Christianity’s Guilty Pleasure: Magical Thinking

The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5: Where’s the Delete Key?
It’s too bad J. K. Rowling didn’t write the gospels. Jesus could have used the Invisibility Cloak on the night he was betrayed; Judas wouldn’t have been able to find him to give him that famous kiss. But the four guys who penned the most famous Jesus stories—whom later tradition named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were no slouches in the magical thinking department.

One of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that devout folks don’t notice this, or don’t grasp it; or, in explicably, they’re just not too concerned about it. Some evangelicals are tuned in enough to be alarmed by the Harry Potter stories—it’s sorcery, after all—without noticing the irony: Harry is competition; they trade in the same genre.

For a little fun comparing the Jesus stories and J. K. Rowling’s hero, see Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The Fascinating Parallels Between Two of the World’s Most Popular Literary Figures.

I suppose Christians are willing to give a pass to magical thinking when it is embedded in charming, touching stories—or one with ominous qualities, which is what we find in Mark 5. Still, this is no excuse to abandon critical thinking. Just what kind of literature is this?

This is another in my series of articles on Mark’s gospel, one on each chapter. The Introductory article, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot,” is here. My comments on Chapter 4 are here.

The first twenty verses of the chapter relate the story of Jesus’ encounter with a deranged man, whom Mark describes in detail (vv.3-5):

“He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.”

The unclean spirit or demon tormenting the man belonged to the spiritual realm in which Jesus had high ranking (vv. 6-7):

“When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’”

It seems there were many demons possessing the man (“my name is Legion, for we are many”), but even so they knew they were no match for Jesus, a son of the highest god. For whatever reason, they didn’t want to be sent far away (“out of the country”), but pleaded instead for Jesus to transfer them into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus gave them permission. The agitated pigs, 2,000 of them, “…rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.”

When word of this got around, Jesus was asked to leave the area; he voiced no remorse for the huge loss of livestock, or for wiping out the livelihood of the herdsmen.

What was Mark up to with this story? If he was a novelist, creating a protagonist according to his whim, guided by his concept of Jesus and his understanding of how the world works—which included the presence of sinister demons—then this is a darn good story. But Christians are inclined to position the gospel as honest-to-goodness Jesus biography; chapter 5 is what happened to Jesus one day. So, no one was lying: Jesus chatted with demons. What kind of compromises with reality are Christians willing to make?

It has taken a long time for humans to get up to speed on causation: what causes things to happen? And it would seem that a lot of believers aren’t up to speed yet; just this week a California pastor blamed gay marriage for the fires blasting the landscape. Natural disasters and other misfortunes have long been considered the work of angry gods. And it’s no surprise that mental illness—the derangement that afflicted the man in Mark 5—was considered demon possession. But we know better, right? To Christianity’s shame, the faux modernist pope Francis encourages such delusional thinking. The Vatican trains exorcists.

So we can assume that many Christians are willing to look at this story and give it a nod, “Yes, Mark got it right.” But that requires buying into all the nonsense that goes along with it—if you take the story at face value. Unlike any Galilean man on the street who ran into Jesus, the demons knew right away that Jesus was the son of God. Moreover, Jesus spoke to the demons, not to the man himself. And since he had much higher ranking in the spiritual world, he could boss them around. We read that he “gave them permission” to enter the swine, but we’re not told if this was by voice command, gesture…or magic wand.

Mark fails as a biographer, which wasn’t his intent in any case; energized by theology, he has crafted religious fantasy literature, and this episode illustrates the sweep of his magical thinking. And he’s not done yet.

In vv. 22-24, he introduces the story of Jairus, “one of the leaders of the synagogue,” whose daughter was gravely ill. He begged Jesus to come attend to her. Mark interrupts this drama to include one of the most famous of his stories, about the woman who wanted to touch Jesus’ garment, to be healed of hemorrhaging that had plagued her for twelve years (vv.27-29):

“She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”

Mark milks this for all it’s worth: “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ (vv. 30-31) The terrified woman “…came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” Jesus responded kindly, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Let’s try to escape sentimental piety long enough to unpack this episode. Folklore thrives on magical thinking: No, diseases aren’t healed by ‘power’ flowing from a holy man to an afflicted person. In this case, it was merely touching Jesus’ garment that did the trick. We expect as much in the Harry Potter books and Disney movies. But pay attention, folks, it’s right there in the Bible too. “Oh, but with Jesus it was real.” Give me a break. It’s not to be taken seriously.

Moreover, Jesus deserves demerits, as do all cult fanatics, for praising faith as a technique for getting along in the world. Religion was invented—so goes an old wisecrack—“when the first con man met the first fool.” The con man knows, through experience dealing with fools, that very few people know how confirmation bias works. If just a few of the things they wish for—or pray for—come true, Wow! They rejoice that faith and prayer work. In this case, of course, the storyteller makes the tale come out right: the woman was healed instantly. He’s playing to his audience.

Religious bureaucrats have always won buy-in for absurd ideas by insisting on the vital role of faith; it’s the path to privilege and glory. And it has been the path to so much anguish among believers. How much damage has been caused by Matthew 17:20? “He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.”

Okay, maybe this is hyperbole or metaphor, but it can be destructive nonetheless. Believers tune in to the high expectations, and when they fail to measure up can descend into grief and despair: their faith and prayers weren’t strong enough when needed the most, e.g., to keep a baby from dying—and a thousand other tragedies their faith couldn’t ameliorate.

In vv. 35-43, Mark wraps up the story of Jairus’ daughter: “While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’” But undeterred by this bad news, “Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’” When they arrive at the house, the mourners laugh at Jesus when he suggests that the girl is not dead. Going into the house, “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.”

By voice and touch, the magician eliminated the malady, whatever it may have been. Mark’s fondness for the word “immediately” has long been noted. He uses it repeatedly in the gospel to heighten drama; here he wants his readers to appreciate the swift power of Jesus’ magical touch. And his advice to the father, “Do not fear, only believe,” is the common mantra of religious zealots. In my article on Mark 4, I pointed out that Mark’s target audience was the early Jesus cult, hence there is no surprise in stressing the importance of belief: cults don’t survive without it. There is no surprise at all about his quick happy ending. He is always playing to his audience.

Mark chapter 5 can be removed from any list of gospel chapters that might yield hard facts about Jesus. Yes, hit the delete key. Mark wrote theology to promote the Jesus cult; he was a propagandist—as were all the gospel writers.

These realities always must be stressed: he probably wrote some 40 to 50 years after the ‘events’ he reports; we do not know his sources; we do not know where these stories came from, in this case, the deranged man, the woman with chronic hemorrhaging, and Jairus’ daughter. Pious scholars indulge in wishful thinking that reliable oral tradition or eyewitness reports reached Mark—with nothing to back that up, and with tremendous odds against it.

When magical thinking is such a prominent feature of the stories, we can be pretty sure we’re dealing with folklore. Apologists can rush to the defense of Mark 5, insisting that ‘great spiritual truths’ are conveyed by stories that can be appreciated as symbols or metaphors—but without confessing out loud that the stories are make-believe.


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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