Why do we think the flick of a wand or credit card can change us from one thing into something else entirely?
It doesn’t say there were three of them. And it doesn’t say they were kings. The Greek word is magi, from which we derive the word magic. And though they usually make an appearance in the Christmas nativity play alongside cows and shepherds, liturgically the magi are still following yonder star until epiphany on 6 January. The Bible, however, is overwhelmingly hostile to magic. Which can sound odd to modern ears because all that stuff about virgin births and angels and God becoming human sounds precisely like magic to many people. Yet I’m going to try and suggest exactly the opposite; that the beating heart of the Jewish and Christian religion is a profound attempt to rid the world of magic. And just so you don’t think I am going to play some sneaky sleight of hand here, I’m going to be totally upfront about the move I’m going to pull. There will be no misdirection. I’m going to define magic in a different way to the dictionary.
What do I mean by magic? Forget Merlin. Forget Potter. I mean the belief that there is ever a short cut out of the constituent limitations of our humanity. That there is a way, instantly, with the flick of a wand or a credit card, of changing ourselves from one thing to something else entirely. Abracadabra. Magic is the escape fantasy of those who cannot cope with the fact that we are limited creatures, that we will grow old and die, that we can never have everything, that we will always be dependent on food and oxygen and the love of others, and that, because of this, we will often feel pain and loss. Magic is the belief that there is some other way of dealing with all of this other than simply by dealing with it.
Which is why I think the really dangerous magic – and I believe all magic is dangerous – is out there in the post-Christmas sales. The most insidious magic is disguised as something so ordinary we don’t even notice it. In terms of magic, both Christianity and contemporary market capitalism appear under the form of their opposites.
At the end of his seminal work Religion and the Decline of Magic, the historian Keith Thomas states: “If magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it.” That is exactly right. But in an age that prides itself on its rationality, we commonly mask this reality from ourselves. We buy the new suit or go on a diet to become a new person. We think becoming a pop star will plug the longing within – ignoring the evidence of those many pop stars who tragically take their own life as they realise the Simon Cowell brand of promised magic is a lie. We play the lotto. And every night on our TV screens, advertising offers us the contemporary equivalent of the philosopher’s stone (turning lead into gold) and the fabled elixir of life. All of this, at root, is an attempt to escape from something that cannot be escaped from. Escape from the ordinary conditions of life. Escape from the anxiety within ourselves.
The Christian tradition insists on one thing over and over again: that you and I are not gods and that we cannot defy the gravity of our basic humanity. This religion is a process of disenchantment from the persistent belief that we are the centre of the universe. What is the secular equivalent to this admonition? I don’t see one. Everywhere, we are told that we can (with what Marx called “the magic of money”) be transformed into mini gods – rock gods, sex gods, masters of the universe. And the most trenchant atheists and sceptics of this magical religion are – or at least ought to be – those who worship in a stable.