Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared on BaptistsToday.org on July 30, 2011. At the time of publication, Cartledge was contributing editor and curriculum writer for Baptists Today.
I was struck, recently, by two quotations relative to words and magic. Neither included “abracadabra, “please,” or “thank you.”
One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett, but I just got around to reading his award-winning Nation (Harper, 2008). It’s officially a “young adult” novel, but thought-provoking for people of any age.
In the book, a teenage girl named Ermintrude — who prefers to call herself Daphne — was marooned on a tropical island following a tsunami that left very few survivors.
As two local women taught her to make an island version of beer — a process that included spitting in the brew and singing a magic song — Daphne observed that it couldn’t really be magic, because “Magic is just a way of saying ‘I don’t know’” (p. 157).
The other observation was spoken by Albus Dumbledore in the last of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
Toward the end of the movie, in the midst of the climactic redemptive death/netherworld/resurrection sequence, Harry has an after-death conversation with his mentor, the former headmaster at the Hogwarts school of wizarding, before returning to life.
As they discussed magic, a central theme through all of the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore said “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic … capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
Both Pratchett and Rowling, in the words of Daphne and Dumbledore, acknowledge that magic and words have a lot to do with each other.
We may not believe in magic, at least of the island kind that turns poison to beer or the wizarding sort that throws spells from wands, but we recognize the mystery of things beyond our understanding.
We may call those things magic, or we may attribute them to a mysterious power we think of as God, something well beyond ourselves.
At the same time, we recognize that we do possess a power that we can understand and call to hand: we may not be able to sing the island beer song or cast an alohamora spell, but we can send forth words that have the power to hurt or to heal.
Healing, of course, is preferable, and the act of blessing others can have such a powerful affect on others that some might call it … magic.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.