The latest book from Kester Brewin, After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-nature from Batman to Shakespeare, takes us into the worlds of literature and comic book heroes in what is an engaging exploration of how religion works. But ultimately, After Magic is a plea to get beyond understanding how religion works to a place where we can live as Christians without the “super natural” props of “magic” or religion.
A mathematics teacher by day and writer/speaker in the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) by night, Brewin has written on his blog that After Magic offers “what I think is the most clear expression of my thinking.”
But readers looking for exhaustive lists of bullet points or a systematic treatise will be disappointed. After Magic presents Brewin’s thought “at a slant,” as he characterises it by quoting an Emily Dickinson poem (p. 4). Brewin’s “slant” is that “truth” comes through the stories that humans have told each other and themselves down the centuries – in particular, the archetypical stories that appear from Shakespeare to Harry Potter to American superheroes.
So the largest part of the book is the exploration of archetypical “magic” stories, in which heroes are initially granted great power over nature and can manipulate it to do what often seems like “good” in the world.
Brewin’s re-tellings and re-considerations of these stories are compelling. His writing is clear enough that readers need not have an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare or contemporary cinema to follow his argument – that there is an intriguing pattern in these stories. The pattern is:
It is only when the heroes renounce “magic” that they become fully human (or learn to love). Further, it is only when magic is renounced that the heroes – and the people they love – are free to truly live.
Brewin argues that the possession of power over nature drives the heroes to a type of madness. They must therefore battle not just external villains, but the darker sides of themselves, as they struggle to renounce magic.
(For those who cannot cope without bullet points, Brewin provides a “list” of the arc of this argument on page 30, in bullet point format).
The chapter on “Batman and Bane” illustrates Brewin’s argument well. In it, Brewin demonstrates how Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy shows us that the very exercise of “super powers” may call into existence greater evil than we would ever have imagined. After all, what “super power” doesn’t need an enemy to fight and define itself against?
But what does this teach us about Christianity?
In the latter stages of the book, Brewin begins to draw more explicit parallels between the heroes of these stories and Jesus (see the chapter titled “After Magic”). He shows how Jesus’ life follows a pattern similar to that of Superman or Harry Potter. (Interestingly, though Brewin does not note it here, it was identifying this sort of pattern in ancient and medieval literature that purportedly helped to convince C.S. Lewis that the Christian story was a true one).
Like the magicians or heroes whose stories he has already explored, Brewin claims that Jesus renounces “magic” when he submits to the crucifixion without calling on God to save him. In accepting death, Jesus loves, showing himself fully human.
So far, so “orthodox.” But readers may be asking – what about Jesus’ “magical” resurrection?
Does the resurrection not break the pattern Brewin has identified, with Jesus coming back to life constituting the most compelling “magic” trick of all?
Brewin answers this question by identifying the resurrection not with Jesus’ personal physical resurrection, but with the loving work of the Christian community (p. 74):
“Here is the brilliance of God, for in the physical sense the body is not returned; there is no miraculous prestige, no supernatural return of the body, and because of this the addictive cycle can be broken and the demand annulled.
… By breaking up, distributing and ingesting these symbols of God’s death [in the act of communion/Eucharist], we become the resurrected body of Christ – we become his ‘good hands’ materially at work in the world in which we live. … The prestige is presented not as a supernatural return of the body, but as the material return of it as bodies working sacrificially, lovingly as a distributed material community.
The body returns not as the superhero to save Gotham, but as the communal spirit of public service that will be the only way that Gotham is saved.”
Doubtless, it is what looks like Brewin’s denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus that will preoccupy critics, just as it was what looked like Rob Bell’s denial of the literal existence of hell that preoccupied critics of his book Love Wins.
This may, in the end, distract from one of Brewin’s key points. For him, it is the Christian churches’ acceptance of the triumphant resurrection “magic trick” that has made them addicted to a destructive form of magic: they now assume that they are special, “chosen by God,” and this has allowed them to justify the oppression and marginalisation of others.
Brewin insists that this position is not a simple turn to theological liberalism (a charge it seems that people in the ECM are increasingly asked to answer). He writes (p. 78):
“Seeing the descent into inhumane thought and practice that drawing on the supernatural seems to inescapably bring, faith ‘after magic’ refuses to attribute blame for illness either to the grand scheme of God or to the work of super-villains (and similarly refuses to praise God for the provision of parking spaces.) Instead, it boldly accepts the radical responsibility of being the only ‘prestige’ there is – of becoming the resurrected body of Christ, and thus living for all that the Son of Man stood for: justice for the poor, fair taxation, rights for women, love for the marginalised, great festivals, shared meals and freedom for the oppressed. Practising faith ‘after magic’ is to stand with the godless and the powerless – and to do so even without a thought of anything other than the human power of the love that we bring with us.”
As such, Brewin further suggests the “most godly” thing to do in our “toxic religious climate” is to “live as if god did not exist” (p. 81) – in other words, live without acting like we believe God is a cosmic magician, always acting on our behalf.
Brewin also reflects on whether this means people should still go to church, the relative effectiveness of people “acting” in a world controlled by big systems and institutions, and the psychological difficulty of choosing to live “after magic.”
Brewin covers all this ground in just 92 pages, meaning the book can be read by the ambitious at one sitting. But I recommend taking a little longer to digest the stories; or better yet, use each short chapter as a starting off point for discussion among friends or in a book group. (At less than £5 on Kindle, After Magic is a bargain).
Like books currently being produced by those on the more “radical” end of the ECM spectrum (i.e. Rob Bell, Peter Rollins), After Magic pushes further beyond traditional evangelical and Reformed theology and will make many from those backgrounds uncomfortable.
The question for me is whether that discomfort will translate into denunciation, disengagement, or deeper dialogue?