What is twelve times twelve? Most of us, if we were paying any attention in school, know the answer is a gross – 144.
Okay, then what’s thirteen times thirteen? Gotcha, didn’t I? That’s because in our school multiplication tables, we stop at twelve – the last number before the compounds (“three-ten” for “thirteen”) kick in. This fits a pattern: the number thirteen suffers a bad rap by being associated with superstition.
For example, people can still be found numbering their houses 12 1/2 to avoid living in number 13. The state lotteries of France, Italy, and elsewhere never sell tickets with that number. Some hospitals, those supposed bastions of rational thought, decline to label their operating theaters with the number. And many hotels often have no floor or room numbered thirteen. Triskaidekaphobia is the word used to describe those who suffer from a fear of the number thirteen. Imagine what happens when the fear of thirteen meets a day called Friday. Paraskevidekatriaphobia is the word for the fear of Friday the 13th, which is today’s date.
Fear can be a positive or paralyzing phenomenon. It is one of the great legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition that it liberated millions of people from superstitions. Now to 21st century ears, that may sound odd since we generally view superstitions as harmless. But this ancient faith tradition viewed superstition differently than we do today.
The word “superstition” comes from supersisto, meaning “to stand in terror of the deity.” In other words, if I fail to rub a rabbit’s foot or recite a certain prayer; bad things might happen. The ancient Judeo-Christian tradition – understood by four categories of conversations – liberated people caught up in superstitions. How? Consider fear and superstition through the lens and language of this four-chapter Story.
First, because of Creation (how things ought to be) ancient Jews and Christians taught that everyone is made to worship and properly fear God. In other words, there ought to be an element of fear (veneration) when we worship. This means there’s nothing necessarily wrong with fear. In fact, infants are born with three innate fears: of sudden motion, of loud or abrupt noises, and of sudden approach.1 Those are all healthy.
Second, because of the Fall (what life is really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings) we often misdirect our fears toward the wrong objects. Here’s how one of the early church writers – St. Thomas – put it: “Superstition sins by excess of religion.” In other words, it’s religious fear run amok.
Redemption, the third category in this conversation, asks what we can do to make things better. In the Judeo-Christian frame of reference, superstition violates the first three of the Ten Commandments – “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” This faith tradition helped people love, worship, and fear the right objects in the right way. And this gave converts hope to be forever free from paralyzing fears (hope is the last category of conversation in the four-chapter gospel – the Restoration).
Ironically, in 21st century Western culture, there is evidence we are becoming more superstitious; including the fear of Friday the 13th. Psychologists have found that some people are especially likely to have accidents or fall ill on Friday the 13th (because they feel a heightened state of anxiety on that day). The Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Ashville, North Carolina estimates that in the United States alone, $800 or $900 million is lost in business each Friday the 13th because some superstitious people will not travel or go to work.2
This phenomenon might correlate with the decline of fear-invoking worship over the last two-hundred years. In much of today’s culture, God has morphed into a user-friendly deity – more of a personal friend and counselor – than the awe-inspiring Lion of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. I like how Annie Dillard puts it:
Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? Does anyone have the foggiest notion what sort of power we so blithely invoke? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT… we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flare; they should lash us to our pews.3
People are made for worship and healthy fear. If they don’t find it in the Judeo-Christian faith; they’ll instinctively look for it elsewhere. It can be baseball players stepping over the chalk lines on base paths, rubbing a turtle’s head before a sporting event, or turning to Eastern mysticism; people need to believe that someone – or something – rules the universe. Superstitions are faux fears; diverting healthy fear and draining real worship.
By the way; the answer is 169. That’s the sum of thirteen times thirteen. You see, thirteen works the same as twelve and Friday is no different than any other day; since God created both days and numbers. In fact, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.”4 If you’re going to stand in awe of a deity, worship and fear the One who created all things.