In 2012 Pentecostal “serpent-handling” pastor Mark Wolford made world headlines when he died from a rattlesnake bite.1 Snake-handlers cite Mark 16:17,18: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any of the deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”
So why did Wolford die—did he lack faith? He probably didn’t lack faith as much as test God (see Luke 4:12). His death may also have been a case of magick gone wrong.
God is viewed as a cosmic ATM, controlled by a ritual pin-code, a Deus ex machina, a machine-God.
Prayer versus magick
The term “magick” (with a “k”) was first popularised by British occultist Aleister Crowley. He coined the term to distinguish an ancient religious philosophy from mere sleights of hand or stage magic.2
Anthropologists suggest prayer and magick3 are two universal practices found in almost every culture.4 Both are human responses to fear and anxiety yet represent diametrically opposite ways of interacting with the Divine.
Prayer is “devout petition to God”.5 It comes from the Hebrew tephillah and Greek deesis, meaning “asking, entreating, entreaty”.6
Magick by contrast includes “techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature”.7 The concept originally comes from the Persian magush, meaning “to have power”.8
In other words, prayer is entreaty to the Divine will; magick seeks to control the Divine to achieve a guaranteed outcome.9 Prayer involves relational conversation with God; magick uses formulaic “vain” repetition.10
Prayer recognises humans were made in the Divine image; magick repeats the mistake of Adam and Eve, thinking we are like gods who can make God in our own image (Genesis 3:5). While the Bible recognises miracles through prayer, it considers magick a capital offence (Deuteronomy 18:10,11).
Biblical examples of magickal thinking
In Numbers 20:9-12 Moses strikes a rock in anger to bring forth water. Moses’ great sin was to suggest he and Aaron, not God, had the power to do this: “shall we bring water for you?”11 (italics added). As a result of their actions, God forbade Moses and Aaron to enter the Promised Land.
In Acts 19:13-16 we find the story of the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief-priest, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus, “whom Paul preaches”. The problem is these men didn’t know who Jesus actually was but used His name as some sort of “abracadabra” magick-word. The result is a bemused demon who beats them black-and-blue and sends them running naked from the house!
Law and magick
Magick has always been an integral part of ancient pagan worship so it shouldn’t surprise us that God sought to direct His people away from such practices through His law. In the first commandment He decrees that He is the one and only God.
Magick seeks to control the Divine through graven images. Contrary to popular belief, ancients probably didn’t think idols were actually gods but rather worked like voodoo dolls—to control the deity.12 The second commandment teaches we should make no graven images.
Another hallmark of magick involves invoking a divine name because to name something is to subdue it.13 The third commandment requires that we not take the Lord’s name in vain. God’s description, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), may actually be an anti-magickal pun suggesting God has no personal name that can be subdued.14 Even today Jews are careful about saying God’s personal name “Yahweh” and modern Bible translations reflect this reverence by instead using the term “LORD” or “Lord”.15
Finally, in the Sabbath commandment we see the ultimate expression of the supremacy of the Creator as against the merely created.
Modern “Christian” magick
We might be tempted to think magick only affected ancient pagans. However, as Adventist pioneer Ellen White rightly observed, “sorcery is practised in this age as verily as in the days of the old-time magicians”.16 While Christians get all worked up over fictional works like Harry Potter, many embrace magickal philosophies themselves.
Magickal thinking is still alive and well within Christianity today. Within “traditional” denominations consider the Catholic, Lutheran17 and Anglican18 idea of transubstantiation. During Mass a priest supposedly calls Jesus out of heaven and turns the communion wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.19 The phrase “hocus pocus” may even derive from this magickal act.20
Similarly, within contemporary evangelical denominations, prosperity gospel proponents, late-night TV evangelists and mega-churches alike promise money and health—often at a fee. Brian Houston of Hillsong demonstrated it best with his modestly titled book You Need More Money.21 Really? In these cases humans do not merely “petition” God but effectively “command” Him through the performance of various actions or by claiming out-of-context Bible promises. God is viewed as a cosmic ATM, controlled by a ritual pin-code, a Deus ex machina, a machine-God.22
So what about Jesus? The Jewish Talmud argues Jesus practised magick,23 however the opposite seems true.
Firstly, the nativity story with the three Magi (yes, as in magicians)24 possibly illustrates an anti-magickal theme, paralleling Moses’ own battle with Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:10–13,22). Matthew’s inclusion of this story for Jewish-Christian audiences suggests Jesus is the greater second Moses who subjugates magick even as an infant.25
Secondly, while Jesus performed many miracles, having every right to use His own power as God, He said, “the Son can do nothing by Himself, he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). In the Cross we see the greatest rejection of magickal thinking where Jesus refused to save even Himself, wholly submitting to the will of the Father (Luke 22:42).
Faith of a mustard seed
The life of Jesus illustrates the paradox of faith. It is only when we give up magickal thinking and totally submit to God, when we are so weak and pathetic, when we have nothing left to bargain with and no delusions about controlling Him, that God can realise His will in our lives.
Paul expressed this idea when he said, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). The tiny faith of a mustard seed is when we realise “I am a nobody” (2 Corinthians 12:11). Then, and only then, can God work through us to move mountains!
1. Spencer Walker, “Snake-Handling Pentecostal Pastor Dies From Snake Bite”, ABC News online, February 17, 2014.
2. Aleister Crowley, Magick, Book 4 (Berlin: Ordo Templi Orientis, 1913), p 127, 134.
3. For the remainder of this article, the term “magick” will be used where “magic” might otherwise be used, to denote a religious philosophy and not mere sleight of hand or stage trick.
4. Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Biblical and Pagan Societies, (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2001), xiii.
5. “prayer”, Urban Dictionary, <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prayer?s=t>.
6. Strong’s Concordance at [H8605], at [G4336].
7. “magic”, Urban Dictionary, Crowley similarly defined “magick” as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will”.
8. “magic”, Online Etymology Dictionary.
9. Cathleen Falsani, “The Prosperity Gospel”, Washington Post, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/opinions/outlook/worst-ideas/prosperity-gospel.html>.
10. Jesus made this point Himself about the nature of pagan worship in Matthew 6:7.
11. As a side note, observe Moses may have struck the rock with the very same staff he had earlier used to combat Pharaoh’s own magicians.
12. “Idols and Idol-Making”, Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 1136.
13. Consider the first task of Adam was to name all the animals to fulfil God’s command to subdue the earth. And consider, by contrast, that God never named Adam—it is a title, not a personal name. We even see it in the example of Daniel and his three friends who were given new names by their Babylonian captors.
14. Further reflected in the tradition that Jews, except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, were forbidden from even attempting to say God’s personal name: “YHWH: The Name of God in the Old Testament”, Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 89.
15. Also known as the tetragrammaton, which from c.300 BC, the Jews avoided saying and instead used the word ‘Adonoi’: E. A. Livingstone, “Transubstantiation”, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2006), 579.
16. Ellen White, Conflict and Courage, p 343.
17. The Lutherans have a slightly different doctrine called sacramental union but it is similar to Catholic transubstantiation.
18. There remains debate within the Anglican Communion about the Real Presence in the Eucharist wafer but many, especially the Anglo-Catholic faction, do uphold a similar belief of consubstantiation.
19. E. A. Livingstone, “Transubstantiation”, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Pres., 2006), 596.
20. From the phrase ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, meaning “This is my body”, which the priest said during the Latin Mass: “hocus pocus”, Online Etymological Dictionary, <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hocus-pocus>.
21. Brian Houston, You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life (Trust Media Dist., 2000).
22. Best explained by famous anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Derek Michaud, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer”, Boston Collaborative Collection of Western Theology <http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/bonhoeffer.htm>
23. Sanh. 106b, Sotah 47b; Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature and Social Context, 4th Ed. (Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 2003), p 30-31.
24. “magic”, Online Etymology Dictionary.
25. Krister Stendahl, Quis et Unde: An Analysis of Matthew 1-2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), p 59.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer and member of Livingston church, WA.