And so comes an end to Lent, and my Lenten series, with Easter. To Christians, Easter not just the commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his Crucifixion, but an event happening in a very real sense right now, reverberating through time and space.
If the Crucifixion is when Jesus atoned for our sins, the Resurrection is when He brings the promise of eternal life to us, and begins his work moving the spirits of the people of the world towards the path of following Him into the Kingdom of God.
Forthcoming, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, will take over that work; but now, we are in another time, not liminal, like Black Saturday, but celebratory, in which we give thanks for Jesus's Resurrection and worship with joy in the remembrance of it.
This was perhaps the hardest Lenten season I have ever undertaken: writing roughly 1,000 non-fiction words a day every day on top of all my other responsibilities was quite the challenge. But Jesus can resurrect anything, and He certainly resurrected my connection to the faith this Lent.
And now, on this day of rest, I close this Lenten series. I've much more to write on the "Jesus and Godel" thread, but I am going to take a break, and be grateful for the glory of the Resurrection, the promise of eternal life, and most importantly, for the Christian values that guide me towards Jesus.
Black Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus lay in the tomb. If the Crucifixion is the great sacrifice, and the Resurrection is its great reward, the Tomb is the liminal space between, the moment between before and after, the place in time and space where Death reigns as supreme as it ever will.
Death is a funny thing, and does funny things to people's brains. Some people fear it; others welcome it, perhaps grudgingly. Some seek it; some try to move heaven and earth to avoid it. Strangest of all is what death does to otherwise rational people's perceptions of reality - of what is "ontologically possible."
Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which Spock - SPOILERS - dies, is said to have complained that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock wasn't realistic, because Spock - SPOILERS - comes back from the dead, along the lines: "It's a fantasy - people can't come back from the dead."
Yeah, well, people used to not fly in space either, Nick, but you still directed a movie about it, almost a decade and a half after humanity successfully landed on the moon. A friend of mine had a similar complaint about another movie because "coming back from the dead isn't possible."
Put bluntly, this isn't a rational analysis. This is treating death as Death with a capital 'D', elevating it into a permanent part of the City of Myth, like Neil Gaiman's Endless or Terry Pratchett's Four Horsemen. But Death isn't a perky, photogenic goth or a cloak-wrapped figure made wholly of bones.
We are three-dimensional patterns persisting through four-dimensional space-time, and, one day, those self-maintaining patterns may cease to maintain themselves and dissolve. Put simply, someday, everybody dies. But those patterns, one day, might be restored, by any number of methods.
Despite the cliche, neither death nor taxes are an unavoidable part of the structure of the universe, and that should be obvious if you engage in informed speculation about possible futures. Thinking of taxes alone, we might have a universal basic income in a robotically-powered post-scarcity utopia.
While the resurrection method in Star Trek III leaves a lot to be desired - it's beyond scientific speculation and fully in the realm of "treknobabble" - if you're already talking about starships traveling faster than light crewed by psychic space elves, please, don't start talking to me about the realism of Death.
Death doesn't deserve its capital letter. One day, we might scientifically conquer it - I wear a cryogenic suspension bracelet around my wrist for precisely this purpose - and, to Christians, Jesus has already conquered it, with His ministry providing the gateway of belief to His death and resurrection.
Black Saturday remembers this time. One day, death will reach us all - it is inevitable, even though it might be reversible - but the promise of Jesus's resurrection is the promise that one day we all may go beyond the dissolution of our physical patterns and into a new mode of existence that is eternal.
Pictured: the eyebrows of Peter Capaldi, known for playing a man who knows something about coming back from the dead.
The Crucifixion puts everything into perspective. No matter what we face in life, no matter how bad things get, it’s hard to top an innocent man being tortured to death for telling the truth in a political kangaroo court - which, essentially, is the story of Jesus’s death.
This is a strange comfort for me when I think I’ve had a bad day. No matter what minor mishap has triggered my internal narrative and constant catastrophizing, it really never is as bad as what Jesus had to go through to protect us from the consequences of our own sins.
I feel strange even writing this. It seems like this is something that should be treated with heavy reverence - the Crucifixion is the most important event in Christian theology, and in that view, is the most important thing to ever happen in all of Creation itself.
But the reverence of a prayer to our God - as regurgitated performatively to other true believers, which is what all audible or written prayers are, performances - leads to language which is the opposite of clear explanation and honest sharing with people who do not yet believe.
Think of the exaggerated “JAY-zuss” you hear from televangelists. Jesus actually tells us not to pray in public: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”
Or think of the constant praises that Muslims offer to Allah in religious contexts: Allah, may He be glorified and exalted”, “Muhammad, upon him be prayers and peace.” In a sense, this is a performance, something which reads the best to other believers.
But in another sense, these praises and exaggerations are not a performance. While I’m leery of taking much from any other faith into Christianity, especially Islam, which C. S. Lewis described as “Christianity’s greatest heresy,” one thing that I agree with Islam about is submission to God.
Islam means submission to God, and as part of that submission, Muslims believe in gratitude, which leads to thanks and praise to God, and Muslims believe in scripture, citing verses from the Qur’an as a reason to bestow on Muhammad all those honorifics.
Similarly, to a televangelist, belief in Jesus is the most important element of anyone’s life. He’s their guide, their Savior, their close personal friend, even if He is invisible, and every time they say His name, they want to emphasize His importance to them.
In Christian theology, Jesus is God, existing before and outside Creation; but Jesus is also human, making Him the most important part of Creation - and the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection the most important event.
That’s why the Crucifixion looms so large: in a sense, it is both everywhere and at the center of things. The authors G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis both had a genius for metaphor when talking about the Risen Lord, often using the imagery of the Sun when they did so.
That’s appropriate. The Earth turns, and sometimes, its weight and bulk seems like it blots out the Sun. But the Sun is always there, still burning, shining its light into every part of the darkness, and it will be waiting for us when it turns around again.
The light of the Sun predates the formation of the Earth, which took its current shape after the Mars-sized planet Theia slammed into the proto-Earth (which in my novels I call Hyperion), and it will shine after the Earth is gone, consumed in the swelling of the Sun into a red giant.
This is one reason I’m not so worried about the discrepancies between the Bible and modern cosmology: the world wasn’t made in six days and it won’t end in seven trumpets, but echoes of those spiritual truths can be found over and over again, fractally, throughout the universe.
And the largest of those looming truths is that of the Son. Like the Sun, He was here before us, His light shaped us and helped us grow, and He will be here long after we’re gone, collecting the dust of the old world and refashioning it into a new one.
So today, the echoes of the Crucifixion wash over us; tomorrow, that of his Death; the day after, that of his Resurrection. And the lesson, even for our worst suffering and our darkest hours, is that suffering, followed by death, is a mere echo of a process that ends in Resurrection.
[For those tuning in from yesterday, when I wasn’t sure if I would continue these essays: I’m “at work” waiting - wading, really - through recompiles and reinforcement learning policy evaluations, so I might as well write my essay while my virtual robot chugs along.]
There’s a great bit in the surprisingly dark Doctor Who holiday episode “The Last Christmas” where someone says they don’t like Christmas because every Christmas is the last Christmas for someone, and might be the last Christmas for you in particular.
That got me thinking about the Last Supper. Today is Maundy Thursday, the last day of Lent proper. Working backwards, Easter commemorates the Resurrection, Black Saturday the Tomb, Good Friday the Crucifixion, and Maundy Thursday the Last Supper.
At the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus shared with His followers prior to His death, Jesus ritually broke bread and instituted the Eucharist, predicted his betrayal by Judas, and may also have washed the feet of the Apostles in a show of servant leadership (the Gospels differ).
While the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are critically important in the salvation of humanity (and the resolution of the problem of evil), the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist are critically important to the spiritual lives of Christians everywhere.
In it, Jesus broke bread and said, “This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me,” and after supper, he shared a cup, saying ”This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
This is big league stuff. That text isn’t from the Gospels: it’s from First Corinthians, one of the most reliable books of the New Testament: Paul’s authorship isn’t really disputed, it’s found in the oldest copy of the Bible (the Codex Vaticanus), and it dates to like 50ish AD.
As we discussed earlier, First Corinthians documents events happening in the first few years after Jesus’s Crucifixion - but Paul says he got his info about the Last Supper from Jesus Himself, with the words: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…”
My point is twofold. First, if you’re a skeptic not super interested in Christianity, sometimes you hear arguments that “Christianity” is a later invention and that maybe Jesus didn’t even exist. This is bunk: key elements of Christian worship were rolling only a year or two after He died.
You may not believe that has any meaning, of course. Christian theology itself says mysteries must be taken on faith. If you’re not willing to do that, that’s your prerogative. Just, please, don’t work backwards from your disbelief to pretend verifiable things aren’t true to give you cover.
My second point is this: the Eucharist is a key part of Christian worship. I know that many Protestants don’t place the same emphasis on the sharing of bread and wine that Catholics and Episcopaeans do, but according to Paul, Jesus thought it so important He told Paul personally.
[I want to say that Jesus knocked Paul off His horse to tell him, but I doubt that’s actually true.]
The celebration of the Eucharist, and the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus - whether you think that’s literal transubstantiation, spiritual transformation, or simply holy metaphor - are the key conduits we have to receive spiritual grace in worship.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper directly with His Apostles, and re-emphasized it in-person after His death and Resurrection to the Apostle to the Gentile, Paul, and His Church is still celebrating this 2,000 year old institution today.
Philip K. Dick once came to believe that we’re all trapped in 70 A.D., waiting for the return of Jesus. I certainly don’t believe that, but there is something timeless about the elements of Christian worship, which makes the rituals spiritually appropriate for all times.
So, regardless of whether you’re an active Christian, a lapsed backslider, or an interested outsider, you should attend a Mass sometime. One day, your supper may be a Last Supper, and it will be good to have shared that last meal - metaphorically, spiritually, actually - with Jesus.
-the Centaur Pictured: Philip K. Dick, who was quite the strange cat.
So we may be coming to an end of my Lenten series - not because Lent is over, though technically Lent ends on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, because I had been planning on writing through to Easter - but because I forgot that Lent rolled over April - and Camp Nanowrimo.
Nanowrimo, for those late to the party, is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. It has two sister challenges, "Camp Nanowrimo," in April and July, and a few years ago I committed to doing all three every year, so I could finish my books before I die.
I live by The Law of Prior Commitment: if you have two conflicting obligations, the one you agreed to first wins, nor do you break a prior commitment to take on a new one. In this case, I thoughtlessly committed myself to writing two essay's worth for five days, and I'm already overloaded. The Lent series must go.
Now, the Law of Prior Commitment is a great law. It simplifies and de-stresses many decisions in life, because it's easy to apply, easy to understand, and impartial. When combined with a key exception - when a conflict affects my wife, I Prioritize My Marriage - it becomes easier to be fair with people.
That exception is important. Sometimes the commitments I make are to myself - to take on a Lenten series, to commit to Nanowrimo, to attend the Write to the End writer's group every Tuesday. But once, back in the day, when I'd committed to a karate class, it conflicted with my new girlfriend's art opening.
My future wife's art opening - her very first art opening, in point of fact.
Following the Law of Prior Commitment got me in trouble - and I don't mean that she was upset, though she was; I mean that I missed out on a special experience because I was mindlessly applying a rule. As I've discussed earlier, no set of rules can be perfect for dealing with the complexities of the real world.
Literally NO rules, because it's mathematically impossible. As much as we may wish otherwise, for ANY problem you have to think about with, like, your brain, the mathematician Dedekind showed arithmetic is embedded in it somewhere, and Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is lurking behind that with a club.
Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us not to swear oaths: "You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool."
Jesus was no doubt aware that commitments made as oaths - rules short enough to be packaged into a brief verbal spell - cannot encompass within their rules the whole of the path following Him, which involves constant course-correction towards Jesus with discernment (discretion guided by grace).
In popular culture the way to Heaven is "straight and narrow" but that's a misreading of Matthew 7:14, which the Interlinear reads as a narrow GATE and a constricted WAY - hard to get through, and easy to step off the path. A straight path is easy to follow. But straight lines exist in the human mind, not nature.
This is one reason I've always been a bit suspicious of religious orders - people who swear a vow - an oath - to God to live as part of a religious community. No matter how well intentioned those vows are, no matter how religiously inspired, they're replacing the simple following of Jesus with human rules.
When we decide to follow a rule, or swear an oath, or even when we take on a vow to God, we are placing something finite and human - a short verbal spell, followed by our own finite judgment - over the infinite and divine example of Jesus, the Son of God, and the Person of God Himself.
Following Jesus is strange and difficult, sometimes challenging, requiring discernment - again that odd word, which in plain language means just "good judgment", but to Christians, it stands for a process: "perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding."
That lack of judgment is important. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"
This means more than just not judging people for their imagined offenses. It applies to all situations. If we cannot approach a situation without judgment - without being open to everyone and everything that are actually there - then we will only find ourselves regurgitating our own prejudices.
Oaths short-circuit this process of discernment. An oath says, "I'm going to make a decision now, so I won't have to make a decision then." Oaths, while they are restrictive, are comforting, in a way: if one makes that promise to do a good thing now, then you can be sure not to be swayed later.
Except, sometimes, we should be swayed later. You can make all the promises to yourself that you want, but you do so in a particular set of circumstances, and if your circumstances change, they could require you to re-visit the assumptions that led you to make the oath in the first place.
Artificial intelligence researchers call this "defeasible reasoning." Logicians, skeptics and objectivists may want the firm certainty of deductive reasoning, which moves from true premises to true conclusions, but probability theorists, scientists and roboticists know that new information can invalidate the old.
There is no substitute for taking each scenario on its own merits. No substitute for discretion; no way to eliminate the need for discretion before judgment. You can swear all the oaths you want, make all the promises to yourself that you want, but one day, your rules will fail.
So, I promised to myself I'd take on a Lenten series, and that I'd do Camp Nanowrimo. But in practice, I'm going to roll into Maundy Thursday tomorrow, approach the situation without judgment, and, regardless of the rules I've set for myself, let myself decide what I ought to do to follow Jesus.
Pictured: Dedekind, a mathematician who showed that our most basic thoughts - thinking about things, and putting them into groups, which might contain other groups - contain, deeply embedded in their implications, the full richness of the natural numbers, and beyond them, all of mathematics.
Modern movies have trained us to expect showy spectacles of power. The Emperor throws lightning from his fingers with the power of the Force; Tony Stark blows up a mountain range with the power of his mind (via engineering); Superman flies around the planet to turn back time with the power of Earth's Sun.
This is true even in depictions of miracles from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille filmed the waters of the Red Sea roaring back from the staff of Moses like he was Gandalf, but in Exodus 14:21, Moses just stretches his hand out over the sea, and God sends a strong east wind. Parting the Reed Sea takes all night.
In all fairness, the Bible does mention the walls of water, which later crash in on the Pharaoh's troops, and earlier God does ask Moses to take a shepherd's staff with him to work his wonders. But it isn't mentioned in the parting of the Red Sea itself. It isn't as photogenic as we want to remember.
This is true about many miracles in the Bible, especially the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but people do recover from seemingly fatal-looking illnesses. The feeding of the crowd can be chalked up to underestimating how much food people had with them. And so on.
Now, there are unambiguous miracles in the Gospels - my favorite is Jesus stilling the storm and walking on water - but many of the miracles are events which you not only have to take on faith, but you have to use faith to recognize that they are even indeed miracles, much less interpret them properly.
Such is the story of Jesus's triumphal entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He sends His disciples ahead to retrieve a donkey, which is mysteriously tied up precisely where He says it would be, and whose owners yield it to the disciples without a fuss when told that the donkey was needed for the Lord.
Then, upon Jesus's entry, crowds gather and, even though they don't precisely know who He is, lay down for Him cloaks and palm branches - from where we get the name Palm Sunday. Supposedly, all the city was moved by this triumphal entry ... but only then learned that it was Jesus, the prophet from Galilee.
Wait, what? How did they know to gather? Remember, this is before Twitter, before cell phones, even before CNN and the 24-hour news cycle. And Jesus didn't exactly have the largest staff - He had twelve close confidants (we call them Apostles) and sent out seventy or so followers (we call them disciples).
But even so, the Bible narrates Jesus's advance team, which doesn't do more than procure some transport. The appearance of the crowds that gather for Jesus, much less the donkey that Jesus mysteriously knows about from miles and miles away, are a rational mystery.
Now, if you're a skeptic, you're likely aware of "information leakage" which can cause the appearance of paranormal phenomena when in truth the "counting horse" was just paying close attention to the body language of the trainer, or the "psychic" was learning to predict from subtle smudges on the cards.
A skeptic must admit that it's possible that in the six days prior to Palm Sunday, when Jesus was staying in nearby Bethany, that He sent messengers ahead to prepare the way. By my count above, plus other hangers-on in the Bible, He likely had a hundred followers, seventy embedded across Israel.
So, from a skeptical perspective, there's really not anything to explain. But if you take the story on faith - if you believe that the Bible, even if it isn't literally true and is primary source material, isn't just primary source material and is inspired by faith to tell us what's important - then you see God at work.
Again and again, Jesus works small miracles, things which a skeptic can easily explain away, things which don't require an extravagant budget, complex special effects, or thousands of extras. Sometimes, it's just seeing someone from afar, be it a donkey for the triumphal entry ... or the apostle Nathanael.
"When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, 'Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.' 'How do You know me?' Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, 'Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.' 'Rabbi,' Nathanael answered, 'You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'"
It's a simple miracle. A skeptic would chalk it up to a cold read and go on about their business. But to a believer, it's a sign. Jesus knows who we are and what resources we have, even from a great distance, and He sees what role we can play in His Kingdom ... even if we sometimes seem very far away.
God acts in the world around us all the time. Earlier in this series, I pooh-poohed the experiences some people have with spiritual or magical experiences which require a prepared mind, but it is true that there are things which we cannot easily see unless we've trained ourselves to see them.
Once I was working on a logo for a startup on a very early CAD program at a friend's family printing plant, and just as I was getting satisfied with my work, one of the foremen came over, looked at my drawing, and said, "Yeah, doesn't look too good. Those little chevrons there don't line up."
And, dangit, they didn't. I had a lot to learn about how to "see" features of drawings. And even though it was a pain - the custom vector-graphics program was very hard to use - I had to take the advice and laboriously fix each little chevron, because what the foreman had pointed out was absolutely true.
Jesus once said that no sign would be given to this generation except the sign of Jonah - referring to Jonah's three-day stay inside a giant fish, and meaning Jesus's own Resurrection. And that is all we need, if we're paying attention, to the ordinary miracles God works around us every day.
If we learn to see.
Pictured: He is Iron Man, thanks to a suit which, both in-and-out of universe, is a very expensive effect.
Our journey through Lent nears its conclusion: we have entered Holy Week, which commemorates the events of Jesus's last days, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper, Good Friday and the Crucifixion, and Easter for the Resurrection.
This means more in a liturgical traditions like the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal churches - among many others - where these events are commemorated in specific rites and masses, such as the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday or the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
Saint Stephens in-the-Field also did a Good Friday vigil, in which a rotation of people stayed up in the church all nights praying. I've done that a number of years, and always found it to be transformative. That's where I discovered The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives book, for example.
If you're not Christian, all this rigmarole may seem a bit overdone. If you're not following something, focus on it can seem a bit out of place. I recall an agnostic friend who went to see the Pope once, to see what all the fuss was, and was unimpressed to find that the Pope was just an old guy in a bubble car.
Trying to understand what the Pope means to someone who isn't a believer in the Apostolic succession is like someone who's never seen Star Wars trying to understand what's awesome about a new Star Wars movie, or a signed photo of Mark Hamill: the context is lost.
But if you believe that the Pope is who Catholics say he is - that the Pope is the inheritor of the Apostolic Succession, that he's the successor of Peter, who was given charge of the Church by Jesus Himself, who had the authority to do so because Jesus was God - then it doesn't matter what he looks like.
If you believe, then Holy Week is a chance to relive the key story of the Christian faith - the Crucifixion and the Resurrection - from start to finish, which gives you the opportunity to reflect on and deepen your understanding of Jesus's sacrifice.
According to orthodox Christian theology, this isn't something we can ever completely understand, but frankly, I've never found the mystery part of Christian theology to be particularly mysterious. Perhaps after quantum mechanics and general relativity breaks the part of your brain offended by strangeness.
God created the world to fill it with creatures who could come to know, love and serve Him - freely, but that free choice means that His creatures can inevitably screw up by departing from His plan. This "sin" isn't merely a mistake, but a crime in that it departs from God's plan, and is deserving of punishment.
But God's not evil, and hasn't set up a system which inherently allows creatures in it to fall into mistakes which would inexorably lead to punishment. He provided an out, by sending an example of how to behave in the person of His own Son, who sacrificed Himself to take on our punishment.
This sacrifice was particularly potent because the trial was fixed - it's a perfect example of an unjust trial, and I've always felt that doing the opposite of what happened in His trial is a great inspiration for the American legal system - and because Jesus was not only a perfect innocent, but also God.
Holy Week takes us through all the events that led up to this: the obvious signs that Jesus was acting in God's name, the compassion He had for his followers at the Last Supper, which instituted the Eucharist, the unjust trial, the difficult and torturous Crucifixion, the strange and wonderful Resurrection.
Learning more about the events of Holy Week is a great opportunity to learn more about Jesus, and helps us understand why we should follow Him - even if following Him is difficult and sometimes torturous, there is something strange and wonderful at the end of that path.
Pictured: Saint Stephen's in-the-Field, set up for Good Friday Vigil.
So for today's "let's actually treat the Sabbath like a Sabbath" graphic illustration, I had the brainflash to illustrate this graphically - and since in English the Sabbath is a seven-letter word, it is easy to show six days of work and one day of rest using those letters themselves. Looked at this way, that one day of holy rest isn't such a big ask of our time. Strange it's so hard sometimes to make space for it.
I'm an odd fellow, spending a lot of my time (pre-pandemic) reading books and papers in nice restaurants to the bemusement of the staff, followed by writing and drawing in nice coffeehouses the hustle and bustle to drowns out everything else so I can focus on what I am doing.
While this doesn't seem weird to me, it seems unusual enough to others that I attract the interested attention of quite a few interesting characters - some of whom frequent the same set of late-night coffeehouses, so we bump into each other again and again.
It's through them that I got my introduction to Christian mysticism - dare I even say Christian wizardy? For someone who grew up steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition - and embedded in a deeply fundamentalist region of the Bible Belt - this mixture seems deeply weird to me.
To understand this, what we'd call "witchcraft" is proscribed in the Old Testament, which prescribes the death penalty for several forms of necromancy. In the King James Version, there's the famous verse "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," though my Interlinear Bible translates that as "sorceress."
Following this tradition, many Catholics and fundamentalists view "magic and witchcraft" as literally "satanic," which is another way of saying that they created a cute little thesaurus of suitcase words for their delusions into which they put everything that they're scared of, like Pandora's Box in reverse.
But there's no "there" there, or, to make my snark a little more plain: the "magic" and "witchcraft" and "satanism" which so many Christians love to fear do not actually exist, at least not in the forms that you'll find in a Jack Chick tract or a worried letter from St. Mary's about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons.
Again to be clear, it's not that there aren't people who believe in magic, what we might call witchcraft, and even satanism - I used to date a Wiccan, and I know several people who practice magic, some of them longtime friends - including at least one Christian "wizard" who inspired this article.
But those "practices," if you can call them that, don't line up with the hyperbolic and borderline delusional way Christians seem to describe them. It seems like there's something really weird going on in the human psyche which makes people want to make up stuff about the out-group.
At one Bible study I attended, all three of my fellow students started going on about the "dangers" of "crystals" and how they were a gateway to the satanic. To my skeptical ears, this all sounded like a bunch of cosmic woo-woo, only they ascribed much more reality to it than my Wiccan friends.
One of the properties of "real" magic, if you can call it that, is that it only makes itself visible to the prepared mind. When a "practitioner" of "magick" casts a spell designed to grant them greater calm or to help them win over a colleague, only a person looking for the signs, can tell that it happened.
This is the exact opposite of the scientific method. The business science is in is getting traction - making our results, from pure mathematics to fundamental physics to applied engineering, appear reliably and repeatedly to others following unambiguous written instructions rather than mental indoctrination.
Of course, it's not that simple. Reportedly, Faraday's early induction experiments were very finicky, and early experimenters needed to be instructed on how to see the effects. But after a lot of development, the law today is extraordinarily reliable, part of the machinery of electromagnetism and special relativity.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that my assumptions that "crystals" are "woo" and that "magic" doesn't "work" are just that, assumptions. (I stand by my statement that the Christian concept of "witchcraft" is not connected to reality, as magical practices are well studied in anthropology.)
Regardless of whether these Christian attitudes towards magic are real, they were pervasive when I was growing up, so much so that they heavily informed my design of the magic system of Dakota Frost, where my "skeptical witch" is also a Christian who'd rather die than make a deal with the devil.
Finding out that there are Christians who practice magic - and, we're talking, like, hard-core Christians, people whom you'd easily mistake for an independent Baptist preacher - was therefore somewhat mindblowing. This is a sign how insular we can become if we only talk to our own in-groups.
Imagine my surprise when, at one of my favorite coffeehouses, a Vietnam veteran who I normally chatted with about Christian theology suddenly started talking about wizardry, being granted power by angels, and how he had noticed my "energy" gave off a particularly intense "aura".
If I could sum up my friend's theology, it would go something like this: the Bible is literally true, and we're called on to act with humility, charity and forgiveness. But also literally true are all the conspiracy theories shared by your eccentrically religious uncle or favorite nun about vaccines or satanism or whatever.
But that's just the surface to my friend: to him, God is really acting with grace in the world, and has sent his angels to empower people to accomplish various tasks. Christians who accept God can sometimes be given glimpses of this order, and if they choose to go down this path, may receive power.
I ... am ... relatively ... certain this notion would have set some of my childhood fundamentalist friends on fire, right before they warned me that whoever this guy thought he was talking to, it was likely not God. But nonetheless, I can say from many conversations, the rest of this guy's theology is spot on.
In fact, I'd really call him one of the more spiritually mature people that I've talked to. But nevertheless, he recommended to me several books, some of which were completely innocuous self-help books, and others like The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Casteneda, a book about shamanism.
My friend warned me, "You need to make sure you are spiritually prepared, mature and solid as a Christian, before you decide to go on this journey. If you go rattling the doors of reality and you aren't properly spiritually armored, you can expect some things to come a rapping."
Things coming a rapping? That was enough: I decided I don't need to go on that journey. To paraphrase a character in The Blair Witch Project, if that shit isn't real, I don't need to go putting it in my head, and if it is real ... I definitely don't need to go putting that in my head.
My friend's experiences are consistent with what I've heard from my Wiccan friends, in that getting involved in magic and spellcasting without proper guidance and preparation can open you up to spiritual attack. My fundamentalist friends would say the same thing about Tarot cards and the Ouija board.
Well, the Ouija board is a trademark of Hasbro, Incorporated, and was originally an innocent parlor game, and the Tarot itself may have developed out of an innocent game as well before it was used for divination. But one thing I'll agree with all these friends about is the idea of spiritual attack.
C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters describe a senior devil trying to advise a junior devil on how to damn a soul - but this has precedent in Christian phenomenology, where many religious folks seem to have noticed that sometimes we seem to come under a relentless assault when we're vulnerable.
Whether this is real or not, we do get into situations in which we are vulnerable. One of my friends, an ex-fundamentalist turned radical atheist, describes this as "the whammy": when we're hit by a sequence of things, each one of which we might be able to handle, but when combined, become overwhelming.
This feeling - the feeling that we can't handle it - what Christians would call despair - is largely an illusion. If demons are real, despair is the state they seek to induce to make us make bad choices. If demons aren't real, we're doing this to ourselves - a state cognitive behavior therapists call catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing feels like a natural reaction to a terrible situation, but it's really a form of self-narrative that causes us to exaggerate what's happening to us. When we come down of that high, we feel good, not realizing that we're reinforcing our own bad behavior.
And yet. Spiritual attack seems real. Once, while wrestling with a moral choice, I noticed a spill which took the shape of literal skull-faced demon with two giant goat horns. Now, my rational brain said, that's likely pareidolia - seeing shapes in clouds - but the rest of me said, yeah, let's avoid that choice, mkay?
Another time, I took a week off for my birthday, after almost a year of hard work following the death of my mother. That Friday, one of my cats had an asthma attack; the day they came home, my other cat had a urinary tract blockage; the day after I brought that cat home, the first one was back in for asthma.
I spent my whole week of vacation driving back and forth to the vet. I barely remember what happened, though I suppose I could go check the blogpost from the time. A lot was going wrong at work and at life and my wife was on the other side of the country, finishing a faux finishing job, not available to help.
The whole episode felt like a spiritual attack. I spent enough money buy a new car on what I thought was a minor vet trip. I felt like something was wearing me down. I got so physically sick I had to miss a day of work on the end of my vacation. But the truth is, I was able to deal with it.
Most of the time, human perception is based on our set level: we think we can't handle cat-astrophes, because that situation seems so much worse than the one we're in now; but when the cat-astrophes actually happen, we can handle them, each action following the other, one step at a time.
This is like the old story of the person walking with Jesus on the seashore, looking back to see one pair of tracks in the sand whenever life got tough; when asked why He wasn't there when they needed them, Jesus responds, "that's when I was carrying you."
We may, or may not, come under real spiritual attack. But we always have a spiritual defense: turning to follow Jesus. It may feel difficult, but He's there to help us, every step of the way. In the meantime, instead of The Teachings of Don Juan, I think I'll stick to my Interlinear Bible.
Pictured: John Dee, an occultist and also apparently a devout Christian who would be a bit baffled by the distinctions we draw today between science, magic, and religion.
... but do allow yourself to be influenced by their teaching.
The Bible is filled with authoritarian language. The so-called "divine right of kings," which authoritarian thugs used for over a thousand years to justify their aggression, may have gotten its start in the book of 1 Samuel, in which the people of Israel ask for a king, despite the prophet Samuel's warnings:
“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights ... He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses ... he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers... he will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves."
I left out a lot there, but it draws a pretty complete picture of a pretty ugly king. But Samuel promises no salvation for the people who have asked for this ruler: "When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Similarly, Jesus doesn't offer relief from the Roman persecutors when asked by the Pharisees if it is legal to pay taxes to the emperor - Jesus pointed out that the coin to pay the tax had Caesar's image on it: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Kings used to let this get to their glitter-crowned heads. King James (yes, that King James) once said: "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself, they are called gods."
Whoa, James! That's basically calling yourself a god. Remember the Ten Commandments, specifically #1 "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Pretty blasphemous for the guy who commissioned a translation of the Bible ... wait, the King James Bible ... and you even put your name on it?
Well now, it seems clearer why a king grabbing at power - for James was originally just king of Scotland, which did not recognize absolute monarchs - would commission a religious text in their new country's language justifying that rule, along with manuals for interpreting it which gave him absolute power.
Those manuals, the awesomely titled Baskilon Doron (meaning "royal gift") and The True Law of Free Monarchies both laid out the divine right of kings as an extension of the apostolic succession - relying on arguments from a Bible which James worked to make available to his whole kingdom.
Now, James was wrong about the divine right of kings being an absolute grant of authority ... but he wasn't wrong to see a role for authorities in our life. Let's go back to what Jesus said about Caesar: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Contra James's self-serving arguments, this isn't a call for kings to receive absolute obedience: right there on the tin, Jesus distinguishes between the respect leaders should receive and the worship God should receive. We can get a little more insight into this by looking at the context of the question.
In Jesus's time, Israel was occupied by the Romans, and the Jewish leaders were trying to trap Jesus between two bad choices: on the one hand, he could deny the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Rome, and on the other, he could approve the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Israel.
But you can't put Jesus in a box, hence his wonderful answer which not only splits the difference in a creative third alternative, but also provides new ways about thinking about the problem. But hidden in this answer is the rejection of the demands of the Zealot to throw off the poll tax and to overthrow Rome.
The Roman occupation of Israel was wrong, full stop. They conquered it, they taxed it, they drove it to the edge of rebellion through oppression, and after the rebellion boiled over thirty years after Jesus's death, they put down the rebellion by siege, slaughter and the destruction of the Second Temple.
But, as sad as all that was, to God, the Roman oppressors were people too. A Zealot rebellion led by Jesus would have been successful - some theologians think Jesus was the "commander of the armies of the Lord" from Joshua 5:14 - but would have led to the deaths of countless people on both sides.
Orchestrating wholesale slaughter is not what Jesus came to do. Treating every single human being with respect means that sometimes we must put aside the desire to fight injustice if that fight means bringing harm to people that can be avoided. Whenever possible, Jesus argues we should turn the other cheek.
Jesus goes beyond that. He criticizes the Jewish religious leaders throughout the Gospels, but He also acknowledges their authority: "The scribes and the Pharisees administer the authority of Moses, so do whatever they tell you and follow it, but stop doing what they do, because they don't do what they say."
Jesus is both saying we should follow legitimate authority AND saying blind exercise of authority is wrong. In Hebrews, Paul argues church leaders are on the hook for their flocks "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."
Jesus asks leaders to follow him to model servant leadership, saying that Gentile "high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all."
Rather than the divine right of kings, Jesus preaches that leaders should act as servants, looking out for the welfare of their flocks (and Paul argues, even their souls). These leaders may sin, but they have the responsibility to pass the law on to us, so we need to be open to their guidance.
Jesus asks us to follow Him, but He doesn't ask us to blindly follow authority: He asks us to reserve for God what belongs to God, which may mean parting ways with leaders who don't put God first. But He does ask us to follow leaders who are sincerely trying to pass on what God has given them.
It's a delicate dance. It's all too easy for rulers to fall in the trap of demanding absolute obedience, as many Catholic leaders believe about the authority of the Pope, and as many Protestant leaders believe about their own doctrines, even as they claim to be rejecting the authority of Catholic Dogma.
These are self-serving lies. Following Jesus does not mean regurgitating a catechism or swallowing a doctrine: it's a living act of belief in a real person who actually lived and actually came back from the dead, and a living choice to follow in His footsteps as we guide our lives.
The rulings of our church leaders are designed to help us; when done properly, it's done with care for our souls. Since we, too, are self-serving, it's really tricky to know whether your leadership has gotten off the path, or whether you've gotten yourself so lost that it just seems that they are.
Regardless, there's one thing we can always do to get back on track: repent and turn to follow Jesus.