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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Magic & Religion

Everyday Ethics: Margaret Thatcher and Kester Brewin (Sun, 14 Apr 13)

"William Crawley (WC): Is religion just magic by sleight of mind, rather than by sleight of hand? Certainly there are elements of worship that use drama, colour, sound, even, perhaps, special effects to enshrine divine moments, and Christianity does take many of its symbols and rituals from the world of Druids and Witches. Let's talk to Kester Brewin. He's the author of a new book called "After Magic"...

He finds the angle no one else find into the story. Tell us about this magic dimension to religion.

Kester Brewin (KB): Well, it just struck me that, particularly through a film called The Prestige, by Christopher Nolan... Michael Caine... says, there are three elements to every trick. Where you've got the Pledge, where something is presented. You know, the magician presents a card, or a bird or something, the Turn, where the magician makes it disappear, and he said, but the audience will not yet applause, but it's the third part of the trick, the Prestige, where the bird, the card, whatever, is brought back, and then the audience will go absolutely wow, it struck me... there's your Resurrection Moment.

There's also this same kinda moment in terms of the Mass or the Eucharist, or whatever. So I began to explore how that three part magic trick actually impacts upon religion, and if it's possible to read the Gospel in a way through that three part trick...

What's really interesting... the inspiration for the book actually came from another source. It came from watching Shakespeare's play, the Tempest. Where, very interestingly, at the end of that play, his main character, Prospero in the play gives up magic. And it struck me as this fascinating question: why would he give up this fantastic art? Actually, reading more into the play... magic had become a really dehumanising influence for him. It had really taken him away from family, it had taken him away from his work, his position. It kind of destroyed his life. So his giving up magic actually returns him to a place of humanity.

... That happens in a lot of books, in a lot of films. In fact, oddly enough, in the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter, right at the end, after he's done all this, he says "I've had enough. It's been enough trouble for me in one lifetime". Magic, really, almost destroyed him too.

And then you've got the whole Batman series of films... right at the end of those, Bruce Wayne gives up Batman. He kind of fakes Batman's death, and off he goes into the night. Why? Because Batman had ended up a destructive influence on Gotham City. With Batman, you see the parallel rising of Bane, it ended up destroying the city.

These archetypal moves in all of these stories and films, where pushing beyond supernature, as I call it, pushing beyond magic or super power, actually enhances people's humanity and leads on to this moment of love...

WC: Social anthropologists... use the term "magic" in a very specific sense. How are you using this?

KB: Well actually, magic and religion, in a kind of historical sense, are completely interchangeable, whether it's the shaman or the priest, whatever. So I'm using it in a number of ways.

In the book I'm talking about magic as a kinda sleight of hand art, in one sense.

WC: Which has an aspect of deceptiveness to it.

KB: Absolutely, but it's also got this aspect of creating a demand on the audience. And I think that's what really interesting. Interesting that people go to a magic show, not because they believe in magic, and not because they want to find out how the whole thing's done. There's a kind of third space... you suspend your disbelief. And I'm arguing that that might be a helpful way to look at going to church... you suspend your disbelief, you go to a place to receive a gift from that place, but it doesn't mean that you're saying, "I want to work out exactly how it's done", nor, actually, "I'm confident I believe in all this". But there are gifts there to be had. But on the other hand, I'm talking about magic as in, accessing the whole idea of religion and supernature. And the supernatural too.

That presents a serious problem, because you know Dostoevsky said, you know "without God, everything is permissible". And actually, it's more like, with God, everything becomes justifiable, and you know, you just talking about the Israel-Palestine situation, which again: so much has been done in the name of God, so many people killed, so much destruction, so much violence. And similarly, with the Troubles too [in Northern Ireland]...

The problem with God is that it presents this infinite demand that, "If God has told me to do it, how can anybody doubt that, how can anybody tell me that I'm wrong"

So in a sense, God's got this very real problem of existence. You know, "Help, if I exist, people are going to do completely crazy things in my name"

So, the lovely moment in that great film, the Usual Suspects, where the guy says "the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn't exist". That's genius, because by not existing he doesn't have to be troubled with the problem of existence and therefore he can get on with existing without being worried about it.

So I kind of take a spin on that in the book and say, "What if God plays the same trick? What if God plays this trick of not existing in order to get beyond this crazy demand of actually existing?"

And that's my reading of the Resurrection, of this turn of the Prestige.

What about if God actually did die? Where's the Prestige? Well, the Prestige is the Church. The Prestige is the Church living out this godly life, living out God's actions, without God needing to still exist, because that escapes this problem of the infinite demand, because God's not there, you don't have to worry about doing crazy things in the name of God"
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