Magical Thinking: Do X Get Y (Retro Week)

This week is Retro Week on my blog. I’m reposting stuff from the archives.

This is today’s repost, from 15th March:


One of my pet peeves is what I call “Magical Thinking”. Most people aren’t going to be familiar with the term, since it’s one I more or less made up, so let me begin by defining what I mean.

The ancient pagan world was full of the idea of magic. Not the card-trick illusions of children’s parties, but the actual idea of magic. The thinking was that you could control the world around you, and particularly what happened to you, by deploying spiritual power through certain rituals.

If you wanted to have children, you made sacrifices to the appropriate god in the hope that they would reciprocate and do what you asked. If you needed an edge in business, you could write the name of your rival on a piece of lead and throw it into a stream or melt it with special incantations to bring about bad circumstances – a curse – for them. Alternatively, you could do other rituals to ward off other people’s curses and bring good luck.

Spiritual power was a commodity. Those considered to have it could sell their influence (quite literally) and make good money using their power on others’ behalf. The idea was that to get X to happen, there were certain rituals or practices you could do that would employ spiritual power to force it to occur.

While in some parts of the world this sort of thing is alive and well, we Westerners don’t have precisely this idea of magic in our culture. But we do have a lot of the thinking behind it.

At its base, Magical Thinking is mechanistic. If you do X, you get Y. It’s very cause-and-effect. Cause and effect is a vital part of our scientific understanding of the world, of course. Things obey the physical laws of the universe. If you throw an apple up in the air, gravity always makes it fall down again. If you strike the same ball in the same spot with the same amount of force in the same direction, you will always get the same result. A white light shone through a prism always diffracts into a rainbow in the same way. Plant wheat, and you do not get beans springing up. If you do X, you get Y. Always.

The difficulty comes when we try to apply this same mechanistic logic to human relationships and the spiritual world.

Mechanistic thinking applied to human personality and relationships is generally called Behaviourism. It’s the Pavlov’s dog idea. Apply stimulus A and result B always occurs. Therefore if result B has occurred, it must logically be because stimulus A was applied. On very basic levels it has some truth to it, but it’s mostly been discredited for higher levels of personality and relationship, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My basic objection to it is that it is completely deterministic and denies the idea of human free will. If stimulus A (let’s say, someone hitting me) happens to me, I do have a very real decision to make about what to do about it. I’m not a robot.

It’s even worse when you apply it to things spiritual.

The mechanistic “Do X get Y” reasoning can get us into all kinds of trouble.

Let’s take the subject of the tithe. If you listen to a lot of TV preachers (I shan’t bother to name them because new ones are always coming along), you get the idea that tithing is the key to God’s blessing. Taking out all of the hype, they espouse the notion that the link between tithing and blessings (usually material) is an absolute and automatic one. If you give to God, He will give back to you. If you don’t tithe, God will cause all your money to trickle away.

Tithing thus becomes the tool we use to push God’s “bless me with more stuff” button. It’s the same with the whole “word of faith” movement. “Sow your seed of faith” by giving to this or that ministry or whatever the current teaching is, and in due course God will reward you with whatever you have asked him for. Your “seed” of faith grows into what you have requested.

The problem is that in the process, God becomes a sort of vending machine. Put faith in and get a coke out. If you don’t get a coke out, you must have not put enough faith in, or put your faith in the wrong hole, or put it in backwards or something.

God is not a vending machine. He has a will and purposes of His own, and is not there merely to give us stuff.

Or we might look at fasting. This is another discipline of the spiritual life that so often gets misused or misunderstood. With the mechanistic “Do X get Y” mentality I call Magical Thinking, fasting becomes another tool to manipulate God into doing what we want.

“Look, God, I’m fasting. See how spiritual I am? Now you have to give me what I ask for, right?”

Wrong. Completely missing the point. Fasting isn’t some ritualistic exercise or work we do in order to force a reluctant God to bless us in the way we dictate. First of all, God is a loving Father. “Reluctant to bless” is about as far from His character as it’s possible to get. Second, we don’t get to dictate terms to God. Third, fasting is not about pushing God’s buttons in the right order to get a result. The discipline of fasting is far more about us than it is about God. Fasting serves as a very physical reminder for us of the seriousness of what we are doing: approaching the Lord of the Universe for wisdom or blessing. Denying ourselves one of the basic needs of our bodies serves both to underline our dependence on God to meet our needs, and to bring to the surface character issues we may need to work on. I don’t know about you, but I get snappish when I don’t eat. Denying myself food shows me where I still don’t fully have my temper under control, enabling me to work together with the Holy Spirit to bring His sweet influence to bear on my character.

It’s not about pushing God’s buttons; it’s about getting serious with Him about Who He is.

I’m probably going to offend quite a few people with what I say next, but I often wonder whether a lot of the attitude of many churches and Christ-followers toward Israel doesn’t stem as much from Magical Thinking as from anything else. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the Jewish nation or that they aren’t the people God chose to make His everlasting Covenant with, but if you listen to some people you get the impression that God’s blessing is contingent on how we act toward the modern State of Israel. The result is an uneasy impression that the State of Israel can do no wrong and can never be called to account for anything lest we somehow forfeit God’s blessing by saying a mean word about the Jewish state.

Again, it seems too much like mechanistic thinking. Bless Israel, and you automatically get blessing, possibly no matter what the rest of your life is like. Or in contrast, live a life otherwise pleasing to the Lord and after His own heart but imply that the State of Israel may need to be called back to the Word of the Lord just like any other state and you forfeit the blessings of God.

Support for Israel shouldn’t be some fear-based thing we do so that God won’t judge us, but an expression of love for those He loves: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now that I’ve probably offended everyone, let’s go on to those Facebook posts that I loathe. You know the ones I mean. They generally have a prayer for God’s blessing on them along with a sentence like “Post this prayer on your wall and see what God will do”. As if the very act of posting on a social media site is what impels the hand of God to act.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is, after all, probably my biggest pet peeve. But I can’t read one of those things without seeing it as a reduction of the awesome Lord of the Universe to the status of Genie of the Lamp.

Genies are the essence of Magical Thinking: rub the lamp and they must come to you. You get three wishes which they must grant. They are bound to it. They have no will in the process at all.

God is manifestly no genie. As CS Lewis says repeatedly of his Christ-figure Aslan: “He’s not a tame Lion.” He doesn’t come when you whistle. He doesn’t dance to your tune. He is not bound over to grant your three wishes whether or not they are good ones or fit His good, pleasing and perfect plans at all. He doesn’t wind Himself around your wrist like a charm bracelet. He is the King. You are the Subject.

I’ve recently been exposed to one of the traditional Anglican versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the things I find most refreshing about it is this idea running through it of God as Dread Sovereign, back from the days when kings had real power as well as authority and ruled as well as reigning. There comes across a very real sense that this isn’t Santa Claus; this isn’t a tame God you can keep in your pocket or a genie who exists to grant you wishes. This is not Someone you can take liberties with; this is the One who made the crocodile and the great white shark and called them good, who can split light and darkness with a word and who tells gravity which way Down is. He’s good, but He certainly isn’t safe.

God is not a genie who is bound to give us what we ask for if we rub His lamp the right way. He’s not a vending machine. He is the awesome King of the Universe, who has His own good plans and His own will. He blesses us not because we push His “bless” button but because He loves us and likes to bless us. In fact, He already has.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in Ephesians 1:3, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Notice that it’s past tense. He has already blessed us; we don’t have to try and manipulate Him into doing so. Then, too, He has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (emphasis mine). He didn’t leave one out to be conditional on our tithing or fasting or making vows of dedication or whatever. They’re all there. Where? “In Christ”. Our access to these blessings comes not from any magical-style ritual we perform or anything we do, but from our connection to Christ.

Faith is not magic. It’s not a mystical energy we expend to get God to do things for us. It’s not a commodity we possess to get God to like us. It’s an expression of trust in the invisible Lord of the Universe to be who He says He is, whether or not the circumstances look like it.

It isn’t magic, it’s relationship.

A Mighty Wind

One of the main forms of picture language for the Holy Spirit is wind or breath. The breath of God, blowing upon us. The sound of a mighty wind.

It’s a good metaphor. Like the wind, the Spirit Himself is invisible. You can’t see air, whether it’s still or on the move, but you can see and feel its effects. We can watch clouds go scudding across the sky. A summer breeze refreshes us in the baking heat, even if it’s warm enough to feel like a hair dryer. We can see it turn the blades of a windmill to generate electricity, we can see its power unleashed in tornado and hurricane.

I’ve seen steel beams a foot across twisted like straws by a tornado. We’ve all seen footage of the devastation of hurricanes – winds so powerful we give them names in order to bring them down to size a bit.

All this from air on the move.

Can the Holy Spirit be that destructive?

We don’t like to picture Him that way. Gentle breeze blowing refreshment to our souls is more our speed, and so He is. He’s good, and He’s for us, has our best interests at heart. And through His omniscience He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

He has another side, though. He will not tolerate sin, will not play nicely with the black heart of our self-worship. Unleashed, He will be as destructive to our fallen old nature as a tornado.

Source: NOAA via Wikipedia

We don’t like to think of the Holy Spirit as a destroyer, even a destroyer of evil, but He is. God is so committed to the destruction of sin that He was prepared to die in the Person of His Son in order to put an end to it. The Holy Spirit is just as committed to our sanctification.

We often want to pussyfoot around our sin. Gain forgiveness from it, but continue to live our lives like we’re still pagans.  Lock it away. Try to tame it; attempt to shackle the black beast. Our religious shackles of behaviour modification, doing what we’re told, obedience to the rules are weak, though, and sooner or later the beast will get free.

The job of the Holy Spirit is not to shackle the beast but to kill it. Our job is to let Him.

As much darkness as I know resides in my unregenerate nature, and yeah, it does take something as destructive as a tornado.

Tornadoes are weird things. They don’t appear to obey rules, and often seem to have minds of their own. They’ll tear the entire roof off a house, yet leave a sheet of paper on the table right where it was. They’ll drive straws through bricks, yet plant a couch with all its cushions delicately by the side of the road a mile away.

The “doesn’t obey rules” and “has a mind of its own” nature of tornadoes is actually a pretty good metaphor for the Spirit, too. One thing I’ve learned is that God will not be boxed. It’s not wise to try to tell the Almighty that He can’t do thus-and-so. Give a woman the gift of pastoral leadership. Heal someone miraculously today. Pick your theological box. In my experience, He tends to like breaking our human boxes; He’s bigger. He will not be contained.

He doesn’t obey our man-made rules. Jesus trampled all over the Pharisees’ rules: healing people on the Sabbath, touching lepers, eating with “sinners”. Yet He was righteous – not the righteousness of keeping all the silly rules we make up, but the righteousness of being completely in tune with God the Father.

The Holy Spirit is His Spirit. It stands to reason that they will be alike.

The Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  (Proverbs 1:7)

I have to confess that I really struggle with the book of Proverbs. It’s set up exactly antithetically to the way my mind wants to work. Oh, the first few chapters aren’t bad – all that bit with Wisdom personified sending out her invitation to become wise. But once it gets into the actual proverbs part after the end of chapter 9, my mind sort of glazes over and I lose the plot.

I’m fairly good at reading a verse in context and teasing out recalcitrant layers of meaning. I can get into the flow of an argument and analyse it, or bring out the lessons from a narrative story. But Proverbs just sit there. They don’t have a context to be read in – the previous verse may be talking about laziness while the following verse is addressing quarrelling. There’s very little that needs a lot of interpretation or analysis of that sort; it’s all application. So with nothing to do, my interpretive/analytical mind gets bored and wanders off. I have a harder time reading and really understanding the book of Proverbs than I do with any other book of the Bible.

People have advised me to read it in the Message. I’ve read it in the Message and it’s worse. People have tried to tell me to read it in this version or that version. I haven’t yet found a version in which I feel I actually understand it. My mind is set up to look for the wrong things. As a self-confessed lover of wisdom, it’s embarrassing that I find the chief book of the Wisdom literature so hard to read.

There are some gems, though. Like this one. It talks about “the fear of the Lord”, which is one of those things that just doesn’t translate well into modern English. It mentions “fools”, which again is a word with more to it than we might expect from its English translation. And it talks about knowledge, wisdom and instruction.

And now my mind is warmed up and engaged on the topic. There’s something to analyse and interpret.

Firstly, the fear of the Lord. It’s not something we hear a lot about any more. We don’t want to be afraid of God, and why should we be, anyway? He’s good and loving, isn’t He?

Yes, He’s good. He’s gracious and compassionate. But He’s also holy and sovereign. He’s the One who made the great white shark and the Kodiak bear and the black mamba and called them good.

To get a good handle on it we need to rewind our mental frame of reference back to the age when kings ruled as well as reigning. In that day, even good kings were addressed as “Dread Sovereign”, and the idea that you could offer them even the vaguest of impertinences was definitely anathema. Only an idiot would address Queen Elizabeth I simply as “Lizzie”, and she was well-beloved by her people. Go back even further and the idea becomes even more absurd and dangerous. You’d have to have a death wish to address Richard the Lionheart as “Ricky Boy”.

Americans show a similar level of respect to their Flag, at least on an official level. You can’t cut it, burn it or deface it. You can’t let it fly in the rain. You can’t let it touch the ground. You’re not even really supposed to display it on everyday objects – it treats the Flag like something common and it’s disrespectful.

And yet we’re awfully cavalier sometimes with how we approach the Almighty. We call Him Lord and Master and then make decisions for ourselves based on what we want. We say He’s the most important thing in our lives, then ignore Him for days at a time or treat obedience and holiness as optional extras. We box Him in with our extra-Biblical assumptions of what He can and cannot do. We sing about Him as Lover and Friend – and He is – but we forget that He’s also “a consuming fire” (Heb 13:28-29) and One into whose hands it is “a terrible thing” to fall (Heb 10:31).

The Lord is God of angel armies and Sovereign of heaven as well as gracious and compassionate. He’s not Someone you can take liberties with. He doesn’t exist purely to encourage us, bless us, forgive us and give us gifts. He doesn’t exist for us at all, but for Himself. He is the Creator, we are the Creature. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc 5:2) I’m probably going to offend someone by saying this, but in my opinion Matt Redman totally missed the point by turning this verse, of all verses, into an “intimate” sappy love song for Jesus. It isn’t about that; it’s about the transcendent power and greatness of God. It so often seems to me as though much of our worship is all about us. Our feelings about Him. What He’s done for us lately. Our love for Him rather than His love for us. We’re centre stage; Jesus is almost a passive object receiving our affections and devotion. Or we diminish Him by all of those “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs, bringing Him down to our level as if He’s a human lover.

There’s a place for intimacy with God. Jesus is described as Bridegroom and Lover and Friend. But there’s also a place for awe. For distance, Creatureliness, awareness of just how high His Kingship extends. He in heaven and we are on earth. We would do well to remember this. He’s not our boyfriend, because a sane boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is a relationship of equals, and He is far greater than we.

CS Lewis had it exactly right when he described Aslan as “not safe, but good”. When the children meet Him, he says that “If the children had had any illusions that something could not be both good and terrible, they were cured of it now.” Yes, He’s the Aslan who romps and laughs with Lucy and Susan, but He’s also a great big Lion that shakes Trumpkin like a terrier with a rat, chases Shasta, scars Aravis’ back, and humbles Caspian with “those eyes!”. He’s the King. He’s good, but He’s certainly not someone we can keep in our pockets and take out when we need some encouraging.

The fear of the Lord. Awe of God the Creator in heaven, because we are Creatures on earth.  He made us; we should not act as though we believe we made Him.

This is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, we are told: the place of Creaturely awe and reverence. The fear of the Lord doesn’t treat His word as something to bend to our own preferences, nor does it treat the holy obedience of faith as an option. He was Sovereign before He was Saviour, and our Gospel presentations ought to reflect this: not “come to Jesus and get your needs met”, as if He’s some sort of servant to our whims, but “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” Likewise, the call to holy living is an integral part of following Christ, not an optional extra. He’s God; we’re not. If we call Him “Lord”, we’d better do what He says, because that’s what “Lord” means. Or do we think that He’s a tame Lion, under our power?

“Fools despise wisdom and instruction”, the verse goes on to say.

The word “fool” in the Bible, particularly in the Wisdom literature, has slightly different connotations than our English word does. Yes, it means someone who lacks wisdom and understanding, but its primary meaning is “one who lacks moral sense”. Someone who is amoral, who doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there’s a difference between right and wrong.

Such a one makes it all about themselves. With no higher standard than “what is good for me”, there’s no acknowledgement of God as Lord, much less awe of Him. If I like it and it does me good, it’s good, and if I don’t, then it isn’t. “Right for me” becomes the deciding factor, and standards are relativised. I’m the arbiter of what’s true and right and good.

Even as supposed followers of Christ, we live like this an awful lot. Our ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong may be different from the world’s, but sometimes they’re still our ideas rather than God’s. Or we acknowledge God as God and Lord with our lips, but then turn around and live life based on our own judgement and thinking, or what our culture says, or what we want to be true. We live like we’re in charge.

But Wisdom is moral. It begins with an understanding of our own Creatureliness and God’s Creatorhood, with an acknowledgement that He is God and we aren’t. Thus, He has the sole right to determine what “right” and “wrong” are. Our standards are right only insofar as the conform to His, not the other way around. Behaving as though we are the arbiters of good and evil is foolishness, pure and simple.

It’s difficult to teach someone like that. If they despise the very basis of Biblical wisdom by insisting that they can make their own standards or living as if there is no higher authority, then all your wise words aren’t going to count for much. You have to step back a few steps and come at this from first principles, rather than jumping in with “that’s wrong!” when they reject your basis for coming to that conclusion.

The fear of the Lord, that’s where it begins. If we over-emphasise the immanence of God without His transcendence, we’re left with a shrunken idol of a Safe Jesus, a Meeting-My-Needs Personal Servant Jesus, a Jesus As My Boyfriend. Someone whose commands we can feel free to ignore or sidestep.

“Safe? Whoever heard of a safe Lion? Of course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

We’d do well to act like it.

The Stone Table

The Stone Table

Having a rain day yesterday, and thus no work, I decided to get out my paint and brushes and see if I could set down on canvas one of the images in my head.

It’s not something I’ve done a lot of late, because it takes some planning to get the materials out from under my son Ethan’s bed while he’s not taking his nap, and he’s only stopped taking afternoon naps fairly recently. Also, my wife has a tendency to use my off days as a time to bustle around doing all the things she needs to do that are so much more complicated with children in tow. I don’t normally mind – with my work schedule I don’t see nearly enough of my children – but it does rather put a damper on painting.

So yesterday I decided, “you know what? I want to paint something”, and actually did it. Procrastinators of the world unite, some time tomorrow.

The result was “The Stone Table” here:

The Stone Table

I’ve been thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia quite a lot recently, and with Easter just passed it was perhaps inevitable that I should settle on the Narnian equivalent of the Easter story as my subject matter, but there’s more going on in my internal world than just an Easter picture.

In the Narnian world of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table is a sort of megalithic monument, described as a great table of stone engraved with ancient writing. It’s the initial rendezvous point for Aslan’s company and the children, where the great Lion is encamped in his royal pavilion. More importantly, it’s where the Witch kills Aslan, the Narnian Christ-figure, and where he comes back to life in resurrected power.

It’s described as an ancient place even in the days of the coming of Aslan and the breaking of the Witch’s hundred-year winter, connected with the powerful and mysterious Deep Magic from the dawn of time:

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?”

“Let us suppose I have forgotten it,” replied Aslan. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” the Witch shrieked. “Tell you what is written on this very Stone Table? Tell you what is carved in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire stones of the secret hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-over-Sea?”

As I’ve grown older, the Stone Table has become associated not only with the Crucifixion but with the Law of Moses. Linguistically, it’s practically no distance at all from the tablets of stone that the Law was written on to a table of stone that the Deep Magic is written on.

Is the Deep Magic a Narnian incarnation of the Law, then?

Well, partly, perhaps. Certainly it looks symbolic of the “written code with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us” (Colossians 2:14). The Law as our enemy, the cold power of legalism, the “letter” that “kills” as opposed to the “Spirit” that “gives life”.

Even, or more probably especially, as a follower of Christ, it’s dead easy to fall into legalism. Pun intended. Legalism is, after all, the essence of the religious spirit: the Rules we live by that tell us what God want from us and what we have to do to be a Good Christian. All of the “as a Chistian you shouldn’t…” things we add to the simple obedience of faith. Listen to that sort of music. Watch that sort of TV programme. Support that sort of political agenda.

In Colossians, St. Paul refers to these sorts of rules (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Col2:20-21) as “the basic principles of this world”, the same word he uses in Galatians 4:9 to describe the “weak and miserable principles” which the Galatian church were in danger of turning back to. As I understand it, the Greek words translated “basic principles” are also translateable as “elemental spirits”, and this connection may reveal a second layer of symbolism in the Deep Magic and the Stone Table.

In the ancient world of Greek philosophy there were four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Everything that existed was thought to be a combination of these four substances, which were presided over by guiding spiritual forces – the “powers of nature” if you will. In the Stone Table we have Earth, obviously. The “fire stones of the secret hill” are connected with Fire. The very name of the Emperor-over-Sea reveals a connection with Water. That’s three out of four.

I have no idea whether this symbology is deliberate choice on Lewis’ part or simply me reading into it. On the face of it, this speech of the Witch’s is just ornamental detail, but it’s suggestive ornamental detail. And CS Lewis may have had more going on in his Narnia books than meets the eye, as Michael Ward persuasively argues in Planet Narnia. A connection between the Deep Magic and the elemental spirits of this world is not out of the question, and certainly the way St. Paul uses the word in Galatians and Colossians is more to do with legalistic rules of “righteousness” than with the ancient elements. The Law, both as it is written and as it is applied.

But the Deep Magic, like the Law of Moses, is not bad in itself. It is, as Aslan points out, the Emperor’s Magic. It’s written on the Emperor’s sceptre; impregnated into the very fabric of the Narnian creation at the dawn of time itself. As St. Paul said, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy (Romans 7:12). How can a Law which Paul speaks of as good in one breath be described as our enemy in the next?

It’s because we are fallen. We’re sinful, under the thumb of selfish desires we cannot fully master, proud, conceited, greedy and wrathful. A good Law can have bad effects if the one it is applied to is bad. To rescue us from the bad effects of the Law required something fundamental, because the Law, like the Deep Magic, is woven into the very fabric of the created order.

The universe is moral. We crave justice and hate it when justice cannot be seen to be done because we recognise at root that injustice Should Not Be. But all of humanity’s efforts have never succeeded in rooting out our flawed natures and creating the perfect moral society. Fascism tried. Communism tried. The Religious Right look like they’re trying, with all of the attempts to legislate Christian morality.

But we can’t do it on our own. Even the best of us are flawed. “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The whole idea that we can make a paradise here on earth by our own efforts is nothing less than a reinvention of the ancient alchemical dream that we can make gold.

In Narnia, however, the Deep Magic is not the highest law. There is a Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time, of which the Witch is sublimely ignorant. Aslan’s sacrificial death on the Stone Table puts an end to the power of the written code and the elemental powers of legalism. As Aslan explains, “If she had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known that if a willing victim who had committed no treachery were killed in a traitor’s stead, then the Deep Magic would unravel, the Stone Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards”.

The cracking and breaking of the Table is no natural event, but part of Aslan’s resurrection and symbolic of the final end of the Witch’s power, just as the arrival of Father Christmas heralded the joy of the new Spring and the unravelling of her hundred-year winter.

If a stone table were to break naturally through the weathering of years or an earthquake, you would expect it to collapse in the middle. This is how it’s often portrayed. But the breaking of the Table is anything but natural, so I painted it the opposite way. Just as in the mundane world the Temple curtain had to be torn from top to bottom, so in the Narnian world the Table should buckle upwards as if from a blast out of the very ground itself.

“What is it?” Susan asked. “Is it Magic?”

“Yes!” said Aslan’s voice. “It is more Magic!”

The Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. The grace and mercy of God that triumphs over judgement and rescues from death.

I’m quite pleased with how it came out. Both the reality and the picture.

Safe For The Whole Family

I’ve been thinking about Christian media recently. There’s certainly a lot of it about here in America, especially in Texas. Not only are their Christian books and Christian magazines and Christian music, but there are Christian films (like the recent God’s Not Dead) and Christian TV networks.

It’s this last that got me thinking. My kids have recently discovered the children’s programming on one or other of the networks. It barely matters which one; they all seem pretty much alike.

I’m not impressed, to be honest. While there’s nothing in the content that I can find precisely objectionable, nevertheless I always come away with a vaguely guilty sense of “Can’t you watch something good, like Wild Kratts or Rescue Heroes?”

For those of you unfamiliar with the current state of American children’s TV, Rescue Heroes is exactly what it sounds like – a team of people who rescue people in trouble. Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds for the 21st Century, except without the awesomely unrealistic vehicles and with every character having some kind of cheesy name like Rocky Canyon or Jack Hammer.

Wild Kratts is learning about animals and saving rare creatures through the means of what amounts to technologically-driven shamanism. The heroes have these “Creature Power Suits” that allow them to activate the powers of various animals via a “power disk” and a touch of that animal.

And yet, with all the shamanistic associations of its basic premise, I’d rather my kids watch that than Christian TV.

I’m not worried about my kids getting into shamanism from watching Wild Kratts. You have to already know about shamanism to even catch the connection. And it’s far more engaging and likeable than Christian TV.

I feel vaguely guilty, like I ought to like the Christian networks’ children’s TV. It’s safe. It has a positive message. It’s building up their faith, isn’t it?

And yet.

My kids seem to enjoy it just fine, but then again, they aren’t exactly the most discerning of TV consumers. They object if you mute the advertising. But if there’s nothing in the content itself I can point to and say “you shouldn’t be exposed to this idea yet”, what’s my problem?

Part of it is the same problem I have with a lot of secular children’s TV these days: Sledgehammer Moralising.

Even in the secular children’s TV market, it seems like everything today has to have “educational content” and “promote positive character traits” like honesty and teamwork.

Some of the children’s TV I have fondest memories of, like The Magic Roundabout and Bod, were pure chaos from start to finish. And even when there were obvious moral lessons in the episode, the main character didn’t come on at the end to explain exactly why Being In A Grumpy Mood Will Ruin Your Whole Day, or why Jumping To Conclusions Is A Bad Idea.

We didn’t see a need. We absorbed the lesson by stealth; it would have detracted from that to have someone point out What You Ought To Have Learned From This.

We weren’t that stupid, so why do we assume that kids these days are?

Christian children’s TV doesn’t do quite the same amount of after-the-fact drawing-out of moral lessons, but then, it doesn’t need to. You’d have to be both deaf and blind to miss it in the course of the program itself. It seems like unless it makes the point with a sledgehammer, no Christian network will touch it. The creators are obviously “ashamed of the Gospel”. “Hiding their lamp under a bowl”. “Watering down the truth”.

Crap.

Jesus didn’t explain his parables to the crowd. We’re only given the one example of the time He explained to His disciples. He trusted them to ponder it through, and let the Holy Spirit do His job of applying the relevant parts.

Apparently we can’t trust the Holy Spirit to know His work any more. We have to lead people by the nose to the conclusion we want them to reach. By all means, we should never let people think for themselves. Who knows where they might end up?

Which leads us neatly into the fact that we want everything safe and predictable.

The title of this post is the tag line of a local Christian radio station. I know what they mean; there are certainly enough radio stations out there that you can’t listen to with kids around, because the presenters can’t keep their language clean and their subject matter family-friendly. But it’s emblematic of a deeper issue.

When were we shown even a real villain and nemesis for the protagonists on a Christian children’s programme? It may of course be the limited amount I’ve watched, but in what I’m seeing so far there aren’t any recurring bad guys who are just plain villainous. Batman and Spiderman had their casts of villains with grandiose plans to take over the world or steal large portions of it. Transformers had the heroic Autobots versus the evil Decepticons. It was Good versus Evil and there were sides to choose. You understood this on a primal level.

The bad guys, too, had all the advantages. They were entrenched, had all the money, all the connections. They were stronger and faster and apparently invulnerable. The hero had to overcome incredible odds to Save The Day. That was the whole point.

Watch Christian children’s TV and it seems like the worst that can happen is getting into trouble by disobeying your parents. The message is not that there’s a great cosmic struggle of Good and Evil, a struggle that needs every power you possess, but Be A Good Boy And Follow All The Rules.

Safe.

Even adult Christian TV is safe and predictable. When was the last time Christian media asked questions it didn’t give an answer to? When was the last time Christian media challenged our assumptions about our faith? When was the last time Christian media called into question our orthodoxy or pointed a prophetic finger at our own practices?

Jesus was frequently edgy and unsafe. CS Lewis had it completely right in Aslan’s portrayal as “not a tame Lion”. He’s not safe, as the Beaver says. But He’s good.

Jesus didn’t follow the rules like a good boy. Good boys don’t get themselves crucified. He didn’t toe the Pharisees’ political party line. He touched lepers. He did work on the Sabbath. He hung out with prostitutes (Mary Magdalene), revolutionaries (Simon the Zealot) and evil government collaborators (Matthew and Zacchaeus). He was accused of being a drunk. He didn’t pander to the already religious; He appealed to those outside the faith. The religious, those who were “righteous”, hated Him. He didn’t speak their language or toe their party line.

So why is our Christian TV the opposite? Safe, predictable, inoffensive, pandering to the religious rather than appealing to the outsider?

Along with the apparent assumption that we can’t be trusted to think for ourselves, it’s this that I think I have most problem with.

Magical Thinking: Do X Get Y

One of my pet peeves is what I call “Magical Thinking”. Most people aren’t going to be familiar with the term, since it’s one I more or less made up, so let me begin by defining what I mean.

The ancient pagan world was full of the idea of magic. Not the card-trick illusions of children’s parties, but the actual idea of magic. The thinking was that you could control the world around you, and particularly what happened to you, by deploying spiritual power through certain rituals.

If you wanted to have children, you made sacrifices to the appropriate god in the hope that they would reciprocate and do what you asked. If you needed an edge in business, you could write the name of your rival on a piece of lead and throw it into a stream or melt it with special incantations to bring about bad circumstances – a curse – for them. Alternatively, you could do other rituals to ward off other people’s curses and bring good luck.

Spiritual power was a commodity. Those considered to have it could sell their influence (quite literally) and make good money using their power on others’ behalf. The idea was that to get X to happen, there were certain rituals or practices you could do that would employ spiritual power to force it to occur.

While in some parts of the world this sort of thing is alive and well, we Westerners don’t have precisely this idea of magic in our culture. But we do have a lot of the thinking behind it.

At its base, Magical Thinking is mechanistic. If you do X, you get Y. It’s very cause-and-effect. Cause and effect is a vital part of our scientific understanding of the world, of course. Things obey the physical laws of the universe. If you throw an apple up in the air, gravity always makes it fall down again. If you strike the same ball in the same spot with the same amount of force in the same direction, you will always get the same result. A white light shone through a prism always diffracts into a rainbow in the same way. Plant wheat, and you do not get beans springing up. If you do X, you get Y. Always.

The difficulty comes when we try to apply this same mechanistic logic to human relationships and the spiritual world.

Mechanistic thinking applied to human personality and relationships is generally called Behaviourism. It’s the Pavlov’s dog idea. Apply stimulus A and result B always occurs. Therefore if result B has occurred, it must logically be because stimulus A was applied. On very basic levels it has some truth to it, but it’s mostly been discredited for higher levels of personality and relationship, so I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My basic objection to it is that it is completely deterministic and denies the idea of human free will. If stimulus A (let’s say, someone hitting me) happens to me, I do have a very real decision to make about what to do about it. I’m not a robot.

It’s even worse when you apply it to things spiritual.

The mechanistic “Do X get Y” reasoning can get us into all kinds of trouble.

Let’s take the subject of the tithe. If you listen to a lot of TV preachers (I shan’t bother to name them because new ones are always coming along), you get the idea that tithing is the key to God’s blessing. Taking out all of the hype, they espouse the notion that the link between tithing and blessings (usually material) is an absolute and automatic one. If you give to God, He will give back to you. If you don’t tithe, God will cause all your money to trickle away.

Tithing thus becomes the tool we use to push God’s “bless me with more stuff” button. It’s the same with the whole “word of faith” movement. “Sow your seed of faith” by giving to this or that ministry or whatever the current teaching is, and in due course God will reward you with whatever you have asked him for. Your “seed” of faith grows into what you have requested.

The problem is that in the process, God becomes a sort of vending machine. Put faith in and get a coke out. If you don’t get a coke out, you must have not put enough faith in, or put your faith in the wrong hole, or put it in backwards or something.

God is not a vending machine. He has a will and purposes of His own, and is not there merely to give us stuff.

Or we might look at fasting. This is another discipline of the spiritual life that so often gets misused or misunderstood. With the mechanistic “Do X get Y” mentality I call Magical Thinking, fasting becomes another tool to manipulate God into doing what we want.

“Look, God, I’m fasting. See how spiritual I am? Now you have to give me what I ask for, right?”

Wrong. Completely missing the point. Fasting isn’t some ritualistic exercise or work we do in order to force a reluctant God to bless us in the way we dictate. First of all, God is a loving Father. “Reluctant to bless” is about as far from His character as it’s possible to get. Second, we don’t get to dictate terms to God. Third, fasting is not about pushing God’s buttons in the right order to get a result. The discipline of fasting is far more about us than it is about God. Fasting serves as a very physical reminder for us of the seriousness of what we are doing: approaching the Lord of the Universe for wisdom or blessing. Denying ourselves one of the basic needs of our bodies serves both to underline our dependence on God to meet our needs, and to bring to the surface character issues we may need to work on. I don’t know about you, but I get snappish when I don’t eat. Denying myself food shows me where I still don’t fully have my temper under control, enabling me to work together with the Holy Spirit to bring His sweet influence to bear on my character.

It’s not about pushing God’s buttons; it’s about getting serious with Him about Who He is.

I’m probably going to offend quite a few people with what I say next, but I often wonder whether a lot of the attitude of many churches and Christ-followers toward Israel doesn’t stem as much from Magical Thinking as from anything else. Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t love the Jewish nation or that they aren’t the people God chose to make His everlasting Covenant with, but if you listen to some people you get the impression that God’s blessing is contingent on how we act toward the modern State of Israel. The result is an uneasy impression that the State of Israel can do no wrong and can never be called to account for anything lest we somehow forfeit God’s blessing by saying a mean word about the Jewish state.

Again, it seems too much like mechanistic thinking. Bless Israel, and you automatically get blessing, possibly no matter what the rest of your life is like. Or in contrast, live a life otherwise pleasing to the Lord and after His own heart but imply that the State of Israel may need to be called back to the Word of the Lord just like any other state and you forfeit the blessings of God.

Support for Israel shouldn’t be some fear-based thing we do so that God won’t judge us, but an expression of love for those He loves: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now that I’ve probably offended everyone, let’s go on to those Facebook posts that I loathe. You know the ones I mean. They generally have a prayer for God’s blessing on them along with a sentence like “Post this prayer on your wall and see what God will do”. As if the very act of posting on a social media site is what impels the hand of God to act.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. This is, after all, probably my biggest pet peeve. But I can’t read one of those things without seeing it as a reduction of the awesome Lord of the Universe to the status of Genie of the Lamp.

Genies are the essence of Magical Thinking: rub the lamp and they must come to you. You get three wishes which they must grant. They are bound to it. They have no will in the process at all.

God is manifestly no genie. As CS Lewis says repeatedly of his Christ-figure Aslan: “He’s not a tame Lion.” He doesn’t come when you whistle. He doesn’t dance to your tune. He is not bound over to grant your three wishes whether or not they are good ones or fit His good, pleasing and perfect plans at all. He doesn’t wind Himself around your wrist like a charm bracelet. He is the King. You are the Subject.

I’ve recently been exposed to one of the traditional Anglican versions of the Book of Common Prayer. One of the things I find most refreshing about it is this idea running through it of God as Dread Sovereign, back from the days when kings had real power as well as authority and ruled as well as reigning. There comes across a very real sense that this isn’t Santa Claus; this isn’t a tame God you can keep in your pocket or a genie who exists to grant you wishes. This is not Someone you can take liberties with; this is the One who made the crocodile and the great white shark and called them good, who can split light and darkness with a word and who tells gravity which way Down is. He’s good, but He certainly isn’t safe.

God is not a genie who is bound to give us what we ask for if we rub His lamp the right way. He’s not a vending machine. He is the awesome King of the Universe, who has His own good plans and His own will. He blesses us not because we push His “bless” button but because He loves us and likes to bless us. In fact, He already has.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read in Ephesians 1:3, “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Notice that it’s past tense. He has already blessed us; we don’t have to try and manipulate Him into doing so. Then, too, He has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing” (emphasis mine). He didn’t leave one out to be conditional on our tithing or fasting or making vows of dedication or whatever. They’re all there. Where? “In Christ”. Our access to these blessings comes not from any magical-style ritual we perform or anything we do, but from our connection to Christ.

Faith is not magic. It’s not a mystical energy we expend to get God to do things for us. It’s not a commodity we possess to get God to like us. It’s an expression of trust in the invisible Lord of the Universe to be who He says He is, whether or not the circumstances look like it.

It isn’t magic, it’s relationship.