Columnists > Soul Food

Where is your trust?

In magic and warm fuzzies, or the shed blood of Christ?

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

Most Americans polled on the subject will say they believe in God, but Jehovah of Scripture is not who they have in mind. Such a definite, decisive, demanding Being does not fit the current notion of "spirituality" that has been a long time in the making. The idea of a non-specific, non-judgmental deity gained currency with the Romantic movement of the early 19th century. As the sharp edges rubbed off, general perceptions of God blurred more and more. Rather than a Person, "God" is more an idea of good will, infinity, and supernatural power that can stretch to fit most any situation, or sanction just about anything we want to do. After countless premature predictions of the death of religion, humanity still seems to know that something exists outside the material world. But if men will not be instructed by Scripture, the only other choices boil down to pantheism and paganism. The pagan practice of bringing prayers, blood, or incense to propitiate a supernatural being appeals to our commercial instinct-one gets what one pays for. But moderns don't like the idea of a "controlling" deity. For Baal or Ashtoreth, then, we substitute a benign omnipresence who makes few demands. It's a convenient union: To the disinterested creative energy of pantheism is added the wish-granting power of paganism. The result is an impersonal force on tap for deserving humans who need a miracle. It often goes by the name of "magic." This is the point of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett's much beloved children's classic, often retold on stage and screen. Mary, an orphan spoiled by indulgent nurses, has been sent to live with her uncle and his son Colin. Colin is a bitter child, due to lameness and alienation from his father, a widower who has locked himself away in grief. The cousins find a common bond in unhappiness. But things begin to change when Mary discovers an abandoned garden behind a stone fence and slowly brings it back to life with the help and guidance of Dickon, an unassuming country lad. This is all the plot, as Mary learns to put aside her selfish ways and Colin gains the courage to walk. (Dickon has nothing to learn-having the benefit of growing up close to the earth, he already knows it all.) Even Colin's father comes out of his long depression and opens up his heart-all through the agency of Mary's secret garden whose power, according to Dickon's saintly mother, is "the Magic." All it takes to please the Magic, apparently, is hard work and simple faith; the churches are full of good country folk who bask in its gentle glow. God is not mentioned. The Secret Garden was published over 100 years ago, and its popularity has never flagged. Though rather stagnant in plot, the tale is beautifully written and resonates with supposed hope for healing. Mrs. Burnett's solution to the heartaches of life is one that anyone can try, granted the energy to do some serious work with a hoe. The book also appears to pack a solid moral punch in its exploration of the ways that self-centeredness withers the soul. But the lesson is rendered pointless by the references to Magic as the means of overcoming selfishness. A sin so pivotal to fleshly nature cannot be overcome without regeneration by the Holy Spirit. True reform of any other kind only happens in fiction, or the movies. In fact, this simple-minded notion of making the world right is the sort of thing that special effects were invented for. Increasingly, "family entertainment" films offer up tales of decent people overcoming temptation, opposition, abandonment, or a bad ball season with supernatural help. The theme is often expressed as a question: "Do you believe in magic?" (or the variation, "Do you believe in miracles?") When a character asks that, we may be sure that the scruffy-looking stranger is really an angel. Or that Santa is real, or that the villain's heart is on the verge of melting, or that a sparkly glow is about to suffuse the outer the edges of the screen. Christians had better develop tougher minds than the wishful-thinking world. Our God teaches us the way things really are: No "magic," positive thoughts, or good intentions can overcome the evil around us, or the evil in ourselves. Our enemy is a raging lion, seeking whom he may devour. Our only hope is in the shed blood of Christ; our only defense is his drawn sword.

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Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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