The Potent Instability of Religion & Magic

In November 2007, during one of the worst droughts in Georgia history, then-Governor Sonny Purdue “stepped up to a podium outside the state Capitol… and led a solemn crowd of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on his drought-stricken state. ‘We’ve come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm,’ Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.” Earlier this month, in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that have struck several Midwestern and Southeastern states, Pat Robertson taught his 700 Club audience that, “if enough people would have prayed… the storms would have been stilled” in a manner reminiscent of New Testament stories.

On the basis of such examples (of which American religious history contains an inexhaustible supply), it is tempting to reject out of hand the confident assertion of scholars such as Durkheim, Stark, and Bainbridge, that there are, and can be no, “churches of magic.” But it is worth noting that, as irrepressible as magical practice and belief likely are (that is, acting/assuming that human beings may influence events in the world of concrete experience by tapping into and directing divine powers or energies), they continue to occupy a powerfully ambiguous place in American religious discourse. For example, in her recent and quite popular book, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete, 2011), Jana Riess clearly struggles with concerns that her own Christian practices (e.g., prayer, Bible reading, fasting, etc.) are predicated upon “instrumental thinking.” She writes,

Maybe it’s just too many years spent in a conservative Christian church that at least implicitly teaches that when we fast, we can count on loads of good stuff coming our way: physical healings, answers to spiritual questions, divine guidance on relationships, the works. What’s more, I’ve experienced enough of those happy results myself that I can’t blithely dismiss them as a false use of fasting. Once, in my congregation, all of us fasted and prayed for a little boy who had been in a serious car accident. He recovered completely. (20)

My point here, of course, is not to argue for or against cause/effect relationships of prayer and healing, but only to point out how nicely, indeed poignantly, Riess’ concerns highlight the hybrid nature of magic in contemporary American Christian discourse. On one hand, magic represents the religious Other, a clearly demarcated taboo; on the other, a perfectly natural expression of the Christian faith and practice, provided that it goes by some other name than magic.



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