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.”