Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jesus the Magician


I was raised in a community of people who had left their homes in Germany, Sweden, Canada and the United States to bring a magical book called the Bible to small groups of indigenous people in the far reaches of the Amazon. This may account for the fact that, despite my enlightened, late-Twentieth Century Education, as I a little boy I continued to believe in magic.

I am convinced that there is something in the human psyche that needs magic, and will inevitably create it when none is readily available. The form this took in my childhood culture was an investment of magic into an arrangement of words called the Bible, and although the support team and Bible Translators under whose wings I was raised were all college-educated, intelligent and often wise people, there was sometimes a bit of voodoo in their approach to the Bible’s Holy Writ.

I osmosified this attitude to the point that despite my thoroughly modern education, I was often unable to hear or read the words of the Bible without a sort of eerie, spine-tingling sensation – the kind that robs a man of his higher faculties and renders him incapable of processing information with anything other than, for lack of a better term, his “lizard brain.”

For example, in Matthew 5:22, Jesus is quoted as saying that “whoever says ‘you fool!’ [to his brother] will be liable to the hell of fire. [ESV]” This was perfect fuel for my magic-loving, unformed brain. There, spelled out in black-and-white English, was a magic phrase that had the power to indamnificate a man to burning torture for all eternity.

This was the sort of black incantation that might be sought in dusty, leather-bound tomes by the children of satan-worshipping atheists (the likes of whom, I was assured, were positively everywhere); and although I was far too good and pure a person to ever use such a power, there was still a certain grim satisfaction in having that knowledge tucked down into my Biblical back pocket.

As I have grown older and (possibly) a little more mature, I have grown first away from that magical thinking and then, more recently, back to it. I have come to believe that  I need not necessarily look beyond the observable, natural realities of a situation in order to find the magic – that there is a wonder and magic that courses through the everyday and imbues it with an incomprehensible, expansive power – a power to seemingly magically change reality from what it is to what, with enough love, it might just become.

Let me draw your attention again, by way of example, to the magic my younger self incanted from that Jesus quote, a quote which (as is usual in these sorts of circumstances), can be vastly improved by a little more context.

When Jesus said that the words “you fool” could send a man to the “hell of fire,” the statement was actually one of three similar statements intending to contrast a previous way of thinking and living. It goes like this: 

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘you fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Now, this seems weird, but that first bit – the part about the murder – was actually a well-developed moral stance to be taking in a world much more brutal and more violent than our own (at least, for those who, like me, happen to live in a cushy, rule-of-law microcosm). At the time, the general idea was that if you had enough power to get away with it, you were free to kill pretty much anybody you wanted.  Which is, of course, nothing at all like the world we live in today.

Prohibiting murder was a good thing, yes, but it was aimed mostly at the management and control of a destructive action. Jesus took it several steps further, out of the realms of action management and control and down into the murky depths of the human heart. It is in this heart-realm – where no law could ever hope to intrude – that Jesus makes his most astounding moral mark, a mark especially evidenced by his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” of which this particular inversion of established wisdom is but a small part.

But what is he saying here?

Is he merely introducing another, more stringent form of external behavioral control, grasping for the minds and hearts of people by selling this novel idea of an eternal, torturous afterlife to a people group that, to that point, had only the vaguest ideas about an afterlife?

I think perhaps not.

You see, the word translated as “hell of fire” here was originally written down as Gahenna, the Greek word for the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, a rift in the ground outside the city of Jerusalem where they dumped and burned all their trash. Jesus’ listeners would not have had the dubious advantage having watched “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” so what they would have heard was not “a place with red guys with horns and pokers,” but rather, “that garbage dump outside the city where they burn stuff.”

Read in that light, there is nothing in Jesus’ words to suggest he was trying to lay out some new legal code – showing a progression of punishments for a progression of more and more egregious infractions. The three actions and consequences listed there are of a kind, not a scale. In point of fact, “Raca” may even have been a more damning insult than “you fool.” It seems more likely to me, then, that what Jesus is doing here is listing three different manifestations of a particularly ugly disease of the heart, using metaphor to explain how destructive this disease truly is. In each case, a person is - through anger, or words - declaring their essential moral superiority over the person they presume to judge.

So… no magic words: just words that, as poetry and metaphor, take on a magic and a power all their own.
While the Jewish people had come to rely on a pre-determined list of moral guidelines to provide them with a sense of qualitative moral superiority over the people around them, Jesus seems to be suggesting – here and everywhere else – that it is just that sense of superiority that ultimately causes all the putrescence and garbage-burning rottenness that humans perpetually dump all over each other. I am not arguing against the rule of law - just suggesting (with, I think, Jesus himself) that law is insufficient, and does nothing to correct the fundamental fear and arrogance of the human heart. 

“Stop judging and start loving,” Jesus says, over and over, but nobody really seems to listen.

Why?

I think that perhaps no one listens because it is a scary thing to let go of the illusion of control and to live in a world where you can never attain the dream of Ultimate Justice – to live in a world where no one is superior to anyone else. Instead, we twist the words of Jesus, re-shaping them into another, even more insidious system of control. 

Sometimes I wonder why Jesus – knowing as he did that whatever he said would be warped to the interests of the powermongerers – would even bother.  But when I get close to despair, I begin to once again see the beauty of his teachings. I see the way he used metaphors and told stories; and how he demonstrated what he meant by healing people, meeting their physical needs, and hanging out – sans judgment – with losers and screw-ups like me. There is so much beauty there, such grace and love and, yes, magic, that my hope is rekindled.

Despite all the ugly rationalizations and empty, fine-sounding arguments piled up by those who try to hijack the message of Christ to bolster their own overdeveloped sense of moral superiority, the truth of who Jesus was still shines through.

And that is all the magic I need. 

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