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A Review of
The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith
Paperback: Howard Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Stephen Milliken
Peter Rollins is an Irish-born philosopher and theologian with a knack for maintaining traditional Christian traditions, yet emptying them of their previous meaning. Through this kenotic process and his use of culturally-charged parables, he gives us new perspectives and deeper meanings with which to experience and understand that Christian tradition. In his newest work, Rollins continues to dish out a healthy dose of paradoxical truth along with a side of provocation.
In The Divine Magician, Rollins uses the three parts of a magic trick – the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige – to draw out an understanding of how sin and God operate within the texture of our lives. He sets the stage by suggesting that the aim of Christianity is not “concerned with a set of beliefs concerning the world, but rather calls us to enter into a different way of existing within the world” (11). Therefore, he is not interested in the doctrine of belief per se; rather he is interested in revealing how belief functions practically in our lives and in discovering what exactly transforms a life lived in and for the world.
The first part of the magic trick is the Pledge, where the object is presented. And in Christianity, the pledge is the creation of the sacred-object. For Rollins this sacred-object can be illustrated as the forbidden fruit in the story of Adam and Eve. And in the act of forbidding the fruit, the fruit becomes the sacred-object and this forbidding creates a sense of lack in our lives. The sacred-object is the one and only thing that we think will satisfy the lack in our lives.
Even if we do transgress the prohibition, we quickly discover that what we thought was a sacred-object that could fill this sense of lack, doesn’t. Yet, the prohibition from the sacred-object isn’t the problem; it is our “excessive drive for the fruit” that causes such anxiety and unrest in our lives (p. 29). And Rollins takes it further, “Paul understood that the prohibition (what he called ‘the Law’) was not the water that extinguished excessive desire, but a fuel that fed it” (p. 30). The Law (prohibition) then, is that which is directly connected to the reality of sin in our lives, “for I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law;” the prohibition creates the sinful excessive desire to fill the lack (Romans 7:7 NIV).
The next stage of the magic trick is the Turn, where the object disappears. Christianity’s turn is the death of Christ and the tearing of the temple curtain – the unveiling that there is no sacred-object behind the curtain. Interestingly, Rollins makes the case that this death and subsequent tearing of the curtain reveals, not a promised fullness, but an empty space. And the rupture of Christ’s death on the cross suggests a space, a gap, within the Triune Community itself. And the implication of Christ taking on the sin of the world – sin as separation – is that “Christ experiences the loss of that which grounds each of these realms [religious, cultural, political] by undergoing a death that signaled one was cursed [separated] by God” (75). Rollins points out that if Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of his forgiveness, it is not a payment of a debt, rather forgiveness can be understood as a clearing of the slate, a removal of debt. In this way, payment isn’t made so that we all gain fullness and satisfaction, rather the payment of the debt is cleared so that we are free from the neurotic desire to seek fullness.
Finally, the last stage of the magic trick is the Prestige. Here Rollins reveals part of the trick, that the dove we saw at the Pledge and the one we see at the Prestige are in fact two different doves; the sacred in the Prestige is a different sort of sacred that was desired in the Pledge. He explains: “In the Prestige, we receive back the sacred, but no longer as an object that seems to dwell just beyond our reach. It returns as a type of ghostly presence that haunts our reality, as an experience of indefinable depth and density in some part of our world” (90). The sacred then is no longer something out there, not something hidden behind a curtain, but something here, something present in the corporeal and the mundane.