I was. It seemed to me of a piece. Yes, evangelical Christians view witchcraft as their absolute opposite, the other end of the spectrum. But the two camps share a lot that I don't share with either of them.

    First of all, both occultists and Christians like O'Donnell believe that magic is real and powerful. Witchcraft is a scary thing to evangelicals because they believe witchcraft to be one of the major problems facing our society today. They believe that the Devil can actually use it to make inroads into human souls, and when you come right down to it, they believe that magic can do things. In fact, Michelle Malkin is defending O'Donnell for exactly this reason, because O'Donnell "learned" the true dangers of witchcraft which helps her to understand dangerous practices such as Halloween. (No, I'm not making that up.) The two opposed camps share a mindset in which Halloween is full of actual occult power. I, to put it simply, do not.

    And more to the point, the kind of Christianity O'Donnell espouses in public is essentially witchcraft by other means, a kind of magical practice that empowers and protects believers. I can't judge her actual practices and I know nothing about her private faith, but the Christianity she describes views the world in essentially magical terms. O'Donnell is on record as saying that she believes God "would provide a way" to avoid lying if Nazis were searching one's house for hidden Jews. And that's pretty much the magical view of the world: behavior is judged by how well it confirms to ritualized prescriptions and taboos, such as "never lie," rather than by the moral results of one's actions. One does not in fact make moral choices at all. The moral consequences of one's action are off-loaded onto divine Providence, which is responsible for making things work out well as long as you follow the Simple Rules.

    (In fact, God did not provide any such providential assistance for the good people who protected Jews. They all had to lie. This is why Christians long ago provided the "necessary evil" or "lesser evil" principle, which allows you to fib rather than connive at genocide.)

    And while, again, I am not fit to judge anyone else's Christianity, I am very fearful of the ways one can fall into what is essentially idolatry while persuading oneself that one is still a Christian. It's very easy. You just dress up your idol as Jesus. If you trade the ethical philosophy, which is complicated, for a simpler set of practices and taboos, and begin to address Jesus (or YHWH or Allah or the Tao or what have you) the way you would Mammon or Dagon, making propitiations in exchange for favors, you might as well just carve a new god for yourself out of a pumpkin. It's the same old business proposition: "I will do what you want, if you bring good things to me." Making that proposition to Jesus doesn't change its nature. I don't believe in Christianity because I believe Jesus can make good on that deal. I believe in Christianity because I believe Jesus does not make that deal.

    There are no real wars between religions. There are only tribal wars that use some tribal idolatry to rally the troops, and sometimes the idolaters hijack the name of some better religion's god. The real wars are inside religions: struggles between the obligations of your religion as a set of ethical teachings, which forces you to face difficult realities, and the temptation of turning your religion into a set of magical practices that holds those unpleasant realities at bay. That struggle goes on every day, inside every major religion in the world, and always has. There is no struggle between Christianity and Islam. There is a struggle inside Christianity and a struggle inside Islam, and inside Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism.

    This struggle does not split along traditional denominational lines inside religions, either. As I was walking out of Church on Sunday, I passed a young woman who touching the base of a religious statue and energetically whispering an involved prayer, perhaps having a conversation and asking for a specific favor. I don't know what she was doing, but it was something I'd be uncomfortable with myself, and I'd sat in the same pews listening to the same readings and the same sermon. I'd be pretty surprised if the pastor would encourage parishioners to use a statue to focus an intercessory prayer, but every congregation is a little multitude. There are people worshiping God through sincere ethical commitment in every Christian congregation, even the oddest-seeming ones, and people sitting in the most rational and modern congregation busily propitiating their little folk-magic idol. To tell the truth, most of the idol-worshipers don't even know it.


    [UPDATE: TPM's Brian Beutler has a round-up of how seriously many right-wing Christians take the Satanist menace.]


    i think it's probably not a good idea to think about o'donnell on your way out of church.  or at least not very close to the church.  kind of like committing sacrilege, that.  or blaspheming in the sanctuary.

    fine post. 

    Thanks, Anna.

    I actually only thought about O'Donnell at brunch after church, but that didn't sound as good. Also, you shouldn't think about Tea Partiers while eating.

    this is very true.

    Palin's into this Witchcraft crap as well. 

    I give up. Honestly.

    Sure she is. Everything we've seen about her indicates a deep investment in the idea that reality can be overcome through willpower and belief. So of course, she thinks of witchcraft as something that can work. And of course, she's interested in forms of Christian practice, such as the "prayer warriors" movement, that promise to influence events through their spiritual devotions.

    It's also her approach to politics. She's banking on a triumph victory of the will.

    From the Christain side I realize there isn't a clear distinction, but technically it sounds like she was playing with Satanism more than Witchcraft. To the Wiccans that's a pretty big distinction. I found these resources describing Wiccan halloween rituals to be quite interesting. In many ways, their views are rather less fantastic than O'Donnell's regarding the holiday (and power implied by it).

    Obviously, this observation doesn't really impact the overall point of this point, which is excellent.

    That's certainly true, kgb, and I was deliberately skirting around that topic because sorting out the differences would have taken more time than the rest of the post. Wiccans obviously don't think of themselves as opposing Christianity in the same way that Satanists do. But to be a Satanist at all you pretty have to buy into a particular version of one Christian idea, not only believing in Satan but believing that he is actively using his powers to influence events.

    When I was a little girl being taught by nuns I figured out that you had to be a little crazy to become a saint just by some the things the saints did.   O'Donnall might be thought of as a good Christan but for many of us she is just a little too crazy to vote for.  

    The bit about whether to lie to Nazis or not reminds me of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was an evangelist killed by the Nazis for his resistance to the regime.

    For Bonhoeffer, there is a magical thinking issue in the distinction between cheap versus costly grace:

    If grace is God's answer, the gift of Christian life, then we cannot for a moment dispense with following Christ. But if grace is the data for my Christian life, it means that I set out to live the Christian life in the world with all my sins justified beforehand. I can go and sin as much as I like, and rely on this grace to forgive me, for after all, the world is justified in principle by grace. I can therefore cling to my bourgeois secular existence, and remain as I was before, but with the added assurance that the grace of God will cover me. It is under the influence of this kind of "grace" that the world has been made "Christian" but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before. The antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace. page 51.

    Under the shadow of Bonhoeffer, promulgating the idea of a Providence that would make not-lying-to-killers all work out for the best does not seem like "cheap" grace but something requiring even less from a believer.

    I guess the only thing cheaper than cheap is getting paid for one's lack of effort.

    That's a terrific quotation, moat. Thank you for it.

    I think you're right that O'Donnell, et al, make the cheap grace even cheaper. They're asking not just for salvation, but for the world to be remade so that their faith is never tried at all.

    The cheap grace idea reminds me of "The Family" subgroup on Capitol Hill, and their conviction that they are anointed and therefore forgiven whenever they sin. (An old antinomian idea that's been flourishing since at least the 17th century and probably earlier.)

    The O'Donnell formulation, where you can always do the right thing at no cost, reminds me of early Christian martyrs. Why didn't God provide for St. Stephen?

    Awesome quote. In my opinion, living as you want just because you "think" you're saved is ridiculous. Jesus also said "now go and sin no more". And "faith without works is dead". 

    In Christ...

    According to OGD's grandmother.

    Salvation is by faith. It’s not enough to simply have belief unless the outcome of that belief results in an act of commitment to Christ that results in a changed life that bears fruit.

    A simple act of compassion, condolence and/or understanding for another's trials and/or tribulations is a form of "works" in the sense of the act of "faithing". A simple act of helping to show another "the way".

    Separate from the mind that which resides in the heart.


    Glad to see that you linked to your earlier "magic Christian" post, which didn't quite get the attention it deserved. I'm irreligious myself but, judging by what his followers wrote about him, I admire the hell out of Jesus. Sort of an iconoclastic, rabble-rousing, pacifist Che Guevara.

    Thanks for this post, Doc.  The variety of beliefs and practices of various sects or churches who all call themselves Christians doesn't receive enough scrutiny, IMO. 

    But there is a particular subset, authoritarian personalities, who seem to have a keen fixation on the devil and his allies and the many ways they cause havoc in our world.  These same folks  also seem to always need an enemy, a foe, a threat bearing down on them so that they are always doing battle, fighting the good fight against the "other".  All very militaristic and as you point out, magical.

    Jesus' basic teachings are really quite simple and pretty clear.  But to make a sincere effort to follow his teachings requires one to try and see all people as your brothers and sisters, all children of the Father.  This is a bit of a stretch for those who know there really is a monster under their bed.  On the other hand, if misforture befalls your neighbor, well...God works in mysterious ways. 


    Thanks for all the kind words, folks! I'm electronically blushing!

    All well and good and a nice description of where she fits - within the world of the supernatural, magic and occult, of which you are also a part.

    You can't use those words to set her truly apart from you when you go to a church that calls upon magic to have a cannibal/vampire ceremony.

    Your version of Christianity is no less occult than hers, just like there's no such thing as being a little pregnant.

    Thank you, Patrick, for keeping it nice and reasonable.

    Let me gratefully decline to have you characterize my beliefs. I take it, from your cannibal/vampire reference, both that you object to the ritual of communion and that you feel free to specify my personal understanding of it.

    It is apparently your contention that I consider the doctrine of transubstantion to be literally true, and am under the impression that when I swallow a communion wafer that I am actually eating human flesh in some real sense.

    It is my position that I don't believe anything of the kind. (I am very aware at Sunday brunch that I am getting my first protein of the day.) And you telling me that I do believe such a thing is not terribly convincing, least of all to me.

    Is transubstantiation not the official position of my church? You got me. That is why I went to pains in the original post to point out that it is more common that not for individual worshippers within a single congregation to follow very different practices and interpret their faith in different ways. (I certainly think this is true of Wiccans, some of whom are following an interesting spiritual practice and others of whom are deluding themselves that they have arcane powers. The first group of Wiccans are interesting to talk to; the second, not so much.)

    As for your position that all forms of religion, or all forms of Christianity, are equally occult, with no distinctions between them: I would say that praying and performing rituals in the hope of affecting events in the phenomenal world is very distinct from praying and performing rituals in the understanding that they do not accomplish anything tangible.

    I see a pretty big distinction between praying as a way to reflect on one's spiritual goals (say, hoping to be more patient and less short-tempered) and praying to make it rain or to get a promotion. And I would say that most people can grasp that distinction quite easily.


    As I said before, you are making distinctions within the world of occult beliefs, though you try to separate most of Christianity from the occult:

    "her travels from occultism to her specific version of Christainity"

    "both occultists and Christians like..."

    As a shorthand using the masses' understanding of "occult," that distinction makes sense. (Occult = not MY religion) But that distinction isn't valid. My loaded language was a refusal to gloss over the occultish aspects by using shiny terminology.

    You make good points about the "Christian" Right not really following the teachings of Jesus. They need to be called on that.

    And you make good points about praying for tangible things to happen and expecting them to happen. I understand that distinction.

    But again, that's a distinction of degree. If you pray TO a god expecting even intangible or afterlife effects, you still have the mindset that your god will take action and use his or her magic to do something for you. Praying to a god to do better with your temper is not the same as meditating to reinforce the idea you should change that on your own. Why pray to a god "for" anything if you don't want magic help?

    Did I not just say "focus one's own spiritual goals?"

    I don't pray to God to do anything for me. Prayer is not a substitute for action, but a way of contemplating action.

    After I've finished praying I have more to do than I did before I started.

    Exactly what, then, is your god's actual role in this prayer?

    Unresponsive and non-participating audience of a one-sided conversation? How does this differ from internal reflection that involves no god at all? 

    It doesn't differ much, either for me or for a vast number of other religious believers. (And by "vast number," I'm estimating a ten-digit figure.)

    Did you, um, not know that?

    I feel this has gone beyond friendly debate (although I don't doubt your friendly intentions). So if you're going to ask the answers to any more extremely simple questions, try not to phrase them as if you were asking out of your superior knowledge.

    If it is your contention that religious practices, by virtue of being religious, are fundamentally supersitious, you are free to maintain that fairly simple worldview. But if you intend to persuade others to that postion, try to make a case that fits the observable reality of how actual religious believers behave. (And if you're a rationalist who doesn't care about observable facts in the phenomenal world, I would submit that you're not a rationalist at all.)

    If your contention is that any reference to a divine being, however abstract or metaphorical, makes something occult, I would say that you are overlooking actual behavior in pursuit of a Manichean (dare I say Zoroastrian?) distinction.

    There are enormous numbers of religious believers who pray as personal and moral reflection: Episcopalians, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Shiites and Sunni, Baptists, Lutherans, Baha'i, you name it. If you have not noticed these people, it's partly because the noisy magical thinkers get a lot more media, and partly because you haven't paid attention.

    On the other hand, a significant portion of the people whose meditation or reflections make no appeal to any divinity have nonetheless have turned their meditation or reflection into a magical practice. (Although, of course, many people meditate, both inside and outside religious practices, with no such delusions.) The magical-thinking meditators believe that meditating will influence the world in some way. That is the difference.

    I would contend that people in twelve-step programs who use thoughts of some "higher power" in order to help them focus their willpower and overcome their addiction are not doing magic by any means. Their request that their higher power assist them is a method of self-discipline found in different ways in a wide variety of practices. Asking God to help you avoid drinking is not an attempt to do magic. (Asking God to spare you from a hangover, on the other hand, is clearly an attempt at magic, and good luck with that.) The appeal to the higher power is an attempt to re-imagine your relationship to your own willpower in order to focus and strengthen it. Yes, twelve-steppers imagine themselves letting go of their wills and "surrendering" in order to achieve the willpower that prevents them from drinking. Even if that doesn't make sense to you, large numbers of people have gotten observable results with that technique. It isn't magic if it works.

    On the other hand, there are readers of The Secret who believe that they can bring themselves large amounts of money by thinking specific thoughts. That is clearly a magical practice, and it doesn't involve spells, incantations, or supernatural beings. The "Power of Positive Thinking" becomes a magical practice when it crosses the line from a self-disciplinary tool to an attempt to "bring luck." No God involved, but a whole lot of delusion and superstition.

    I would go further. There are widely observable religious practices and large populations of relgious believers who are much saner and much less involved in magical thinking than adherents of many allegedly secular, but tautological and epistemologically closed-off belief systems. An Episcopalian priest who prays to Jesus while trying to make moral decisions is not nearly as superstitious or irrational as, for example, some free-market fundamentalists who believe all will be well as long as we do not sin against The Invisible Hand.

    A generalized belief in the overall benevolence of the universe and in the power of love is not nearly as primitive or superstitious as the belief that all taxation is bad for the economy. The Episcopalian is restricting her non-empirical beliefs to non-empirical domains. The Adam Smith cultist is applying his non-empircial beliefs to the phenomenal world, and observable evidence be damned.

    Let's resume offline at a later date.


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