Steven King vs. The Talking Gods of Magic

Perhaps this will strike you as an odd statement, but often I feel that there isn’t enough magic in my life.  Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.

Last week I watched an excellent documentary on writer Grant Morrison.  The doco was called Talking With Gods, and it featured interviews with and about Morrison, his writing, and his life.  Morrison has had an odd life, with odd experiences.  He would, as a child, sneak in to top secret military facilities with his father.  He claims to have been abducted by alien intelligences which opened him up to an altered view of reality.  He regularly practices magic, primarily in the form of sigils.  There was a bit of disappointment when, during the course of the documentary, Morrison explained how to perform a sigil.  It seemed to involve, as one of my friends put it, “masturbating over word games.”  But while this seemed a bit more mundane, it was also intensely practical.  In fact, that describes Morrison’s view of magic, according to the documentary.  He feels that magic should be practical.  Do this, and you get this.  There was something very odd, to me, of this marriage of mysticism and utilitarianism.  However, it does seem to work for Morrison, and anyone who has read his work cannot say he isn’t clever, brilliant, or insightful.  Or weird.

Upon finishing the documentary, I spiraled into a depression.  This was due in part to lack of sleep the night before, but the documentary spurred it along a bit.  Here was a man who worked hard to get where he was, but he also had a lot of unusual experiences, and not all of them were drug-induced.  He created an avatar of himself in his comic series The Invisibles, a character named King Mob, and in order to more fully write this character, Morrison dressed like King Mob and began populating the locations and meeting the people King Mob would encounter.  Possibly the most unusual experience was when Morrison wrote that King Mob got a necrotizing virus.  Soon after writing this, Morrison became very ill and even had some skin abrasions (or something like that).  Morrison is a proponent of using his art to manifest change in the real world, and it seems that this happened in a horrific way in The Invisibles.

Again, my depression.  Morrison has had unusual experiences, amazing travels, and he is a great writer.  His life seemed filled with magic, no matter how you define the word.  At first I was unaware of what exactly caused my depression.  My wife was who finally figured it was linked to the magic of Morrison’s life.  I have often lamented about the mundanity of modern life (and by “modern life”, I typically mean “my life”).  Sure, I have learned a lot about how to cope with where I am, but I often crave something more.  Oscar Wilde once said that we are all in the gutter, but some of us reach for the stars (or something like that).  The Brit-pop band Blur posits that modern life is rubbish.  The lessons I have been learning in life seem to indicate that the world around us will move with great indifference to us and the most we can do is adjust our attitude and possibly exhibit something more positive.  This is an aspect of the teachings that Christ gave his disciples.  This also mirrors something one of Morrison’s friends said, that for Morrison the universe is cold, dark, indifferent, and that the ultimate act of rebellion is to be happy.

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Last night I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and found myself saying, “Why doesn’t this happen in real life?”  For those not up on pop culture, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a movie based on a comic book of the same name.  It involves a young slacker named (obviously) Scott Pilgrim, who has relationship issues and falls in love with a girl named Ramona.  He sets out to get her despite already having a girlfriend.  There is a catch, however.  Scott must defeat Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes, people she had dated in the past.  The fights take a variety of forms, from outright combat to a contest of bass playing, to a literal battle of the bands.  The movie is really the most-perfect adaptation of a video game, only there was no video game to adapt.  What I find great fun about this film is the message that Scott is really a self-centered jerk who must learn about self-respect and being respectful of others in order to defeat the final ex Gideon.  There is a moment where Scott admits his love for Ramona, which gives him the Sword of Love and great powers, but this is not enough to defeat Gideon.  When Scott finally learns that he has been a jerk and owns up to this, he gets the Sword of Self-Respect, which is much more powerful than The Sword of Love.  This also prompts those around him, including those he wronged, to join him in battle.  We see Scott Pilgrim do all these things, fighting Ramona’s exes, which are physical representations of her emotional baggage, the ghosts of past relationships that we must all deal with in our lives.  Yes, in the movie the exes are real, but they are a metaphor as well, giving Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a certain magical quality in its analysis of modern courting rituals and the human experience of relationships.

Did you see that word again?  Magical?  Yeah, this movie made me feel similar, although no where near as bad, as Talking with Gods.  So the question remains for me:  Why do I have this craving for magic?

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I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction.  Even more so, I watched it on television and played it in video games.  My formative years (and in turn my storytelling influences) include The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The X-Files, Doctor Who, the imagery of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and in more recent years the writing of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the ideas behind H.P. Lovecraft.  It is obvious from this list that I have an interest in works of imagination and world-building.  But what also strikes me as I type this is that there is only one Christian work on this list, and that work is not an overt one.  Behind all of this, there are writings of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, both of which are more overtly Christian, but it strikes me as interesting that many of the formative stories from my past are not Christian.  This wouldn’t make any difference if I wasn’t a Christian.  I am.  Yet, I don’t find much refuge in the writings of my fellow believers when I am looking for magic.  Why is that?

I have started to believe we are killing our sense of wonder in Western Society.  Perhaps it has come about due to our devotion to science and the scientific method.  Yes, people like Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins say (or have said in the case of Adams) that just because we can explain something, doesn’t mean we can’t look at it with wonder, and while I can understand that to a point, I think I still crave mystery, and mystery often carries with it the possibility of not knowing.  What has been the most joyous experience with Lost?  It certainly wasn’t in the conclusion of the show, but in trying to figure out the mystery.  God is a mystery, a magical force if you will allow me this description.  He cannot be fully understood.  However, we have gone a long way to trying to define him, while insisting he cannot be defined.  Begin studying theology, especially reformed theology, and you will start to see the concepts, terms, and rules that people believe govern existence as created by God.  With the rise of the battle between naturalism and creation science, things seem to have gotten worse and for someone to make the admission “I just don’t know” seems unacceptable because it will cause ground to be lost in the debate between who is right and who is wrong.  I think this is partly why the magic and wonder of the Christian faith has been eroding, because we want to be seen as the ones who are right, and therefore win the cultural war.  Sometimes when you prove someone wrong, they hate you even more, and won’t listen no matter how right you are.

So, I want God to by a mystery.  This isn’t a bad thing, and this type of “magic” is probably good.  However, there may be a darker craving at work here.

People bring in thousands of books each week for us to look through at the Christian book shop where I work.  We reject a good deal of them because we have rather strict guidelines for content, but last weekend someone brought us two books by Anton LeVay, The Satanic Bible and a book on Satanic Rituals.  While I know that this form of Satanism doesn’t deal with Satan as viewed in a Christian worldview, but Satan as a force of nature and desire, there is still no place for the book in our store.  Even if we put it in the world religion or cult section, there would be complaints.  People throw a fit if we put a Seventh Day Adventist childrens’ book in with the other kids books.  So, the book buyer threw the books in the dumpster.  When we didn’t buy them, the customer decided to donate them, and none of the organizations we donate to would have taken the books either.  So, dumpster.  The buyer told me about the books on Monday.  My reaction?  I was instantly at the dumpster looking for the books.  I found them and flipped through them, interested.  However, I didn’t learn much more than I already knew from a few of the religion classes I had in college, so I returned them to the trash.

In his book Surprised by Joy (Harcourt and Brace. Pages 59-60), C.S. Lewis gives the following admission of his time in a preparatory school:

“No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health.  She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known.  We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.  Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life.  Guides were ever rarer then than now.  She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition.  Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.  I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men.  I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief; even the phantom dwarf had only flashed on my mind for a moment…..But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my simple theology.  And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since–the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult.  Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean.  I once tried to describe it in a novel.  It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.”

These truly are cravings, the cravings for some form of knowledge, some formula by which the world works, a formula which society at large has not discovered.  There are certainly aspects of that in the Christian religion, especially as practiced early on.  However, we have centuries of tradition to mold the expression of Christianity in the West to a form that is more manageable and quantifiable.  We measure our success in church attendance and offerings.  But Western society in general likes to measure and quantify and be generally less mystic about things.  This is a breeding ground for cravings of an occult nature and indeed neo-paganism is rising.  At the same time, the center of The Church’s population seems to be moving from America to China or even Africa.  This is due in part to persecution (how counter-intuitive is that?) and in part due to the decadence and comfort of the West which has a tendency to dilute The Gospel.  But there is a soul ache in myself for something more, something magical.  The final question is whether or not that rests in Christ or in something else.  What I find particularly interesting is that as these cravings and desires (at times, even lusts) have increased, I have learned more about Christian tradition, First Century Christianity, Judaism, and read passages of The Bible with different eyes of interpretation.  The faith I had in high school and college would have been destroyed by these cravings.  The faith I have now, while seeming uncertain and even more fragile, is still malleable and I believe that these answers may indeed lie in the truth of who Christ is, not the perception of who he is based on what I have been told.

To wit, there may indeed be magic in Christianity.  We may have just neutered it in The West.

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One thought on “Steven King vs. The Talking Gods of Magic

  1. I think Christianity does include “magic”. After all, two of the gospels begin with a fairly advanced trick–a virgin giving birth to a child that is a once human and divine. The story continues with miracles of healing, controlling forces of nature and demonic spirits with a bodily resurrection from the dead as it’s climax. Some of Jesus’ disciples demonstrated these same powers to such an extent that a sorcerer in Samaria attempted to “purchase” the secret of their tricks (Acts 8:9-11, 18-19). The Apostle Peter’s response to Simon’s offer is very illuminating regarding Christianity’s magic: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23) See this is problem, if you will, with Christian magic–power is not given to those who seek power for its own sake, but to those who seek God’s glory above all else. Christian magic is not as enticing as other forms of magic because it cannot be used for your own pleasure, profit or prestige.

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