Recovering Mysticism: Part Five

I believe in magic.

That may sound bonkers, even heretical. The mistreatment of language and misunderstanding of words has led the modern Christian community to believe that the words ‘magic’ and ‘witchcraft’ have meanings and connotations that they needn’t have.

I spent most of my life believing that verses such as Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them”) were talking about the kind of magic or wizardiness that one finds in Harry Potter, or even in modern practiced ‘witchcraft.’ They fell under very vague umbrellas for me, everything lumped together, everything definitely evil and anti-God. After all, the Bible is very clear: thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, and all that. Best not even look that direction to see what the Bible’s talking about.

But language is a funny thing, and it’s taken many twists and turns over the years. The brunt of modern ‘witchcraft’ has a definition, and it’s probably not what you think it is. (Unless you read the second post in my Mysticism series, in which case you have an idea.) Witchcraft, for reasons I touched on in the previous posts in this series, has taken a huge upswing in the west – sometimes this is a bad thing, because as with any practice, it can be done wrong. It can be taken places it shouldn’t. I’m an artist – I could use that ability to draw evil, to paint pornography. I’m also an author – another skill I could use to write the next erotic bestseller. Bear in mind – any practice can be used for evil. But that does not mean the practice is evil of itself.

Now, on to the summary – in her book ‘The Green Witch: Your Complete Guide to the Natural Magic of Herbs, Flowers, Essential Oils, and More,’ Arin Murphy-Hiscock gives us a description of the craft she pursues – “…a practice that involves the use of natural energies as an aid to accomplishing a task or reaching a goal….For the sake of this book, the term ‘witchcraft’ refers to the practice of working with natural energies to attain goals, without a specific religious context.” That’s another thing to keep in mind – there are religions for which witchcraft is a part, such as Wicca. (Wicca is hugely problematic for a large number of reasons, 0/10 do not condone. However, as with most religions, there is truth to be found in there somewhere – and in this case, I believe it is the acknowledgment that ‘magic’ is real. I just happen to believe it’s God-designed.) But magic is not in fact a religion; it’s a fact put into practice.

Witchcraft (are you still cringing every time I use that word? I know, I know. If I could find another word to use, I would – the word has the wrong connotations and our automatic response to it is probably somewhere along the lines of fire and brimstone/holy water/get thee hence/etc. and I get that, believe me. I’ll use the word ‘magic’ from now on because ‘witchcraft,’ while often pursued in – I believe firmly – completely healthy, and God-given ways, can also be pursued in /other/ ways. I’ll touch on those later, but for now, I’ll say magic. That is, after all, the main point here) as practiced by many people is, and has always been, a word to describe the acknowledgment that energies, vibrations, and natural substances, when used with intent and purpose, can achieve an end.

Read that again.

You can take that description to Scripture and find no condemnation. Plants? God gave us those. Energy? God infused everything with it. I’ve discussed how the God of the Bible, the full, glorious picture of God shining through every page of His holy book, isn’t lacking. He gave us what we need, He designed His creation to work for us in ways we, the modern church, have shunned thanks to Satan’s propaganda – that anything ‘tainted’ with the flavor of magic is bad, evil, and must be repelled.

  Sir Walter Raleigh said that, “The art of magic is the art of worshiping God.” As I mentioned in the Astrology post in this series, it used to be widely acknowledged and understood by the Church and Christian mindset that God was in every detail and had given us the tools and means to know Him in every way possible.

Are there ways to use that wrong? Of course. Remember Leviticus 20:27? The phrase ‘has a familiar spirit’ means ‘is a medium.’ (The original Hebrew word is א֛וֹב – a necromancer.) The word that has been translated ‘wizard’ (originally an old English word meaning ‘wise one’) was originally the Hebrew word יִדְּעֹנִ֖י  – conjurer, one who communicates with spirits. The Witch of Endor who actually contacted a grumpy Samuel in the Bible? The word ‘witch’ there is the word ‘medium’ again, in the original language.

In case you wondered: God doesn’t want us messing with the dead. He doesn’t want us messing with spirits. He also doesn’t want us trying to divine the future. The future, the afterlife – those are His realms and His alone, and he’s pretty darn clear on that subject more than once.

Interestingly, those who practice witchcraft, even in a non-religious sense often like to associate their work with a deity. It’s heartbreaking – to see people come so close to understanding, and miss the Whole Point. To miss the God who gave us these energies, these means and tools. The God who created magic.

Arin Murphy-Hiscock goes on to say, ‘Is brewing a cup of rosemary tea for a headache a spell? Or is it a natural medicine? To the green witch, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the conscious use of the energies of the rosemary to help heal a temporary imbalance.’

In her book ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary,’ Tish Harrison Warren says, “In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis devotes a delightful letter to the subject of pleasure. His advice: begin where you are. He writes that he once thought he had to start ‘by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and all the blessings of this life.’ Instead, he says, we ought to begin with the pleasures at hand – for him, a walk beside a babbling brook; for me at the moment, the wonder of hot water and dried leaves.

“Most of us love these moments in our day at a gut level. We intuitively know that goodness and beauty are connected to the divine, that ‘every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights (James 1:17.’ We aren’t overly ascetic fundamentalists trying to stamp out delight or pleasure wherever it is found. We naturally greet these moments with adoration. We are not only grateful for pleasure; our hearts wonder what kind of Creator makes a world that overflows with such loveliness and beauty. As Lewis says, ‘One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.’”

                Unfortunately, modern Christianity in the west has largely allowed those sunbeams to be stamped out and in doing so, it has shrunk our concept of God down to a shriveled, dry, boxed-in concept that does God no justice; and in doing so, it has caused us to miss a huge part of who He is.

Magic acknowledges the meaning, the intent, behind things. It sees there is more to life than what we can see and touch. It’s aware of the spiritual realm. It is, at its purest form, the acknowledge of God’s power in our lives and the world around us at its fullest.

(Again, can it be misused? Of course it can. Are there those who practice magic in the aforementioned God-given ways who might also choose to use Ouija boards, contact the dead, and try to divine the future? Sadly, yes. Every good thing can be taken and twisted  – Satan is good at that. Be wary. Don’t wholesale accept things – including what I tell you. Take it to the Bible. Study God. Get to know Him. Spend time with Him.)

As I’ve said before, the modern church has grown so timid, so afraid, so unable to discern, that it has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Several babies, in fact.

And,  I would argue, highly important, useful, and intrinsically valuable babies. (Not that all babies aren’t. I’m pro life, and you can fight me, but this isn’t that conversation.)

I don’t like to use the word ‘witch.’ I really don’t. I have almost 25 years of knee-jerk reaction to that word, with some good reasoning behind it. And here’s the thing – you don’t want to be a stumbling block. Most people aren’t quite ready for you to jump on them with an excited, “HEY DID YOU KNOW MAGIC–,” and even fewer are probably going to be great with the concept of you saying ‘yeah technically you can be a Christian witch.’ I mean honestly that juxtaposition of words still looks weird and kind of distasteful to me, even if it’s more of a linguistic misunderstanding than anything else.

Which is to say – I’m still learning. Am I excited? Yes. Do I feel, one hundred percent and with no reservations, that God is leading me every step? Yes. Am I human and therefore fallible and prone to making mistakes? Also yes.

                But if we don’t share truth when we find it, especially when it’s pressing on our hearts so urgently, then what are we doing?

“‘Wyrd’ is an Anglo-Saxon term usually translated as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny.’ It occurs nine times in Beowulf for example. But Wyrd literally means ‘that which has turned’ or ‘that which has become’, and it suggests hte idea, confirmed now by physics, that everything in the universe is in a stage of change. In the ‘web of Wyrd’ everything is connected as if in a giant, three-dimensional spider’s web.” — The Book of English Magic.

I include this quote so I can follow it up with this quote from King Alfred the Great, said around the year 888 –

“What we call Wyrd is really the work of God about which He is busy every day.”

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Recovering Mysticism: Part One

I walk into church on Sunday morning. I see people I know and love, I say hi, I laugh. I walk over to get coffee at the coffee bar, a line standing out to the door like it’s Starbucks on a Monday morning. Parents are toting their kids – some crying, some cheerful – to the nursery located just outside the auditorium doors. I walk through the auditorium; two huge screens display pictures of mountains or birds or what-have-you. I sit down in a plastic chair. I sing songs with some of the worst lyrics known to man, wishing they made me feel something other than ‘cringe’ (which yes, is an entire emotion. Looking at you, Sloppy Wet Kiss). The preacher walks out onto the stage; too far away for me to see his face, but at least it’s up on the big screens. I listen to a sermon. It’s a good one – nothing new or exciting, per se. Nothing that shakes me at my core or gives me a new perspective, but it’s a good one.

I leave the building – a big, square, unimaginative thing built to pack people in several times a morning. Space and efficiency are the names of the church-building game.

This experience has repeated itself in every church I’ve ever attended – with the strength of each element varying, of course.

Many wonder why people – especially people my age, in their twenties – are leaving the church. They wonder especially why they’re leaving the church for things like Paganism and Wicca.

I don’t wonder.

Living in Omaha, I made a friend. His name was Erik, and he worked at the bar across the street from the coffeeshop I frequented. He was the first Pagan I ever met, and I loved him. He was a tall, plaid-wearing, mid-fifties Jack of all trades – if you needed a private investigator, a carving, fresh vegetables from his garden, or a fence built, he was your guy. He would stop and talk to so many people, and everyone knew and loved him, and it fascinated me.

I would stop in at the bar after I finished my walks downtown and back – hot, sweaty, and ready to be refreshed by a ginger beer + bitters. He gave them to me for free, and I would sit in the cool air and talk with him.

He was excited to be a Pagan. We first met because I was reading Norse Myths and sketching, and he stopped by my table on his way out to chat with me about it.

(How often have you been reading the Bible, and had a Christian walk up, excited, to chat with you about it? How often have you done the reverse?)

Rarely do I see someone excited to not just talk about their faith, but to be their faith. He was. And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it opened a line of thinking in my subconscious.

I began to wonder – what if Christianity, as we know it today, was missing something? I’ve always blamed people for not being excited enough about it, for not living it like they should. But what if it was the institution?

And there, I believe, lies one of the main problems. Christianity today is an institution. It’s corporate.

Not far from where I met Erik sits a Cathedral. And stepping into this Cathedral is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not Catholic – that didn’t matter.

st cecelias
photo of St. Cecelia’s courtesy of Yelp

It was magnificent. Every single detail about the building was designed with love and care and imagination. With worship. Inside, the very air you breathed felt like worship. You could tell just walking in – this place had been bathed in prayer. It had been built to do so.

God was there.

Without exaggeration, never once have I walked into a modern American church building and felt that. Never once.

I cried, for no reason I could name. I sat, and I prayed, and I cried, and I felt both convicted and refreshed. Convicted of what? I didn’t know. I just knew that in that moment, something had been planted in the dry soil of my faith.

I had no idea just how big it would grow.

 

//so much the better

aslanI was recently interviewed by my friend and fellow writer, Eli. He asked an excellent question about Christianity and mythology, and I gave a response – but the response was too short. That day I was asked to expound on the subject.

SO HERE I AM, EXPOUNDING

Many modern Christians are afraid. They’re afraid of anything that hints at opposition to their faith. While modern college campuses build ‘safe spaces’ to keep the students from verbal injury, modern Christians build ‘safe spaces’ to keep themselves and their children from anything that doesn’t agree with their beliefs. As commentators will tell you, this mentality of ‘safety’ does nothing to build up strength – rather, it weakens, as those seeking ‘safety’ will never learn to defend themselves. It wasn’t until recently, when I marathoned the Harry Potter movies for the first time, that it clicked. (Note: Magic and the Bible is a subject for another blog post, to happen soonish.)

When we act as though Christianity is weak, we portray a belief that God cannot defend himself. Charles Spurgeon said, “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.” Except we often fail to treat the truth as a lion, we treat it as a fragile house pet that will die if the temperature changes.

We are told to beware of false doctrines and false teachers. ‘Beware of.’ Be aware of. We aren’t told to scream when we see them and run the other way.

NOW, DON’T GET ME WRONG

There are things we as Christians simply shouldn’t indulge in, and this may vary person to person. We’re to appropriate – not accept. (Right and wrong do not vary, but things cause others to stumble that don’t affect others in the slightest.) This is where the conscience kicks in. For instance, I stopped watching Supernatural around season 8 because I couldn’t stomach the theology anymore. I could handle the skewing of heaven, hell, angels, and demons (most of the time) – but once they brought ‘God’ into the show, I was out. Watching God get blasphemed and treated like a fictional character no better than everyone else? Excuse me, I’m not fine with that. (This wasn’t easy, by the way. I was as attached to Sam and Dean and Cas as anyone.)

WHAT I’M SAYING IS…

Christianity has always been a faith that appropriates – or rather, redeems. I’m currently re-reading Esther DeWaal’s book, The Celtic Way of Prayer: Recovering the Religious Imagination. In the book, she describes in detail how Christianity affected the Celtic way of life, and how they accepted and absorbed their newfound faith into their old beliefs. Christianity, like a divine virus, took over paganism and appropriated it. They wrote new lyrics for old songs. They changed the words to pagan rhymes and suddenly, they went from pagan chants to God-filled blessings. Christianity does not destroy, it heals.

C. S. Lewis knew this better than anyone. As the most inspiring author I’ve ever read, and the one I continue to love the most, Lewis did not cower in the face of mythology or different theologies. Rather he accepted them for what they were – stories rife with equal falsehood and beautiful truths – and he used them to further God’s glory. He was heavily inspired by the beauty of them – and who couldn’t be? He straightened his shoulders, faced them, and said, “You’re beautiful, but much of you is false, and I’m going to change that.” And so we see mythological creatures filling his novels. We see him giving new twists to Greek myths – and as a result, we have some of the most inspiring, gorgeous, God-filled books ever written. I recently listened to a series of lectures on C. S. Lewis (presented by Hillsdale College) and in the Cosmology lecture (my favorite in the whole series), the professor said that if Lewis found truth in paganism, then, “…So much the better for paganism, not so much the worse for Christianity.”

We’re to find dark places and shine light into them. Not hide from dark places, not enter dark places; but to seek out and redeem for heaven. We’re to be salt and light, to flavor and shine – and while you can’t be salt and light until you’re salty and lit (as my mother would say), once you are salty and lit, you have no excuse. Running away or hiding in supposed safety – God doesn’t call us to this.

HE CALLS US TO WALK WITH THE LION, TO TURN IT LOOSE AND WATCH IT DEFEND ITSELF, AND THOSE WHO WALK WITH LIONS HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR.

 

///principled fiction, that difficult creature

“Have you written a blog post on how your Christian principles affect your writing?”

Well, I hadn’t, but now I have. It’s a broad subject I want to condense a bit, so I’m going to use bullet points to touch on the most important aspects.

  • First of all, I firmly believe in not shoving the Gospel down people’s throats. That’s not how the apostles did it, it’s not how Jesus did it, it’s not how we’re supposed to do it. You’ll notice that while Jesus said ‘I Am,’ he also used parables about planting seeds and oil lamps. In these parables, He never said, ‘As you can clearly see, this seed represents you. It fell right there, but you didn’t listen, no matter how many times I told you—’ He gave them the story, and left them to come up with their own conclusions.

Back when I read (or tried to read) modern Christian fiction with any frequency, I would get so frustrated at the way Christianity was waved in my face. I was already Christian and the author was preaching to the choir, but there was nothing new or inspiring about it. Saying, “I’m going shopping, Lord willing,” doesn’t add anything to the story. It doesn’t make you sound more pious, it just makes you sound overbearing. It’s annoying.

  • I know many Christians (authors and readers) who are extremely conservative in the kind of fiction they read. That is to say, many of them wouldn’t read my novels. Sexual abuse? Indiscretion? Mild language on occasion? Feral dog-men? GOODNESS GRACIOUS, and this woman calls herself a Christian writer.

Yes. Yes, I do. And in these instances, I like to point toward my biggest inspiration and guidebook – the Bible. If you’ll just open up to Judges – oh, what have we here? Well, we have a concubine being abused to death, then cut into various pieces and shipped out. Flip around some more and we have incest, near-homosexual rape, heterosexual rape, murder, S*ng of S*lomon, and yes – even mild language.

The Bible, my friends, is a very adult book. So what makes it ‘okay’ to read? The whole point of it. The point of the novel is God. The Bible is rife with bad examples, but it is not about these bad examples. It’s about God.

  • I do not write anything I wouldn’t read. Sometimes, this means sitting back and looking at something from a different angle, or sending it to a friend so they can give me a second opinion. Sometimes I cut a scene or ditch a good idea, because that niggling voice in the back of my mind whispers, when in doubt, don’t. Frequently, it just means not dwelling on a certain aspect. For instance, Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar. (It happened. Look it up.) But the Bible does not give us a graphic sex scene – it focuses on the consequences of what happened.

My principles affect what I’m willing to show the audience. Uncle Ben gave us some pretty good writing advice when he said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It can be extremely tricky, and I won’t always get it right – sometimes I might show too much, sometimes I might not show enough. (This is where good friends who will read your writing and hold you accountable come in hand. Looking at you, Arielle and Lauren.)

  • I don’t let the dark aspects of the novel overshadow the lighter ones. I try to keep a balance. Whenever I come away from a novel or a movie or a show or even a song, I have a very distinct flavor in my mouth. Sometimes that flavor is sweet, sometimes it’s salty, but when I write something I don’t want people to come away bitter. I don’t want them to feel as if they need to wash their mouth out with soap, or eat something else to mask the taste. That would destroy the whole point. Again, looking at the Bible, there’s a lot of darkness there, but in the end – it’s about God, and it’s about light.

It can be very, very complicated to write a novel, as a Christian, and have the novel be a good, deep, solid, lasting thing people will remember. You don’t want people to remember the book as ‘oh, yeah, a Christian book.’ You want them to remember it as a good book. Tolkien abhorred allegories, and yet he gave us the Lord of the Rings. Jesus is not found in the Lord of the Rings. And yet that book has encouraged and strengthened more than any amount of Christian fiction that tries to spoon-feed me their idea of Christ.

I imagine it would be much easier to write without Christian principles, but it’s a challenge I’m more than willing to tackle for the sake of my faith.

Here are the novels (written by Christians, although not necessarily ‘Christian fiction’) that have inspired me the most:

Anything by Stephen Lawhead

Most novels by Ted Dekker (exempting ‘Adam’ and ‘The Boneman’s Daughters,’ which I haven’t read).

Anything by J. R. R. Tolkien

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

The Narnia series (okay, anything by) C. S. Lewis

The Dragons in Our Midst series by Bryan Davis (YA series that greatly influenced me as a teen)

I hope this post was helpful. If there was anything I didn’t cover or mention, please let me know!