When I ask the question, “Do you believe in magic?”, if you are like me, what comes to mind is either Disney or that one song by the Lovin’ Spoonful. But magic (or witchcraft/sorcery/juju) has a much different meaning to many people here in Cameroon. Here are some recent examples I have heard of:
- People will go to shamans (French: marabout, Kwakum: kaah, Anglophone Cameroon: ngambe man) for protection, or to have curses put on their enemies. So, at many funerals a special ritual is performed to determine who put a curse on the person that died.
- Also at funerals, the remaining family will often tie a machete in the hand of the dead person so they can avenge themselves in the afterlife.
- Charms are often worn around the waist or neck to protect the wearer.
- Special rituals are required to “cleanse oneself” when a close family member has died.
- If an owl lands on your house you have to scratch the back wall of the house with your right hand, or else the owl will return and curse you.
- Many Cameroonians believe that people are able to transform themselves into animals. Often if someone is attacked by an animal it is assumed that it was actually a transformed enemy that attacked them.
How do these rituals/practices/beliefs strike you? Do they sound superstitious? Do you think there is any merit to these beliefs at all? Our pastor told us on Sunday that one man spends 200,000 francs (around $400) a year going to the local shaman. How would you counsel such a person? Much of that money is spent seeking protection from curses for himself and his family. Would you tell this scared man that there is no such thing as magic to be afraid of?
Magic in the Bible
We are coming up on the Exodus story in our translation project. There is one part of this story that is pretty striking in regard to magic. You are probably familiar with what happened when Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh the first time in Exodus 7. Aaron did as the Lord said and threw his staff on the ground and it turned into a snake! “Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents” (Exodus 7:12-13).
Pharaoh’s heart hardened after seeing his magicians repeat the miracle. So, God allowed Moses and Aaron to turn the Nile into blood. “But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them as the Lord had said” (Exodus 7:22). Then they sent frogs, “But the magicians did the same by their secret arts and made frogs come on the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:7).
So, what is going on here? I once saw a cartoon depicting the Exodus that had magicians hiding snakes in their cloaks and putting a red powder into a bowl of water. Obviously, Moses and Aaron were not using magic, they experienced miracles at the hand of God. However, what were the magicians doing? Was it really just sleight of hand?
No, it wasn’t. It was magic. It was not Disney magic, and it was not what happens in a young girl’s heart, it was dark, Satan-inspired, supernatural power. These Egyptian magicians did not keep snakes in their cloaks just in case someone came along and turned a staff into a snake. God demonstrated his power, and they matched it with a similar power, but from a different source.
What was happening in this passage is a competition of powers. God chose first miracles that he knew the magicians in Egypt could imitate: staff into snake, water into blood, frogs. But, then he hammered them. The magicians couldn’t get the frogs to go away (8:8), then God sent gnats (8:16). “The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not/ So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God’” (8:18-19). So, here, the magicians were willing to admit that this power was beyond them.
Then, God sent flies (8:24). Then, God killed their livestock (9:6), and on, and on. After the frogs, the magicians were shown to be powerless, but God continued for a total of 8 plagues that broke the heart of the people, but not the Pharaoh.
The message of this story is super clear to the Cameroonians I work with: God is more powerful than the gods of Egypt. It is clear to them because magic and supernatural competition is an active part of their lives. For instance, when different Kwakum villages play soccer, they believe that the winner is determined not by the skill or practice of the players, but by the gods of their village. Many even believe that soccer matches are determined beforehand by the mystic practices of sorcerers. So, this story hits home. The message is clear: trust God for he surpasses all others.
Do not be deceived.
Because of the Western worldview, we often see people who pursue magic as “deceived.” Usually, this means that they are being taken advantage of by charlatans. However, while charlatans exist, there are actually two different ways that people are being deceived in regards to magic: 1) many people in Africa are being deceived into thinking that magic can save and protect them, and 2) many people in the West are being deceived into thinking that magic and other spiritual realities do not affect our lives here and now. In realizing this blog was growing too long, I decided that I will address these two types of deceit in two following posts. But the overall message for us all is: do not be deceived!
The world we live in is fundamentally both physical and spiritual. Our worldviews are like glasses in which we see the world. But our worldview-glasses are distorted, like side view mirrors on a car. For some, spiritual danger seems nearer and bigger than it really is. For others, all things spiritual seem small and distant. The goal of all Christians is to allow the Bible to shape our perspective of reality, changing and replacing our former worldviews. My goal in the next two posts will be to expose the lies our cultures teach us through a biblical understanding of magic. With a correct understanding, not matter our cultural background, we can avoid being deceived.