Text: Acts 8:1b-24; 13:4-12
Let me tell you where this
sermon comes from. There are two main sources. The first is a recent paper I
completed while on vacation. I'm scheduled to present it at the Fall meeting of the infamous Jesus Seminar. It's on the
theories of literary critic Rene Girard as applied to the Gospels. My head's
still full of Girard, I'm afraid. And so you're going to hear a bit of the
overflow this morning.
The second source was my
daughter Veronica. The other day I asked her, "Veronica, what should I
preach about this Sunday?" And without hesitation, she said "Magic!
And science!" Okay, I thought, I can do something with that. And this is
the result. Thanks, Veronica!
In the passages from Acts I
just read, we find a lot of characters who are parallel to each other, even
more than appear at first sight. The stories are obviously similar to one
another. In one tale, the Apostle Peter bests a magician, Simon Magus. In the
other, it's the Apostle Paul who takes down another magician, one Elymas, or
Etoimas, or Bar-Jesus. Let's count the doubles. It might be fun. And then we'll
see what may be going on.
First, there's the obvious
Pater/Paul parallel. As F.C. Baur pointed out in the nineteenth century, this
just has to be some kind of attempt by the writer Luke, writing some
generations after the time of Peter and Paul, to reconcile the rival factions
of Petrine and Paulinist Christians in the second century. If you like Peter,
then you should stop bad-mouthing Paul, and vice versa, since God did the same
sort of miracles through both. There are, by the way, several sets of
Peter/Paul parallels like this in Acts.
But then you notice that in
the Simon Magus story, there is a parallel between Philip, who first does the
evangelistic work in
Samaria, and Peter who comes in,
takes over, and steals the credit. It seems the story was originally just about
Philip, but later on Peter's faction grabbed the story and replaced Philip with
Peter. Philip remains as a mere vestige, a shadow. He has been shoved aside,
though not completely eliminated.
Paul has a counterpart, too.
What is his convert's name? Sergius Paulus. No coincidence, I'd guess. Luke
himself points it out. "Saul, who was also called
Paul." So Paul is preaching to the converted, so to speak. Preaching to a mirror. Sergius Paulus is also a twin of
Cornelius, to whom Peter preaches over in chapter 10. But even the sorcerer is
Paul's counterpart. What happens to him? Paul temporarily blinds the poor
charlatan. Does that have a familiar ring?
Gee, isn't that just what
happened earlier in Acts, in chapter 9 to be exact, when Paul himself met the
Risen Jesus on the road to
Damascus? And whereas then it was
Jesus magically blinding Paul, this time it's Paul blinding a guy named
"Bar-Jesus!" Son of Jesus? Reminds me of the similarly suspicious name "Jesus
Barabbas," or "Jesus Son of the Father" in Matthew.
What's going on here, pray tell?
And who is the other
sorcerer? Simon Magus is the mirror image of Simon Peter. Simon Magus was known
as the father of heresy in the early church. He was said, like Jesus, to be a
disciple of John the Baptist, as was Dositheus, another Samaritan Messiah. Baur
thought, and I suspect he was right, that Simon Magus, the anti-Simon, if you
will, was really a thinly-veiled version of Paul, Peter's great rival. But it
Let's put the sandal on the
other foot. Suppose Bar-Jesus, Paul's opponent, is a thinly-veiled version of
Peter! Given the claims made for Peter as the successor of Jesus, he might
indeed be called "the son of Jesus." Maybe in the tales of Peter
versus Simon Magus and of Paul versus Bar-Jesus we have two garbled versions of
the rivalry between Peter and Paul. Luke disguises both of them, garbling them
further, because after all, he is trying to paper over the oppositions that
gave rise to these mud-slinging tales. This is why, I'd guess, he shifts in
mid-stream, changing both "Saul" to "Paul" and
"Bar-Jesus" to "Elymas." In a later edition, the so-called
Western Text, he seems to have changed the name again, this time to Etoimas.
Why all this doubling? Here
I think of Rene Girard's theory of "mimetic desire." He says that all
desire is imitative in nature. We come to admire someone and to want to be just
like that person. We model ourselves after them. And we begin to want what they
want. But soon that thing we want starts to come between us and our model. We
begin to look at our model as a rival in competition for the same goal. And our
love turns to envy, coveting, and hate. Finally we may want to eliminate the
model. We may be satisfied with resentment, or we may go the whole way and
become like Mark David Chapman.
The other person becomes our
emotional focus. We walk the
Bridge between love and hate. We
become mirror image twins with our model/rival. We begin to project our dark
fantasies onto the rival and he becomes what Girard calls our "monstrous
double." So where you see twins in a text, you see rivals and struggle. Cain and Abel, Romulus and
Remus, Jesus and Judas.
I have already remarked on
the Peter/Paul rivalry seen in these texts. But I think we can see a larger
issue. Notice that the characters both Paul and Peter square off with are not
simply called heretics or false teachers, but magicians. What does that mean?
Remember in the Gospels, Jesus, too, is called a magician. In short, it's
mud-slinging. You can't deny that your rival has charisma, something to offer
the crowds he draws. But you dismiss it as magic.
It's a trick. His followers are brainwashed. Let's get them deprogrammed.
"He casts out devils by Beelzebul!"
My religious feats are
miracles, but yours are magic. My beliefs are orthodox, simply because I hold
them. Yours are heretical simply because they don't coincide with mine. What
further evidence do we need?
None of this has passed
away. I remember reading about one Pentecostal preacher who rebuked his
congregation for indulging in superstitions like rabbits' feet and root
bags--but then he told them how he would make them immune to demon possession,
how he had had victorious contests with strange creatures including the Spider
Woman and the Snake Woman. In other words, "My superstition is better than
your superstition!" They were mirror images of each other, and this
preacher had stepped through the looking glass!
But I wonder if it is not
just religion and magic that are identical twins who
hate each other, each regarding the other like one of those "evil
twins" like on a soap opera. I think that magic and science are mimetic
twins, too. They are diametrically opposed, but they are much more alike than
Bultmann says that
"even occultism pretends to be a science." And Gunter Lüling says
that Western science is simply another form of magic, that
science tries to distance itself from magic only in order to cover its own
tracks. These two statements seem to cancel each other out. They seem, in
short, to be mimetic twins. Apparently opposed, they are two ways of saying the
same thing! And that thing is that science and magic are
pretty much the same thing.
I will admit, there is a kind of magic that has little in common with
science. That is the childlike belief that one may simply invoke an
authoritative name and get the trick done. That is just what exorcism means; it
derives from the Greek exousia, "authority." Short-hand for the fact
that you called in Big Brother Jesus or Solomon to kick the stubborn demon's
butt! The idea that God creates by simply saying, "Let there be
light!" is magical in this way. As easily done as said.
Even here, the same error
hangs on in so-called respectable academic circles when we hear people try to
settle an argument by appealing to supposed authorities. Einstein said it, so
it must be right. Yeah? Einstein would never be taken in by such a ruse.
What is the presupposition
of science? Isn't it the uniform action of natural laws and forces in the
universe? That was the big step away from myth and into science: the rain
doesn't fall because Zeus decided it would one day. No, it falls because of
something called the water cycle, evaporation, condensation, all that stuff. Magic proceeds from the same
assumption. It operates on the postulate that there are more forces, hidden
forces, than most people count on. That's what the phrase "occult science"
implies. Hidden science. "Supernatural" is a
misnomer. It's just that there may be more to nature than most folks think. If
you believe there are occult energies and that there is a way to tap them, you
may in fact be mistaken, as plenty of scientists have been. But you are saying
the same sort of thing that nuclear scientists once said. They had stumbled
upon a mighty force hitherto unknown and unavailable. And once it was
unleashed, we began to feel very much like the sorcerer's apprentice.
Science is supposed to be
open to new data, and to the possibility that every theory accepted today may
be called into question tomorrow. And I think most scientists are pretty good
about this. Certainly better than almost all religious believers who will not admit
they're wrong, that their beliefs are outdated, come hell or high water. That
is obstinacy in belief. Pig-headedness made a virtue.
Why has magic become
discredited? Many of us think that
people who still believe in astrology and
alchemy, for example, are being bad scientists. What they believe in was viable
at one time, at least in the sense that it hadn't been debunked. But now the
evidence makes it look pretty bad. So they ought to move on. And occultists
seem to accept all manner of beliefs on very little evidence, third-hand
anecdotes, rumors. But that just means they are being bad occultists.
look at the guys on CSIOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
I know some of these guys personally, and usually I think they are right on the
money. But I can't escape the feeling that no evidence, even if it were available,
could ever convince them in a million years--any more than you could convince
Jerry Falwell there's an error in the Bible!
But, as Stuart Smalley would
say, "That's okay." You see, the only way to know if an assertion
about the paranormal or anything else will stand is if we try to explain it
away--and can't. That's the scientific method. If you want to pursue this
further, let me suggest you look into two books, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions and Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.
So far, I've been saying
that magic is a lot more like science than science wants to admit. Now let me
explore the converse. I think science is a lot more like magic than it wants to
One thing Kuhn and
Feyerabend make clear is that scientific investigation is not a matter of
discovering new facts. Making new inventions, yes. But Copernicus didn't
"discover" that the earth orbits the sun, did he? No, he simply came
up with a simpler method
of predicting the retrograde
motion of the planets. If you started from the assumption that the sun was the
center of planetary motion instead of the earth being the center, then it was a
simpler formula, though it would work either way. That's all he
"discovered." And that's the way it is. Science is simply a
progression of new theoretical models replacing old ones because they seem to
make sense of more of the evidence and in a more simple way than the old
So it turns out that the
"world of science" or the "body of scientific knowledge" is
really an entirely human invention. It is like a language system, like a work
of literature or art. It is culture, not nature. It isn't simply "what's
there." Or what Sartre would say "is the case." I'm not saying
there is no reality beyond our perceptions, no. I'm just saying that what we
think we know is really a system of educated guesses that enable us to do some
mighty handy things with electricity, magnetism, force, energy, etc. And we are
always looking for new theories that might provide new ways to tap these
We might be right, or we
might just be lucky. Like the ancient Hebrews who had a theoretical model that
made them avoid eating pork. They didn't get
trichinosis. Their model was that since pigs didn't chew the cud, even though
they did have cloven hooves, they didn't qualify as cattle and were off limits.
Huh? Our model is different. We think of parasites and germs. But our models also helps us not get trichinosis.
Now how is this magical?
Keep in mind the origin of the word "magic." It comes from the
Sanskrit maya, which means illusion. It came to mean that the whole world of
appearance is an illusion.
This is what Tibetan
Buddhists believe. If you know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, you may have
marvelled that the same people who hold to perhaps the most sophisticated
metaphysics of any religion--also happen to believe in sorcery! How can they
embrace both? Because their philosophy entails the belief that the world is an illusion, and that if we can understand this illusion, we
ought to be able to learn how to manipulate it. Sort of like
trying to control your own dreams. But also sort of like science! If you
can learn how the forces work, you can get behind the controls. So the Tibetan
adepts believed they could do magic. It was only a matter of special effects.
Can we accept the idea that
the world we see is an illusion? Yes, I think we can. We need not believe it is
all simply not there. That's not the Buddhist idea anyway. No, the point seems
to be that this world of maya is a matter of construal, of misconstrual. We
misevaluate it; we let our beliefs and words and ideas about reality substitute
for reality, while we take the real thing for granted until we can't even
really see it anymore. Is it real or Memorex? We don't know the difference
We live in language, in
ideology, in beliefs, like a fish lives in water. It is not nature, it is
culture. Human creation. Theoretical models,
conceptual paradigms. Maya. The Real is like God: we
touch only the edges of its ways.
Let's cut to the chase. I
hope I have suggested a new way to look at both science and magic, at
epistemology. But I want to suggest how these speculations might translate into
every day life. My house is a house of study, to borrow the Jewish term. And I
welcome you all here to share classes and discussions. To think is to pray, or
if not, it is better than praying. But I believe a sermon ought always to
involve an existential dimension. It ought to offer something to make wiser the
living of life, not just to inspire new thoughts.
There are three bits of
concrete advice I offer you. The first is the old saw from Hamlet, which like
reality, has become dull to us through familiarity: "There are more things
in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." Each
scientist hurls that challenge in the faces of his predecessors. The magician
casts it in the teeth of skeptics. But you need to remember it, too. Only the
cocksure adolescent really believes he has reality all figured out. But not you. So you think. You
think you are broad-minded. And I know all of you are, when it comes to
But remember that it applies
on the existential level, too. Do you believe your options are closed off? Are
you nearing despair because all doors seem barred? Does it seem to you that the
logs are jammed, that old destructive patterns can never be broken? I am saying
that you are closed minded. You in your pessimism have become an inflexible
dogmatist. It is a simple matter: there is more to heaven and earth, there is more
in the way of unforseen possibilities, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!
Wake up! Have the intellectual humility to admit that you don't know what is
around the corner, what the future may hold. It may be hope! It may be
unsuspected good fortune, new abilities, new associations that will get you
where you ache to be going.
The second thing: your world
of interaction with others, with the economy, politics, religion, society, its
values, your goals--all of it is maya. All of it is a
socially created game, a tissue of assumptions and shared conventions. And you
may be able to play the game and succeed.
This is what Siddhartha does
in Hesse's novel. He has withdrawn
from the world to meditate. Then he returns, knowing that meditation was but a
game, but so is everything else. So he decided to experiment with the world of
maya. He still had a Buddhist sense of inner detachment from it, and that gave
him the needed perspective of distance to see what was going on, what the
tricks were, and how to win the game.
You can do that. Read some
books on communication skills, on body language, on gender communication
difficulties, books on what the opposite sex wants. Books on
speech acts. It is all a game, all maya. I find that reading books on
literary criticism helps me appreciate both the reading and the writing of
fiction. In one sense nothing has changed, but I know better how to do what I
am doing, because now I know the rules of casting the illusion. It's the same
way with your life. Take the trouble to learn how the game works, how to
manipulate the illusion. Become a magician!
Or if you prefer the
terminology of science, call it a technology that you need to master. That's
what Tony Robbins calls it. A technology. The owner's
manual of the complicated device called life.
Third and finally, remember
what I said about childish magical thinking? Say the magic word and your wish
will come true? It won't. Much religion says it will. You can turn your back on
your problems, they say, give them to God, and he will take care of them. Nope.
You will only be repressing problems you need to face and deal with. Maybe with help. But real magic is science: it uses a
method. It knows there is something to do. Religion speaks not merely of grace,
but of the means of grace. That is what you dare not neglect. Take your
problems as a task, assume there is a way to tackle them, and set about finding
it. There is a science to it, and it might even work like magic!