Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Render Unto Caesar

In the last little while a few people have asked me what exactly I mean when I talk about magic, and I'll admit I had a hard time putting my finger on it. That was a good indication to me that some writing on the subject was required.

I don't mean the type of magic that allows one to levitate objects with one's mind or hex people from afar, or even the kind that allows one to create complex potions or machines whose workings are mysterious to the uninitiated. To my mind, magic is an art that deals with the inner world only, but it would be a mistake to say that that makes it an imaginary art, or one that deals only with the imaginary. Or perhaps it does, if our thoughts and feelings can be said to be imaginary, or if personality and will are constructs, which they may well be. But those aren't meaningful questions, to my mind.

My best explanation so far (and it's an amateur's explanation) is inspired by something I once heard a master poet say: a wizard is someone who can slip below the surfaces of things, and see the depth of meaning where others see only surface. Magic is the discipline of deepening one's awareness of those meanings and one's competence in manipulating them. I tried to think of a less sinister-sounding world than 'manipulate', but couldn't. The temptation to use magic for dark purposes is in the nature of the art itself.

Everything we see and touch and taste has layers and layers of meaning which most of the time we fail to notice. Dante, when he presented his Divine Comedy to Cangrande della Scala, instructed the Italian nobleman to read the poem on four different levels of meaning, but for the most part we live on the surface of things. Modern culture has a well-developed sense of the bigness of the world, but hardly any appreciation of its deepness.

Religious practice is often a matter of carefully drawing out the deeper meanings through ritualized reflection and contemplation, but as religious practice has waned in the West, that role has been taken over more and more by departments of literary studies. And whereas religious discourse is at ease reading meaning into almost any physical object at hand, students of literature deal almost exclusively with texts, and as a result the ability to read images and physical objects has declined almost to nothing in our time.

To illustrate this idea I'm going to set magic aside and share a pair of stories that have been on my mind this week. They both take place in first-century Palestine, where Roman colonizers had ruled since the forces of Gnaeus Pompeius invaded in 63 BCE. Pompeius had conquered Jerusalem, dared to enter the holiest inner sanctuary of the Temple, and set up a series of client kings whose job it was to ensure that tribute flowed smoothly toward Rome. That series of kings included such benevolent monarchs as the infanticidal Herod the Great, and that tribute became taxation in 6 CE, when Herod's sons were deposed and the region formally became the Roman province of Iudaea. Direct Roman rule wasn't exactly gentle either- if you got between the colonizers and their tax revenue, you got crucified.

The first story I have in mind comes from the gospel of Mark, chapter 12 (I'm quoting the English Standard Version here):
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.
At first reading, it seems like Jesus has pulled a slick dodge by appealing to the concept of separation of church and state. But the mental categories of first-century people didn't match up with the ones in which we neatly slot 'church' and 'state' today, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn't have been separate. Caesar, the name claimed by the Roman emperors who succeeded Julius Caesar after his defeat of Gnaeus Pompeius and conquest of the Roman Republic, was by this time the name of a living god. It was a point of extreme tension in Roman Iudaea as to whether the emperor's statue would be erected as an object of veneration inside the walls of Jerusalem. What Jesus was actually saying was pretty edgy, since he was rejecting outright the authority of foreign, earthly, Roman power over his people, the Jews.

The second story goes even deeper, and it's one that Jesus himself tells. We have two versions recorded, one in Matthew 25 and one in Luke 19, but both involve a rich man who goes away on a journey, entrusts vast sums of money to his servants to manage in his absence, and then returns and judges their handling of the money. Those who have increased the master's holdings through crafty investments are given charge of more, while the one who chose to bury the money (or lay it away in a napkin, depending on the version) is either banished or slaughtered before the master's eyes, again, depending on the version.

This is almost always interpreted as an instruction to use wisely and productively the gifts God has seen fit to give us, whether those gifts are monetary or more intangible, like skills or time. The fact that the ridiculously large sums of money are called 'talents' in the Matthew story just reinforces this view of the story. But there's a very different, and much more fitting interpretation put forward by theologian Ched Myers.

Luke's version of the story begins with some extra details about the rich master: he's a nobleman who travels to a far country 'to receive for himself a kingdom and then return'. While he's away his people send a delegation after him with the message that they hate him and don't want him to be their king, but whoever's handing out kingdoms gives it to him anyway. It just so happens that a young Herod the Great made a similar journey to Rome in 40 or 39 BCE to ask for the support of the young emperor Caesar Augustus against Herod's rivals. Augustus must have agreed, because the Roman Senate appointed Herod King of the Jews and sent him home, where he ruled with an iron fist for 37 years. Jesus was born in the last years of Herod's reign, and narrowly escaped the slaughter of all the male infants of Bethlehem when rumour reached Herod that a rival 'King of the Jews' had been born.

This is the context of our quaint Bible stories about the proper uses of money. As my readers know, Roman history is a subject near and dear to my heart, but I want to now set that aside and take up the physical object at the heart of both stories I've told: the coin. Whether it's a denarius, a talent, or a mina (the last two actually represent weights of precious metals that may or may not have been converted into coinage), the currency of the realm bore Caesar's face stamped on it. No first-century Jew could have forgotten for a moment the link between Caesar's coins in their pockets and Caesar's crosses outside the city gates. To bury Caesar's likeness, or to put his likeness in a napkin resembling a burial shroud, was to symbolically wish him dead.

If you take up a coin in your hand today, you still see a face stamped on one side. In Canada our Caesar is Elizabeth, Queen of the British Commonwealth, a kindly old woman who delivers a speech on TV each year at Christmastime. But her image on a flattened disc of metal represents a power greater than that wielded by the Caesars: the power to colonize, ravage, and tax whole continents; the power to level whole forests and sell them for shipping skids; the power to make whole nations labour in dismal factories for a handful of those coins each day. Rome may have fallen, but make no mistake: Caesar is alive and well today.

I addressed these stories to a small group at the church I attend this past Sunday, and what I wanted to point out was that one of the central rituals of Christian worship services, the passing of the collection plate, is an expression of the contradiction at the heart of the life of the church. We want to have both Jesus' stories and Caesar's wealth, but because we live on the surfaces of things we remain unconscious of the irreconcilability of what the two men stood for, and stand for still if their legacies mean anything at all. I raised the issue in a church setting because religious communities are one of the rare places outside the cloisters of university English departments and corporate branding teams where questions of symbolic meaning can be discussed, and because I think that remaining collectively unconscious is a recipe for disaster.

Where does magic fit in? If my amateur's definition suits, then theologians, poets, and advertising executives are all engaged in forms of magical tinkering, some for noble ends and some not. All three are finely tuned to the deeper meanings and emotional resonances of symbols, and all three have the power to articulate and shape thoughts and longings. This is dangerous stuff, but if the David Suzuki's and Jon Young's of the world want to make a difference where it counts, in the imaginary realms of human motivation, then they're going to need to apprentice in the imaginary arts of magic.

I think that's enough ragging on two very good-hearted and hardworking men, for now at least, so I'm going to leave off this train of thought and take a story break next week. Afterward, who knows? There may be more to be explored in this vein, or there may be other avenues to explore. We'll see what the weather brings.

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