Up for review: Discernment of Spirits, Soviet New Age, and Magic

I’ve received three books for review over the last few weeks, making for a hectic book review phase (I’m not gonna mention the ones I’m already late with). They are three fascinating collections, dealing with very diverse material. Here’s a quick preview.

Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012)

Angels of Light? (2012)

Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen’s Angels of Light? (Brill, 2012) is a collection of essays dealing with that delicious problem of Christian theology and practice: how to discern real sanctity from demonic trickery? If an angel appears in all its splendour – whether in a dream, a vision, or in front of  your bare eyes – how do you know that it is not the devil masquerading to lure the devout to the dark side? This, in a nutshell, is the problem of discernment. It has had consequences not only on the abstract level of theological philosophizing, but also on the social level. Above all during the tumultuous reformation era, when new reformers led to the emergence of new sects with new creeds, new leaders, and new lines of authority. The devout had to fear not only false angels, but false prophets as well. From the blurb:

“And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) Paul’s warning of false apostles and false righteousness struck a special chord in the period of the European Reformations. At no other time was the need for the discernment of spirits felt as strongly as in this newly confessional age. More than ever, the ability to discern was a mark of holiness and failure the product of demonic temptation. The contributions to this volume chart individual responses to a problem at the heart of religious identity. They show that the problem of discernment was not solely a Catholic concern and was an issue for authors and artists as much as for prophets and visionaries.

I’ve written on aspects of the problem of discernment on a couple of occasions before (notably in this article; accidentally with a very similar title to the present volume). The practice of discernment is a good example of how the nurturing of critical thinking skills and scepticism (for doubt is the method of discernment) has historically been tied up with theology and “enchanted” worldviews, and is not the sole province of the “scientific” or “philosophical” domain. This looks like a very promising volume, and I’m pleased to review it for Preternature.

The New Age of Russia (2012)

The New Age of Russia (2012)

The next book I’m reviewing concerns  a completely different period and location. Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister and Bernice Rosenthal’s volume on The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions (Verlag Otto Sagner, 2012) explores the esoteric milieus of Russia in three periods: prior to the revolution, during the Soviet era, and in post-Soviet Russia. I’ve mentioned earlier that there is currently a lot of interesting scholarly activity in Russia on esoteric topics. This collection is thus topical, even though a lot of the contributions are by Western scholars. It gives a glimpse of the research opportunities emerging in Russia, a perk that is boosted by the fact that some contributions make use of material that were confiscated and kept by the Soviet authorities, and is only now becoming available to research. From the blurb:

Occult and esoteric ideas became deeply embedded in Russian culture long before the Bolshevik Revolution. After the Revolution, occult ideas were manifested in literature, the humanities and the sciences as well. Although the Soviet government discouraged and eventually prohibited metaphysical speculation, that same government used the Occult for its own purposes and even funded research on it. In Stalin’s time, occultism disappeared from public view, but it revived clandestinely in the post-Stalin Thaw and became a truly popular phenomenon in post-Soviet Russia. From cosmism to shamanism, from space exploration to Kabbalah, from neo-paganism to science fiction, the field is wide.

I will be reviewing this one for Correspondences, so look out for the full verdict online.

Defining Magic: A Reader (2013)

Defining Magic: A Reader (2013)

The review of the third book will also be easily available once it’s written: Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg’s Defining Magic: A Reader (Equinox, 2013) will be reviewed in its entirety here on Heterodoxology. In this sneak preview, I’ll just say that this is a book appearing in the series “Critical Categories in the Study of Religion”. Thus its intention is to present a systematic set of readings on attempts to define magic through the ages. This includes both “insider” and “academic” definitions (sometimes those are one and the same), polemical constructs, analytic constructs, and self-identifying uses of the term. Thus, the readings collected range from Plato to Frazer, from Augustine to Blavatsky, Plotinus to Malinowski, and from Agrippa’s occult philosophy to Jesper Sørensen’s cognitive theory of magic. In addition to these readings, the volume comes with a foreword and a general introduction.


Clare Copeland and Jan Machielsen (editors). Angels of Light? Sanctity and the Discernment of Spirits in the Early Modern Period. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister and Bernice Rosenthal’s volume on The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions. Verlag Otto Sagner, 2012.

Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg. Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox, 2013.

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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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