Burning books

“A little learning,” the poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “is a dangerous thing.”

Centuries before Jesus, the philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens with his radical ideas. Since then, regimes with totalitarian aspirations (Nazi Germany comes to mind) have tried to suppress free thought, sometimes through the gathering and burning of books judged to be too subversive.

In Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 — the title is a reference to the temperature at which book pages catch fire — the totalitarian government considers all books to be subversive. After all, who knows what rebellious behavior might be incited by Plato, or Shakespeare, or even The Little Engine That Could? In Bradbury’s dystopian future, “firemen” don’t put out fires, they start them. Books are banned, and the fireman’s mission is to find the stashes and turn them to ashes.

At my house, that would be a big fire. Not to mention my office.

But the book burning Luke describes in Acts 19 was something different. It was a spontaneous and voluntary event, not something imposed by a dictator on an unwilling populace.

It came in the wake of the spiritual fiasco with the sons of Sceva, who had arrogantly tried to use the name of Jesus to cast out an unwilling demon. When the possessed man thrashed the seven would-be exorcists, sending them running into the street naked and bleeding, word got around. People realized that Jesus’ name was not to be taken lightly.

Here’s how the story ends:

Many of those who had come to believe came, confessing their past practices. This included a number of people who practiced sorcery. They collected their sorcery texts and burned them publicly. The value of those materials was calculated at more than someone might make if they worked for one hundred sixty-five years. In this way the Lord’s word grew abundantly and strengthened powerfully. (Acts 19:18-20, CEB)

The textbooks of the day were scrolls, and very expensive to own. As we’ve seen in recent posts, magic or sorcery was a common practice in Ephesus. Many of the scrolls there contained incantations and spells (some have actually been found and preserved in museums). Through these scrolls, wannabe sorcerers hoped to learn the arcane phrases they needed to manipulate the spirits in their favor. 

But when the debacle with the sons of Sceva hit the headlines, fear fell on the city. Even the demon who overpowered seven men had shown deference to the name of Jesus; dare the people do less?

What may come as a surprise here is that many of the people who decided to make a bonfire out of their sorcery scrolls were already Christians, people who had heard and received the gospel. It’s not clear whether they were still practicing magic of some kind, but they hadn’t yet given up their sorcery libraries. Chances are, they hadn’t quite given up the sorcerer’s way of thinking yet either: the attitude that says Let’s have God serve us, rather than the other way around.

Luke wants us to understand the significance of their sacrifice, in two ways. First: monetary. The Ephesians had paid handsomely for these scrolls. Luke says they were worth “fifty thousand pieces of silver”; the coins are assumed to be Greek drachmas or Roman denarii, each worth approximately a day’s wages for a laborer. In the translation above, the Common English Bible works that out to 165 years of wages.

Here’s another way to look at it. At the time of this writing, the minimum wage in California is $12 an hour for small businesses. Assuming an 8-hour day, a day’s wages is $96 before taxes. Multiply that by 50,000, and you get a bonfire worth nearly $5 million.

Inflation or no, that’s some serious Ephesian coin.

Second, however, is the spiritual significance of the sacrifice. When they finally and definitively turned their backs on sorcery, the power of the gospel grew in strength among the people.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t happen to have any sorcery books on my shelves; there are no books about magic on my Kindle. I’m guessing you can say the same.

So why should we care about this odd little episode in Acts?

Because even as Christians, we don’t have to be sorcerers to think like sorcerers. God does not exist to do our bidding. Adding the phrase “in Jesus’ name” to the end of a prayer does not automatically obligate God to do what we ask.

But wait — doesn’t Jesus teach his disciples to pray to the Father in his name? Of course. The question, however, is this: in what relationship do we stand to Jesus when we invoke his name to the Father? Are we trading on that name for our purposes, or aligning with his purposes? Are we calling on the name of one we hope will do our bidding, or one whom we love, revere, and worship?

Because it’s only in the latter case that the power of the gospel grows.