Book :: The Divine Magician

Release Date: Jan. 20, 2015

When I first encountered author Peter Rollins in 2006, I loved his approach to thought and theology, but I mostly disagreed with him (even when I wanted to agree). Revisiting his work in 2013 and picking up his then-latest book The Idolatry of God, I was able to read with fresh eyes and found him to be saying – sometimes word-for-word – exactly what I had been thinking.

In reading Rollins, one thing has become clear to me: you can’t read him for what you think he is saying. There is a lot of semantic overlap in his language and he intentionally keeps it vague to force the reader to challenge his own preconceptions. As such, when something he writes conflicts with what you may believe, it is imperative that you not immediately dismiss his conclusions, but consider them all the more deeply.

In The Divine Magician, Rollins expands and clarifies a concept that is at the heart of his previous work, The Idolatry of God. Here he forms a more cogent, precise, and graspable argument by focusing on the process of magician’s illusion as the backdrop for his theory. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige film will immediately understand this process as it is described. Those unfamiliar with the analogy are helped along by the author’s conversational style and an ample amount of diagrams.

It would be fruitless for me to attempt to boil down the author’s 200 pages into a mere 200 words, and to try would be to do everyone involved a great disservice. In a recent interview, however, the author summarized the work as such:

One thing that both the critics of religion and its defenders seem to agree on concerns what Christianity actually is. To paint with broad brushstrokes, they agree that it involves a belief in God, the idea that we can reconnect with this God, and the notion that this reconnection will re-establish a lost harmony. The former attacks these ideas, the latter defends them.

In contrast, The Divine Magician presents a radically different reading of Christianity. One unconcerned with what people believe, that is not about reconnecting with some ultimate source, and that is most certainly not caught up in re-establishing a lost harmony. What people will find within the pages of this book is an unapologetically this-worldly reading of Christianity, one that views the subversive heart of the gospels as nothing less than an insurrectionary invitation to become a cultural dissident who challenges the status-quo, embraces the world and has the audacity to embrace freedom.

 I really enjoyed this book, but I felt a little underwhelmed because I had just re-read Idolatry only a couple of months ago and didn’t find this new work to unearth any great new revelations. That said, here Rollins provides much better language for his readers to convey these ideas to others. Further, it is clear that the author himself has further solidified his own (non)understanding.

Having recently finished What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Rob Bell) and A Farewell to Mars (Brian Zahnd), I found several welcomed streams of continuity present in Magician. At one point, Rollins echoes Bell’s praise of the Alcoholics Anonymous community as a place where people embrace their “lack” or their incompleteness rather than fantasizing about a more perfect union unto themselves. Rollins also spends a good number of pages investigating the scapegoat mentality discussed at length by Zahnd. If there is a single concept that warrants more discussion by all parties – those who agree and disagree with both authors – it is this idea that we must cease our blaming, vilifying, and ostracizing of the “other”.  As such, I’ll end with this quote,

In order to destroy the scapegoat mechanism, a different strategy must be adopted. Instead of trying to create a community where there is no outsider, the real answer lies in understanding that there is a sense in which we are all outsiders. In concrete terms, this means that a community faces its own lack, rather than ignoring it and thus creating a scapegoat who must carry it.

The Divine Magician, 46

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