Slot Machines as Spiritual Teachers and Supernatural Investment Strategies: When Religion Waxes Magical

By:  Kenny Smith

Not far from our house is a Baptist church known for its entertaining roadside marquee, offering such spiritual chestnuts as, “THIS YEAR, WE WILL NOT BE UNDER-SOULED!,” weekend workshops in “HOW TO SURVIVE THE END TIMES,” and, during the dog-days of summer, admonishments like, “YOU THINK IT’S HOT HERE?” In truth, sign-designers in our community frequently stumble over their advertisements, yielding hysterical faux pas such as the car wash offering “30-minute hand jobs $40,” and the automobile repair shop with a religious message placed just a bit too close to its commercial identity:      MR.  TRANSMISSION      IF YOU ACKNOWLEDGE HIM, HE WILL GUIDE YOU     

More recently, this same church billboard exhorted drivers-by to “P.U.S.H.,” that is, “PRAY UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS!” This seemed an appropriation of the images and ideas offered in the recent and popular film Push (2009), which featured a host of characters sporting paranormal abilities to move and control physical objects with their minds.  More, I found it reminiscent of the many church signs I noticed in my travels in northern Virginia several years ago during a period of terrible drought. These often read something like, “PRAYER MEETING WEDNESDAY NIGHT: LET’S MAKE IT RAIN!”    

This kind of religious language raises some interesting questions about the relationship between religion and what has typically been referred to as “magic.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars believed that religion and magic represented two quite different forms of human behavior.  For George James Frazier, author of The Golden Bough (1890) and still today one of the most familiar names in comparative mythology, religion involved the supplication of divine forces, magic was their compulsion.  Devout religious souls pleaded with and patiently waited for God to intervene, while wielders of occult crafts pressed divine energies into their service.  In the work of French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, religion was considered to be collective in nature, bringing communities together and reinforcing societal bonds, while magic was the domain of the lone practitioner.  The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski saw religion as answering fundamental questions of existence, whereas magic resolved concrete and practical issues in the lives of its users.    

Though contemporary scholars tend to be suspicious of such sweeping generalizations, magical beliefs and practices continue to be perceived as set apart from mainstream religion and culture.  But might it be the case that magical beliefs and practices are intimately interwoven within mainstream religion and culture? In exploring this possibility, I look beyond church advertisements to two quite popular religious/spiritual teachers, Tolly Burkan (the founder of the American firewalking movement), and Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and its most popular and long-running daily television show, The 700 Club    

Slot Machines as Spiritual Teachers     

Tolly Burkan

In Extreme Spirituality: Radical Journeys for the Inward Bound, Tolly Burkan describes a wide range of practices he has found to be spiritually efficacious. In addition to walking barefoot on red-hot coals and shards of broken glass, these include: breaking boards and bricks with bare hands, passing sewing needles through the physical body, smelling highly disagreeable odors, snapping pointed arrows with one’s throat, and using slot machines as biofeedback devices. Yes, he’s serious.    

Of his spiritual explorations with slots machines, Burkan writes, “[t]oday, slot machines are controlled by a computer chip known as a Random Event Generator,” and these chips have been shown to respond to the power of human thought. “By paying attention to our thoughts while sitting in front of a slot machine, we can find out what it is that we do with our minds that keeps us cut off from receiving grace and love.” Thus, he explains,      

I experimented, visualizing angels, calling upon Jesus, even imagining I was Jesus. I practiced forgiveness, offered gratitude for grace, sang silent hymns, laughed, and cried. At the moment I thought my heart was open, I would put a coin in the slot machine and pull the handle. If money came out, that indicated my heart was indeed open…. If nothing came out, that was a signal to work a little more. (p. 42-3)   

Having begun to master this spiritual discipline, Burkan continues, “I decided to process my relationship with my former wife. I began forgiving her for all the incidents that I had been holding onto for so long…. I began to appreciate those qualities in her that are extraordinary.” Determined to have his heart “open completely,” he promised to give ten percent of all his winnings to his former wife. When winnings were not immediately forthcoming, this in turn prompted him “to go deeper and deeper” into his own psyche, provoking a series of insights.    

A part of me was still competing with her… still trapped in jealousy, and so of course the machine paid nothing…. In a subtle way, I discovered that I really didn’t want to give her the money I had promised… I could fool myself, but I couldn’t fool the slot machine. It, like everything else in the universe, was an expression of God…. an empty mirror reflecting everything within myself…. I finally was able to ferret out every obstacle keeping me from opening my heart completely to my ex-wife. If she wasn’t winning, then our daughter, Amber, wouldn’t win. And if Amber didn’t win, I couldn’t win…. I took out my checkbook and wrote her a large check. Regardless of what happened with the slot machine, I would give it to her. In went a coin, down went the handle, and of course, out came a jackpot! (pp. 42-45)   

Burkan’s narrative reflects a number of ideas typically associated with New Age thought, the belief that everything in the universe is comprised of divinity, mirrors back to us our own inner psychological dynamics, and thereby empowers us to create our own realities by altering what we think, feel, and believe. God wants all of us to win, this view teaches, experiencing precisely the life we choose to experience, and the path to so doing involves clearing out any psychological and emotional obstacles that bar the way.   

As mainstream media coverage attests, this intermingling of the spiritual, the psychological, and the economic, resonates with a significant portion of Americans. Burkan’s workshops, for which participants pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars, are typically full to overflowing.    

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A Supernatural Investment Strategy   

In The Secret Kingdom: Your Path to Peace, Love, and Financial Security, and in numerous programs and materials available on CBN and its premier television show, The 700 Club, evangelist Pat Robertson presents what he takes as a fundamental principle for personal transformation, the “law of reciprocity.” This principle,    

is quite evident in the physical world: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Smile at another person, and he’ll probably smile back at you. Be critical of others, and they’ll respond in kind. As you give, you will receive. Give generously, and you’ll receive in like measure. (p. 114)   

Robertson grounds this “law” not only in everyday reasoning, but in the history and authority of western scientific discovery, as a “basic law of physics” built into the universe and eventually discovered by pragmatically oriented human beings to marvelous effect.  Early scientists, he explains, must have noticed that, “‘[i]f we can push a jet of hot air out the back end of an engine, there has to be an equal and opposite reaction going forward,” and thus they “produced rocket engines able to generate enough backward thrust to provide forward speeds necessary to break the hold of gravity and send machines and men into outer space.” (p. 114)   

When applied to one’s personal life, the law of reciprocity has far reaching consequences.  If we want a higher salary in our jobs, we must start by giving generously of our own resources.  Like the backward thrust that propels jet engines forward, our own giving naturally produces a series of beneficial results, whereas failure to do so results in a failure to receive what we desire. “Those with good salaries are not people who sit back and scheme and spend all their time thinking of ways to promote themselves. The people who are recognized in an organization are those who work harder, think more creatively, and act more forcefully in behalf of the enterprise. They give.” (p. 116) Importantly, for Robertson, we must not merely give, but do so freely and with a proper attitude. “Those who give in meanness or anger or trouble will get it back…. Anyone who is critical, constantly faulting others and cutting associates, will not rise to the top. He will get back what he gives. The one who makes his department look good, including his boss, is the one who will get the salary increase he needs. ‘The way you give to others is the way God will give to you.’ That’s a law.” (p. 117)   

It is at this point that Robertson recommends the related practice of tithing, which he defines as the consistent “giving to the Lord” of at least ten percent of all the wealth that one receives. This includes one’s weekly paycheck, inheritances, returns on stocks and bonds, profits from the sale of property, and so forth. Citing a range of biblical passages, he argues that tithing is something the Lord takes very seriously. For,   

He has gone to great lengths to teach us how things work. If we want to release the superabundance of the kingdom of heaven, we must first give… tithes and offerings to the Lord…. Your return, poured into your lap, will be great, pressed down, and running over.    

Tithing, then, is not only biblically required, but an investment strategy yielding miraculous results. Whereas investing in human financial systems yields dividends of five to twenty percent, tithing is said to see returns of “3,000 percent, 6,000 percent, and 10,000 percent.” (p. 118) Robertson’s book, the CBN website, and The 700 Club, offer numerous testimonials from those whose finances and careers have been transformed (as they see it) by way of their tithing. These stories tell not only of vastly increased personal finances, but also of physical diseases, families, and inner mental and emotional selves, that have been set as ease.   

American Religious Magic    

Given the individualism, perfectionism, optimism, and pragmatism historically so prevalent within American culture, it is hardly surprising that even those religious teachers that would seem to have little in common would develop along lines that reflected these traits.  Both Burkan and Robertson offer a highly democratic conception of the divine.  It is easily accessible to everyone through straightforward, common sense means. It always and reliably returns to us “what we put out there,” whether this be positive thoughts and emotions or eagerly given tithes. Precisely because it is reliable, both thinkers make use of the divine order in much the same way that scientists make use of other cause and effect relationships.  For both Burkan and Robertson, then, the universe is largely mechanical in nature: if we put X in, pull the right levers in the right way, we should get Xx back!   

Such observations shred the theories of Frazier, Durkheim, Malinowski, and other scholars who have tried to drive a wedge between religion and magic. The teachings of Burkan and Robertson involve both: asking for divine intervention and actively making use of divine powers for our own purposes (and to miraculous effect, apparently!); bringing communities together (e.g., in workshops and churches, as book readers and website viewers) and the work of lone individuals; addressing fundamental questions of human existence and the particular and concrete needs of individuals.  Lastly, taken together, teachings like those of Burkan and Robertson reach, and resonate with, very large portions of Americans, some of whom see themselves as religious, others as spiritual seekers, and some as neither.  

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