I’ve been reading Kester Brewin‘s latest book entitled After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature, From Batman to Shakespeare. Brewin summarizes the trajectory of the book well, saying that “I am convinced that in our love of power and influence we have ignored the subtle move that many stories take in renouncing magic at their conclusions.” From this vantage Brewin traces this move ‘Beyond Magic’ within some of our most renowned works of literature and film. As the subtitle suggests this is a journey which begins in Shakespearian plays and continues all the way to films such as The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, and pushes further still. The impetus of the journey, as Brewin makes clear, is to “explore what they have unearthed in our humanity” in order to “uncover a faithful re-reading of Christianity that follows their moves ‘beyond super-nature’ to something far, far greater.” “The hope,” then, as Brewin goes on to say, “is that by immersing ourselves in these stories, and accepting this radical re-reading of the Christian narrative as a model of life ‘after magic,’ our humanity will be restored and our addiction to power and violence broken.”
In this regard, Brewin’s work does much to incite and ignite the imagination. Upon reading his text one begins to see luminous examples of this renouncement of ‘magic’ and ‘super-nature’ well beyond the borders set forth within the book’s pages. One such an example occurred to me recently.
Rob Bell, former teaching pastor of the Michigan mega-church, Mars Hill, has been noted as a profound and prolifically creative speaker and author yet, has always remained as something of an ambiguous and enigmatic figure. His work has, more often than not, hinged upon raising big questions of some of religion’s biggest themes, subjects, positions, and doctrines. Interestingly enough, however, he has done so while alluding the pronouncement of his own position or view. In much of both his writing and speaking he has become a master of evading the offer of a clear and concise answer to many if not all of the very questions in which he raises. As such, Bell has certainly been no stranger to controversy, especially in regards to such works as the now infamous Love Wins
, which if many would have actually taken the time to read would have seen that there was very little in the way of controversial content. I am sympathetic to Bell’s method of allowing big and haunting questions to remain lingering without answer. It is not necessarily a bad thing that he has often resisted ‘taking a side’ per se.
I do think that in many ways our question are more important than our answers. I have to admit that I count Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis
, to be one of those paradigm shifting books for me personally. I read it at a time when I needed ‘questions’ such as those must. It lead further into inquiry, examination, and critique but, ultimately this journey lead also to taking a position, while not a staunch or necessarily rigid position in all cases, in certain areas I have had to make a decision and take a side. As such, that has often been my critique of Bell and his work. Elusivity does lead to investigation and while Bell’s balancing act is admirable, I know that at some point there will be a fork in the road. One will come to a crossroads and there will come a time when one simply must ‘take a side,’ so to speak.
Though I may, perhaps, be over generalizing but, it seems that for Rob Bell that time has arrived. In recent headlines, ‘Rob Bell Comes Out for Marriage Equality
.’ While on a speaking tour promoting his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God
, Bell was asked for his position on same-sex marriage. In response Bell said, “”I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
Now, what I find most interesting about this is not simply that Rob Bell took a side, though that is to be applauded, nor am I intrigued by the position he took, it is one I myself adamantly hold. What is most interesting to me about Bell’s seemingly sudden ‘positional’ clarity is its timing. The former pastor has so rarely been that candid with controversial issues, it begs the question what has changed? Could this be another indication of what Brewin describes as that which comes ‘after magic’?
Brewin writes that “In anthropological terms there is total continuity between magic and religion.” Thus, there is also a continuity between the magician and the priest. Brewin continues stating that,
In the person of the priest we have someone dressed in robes who is, for the purposes of the illusion, suppressing their identity. Under the surface of both the ‘transported man’ and the ‘transubstantiated God’ tricks are extremely violent murders from which the audience remain protected.
Here, “part of the priest or shaman’s role is thus to convince their audience that they need to keep coming back: it is in their interest to bring to the fore the infinite demand that a god’s existence makes.” “The Priest,” Brewin goes on to say, “preaches a message of commitment and regular worship because they need to sustain the demand.” As a result, “Great institutions [like the church/religion] can do brilliant work, but the inescapable problem with our projection onto them of super-natural ability is the large, dehumanising demands that they create.”
It seems that now, less than three years, after Bell’s resignation from Mars Hill, after laying down the ‘magic’ of the pulpit, the ‘priesthood’, and the cloth, moving beyond the disguise and elusivity that the trick demands be maintained, Bell is taking decidedly clear stances that are more deeply affirmative of the actuality of where our humanity is. Perhaps this is precisely what it means to live After Magic.