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Violence, Magic, and Bibleman

CAS’s Frankfurter interested in religion’s practice, not theology


David Frankfurter (below) fears violence over the proposed Manhattan mosque. Photos by Vernon Doucette

The usual scholarly works of a religion professor on David Frankfurter’s bookshelf share space with some unexpected decorations: action figures ranging from St. Paul to Bibleman, the superhero of an evangelical Christian video series.

Scholarship and pop culture are inextricably linked for the new William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at the College of Arts & Sciences. Less interested in grand theological ideas than in the way religion is popularly practiced, Frankfurter studies rituals, belief in magic (asking saints’ intercession for some earthly goal, for example), “religious kitsch” (hence the action figures), and, more somberly, the link between religion and violence. Specializing in the Christianizing of ancient Egypt, Frankfurter hears dreadful echoes of religion’s violent past in the current debate over the Cordoba Initiative, the group seeking to build an Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Educated at Wesleyan, Harvard Divinity School, and Princeton, Frankfurter, who describes his own religious observance as “somewhat practicing Judaism,” comes to BU from the University of New Hampshire. His book Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History (Princeton University Press, 2006) won an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion. BU Today sounded Frankfurter out on these issues.

BU Today: What is the relationship between violence and religion?
I’m interested in rituals of violence—what people do to neutralize something they see as dangerous. A ritual might be monks in Egypt chipping away hieroglyphs and images on walls that they viewed as demonic. Another example would be burning of images or blowing them up—what the Taliban did to the Bamiyan Buddhas. Generally, religious violence involves the perception of some people or objects as obstructions to Christ’s return or purity or true religion.

Rituals are deeply embedded. Is it possible to sever the relationship between violence and religion?
No. Religion by its nature helps a group organize what’s sacred and nonsacred, establishes a moral system. It’s always wrestling with how intolerant to be. Youth, when they engage in religiosity, seek moral certainty, but moral certainty involves shunning things that are morally uncertain or polluting. I’m interested in the way in which it works; I have to leave it to liberal pastors and rabbis and imams to figure out the solutions to this kind of thing.

My book on evil was about how people come to imagine others as evil—what kinds of stories come up, how they envision these people.

That implies moderate believers have to come up with alternative narratives and rituals to elbow aside the demonizing ones.
I’m skeptical, because each of these traditions, especially Christianity, has a deeply ingrained demonological tradition, a way of viewing the dangerous “other” as being evil. A lot of these ideas then migrate into secular culture. I’m watching with great worry the debate about this Cordoba center. I’m from Manhattan and recently spent four days in southern Manhattan, and I’m seeing the same sentiments that led to lynchings and synagogue burnings in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the language of fear and impurity—basically bomb language, terrorism language, the same kind of image of one potential building as being a danger, a pollution. The language people are using to oppose it is very, very dangerous. This is the type of language I see through the history of religions as, in the past, mobilizing lynchings and destruction to cleanse the landscape.

Your study would suggest there might be violence to stop construction?
Right. The religious mind-set is that part of collective identity that locates impurity and sacredness.

Is magic’s role in religion positive, neutral, or negative?
We have to be careful about the term, because it’s been used as a way of marginalizing practices we don’t like. As an aspect of religion, I think it’s neutral. There’s a role for the private use of saints, as any Italian grandmother will assure you.

Your science colleagues might say there is ignorance about, and resistance to, science among too many religious believers—those who don’t believe in evolution, for example.
The enemy of scientific education is not magic practices. It’s when religious groups make claims about science—when they say evolution is dangerous to the proper interpretation of Genesis. The same people make false claims about Genesis. The creation story is not meant to be a framework for understanding dinosaurs. And the people opposing scientific education tend to think of themselves as modern and pure of superstitious, magical influences. It’s not the person burying the St. Joseph statue, it’s the fundamentalist Bible-believer.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


10 Comments on Violence, Magic, and Bibleman

  • John Deltuvia on 09.22.2010 at 7:38 am

    Theological underpinnings of modern violence in religion


    In your interest in rituals of violence as well as the violence itself, and given that all the religions that worship Abraham’s deity – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – hold the Torah in high regard: would you regard Deut. 7:1-5 as a seminal combination of the two, where worshipers of that deity are ordered by that deity to kill men, women, and children, show no mercy or quarter, and to cut down their sacred groves and burn images with fire as well?

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2010 at 9:46 am

    Magical Thinking is Pervasive

    Magical thinking…..For all our ‘modernity,’ there is a stubborn core of non-scientific, empirical secular belief that maskerades as science. This ‘normalizes’ the cognitive dissonance required for religious faith and fanaticism. ……… I’ll try to say that more plainly…. While there are proven, scientifically effective ingrdients in soap, such as surfactants, there are story driven ingredients such as placenta and wheat germ oil that have no proven basis to be chosen as an ingrediant. Yet there are really great stories, traditions, rational justifications and scientific sounding explanations why you should choose a placenta or what germ soap. Great arguments can be made why one ingredient is superior. While simple tests could resolve the issue, the tests are not done… Soap sales are based on complex, logicial stories rather than scientifically rational choice…. Millions of people in the USA participate in education. There are time honored traditions about how long people go to school, how many students per classroom, the color of the walls, the dress codes, the use of lecture. While tests could be done, relatively little is sone to determine how to effectively educate people – or to determine what an effective education looks like. ……… When we as a society are willing to base everyday choices like cleaning and schooling on unproven ‘facts’ it is a very small step to basing our entire view of life and death on unprovable ‘faith’

  • Jason on 09.22.2010 at 10:47 am

    Please broaden your view

    Magic, ignorance, and moderate believers to come up with alternatives… I think I learned more about the author’s narrow and stubborn anti-religious dogma than anything he was reporting on. He is ignorant of the great diversity each of us approaches faith. I have tremendous faith in God, have been convinced of evolution since I was a teenager, and am often engaging in introspection about my faith with other faiths and the world. The most brilliant contributor to science, Albert Einstein, believed in a creator. But yet we have people who are insistent in the name of science that religion has been disproved and is irrelevant, and they speak of this as if they are somehow intellectually superior. How stubborn and unscientific of anyone to think that science and religion can prove or disprove eachother.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2010 at 12:16 pm

    Extremist's attack on America, not Christianty's attack on Islam

    I’ve moved around from various churches and demominations, from Catholicism to non-demoninational churches. There was a peaceful theme in every one of them, teaching the words of Jesus. Whether people agree or disagree with allowing the New York mosque, whether they are aware of other’s ignorance of Islam or themselves are ignorant of Islam, most people are fully aware that the public disagreement over the New York mosque actually arose over the thousands of innocent murdered people, not about proving Christianity over another religion.

  • Anonymous on 09.22.2010 at 2:26 pm

    Magic's role in religion

    Magic is defined as “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces” (Oxford College Dictionary) and should not be confused with prayer. Christians who pray to saints ask those saints to petition God on their behalf. It is unfortunately true that confused or ignorant people have attributed magical powers to the saints themselves or to their images, but it would be unfair to claim that anyone who invokes a saint is practicing magic.

  • kcornuelle on 09.22.2010 at 5:02 pm

    The next time Mr. Barlow, or other writers for BU Today wish to comment on Catholic rituals, I suggest they make a stop at the Newman Center on Bay State Road.

    Belief in the intercession of the Saints (that is, asking the saints who have gone on before us to pray for our petitions just as we would ask friends or neighbors to do the same) is NOT “magic.” Magic is the intent to control supernatural forces. Asking for prayers is a simple act of faith in powers beyond human control. Huge difference.

    This is more than just a typographical error. I just can’t tell whether it’s truly profound ignorance or malice on his part. Either way, I lost interest in the rest of the article. The author has no idea what he’s talking about, so how insightful can the interview be?

    You can’t work toward religious tolerance or any kind of understanding where you have such blatant ignorance. You work for an institution of higher education. By all means, get educated.

    And the Office of Alumni Relations wonders why my donations have stopped.

    Adrienne Denny Duncan
    CAS ’90

  • John Deltuvia on 09.27.2010 at 10:25 pm

    "Cultural sensitivity" destroys universities

    The centerpiece of a university must be the free exchange of ideas. Jason writes "Blaming religion for that phenomenon only contributes to cultural intolerance and insensitivity"; he may as well be talking about Adrienne, who obviously has no idea about how magic is practiced.


    Writing as a former member of a Liturgy Committee – and parish organist – of a Roman Catholic parish of about 800 families, a graduate of Catholic grade and high schools, and a former officer of the Legion of Mary – and currently a practicing Witch and past corporate officer of a non-profit Witchcraft education organization – I can say quite frankly that practice by most Witches (we don’t have a pope to say who is and isn’t a Witch) in magick, by working with the Goddesses, the Gods, and other non-human sentient allies, is rightly analogous to the intercessory nature of requesting Saints to pray to the Christians’ one deity, with the exception that instead of asking a go-between to help, we go directly to the sources. I wonder if Adrienne ever met a Witch, or talked about what the practice is; if she has not, she is at least as ignorant as she accuses Mr. Barlow of being.

    "Magic is defined as ‘the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces’ (Oxford College Dictionary) and should not be confused with prayer." Why not? Is the writer stating a belief that the God of Abraham is NOT supernatural? In Christian belief, is the God of Abraham not mysterious in his ways? That writer might do well to review Job, Ch. 38-41.

    On the other hand, most modern Witches believe that there is nothing supernatural, and that the Gods and Goddesses, the Fair Folk and the Elemental Forces, are all part of nature. So, actually, the OED definition quoted says that Christians practice Magi

    Finally, I find Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s own culturally insensitive remarks on Sept. 13 in the community center matter – where he referred to the controversy as a "witches’ brew" – to be very telling about how "moderates" even insult other religious practices. Where is the criticism of the Imam for his mixture of violence and other religions?

    Rev. John J. Deltuvia, Jr., MA, Elder, SpiralHeart Reclaiming Community, MET MS CIS student

  • Jason Blanchette on 09.28.2010 at 12:43 pm

    Root of problems is not from mere existence of Christianity

    Unfortunately, the main point of this above article was that Christianity causes violence, and that there is little to no hope of severing the relationship between violence and Christianity. From an intervention standpoint, that indicates that if we really wanted to do away with violence, the only way it could be accomplished is to do away with Christianity. That is wrong. I am a Christian, and I know of only peaceful Christians. The truth is that many of the Americans who are capable of being violent against Muslims are actually not practicing any faith but are potentially violent due to 9/11, and they fear Muslims because they make assumptions about Muslims and about that practice; assumptions that stem mostly from 9/11. Pointing the finger at the existence of Christianity distracts us from the real root of the problems and prevents successful solutions.

    Dr. Frankfurter warns the author to be careful with the word ‘magic’ because it has been used to marginalize practices we don’t like. But the author uses the word ‘magic’ in his title and in the introduction. I questioned the author’s intent for writing this article.

    As for Rev. John J. Deltuvia, Jr.’s comment below, I agree with him that the center piece of a university must be the free exchange of ideas. But the university publication should never include articles written with the personal agenda’s of their authors. And freely exchanging ideas without cultural sensitivity promotes intolerance. I like how Rev. Deltuvia eloquently defended magi and witchcraft and did it mostly without marginalizing other beliefs. Jason Blanchette SPH ’11

  • Anonymous on 09.29.2010 at 9:17 pm

    Words are subjective, but form our understanding of the world

    Establishing an accurate discussion about religion and culture must take into account the interpretations of words that people of a culture hold and the interpretations that people outside that culture hold. As Dr. Frankfurter warned Mr. Barlow, the term ‘magic’ has been used as a way of marginalizing practices that are not liked. What wasn’t mentioned in this article is that Christians separate magic from what they practice by thinking of magic as something that involves directly controlling supernatural forces by human selves rather than by prayer, which involves asking for intervention and then leaving it up to God as to whether the intervention will occur. The meanings of words are subjective and depend on the beholder. It is arrogant and contrary to cultural studies to define a practice with your own terms entirely independent of the interpretation and meanings held by those who engage in that practice and is dangerous when done independent of how they will be interpreted by your audience without defining for your audience what exactly you are referring to.

  • Anonymous on 09.29.2010 at 9:50 pm

    Ignoring diversity represses discussion and people

    Mr. Barlow makes a statement that reinforces a very narrow definition of Christianity and inhibits an open debate about the Bible and Jesus. By suggesting that moderate believers would have to “make stuff up” in order to elbow aside the violent and repressive beliefs, Mr. Barlow is reinforcing a narrow definition of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus actually came with a challenge against repression, and there is nothing that a Christian would have to make up in order to follow Jesus’ words with an entirely non-violent faith. In fact, people would have to make stuff up in order to establish a violent faith based from Jesus. What is interesting is that Jesus actually didn’t follow or preach all that was taught in the Old Testament. He contradicted some of it; something that is particularly intriguing given that any human during Jesus’ life falsely claiming to be God would have reinforced the Old Testament as it was believed to be the word of God. I believe that Jesus is exactly who he said he is. I also believe that the bible was written with the fallibility of humans, but reinforced by conservative Christians to be the exact word of God. I’m not “making stuff up” to believe this. Mr. Barlow reinforced an inaccurately narrow definition of Christianity which repels people like myself from bothering to pursue an understanding of Christianity, and leaves a larger proportion of Christianity to be conservative Christians to define, debate, and control bible interpretations.

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