Ancient Christian Magic

By Zaleski, Carol | The Christian Century, October 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Ancient Christian Magic


Zaleski, Carol, The Christian Century


A FEW MONTHS AGO I had a visit from the college-age daughter of a friend of mine. The young woman, an exceptionally gifted linguist, had developed an interest in religion and philosophy. What books, she asked, would combine her longstanding love of Latin and Greek with her newfound desire to plumb the mysteries of the cosmos? I was just about to recommend some key works in ancient philosophy and the history of Christian thought when she told me: "I only want to study alternative religions. What I'm really interested in is magic."

She is not alone. The definitive English translation of Greco-Roman magical texts, Greek Magical Papyri, is almost always checked out from my college library. On the shelf next to Greek Magical Papyri sits an equally fascinating collection of Coptic Christian ritual texts called Ancient Christian Magic. Its leaves intact, its spine barely creased, it awaits the day when some student will think that Christianity has anything to do with magic.

Magic has always been a loaded word. The Greeks expressed their ambivalence by using a Persian loan-word, magos, to describe ritual practices going on in their own backyard; they alternated between condemning magic as a scoundrel's craft and extolling it as a divine gift. My students are ambivalent as well: to some of them, magic means empowerment, freedom from coercive authorities, and mystical fellowship with the plant and animal kingdoms. For others the negative connotations prevail: magic is a dangerous art, manipulative and sinister, a medley of prescientific thinking and the lust for power. But now that neopaganism has joined the ranks of approved campus religious groups, this is beginning to be a minority view, expressed tentatively for fear of giving offense. One thing both sides agree on is that magic is fascinating. A course in the history of magic is sure to draw a crowd.

Christianity is too familiar, my students say, and even those who remain loyal to their childhood faith doubt that it holds much in the way of magical scintillation. I wish they could hear and take to heart Coleridge's words in The Statesman's Manual, "Alas!--the main hindrance to the use of the scriptures as your manual lies in the notion that you are already acquainted with its contents.... Truths of all others the most awful and mysterious and at the same time of universal interest, are considered so true as to lose all the powers of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul."

Here is a new challenge: to make Christianity strange again, as strange as a Tantric initiation rite or a Bacchic mystery-drama, so that young seekers who are flirting with magic may discover what C. S. Lewis calls the "deep magic" at the heart of Christian revelation. …

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