Question time

Friday, 27 February

In response to my contrived answer to his question, Leonard apologised and explained that he had assumed that I was a Christian because a) I am a theologian and b) I am a church organist, which was a reasonable assumption given the evidence. Having accounted for my interest in the study of religion, I allowed a little honesty to creep into our conversation at that point and I admitted that my decision to take up playing the church organ was also driven by entirely mercenary motivations. While my initial intentions may have been to learn more about Christianity, to expand my repertoire of musical instruments, to contribute to the life of the community and all the usual sentimental blather, I quickly learned that the Church is wealthy, it is willing to pay a high price for its staff and it is by no means ashamed to charge extortionate fees to even the poorest of families who come for weddings, funerals and baptisms. Consequently this convenient stream of income soon became the main attraction, especially when student life and university fees were later thrown into the mix.

Leonard found my honesty to be very amusing and he confessed that his dealings with the Church were complex too, to say the least. Still evidently unsure as to the precise nature of my spiritual persuasions, he broached the subject of his own religious beliefs very cautiously at first, explaining that he considered himself to be a Christian in some ways but not in our common understanding of the word. This was a curious revelation and the budding theologian in me would not allow this disclosure to pass by without hearing more, although it seemed unfair to pursue the matter as I had not been entirely honest with my own answer. Nevertheless after a little gentle questioning he revealed that he was sympathetic to the teachings of Jesus but he said that he was privy to special knowledge that prevented him from accepting the doctrines of Christianity and subscribing to everything that the Christian religion entails.

He paused at that point and put down his pencil and gave me a strange look. In hindsight it was the kind of hesitant look that someone gives you when they are on the cusp of revealing something that is very confidential and/or very incriminating. It is a measured assessment of how the listener will react and a careful consideration of the consequences that will follow from the revelation of the secret. The question that he then asked was quite bold in view of his previously delicate manner of conversation.

“Do you believe that Jesus was divine, Helen?” 

The direct nature of the question caused me to shift uncomfortably in my seat, largely due to a genuine wish to avoid causing offence but also because a debilitating surge of scholarly theories came rushing to my mind and rendered me almost speechless. An awkward silence began to settle in the room and so Leonard took it upon himself to continue his interrogation.

“Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?” he pressed further.

I thought it best to play safe and so I answered with a vague “I’m not sure…” which appeared to frustrate Leonard greatly. Clearly tired of my avoidant behaviour, he sat back in his chair and tried a different approach. 

“In that case,” he said, “let me ask you this; do you believe in magic?” 

I laughed at first and I remember my reaction vividly as Leonard’s stern expression caused me to instantly correct myself. My comprehension of the word ‘magic’ is, I expect, fairly typical and a composite jumble of half-digested images came tumbling out in response, consisting primarily of Mickey Mouse wearing a pointy wizard’s hat in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, a vague memory of the witch trials from history lessons at school, pictures of old women with broomsticks and ugly warts in children’s books, late night TV programmes showing illusionists performing amazing card tricks and a cute guy that I once met in a bar who made my ten-pound note disappear only to recover it from inside his beer glass. 

Leonard’s grin widened as he listened to me speak, or rather fumble, for a few minutes until I settled on the classic scholarly cop-out of etymology and I replied that my answer would ultimately depend upon his definition of the word ‘magic’; is he asking whether I am a fan of stage magic that is performed by a sharp-dressed entertainer equipped with a black and white-tipped wand, a glamorous assistant and a fluffy white rabbit? Or is he asking whether I believe in the ritualistic, dancing-around-the-cauldron-at-night kind of magic? Leonard considered my counter-question for a second and then he launched into a lecture on the various interpretations of the word ‘magic’ in the ancient and modern world. The conversation was very interesting indeed but I was struggling to maintain concentration because my attention was being constantly drawn towards a number of curious objects within my line of sight and my mind was already largely preoccupied with the uncomfortable demands of making polite conversation with a stranger. And this discomfort was greatly accentuated by the fact that I was acutely aware that this stranger was drawing me (I understood how a celebrity must feel when fielding difficult questions while all the time being peered at by a cameraman’s lens, although the presence of a snoring dog and the smell of turpentine were far less glamorous!).

We talked at length about my modern-day ‘world-view’, as Leonard called it, and how it affects my understanding of my immediate environment and influences my interactions with the world around me. Leonard took great pains to demonstrate how my modern-day world-view is different to the world-view of the people who lived in the ancient world and consequently my understanding and use of certain words and concepts may be considerably dissimilar to the general understanding and use of the same word or concept in antiquity. Taking the word ‘magic’ as an example, Leonard said that whereas our ancestors believed in the reality of magic and the existence of magical creatures and they constructed elaborate hierarchies of angelology and demonology to complement their day-to-day activities, the modern-day individual tends to ridicule the existence of real magic and magical beings such as angels and demons are ‘condemned to be the corporate stalwarts of sickly greeting cards and sweaty rock bands’, as Leonard rather amusingly lamented. Since the word ‘magic’ no longer evokes the fears and expectations that it did for our ancestors and it is not a concept that we encounter on a regular day-to-day basis, the modern-day individual does not experience the same emotional response as the first readers upon encountering the word in an ancient text, for example, and certain words and actions within an early text that once carried clear implications of magical activity may be passed over and ignored by the modern-day reader.

And then came the interesting part. He said that this potential for conflict between the modern and ancient world-views must be taken into account when engaging with an ancient text such as the Bible and we must be aware that although a certain passage in the Bible may wash over the majority of modern readers without raising any alarm bells whatsoever, certain words or actions within the same passage may have carried serious and significant implications for the early reader who approached the text with an ancient world-view. Leonard became hesitant at that point and he was clearly fighting with himself like a little boy desperate to reveal a secret. I had no idea where our conversation was heading but I suspected that Leonard was going to draw a parallel between the modern day rejection of the existence of magic and the modern day rejection of the divinity of Jesus and he would encourage me to consider the Gospels as a product of the ancient world-view, however it transpired that the subject of magic was far more intimately connected with his initial question than I had anticipated. 

After a few more minutes of skirting around the main issue, Leonard explained that if I abandoned my modern world-view and approached the Gospels through the eyes of a first-century reader then I would see that the Gospels are saturated with magical practices and, most importantly, I would encounter passages in which Jesus appears less like a miracle-worker and more like a magician. This statement sounded ridiculous at first and I responded in the same way that anyone would upon hearing such a claim - i.e. “are you serious? Who on earth would call Jesus a magician?” - and I was quick to point out what I thought was the obvious stumbling-block in his reasoning...

“But the Bible tells us that Jesus used the Holy Spirit to perform his miracles, not magic…”
There was a pause.
“Do you really think that?” came Leonard’s amused reply.

For a moment I thought that he was teasing me, but I could see that he was deadly serious. Maybe Leonard isn’t an artist after all, I thought, maybe he is just a crackpot theologian who is seeking a sympathetic ear for his outrageous theories.