The Gospel according to Mystic Meg : Faith and Reason

Paul Handley proposes a proper Christian reaction to fortune-telling: f rom the zodiac in all its 13 signs to sortes biblicae and sticking pins in an A to Z.

I once interviewed an elderly clergyman, an orthodox evangelical who had spent most of his ministry pitting his wits against sceptical Oxford undergraduates. He was sensible, rational, worldly. But when he and his wife decided to retire to London, they chose where they were going to live by sticking a pin into an A to Z.

The story serves as a caution to conventional theists who have been enjoying the discomfort of astrologers over the past week. The re-emergence of a 13th sign of the zodiac, Ophiuchus (the star sign of Gary Lineker as well as the sort of language George Graham was using to describe him midweek), and the news that a shift in the Earth's axis has put the zodiacal signs out by one, should have caused consternation in the constellations. But the thickness of the astrologers' skins is matched only by the thickness of their punters, so all will continue as normal.

Traditionally, Christians have shared in the general scorn of astrology, adding to this a fear based on the feeling that God disapproves. The Book of Leviticus contains the prohibition: "Do not practise divination or sorcery." (The Authorised Version reads "Ye shall not observe times", which I use as my excuse for being late for everything.) But as is often the case, stone-casting is a dangerous business. That business with the A to Z is only a peculiarly modern version of a practice known as sortilege,telling the future through randomly selected texts.

The Christian version of this is known as sortes biblicae, opening the Bible at random to find a text specially chosen for you by God. The French were particularly fond of it judging by the number of times it was condemned by local synods and councils (in 465, 506, 511 and 570-590). Augustine of Hippo owed his conversion to it, turning to the verses in Paul's Letter to the Romans which persuaded him to "walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness". It continues into the present age, popular with Wesley and the early Methodists and now thriving in a number of charismatic churches. A popular variant is the "word of power", a message from God granted to someone at a prayer meeting for the benefit of a fellow worshipper, often unspecified.It is a technique used by preachers like Morris Cerullo, who makes announcements like: "There is someone in this hall being cured of backache . . . someone who needs to be freed from fear."

This is getting dangerously close to the catch-all warnings and affirmations on which the popular astrologers depend. But there's worse. Several early gospel manuscripts, dating from the third or fourth to the tenth century, contain predictions in the margins; sayings like "You will be saved from danger", "Expect a great miracle", "Seek something else", and "After 10 days it will happen". The Gospel according to Mystic Meg.

A lot of this is in the margins of Christianity; but it won't go away because of the support it gets from mainstream theology. Chance, and a reading of signs, has a central place in God's methodology in both the Old and the New Testament. The High Priestused the urim and thummim (whatever they were; probably two stones) for getting a "yes/no" decision from God. Jonah and the storm-tossed sailors drew lots to see who fed the fishes, as did (in a more metaphorical sense) the two disciples hoping to fill the gap in the Twelve left by Judas.

The belief in an orderly universe came later - a world set in motion by a Newtonian architect then left running while he goes off to see if he can do better with mark II. It was a particularly 17th- and 18th- century view, and these days is supplanted bytalk of an open system, in which the rules are screwed up, not least by the unpredictability of humankind. With the old understanding, chance, fortune and coincidence were things to be feared, disruptive influences in a world groaning to be stable. The old collect asked for protection from "all the changes and chances of this mortal life".

The modern view is that God is dynamic and exists in change and movement. What comes your way might be good or bad. The Chance card could be an income tax demand; but it is just as likely to be the second prize in a beauty contest. The trick is to greet every unexpected event in a positive way. This is the cheerfulness with which the singer Olivia Newton-John manages to annoy everyone, but which also helped her to fight off breast cancer.

Randomness and fortune, then, are best met with openness and optimism. But also perhaps with a little scepticism. The priest with the pin and the A to Z found a retirement home only on his second attempt. The first time he tried it, the pin landed in theSerpentine.

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