In November 2021 hundreds of people turned up at Dealey Plaza in Dallas (the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963) because they and their fellow QAnon believers had managed to convince themselves that both JFK and John F. Kennedy Jr. were not dead and were going to appear there to “reinstate” Donald Trump as president.
This did not happen. But the QAnon folks simply shook it off as they have shaken off other instances where reality failed to accord with their will. This is a case of what I have come to term magical thinking. And it has a long heritage both inside and outside the church.
By magical thinking I refer neither to stage magic nor to claims of occult activity involving spirits, ghosts, or demons. Rather, I refer to the tendency of humans to attempt to deny, overwrite, and replace reality by force of will. This is a parody of the Christian doctrine of creation through the Word of God, replacing it with anticreation by the power of the word of man. The effort to control and dictate reality, rather than humbly submit to the Word who creates reality, is connected with the sin of pride. It expresses itself in dominating personalities that promise their followers salvation through the triumph of their wills. In a minor key, it also expresses itself in the frightened followers themselves who are brainwashed and intimidated into believing and doing all manner of things in the service of the alternate reality conjured.
An archetypal picture of how pride is connected with magical thinking can be found in Acts 8:9–24, in the story of Simon Magus. Simon is a big noise in Samaria, a local wonderworker who is hailed as the “Power of God that is called Great.” We are not told what he does or how, nor whether his feats are clever tricks or genuinely preternatural. But clearly for Simon, the goal is power.
When the gospel spreads to Samaria, many people believe in all sincerity, seeking to obey Christ in love and service of the truth of his Lordship. But Simon, in contrast, reads the signs accompanying baptism (such as the gift of tongues or miraculous healings) through the lens of his desire for power. Simon “believed” and is baptized, evidently in a quest to add this new source of power to his bag of tricks.
Consequently, when Peter and John come to Samaria to confer what we now call the sacrament of confirmation on the newly baptized, Simon offers Peter money to buy into the franchise and become a “power distributor” himself. The idea that the grace of God is free and not a commodity he can own, buy, and sell never dawns on him, much less the idea of surrendering his will to Jesus. He wants to make the sovereign God of the universe a pet or possession he can control. Peter, appalled by Simon’s radically unconverted heart and mind, reams him out accordingly. Simon Magus’ “belief” is a strange half-belief that sees Jesus not as a Lord to obey but as a totem to exploit for his own ends. Peter’s lesson is clear: The God of the universe is not for sale nor a thing to be owned, exploited, and controlled. God’s grace is grace, not magic, and God’s will is done according to God’s Word, not whistled up and controlled by our words.