The Contemporary American Magical Landscape Open Access

Kenneth Paul Smith (Spring 2018)

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The comparative category magic has a long and troubled history in Western cultures. As it has been deployed by scholarly as well as popular voices over at least the past two centuries, this term (or its cognates) has buttressed the marginalization and outright persecution of any number of social, religious, cultural, economic and ethnic minorities. For this and still other reasons, many contemporary scholars of religion do not consider it a viable interpretive framework. Nevertheless, this dissertation endeavors to reclaim the taxon for use in the contemporary American context. Drawing on the work of comparative theorists such as Ivan Strenski and Jose Cabezon, magic is re-imagined in broad comparative terms. A given cultural expression is deemed “magical” in so far as it suggests an expanded understanding of human nature, one in which human beings may, by means of some practice, tap into otherwise unacknowledged sources of power in shaping their circumstances in desired ways. A range of dominant cultural goods from the contemporary American context–e.g., popular novels and films, mind-body medicine, new age and prosperity spiritualities, and the inspirational writings of leading evangelical minister-authors–are read through this interpretive frame. Special attention is given to what so doing illuminates in contemporary American culture, and the ways in which the taxon magic must be modified in order to accommodate a diverse range of data. Towards such ends, the work of the twentieth-century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, is creatively appropriated for its insights regarding the nature of magic. Ultimately, this dissertation suggests that, in so far as scholars think in terms of a contemporary American religious landscape, approximately similar grounds exist for positing (as a heuristic metaphor) a contemporary American magical landscape, one at least in part driven by the prevailing conditions of the post-1980 American economy.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents



Introduction                                                                                                                        1                                             

Chapter One:                                                                                                           13

Theorizing Magic                                                                           


Chapter Two:                                                                                                           37

Magic and Popular Entertainment                                                                   


Chapter Three:                                                                                                        64

Magic and Mind-Body Medicine                                    


Chapter Four:                                                                                                          88

Magical Spiritualties         


Chapter Five:                                                                                                           109

Evangelical Magics


Chapter Six:                                                                                                              129

The Further Interpretive Reaches of Magic


Conclusion                                                                                                                151


Notes                                                                                                                          159                                                                                          

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