The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins – Book Review: Is Christianity Just a Magic Trick?

divine magician‘Does that mean Pete is comparing God to a magician?’ my husband asked, noticing the title of Peter Rollins’ sixth and latest book, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith (Howard Books, 2015).

The Divine Magician. It’s the sort of unsettling image that we’ve come to expect from Rollins. The idea of a magician of course conjures up a world of tricks, illusions, and getting one over on people. Deception, even.

That sounds like a ‘new atheist’ assessment of religion. But Rollins, of course, is not a new atheist. So this book is not as simple as that.

On his own website, Rollins explains what he sets out to do in the book:

In this book I’m attempting to offer a subversive way of reading Christianity. A reading that not only offers a challenge to conservative/liberal/progressive readings, but also to the cultured despisers of Christianity.

It’s more accurate to say that Rollins is comparing Christianity to a type of magic trick, rather than comparing God to a magician. I don’t think anyone can come away from reading this book thinking that Rollins is arguing that there is a god out there ‘pulling the strings’ in the processes he describes. Rather, it is people here on earth pulling the strings, tricking ourselves as it were, in the way that we construct a Christianity that imprisons us rather than sets us free.

Having said that, a substantial ‘interlude’ in the book is devoted to the ‘Trickster Christ.’ The difference here between a divine magician and a trickster may be subtle, but it’s important: The Divine Magician reads more like a critique of religion rather than a critique of our conceptions of God (though a critique of an all-powerful god ‘out there’ is included). By conceiving Christ as a trickster, Rollins puts Christ in the position of one who critiques a religion from within (pp. 123ff), disrupting our expectations and subverting the religious order in potentially revolutionary ways (p. 132).

But before turning to the Trickster Christ, the first three sections of the book are organised around the magician’s formula of the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige. Rollins has reproduced the short Introduction of The Divine Magician on his website. Here you can read his initial presentation of these terms and his argument about how they compare with Christ (the sacred object), crucifixion (disappearance) and resurrection (re-appearance, but in an utterly new form).

The subtitle of the first section, ‘The Pledge,’ is ‘an object is presented.’ In this part Rollins explains how we create ‘sacred objects.’ While above I have identified Christ as a sacred object, for Rollins a sacred object can be anything we think will fulfil a lack in our lives: ‘money, health, a relationship, or religious practice’ (p. 13). He uses the story of Adam and Eve to illustrate how the desire for the sacred-object works in our lives, driving us to pursue it.

‘The Turn’ is when an object is made to disappear – something Rollins explicitly identifies as ‘the Turn of Crucifixion’ (p. 55). Here, Rollins argues that Christianity should be understood as an ‘event’ that involves the disappearance of the sacred-object, or the realisation that the sacred-object has been a fiction all along. He compares this realisation to when Roman forces tore the veil from the holy of holies in the Temple, revealing that nothing was there.

But for Rollins this is good news, for it brings ‘forgiveness of sin,’ which he defines as ‘the experience of being loosed from the sacred-object’ (p. 80). This liberates us to live in the world in a different way, no longer enslaved by our pursuit of a sacred-object that will solve all our problems (a theme he also explores in The Idolatry of God):

‘The subversive reading of the Crucifixion unveils a form of life in which we realize that there is no sacred-object that will make everything right’ (p. 61). … ‘It is this shocking experience of absence that lies at the very heart of what it means to experience conversion – an event that is most quashed in the actually existing church, a reactionary space which betrays the scandal of the cross attempting to hold on to the idea of a sacred realm existing somewhere “out there” (p. 63).

Finally, ‘The Prestige’ is associated with the resurrection, when the object ‘reappears.’ But it reappears not as a supernatural being who will deliver us with a show of force and power – it reappears as a community or collective of people who assume responsibility for making the world better in the here and now:

‘… the resurrection testifies to a Return in which the sacred is revealed as having no place in the world and then, in the blink of an eye, is discovered in the lived experience of care and concern for the world’ (p. 95).

This leads Rollins to characterise the virtue of ‘hope’ not as something that ‘doesn’t require our active involvement’ but as:

‘… a hope that makes demands on us, that calls out to us, and that asks us to put our weight behind it. It is a hope that tells us we can make the world a better place, that we can transform society and enact justice, but only if we put our effort into it. In the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin, it is the hope that we might become the messianic answer to those before us who cried out for justice’ (p. 101-102).

The fourth and final section, ‘Behind the Scenes,’ includes further critiques of fundamentalist and liberal/progressive Christianity, as Rollins tries to show how they keep people from confronting radical theology’s more challenging presentation of the resurrection as a call to live differently in the world.

The last few pages of the book, where Rollins describes Christian collectives as ‘agents of decay’ and calls for ‘the disappearance of the pastor,’ hint at how he sees radical theology being worked out in the world.

Here and in previous work, Rollins has identified the ‘transformance art’ of the Belfast-based ikon collective as an example of how collectives can be ‘agents of decay.’ But Rollins’ practical application of radical theology still remains relatively underdeveloped – something I hope will be addressed in his future work.

As someone who has followed the development of Rollins’ thought over the years, I see The Divine Magician as his clearest exposition so far of his ‘radical theology’ project. This project, which he at times calls ‘pyrotheology,’ has become much more refined since his first offering, the 2006 How (Not) to Speak of God.

In The Divine Magician, it is more obvious than in his other books how much Rollins has been influenced by philosophers like Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek and John D. Caputo. As ever, these philosophical influences are sometimes hidden behind Rollins’ stories and jokes.

But the most obvious influence in The Divine Magician is that of Kester Brewin, a UK-based author and leader in the ‘emerging’ conversation, whose 2013 book After Magic also used the magician’s formula of the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige to argue for a more radical reading of Christianity. (You can read my review of After Magic here.)

The Divine Magician and After Magic place both Rollins and Brewin on the daring fringe of the emerging conversation, making me wonder how much opposition they will face from others within the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), not just from evangelicals, if and when the implications of their work are fully grasped.

I’ve had a chance to read an advance copy of Katharine Sarah Moody’s forthcoming Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity, which will be published by Ashgate later this year. She also locates Rollins and Brewin on the edges of the ECM, and demonstrates in much more detail how they have been influenced by Lacan, Zizek and Caputo. It’s definitely a recommended read for anyone deeply interested in how Rollins and Brewin’s ideas are developing.


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