“Christians Believe in Magic,” or, Why Think, When Slogans Are So Much Less Work?

Atheists and skeptics often say Christians believe in magic. It’s a thoroughly confused accusation—that, or it’s dishonest—and yet they use it anyway. It’s a great example of sloganeering instead of thinking. I’ll come back to that at the end, under “the moral of the story.” First, though, we need to look at the truth about Christianity and magic.

Defining “Magic”

I looked up several definitions in online dictionaries. Dictionary.com defines the noun form of “magic” as

rabbit-hat1. the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; legerdemain; conjuring: to pull a rabbit out of a hat by magic.

2. the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature…..

3. the use of this art: Magic, it was believed, could drive illness from the body.

4. the effects produced: the magic of recovery.

5. power or influence exerted through this art: a wizard of great magic.

At Merriam-Webster we read “magic” as

1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces

1b : magic rites or incantations

a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source

2b : something that seems to cast a spell : enchantment

3: the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand

The Oxford dictionaries define its adjectival form,

used in magic or working by magic; having or apparently having supernatural powers: a magic wand

[attributive] very effective in producing results, especially desired ones: confidence is the magic ingredient needed to spark recovery

“Magic” Applied to God, Prayer, Miracles

And that pretty much seems to cover the territory as far as dictionaries go. Other sources don’t say much different. Now the question is, which of these applies to Christian belief concerning God, prayer, or miracles?

Entertainment magic certainly doesn’t; everyone knows it’s pure illusion. My son is a street magician. He says magicians are the most honest people in the world: they let you know they’re going to fool you and then they go ahead and do it.

The word “magic” used metaphorically—the magic of her smile—has nothing to do with it either, obviously.

The answer to our question seems rather to lie in one or more of these, which I’m re-numbering here for convenience:

  1. the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.
  2. the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
  3. an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source
  4. having or apparently having supernatural powers

If the question is whether God himself is magic (or a belief in God is a belief in magic), then number 1 and 2 are ruled out. No Christian believes God uses means, incantations, or techniques. No orthodox Christian believes that prayer is a matter of assuming (much less assuring) human control over God or the supernatural. (Some name-it-and-claim-it Christians brush dangerously close to that belief, but to the extent they do so they depart from belief in the God of the Bible.)

Similarly prayer is never thought, in Christianity, to contain or produce any sort of power over natural or supernatural forces. Rather it is a personal request to God that he would influence natural forces in a desired direction.

Yes, Christians often say there is power in prayer, but that’s shorthand, an abbreviated reminder that there is power in God himself, and that he has promised to answer prayer according to his own will and his grace. The power is not in the prayer but in God himself.

Making Crucial Distinctions

These distinctions are crucial. The brief definitions I’ve quoted here are echoed and expanded in more technical literature: magic is an attempt to take control of the supernatural by use of arcane techniques, or else it is some effect or power associated with such practices.

Some Christians may believe that there is such a thing as magic that genuinely meets that definition, but they ascribe its effect to the deceit of demons, and they reject it resoundingly. If this kind of magic exists, which I personally doubt, it’s only apparently the exercise of power over supernatural forces. Demons may play that game: they don’t mind it at all, as long as they can ensnare souls.

As I said, I doubt this is real. My friend André Kole is a master illusionist (stage magician) who has traveled the world looking for any real magic of this sort. He goes where scientists have been baffled and have left, saying “there’s no explanation for this.” He says the problem with scientists is that they’re trained to study what’s true. To track an illusion it takes an illusionist. In his book Miracles or Magic he exposes psychic surgeons in the Phillipines, levitating gurus in India, and so on: it’s all illusion, trickery of the same sort used by entertainers on stage.

So is God magic? Is prayer? No, not by definitions 1 and 2.

God: Perfection of Power, Not “Magic”

Definitions 3 and 4 deserve a closer look. If God does miracles, then perhaps the way he does them could fit under definition 3. Certainly God has supernatural powers (and not just “apparently”!), according to Christian belief.

Here’s the problem atheists or skeptics will have with that, however. God’s power is (again, according to Christian belief) wrapped up completely in the definition of God. God has power because of who and what God is: the eternal, sovereign (meaning he does what he wills), omniscient, omnipotent one. God’s power is an aspect of his perfection, an essential attribute that’s necessary to the very being that God is.

So suppose someone removes every connotation of manipulation, control, means, and techniques from “magic.” Suppose they exclude humanity from its scope. Suppose they strip away all these connotations and denotations, and they leave nothing left of it but what rightly fits in the Christian conception of God, and then they accuse us of believing in “magic.”

In response to that, first, I doubt that it’s psychologically possible to do as I just said: to eliminate all these other associations from our minds. But again, let’s suppose we could do that. What would that leave the skeptic with the accusation that we believe God is a God of perfect power.

I’m comfortable with that. Every believer is comfortable with that. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of there: it’s just true. That’s part of what we believe about God.

Misunderstanding, Irrationality, or Deceit?

So if some atheist or skeptic wants to call God “magic,” and if by that they mean something like God’s perfection of power, I could live with that. It’s fine: except for one very important thing. The purpose for using the word is to create discomfort, which is accomplished only by  relying on associations attached to “magic” that belong neither to God, nor to prayer, nor or to miracles.

Thus it’s either an act of misunderstanding, illogic, or deceit on the atheist’s/skeptic’s part. If he misunderstands the Christian conception of God or prayer, he might think there’s something in them that’s related to definitions 1 or 2. We Christians can explain that this is not the case, and that Christianity has nothing to do with magic so understood.

If he continues to say something like, “you believe in the supernatural, which is part of the definition of magic, therefore you believe in magic,” then he’s being irrational. More specifically he’s committing the fallacy of the undistributed middle: “Supernatural” is part of the definition of “magic” and part of the definition of “God;” therefore God is magic. It’s parallel to “four-legged” is part of the definition of “cat” and part of the definition of “rhinoceros;” therefore our cat, Callie, who is waiting impatiently for me to feed her this morning, is a rhinoceros. Yikes!

(There are other fallacies there, but I think I’ve made my point.)

If an atheist or skeptic listens to us Christians explaining all that, and still presses the point that we believe in magic, he’s trading falsely on the psychology of negative associations, which he should know have nothing to do with Christian belief. In that case it’s deceit.

The Moral of the Story

But look at how effective it can be, in just four words: “Christians believe in magic.” It makes us look stupid, superstitious, unthinking. Contrast that with how long my answer here has run. It took a long time to get to this point!

Note, however, that “Christians believe in magic” trades on shadowy, vague, and emotionally-laden associations we have with the word “magic.” Notice also that what I’ve been doing in this blog post has been thinking it through carefully, one step at a time.

There’s a moral there:

Thinking is harder than sloganeering.

There are other lessons to be learned as well:

Sloganeering can be more persuasive than careful thinking. If you draw forth emotions you’re likely to have an impact, regardless of what’s rational.

And finally, once again the other day someone wrote, “Thinking Christian is an oxymoron.” I get that a lot. It’s another slogan. Slogans are easier than thinking, and what you see above is an example of what thinking looks like.

Comments

  1. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Someone—I just know it!—will arrive at the combox here itching to complain, “But how do you know God is perfectly powerful instead of a magical being?” Either that, or, “You’re counting on everyone agreeing with you about God.”

    Let me spare you the pain.

    This post is about what Christians believe about God. I am convinced it’s true about God (that’s what “believe” means). But if it were not true about God, it would still be what Christians believe about God. If Christians believe God is essentially and necessarily perfectly powerful and sovereign over his creation, then what Christians believe about God cannot properly be labeled with the word “magic.”

  2. Victoria

    @Tom

    But look at how effective it can be, in just four words: “Christians believe in magic.” It makes us look stupid, superstitious, unthinking. Contrast that with how long my answer here has run. It took a long time to get to this point!

    Note, however, that “Christians believe in magic” trades on shadowy, vague, and emotionally-laden associations we have with the word “magic.” Notice also that what I’ve been doing in this blog post has been thinking it through carefully, one step at a time.

    And I think that is exactly what the skeptics want to do. Over in the other thread, one of our favorite and lovable skeptical posters wanted magic to be defined as a belief in the supernatural, or at least equivalent to anything supernatural, with the claim that when atheists say Christians believe in magic, they “just mean we believe in the supernatural”. But there is already a perfectly good way to say that, namely, “Christians believe in the supernatural”. The term “supernatural” is already vague enough on its own anyway.

  3. Post
    Author
  4. John Moore

    Do the skeptics even deny that they’re trying to make you look stupid? I think they might freely admit it, and they’d claim there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a fair rhetorical tactic.

    Sloganeering is only bad if there’s no thinking behind it, but the skeptics have probably considered this issue carefully. They see all the differences you’ve pointed out between magic and the supernatural, but they still say those differences are insignificant.

    So that’s the underlying question – are the differences significant?

  5. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    John, having read what I wrote here, is there any doubt remaining in your mind that the differences are significant? What’s your position on it? It was my intention to show that the claim “Christianity is a belief in magic” must flow either from misunderstanding, from illogic, or from deceit; and also to increase understanding so that the first of those would no longer need to be in play, and hopefully help atheists and skeptics realize there’s no longer any good reason to say we believe in magic.

    Did I succeed?

  6. John Moore

    I see clearly that these differences are important for Christians, but an atheist probably wouldn’t find them important. For the atheist, the key point is that nothing supernatural exists at all. So it makes no difference whether it’s magic or Christianity or leprechauns or Zeus or Santa Claus – all those things get lumped together in the box labeled “supernatural.”

    The atheists understand that there are differences between Christianity and Harry Potter, so it’s not misunderstanding. I don’t think it’s illogical either, because all they’re saying is that Christianity, like magic, is a form of supernatural belief.

    Call it deceit then. You’re right that the atheists are trading on the psychology of negative associations. They’re using words like “magic” to sneer at you and perhaps deceive some unthinking Christians to abandon their beliefs.

    I myself don’t sneer, and I hope I’m not deceiving people. I like to have cordial discussions with Christians even though I’m one of those hard-core atheists.

  7. John Moore

    Imagine a person who hates four-leggedness. You introduce to him your beautiful cat, and he says, “That’s no better than a rhinoceros!” Of course you get upset and explain all the differences between cats and rhinos, but for that other person the whole point is that they’re both four-legged. And he hates four-leggedness.

  8. BillT

    I think John Moore at #5 is right. At least he’s almost right. As we used to say in law school “I agree with everything but the therefore.”

    It’s not that they think the “differences are insignificant.” It what he said before that. “Do the skeptics even deny that they’re trying to make you look stupid? I think they might freely admit it, and they’d claim there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a fair rhetorical tactic.” A rhetorical tactic, yes. Fair? They don’t care if it’s fair or not. It’s a tactic to make Christians look stupid which is all they care about. Fair is utterly beside the point.

  9. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    “Fair” means “if it works to accomplish my objectives, then I’ll do it. Doesn’t matter whether it’s true.”

    I wouldn’t paint everyone with that brush, but that’s how I see some of these New Atheists operating, at any rate.

  10. Victoria

    They’re using words like “magic” to sneer at you and perhaps deceive some unthinking Christians to abandon their beliefs.

    Oh my! Don’t be surprised if that backfires…

    It may cause superficial Christians, who have no depth or the actual indwelling of the Spirit of God, to walk away from something they never really had anyway, but, there will be those who will start thinking about what they believe and why.

    Jesus Himself promised that none of His sheep could ever be snatched from His hand (see John 10:1-42 esp, John 10:14 and John 10:25-30)

    Paul echoes that promise in Romans 8:26-39

    In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;
    27  and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
    28  And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
    29  For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;
    30  and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
    31  aWhat then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
    32  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
    33  Who will bring a charge against aGod’s elect? bGod is the one who justifies;
    34  who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
    35  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
    36  Just as it is written,
    “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG;
    WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
    37  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
    38  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
    39  nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. 1995 (Ro 8:26–39). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

    God will surely empower those of us whom He has gifted to think deeply about Christianity and its foundations to close ranks and like the Roman phalanx (the military metaphor Paul had in mind in Ephesians 5:10-20), protect and shield and strengthen our weaker family members.

    You will also find that God does not take that tactic of yours lightly either. When you stand before Him in an unredeemed state and have to give an account of what you did, this will figure highly in the degree of wrath you will experience (Matthew 18:1-10)

  11. SteveK

    They’re using words like “magic” to sneer at you and perhaps deceive some unthinking Christians to abandon their beliefs.

    Yes! Thinking Christians don’t abandon their faith. Not sure you meant to say that implicitly with your comment here, but that’s what I’m hearing.

  12. Andrew W

    Call it deceit then. You’re right that the atheists are trading on the psychology of negative associations. They’re using words like “magic” to sneer at you and perhaps deceive some unthinking Christians to abandon their beliefs.

    Here’s the rub – if one allows “It doesn’t matter if it’s true, as long as it gets the results I want” in argument, why should opponents assume differently of one’s entire philosophy? If disingenuousness of argument works to convince opponents, might it not also work to blind oneself?

  13. Jeff Lewis

    That one definition from Meriam Webster, “an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source”, seems like it fits with God perfectly. And your explanation that can be summed up pretty well by your sentence, “God’s power is an aspect of his perfection, an essential attribute that’s necessary to the very being that God is,” doesn’t change how well that definition fits – it’s just details on the nature of the power.

    Still, I could somewhat understand if you wanted to argue that divine powers are separate from other types of magic, and that deities’ powers should be called something different. But in the last thread on this topic, you mentioned something about “I’ve never heard it [magic] used in a manner that didn’t support the confusion of thinking that God is a magician after the manner of Zeus or Thor or Dumbledore.” Really, if you’re arguing that Zeus and Thor are magic, but Yahweh isn’t, then it’s really just a case of special pleading and splitting hairs.

    Anyway, moving on from Yahweh’s powers, what about the actions of his followers? Like I said in that other thread, I’m currently reading the OT and it’s been a while since I’ve read the NT, but since I’m assuming most of the regulars here more or less accept the OT as basically true, this still represents actions of God’s followers.

    So first off, what about all the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy on animal sacrifice? These covered what animals specifically to kill, how to kill them, where to dash the blood, how many times to sprinkle blood on certain objects, how to cut up the animals, what to do with the different body parts and entrails, etc. And there were different rules for the sacrifices depending on what was meant to be accomplished – sin offerings, offerings of well being, offerings of atonement, etc. This seems an awful lot like a ‘magic rite’.

    What about Biblical characters using what could be termed magic? I think the most obvious in my mind are the staffs of Moses and Aaron. So many of the miracles they performed were done with their staffs – throwing it to the ground and it becoming a snake, holding it over the Nile to turn the water to blood, holding it over the Red Sea to part the waters, striking rocks to make them produce water, holding the staff aloft to give the Hebrews victory over the Amalekites, etc. The staffs certainly seem like magic charms.

    That’s one thing that’s really struck me reading through the OT. Granted, there are a few miracles where characters just call out to God or pray and the miracle occurs, but so many more miracles involve some sort of ritual or object or artifact. ‘Magic’ really does seem like the best description of it.

    You said that you could accept atheists applying the word ‘magic’ to God, except for the fact that we’re trying to ‘create discomfort’. Like I wrote in that other thread, you’re assuming intent that’s not necessarily there. While I usually try to not use the term ‘magic’ in association with Christianity out of politeness, because I know some Christians will be offended by it, that avoidace takes a conscious effort, because in my mind, ‘magic’ fits the bill perfectly. Sometimes it just slips out, and sometimes it really is the appropriate word to describe what’s in the Bible. So, accusing atheists of ‘deceit’ when we’re not trying to be deceitful is a bit dishonest.

  14. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    The word “magic” used metaphorically—the magic of her smile—has nothing to do with it either, obviously.

    I’m not so sure. How can that not be part and parcel of the connotations?

    “Supernatural” is part of the definition of “magic” and part of the definition of “God;” therefore God is magic.

    I’d say that “supernatural” is the essence of “magic”. That covers both the attempts to manipulate the supernatural, and the manifestations of the supernatural that are called “magical”. C.f., say, ‘urban fantasy’ like that of Charlie Stross or Jim Butcher – in such contexts, the supernatural exists, and humans interface with it as best they can. Some can be manipulated by humans, some can’t.

    In other words, the argument isn’t that ‘cats and rhinos are four-legged, and therefore the same’; it’s that “mammals have four legs; both cats and rhinos are mammals, therefore they both have four legs’.

    Magic involves believing in supernatural powers with an influence on the world. Some believe humans can manipulate or affect those powers, some don’t – but they both, at root, believe in supernatural powers affecting the world.

    It makes us look stupid, superstitious, unthinking.

    That follows… if only “stupid, superstitious, unthinking” people make mistakes. I’ve seen smart, skeptical, reflective people make major mistakes, too.

    Recasting someone’s logic in a different form, where it’s easier to see the problems, can be an effective rhetorical technique. You tried to do so with your cat/rhinoceros example. Many people are skeptical of ‘magic’ in the sense of spells (though note, by no means all, even in the West); they can see that evidence is lacking for its efficacy. Casting Christianity in the same light can be effective if (a) it convinces someone to look for evidence, and (b) such evidence is not forthcoming.

    Again, I note that haven’t used the word ‘magic’ in to refer to Christian belief before Tom brought it up. For one thing, I don’t hang out around the kind of audiences where it might be effective. But I don’t think that understanding of ‘magic’ is unwarranted, malicious, or deceitful.

  15. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray, if you want to define “magic” that way, at least have the courtesy to keep it to yourself.

    You say that “supernatural” is the essence of “magic.” Fine. From there, however, your reversed cat/rhino syllogism simply does not follow. You committed a classic non sequitur.

    You say “magic involves believing in supernatural powers with an influence on the world.” Fine again. From there, it does not follow that every belief in supernatural powers with an influence on the world is an instance of belief in magic. It just doesn’t follow, again.

    Again, you say, “Recasting someone’s logic in a different form, where it’s easier to see the problems, can be an effective rhetorical technique.” Sure. Provided you recast it in a valid form.

  16. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Jeff, you say,

    Really, if you’re arguing that Zeus and Thor are magic, but Yahweh isn’t, then it’s really just a case of special pleading and splitting hairs.

    No, actually; for as I understand Greek and Norse mythology, power is something that Zeus and Thor have. It’s not, as in the case of God, an essential part of their perfection (for they are not conceived of as being essentially perfect).

    OT sacrifices were not magic in the sense of manipulating or taking power over the supernatural. They were acts of submissive obedience to God. The same could be said of the use of the rod in Exodus. The difference is significant. I’m on my way out soon and I don’t have time to expand on it, but maybe someone else can pick it up from here.

  17. SteveK

    So first off, what about all the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy on animal sacrifice?

    None of this is magic. The act of following the law cannot cleanse you of your past lawlessness. There is no supernatural cause/effect relationship that a person is “tapping into” when they follow the law. There is no power in the act itself. The power resides in the person and character God, and God alone.

    Perhaps you mistakenly think that saying the words “I’m sorry, God, please forgive me” has magical power – the power to rid you of your sins the instant you utter the words. If so, you’d be wrong about that too.

  18. SteveK

    The staffs certainly seem like magic charms.

    The staff has no power. Throwing it to the ground doesn’t manipulate or otherwise ’cause’ God to act. You’re way off base here. Even if God said “throw the staff to the ground and I will act”, you aren’t performing magic when you throw it to the ground.

    Consider this: if I said I would go to the store if you asked me to, would you be performing magic when you uttered the words “please go to the store”? No. Your words have no power over me. You aren’t manipulating me to go to the store either. I do that willingly.

  19. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    You say “magic involves believing in supernatural powers with an influence on the world.” Fine again. From there, it does not follow that every belief in supernatural powers with an influence on the world is an instance of belief in magic.

    In conjunction with I’d say that “supernatural” is the essence of “magic”. That covers both the attempts to manipulate the supernatural, and the manifestations of the supernatural that are called “magical”.., it does. Please include all my premises when recasting my syllogisms.

    No, actually; for as I understand Greek and Norse mythology, power is something that Zeus and Thor have.

    Either way, supernatural power exists and affects the natural world, right?

    (BTW – You might want to do a post – or a series – on how God could be ‘power as such’ or ‘love as such’. For example, does that mean God is the love I have for my wife and children? If so, in what sense?)

    OT sacrifices were not magic in the sense of manipulating or taking power over the supernatural. They were acts of submissive obedience to God.

    Well, so were the pagan sacrifices, weren’t they? They didn’t compel the gods so much as propitiate them. (Well, I gather that in Egyptian mythology the right words could compel even the gods, but that was a fairly unique pantheon.) The Greek gods were prone to whimsy even in the best of circumstances; no one claimed to control them. The Greeks are where we get the term ‘hubris’ from, after all!

  20. Jeff Lewis

    “The act of following the law cannot cleanse you of your past lawlessness.”

    This is where my understanding of the OT differs from yours. Consider Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” This makes it sound like blood has some real power, and going through the rituals really does remove the contamination of sin.

    Or consider Deuteronomy 21:1-9. The sacrifice was specifically to cleanse the village from ‘blood-guilt’ when a dead body was found close to their village.

    I don’t want to make this reply too long, but in the OT, it really does seem like sin creates a supernatural contamination, and that the rituals performed by the Israelites are what cleanse them of this contamination. If not, the rituals are awfully specific about what must be done if it’s really all just about appealing to God.

    Concerning the power of Moses’s staff, consider Exodus 17:11-13, “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.” This seems like magic – just by propping up Moses’s hands, the Israelites attained victory of the Amalekites.

    I thought of another example – Urim and Thummim. These were devices used for divining God’s will. Every time they were used in the OT, God answered. Now, I can guess you’ll say that they weren’t compelling God to answer, but rather that he answered because he wanted to, but it’s still using charms to communicate with the supernatural. Why is that considered ‘magic’ when it’s a Ouija board, but not magic when it’s God?

    Or consider a few of Elisha’s miracles – purifying the well in 2 Kings 19-22, or the floating ax head from 2 Kings 6:4-7. In both cases, Elisha had to use a physical artifact to enact his miracles.

  21. Victoria

    The form and structure of the Mosaic Law is “Covenant” or Suzerainity Treaty, between a sovereign King and his subjects (I wish I had the reference at my fingertips ). Archaeological studies in the ANE (Ancient Near East) of the Hittite kingdom that was contemporaneous with Israel circa 1500-1200BC (see here or here or even here for examples ) shows that the Mosaic Law resembles that of the Hittites (this is also one reason why the late composition date theory of Biblical minimalists is so questionable in the light of current archaeological information); in such treaties, the king and his subjects entered into an agreement regarding their relationship; terms and conditions, stipulating the responsibilities of both parties.

    Thus, Jeff, when you read Exodus through Deuteronomy, you need to be aware of the genre involved (both historical narrative and covenant law) in order to understand it properly, in its ANE setting. The Israelites were not ‘manipulating God or the supernatural’, they were responding in obedience to their covenant requirements. The OT also had its own definition of magic (sorcery and idolatry, in essence), so you should not impose a 21st century Western definition/usage of the term on the Biblical documents, or on how the Israelites would have understood it in their own historical/cultural setting.

    I don’t know, Jeff, if you are aware of how thinking Christians read the Bible, so I will just leave you with a link that will be helpful in your own
    reading

    https://bible.org/series/you-can-understand-bible-introduction-and-application-contextualtextual-method-biblical-inter

  22. Victoria

    As we have said before, from the Christian / Biblical point of view, magic is the illegitimate use of or contact with supernatural entities, and specifically, demonic ones (which is what sorcery, divination and idolatry amount to).

    I get it that to a materialist, the very existence of the supernatural is in question, and that from your point of view, hypothetical supernatural entity is not much different from another. But that is not how Biblical Christianity sees it – there is an enormous difference between the sovereign King of Creation, Yahweh, and His angels, and still even more between Him and the demons, who are fallen angels, in rebellion against Him.

  23. SteveK

    This seems like magic – just by propping up Moses’s hands, the Israelites attained victory of the Amalekites.

    I replied to your “seems like” comment on the other thread. When you get into the details, as Tom has done here, the difference becomes clear.

    Now, I can guess you’ll say that they weren’t compelling God to answer, but rather that he answered because he wanted to, but it’s still using charms to communicate with the supernatural. Why is that considered ‘magic’ when it’s a Ouija board, but not magic when it’s God?

    I wouldn’t say that a Ouija board is magic either – at least under the Christian worldview of things. Why? Because supernatural actions are the result of living beings with free will.

    If it’s magic to use objects to communicate with spiritual beings then it’s magic when I do the same thing with you – a spiritual being of a different kind than angels or God. Am I performing magic right now by using the computer to summon a response from you on this blog? No.

    Suppose I hold up my hand and you stop walking toward me, and then I put my hand down and you start moving again? Am I performing magic? No.

  24. SteveK

    I think the term magic might actually fit within some versions of naturalism. Specifically, the version that believes humans are “above” nature, meaning they have rationality and free will and are somehow special, and they can freely call upon the powers of nature to bring about desired changes.

    Am I wrong?

  25. Jeff Lewis

    I’m aware that many parts of the OT are patterned after ANE treaties. The Vassal Treates of Esarhaddon (VTE) appear to be a particularly relevant source, even explaining the apparently arbitrary curses of Deuteronomy 28 (source). But I still don’t see how that removes the concept of sin as contamination that these rituals cleanse. If this link works, take a look at the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible for Leviticus 16. It may not be the way you interpret the Old Testament, but it’s still a wide spread respected view. And that’s why I wrote in my comment @ 21, that this was where my and SteveK’s understandings diverged.

  26. Victoria

    Also, from the Biblical point of view, given the nature of the demonic, we have no innate ability or authority to manipulate and control these beings. They will happily grant the illusion of that ability to anybody foolish enough to become involved with them. It is also true that these demons are themselves limited in what they can do in the physical world by God Himself ( see the opening chapters of Job, for example).

    As Christians, we can resist their influence and power through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the NT, the apostles were given authority over the demons explicitly by Jesus’ authority as God Incarnate – without that authority they could have done nothing on their own.

    There is a good example in Acts 19:11-20, where the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out demons in Jesus’ name and Paul’s name, but failed miserably (in fact they were beaten for their foolish attempt). Why? Because they had neither the authority nor the indwelling Spirit of God to command demons.

  27. Jeff Lewis

    What a coincidence. Job’s the book I’m on right now. I don’t know what you mean by demons in that book, though. I thought that the word sometimes translated as ‘Satan’ in that book was better translated as ‘The Adversary’ or ‘The Accuser’, and that he was part of the Divine Council, one of God’s servants. I didn’t think there were any demons in the book of Job.

  28. SteveK

    Jeff,
    How would you respond to my various examples, are any of these acts of magic?

    1) If you uttered the words “I’m sorry, God, please forgive me”, are you performing magic similar the magic you think OT Jews practiced under the law?

    2) if I said I would go to the store if you asked me to, would you be performing magic when you uttered the words “please go to the store”?

    3) Am I performing magic right now by using the computer to summon a response from you on this blog?

    4) Suppose I hold up my hand and you stop walking toward me, and then I put my hand down and you start moving again. Am I performing magic?

    If you don’t think the term magic applies to any of these examples, then what are the relevant differences between these examples and what is being described in the Bible?

  29. Victoria

    @Jeff
    Ah, OK then 🙂 It’s hard to know what someone else knows or doesn’t know unless one either asks him or he tells me :). You may know about ANE treaties, but there are other readers of the blog who may not know, and I write for them just as much as to respond to other comments.

    No, the commentary seems fair enough, although I’d recommend that you consult more than just one, so you can get several viewpoints, and see where scholars agree or diverge.

    How does sacrifice remove the guilt and contamination of sin? Well, it doesn’t really – it just covers it (that is what the word atonement really means). God promised His people that He would not hold them guilty if they followed the sacrificial system. It works because of who God is and what He promised to do for His people – He provided a way for them to have their sins covered

    You should read what the NT books of Hebrews and Romans have to say about the OT sacrificial system in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  30. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    It’s logic lesson time.

    Ray, you wrote,

    In conjunction with I’d say that “supernatural” is the essence of “magic”. That covers both the attempts to manipulate the supernatural, and the manifestations of the supernatural that are called “magical”.., it does. Please include all my premises when recasting my syllogisms.

    I hope you noticed in my note #17 to Jeff that I was short on time. Here’s a more complete answer.

    You said originally, in #15,

    I’d say that “supernatural” is the essence of “magic”. That covers both the attempts to manipulate the supernatural, and the manifestations of the supernatural that are called “magical”. C.f., say, ‘urban fantasy’ like that of Charlie Stross or Jim Butcher – in such contexts, the supernatural exists, and humans interface with it as best they can. Some can be manipulated by humans, some can’t.

    In other words, the argument isn’t that ‘cats and rhinos are four-legged, and therefore the same’; it’s that “mammals have four legs; both cats and rhinos are mammals, therefore they both have four legs’.

    The form of your example syllogism is this:

    1. All mammals have four legs.
    2. Cats are mammals.
    3. Rhinos are mammals.
    4. Therefore cats and rhinos have four legs.

    This is valid reasoning. I want you to note three things carefully, however.

    A. This syllogism’s validity depends on the fully distributed first premise: All mammals have four legs. If it were only some mammals, then the reasoning would not be valid.

    B. Validity is not the same as soundness. A syllogism may be valid without being sound if one of its premisses is false, as is the case here: not all mammals have four legs.

    If we had included 3′ instead of 3:

    3′. Dolphins are mammals

    We would have been embarrassed to conclude that therefore cats and dolphins have four legs.

    C. A true conclusion can flow from unsound reasoning, as it does in this case. Yes, we can safely conclude that cats and rhinos have four legs, but not because they are both members of the class mammals whose members all have four legs, since that involves a false premise.

    Now, how does that apply to your reasoning concerning magic and God? Let me write the syllogism as I think you intended it:

    1. “Supernatural” is the essence of “magic.”
    2. God, prayer, miracles, etc. are supernatural.
    3. Therefore God, prayer, miracles are “magic.”

    The problem here is in the wording, “the essence of.” What does it mean? Does it mean that all magic is supernatural? If so then you have this, which commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle:

    1a. All magic is supernatural.
    2a. God, prayer, miracles, etc. are supernatural.
    3a. Therefore God, prayer, miracles are “magic.”

    Or does it mean that all that is supernatural is magic? In that case it looks like this:

    1b. All that is supernatural is “magic.”
    2b. God, prayer, miracles, etc. are supernatural.
    3b. Therefore God, prayer, miracles are “magic.”

    This fails on account of circularity. Your opening premise is one of the points in contention. You cannot disprove our contention that not all that is supernatural is “magic” by use of a syllogism that assumes agreement on, All that is supernatural is “magic.”

    Or does “is the essence of” not include the idea of all in it at all? Then you have this:

    1c. Some indeterminate proportion of magic is supernatural.
    2c. God, prayer, miracles, etc. are supernatural.
    3c. Therefore God, prayer, miracles are “magic.”

    The conclusion does not follow, because of the undistributed middle term. The same is equally true if you meant it this way:

    1d. Some indeterminate proportion of the supernatural is magic.
    2d. God, prayer, miracles, etc. are supernatural.
    3d. Therefore God, prayer, miracles are “magic.”

    That’s the formal outworking of what I said all too briefly last time. The result is still the same: your reasoning is invalid, your conclusion doesn’t follow, and your position still has no rational support.

  31. Victoria

    @Jeff
    Satan, as it turns out, is the prince of the demons. Don’t read the books in isolation from the rest of the Bible – if you follow the thread of who Satan is, you will find that He is the power behind the serpent in Genesis 3, the Dragon, the ancient serpent of Revelation 20:1-10.

    The OT doesn’t tell us too much about Satan – we learn more about him and his minions in the New Testament.

    Here is a good resource for what the Bible teaches about this being

    https://bible.org/topics/345/Satanology

    this is especially relevant
    https://bible.org/seriespage/satan-our-adversary

  32. Victoria

    @Jeff
    From my ref in #33, in answer to your #28

    SATAN (JOB 1:6-9; MATT. 4:10)

    The title “Satan” occurs 53 times in 47 verses in the Bible. The Greek word is satanas and the Hebrew is satan. The primary idea is ‘adversary, one who withstands.’ It points to Satan as the opponent of God, of believers, and all that is right and good. We should note, however, that Satan often appears as an angel of light promising what is supposed to be good (Gen. 3:1f; 2 Cor 11:14), but it is only a sham to further aid him in his work as the arch enemy and adversary in opposition to God and what is truly good.

  33. JWDS

    Tom, thanks for taking the time to do #31. It saved me the time of doing the same thing.

    The issue of the sacrifices may be one of performative speech acts. That is, when the proper authority decrees thus, a specific set of words and even items can produce an effect in the proper context. The classic example is the wedding: with a proper authority and witnesses, simply saying “I do” and putting a ring on someone’s finger actually accomplishes the act of marriage, and it actually produces an effect in the world. Any oath would be an example: of office, of citizenship, of witness, etc. Also, a verdict would be an example. Is the defendant innocent when the jury votes? Not really: there is a set ritual which constitutes the verdict of “not guilty.”

    But none of that is magic.

  34. Jeff Lewis

    SteveK – Your examples 2 through 4 are straightforward, non-supernatural events with no special powers, rites, or incantations, so they’re fairly obviously not magic. I hope it’s clear how the ‘non-supernatural events with no special powers, rites, or incantations’ differentiates them from the examples I gave from the OT.

    Your example 1 is the closest to being magic. By a very, very loose definition, I suppose you might be able to include it as magic, since it’s a form of supernatural communication, but I think that’s stretching the concept a bit far. You’re not coercing the supernatural, nor exerting any power over the material world. However, it also depends on the mindset/expectations of the person praying. As someone already pointed out, some aspects of the Prosperity Gospel come awfully close – expecting that performing rituals and saying the magic words will give you material benefits.

    On the other hand, most people I know would count Ouija boards as magic or black magic, if they actually communicated with spirits and weren’t just due to the ideomotor response. So I guess it also depends on whether or not or what type of response you expect from prayer. That’s why it’s a bit of a grey area, but one that I think, given the way most people pray, usually falls outside of ‘magic’.

  35. JWDS

    And at #8:

    I like the analogy, since it seems to suggest that hatred of the supernatural is like hatred of four-leggedness–and the the latter can hardly be considered reasonable! Also, saying that “Christianity is false because it’s magic” is like saying “your cat is bad because it’s a rhinoceros.” Instead of going through the actual reasoning to the underlying, more general concept at issue (four-leggedness/the supernatural), it just equates the two examples of the more general concept.

    And why skip the actual argument?

    All that is belief in the supernatural is belief in magic.
    All that is Christianity is belief in the supernatural.
    Therefore, all Christianity is belief in magic.

    Is it because the major premise actually requires some careful definitions and discussion/debate, while sweeping, straw-man, begging-the-question, mocking lines like “Christians believe in magic” are easy and get an emotional rather than rational response?

    I often find it odd that those who rail against Christianity for being irrational tend to be adverse to actually making rational arguments.

  36. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    You cannot disprove our contention that not all that is supernatural is “magic” by use of a syllogism that assumes agreement on, All that is supernatural is “magic.”

    Sorry, I still don’t see a difference in usage between “magical” and “supernatural” in practice. That’s the key disagreement, there. My logic is sound, given the premise – one that’s hardly unique to myself, as demonstrated by that usage. You disagree with the premise, and that’s entirely fair, but disagreement over definitions is not the same thing as malice or dishonesty.

  37. Jeff Lewis

    Victoria – I’m mostly aware of the interpretation where people believe the Satan mentioned throughout the OT is the same as ‘the Devil’. However, as I’m guessing you’re probably already aware, that’s not the only interpretation, and not even the only Christian interpretation. I’ll reference the New Oxford Annotated Bible again, since it’s easy to find. That link should get you close, but scroll up to page 727, and look at the footnote there:

    6-12: The gathering of the divine council in heaven (cf. Kings 22.19-12; Ps 82.1) includes “the Satan,” i.e., “the adversary” of Job and other humans (cf. Zech 3.1), not of God; he is not the “devil” of later Jewish and Christian literature (see textual note b). Here he acts as God’s eyes and ears on earth. He questions whether Job’s righteousness is for its own sake of for the sake of its reward.

    The textual note was “Or the Accuser; Heb ha-satan”.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to get into a big debate on this issue. I’m just pointing out for other readers that there are at least two interpretations of who ‘the Satan’ is in the book of Job and elsewhere throughout the OT.

  38. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray,

    At this point, your incompetence and bullheadedness are on full ignominious display:

    My logic is sound, given the premise – one that’s hardly unique to myself, as demonstrated by that usage.

    The usage is what’s in question. The premise is what’s in question. Your logic is sound on these terms:

    1. Assume there is no difference between “magic” and “the supernatural.”
    2. Therefore there is no difference between “magic” and “the supernatural.”

    That’s not sound logic. Premise 1 is false. There is a difference between “magic” and “the supernatural” in many persons’ practice. It is not the case that “magic” and “the supernatural” are synonymous, coextensive, and equal.

    If however you run a syllogism where you assert that they are, your logic is perfectly circular.

    Tell me, Ray, isn’t it boring to live the kind of life that refuses to change, refuses to learn, refuses to adjust to reality but demands that reality adjust to you? For that is exactly what you’re doing with this.

    I’m done arguing this point with you. I have made my point. This latest response of yours doesn’t rise to the level of a rebuttal. It’s not even an answer. It’s you talking to yourself.

  39. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray @39, my answer in general is yes, Christians have a responsibility to stand for the truth and to help other Christians know and live the truth, but not every Christian is responsible for every other Christian or every error.

  40. Victoria

    Well, for our readers, then, they can also consult
    http://biblehub.com/topical/s/satan.htm

    Sure, there are other interpretations, but not all interpretations are equal, which is why a good Bible scholar will compare and contrast alternative viewpoints – to dig deeper to see if a particular interpretation of a text is justified in the light of the full context of the Bible.

    It seems that the OAB simply asserts that Satan mentioned in Job is not the same being that Jesus Christ and the NT authors refer to – where is their argument to support that position?

    For example, in Revelation 12, we have

    Then war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 12:8 But the dragon was not strong enough to prevail, so there was no longer any place left in heaven for him and his angels. 12:9 So that huge dragon – the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world – was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him. 12:10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,

    “The salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God,
    and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
    because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
    has been thrown down.
    12:11 But they overcame him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
    and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.
    12:12 Therefore you heavens rejoice, and all who reside in them!
    But woe to the earth and the sea
    because the devil has come down to you!
    He is filled with terrible anger,
    for he knows that he only has a little time!”

    Jeff, I suggest that you spend some time reading that link that I posted concerning principles of Biblical interpretation.

    The Bible is not merely a collection of independent books, but in fact a tapestry of thought and themes, and threads that wind through it, with a meta-narrative that ties everything together – a meta-narrative orchestrated by the Spirit of God, as He moved His human authors to record the historical unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. It is not meant to be read as an academic exercise independently of a relationship with The Author, and its depth and significance will never be grasped that way ( 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

    Oh, BTW, the Greek word translated as ‘accuser’ in Revelation 12:10 is kategoros, and is fairly translated that way, as it appears in other contexts in the NT (see Acts 23:30 and the narrative of Paul’s trial in Acts 25).

    You may think that by reading the OAB, you are getting a translation that is free of bias, but the fact is, you are getting a translation that has a distinctly secular bias, based on principles that not all Biblical scholars agree with. I would recommend readers look at this book:
    http://www.apologetics315.com/2013/11/book-review-do-historical-matters.html#more for an update on the current state of Biblical / historical studies.

  41. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    There is a difference between “magic” and “the supernatural” in many persons’ practice.

    And not, in the practice of many others. (Examples besides myself, just in this discussion, here and here.)

    I haven’t argued that you have to adopt that usage. What I have argued is that it isn’t inherently deceitful or malicious to use the term in that fashion.

    I agree that, because of the difference in usage, it’s seldom useful in this context. (And I said so before.) So I don’t use it in such discussions.

    But if you’re asking atheists to understand the Christian point of view, you might also consider trying to understand that of atheists, and that’s what I’ve been trying to convey.

  42. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray, it’s very clear that you have an undistributed term in your syllogism. You cannot truly say all that is supernatural is magic. You’ve acknowledged it yourself. You can only say that for some people in practice that’s how it’s used. So your conclusion doesn’t follow.

    I appreciate that you’re trying to convey (at least some) atheists’ point of view. I hope you will appreciate what I’m conveying: that those who hold that point of view are wrong.

    You yourself are wrong. It has been shown by logically valid reasoning that you are wrong. You have a choice now: you can continue to affirm your position, giving up all pretense of honoring logic and rationality (at least in this case), and continuing to be wrong; or you can change your mind.

    It’s up to you. Irrationality? Or changing your mind?

    Oh, and one more thing: do you think the atheists you’re representing here would appreciate your standing firm in an irrational position on their behalf?

  43. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    If any of this is still unclear to you, Ray, look up the fallacy of the undistributed middle on Wikipedia. It’s a good exposition of the problem.

  44. Ray Ingles

    You cannot truly say all that is supernatural is magic.

    Sure I can, in the same way that the British can call Oreos ‘biscuits’.

    We’re dealing with different communities, and the definitions and connotations of words can and do differ across communities. As I said before, “I haven’t argued that you have to adopt that usage. What I have argued is that it isn’t inherently deceitful or malicious to use the term in that fashion.”

    Because of the different connotations among different groups, I’ve agreed with you that it’s seldom useful to use the term ‘magic’ in such discussions. What I’m pointing out is that assuming it’s inherently insulting and derogatory is unwarranted for the same reasons.

  45. SteveK

    We’re dealing with different communities, and the definitions and connotations of words can and do differ across communities.

    Differing definitions and connotations means the two communities are talking about different things, but you seem to be saying they are talking about the same thing – with one of them not being deceitful or malicious.

    I’m confused.

  46. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Agreed, SteveK.

    How does this square with your statement @#15, Ray, that “‘supernatural’ is the essence of ‘magic'”? Or have you changed your mind since then? Or when you said it, did you mean that it’s the essence of magic only for certain people? If so, it certainly hasn’t been clear until now.

    But I’m probably getting in the way by asking in the form of a multiple-choice question. How would you put it, Ray? How does this relate to what you said there in #15?

  47. Ray Ingles

    I’ve been speaking of the difference between how people use the term from the get-go, and I thought pretty clearly.

    In the southern U.S., I’ve run into places where all pop (or ‘soda’, if you prefer) is called ‘coke’. There, ‘coke’ is perfectly acceptable general term for ‘non-alcoholic carbonated beverage’, not just the stuff made by the Coca-Cola company. It sure sounds wrong to my ear, but I don’t think they are being malicious or dishonest. It’s imprecise, certainly, but a whole lot of human language is imprecise.

    The difference I see is between communities that actually believe the supernatural regularly impinges on the natural (say, many Christians, or practitioners of ‘magic’) and those who don’t really think supernatural stuff happens often or at all. In the latter, ‘magic’ and ‘supernatural’ tend to be synonyms.

    I already agreed with you that atheists should make efforts to be more precise when talking about things like this, just for the sake of politeness and clear communication. But that’s not the same as thinking atheists are playing a rhetorical trick.

  48. BillT

    “But that’s not the same as thinking atheists are playing a rhetorical trick.”

    Sure it’s not. We really believe that when the New Atheists (or other atheists) refer to Christian beliefs as belief in magic they are really just talking about their understanding that Christians believe “the supernatural regularly impinges on the natural.” We should ignore the “ridicule not reason” stance that has been a mantra for the NA. We should ignore the references to invisible friends and the unsupported charges of irrationality and intolerance. It’s all just a big misunderstanding. And why should we ignore this? Because it can be shown that it’s possible that magic sometimes can be defined as the supernatural regularly impinging on the natural. How it’s been regularly used? Meh. Who cares.

  49. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    Ray, whatever you might have said, clearly or otherwise, on November 5 in the comments you’ve linked to just now, it’s been seriously confused by what you said here on November 11. It was also rather confused by the, shall we say, pre-get-go that you wrote five comments prior to your so-called “get-go.”

    In other words, we have reason to find your communication on this to be less than perfectly perspicacious.

    But if you’re willing to stipulate with us now that the words “magic” and “supernatural” are not properly synonyms, I think we could agree with you that atheists sometimes treat them as if they were. That takes us exactly back to where we started.

  50. SteveK

    BillT,
    Come on, didn’t you know that ‘invisible friend’ is a respectable term that some prefer to use when referring to Sky Daddy God for reasons that have nothing to do with ridicule? I haven’t met this person, but they surely exist….somewhere….they must.

  51. BillT

    Exactly Steve. They must.

    To be fair though I think Ray may well think of magic as “the supernatural regularly impinges on the natural.” at least in certain circumstances. And it’s unlikely he uses that term pejoratively. As for the Dawkins’ and the Luke Muehlhauser’s of the world, not so much.

  52. Ray Ingles

    Tom Gilson –

    it’s been seriously confused by what you said here on November 11

    I was pointing out why the “those who don’t really think supernatural stuff happens often or at all” community uses the term ‘magic’ that way.

    It was also rather confused by the, shall we say, pre-get-go that you wrote five comments prior to your so-called “get-go.”

    The comment I linked to was clarifying the one you linked to. I think a clarification within 22 minutes is pretty decent for a forum conversation. (And only one of the intervening four comments was mine, BTW.)

    But if you’re willing to stipulate with us now that the words “magic” and “supernatural” are not properly synonyms…

    Should the British “stipulate” that ‘cookies’ and ‘biscuits’ are not synonyms? I’ll certainly stipulate that, in many communities, they are not synonyms. But what’s “proper” does depend on the community to some extent.

  53. Post
    Author

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