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Friday, December 17, 2004

Holy bookburning

There are two starkly different views of religion that jostle each other in the media, without paying too much attention to each other, as compartmentalized media memes do. One is the usual lament over the straying from the religion of our fathers that characterizes all of modernity – usually this is considered to be a bad thing. And there is the story about evangelical fervor (Protestant or Islamic) that has, apparently, infected the masses – a great global dose of opium poisoning, to use Marx’s phrase.

Religion has poked into politics in Britain by way of the rank proposal, by Blair’s government, to criminalize poking fun at religion -- being nasty about Jesus or Mohammed or Blair’s piety or his wife’s new age gurus. Like a very unmerry King Cole, Blair’s second favorite thing about being prime minister is criminalizing. In reinstituting the pomp and, perhaps, the bonfires of the old blasphemy laws, Blair has even outdone his own combination of unctuousness and unscrupulousness.

We were researching a wholly different project for a client when we stumbled upon Harold Remus’ article about magic in the Bible in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, which transfixed us with a reminder of how St. Paul’s visit to Ephesus was blessed with a bookburning:

“For example, in describing the books burnt in the city of Ephesus as a result of Paul's activity there, the author of canonical Acts uses a term (perierga) that translators commonly render as "magic" (19:19). The value of the books consigned to the flames is given as 50,000 silver coins (19:19). We're not told what assessor assigned the books that value. But it is clear that someone placed a high value on them.”

Remus does not go in the direction we were expecting – or maybe hoping for. He gives us St. Paul’s successors – those archaelogists and hermeneuts who have continued Paul’s contempt, if not the readiness to ignite, since the flood of magical texts from the excavations of nineteeth century in Egypt. There are, indeed, plums in this account, but what of… what of the magical gesture encoded in burning a magic book? There is, indeed, an enlightenment image of repression within the ranks of the repressors, an image that submits to the rational/pietistic theme that runs through book burning. But surely, of all spells, one of the most interesting, because of its perverted twist, is burning the book of spells?

Remus is more interested in the magic itself – which is fair. He imagines an interview with one of the magicians – he calls him Abraxus. Abraxus comes close to the fire:

Abrasax speaks:
Let me begin with this business of "secrecy". Do I practice and enjoin secrecy?
Of course I do. Magic as divine and a gift from the gods is sacred and must be protected from profanation, as has unfortunately happened in your day thanks to Messieurs Preisendanz, Betz, Gager kai ta loipa. You could take a lesson from some of your indigenous peoples who tell you that observing and discussing their sacred rites profanes them and should not be permitted.”

Ah, the secrecy of destruction. It is what keeps the Blairs going – it isn’t just finding and rooting out ‘blasphemy” in the name of tolerance, it is the act of destroying the written, erasing the tape, interfering with the radio broadcast. This is sorcery against sorcery – especially that sorcery that might overturn the system in which magical wealth flow to the most virtuous.

Remus, however, imagines himself as a skeptical, enlightened scholar – rather sympathetic to St. Paul’s impatience with all that nonsense – asking whether the magic trade isn’t all abracadabra:

“But, please, would you not agree that to address a deity one must speak the deity's language? Did not one of the prominent prophets of your culture respond to a request, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 1 1:1)? Did not his follower say that glossolalia is god-language (1 Cor. 14:2, 28) or spirit language (13:1, glossai ton aggelon)? In our practice we greatly honor the deity who bears mysterious names in one of the chief holy scriptures of your culture. Some have maintained that he--if he is a he--spoke Hebrew, others German ("Adam, wo bist du?"), and others Elizabethan English. We know better. We address Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai(n56) in words he will understand.(n57) I refrain from examples, lest I profane them.(n58) You may call all this nonsense, but surely addressing deities in language they understand is not nonsensical.
Am I alone in thinking this? Indeed not. What do you make of the abba (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6), or maran atha (1 Cor. 16:22), or ephatha (7:34) in certain sacred texts of your culture? Why these words in an alien tongue in a Greek text? If I pronounce the mystic words Sitz im Leben and Formgeschichte over them, does that shed some light on my question?”

Well, we will get nowhere if we confuse true piety (the mocking of which by magicians must be made against the law – it raises hatred, you know) with the magician’s mystifications. And we must believe, with folded hands, in the archaeologists busy finding the historical Jesus in the Holy Land. But the essay did make us think a few blasphemous and legal (at least, at the moment) thoughts. Look it up yourself.

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