Recently, John C. Wright considered the problem of magic for Christian fantasy writers in “The Poet and the Magician,” to which he posted a follow-up where he links to two essays that address the issue while comparing Rowling’s Harry Potter series to the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien. I recommend these essays.
“Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” by Steven D. Greydanus (2001)
“The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon (April 2008)
Simon’s article comments on Greydanus’ treatment, and Wright compares his own ideas to theirs. The lot of them makes for a fascinating read.
What the articles fail to explain, however, is what underlies the traditional Christian proscription of magic. They mention the dangers of power seeking and of not resting content with prayer, but this same argument sounds a lot like certain Protestant sects’ rationale for refusing modern medicine. Christianity does not require a passive stance toward the shifting circumstances of the world. We are called to act, and action requires the means of acting—power. Yet, certain types of power are off limits. Why? In Lewis, we get to see explicit parallels between ancient magic and the our own age’s magic of modern technology. Both appear to manipulate the world in order to accomplish desired ends. Where are the proper limits, though, of such manipulation? If witchcraft and necromansy are against true religion, why . . . and how do such rules apply to the Cartesian project of mastering nature? Wise minds in the Roman Church have carefully considered ethical issues when it comes to bio-technology, but they do not reject modern medicine completely or interdict advanced research in genetics. What makes the old magic so harmful?
I cannot remember exactly now, but I think that I read something by Lewis wherein he touched on this issue, having noted that the prohibition against magic was a safeguard for human beings whose spiritual faculties and maturity had become significantly enfeebled by the fall. There was something about the danger of allowing men to see the spiritual realm in their current state. I recall similar ideas concerning monastics, especially the great saints who entered aware into that arena. Normal men and women are still in the milk stage; they are not ready to digest unshielded encounters with spirits. Saint Anthony of the Desert, however, had upped levels and battled some big bosses.
Does magic, though, require intercourse with spirits? Couldn’t the mage simply know the nature of things and how to affect them according to that knowledge? If we consider Kristor’s theory about forms (metaphysically speaking) as angelic beings, then perhaps all magic, as all thought and action, involves spirits—but our normal methods, at least while we look through the glass darkly, keep us insulated from being overwhelmed. The magical way may remove some protective coating on that window. Even if Kristor’s idea is mistaken, perhaps using magic places one in a dangerous proximity to ghastly intersections.
Greydanus’ essay contains this delightful paragraph:
Moreover, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with such things as the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves; the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves; the ineffable stateliness, the sheer antiquity of the Ents; the battle-hardened majesty of Aragorn; the playful, fathomless mystery of Tom Bombadil; and, perhaps most of all, the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their unassuming, humorous, gregarious, homebody, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking, Shire-dwelling hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism. Here is the true center of gravity in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: not the world of magic, but the magic of the world.
Wonder is the proper initial response to seeing God reflected in his creation, followed by gratitude and praise. The magical—in fiction or in reality (meaning the spooky, the weird, the “supernatural” [a term which I loathe using] . . . not necessarily according to a strict, refined definition of magic)—elicits wonder, as do miracles and other wonder-working acts. However, an honest, perceptive consideration of the world as we experience it everyday should move us in the same way. How manifold are thy works; in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches! Our excitement in response to novelty in tandem with our nonchalant boredom with the marvels of daily life is a sign of our fallenness—of our decay and stupidity.
So, perhaps, such underlies Tolkien’s insistence that only certain races in Middle Earth wield magic. Men—and hobbits—are not among them. In this, they are not inferior but simply different. They have their own proper glories, their own marks of wonder in how they reflect Ilúvatar. This rings true; it is how the world operates—among species and individuals. We all have our special natures, our special ends, and it is a mark of sickness and depravity to desire another nature and another end than those bestowed by God Almighty. Maybe, magic simply isn’t proper to men. Instead, we have our own proper means to knowledge and power (in the neutral sense of being able to get that which is willed accomplished). Take, for instance, mathematics. That’s quite a gift . . . though we apparently must assume that any intelligent creature would also have access to mathematics. Maybe that is not true. Perhaps, following scholastic musings, numerical nature and relations are like demonstrative reasoning—proper to human beings but not to angels. I find that hard to believe, but maybe that is simply homo sapientive bias about the nature of sapiens.
This route would explain the difference in prohibitions with respect to magic and modern technology (or any human technology). God has given man the ability to become an engineer; (human) wizards, by contrast, are (in the current year’s woeful jargon) dynamically-appropriating another type of being’s way of life. Their enchantment is not your shortcut.
We’re living through a really campy, cringe-inducing mid-summer release B-flick geared toward imbecilic sophomores (who smell funny and have sticky palms). You know—where the villains look so ridiculously unbelievable that no sane, reasonable person would ever expect anyone to accept them even in a work of comic stripy fiction. I expected a Matrix envisioned by the Wachowski brothers, but it turns out that the Wachowskis, like the rest of the nonsense run through our collective consciousness, are a bad plot twist in a shitty script by Rick Sloane.
It’s a terrible feeling when you realize that you cannot wake up from a nightmare. There appears to be no satisfactory way to unplug from this simulation before it completes its cycle.
Fr. Z. had a post about Gianna Beretta Molla today—her feast day on the Roman calendar and the day of her death in A.D. 1962. I recommend reading about her life and the causes for her canonization. From the letter to the Hebrews:
And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.
Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:
They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
This twentieth century woman, mother, pediatrician—someone from our own age, in modern dress, smiling in family photographs—joins the saints of old as a remarkable example of a life full of grace and truth.
I would like to share a short excerpt from The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet, courtesy of the ISI newsletter that I received today. Written in 1953, Nisbet examined the early twentieth century—a distillation of monstrous modern political programs—and analyzed the essence of totalitarian regimes. His words remain relevant in our age of late stage terminal liberalism.
There are two central elements of totalitarianism: the first is the existence of the masses; the second is the ideology, in its most extreme form, of the political community.
Neither can be fully described apart from its relation to the other, for the two exist always, in modern society, in sensitive interaction with each other. What works toward the creation of the masses works also toward the establishment of the omnicompetent, absolute State. And everything that augments the power and influence of the State in its relation to the individual serves also to increase the scope of the masses.
The masses are fundamental to the establishment of totalitarian society. On this point all serious students of the subject, from Peter Drucker to Hannah Arendt are agreed.
“Masses,” writes Dr. Arendt, “are not held together by consciousness of common interest, and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties, or municipal governments, or professional organizations, or trade unions.”
The essence of the masses, however, does not lie in the mere fact of numbers. It is not the quantitative but the qualitative aspect that is essential. A population may be vast, as is that of India, and yet, by reason of the stability of its social organization, be far removed from the condition of massdom.
What is crucial in the formation of the masses is the atomization of all social and cultural relationships within which human beings gain their normal sense of membership in society. The mass is an aggregate of individuals who are insecure, basically lonely, and ground down, either through decree or historical circumstance, into mere particles of social dust. Within the mass all ordinary relationships and authorities seem devoid of institutional function and psychological meaning. Worse, such relationships and authorities come to seem positively hostile; in them the individual can find not security but despair. “The despair of the masses,” concludes Peter Drucker, “is the key to the understanding of fascism. No ‘revolt of the mob,’ no ‘triumphs of unscrupulous propaganda,’ but stark despair caused by the breakdown of the old order and the absence of a new one.”
When the masses, in considerable number, already exist, as the consequence of historical forces, half the work of the totalitarian leader has been done for him. What remains but to complete, where necessary, the work of history, and to grind down into atomic particles all remaining evidences of association and social authority? What remains, then, but to rescue the masses from their loneliness, their hopelessness and despair, by leading them into the Promised Land of the absolute, redemptive State? The process is not too difficult, or even too violent, providing the masses have already been created in significant size by processes that have destroyed or diminished the social relationships and cultural values by which human beings normally live and in which they gain not merely their sense of order but their desire for freedom.
But where the masses do not already exist in great numbers, and where, through the accident of quick seizure of power, the totalitarian mentality comes into ascendancy, then it becomes necessary to create the masses: to do through the most ruthless force and in the shortest possible time the work that has been done in other areas by the operation of past processes.
Here is where the most shocking acts of totalitarianism become manifest—not in its attitude toward the already existing masses, but toward those human beings, still closely related by village, church, family, or labor union, and whose very relationships separate them from the indispensable condition of massdom. Such relationships must be ruthlessly destroyed. If they cannot be destroyed easily and inexpensively by propaganda and intimidation, they must be destroyed by all the techniques of the torture chamber, by enforced separation of loved ones, by the systematic obliteration of legal identities, by killing, and by the removal of large segments of a population to labor camps.
The violence and the horrors of Soviet Russia, in many ways greater perhaps even than those of Nazi Germany, have arisen from the fact that in Russia, down to the beginnings of the First World War, the masses scarcely existed. The ancient relationships of class, family, village, and association were nearly as strong as they had been in medieval times. Only in small areas of Russia were these relationships dissolving and the masses beginning to emerge.
The political inertia of the large majority of the Russian people under the Czars, the relative impotence of postwar government, and the general state of disorganization in the cities made it not too difficult for the disciplined Communists to capture power in 1917. But the consolidation of that power was quite a different problem. The realization of what Marx had called “the vast association of the whole nation” called for drastic steps—for the rapid industrialization of rural areas, for eradication of political opposition, and for the extreme centralization of power which alone could make these and other steps possible.
But, of far greater import, this realization also called for a change in the very structure of the people, its values, incentives, motivations, and allegiances. The new Communism could not thrive on popular values and relationships inherited through the ages. If the classless society was to be created, it was necessary to destroy not only old classes but old associations of any type. It was necessary, as Stalin saw the problem, to accomplish in a short time the atomization and dislocation that had been proceeding in Western countries for generations.
Hence, beginning in the nineteen-twenties, the destruction of all traditional associations, the liquidation of old statuses. Hence also the conversion of professional and occupational associations into administrative arms of the government. The hopes of older Russian intellectuals, who had supposed that socialism in Russia might be founded upon the communal institutions of the peasantry, supplemented by the emerging workers’ organizations in the cities, were proved fatuous. For the new rulers of Russia realized that the kind of power requisite to the establishment of the Marxian order could not long exist if any competing associations and authorities were allowed to remain. The vast association of the nation, which Marx had prophesied, could come into being only through the most absolute and extensive central political power. And, for the establishment and maintenance of this power, the creation of the undifferentiated, unattached, atomized mass was indispensable.
We may regard totalitarianism as a process of the annihilation of individuality, but, in more fundamental terms, it is the annihilation, first, of those social relationships within which individuality develops. It is not the extermination of individuals that is ultimately desired by totalitarian rulers, for individuals in the largest number are needed by the new order. What is desired is the extermination of those social relationships which, by their autonomous existence, must always constitute a barrier to the achievement of the absolute political community.
The individual alone is powerless. Individual will and memory, apart from the reinforcement of associative tradition, are weak and ephemeral. How well the totalitarian rulers know this. Even constitutional guarantees and organic laws dim to popular vision when the social and cultural identities of persons become atomized, when the reality of freedom and order in the small areas of society becomes obscure.
The prime object of totalitarian government thus becomes the incessant destruction of all evidences of spontaneous, autonomous association. For, with this social atomization, must go also a diminution of intensity and a final flickering out of political values that interpose themselves between freedom and despotism.
Brilliant and perceptive. Indeed, tyranny is a jealous god and won’t tolerate any other devotions—or even other beings. All must be leveled and integrated . . . vollständig angehoben according to the vanity of liberated, enlightened man. The vulgar rendition is more vivid and direct: resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.
A few months ago, I watched Peter Chang’s Cuba at Union Terminal’s IMAX theater for the first time and became enchanted by its opening music—a lovely, sultry Afro-Caribbean ballad. I tried to identify it afterwards with no success. I watched the film a second time and paid attention to the credits, but they did not list the film’s songs. I couldn’t find anything about it online. Well, this week, I saw Cuba again and memorized some phrases. Lo and behold, the song is “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” written by Cuban Osvaldo Farrés but sung in the film’s version by Guatemalan Gaby Moreno. She is flamante.
Here is a live version by Miss Moreno at the Warner Theater in D.C. (which I fondly remember as the place where I would attend The Nutcracker each year at Christmastime).
Music for the living! By the way, I recommend Chang’s IMAX movies. I’ve seen Jerusalem at least a half dozen times and his National Parks Adventure thrice. Along with Cuba, they’re gorgeous. He captures land- and city-scapes magnificently, but his films allow humanity to shine, as well. Chang obviously loves the human face. I heartily recommend his work.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., died in April earlier this year at the age of 91. He was one of those remarkable old Jesuits who joined the Order before the time of rebellion. There are some like him left, and I have been fortunate to know a few. Recently, Fr. “Z.” (Zuhlsdorf) pondered how horrid a victory hell had with the corruption of the Society of Jesus, echoing ancient Latin wisdom, corruptio optimi pessima. It has been a profound loss, and it sickens and angers me to see the Order’s universities decay into soul-perverting whorehouses of ugliness and irrationality.
When I visited Rome, I knew that I had to visit the Chiesa del Gesù, the Jesuits’ mother church. I walked around, paid my respects to the relics, and waited to witness the show in the Ignatian chapel. A young novice struck up a conversation with me and learnt that I was Jesuit-educated. He then took me on a private tour of the Collegio del Gesù, including the historic rooms where Ignatius lived, prayed, and wrote. I hope that the fellow and his cohorts eventually restore the Society to its former sanity. For Christians, there is always hope (even for Jesuits).
Below, you may watch Fr. Schall’s final lecture at Georgetown University on the occasion of his retirement, titled “The Final Gladness” after a passage from Belloc. Listening to Fr. Schall reminds me how grateful I am of my own Jesuit education . . . and how I wish that such opportunity endure for future students whose souls spark with wonder.
May his memory be eternal!
On this day, let us remember the example of St. John the Baptist when confronted with evil. Moreover, may the memory of those who perished eighteen years ago be eternal!
On a more cheerful note, I received a lovely letter over the weekend from a lady named Zoe, who has given me permission to post our exchange about veganism and the Christian life. I’m continuing to be embarrassingly negligent of this site, and I don’t feel any worse shame for parasitizing my email for a post. I have scores of post ideas saved to which I may eventually get—maybe when the weather cools and my garden enters into dormancy.
I was wondering what you thought of the compatibility of veganism and Christianity, especially when considering the following things:
- Veganism is not the belief that eating meat or killing animals is inherently or intrinsically evil.
- Veganism is not the belief that humans or animals are equal, or even that animals are equal between themselves.
- Veganism is not against human life or the maintenance of human society.
- Veganism is the belief that when possible and practicable (for humans) one ought not to cause pain or suffering to animals, beginning with a change in diet, clothing, entertainment, and general products. [An example of where it is not practicable is when a person needs a certain medicine that has been tested on animals, or itself contains some animal products, and they will die otherwise. Another is the maintenance of hospitals, which require the killing of rats and cockroaches as long as it is open without ceasing. A final example is when there is literally no other food source available, although this does not apply to the majority of modern Westerners in decadent democratic first-world societies.]
- Veganism seeks to curb mass environmental damage from animal agriculture, and to use the earth more responsibly.
- Veganism seeks to curb damage to human health from the excessive use of animal products.
- Veganism is a simple praxis [a way of life that seeks to exclude cruelty to, harm of, exploitation of, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose, as far as practicable and possible for humans] that can be participated in by many.
- Veganism is not the belief that killing animals is always wrong, or that humans will ever be able to completely cease all harm to animals own their own.
- Veganism if the whole world was such would end as much as possible animals in domestication/captivity relationships with humans.
Or simply this definition with nothing extra added or implied: “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
I am aware (I think this is true at least) that Christians believe that the whole world will one day again be even better than Eden, with no strife between the creatures of God at all (Isaiah 11 and so on), and was wondering if you thought it would be morally acceptable to approximate or imitate such a thing now (by reducing harm done to animals as much as possible)? In the time between times (between Eden and the End that is).
You have a fitting name for someone who cares for your fellow creatures. I am not a vegan, but I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1990s (and I’ve had “fits” of vegetarianism since I was five, maybe earlier). I go through periods with a vegan diet, but not year round. You mention Eden, and that was exactly my inspiration—and it remained my inspiration even when I went through an agnostic period as a young man. I’ve always thought—felt, really—that a world where life requires death was somehow broken . . . fallen. Of course, I marvel at the beauty of nature and the circle of life . . . the tendency for balance to be reasserted when things go awry. Nonetheless, this state has always seemed like a second best scenario—God’s making lemonade out of lemons, so to speak. We live in an imperfect world of sin and death, but when we can refrain from participating in it—and when we can make it better—we thereby cease falling and start a return to the divine cosmic order. I think that such is true, both as a Christian and as a Platonist. Even when I ceased to be the former for a time, I remained the latter.
It’s clear that the Hebrews and then the Christians never condemned meat eating, but they also had strong traditions to care for animals, both wild and domestic. Mosaic law involves animal welfare in several ways, and there have been Christian vegetarians from the early Church—and no shortage of stories of saints who lived among beasts in a manner similar to Adam in the garden. Americans may know of Francis of Assisi, but there are scores of such people in Christian history. Also, the Christian monastic life might be the most explicit about leaving the allowed though fallen order behind and focusing on a life wholly committed to communion with God. It’s not surprising to me that the monastic diet veers toward veganism—as a sort of return to Eden. Monastics will eat dairy and eggs for some periods during the year, and they’ll also eat fish and shellfish at certain times, following the examples of Jesus and John the Baptist (they equate invertebrates generally with St. John’s locusts).
That said, I don’t mind animal husbandry if it’s done with respect for the nature of the animal. Sadly, this isn’t often done. Male dairy cows, dairy goats, and chickens are usually slaughtered, many beekeepers kill their queens annually or biennially (I don’t—I let the colony regulate itself), and sheep raised for wool probably aren’t always treated properly. Yet, I don’t think that there’s anything intrinsically wrong or fallen about exploitation as such. People usually speak of exploitation in a negative manner, but it simply means making use of something or someone. That can be done without tarnishing the things or creatures used. I’m a big fan of child labor in the household—helping with chores, gardening, and such! Sticking kids in factories or mines—that’s where exploitation becomes wicked. Farm life, like domestic human life, can instantiate an image of a higher order—concrete beings in time and space cooperating in a valiant effort to allow paradise to appear, if only for moments, in this vale of tears.
I disagree with well intentioned Christians who deride the Jews’ tikkun ha-olam—the idea that we should participate in the healing of the world. These critics think that such is a form of modernistic humanism, where men supplant God in trying to overcome the fall (the Cartesian project of the modern world). I disagree. Of course, we should work to make the world better, and we can only do anything good through God’s gifts to us. Other Christians think that the totality of the Christian life involves simply an exercise of the will (in obeying God), and they dismiss everything outside the will as unneeded at best, idolatry at worst. Again, I disagree. I think that our whole lives should be transformed into a sacramental life where we redeem the time—and everything around us—by incorporating the world into our lives and into a restored order in our souls as we travel our path toward the Lord. We fail miserably, yes, but not entirely. Even the most wretched sinners can have moments where they allow God to work through them, touching lives and spreading light in darkness.
Now, I’m a spiteful, proud, lazy, wasteful, critical, unsocial, disagreeable, impatient person with a massive deficit of charity. I certainly have no delusions of personal sanctity or spiritual grandeur. However, we all struggle in our own ways, and for me, vegetarianism is a way that I try to live in harmony with God’s plan for the cosmos. So, I commend vegans, though, as I stated earlier, I approve—and am enthusiastic about—human relationships with animals when such elevate both human beings and other animals. Determining that, of course, calls for wisdom and good judgment, as all moral deliberation does. Is the human/domesticated dog a nature-respecting, life-affirming relationship? It certainly can be. People with cheetahs or apes? Hmm, I suspect that it’s usually not. In between, though, is a messy spectrum. Like most things in life, we see through a glass darkly!
As I was rebuilding a pond wall today, I thought of another element behind why many people hate Trump so much—so much more than we should expect in reaction to his actual governing. We know that many folks find him distasteful and lacking in class. Sure, but why would that trigger such hatred—why not simply some eye rolling and dismissive remarks? It then struck me that these people find Trump guilty of sacrilege; he has committed abomination in his presidential duties. Leftists in general and some patriotic Americans on the right understand democratic politics in a religious, sacrosanct way. So, when Trump scandalizes them by boorish behavior mixed with politics, he commits acts that merit a good burning at the stake. Many (most?) American right-wingers (correctly) see democratic politics as a circus, and we delight when the clowns drop the pretense and act the part. For the people who see the Popular Will as the closest thing to a divine instrument that they can imagine, however, Trump is a blasphemer and a heretic. Let him be anathema!
Christ is born!
For today’s Nativity feast, I wish to offer a few more samples of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” for which Gustav Holst provided a musical setting. I wrote about the carol five years ago with different samplings: “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For this carol, I prefer female solos, and my favorite version from my personal album collection is with Kiri Te Kanawa. Here she sings for a televised holiday special.
I also found a version with Susan Boyle and Libera at Royal Albert Hall.
Tonight marks the centennial of the Bolsheviks’ murder of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, his five children, the family’s physician, and intimate servants who willingly followed the Tsar into exile. I believe that I last mentioned the wicked deed six years ago in “Murder of the Imperial Family.” It sickens me to think of such a horror, though Christian hope invites me to consider the eventual triumph of the cross over the hammer and sickle. Such is the way of martyrs, whose precious blood overcomes injustice in imitation of the God Man himself.
Orthodox pilgrims from around the world have traveled to Ekaterinburg to commemorate the event; one hundred thousand people will pray and make a twelve mile procession—the last segment of a 435 mile pilgrimage that thousands have made from Tobolsk to Ekaterinburg in retracing the last months of the royal family’s life. Evidently, an even longer 1,800 mile, four month pilgrimage started earlier in Pskov, where Nicholas II signed his abdication. Such is a sign of the new Russia. May God bless them and heal their land!
The Patriarchate of Moscow site features news items of the commemoration, and Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR has issued an epistle on the “100th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of the Righteous Royal Passion-Bearers.”
Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him.