Magic and Superstition in Europe

The first stop on our journey is Michael D. Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. As its title suggests, it is a single-volume overview of anything that might be called magic, witchcraft, or superstition, beginning with the Greco-Romans and ending with the late twentieth century flourishing of Wicca. It is a good read, each chapter highly thought-provoking in its own right, and serving overall as an admirable introduction to the subject.

Having read through this once, I’m going to lay out my understanding of the history of the subject as presented in the book. In future posts, I’m going to take a single chapter or a thread and elaborate on it. There’s a lot here.


Do Ut Des: “Magic” in the Ancient World


The beginning of any history of magic has to acknowledge that the word itself has a history, and so does the concept it describes. There is no single Latin or Greek term for “magic” as we understand it, largely because they did not even have the concept. The idea of a particular sphere of ritual action separate from religion, which relied on supernatural forces to produce desired effects, that was in some sense opposed to “ordinary” mechanical or scientific ways of interacting with the world, relies on assumptions about science, religion, and the way the world works that were pretty foreign to the Greeks and the Romans.

To begin with, what we call magic would have hardly been distinguishable from ordinary pagan religious practice. In a polytheistic context, each god or goddess had his or her own sphere, and it was perfectly reasonable to appeal to them for help within that sphere. For example, one might appeal to Ceres for a good harvest, Mars for victory in war, or Poseidon for calm seas. Each of these gods likewise had their own particular rituals and appropriate sacrifices. Most gods, for example, preferred white animals, while chthonic gods such as Pluto or Hecate preferred black victims.

Roman religion in particular relied on the concept of “do ut des”—a Latin phrase meaning, roughly, “I give, that you might give.” That is, if all the rituals were performed correctly, the right words said, the right sacrifice offered, the gods were honor-bound to grant the request of their worshipper. If they did not, this was seen to be a moral failing on the part of the gods, and future sacrifices might be withheld.

In addition to such a strong belief in the importance and power of ritual, Romans frequently consulted the gods and the natural world for signs regarding the future. Whole disciplines were devoted to reading the behavior and flight paths of birds, or the appearance of a sacrificial victim’s liver. The stars, of course, had also been read since Babylonian times.

But all of this existed in a very specific context—public, approved civic religion. Sacrifices were not a private affair, but a matter of state. It was believed that Rome maintained its position of power through its proper relationship with the gods, which was, in turn, maintained by the regular performance of the appropriate rituals and sacrifices. Likewise, the various forms of divination were used in senatorial and imperial decision-making, or to determine the proper actions to be taken by a community in the coming year.

This means that there was a category of activities which the Romans might have considered the rough equivalent of what we call “magic,” “witchcraft,” or “superstition.” This was the area of the observance of religious ritual for private gain. A superstitious individual—in the sense of the Latin word superstitio—was someone who habitually consulted diviners concerning their private life, or worried excessively about his relationship with the gods. Equally suspect were people who performed rituals to gain the love of someone not otherwise willing, or to curse an enemy, or to gain personal wealth. Certain of these activities might even be proscribed by law, though only for their harmful intent or effects, and not because they were “magic” per se.

In Greek-speaking regions, these things might be done through a combination of religious rituals and the use of potions brewed by a pharmakon. This purveyor of magic elixirs, and sometimes deadly poison, gave its name to the modern pharmacist. Next time you go to pick up a prescription, stop and consider that the white-robed individual across the counter is the distant vocational offspring of Greek potion makers.

Often these people who performed rituals for personal gain did not do so through the ordinary Roman gods, like Jupiter or Poseidon. For their special needs, they sought out a special brand of power. They often called on foreign gods, such as Isis, Thoth, various Babylonian deities, or—perhaps more surprising to Christian readers than it should be—to Yahweh. In desperate times these foreign gods worshipped by strange rituals might be counted on to listen when Apollo would not, or to provide help where Venus would not.

This means that the type of “magic” that ancient Romans and Greeks feared was not simply anyone who called upon supernatural entities to do their bidding, but specifically people who did so outside the bounds of public religion. These were self-interested, anti-social people who threatened the social fabric by threatening Rome’s—or a given Greek city’s—right relationship with the gods.

A word should be said about Hebrew views of magic in antiquity. Bailey points out, rightly, I believe, that the Hebrew conception of forbidden practices we would term magical was not terribly different than Greeks’ or Romans’. The problem was not supernatural power—Moses and Elijah displayed that. Nor was it the use of strange rituals or talismans—say, lifting up a staff or marching around a city seven times and blowing trumpets. The problem was simply one of appealing to foreign gods or to inappropriate methods of appealing to, or even openly attempting to manipulate, God Almighty. Magic isn’t non-science, it’s idolatry.


Daemones and Pagan Leftovers


As Christianity outgrew its Judean heartland, it made a distinctive contribution to the history of magic. While at times the Bible speaks of pagan gods as non-entities, often in speaks of them as unclean, lying spirits—demons.

The word “demon” is rooted in the Latin daemones, itself a derivative of the Greek daimones. Both words refer to intermediate spirits, somewhere between the true gods and goddesses and us mere mortals. The forms of “magic” the Greeks and Romans dismissed often appealed to these mid-level spirits. They didn’t have a problem with the spirits themselves, however, so much as they saw appeal to them as a bit excessive.

When Christians came along, it was understood that all idolatrous worship, especially that which seemed to get results, was directed towards specifically evil spirits. That is, the daemones were not to be trusted. They were servants of Satan sent to deceive mankind and draw them away from the rightful worship of God. Furthermore, all the Olympian gods of Greco-Roman religion also fell into this category. In short, Christians collapsed the distinction between respectable public sacrifice and shady private superstitio, condemning all pagan rituals as idolatry.

As Christianity spread and became dominant, traces of paganism held on. This was true in enclaves where Greco-Roman or Germanic paganism were actually practiced, and it was also true in places where ostensible converts still practiced what we would today call folk-magic without much thought as to how it worked. This new, broader definition of “superstition” created a divide between honest worship, even if saints sometimes worked miracles, and wicked “magic,” which was cooperation with demons, even if the participant was ignorant of the fact.

The interesting thing about this period of the history of magic, though, was that these practices were not viewed with excessive animosity. Rather than painting those who performed these acts as Satan-worshippers, magic users were portrayed as ignorant, backwards rabble who superstitiously held on to the old ways in a new era. It was generally assumed that, just as the public Roman religion had vanished, folk-magic and superstitions originating in pagan religious practices would also vanish over time. This was not a demonic conspiracy against the church, but merely one of many foolish practices that would vanish with the onward march of the Gospel.


The Learned Magician


The next development in the history of magic is, in my opinion, the most terrifying.

When you think of medieval sorcerers, of magicians from the age of knights and damsels, of old-fashioned wizards, what name immediately comes to mind? If you’re like most people, the only answer is “Merlin.”

Merlin is not a leftover pagan, nor is he a superstitious peasant. He is a learned man, a reader of books, who mutters spells high in his tower and commands abilities far beyond what is natural. There is a sinister cast to him, but he is decidedly on the side of Arthur and his knights. These, in turn, are on the side of the Church. Merlin, like them, is presumably a Christian. But how can one work magic, which the Church understood to involve the use of demonic power, and yet remain on the side of the angels?

In the High Middle Ages, a new way of looking at magic developed. It was still conceived of as an art that dealt with demons, but now it was stripped of the lingering paganism that had once defined it. These demons were now thoroughly Biblical, denizens of a cosmos quite separate from what any rival religion might conceive of. And had not Christ and the apostles commanded demons? Mostly to flee, certainly, but had not Christ been given all authority in heaven and earth? Did not has followers partake in that?

The idea developed that, while a Christian certainly should not worship or make pacts with demons, it was not entirely out of bounds to command them. One legend—originating, so far as I can tell, from Islamic folklore—had Solomon commanding armies of demons and using them to build the Temple. Indeed, the fabled Ring of Solomon supposedly still allowed people to command these dark forces, and books might be found claiming to teach the reader the proper rituals necessary to conjure and enslave them.

Thus magic was given a decidedly scholarly and Christian cast, though assuredly not one widely endorsed by the Church. To most in authority, trafficking with demons was still trafficking with demons, even if one claimed to do it by the power of Christ. These were unclean creatures, not to be trusted.

This medieval “high magic” is more terrifying to me than any Satanic witches or dark pagan sorcerers. To be caught up in it, one does not have to be sinisterly evil—one can even have an apparently sincere faith in Christ. All that is required is a certain foolishness, a certain arrogant overestimation of one’s abilities or the trustworthiness of one’s grimoires. This is a situation ripe for demonic deception and eventual tragedy.

Of course, these learned magicians were not the only ones to continue doing what we would call magic in that era. Folk magic continued on, as ever, unheeding of official condemnation. In many ways, it had not changed terribly much. The names of old gods were replaced by saints, spells began to resemble prayers or incorporate snatches of Scripture or liturgy, and talismans began to include saints’ relics and the communion wafers. The common folk did not believe they were trafficking with demons, nor did they have a sophisticated theological or scientific explanation for how their little charms worked. They simply believed that the did, and kept on doing them.


A Satanic Conspiracy


With the rise of high magic practiced by learned men, often clerics of one kind or another, the Church came to understand such things as a much greater threat than they had previously. This sorcery was not the last gasp of an old religion, but signs of unorthodoxy, a disregard for authority, and great folly within Christendom itself.

This was also the period where the rot of heresy had begun to seep into France, Italy, and other regions. The Cathars and Albigenses in particular held alarmingly popular heretical beliefs, beliefs that seemingly could not be vanquished by the preaching of right doctrine alone. Indeed, it would take a crusade to wipe them out.

In Spain, another threat loomed. As the Christian kingdoms slowly drove their Muslim enemies out of the peninsula, they were stuck with a mixed population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had gotten along far too well with their former rulers. These were encouraged, by sometimes less than noble means, to convert en masse to Christianity. Of course, many simply did this to make life easier under the new regime, and some still practiced the old religion in secret. Thus Christian lands and Christian churches might be filled not only with secret heretics, but with complete unbelievers.

The Church in Spain and elsewhere soon developed legal processes to root out these heretics, drawing on the old Roman judicial system of judges who actively investigated the cases set before them. This method had been called inquisitio, and it gave rise to what we now call the Inquisition.

The growing concern with heresy met insecurities about high magic and old-school condemnation of peasant superstition and combined to create a far more sinister picture of sorcery. While witchcraft largely went unprosecuted, and often only lightly punished, in earlier eras, this had been due to the rather low opinion people had of magic as a threat to Christendom. After the rise of heresies, however, people began to understand magic not as something lonely men did in high towers, or old spinsters did in rural villages, but as something very like the Cathar or Albigensian threat—a conspiracy of heretics opposed to the true faith.

Witch trials slowly became more common, and began to incorporate charges that the accused flew great distances to meet other witches and cavort with demons. This is the beginning of the idea of the witches’ Sabbath, though it was called a witches’ synagogue at the time. At these places, they openly entered into pacts with demons, though not usually Satan himself. They engaged in orgies, and sometimes in more violent expressions of depravity. The idea of a coven of diabolical witches had been born

Contrary to popular belief, however, this did not lead to sudden, continent-wide hysteria and mass persecution of the supposed witches. This mythology of witchcraft as something done in groups, and as decidedly bent on the overthrow of Christendom, grew slowly. It was not until the medieval era gave way first to the Renaissance and then to the Reformation that the witch trials as we understood them truly began. By this time, the folklore was already well-established.


Wisdom from the Ancients


While the dominance of Christianity had established a pretty thorough understanding of magic as a distinct activity which used rituals to call upon demons to perform various tasks, the things that we would consider magical were never wholly placed within that category. Astrology, a highly complex and sophisticated discipline bearing little resemblance to modern memes about zodiac signs, was given an entirely rational scientific explanation which relied in no way on the power of demons. Alchemy, a pursuit we would consider equally mystical and unscientific, was based on rigorous experimentation and a deep knowledge of the natural world as medieval understood it.

In the period we today refer to as the Renaissance, a similar attitude opened up the West new kinds of magic. In one of those periodic floods of ancient Greek texts, or their Arabic translations, into the West, one set of works in particular led to a new understanding of the natural world: the Corpus hermeticum.

Medieval science was essentially an elaboration on Aristotle, with few texts by Plato being preserved in the Latin West. This did not mean, however, there was no interest in Plato’s thought. His reputation was great, and many were eager to rediscover his works. How much more exciting, then, would it be to discover the works that had inspired him?

The Corpus hermeticum was a collection of works purporting to set out ancient Egyptian wisdom recorded by the Thrice-Great Hermes. It had clear connections to Plato’s view of the universe, though scholars at the time did not realize that it was actually downstream of Plato rather than upstream. It painted a picture of a world of invisible metaphysical forces, a great hierarchy of being descending outward from the from the eternal, transcendent One. With great wisdom, one could come to understand and manipulate these forces, gaining both an understanding of the true nature of the universe, and a certain degree of mastery over it.

While this “Hermetic” magic was spreading among the elite, another source of power was entering Christendom through Jewish sources: Kabbalah. Kabbalistic magic held that all of Creation was constantly emanating from the Divine, and that since God created the world using speech, speech was the key to power over it. In particular, Hebrew was considered the original, divine language, and the most powerful words were considered to be the various names of God Himself.

Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and Neoplatonic thought all met astrological and alchemical science in this era and developed into a new brand of high magic. Learned men engaged in various rituals and investigated the true nature of the universe, using ancient secrets to seek out new knowledge and advance beyond medieval learning. This might involve working with demons, but it might just as likely mean manipulating the entirely benign, but hidden and poorly understood, forces of the universe.

The strange reality of Renaissance magic that may seem counterintuitive to those of us living in age after the Enlightenment is that magic was studied, practiced, and expounded upon by many of the same people who were advancing science. To people at the time, Newton’s gravity was every bit as much of an occult force as anything magicians like Cornelius Agrippa claimed understand. Copernicus’s theory of a sun-centered universe proved interesting not because it better explained the motion of the stars at the time—it didn’t—but because Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic thought tended to consider the sun the most important astral body. Johannes Kepler was a firm believer in astrology and the occult influences of the stars upon earthly bodies. Robert Boyle, founder of the Royal Society, was an adept alchemist, and Isaac Newton himself has been described as “the last of the age of magicians.” Bailey even makes a solid case that the empiricism and skepticism of the Enlightenment was not based on a less “occult” understanding of the natural world, but of one that was far more.


Magic in the Age of Reason


But the Enlightenment did come, and Renaissance magic did not flourish half so well as its twin brother Science. Skeptical and materialist views of the universe grew popular among the elite, and high magic died a slow and tragic death. Folk magic, of course, meandered onward, adopting new ways in freshly the freshly reformed lands of the Protestant north, and preserving the old ones in the now decidedly Roman Catholic south.

But magic would not stay dead forever. With the Enlightenment spread societies like the Freemasons, with secret rituals, mysterious initiations, and a hierarchy of ranks. Out of this spun other societies which sought to revive ritual magic, now with a much more muddled and Romantic theory, and fighting an uphill battle against the disenchanted world around them.

Besides the rise of magical secret societies, there was also a growing interest in folk magic. Enlightened elites felt alienated from their own peasantry, but had also caught something of a nationalist fever. Thus they sought out traditional beliefs and practices supposedly unique to their nations, including popular magic. Some began spinning tales of pagan survivals, of worshippers of the old gods who had held on through long centuries of Church dominance. A few German nationalists in particular began recasting the Early Modern witch trials as Catholic attempts to stamp out traditional Aryan culture.

The grow disciplines of folklore and anthropology also developed new explanations for the meaning of old myths and religious rituals. Theories about the centrality of fertility cults to ancient pagans became quite popular, and were sometimes combined with rumors of pagan survivals. In the early twentieth century, Margaret Murray proposed that witchcraft was actually an ancient pagan religion that had survived down the centuries, might still be working in secret in the present day.

In the 1950’s, a man named Gerald Gardiner capitalized on this idea. He claimed to have come into contact with a coven of Murray’s witches in the south of England, and they had passed on their beliefs and rituals to him. Witchcraft was at last fully decriminalized in Britain not long after, and he began spreading his new religion. He called it Wicca, and it became the fastest-growing neopagan religion in the modern era.

A few decades before, a man named Aleister Crowley had gotten involved in ritual magic through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He left and developed his own magical theory, which would be adopted and adapted by Anton LaVey in the 1960’s. He founded an outwardly Satanic religion that was in reality a kind atheistic play-acting which adopted much of the external trappings of the witchcraft rumored to exist in the early modern era. While much less popular than Wicca, LaVeyan Satanism did much to shape modern perceptions of magical practice.


What Bailey Leaves Out


Bailey traces magic from pagan religion, through folk magic and learned command of demons, past Renaissance theories of the secret workings of the universe and early modern beliefs about Satanic conspiracies, to modern Wicca. All of this is, in one way or another, a straightforward part of the Western magical tradition. This will form the main body of what I hope to blog through in the weeks and months to come. However, this does not quite cover every kind of magic one might run into today.

If one lives in the Deep South, Lousiana Voodoo is as popular as any variety of Wicca, and Santeria is at least as common in the United States as any order of ritual magicians. The folk magic of Britain continued developing in Appalachia and the Ozarks and other backwoods of the United States. The age of the internet has also brought about chaos magic, and other theories of the occult. Michael Bailey provides an admirable overview of the broadly Western mainstream of magic, but to understand our modern context, our investigations will have to take us in other directions.

But for now, I hope to follow up this rough summary of the book’s content with a few more posts on specific chapters and specific aspects of the history of magic and superstition as Bailey presents them. There is a lot of gold here, and it is well worth mining before we move on to other works.

Four Reasons to Study the History of Witchery

When I told my father that I had recently bought a copy of Magic and Superstition in Europe, a concise overview of the history of magic and witchcraft in Western Christendom, his response was predictable.


Of course, there is a fairly obvious personal answer: “Because I want to.” Occasionally I develop an itch to learn about something, and acquire books to satisfy my curiosity. Since college, I’ve gotten a little more systematic about it. This time it’s witchcraft, but next it may very well be Calvin’s sensus divinitatis or the history of American Indians. There’s no telling.

But I also think there are very good reasons for classically educated Christians and amateur scholars in 2017 America to educate themselves on the topic. Here I’m going to present four.

Understanding Pop Culture

Many evangelical Millennials came of age in the wars over magic in Harry Potter. This was at roughly the same time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed brought magic into the living room, and Supernatural parked its Impala on pop culture’s Main Street not long after.

This was nothing new, of course. As many Potter partisans were quick to point out, Lewis and Tolkien had been slinging spells, or at least enchanted objects, long before the boy with the scar came on the scene. Out of Tolkien had grown most of the modern fantasy genre, including the infamous (to those of us with a fundie streak) Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons in particular got caught up in a late 70’s and 80’s Satanic panic, wherein Christians became worried about creeping occult influences on their children, in pop culture, and in society at large. This made Hollywood plenty of money with flicks like The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and other Satanic and occult-themed horror movies. The ultimate parody of this trend came with that iconic story of bumbling exterminators facing off with ancient Middle Eastern demons: Ghostbusters.

With the rise of the internet, Dungeons & Dragons style worlds found a new platform in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games—MMORPGs, or MMOs for short. Everquest and World of Warcaft introduced people to various forms of magic and spellcasters on an unprecedented scale, and in an entertaining format. The internet also allowed people with a more serious interest in previously somewhat fringe topics of divination and spellcasting to gather for the first time in online communities. Both fantasy nerds and real neopagans flourished in the age of the internet.

Today’s pop culture is soaked in magical lore, whether it’s movies or TV, fantasy or horror, MMO’s or tabletop games, entertaining podcasts or YA novels. The sources they draw upon are widely varied, and the way those traditions interact is extremely complex. Some of this stuff is just old-as-dirt fairytale tropes, and some draws on genuine magical traditions—some more sinister than others. All of it influences the people around us. It’s a jungle out there, and it pays to have some idea of what’s going on.

Understanding Classic Literature

As someone steeped in the classics from an early age, and attempting to pass that tradition on, I think it’s pretty important to understand old books. These are the values and ideas of the people that went before us, the people who shaped our world. They have things to teach us about God, about life, and about ourselves. And they frequently mention magic.

I’ve taught through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain before. It’s a great book, and the source for much later Arthurian legend. Perhaps Geoffrey’s greatest contribution to the mythos is the figure of Merlin, the archetypal wizard. But who is Merlin? Where does his power come from? How does it work? And, considering general Christian opposition to the use of occult forces, how did the writers, readers, troubadours, and listeners reconcile such activity in so close an associate of the supposedly Christian King Arthur?

Fast forward to Shakespeare, and similar problems arise. The Tempest features a magician in a prominent role, along with his familiar spirit—neither of which are villains. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Edmund Spenser, wrote The Faerie Queene, which features other magic worker from a more sinister perspective. Why is there ambiguity here?

As we approach the modern era, as strange thing happens. These bearded men with great books chanting strange words in their towers are replaced by cackling witches who make pacts with the devil and fly around in the night abducting babies. The famous European witch trials occurred during and after Shakespeare’s day, and made their way to the New World where they became fixed in New England lore at Salem, Massachusetts. What caused such a dramatic transition in our understanding of magic from a learned pursuit to a field dominated by old and illiterate peasant women?

Going back through time, to the Greeks and the Romans, also lands us in interesting territory. The sorts of things we tend to condemn as magic—reading the future in the entrails of animals or the flight paths of birds, sacrifices for a good harvest or fortune in war, strange ceremonies by moonlight—were all more or less accepted religious practices in a certain context, but might also be viewed suspiciously in the hands of a Circe or Medea. What are we to make of this? What separates the Roman religious principle of do ut des—“I give (sacrifices) that you might give (certain benefits)”—from magical charms? What divides sinister use of semidivine power from legitimate invocation of the gods?

The picture isn’t any less replete with questions when you turn to the ultimate canon of Western Christendom, the Bible. In the pages of the Old Testament we find Moses and Aaron duking it out in a wizard’s battle with Pharaoh’s magicians, who are decided portrayed as having powers of their own. The witch of Endor legitimately summons Samuel’s spirit for Saul, and in the New Testament Paul casts an actual spirit of prophecy out of a slave girl, thus lowering her market value. Even the magi found Christ through astrological means, divinely ordained though they may have been. Magic seems to be a very real thing in the pages of the Bible, though what it is and how it operates are not always clear. And, while the condemnation of large chunks of it is not disputed, the exact differences between, say, Joseph or Daniel’s dream interpreting and that of pagan diviners is worth looking into.

Understanding the Contemporary Religious Landscape

While the Satanic Panic may have been overblown, new religious movements have certainly been on the rise since the early twentieth century, if not before. Many of these deal with magic. Whether we are talking about LaVeyan Satanism or the nature-centered world of Wicca, self-professed witches are no longer uncommon in today’s religious landscape. Wiccanism in particular has a large number of adherents, enough for the US armed forces to start using Wiccan chaplains and burial rites.

Of course, not all modern magic-users are so inspired by the notion of witchcraft as these two groups. Neopagan religions of various kinds seek to reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions, whether Norse, or Celtic, or Greek, or Roman, or even Slavic. Several of these pagan traditions include the use of magical rites that, while not central to their faith, are certainly a prominent part of it. Individually, any of these movements is almost negligible, but together they are a force to be reckoned with in modern society. With the rise of the alt-right, Norse and Germanic Neopaganism in particular are worth knowing about.

Then of course there are more traditional magical systems which either are religions or form a part of religious practice in the United States. These include things like Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santeria, and Appalachian folk magic. Such things have gained a certain degree of acceptance in today’s pluralistic culture, alongside interest in astrology, palmistry, and tarot cards. In many places in the US, but especially in the Deep South, this is a part of the world you’re going to run into from time to time.

There are also more esoteric forms of magic. Enochian magic, Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, and other practices have seen a renaissance in the age of the internet, and find their way onto the silver screen and onto the printed page in more frivolous contexts. One pair of modern magicians in particular engaged in a magical duel over the course of several years via the production of comic books embodying their different magical ideals. It is a strange world we live in.

Now many Christians are not likely to be thoroughly surrounded by any of this, but most of us have at least been around that world at some point in our lives. I personally have known multiple magic users from several of the above-mentioned traditions, so knowing about their beliefs is just part of getting to know my neighbors.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors, to seek the good of the city God has placed us in, and to evangelize. All three of these callings require us to know about the religions and practices that surround us. Today, that means knowing a little about the roots and varieties of magical practice. The people we must love may engage in it or be influenced by it, the cities God has placed us in include and accept citizens who practice it, and the men and women we are sent to call back to Christ may be mired deep within it. To be Christians in today’s world requires a basic literacy on the topic of magic.

Understanding Our Heritage

Part of honoring our fathers and mothers, and part of understanding the world God has placed us in, is simply knowing its history. Magic and witchcraft have been part of Western Christendom since its foundation. It features as part of the stories we tell, and as part of the lives that have lived within it. At some times the part it has played has been minor, but at others it has been momentous.

The Scientific Revolution has often been understood in contrast to the superstitious “Middle Ages,” but the truth is that Copernicus, Kepler, Boyle, Newton, Tycho Brahe, and dozens of other figures of early scientific history and Renaissance humanism were steeped in alchemy, astrology, Neoplatonic spirituality, hermeticism, and Kabballah. Science and magic advanced together in the early modern era, and were only separated much later, and by a concerted effort, during the Enlightenment.

Around the same time, and during the Reformation, the witch hunts were overtaking Europe. This widespread rooting out of Satan’s minions imprinted itself on our cultural psyche, living on in story and metaphor to this day. There is also something to be said for the argument that it played a part in building the early modern state, not to mention got deployed for propaganda purposes in the advancement of secularism.

Much earlier, magic manifested as the last remnants of old paganism lingering on into early Christian Europe, and it re-emerged in nineteenth century Romantic revivals of purportedly ancient, national folk culture. Understanding early Christian Europe and understanding early secular Europe both require some understanding of magic and superstition in those time periods.

From Christ and the magi, Paul and the prophetess, to the elimination of the Knights Templar and the rise of Romantic nationalism, magic is tightly interwoven into the history of Western Christendom. If we are to understand who we are and where we came from, we must understanding something about this topic.

A Plan of Attack

I have something of a vested interest in both classical and contemporary literature, in both the historical Western culture and the contemporary religious landscape. For these reasons, as well as general curiosity, I’m going to be investigating the history of witchcraft and magic. My goal will be to determine how major varieties of magical practice and belief have changed over time, as well how the perception of them has changed over the centuries.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been getting a little more organized about these things, so I’ve made a syllabus for myself. I will be reading seven generally well-respected and often academic books on the subject, which will hopefully combine to provide a solid overview history of witchcraft and magic in the Christian West. Along with the readings, I’m going to be doing some outlining, note taking, and summarizing. My plan is to publish the summaries and miscellaneous thoughts on the subject here on this blog. This will both force me to review and summarize what I have learned, and will hopefully serve as an accessible intro to the subject for people who would rather not do so much esoteric reading.

If you want to follow along, however, these are the books I will be reading, in the order I will be reading through them:

  1. Magic and Superstition in Europe by Michael D. Bailey
  2. Magic in the Ancient Greek World by Derek Collins
  3. Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook by Daniel Ogden
  4. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History by Alan Charles Kors & Edward Peters
  5. Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer
  6. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian P. Levack
  7. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton

I hope this post has inspired you to follow along as I blog through them, because I’m not even done with the first one, and this is already a fascinating subject. I’ve discovered insane Roman epics, hilariously stubborn medieval peasants, exasperated inquisitors reining in over-enthusiastic magistrates, eccentric and unpopular authors of renowned witch-hunting manuals, apparently pious clerics under the impression they can command demons, and theological insights into the nature of prayer, magic, and authority. It’s a wild world, fully worth diving into.

Scratching in the Dirt

The Sage

An old man is riding through the mountains, plodding his was slowly towards the western frontier. Behind him he leaves the luxurious life of the capital, of walking the halls of power, head held high as others bow before him. By the standards of the world, he had reason to be proud. He was a wise man, a cunning counselor, trusted by the rulers of that age. But he is going to the frontier, and has no intention of coming back.

He reaches the last outpost of civilization just as the sun is setting. It is manned by a single, lonely border guard. There are no threats in this direction, no reason for armed camps or grand fortresses. Just wilderness. So the man at the edge of the world is glad when he sees the man coming from its center, and invites him to stay the night.

Over the course of a humble meal and quiet conversation, the guard comes to recognize the stranger’s immense wisdom, as many others have before. He is amazed at the man’s experience, the great things he has seen, the noble people he has known. He goes to sleep that night puzzled, wondering who this stranger might be.

The next morning, as the old wanderer saddles up and prepares to ride away into the unknown west, it dawns upon the border guard who this man is. Finally recognizing this famed councilor of powerful men, this noble sage who moves in the circles of the great, he asks the man one favor before he departs. Would he leave the world with a summary of his teaching?

Smiling, the old man dismounts and picks up a stick laying nearby. Over the next several hours, he scratches out in the dirt a text of poetic simplicity, of refined elegance and deepest wisdom. Having finished, he bows to the humble border guard, and crosses the frontier, never to be heard from again.

The Tao

This world-weary sage was one Laozi or Lao Tsu—that is, Master Lao. If he did indeed exist, he lived in the sixth century before Christ, at about the same time the prophet Daniel was carried off to Babylon. That work he scratched into the ground by the border was the great Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, also Romanized as Doadejing. In it, Laozi outlines his philosophy in 81 beautiful, poetic verses, each about the length of a Biblical Psalm.

This philosophy was centered around a single, all-important concept: the Tao. “Tao” literally means “way,” as in a road or path. It can often be found on Hong Kong street signs with no deeper meaning than that. But as a philosophical term, it is much more significant. The Tao is the way the whole cosmos works together, united in a single transcendent plan or system which is greater than any of the individual parts. It is the principle which underlies the behavior of everything in the universe, animate or inanimate, from rain on the mountains, to the flight of the sparrow or the life cycle of a butterfly, to the rise and fall of kingdoms. Not one grain of sand escapes its purpose, and no galaxy is beyond its reach. The Tao encompasses everything.

Attached to this view of the universe in an implicit system of morality, something like natural law in the West. If the universe has its own way, its own set of behavior, men often have a set of intentions contrary to it. We do not pay attention to the way the world is meant to work—the cycles of nature or human behavior, the way apparent opposites work together, or the laws of cause and effect which everything must obey. We have desires, and we rush towards them blindly, fumbling along, disrupting the natural way of things.

Instead, Laozi advocates the principle of wu wei, or sometimes wei wu wei. The English is roughly “action without action.” That is, as things which exist within the Tao, we are assuredly meant to act. However, it is better to act in a way consistent with nature, aware of its underlying principles, rather than fighting against it. Thus we go with the flow of the Tao—we take action, but that action comes from outside us. It is actionless action.

The Disciple

In outlining this philosophy, the Tao Te Ching became a cornerstone of Chinese and East Asian intellectual history. It is something like what Plato’s Republic is to the West, though centuries older. One rough contemporary of Plato, however, was Loazi’s disciple, Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi—sometimes Romanized as Chuang Tsu, with the second element meaning “Master”—was also a government official, though a minor one. By this time in Chinese history, philosophy had become somewhat more developed, and there were many competing schools. Zhuangzi became a follower of Laozi’s teachings, and authored his own classic as a reflection on these same truths. That classic is often simply called by his name—Zhuangzi.

The Zhuangzi is not a collection of poetic musings, like the Tao Te Ching, but of short stories and anecdotes. These fables are designed to provoke philosophical reflection, asking the reader to consider how limited the merely human perspective is, and how vast the universe. It is the whole Tao we should consider, not merely our own perspective. Of course, many will find this difficult, and it may be that we can only live according to the Tao through some unconscious process or practice, rather than through any apparently easy, conscious effort.

Perhaps it was inevitable than anyone elaborating on Laozi’s philosophy should come across as more skeptical than the original verses. They are a meditation on the Tao itself, while the Zhuangzi often asks us to ponder our own relationship to it. Because that relationship is troubled by human folly, and has to overcome the obstacles of our limited human perspective, the stories can often come across a bit pessimistic. Becoming one with the Tao seems desirable in the Tao Te Ching, and here it appears difficult.

The Zhuangzi also poses more straightforward philosophical problems than its more poetic predecessor. Among them are the famous Butterfly Dream, in which we asked to question how we can distinguish the real world from the dream world—or if there is in fact any difference at all. Where Laozi’s work might find some parallels with Western Stoics, Zhuangzi’s might be more at home with postmodern philosophers.

Five Pecks of Rice

For centuries, Taoism was purely philosophical. It attracted people who, like the founder of the school, sought to escape the troubled world of civilized society to become solitary hermits, at one with nature. Furthermore, its lassaiz-faire, anarchist political tendencies did not exactly promote state sponsorship, or popularity among people who wanted to advance in society. For some time, it seemed merely like an esoteric doctrine suitable only for intellectuals with little ambition. That changed in the second century after Christ.

China’s ancient western frontier lay in the provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi—the former famous in the United States for restaurants bearing its older Romanization, Szechuan. This was mountainous territory, filled with strange and standoffish hill-folk, with centers civilization concentrated in the fertile river valleys. In troubled times, the more heavily populated provinces of eastern China often turned against each other, and the western frontiers were left to fend for themselves.

The Han dynasty, often considered a golden age, had begun two centuries before Christ and was coming to a slow, painful end two centuries after Him. Palace officials began to interfere in imperial decision-making, there were coups to be fought off, and regional rebellions began disrupting formerly smooth administration of the provinces.

Zhang Daoling lived in this twilight era of the Han dynasty. He had grown up reading Taoist works, and received the best education of his day. He was asked repeatedly to serve as a professor in an imperial college, and even as tutor to the Emperor himself. He refused, preferring his life of seclusion and study. This study included a new element in Taoist philosophy—seeking longevity through practices inspired by Taoist wisdom.

In AD 142, Zhang Daoling declared that Laozi had appeared to him in a vision. This phase of world history would soon be ending, he said, to be replaced by another. Those who wished to survive in the next age must separate themselves from the corruption of their times, and join him in pursuing a Taoist path to holiness. This became known as the Way of the Celestial Masters, and it was popular throughout Sichuan and Shaanxi. A firm commitment was expected of new converts, as seen by the requirement that each prospective adherent donate five pecks of rice to the cause.

Though it may be easy to doubt his followers’ claims that he became an immortal, Zhang Daoling certainly lived to an old age. When he died, first his son and then his grandson succeeded him as head of the movement. His grandson, Zhang Lu, was sent by the Han emperor to quell a rebellion in the west. He obeyed, but upon his victory, he established a new state in the Hanzhong valley as a haven for those who followed the Way of the Celestial Masters. This became known as the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.

This new state, with its devotion to Zhang Daoling’s apocalyptic version of Taoism, seemed to prosper for a time. Each citizen’s name and their stage in the progress towards holiness was recorded. It was understood that those who had progressed to a higher stage could command divine generals in the spiritual war against demonic forces. Lawbreakers were not punished by ordinary means, but expected to confess their crimes, and were told to seek penance through solitary meditation or do good deeds on behalf of the community. What had once seemed an esoteric philosophy had, with the addition of other elements, become the religious and political philosophy by which the community lived.

In the meantime, the Han dynasty had dissolved into three warring kingdoms, each with their own claimant for the imperial throne. This period would last for less than a century, but the epic nature of the events which shaped it have turned the era into a common setting for tales of romance and high adventure in eastern Asian storytelling.

One of the three rulers, a man named Cao Cao, attacked Zhang Lu, driving him from his kingdom. Cornered in eastern Sichuan, Zhang Lu surrendered. After a brief quarter century of independence, Hanzhong was reincorporated into the mainstream of Chinese civilization.

But the Five Pecks of Rice Movement did not end with the fall of its independent kingdom. Zhang Lu was relocated to Cao Cao’s court in the kingdom of Wei. There he used his authority as a religious leader to reinforce the legitimacy of the kingdom of Wei over the other two kingdoms. His followers spread throughout the realm, and by the time China was reunited under the Jin dynasty, Taoism had become mainstream.

Wisdom of the Ages

Not only had it become mainstream, it had also become explicitly religious. Followers now worshiped Laozi and others who had achieved immortality through Taoist teachings and practices. Zhang Daoling’s emphasis on the pursuit of longevity had also brought it in close proximity to a wide variety of shamanistic sects which promised supernatural powers to those with the right knowledge—or those willing to pay them. Though the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi still formed the center of Taoist teachings, other elements had been introduced which had changed it almost beyond recognition.

One of the central texts that defined Taoism in its new, more religious guise was the I Ching. The I Ching was far older than the Tao Te Ching, its origins shrouded in mystery. On its most basic level, it was a divination manual, telling the reader how to determine the right course of action based on the manipulation of certain mystical symbols. On a deeper level, though, it came to be understood as a complex and symbolical explanation of how the cosmos worked—how heaven was reflected on earth, how the five elements interacted, and how yin and yang could be found in every other operation of the universe.

Incorporating the I Ching into Taoism, along with the worship of a new pantheon of immortals, transformed the abstract philosophy into a full-blown religious tradition, distinct from both Buddhism and Confucianism. Much as Plato’s teachings had begun in pure philosophy and ended by inspiring Gnostic heresies and late antique magical systems, so Laozi’s teaching had become something else entirely.

In this form, however, those teaching had gained a wider appeal, and even official imperial support. Multiple times throughout history, Taoism was considered a leading candidate for becoming the official religion of the Chinese state. It influenced the other two major religious traditions as well, and many minor ones, and it was soon understood that a man could not be truly educated, could not be truly cultured, if he was not familiar with the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Thus, despite undergoing great change, their ideas had become an integral the culture of one of humanity’s greatest civilizations.

A Translator’s Puzzle

Christianity is a proselytizing faith. When the West began interacting with China on a regular basis, it would not be long before missionaries came to translate the Bible into Chinese dialects. This did not begin happening on a large scale until the nineteenth century. When it did, translators were often puzzled by words that had a technical meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek for which there might not be a good equivalent in Chinese. One particular problem was found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, And without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, And the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness does not comprehend it.”

The casual English reader might be struck by the poetry of the passage, without necessarily finding any difficult words. For the translator familiar with the culture of the early Roman Empire, however, it presents quite the puzzle.

The Greek word for “Word” in this passage does not simply mean “a thing you say.” That would be “lexis,” but here the manuscript says “logos.” Logos does mean “word,” but it is also a technical term from Greek philosophy. It means something like “rational order” or “logical principle.” It is the reason the world acts the way it does, the transcendent plan that guides the functioning of all of nature. With the Stoics in particular, it came to be something divine, a sort of pantheistic deity that was the same as nature itself. For them, it was simultaneously the explanation for why the world behaved the way it did, and a moral guide for those living in it. Not long after Christ, drawing on that Stoic tradition, a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria adapted the logos to his faith. It was the rational principle by which the Biblical God had created the universe.

Confronted with this word, the nineteenth century translators scrambled for something that might have a similar meaning. Clearly a word that just meant “word” would not do. It needed to carry those crucial philosophical connotations which lend John’s words so much weight.. So they chose Tao.

Just like the logos, the Tao was the principle behind all of nature, the thing that explained the way nature behaved. It was the quasi-divine force or plan which directed everything, and which human beings would do well to seek to understand. Though not identical, the two concepts were very clearly similar.

And thus Taoism, Greek philosophy, and the Christian Gospel were united in a single passage of the Chinese Bible: Jesus is the Tao, the Logos. He was in the beginning with God, and was God, and all things were made through him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men—men who could not comprehend it. Jesus was identified as Laozi’s mysterious Tao, but—perhaps to Zhuangzi’s shock and protest—in human form.

Of course, this does not mean that the translators saw Christianity as just another form of Taoism. The Incarnation alone appears to violate Taoist understandings of reality, as perhaps does the concept of divine revelation in the first place, at least when set against early philosophical Taoism. Furthermore, this single passage in John is qualified by the rest of Scripture, a context which stands apart from, and often perhaps against, much of Taoist tradition. Nevertheless, the way the concepts align, the apparent appropriateness of the word choice, this strange meeting of Eastern and Western concepts—these things are certainly worth thinking about.

The Tao of the Blog

Every so often I have a little crisis trying to figure out what this blog is for. This is not really the place for a serious academic essay, but it’s not the place for mere personal status updates either. I have Facebook for the latter, and am not particularly qualified for the former. If I just want to post links to interesting articles, there’s Twitter. If I had a particular hobby or area of expertise I wanted to share, this might be the place, but I have few which are so readily shareable. What kind of writing does a blog lend itself to?

Blogs do seem well adapted to relatively ephemeral content. A post arises, perhaps it occasions a conversation in the comments, and then it disappears into the archives as other posts arise to take its place. You can search those archives, but people rarely do without good reason.

Blogs are also good places for informal musings. This blog in particular does not belong to any company or institution, but to some random guy in East Texas. Many blogs are like that. Thus they are good places for random people to talk about whatever interests them, without necessarily requiring them to stick to a specific topic, or meet academic or professional standards when it comes to things like sources. This is just some guy talking.

But unlike Facebook or Twitter, blogs are both formatted for longer articles and designed to be read by a wider audience. This promotes guys talking at length about what interests them, in a way that might interest casual passersby.

In accordance with the principle of wu wei—at least, as I understand it—it pays to cut with the grain of the medium. The nature of a blog makes it a great place to take something like the Tao Te Ching or the Zhuangzi chapter by chapter and muse out loud about its meaning, its connections to other classic works and to pop culture, and whatever lessons these things might have for those who read them.

I am not an expert on these books. I have never taken a class on them in particular, or on Taoism in general, or even on Eastern religions. But I do enjoy learning about these things, and if my learning can be to the profit of other casual readers who might be interested in the topic, it is well worth the effort to spruce up my musings and publish them on this blog.

So this introduction to Taoism is more than an interesting story, though I hope has been that. It is an invitation. I am going to start working my way through the Tao Te Ching verse by verse, posting my thoughts here. If you are interested, please read along and comment below. Learning works best in community, and I would find it a blessing if my blog could provide a little of that.

Passengers and Hope

I spent the last week in Kansas City, and had the good fortune to see the movie Passengers. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and came out of the theater feeling quite moved. I hardly expected that going in, not being especially taken by the trailers, and having had my expectations lowered by the mixed reviews. Seeing that my experience was so very different than many others’, I felt obligated to offer an explanation for just why I think Passengers was an objectively good movie. And I do think that. In fact, I’m about ready to call it one of my all-time favorites.

Keeping that in mind, this review will be spoilerific. If you have not seen it yet, go do so and come back. If you have, then forge ahead. Even if you aren’t convinced by what I have to say, I trust that some of it will at least serve as fodder for lively conversation.

That said, this monstrosity is about 4500 words long, and divided into four sections: Setting, Story, Characters, and Values. If you decide you want to read it in multiple sittings, try reading the first two and then the second two. Those chunks should be of roughly equal length.


David H.



Passengers is, if nothing else, a beautiful film. It is not set in the splash of stars and colorful planetary close-ups of Star Wars, but the vast emptiness of space as we know it—a realm of mystery, largely untouched by human civilization. That sense of the sheer immensity of the cosmos, the thrilling beauty and monstrous terror of something greater than any human being, is something we return to again and again. Most obviously we see it in the vertigo-inducing space walks, which are far quieter and more contemplative than the trailers we would have us believe. But we also see it in a thousand other places—in glimpses through ever-present windows and transparent roofs, in pools jutting over the emptiness, in losses of gravity that remind us that our presence here is unnatural and tenuously maintained. The atmosphere of a long voyage through the glittering, flaming, beclouded, and empty reaches of space makes the ride worth it.

Setting the voyage aside, the ship itself is a delight. At first it looks like the typical technological wonder of a thousand other utopian visions of the future. That trope starts to break down as we realize that the technology is surprisingly limited. Even before things start breaking down, we meet the computer’s frustrating inability to provide information it was not programmed with. The AI we meet both in Arthur, the robotic barkeep, and elsewhere is amusingly formulaic in its responses. The illusion of personality is not as thin as the old text adventure games, however, but far more familiar. The flaws of this ship are the same flaws we meet in smartphones with Siri and autocorrect—wonderful and useful, but prone to hilarious mistakes.

It’s that touch of the flaw, that consciousness of limitation, that makes the ship endearing. We see it faithfully carrying out its mission to the best of its abilities, but also fumble as it deals with the humanity of its passengers and its own slow breakdown. Over the course of the movie, the starship Avalon becomes as much a character as any of the humans on board.


In the midst of the vast terror of space and the wonders and limitations of the Avalon, Passengers is a story well told. It begins with an accident, and that accident wakes up the first of our major characters—Chris Pratt’s Jim Preston.

Jim has a problem. He has awakened ninety years too soon, and there is no way to go back into hibernation. He will, barring some miracle, die alone on a ship filled with passengers. Luckily, Jim is a mechanical engineer, and he sets about trying to solve this problem. While a solution doesn’t present itself immediately, he is able to significantly improve his life by eating out in all the ship’s restaurants, racking up an enormous debt, and breaking into a high class suite with a basketball court and VR dance arena.

Over the course of his struggles with loneliness and attempt to get back to sleep, we get to know Jim well—from highs of childlike glee reminiscent of Home Alone, to the depths of near suicidal depression, staring into the abyss. We see his remarkable competence when it comes to tinkering with things, as well as his powerlessness when he finally comes to terms with his limitations. This first act of the film is a solid exercise in world and character building, brought to life by a gifted actor born for the lighthearted humor and dramatic intensity of the role.

But as we were all aware going in, this was not a Chris Pratt in space movie, but a Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space movie. The way that comes about is unexpected and powerful.

Jim has been alone for a year. (The way this movie marks time, by the way, is effective without being distracting, adding well to the tension and drama.) He looks even more hairy and unhinged than Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the childlike humor Chris Pratt usually brings to a movies meet with depths of loneliness and fear that generate all kinds of pity. And that pity becomes gut-wrenching when we see Jim confronted with an awful choice.

One of the thousands of passengers locked in the hibernation pods is Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora, the sleeping beauty who captures Jim’s heart. In the depths of his misery, he sees her and begins to wonder what it would be like to have just one friend to mitigate the loneliness, to make the long wait for death on an empty ship more bearable.

Of course, Jim knows how indescribably cruel it would be to wake her up. It’s wrong, and he knows it, and he admits as much to Arthur on one of his regular trips to the ship’s bar. But the existential crisis that is his situation has brought him so low that he can’t put the idea out of his mind. He finds recordings of interviews with Aurora, learns about her, learns that she is a writer, and reads some of what she is written. He is captivated by her, and this only adds to the agony of loneliness. Guilt builds as he contemplates doing what he knows he should not, and shame is visible on his face as he finally gives in and wakes Aurora up.

The sequence that follows mirrors the first act in many ways. Aurora goes through many of the same things Jim did, searching for passengers and crew, attempting to break out, accepting her situation, and finally trying to make the most of it. We get to know her in much the same way as we did Jim, but instead of watching her fall into despair, we instead see her fall in love with the last man on earth, narrating the journey as she dictates her next book to a recording to device.

This love story is every bit as funny and charming as you would expect from these two actors, and the effect is only increased by their solitude on the ship. But all the while the knowledge of what Jim has done looms in the background. We know that these happy days cannot last, not once Aurora knows what the man she has come to love did to her.

When she finally does, the effect is devastating. Arthur, misunderstanding the situation, informs her, and she confronts Jim. He does not lie to her. He tells her exactly what he did, and that he knows it was wrong. The next portion of the movie is devoted to Aurora processing that betrayal, rejecting Jim as he tries to make amends, and attempting to find a new way of life on this long, lonely journey towards death.

Throughout the movie, malfunctions have been building in the background. Something is wrong with the ship, and it has only been getting worse. We are reminded of this regularly, but not so that it distracts from Jim and Aurora’s stories. We know it will have to be dealt with, but that’s an issue for later.

It turns out that later happens when Jim and Aurora’s relationship is as dead as can be. A ship malfunction wakes up Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus, a Chief Deck Officer and the only other human we see awake for the majority of the film. His presence serves two purposes: it forces Jim and Aurora to work together to prevent the ship from destroying itself, and gives them a third person to seek companionship and sympathy from, finally exposing Jim’s evil deed to a third party.

The presence of Gus works like the prologue to the final portions of the movie. We quickly learn that his pod’s malfunction has made him fatally ill. Within minutes of appearing on screen, Jim and Aurora have to watch him confront his own mortality and attempt to die with some shred of dignity. As he does die, he leaves Jim and Aurora with a wristband giving them all the access they will need in order to save the ship. He passes, and they launch his body into space in classic naval fashion.

Next Jim and Aurora are confronted with just how critical the problem with the ship is. If they don’t do something immediately, they will be confronted with a disaster that kills every passenger on board. Forced to work together, they track down the source of the problem and do their best to fix it. This leads them to a terrible choice.

In order to fix the ship, Jim has to go out into space and manually open a port, allowing the fiery exhaust of the reactor to vent into deep space. In all likelihood, he will not survive. When the moment of truth comes, Aurora is torn apart by the necessity of killing him. Without him, she will be utterly alone. More than that, despite what Jim did to her, she did once love him, and he is actively proving his love for her. When she discovers that he is still alive, and goes to recover him, she is relieved. The crisis seems to have healed a wound that time never could.

But Jim’s act of self-sacrifice and Aurora’s forgiveness towards him are immediately followed by one final decision that must be made. In the face of survival and the drama of their relationship, the fact that they will die alone before reaching their destination has faded into the background. It is brought abruptly into the foreground by Jim’s discovery that they can go back into hibernation—but only one of them. He offers it to Aurora. For a tense moment, the next scene lets us think that she might have accepted, but then she arrives. She has chosen to stay with Jim.

The final act of the film occurs 88 years later, when the Avalon is within a few months of its destination. The ship’s crew awakes to find a garden growing on one of the decks, an Edenic paradise that Jim and Aurora have crafted over a lifetime together. Aurora narrates, having left behind a record of their story.

This is well-structured storytelling, each act and scene laser-focused on a single purpose, all adding up to a coherent, moving narrative. The setting is wondrous, but the story itself shows fine craftsmanship.


If a character and a plot are not enough to make a movie good, Passengers rises to the challenge and also offers characters we are willing to spend two years alone in space with.

I have already mentioned Chris Pratt’s childish humor, and the depths of darkness he descends to as Jim. He is moved by sever guilt and shame, and by love as well. But besides these qualities, he is also the consummate tinkerer. Jim is always working on something, whether it’s gaining access to the luxury suite, trying to save the ship, or modifying space roombas. He crafts intricate models and fine jewelry, and expresses a desire to go somewhere where there is still something new to be built. He wants to build a house.

Aurora is just as fascinating a character, experiencing as wide a range of emotions artfully expressed by the talented Jennifer Lawrence. Like Jim, she has deep-seated desires that have shaped her character. She is a talented writer, as was her apparently famous father. He died when she was seventeen, and whatever other family she may have had is never mentioned. She seems to be the archetype of a millennial’s dream: talented, successful, and totally unencumbered by any attachments. She wants to do what no other writer has ever done: voyage to a colony and come back, carrying her story of a new world with her into a future far from the life she has known. This desire to experience adventures like her father, and to be widely read by virtue of her own talent and experience, sets her apart from Jim as a person in her own right—a person whose dreams he has snatched away.

Arthur, the ship’s barkeep and an extension of the Avalon’s personality is, as I indicated earlier, an endearing character. He is as competent as his programming allows, and smiling face and listening ear to the two passengers who want nothing more than company. Indeed, when what Jim has done is revealed, they undergo something of a custody battle for time spent with Arthur. But behind is welcoming manner and delightful foibles is the subtly unsettling nature of a robot who is just a bit too smart, just a bit too unfeeling, and increasingly broken.

The last character worth mentioning is Lawrence Fishburn’s Gus. The depth of the character is made all the more remarkable by the brief time we have with him. He comes onto the scene as a man with a mission, putting off his own health problems and refusing to get involved in the fight between Jim and Aurora. The ship is malfunctioning, and he must save the ship. He goes about it in a gruff and workmanlike manner, with lines that seem just a bit more blue collar than you expect coming from the man that played Morpheus.

When Aurora does finally force him to comment on Jim’s sin, he refuses to indulge her bitterness while also refusing to exonerate the Jim for what he did: “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.” This simple, folksy wisdom, a recognition of human frailty, paints Gus as a man of insight, if not the most warm and cuddly guy imaginable. Soon after, he is confronted with his own imminent death. He dresses up and sits gazing out the window into space. Ever mindful of his duty, he passes on the wristband giving them access to the whole ship. He tells them to save it, and to take care of each other. Then he dies, leaning over on Jim as he does. That very human, oddly childlike gesture seems to illustrate just how small we all are in the face of death.

This is a movie with a tiny cast of characters, but they are portrayed with a depth far beyond what most movies offer.


The setting, story, and characters are enough to make Passengers worth watching, but the film is far more than the action/rom-com sci-fi flick the trailers seemed to offer. It’s a meditation on death, the meaning of life and relationships, and the value of legacy.

Film critics I respect have criticized Passengers for its disturbing gender politics. Boy sees girl, boy wants girl, boy ruins girl’s life, boy gets away with it, and girl goes along with it. If this were done unconsciously, I might agree with them, but the movie is all too aware of just how wrong what Jim did is. He knows it, and tears himself apart up until the moment of weakness where he does it. It’s just behind his eyes throughout their relationship, and he confesses it freely when Aurora confronts him. Aurora’s devastation is magnificently illustrated, at least as haunting as Jim’s earlier loneliness. When Gus is brought in, he does not deny that what Jim did was as wrong as wrong can be. He only says that it’s what drowning men do.

And that’s the key. It’s what drowning men do. In the midst of a crusade for a just society, our culture has tendency to treat humans as if they are morally perfectible. We can always do what’s right, at least with regards to the big things, if we only tried hard enough, if we were only properly educated, if society were only set up in the right way. Wrong is wrong; it shouldn’t happen and people shouldn’t get away with it.

But Passengers seems to question this assumption. There is another philosophy of humanity, a very old one, but often neglected in our generation. It’s the belief that people are morally flawed. We are all, to put it in Christian terms, sinners. Of course we shouldn’t do certain things, but that’s not the world we live in. The fact is that human beings do what’s wrong, and nothing we do is going to change that.

Jim woke Aurora. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t excusable, but it’s what he did. There’s no getting around that, no erasing the past, and no erasing his sin. As Gus said, “A drowning man will always try to drag you down with him. It ain’t right, but he’s drowning.”

In our search for justice, forgiveness is often understood as telling the victim to get over it, as telling the victimizer that what they did was okay. That’s not what’s going on in this movie. Passengers is deeply aware of the vileness of what Jim did. But it suggests that perhaps this is the world we live in, and we can’t do anything to change it. Our anger may be justified, but it fixes nothing. If we want to go on living, if we want to get past our hurt, sometimes we have to do something just a bit more than human. Sometimes we have to forgive the unforgivable.

I am obviously biased here. I am religiously predisposed both to believe that sin is a fact of life, the sort of thing all humans do. That goes with another religious predisposition to believe that the unforgivable ought to be forgiven. That is asking a lot. Indeed, it may be asking more than may be humanly possible. But if sin really is a fact of the human condition, it may be the only way we can learn to live together.

Regardless of whether you agree with this angle on sin and forgiveness, the very fact that it’s an uncommon view makes this a movie worth watching, chewing on, and having conversations about.

But the interesting values portrayed in this movie don’t stop with that troubling issue of forgiveness. There is also a surprising movement from seeking personal fulfilment to building relationships.

When the movie starts, Jim is alone, and the movie is simply about his self-interest, his survival. When he accepts his fate, he moves on to all sorts of self-indulgence. This culminates in his waking of Aurora, a clear act of self-interest trumping love for others.

Aurora, similarly, begins in a way of life that is individually driven, atomistic. She leaves behind all her friends and the life she knew to pursue her career goals. One friend in particular gives her a weeping, heartfelt farewell that highlights the degree to which she is declaring her independence from other people. When she reaches the other world, and has experienced it, she plans on turning around and coming right back, cutting herself off from any relationships she has built there.

Over the course of the movie, both Jim and Aurora are confronted with their own self-centered individualism. With death and loneliness staring them in the face, they come to realize that they need other people, and that they are morally obligated to love other people. Love, not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the sense of caring for another person, going out of one’s way to respect them, to protect them, and even to improve their life.

Others found the ending of the movie off-putting. Jim and Aurora didn’t get back into hibernation, didn’t solve that original problem and live to reach the colony. Doesn’t that mean they lost? But I would suggest that this is the entire point.

In today’s world of constant advertisement, of easy wish-fulfilment, of instant gratification, fast food, streaming entertainment, and endless information at our fingertips, we have come to view ourselves as consumers, and the world as a product. We are individuals who have desires that must be fulfilled, and the world exists to fulfil them. Jim wants a new world in which to build things. He should get it. Aurora wants to have adventures and to write things people will read. She should get it.

But in Passengers, this is exactly what doesn’t happen. Given the chance at individual fulfilment, at erasing what Jim has done and going on to fulfil her dreams, she chooses not to. To those of us raised in an individualistic, consumerist society, this feels wrong. It feels insane. Doesn’t she realize that life will be so much better on the other side of hibernation? Of course she does. And she rejects it.

Again, this could be read as bad gender politics, and if the movie was less self-aware, I might buy that. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

Over the course of the movie we have been repeatedly confronted with the vast emptiness of space, the fragile nature of human life in that void, the fragile nature of relationships involving flawed human beings. We have seen the horror of loneliness, been confronted with the inevitability of death, the shortness of our own brief lives.

If Aurora goes back to sleep, we know what that will do to Jim. More pointedly, Aurora knows. Aurora also knows the value of relationships, knows what that means because she has been threatened with death, offered the relationship that mitigated that pain, and then had it ripped from her in an unthinkable betrayal. Aurora also looks back to her father, looks back to the friends she has left behind, and we know that even in a life where there were other human beings, Aurora was lonely.

In Aurora’s choice, we are not being told that the guy should always get the girl. In Aurora’s choice, we are being told that relationships matter more than personal fulfilment. We are being told that the most important things in life are not our dreams or desires, but other people. We depend on them for survival, but they are also, as Jim came to realize early on, what makes survival worth it.

This realization comes about only when the characters are confronted by mortality. If the lesson stopped there, that would be more than enough. But it doesn’t.

While Jim and Aurora are still together, he asks her who she is writing for, if not for people she knows. At that point, it doesn’t matter who. She just wants to be read. But later on, when she comes to grips with the fact that she will die before anyone sees what she reads, she begins to speak of posterity. She is not writing for a future fame she will personally get to enjoy, but to leave something to future generations. She is leaving a legacy.

In the end, having chosen to stay with Jim, that’s exactly what she has done. Her writing was not for personal glory, and it wasn’t just for Jim. She passed on her story the passengers who would awake long after they were gone. She left a legacy beyond death.

Just like the decision to stay with Jim, this a vaguely off-putting idea in our society. Again, we are often so radically individualistic, so focused on our own desires, that the idea that we would plant something and never live to see the harvest is all but unthinkable. Why do something if you won’t derive enjoyment from it?

This idea is not present only in Aurora’s writing, but also in Gus looking past his own death to the good of Aurora and Jim, and the good of the ship. It is present in Jim and Aurora risking their lives to fix the ship, and to save one another when self-interest cries out against it. Throughout the movie we are confronted with death, and throughout the movie we are asked to look beyond it, to look to a future we will not live to enjoy. In this day and age, that’s a remarkable thing to do.

Together these three values of forgiveness, relationship, and legacy, all of which trump individual fulfilment, combine to create something far more wonderful: hope.

From the beginning of the movie, Jim is a tinkerer. He takes the world around him and wants to make it something more. When Aurora comes along, he is a given a new direction for his efforts. He creates a robot to communicate with her, he builds a model and a ring, and he plants a tree. He is fundamentally a builder, someone who wants to create something that will improve not only his own life, but the life of others.

In the final scene, we see the results of this mentality. In their years together, Jim and Aurora built a garden in the main concourse, a green world filled with trees and birds and robots pulling vegetables out of the earth. In the midst of it all is a house, the house Jim wanted to build, the something new that there was no room for back in the old world. Jim and Aurora did not survive, but they built something worth having.

And that’s the true value of Passengers. It’s not just the story of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in space. It’s not just a rom-com, a sci-fi action flick, or even an interpersonal drama. It’s a story about how civilizations are built. In the beginning there were only two people staring death in the face. By the end there is a garden, a home, and a story for the future. Forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and a mind tilted towards legacy—these are the values of hope, and hope is what creates beauty.

After the year we just had, I can think of nothing more needful.

I am Jack’s Rejection of the Matrix

Ever since I’d seen both movies, I’ve thought Fight Club and The Matrix would make a great double feature. Not one to share with the kids, and not for light, passive entertainment. But for a thought-provoking evening? Perfect.

Besides both being late nineties classics you watch in college and think are deep, they’re both taking a swing at the same target. Fight Club and The Matrix are both, in their own way, critiques of the American social and economic system. During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which served as the backdrop of the lives of most of the Generation Xers who saw them in theaters, this was neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism, summed up briefly by an economics amateur, is the ideology that favors free markets, privatization, and deregulation, with minimal government involvement in the economy generally. This is the world of economic freedom that allows corporations to flourish, and so provides an endless number of “socially conscious” movies with suit-wearing, cigar-smoking, filthy rich bad guys. It also provides them with a cage from which they can free their lead characters.

Take a look at The Matrix’s protagonist, as seen by Agent Smith.

Agent Smith: “It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and your… help your landlady carry out her garbage.”

In previous scenes, we watch Thomas A. Anderson living out this humdrum existence. He shows up to work late and is reprimanded by his boss, then distracted by the squeak of window washers dragging a squeegee across the glass. He sits in his cubicle and does his work. He is unsatisfied with life, just another office drone in a world of office drones.

But the mysterious hackers Morpheus and Trinity offer him an escape. Morpheus asks him to look at his world, to understand its true nature. He is caught in the Matrix.


Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo/Thomas Anderson: “What truth?”

Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage… born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”


When Morpheus breaks Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, out of the Matrix, he takes him to a place where he can explain what precisely the Matrix is. It seems human society was long ago conquered by a race of artificially intelligent robots, who have created a vast system in which they have trapped us. Why are we hooked into this thorough illusion, this deception pervading our entire life?


Morpheus: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown. For the longest time I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.

“And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.”



In short, the system views us as a resource. We are batteries to be drained, crops to be harvested. Thomas Anderson is not special human being, he is not a beautiful and unique snowflake. He—like us—is a cog in a machine, a replaceable part in a vast, paper-pushing, money-generating enterprise. Well, electricity generating in the world of the story. In the world of neoliberalism, the world of corporations, the real individual is nothing more than Morpheus’s coppertop battery that keeps the small appliances running.

Realizing that the machines view us this way, that the Matrix was created to keep us docile as we are drained, the hope Morpheus offers is something of a messianic one.

Morpheus: “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth – As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free. After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix looking for him.”


The way he will destroy the Matrix is never quite specified, though by the end of the movie there is some indication that perhaps the One is merely meant to wake everybody up, to make them reject the Matrix. Then, one assumes, we will be free.

And that is The Matrix’s philosophy of neoliberal society. It looks at the meaningless life of an office drone, and blames the machine. The solution it offers is simply to reject the machine, to reject the system. But then what? What replaces it?

The Matrix is pretty light on answers to that particular question. Perhaps it can be forgiven. After all, it is primarily an action movie. But that does weaken its critique. A freedom that isn’t going anywhere isn’t exactly inspiring. We’ve rejected the system, we know what we’re fighting against, but what exactly are we fighting for? Just whatever we want? Find your own meaning? What if I find meaning in being hooked back into the Matrix? After all, a lot of people seem comfortable there.

This is the option taken by the traitor, Cypher. He is sick of the fight, sick of the dystopian real world. He wants to eat steak, drink wine, be important, enjoy the good life back in the Matrix. So he cuts a deal with the machines, letting them have the resistance in exchange for letting him back in. It doesn’t work out well.

We are meant to reject that option, but on what basis? What is the better world Morpheus and Neo offer us? When we finally get to Zion in the sequels, all we get is a massive rave, and a little hanky panky. Couldn’t we have had that in the Matrix? Didn’t a lot of people? Work during the week, party on the weekend?

There’s an essential failure of imagination here. Many critics of neoliberalism’s economic order simultaneously embrace social liberalism, as if the two were unconnected. They sneer at the crass self-indulgence of consumerism, deride the meaninglessness of being a mere resource for a corporation. But ad agencies were never just selling designer handbags, they were buying and selling lives and meaning.

Social liberalism rejects all social constraints, with the result that there are no traditional identity markers to clutch onto. Who are you? You determine who you are. Your hobbies, your gender, your sexuality, your favorite causes, your favorite celebrities, your eclectic clothing style, your multicultural food palate and selection of world music—this is who you are. Let no one tell you what job you can and can’t have, let no antiquated vows hold you back from seeking a fulfilling relationship or abandoning an unfulfilling one, let no unplanned pregnancy slow down your career and dash your dreams. You are your own person.

Far from being inconsistent with a free market, this is the natural consequence of it. Traditional societies with their taboos and reluctance to try new things are not great places for advertising. If you want to sell stuff, you need to convince people that the only thing that matters is what they want, and then offer it to them. Teach them to follow their hearts, then tell them their hearts really need what you’re selling—and that may be sex, vodka, Chinese food, a good car, or the right movie collection. Whatever floats your boat.

In the world of social liberalism, all the things that were once part of traditional value structures which transcended the individual have now become a form of both self-indulgence and self-marketing. Which sexuality most appeals to me? What movie genre makes me happiest? What clothing style really expresses who I am? Social liberalism is not the antithesis of economic liberalism, it is its natural bedfellow. Liberated markets need liberated individuals.

Fight Club realizes this to a greater degree than The Matrix. When the movie begins, the problem for the nameless protagonist—let’s call him Jack—is not that he is being actively deceived by an oppressive system. To be sure, the corporations are not innocent in this, but the real problem is Jack. Jack defines himself by what he owns. He has an addiction to Ikea, a need for the right coffee table, the right lamps, the right treadmill. He defines himself by it.

Early in the movie, his apartment explodes. He lives with no one. He has no real friends, no one lost or hurt in this tragedy. What he has lost are his possessions—a fridge full of condiments with no food. But, as he states later in the movie, those weren’t just things, that was his life. He is defined by what he buys. His new friend, Tyler Durden, questions this.


Tyler Durden: “Do you know what a duvet is?”

Jack: “It’s a comforter…”

Tyler Durden: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”

Jack: “Consumers?”

Tyler Durden: “Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”


Fight Club does not offer a vague messianic prophecy. It offers an active solution. Reject the unnecessary. Reject your possessions. Then reject your desire for pleasure. Embrace pain. Reject your dignity. Suffer at night, and be despised by your coworkers by day. Reject your respect for society, and reject society itself. Fight Club rejects social liberalism as much as it does the corporate world of economic liberalism. It does not offer pleasure or freedom. It offers rocks bottom, the rejection of all that society calls good, the embracing of one’s mortality.

Tyler Durden: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

This is the mantra with which Tyler Durden blasts the quasi-fascist movement that springs up around him. They are all going to die, their life has no meaning, and they might as well take down this corrupt society with them. It told them they were valuable, but it treated them like they were worthless. Like a faceless resource.

Tyler Durden: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Don’t tell the small child confused about their gender, the growing adult uncertain about their sexuality, that they can be whatever they want to be. Don’t tell the little girl that she can grow up to be president. Don’t preach a gospel of racial harmony to the oppressed. Don’t tell the poor they can rise to the top. Don’t even tell the vast cast of comfortable white guys with jobs that they can obtain any sort of dignity. All these things are just lies that keep us docile as we waste our lives chasing what the ad men tell us is worth chasing.

Fight Club recognizes this, understands that this message of positivity and individual self-creations exists solely to make us consumers. The me-centric society is an ad-centric society is a corporation-centric society. We exist to work for the companies, and to buy from the companies. And beneath that, we are rotting organic matter. Don’t buy any Disney-style platitudes. Don’t delude yourself. This is the harsh reality.

The Matrix rejects the machine, but Fight Club knows the machines were not alone. We were complicit. We bought their lies, we indulged ourselves, we have become the willing slaves of a system that doesn’t value us. Tyler Durden calls us to take responsibility for that, and he would not only have us enlightened, he would have us react.

Where The Matrix offers no real plan of action, and no final vision, Fight Club at least offers the first. Durden transforms the fight clubs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization not too far in goal from a more militaristic Anonymous. It aims first to use guerilla tactics to expose the meaninglessness of life in the corporate-dominated system, and then blow up the credit card companies, resetting all our balances to zero. Reboot that system and cause chaos.

The movie does not want you to like this plan. It is clearly violent, clearly bad, and clearly taking things too far. Sort of. It’s hard to separate Jack’s rejection of Project Mayhem from all the other inhibitions he’s slowly been shedding as he rejects consumerist society. Tyler Durden, as played by Brad Pitt, is simply more charismatic than the wishy washy Ed Norton, and his case is more convincing. The rejection of the terroristic project is clear, but rings hollow in the larger context.

Tyler’s ultimate vision, beyond the plan, is dwelt on hardly more than Zion, but the glimpse we get is both interesting and revealing.

Tyler Durden: “In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”


This is a radically primitive world, and a harsh one. Hunter-gatherer societies are not for the weak. They do not provide the safety and comforts of civilization that we are used too. They clearly also exclude much of what we consider to be the signs of our own greatness—great towers, great highways, a million meal choices. But this is entirely consistent with the values Fight Club has displayed so far. We are decaying organic matter, and anything else is a lie told to sell us something. So live life radically free from any system, live it on the edge, live it while you can. Don’t let anyone stop you.

If you value individual freedom, Fight Club’s is perhaps the more consistent conclusion. But the truth is, few of us value individual freedom that much. We don’t want to reject society altogether, we just don’t want to be batteries plugged into the Matrix, consumers leading meaningless lives.

It’s probably no coincidence that twenty years after the rash of anti-consumerist movies in the 90’s, including these two, both major parties are reeling from insurgencies in their own ranks. Bernie Sanders wants a system that isn’t afraid to hurt corporations in order to give individuals dignity. He’s an open socialist, because he cares about people more than companies. Trump doesn’t mind hurting corporations either, being open to protectionist policies that put American jobs ahead of companies that profit from an international neoliberal system. He also rejects the multiculturalism that reduces the values by which we define ourselves as a community to just one more option on a cultural free market. Hence the accusations of racism.

Both insurgencies, in their own ways, reject the neoliberalism of the past several decades. The right used to push for economic liberalism, and the left for social liberalism. Now we are seeing a right that doesn’t care about the former, and a left that, while it has not rejected the latter, may not prioritize it so much as college tuition and a true living wage. The country is not satisfied with the Matrix it has been living in, and both party establishments are suffering as a result.

But where does this leave us? What’s next? What does society look like, if not yin-yang coffee tables and a job at a large software company? What does the good life look like, if not what the advertisers tell us, if not what we see on TV, if not what the corrupt politicians ask of us? How exactly do we reject self-indulgent freedom—whether economic or social—for some sort of social cohesion? What are our new values?

Many critiques of neoliberalism reject religion, treating it as a means of social control. The Matrix certainly does—going to church is one of the ways you experience the Matrix. In Fight Club, the only clergyman is a frail looking, overly polite little pipsqueak provoked by a member of one of the fight clubs. He is weak compared to this real man, and ultimately abandons the social norms of nonviolence to attack the him, after being contemptuously sprayed with a hose. He is, perhaps, a hypocrite, or at least inconsistent with what we can assume are his principles.

But what if this picture is wrong? What if the reason we’re in this bind is that we have rejected a truly religious world, and look to a merely material world to give us meaning? We tell ourselves that there is nothing beyond the physical world, that we are no more than a complicated bit of chemistry. There is no life beyond this, no reality more lasting than the pain or pleasure our bodies feel right now. And after that, there is nothing. Is it any wonder we want to indulge ourselves while we’re still here?

I’m not suggesting a world of self-interested monsters, only a world of reasonable people. Why trouble yourself with antiquated religious taboos about sexuality, abortion, and respect for elders when it’s all going to rot anyways? Why make someone feel guilty for doing what we’re all doing—just trying to get through the day? Life is hard enough without being threatened with hellfire.

But again, what if that materialistic outlook is not true? What if the cosmos really is the produce of an entity that, though he may be far more than a “person” as we would understand it, is certainly not less? What if he not only created us, but is—contra Tyler Durden—actually interested in us?

People who reject fundamentalist Christianity often make the mistake of thinking that this idea is comforting, but the truth is often quite the opposite. As I’ve already indicated, it’s not for nothing that social liberals are easily annoyed by religious conservatives. Religious conservatives believe that God is interested in us, including being interested that we not do certain things. If there are objective, transcendent values, the kind a truly supernatural entity can give, that means that we can be wrong. Who we sleep with and how we spend our time is suddenly somebody else’s business, and that’s uncomfortable.

This cuts right against our sense of freedom. How dare someone call me a sinner, how dare someone judge me. Isn’t this a free country? Don’t I get to do what I want with my own money, with my own time, with my own body? This religion which rejects the kind of freedom at the base of neoliberalism, and the resultant dehumanization of consumers and employees, also rejects the basis of social liberalism.

Rejecting economic liberalism is one thing—most of us do not benefit much from it. But social liberalism is something that daily allows us to indulge ourselves. The average joe profits from the ability to buy anything, watch anything, drink anything, and sleep with anyone in a way he does not benefit from the profit margins seen by the big wigs in corporate. A morally judgmental Christianity is not an attractive alternative to the kind of consumerism from which he benefits.

But perhaps that is because those who reject the consumerist, neoliberal society on one level are themselves a product of it. We have found an enemy, but the enemy is us. We are still trapped in the service of our own desires, and we need a system that frees us to do that, that subsidizes our self-indulgence.

In another movie—Doctor Strange—the titular character is having a conversation with the Ancient One, who is in a particularly conversant mood. As she contemplates both death and the mysteries of life, she gives Strange some final advice, something to help him along his path to enlightenment and true self-knowledge.

The Ancient One: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”

Dr. Stephen Strange: “Which is?”

The Ancient One: “It’s not about you.”

The Cave, The Matrix, Buddha, and the Great Commission

Imagine you are trapped in a cave. You have been here all your life. Your head is locked in place with straps, facing a screen. On that screen is projected a series of images, provided with sound effects. You have never left your chair. This is the only life you have ever known. For you, what appears on that screen is reality.

These images and the voices that speak for them are put there by group of puppeteers hidden behind a screen, tending the fire that backlights their puppets, projecting shadows on the wall. One day you are set free, and you turn to see the trick that has been played on you. At first you are in denial, and do not understand what you are seeing. The light hurts your eyes. Then you find the way out. You leave the cave into open sunlight. If the firelight hurt, this is blinding. It takes a long time for your eyes to adjust, but eventually you come to see the real world.

Would you go back to free the others? What if you had to be strapped back in the chair while you convinced them? What if they had been told this before, if it was a standard rumor passed around the cave, always rejected out of hand? You left behind that life watching shadows dance, and have forgotten how to interpret them. What if they call you a fool, because you know longer understand the only world they have ever known?

Would you go back?

This story is drawn from Plato’s Republic. He believes that life is like this, that the majority of people are concerned with a world that is fading, finite, only half-real. It is the path of the philosopher to escape that world and learn about the eternal things, the higher, better reality beyond this world of shadows. Humanity, he says, has a problem. We need to brought out into the light, but we violently resist those who would bring us. How then can we hope to be delivered?

If you’ve ever watched The Matrix, something similar is going on. All of humanity is trapped in a giant computer simulation. We think we live in the late nineties, but in reality it’s two centuries later, and the robots have us all plugged into this illusion to keep us quiet while use our bodies as batteries. The science is a bit off, but just roll with it.

In this story, there are people who have escaped the Matrix and live in a hidden society—Zion. Zion sends certain people back, people who willingly plug themselves back into the Matrix so they can help others escape. But in doing this, they must be willing to sacrifice their own lives. The machines that created this illusion and keep it running are quite capable of killing anyone plugged in, and so a trip back could turn deadly.

This idea in classical Western philosophy and modern pop culture is mirrored in Eastern philosophy as well. Mahayana Buddhism—the more dominant of the three main schools of Buddhism—is centered around a character called the bodhisattva.

            This world is a world of unsatisfied desires and therefore suffering, and by pursuing a certain path we can achieve a state of enlightenment wherein we no longer crave what cannot obtain. This is nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, one of the other two schools, you reach nirvana and that’s it. You’ve escaped the cycle of death and rebirth and no longer suffer. But in Mahayana, the goal is to become a person who has achieved nirvana, or come incredibly close, but stays in this world to help others become enlightened as well. Such a person is called a bodhisattva.

C.S. Lewis wrote about a dying-and-rising god present in mythologies throughout the world. He suggested that this character was universal because there was an element of truth to it, some hidden knowledge in the human soul that such a person must exist. That person, it turned out, was Jesus. This mythical archetype was, in a way, a foretaste of the Gospel.

In Plato’s philosopher who returns to the cave, there likely to die, and in the heroes of The Matrix and the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, we see this repeated pattern of the freed or enlightened one who returns to suffer with his people. This person offers salvation to those who would otherwise be too blind to recognize the predicament they were in, much less be capable of escape.

Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He was perfect in every way, and perfectly happy. He had no need to suffer the way we do. Despite this, he took on flesh and walked among us. He knew starvation, ridicule, heartbreak, weariness, loneliness, rootlessness—every form of suffering or temptation common to man. To save mankind, the people made in his image, he went into the prison we had created for ourselves and lived among the prisoners, telling us of the kingdom of God, offering freedom. For this, we killed him. But then he overcame death.

The story of Christ parallels the others, but the depths of the descent are more profound. It would be as if a man who had never been in Plato’s cave, only heard of it, chose to go down to rescue the people. Not only did he go down, but when he knew it meant his death, he did not run away. It’s as if someone who had never been in the Matrix had themselves outfitted with plugs and inserted in, risking a death they would never otherwise have to face. It’s not as if a man became enlightened and returned as a bodhisattva to help us all, but as if nirvana itself, enlightenment as a person rather than a state, descended into the world of illusion and suffering to lead us all back out.

It is this image of Christ we see a distant echo of in these three stories. But both the echo and the reality have a lesson for those of us who were born in the cave. Christ has come to set us free, but that is not a license to escape. We are not here on earth biding our time until the chariot sweeps us away.

Take up your cross and follow him.

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.

Return to your brothers in chains, those trapped in the wickedness of their own hearts, in the blindness of a dark world, go back and show them the light. Though they reject you, though they cast you out, though they mock and crucify you, do not leave them alone. Do not let them perish in darkness. Share the Gospel. Show them the Way. Set them free as you have been set free, risking all as Christ risked all.


“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Let Us Now Praise the Carpenter

Let us now praise the carpenter, and the things that he made,
And the way that he lived by the tools of his trade.
I can still hear his hammer singing ten penny time,
Working by the hour till the day he died.

Oh, he was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

Oh he worked his hands in wood from the crib to the coffin,
With a care and a love you don’t see too often.
He built boats out of wood–big boats–working in a shipyard,
Mansions on the hill, and a birdhouse in the backyard.

He was tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
He was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
He was square with the world. He took good care of his tools.

He said “Anything that’s worth cuttin’ down a tree for
Is worth doin’ right. Don’t the Lord love a two by four!”
Well they asked him how to do somethin’ he’d say, “Just like Noah built the ark.
You got to hold your mouth right son, and never miss your mark

To be tough as a crowbar, quick as a chisel,
Fair as a plane, and true as a level.
Be was straight as a chalk line, and right as a rule.
Square with the world. You take good care of your tools.”

A life of working hard at a craft and a well-earned reputation for virtue are things to strive for, whatever your profession.

Here’s Guy Clark singing a live version.

This is what good country is about–telling stories or passing on wisdom through sung poetry. And that, I believe, is the very heart of a “folk” music tradition, the kind of music that builds, reinforces, and defines a community. It does not merely entertain, it illustrates and embodies what the community is about.

Taken from that perspective, country music has historically been remarkable for embodying that kind of music in a mass market context. The way we often treat music as pure entertainment with no greater purpose, and as a thing of passing fads, is not conducive to a culture that creates or values songs like this. For country, however, that was a selling point for a long time.

One way to build our communities is to nurture this kind of music, whatever label it falls under. Folk, Americana, some brands of rock, blues, soul, or jazz, all can potentially tell stories and pass on values. Wherever you find yourself musically and regionally, this is something to consider. A strong community is reinforced by a strong musical tradition.

There is something missing in this picture, of course. One reason music of this kind doesn’t survive well in America is because it’s hard to pass on actual songs. They are protected by copyright, because we believe music belongs to the artist first and not to the community. We cannot re-sing, re-write, or modify old songs to suit new singers, because we do not own them. And so we don’t write songs that are meant to be treated that way.

If we want to build strong communities, we should think through this understanding of the artist and what art is meant to be.