A Radical Reading of the Cross in ‘The Divine Magician’

The Divine Magician (TDM), a book by philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins, was my first read of 2017, and it was a great start. Rollins, a proponent of Radical Theology and someone who has influenced the likes of Rob Bell, uses the book as a way to talk about his radical reading of the crucifixion – referred to in the book as the ‘Christ event’ – framed as a magic trick with a pledge, a turn, and a prestige.

Part 1: The Pledge

The pledge is the first part of the magic trick, where an object is shown to the audience.

In TDM, the pledge is whatever object we desire, but are unable to obtain. In traditional Christian language this might be described as an idol, but for Rollins the sacred object could be anything from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, to the Spirit of God in the Old Testament temple.

Every sacred object comes with a prohibition: something that keeps us from reaching them. For Adam and Eve, God’s command was the prohibition keeping them from the fruit in the garden. The prohibition prevents us from reaching the sacred object, and allows us to mythologise it. In a very basic sense, it’s something like a ‘the grass is always greener’ effect – because we don’t have the sacred object, we are free to construct a larger than life image of it in our own imagination.

There is a third factor in the pledge, alongside the sacred object and the prohibition: the scapegoat. In many cases, we blame the prohibition on a scapegoat to avoid facing our own failings; I described a situation where this might play out in my previous post.

Part 2: The Turn

The turn is where the magician makes the object disappear.

In his description of the turn, Rollins uses the Christ event (crucifixion) to show us how our desire for the sacred object is doomed to be forever unrealised. In this section of the book, he deals with the idea of sin, and what it means that sin is described as death in the Bible.

In TDM, the pivotal moment of the Christ event is the point where the temple curtain is torn in two (Matthew 27:51). The tearing of the curtain reveals that the space behind it, the Holy of Holies, is empty. God’s presence isn’t there. In the same way, the Christ event brings our own sacred objects to light, tearing down the prohibition and revealing to us that they are nothing more than our own myths and imaginings.

Rollins describes the actions that we take because of our desire for the sacred object as sin. These are the actions that are doomed to fail, because they are striving for a fulfilment that is never going to come. This is, in effect, a living death, nothing more than a way of covering up our own lack by striving for something that can complete us.

Part 3: The Prestige

The magician makes the object ‘reappear’, although it is, in fact, a new object. The first has been hidden.

In this part of the book, Rollins talks about what I would sum up as the hope of the Christ event, and contrasts the prestige with the sacred object of the pledge.

Through the removal of the prohibition, we discover the presence of the sacred within us. The curtain tears to show that the Holy of Holies is empty, but we realise that we are the body of Christ.

To draw a distinction between the prestige and the sacred object, Rollins calls the prestige an icon, and the sacred object an idol. An idol, he argues, draws the worshiper away from the profane world, making them desire something sacred that is not already there. An icon, however, inspires wonder and awe in the worshiper, and draws out the sacred that is already present in the profane. One makes the present world meaningless, the other gives it meaning.

This is what I love most about Rollins’ interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus: his emphasis on us being the body of Christ, and the power that we have to make a difference when we stop seeing the world around us as unredeemable, and start seeing it as something that can be transformed. The sacred, says Rollins, is not something extra to be added to the world, but something that we can bring out.

Interlude and Part 4: Behind the Scenes

In the interlude of the book, Rollins gives a subversive reading of the prodigal son parable, and contrasts it with what Jesus did (as opposed to seeing the former as foreshadowing the latter). He argues that the prodigal is a failed revolutionary, who goes out from his position of wealth and splendour, fails to sustain a new way of life, and returns having changed nothing. In contrast, Jesus leaves his comfort and splendour in heaven to go down to earth and make a fundamental, transforming impact.

For the remainder of the book, Rollins explores what impact his reading of the Christ event could have in practise. He argues that the removal of the scapegoat and the recognition that we are all ‘other’ should lead to undivided collectives. He also calls for those who agree with Radical Theology to be agents of decay: allowing failing structures accept their own lack and die, which will provide the nutrients needed for healthier structures to grow. He calls the radical collective to be in the world (working in existing groups), but not of it (challenging hierarchies and being agents of transformation). Without decay, he says, death has the final word.

His final, radical twist, is that the lines are much more blurred between groups like theist, atheist and agnostic than we would like to believe, and that as a result, what you believe is much less important than how you believe (i.e. desire for a sacred object vs. embracing your lack and living in the prestige).

My response

I don’t have enough space left to tell you what I think about everything in the book, and there is a lot of the book that I haven’t covered in my brief summary above. Instead, I’ll try to give you a sense of what I think, at the same time as encouraging you to think about it for yourself, and pick up the book if you get the chance.

On the whole, I found TDM a refreshing read. I wouldn’t go as far as Rollins does in some of his arguments. For example, he argues that this is a ‘materialistic’ perspective, that isn’t especially concerned with what you believe. And it’s true, much of what he says could be put into practise by people from all faiths or none. However, I am not so quick to dismiss the importance of what you believe, because, as TDM seems to make clear, the Christ event is the key to all of this. I can’t really see how you can acknowledge the importance of the cross on one hand, and at the same time claim that it doesn’t really matter what you believe (there are nuances here and other points that Rollins raises, that I don’t have time to go into).

But as I said, there is a lot here that I really like. The reading of the Christ event resonates with me, and I think Rollins’ exposition of key Biblical passages and his explanation of his theology works with what I have experienced in my own Christian life. I think his theology does a very good job of describing the experiences of idolatry and, more generally sin, and he explains the tearing of the curtain in a profound way.

I don’t think Rollins’ explanation is the only way to talk about the crucifixion or human experience, but, for me at least, they do a very good job of augmenting, challenging, and refreshing my existing theology in what I think is a very healthy way.

I will definitely pick up some more of Rollins’ work in the future, and I recommend The Divine Magician to anyone with an interest in Christianity and theology, from curious sceptics to lifelong Christians.


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