THE DIVINE MAGICIAN, by Peter Rollins—not to be confused with Morton Smith’s classic JESUS THE MAGICIAN, which claimed that Jesus was more a master of old-time magic than he was a messiah. In this book, the magic is metaphorical and metaphysical; Peter Rollins argues that Christianity, properly understood, constitutes an unmasking of traditional religion and its notion of a “sacred object” always just beyond our reach. Instead, Rollins insists that the Christian life should be one fully immersed in this world but at a new “depth and density” made possible by that unmasking. Rollins employs the jargon of stage magic (the pledge, the turn, and the prestige) while simultaneously invoking (albeit without crediting) Rene Girard’s theories of mimetic desire and scapegoating; all to conclude that “A subversive leader who wishes to be true to the event of Christianity is not concerned with getting people to buy into a particular set of beliefs or new tribal community. Rather, such a leader introduces people to a different way of life, one that…breaks apart the stranglehold of dogmatic beliefs and destabilizes rigid community markers…” In other words, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, Christianity is a way of life, not a set of doctrines and dogmas: wow, man, and far-out.
If there’s any magic involved in Rollins’ book, it’s that he manages to peddle this prosaically progressive Christianity as “a bold and subversive vision of faith on the front line of theological innovation.” It’s none of that at all.
Matthew Crawford’s THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD is all about Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Mr. Crawford (author of SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT) makes the case for what he terms “embodied perception” in contrast to the Cartesian dualism that separates mind from body and leaves us with “the ghost in the machine”. I’ll leave the merits of Crawford’s thesis regarding human perception to cognitive scientists; but he is at his best and most persuasive when discussing the limits of our attention and the ways in which we learn to “jig” our environment (jerry-rig, that is, in immediately useful ways) to suit those limits. If I read Crawford correctly, he is insisting that the constraints posed by the physical world are precisely what make us the clever, resourceful creatures that we are—and more, that it is our interactions with those constraints that give rise to our sense of self and our sense of competency, both of which are drastically impoverished when we abandon physicality for increasingly virtual representations.
ANGELS AND AGES, by Adam Gopnik, is A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln both having been born on February 12, 1809 (a fact of which I had not been aware), Gopnik finds their lives both instructive and in some ways exemplary of what have become modern modes of thought and feeling. “Would the tides of history and ideas really have changed had neither man ever made a splash? Can we imagine modern life, and liberal civilization, just as well without either man?” However one chooses to answer those not-quite rhetorical questions, Gropnik offers this conclusion: “Darwin and Lincoln were makers and witnesses of the great change that, for good or ill, marks modern times: the slow emergence from a culture of faith and fear to one of observation and argument, and from a belief in the judgment of divinity to a belief in the verdicts of history and time. First, the change from soul to mind as the engine of existence, and then from angels to ages as the overseers of life.”