November 7, 2018

Magic Words

MagicAs children, most of us learned about "bad" words. That is, we learned that we'd be punished by parents and teachers for saying certain words. We weren't always given great reasons why certain words were "bad," but we learned not to say them in certain contexts. I learned, for example, that there was a big difference between my father using "bad" words" after accidentally cutting himself on a saw blade and me yelling the same thing in my 4th-grade classroom because another kid tripped me.

Some of us also learned about a different category of words that were supposed to be far more dangerous than run-of-the-mill bad words because they might affect how some sort of god would regard us. It was possible, some of us were taught, to say things so bad that they might not be forgiven (e.g., certain forms of blasphemy regarding a "holy ghost"). Yikes!

What I mean by "magic words" here are words or phrases that, when uttered, bring about a change in the natural world through supernatural means. That is, real magic. I don't believe in any such thing, and I am not at all sure how many adults do. I suspect that there are at least some fundamentalist Christians who do believe in "magic words." They are probably the same people who forbid their children to read Harry Potter books. I'd guess they are also the same people who believe that listening to certain music can result in demonic possession.

For those who truly believe in magic, I would have to think that it must be a terrifying prospect. When these Christians hear about magicians performing in Las Vegas, do they clutch their pearls and mutter about "sorcery," the "dark arts," and pacts with Satan? I suppose they'd never set foot in Sin City, but it must really bother them that others do.

In any case, the belief that uttering a string of words in the form of a spell or incantation can affect the natural world through supernatural means seems like an odd one for the modern world. At least, it does right up until the moment one remembers prayer. What is prayer if it isn't magic? A Christian might argue that it is different somehow, but I'm not sure how them praying to their god is different from someone else praying to a different god, a demon, or some other entity. For those who believe in it, isn't prayer basically a series of magic words?