Sunday, September 20, 2015

Study and Application

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:15)

In Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, set in an alternative version of early 19th century England where magic exists, the members of the society of magicians in the city of York are described thus:

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic — nor ever done anyone the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

Their sole occupation is the study of magic and the great magicians of the past, and to come together periodically to debate, or more likely argue, their various viewpoints. Although the question of why there is no more magic done in England is asked frequently by many people, these so-called magicians would never dream of actually practicing the craft — it is something that is just not done.

In contrast, the two title characters are magicians who actually do magic. Neither man is perfect, and sometimes their motives are entirely self-serving, with the aim of bringing fame and recognition to themselves. Even so, they use their powers to try to help, whether it is by bringing a young woman back to life or by manipulating the weather to give Wellington’s army the advantage over the French. They both study quite a bit, but then they put their knowledge to use.

When I first started reading the description of the “magicians” at the beginning of this book, I couldn’t help but think of the so-called “Christians” who spend much time studying the Bible and going to church but in the end only seem to use their knowledge to argue with others and lambaste those whose interpretation is different. They do not seem to actually practice Christianity by showing compassion or feeding the hungry or caring for the sick. Like the York society they have never done anyone the slightest good, and unlike those scholarly magicians, they might very well have done harm by militantly attempting to force their particular viewpoint on everyone else.

The Pharisees were the gentleman magicians of Jesus’s day, all study and no application, and these words of warning can be applied still. Woe to any of us who fall into the trap of endless study without practical application of our learning! Like Norrell and Strange, our actions will sometimes have unintended consequences and we may not always do them for the right reasons, but it is far better to make the attempt, heeding the words of James to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015


I lift up my eyes to the hills-- where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)

Tristran Thorn is on a journey. The protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust promised anything in the world to the girl he thinks he loves, and she asked for the star that they had just seen fall from the sky, so Tristran takes off into Faerie in search of this treasure. When he reaches the place that he knows the star landed, he finds not a lump of molten rock and metal as he expected, but a beautiful girl in a sparkly dress whose leg was broken in her fall from the heavens.

He claims the star and begins to take her back to his home in the village of Wall, but she is not very pleased to be captured. When at one point she escapes, he fears he will never find her again, especially when sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep beneath a tree. When he wakes, he finds that the tree is talking to him and offering to help him, but having been warned to be wary of everything in Faerie, he is sceptical.

The tree rustled. 'Why don't you tell me your story so far,' said the tree, 'and let me be the best judge of whether or not I can be of help.’
Tristran began to protest. He could feel the star moving further and further away from him, at the speed of a cantering unicorn, and if there was one thing he did not have time for, it was the recitation of the adventures of his life to date. But then it occurred to him that any progress he had made on his quest so far he had made by accepting the help that had been offered to him. So he sat on the woodland floor and he told the copper beech everything he could think of…

I think the same could be said of everyone — we get by with a little help from our friends, to borrow a song lyric, but help is not always easy to accept. Pride gets in the way sometimes, or maybe, like Tristran, we fear the ulterior motives that might be lurking behind the seemingly kind gesture. In the end, though, we have to realize that we will never make any progress unless we accept the help that is offered to us — from family, from friends, from complete strangers, and ultimately, from God. We will never catch our fallen stars without it.