On Magic

Perhaps in the modern world we do not believe
in sorcerers or witchcraft. But we do know what Taylor
Swift means when she says that she was “enchanted”
to meet you. Magic and sorcery have not left this
world. We experience magic in modern love.

Perks of Being a Wallflower, a film based on the book
by Stephen Chbosky, ends with this beautiful, tumblr-
favorite voice-over by the main character, Charlie
(Logan Lerman): “This is happening, I am here and I
am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it.
This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story.
You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights
on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder.
And you’re listening to that song and that drive
with the people you love most in this world. And in
this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

The monologue contains two main ideas: the idea
of “infinity” (a secular reiteration of the religious notion
of “eternity”) and “her”—his crush, Sam (Emma
Watson). The closing lines not only juxtapose but
also con”ate the supernatural and the romantic, for
Charlie jumps abruptly from his love for Sam “she is
so beautiful,” into describing his “moment” of feeling
“infinite.” It is as though Charlie does not need to
justify the connection between the “infinite” and his
feelings for Sam; to Charlie, perhaps, the two are so
obviously and intimately connected. Maybe Charlie
does not think that romantic love is what saves him
and makes him “infinite,” but he uses terms that connote
the supernatural or the divine in order to describe
his feelings of being in love. He assumes that
the magic of the moment – signified by the “lights on
the buildings” and the perfect song – is connected or
even equivalent to divine goodness, because the magic
feels so good. By assuming that magic and the divine
are connected, Charlie implicitly asks: how could
God (a.k.a. “infinity”) not be part of a thoroughly
magical moment? Thus, the movie ends with the following
feel-good implication: the divine is always
found in the happiest, magical, beautiful moments in
life.

The above message is common in Hollywood.
Magic—the electric (often sexual) pull between two
people—is popularly considered to be a manifestation
of the Divine; magic seems possible only with the consent of the supernatural force of the universe, a.k.a fate or God.

It is indeed hard to believe that
God’s good hand is absent in an encounter so strong
and seemingly supernatural. The perceived goodness
of magic drives Hollywood to continue to capture and
sell magical romances through the perfect shot of a
man’s steady gaze, the lush romantic film score, or the
witty and unnaturally fluid dialogue in the impeccably
orchestrated meet-cute. The Notebook, How I Met Your
Mother, and even Taylor Swift all seek to convince us
that magic saves, that magical romance is the supernatural
mark of true love, and that love without magic
is powerless. The gospel of Hollywood – Hollywood’s
conception of the “infinite” – is the ultimate magical
romantic relationship: the magical encounter is the ultimate
signifier of the divine and will deliver you from
feeling like a “sad story.”

The Hollywood gospel is easily translated into
Christian lingo. For example, it is easy to think: The
circumstances seem to be so perfect that they must be
God-ordained. The man understands me so completely
and unusually that God must have created us for one another.
The feeling is near any religious experience I’ve had
– it must be a miracle. I don’t know how to describe this
feeling in ordinary terms. It feels so right. It is easy for
Christians to connect surprising and unusually strong
romantic chemistry to God and His plan—even in relationships
that are ultimately distance one from the
love of Christ.

But what does the Bible say about magic? Is magic
always the work of God?

“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears
among you and announces to you a sign
or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of
takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow
other gods” (gods you have not known) “and
let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:13).

One might object that this passage is irrelevant to the
discussion of romantic love, for this passage in Deuteronomy
addresses dreams and actual works of magic that
are somewhat obscure in the modern world. Perhaps,
though, “signs” and “wonders” include any seemingly
supernatural occurrence, and romance, as silly as it may
seem, can seem like a supernatural experience. “Magic”
is not a merely hyperbolic expression for some when
they use it to describe their romances.

One might also cringe at the citing of Deuteronomy,
which can stir controversy when quoted out of context.
One can, however, make some important and
more general observations about the relationship between
God and magic. First, Moses states that inexplicable
signs and wonders – which arguably characterize
the modern-day Hollywood romance with, for example,
Charlie’s romantic night drive with the bright “lights on
buildings” – are not always from God. The state of feeling
“infinite” therefore is not necessarily from God.
Second, Moses provides the Israelites with a way to
discern whether to trust certain “signs” or “wonders”: if
the worker of magic leads one away from the Lord and
encourages the worship of other gods and idols, then the
magic is not to be trusted. If the magical romantic encounter
leads to a relationship that leads one away from
the Lord and towards the idolatry of sex, money, beauty,
or even the beloved, then the magic is not to be trusted.
And third, magic can simply be a test; intense romantic
attraction towards another person can simply be a
test of how much we love God. Though romantic love –
when it helps us to serve the Lord and exhibit Christ’s
love – can be wonderful and godly, our boyfriends and
girlfriends can become idols in our lives and therefore
compete with the Lord for our love and devotion. By
stating that the Lord “tests” our love, Moses implicitly
reminds the Israelites that they should “love the Lord
your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
And why should they? Because the magic – the miracles,
the power to save, the unimaginable glory – of the Lord
is greater than any other source of magic, and it is only
sensible to love Him and only Him.

Perks of Being a Wallflower has become an anthem for
introverted romantics; the happiness and the supposed
redemption of Charlie and Sam at the end of the film
convinces its viewers that the Charlie’s experience of
love is ideal. The idea of a magical love that makes one
feel “infinite,” saved, and in touch with the supernatural
is indeed appealing, but the book of Deuteronomy seem
to rigidly separate magical signs and wonders from
God’s will; they emphasize that magic can sometimes
distance us from the One who truly saves. In a world
where perfect romantic love – or maybe just perfect sex –
is sometimes esteemed above all else and tied thoughtlessly
and automatically to the supernatural, Christians
should be more wary of the mysteries and novelties of
magical romantic encounters, for not all magic is of
God. Ultimately, Christians do not need to place much
value in magic, whether they be fantastic wonders, prophetic
dreams, or ecstatic romance, for those who place
their faith in Christ experience the supreme magic of the
resurrection of Christ and his magical, miraculous romance
with the Church, his Bride.*

Originally published in the Logos Fall 2013 issue on Love, Sex, & Christianity

*Jesus Christ calls the Church his Bride: “Husbands,
love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and
gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing
her by the washing with water through the word,
and to present her to himself as a radiant church,
without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but
holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

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