Sunday, August 21, 2011

Faith, Works and Magic!

Early in his new book God No! Penn Jillete riffs on the dubious intersection between faith and magic.  He scoffs at the idea that “any magician can be spiritual,” and the he criticizes “hippie Magicians” who use cheap magic tricks and then pretend “they're expressing something real,” and on “gospel magicians” who’ll do a “cheesy ‘cake in the hat’ trick and tie it to the resurrection of Christ.”

Those comments got me reminiscing about a moment in my own life when faith and magic intersected. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I spent the first 25 years of my life is a fairly active member of the Mormon church . But I also started to enjoy performing at a fairly young age. I was in several song and dance groups, rock bands, and other performing groups in the suburbs just south of Seattle.

Along the way, one of the groups I was in was taught a number of magic tricks. I can't remember exactly why, but we were going to incorporate some magic into a performance. I learned a couple of pretty impressive card tricks, how to vanish a thimble, and how to make small objects disappear and reappear in a “magic” handkerchief.  I was pretty impressed with myself, armed as I was with this awe-inspiring assortment of magic tricks.

About that time, I was asked to give a talk in church. For those unfamiliar with the Mormon faith, there is no paid clergy, and all members take their turns giving talks in the various church meetings. Since I always struggled with the idea that I had anything to say to anyone about faith, on this occasion I decided to treat it more like a performance.

When the particular Sunday rolled around I took the podium in front of the congregation to speak about the concept that faith without works is dead. I pulled my “magic” handkerchief from my suit coat pocket and told the congregation that I was going to demonstrate the concept of faith and works for them.  I pulled out a scrap of paper on which the word faith was written in letters large enough for the congregation to read.  And then I made this paper magically disappear into the handkerchief. Just like that, I said, faith alone is insufficient. I produced a second scrap of paper on which the word works was written. This too disappeared into the magic handkerchief and I explained that doing good works alone is also not sufficient to achieve salvation.

I then managed to make a third piece of paper appear from the void into which the first two had vanished - and on this this third sheet were written the words Faith + Works = Salvation!

A pretty good demonstration of the concept, I thought, and I expected to receive widespread applause for the way I had demonstrated an important concept of Mormon theology (not actual applause, mind you, as that would not be acceptable in a Mormon church meeting). But alas, I was mistaken.

Although no one took me aside and told me why, I did definitely get the impression that my approach to demonstrating church doctrine was not greatly appreciated by the powers that be. People were clealry and decidedly uncomfortable that I had used a magic trick to illustrate a principale of faith. Only much later did I realize that I had moved close to some dangerous ground. If you start showing through magic tricks how easily people can be deceived, then perhaps you're getting a little too close to causing people to think critically about the mystic aspects of religion itself. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I was surprised and disappointed at how little positive feedback I got for my little performance.

So I definitely agree with Penn that magic and religion really don't mix.  And who knows, maybe it was that brief flirtation with the art of magic that set me on my ultimate course away from faith and to a secular mindset.

One final note on this, I forgot the card tricks soon enough, but I continued to do my thimble trick for years and I was gratified when my son Ryan, now a professional magician in San Francisco, referenced it in one of his routines. Click on the link below when you can see him performing and demonstrating just how strong my magical influence was on his ultimate destiny (right Ryan?).

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