The Divine Magician | Peter Rollins

The cover of Rollins' The Divine MagicianA classic magic trick has three parts:

  1. The Pledge: “An object is presented to the audience” (3)
  2. The Turn: “This object is made to disappear” (3)
  3. The Prestige: “The object then miraculously reappears” (3)

In The Divine Magician, Rollins uses this unorthodox metaphor to describe Christianity. The sacred object is the Pledge—be it the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the Divine presence in the Holy of Holies. The crucifixion of Jesus is the moment when the curtain is pulled away and we realize that the sacred object is not there. In the end, the sacred returns in a deeper way than before.

The Prestige of Christianity testifies to an experience in which the sacred is no longer that which pulls us away from the profane, but rather is that which emanates from the profane. This is not about some belief in the inherent meaning of things; rather it is living as though everything has meaning—a life that cannot help but relate to the world as rich, regardless of what we think. The sacred thus is not some positive thing, but the experience of depth and density operating in things. (90)

Rather than the Pledge—an object forever removed from us—the Prestige pushes us “deeper into the world” (91) in love.

Peter Rollins excels at making complex ideas immediately understandable. He brings Lacanian-style psychoanalysis to the arena of theology with a philosopher’s grasp of the big picture.

My problem with Rollins lies with his radical theology (I’m using “radical theology” in its technical sense—a post-modern theology). He seems to find the greatest meaning in life when he leaves his deity behind. While his talk of the Pledge and the Turn gripped me, his description of the Prestige sounded vague and almost Oprah-esque at times. This is sad, because the Pledge, Turn, and Prestige could be used in a wholly orthodox sense. The Prestige could be understood as Spirit-indwelling—the divine no longer behind a curtain but within.

As always, Rollins is insightful, engaging, and honest. You don’t have to agree with all of his arguments to love the man’s spirit or his writing.

—Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician (New York: Howard Books, 2015).

A View From the Bridge | Arthur Miller

The cover of Miller's A View from the BridgePlays are like poetry in their economy of words. By necessity, plays pack a tremendous amount of character development and tension into a mere couple hours of dialogue. This is certainly true with Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge.

Miller first heard the story of Eddie and his family from a water-front worker and decided to write it as a play. He first wrote it as a “mood experiment” (vii). He “wanted the audience to feel toward it as I had on hearing it for the first time—not so much with heart-wringing sympathy as with wonder” (vii). After a dismal debut which led to a major rewrite, Miller achieved his goal.

This story is full of tension. Imagine the low cello note in the backdrop of a suspense movie. That note builds throughout the play and doesn’t relent until the climax. Miller gives us characters and relationships of psychological depth.

This play is a study in desire gone wrong. This is human nature left to play out its vices.

—Arthur Miller, A View From the Bridge (New York: Penguin, 1955).

Dune | Frank Herbert

The cover of Herbert's DuneDune is one of those epic stories that science fiction fans have to read at some point in their life. Like Asimov’s Foundation series and Clarke’s 2001, this story has staying power.

You can approach the story from a variety of angles.

  • It’s a ecological tale (written in 1965!) about the desire to work with a planet’s environment to create a healthy future.
  • It’s a political tale about the endless subterfuge employed by the power-brokers of the world.
  • It’s a religious tale about the results of spirituality on a culture.
  • It’s a philosophical tale about determinism and destiny.
  • It’s an action adventure story (with a dash of mystery) set in a fully realized alternate universe.

It’s simply engaging on every level.

Fortunately, Herbert went on to write a number of follow-up novels. Other authors have continued after him to write in his world. I’ll be able to take plenty of trips back to Arrakis.

—Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965).

Chocolate Cake and Distraction | Michael Harris

Michael HarrisJust as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.

—Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014), 121.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes | Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The cover of Doyle's The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

The Sherlock Holmes cannon is expansive. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories for his detective which have been collected into 5 books. Holmes and Watson also star in four novels including The Hound of the Baskervilles. I have started my exploration of the Holmes stories at the back end.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, first published in book form in 1927, is the final collection of short stories. By this time in his career, Doyle was tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories. He even killed his detective off in the last story in The Final Problem. No fictional character, however, is ever truly dead.

David Stuart Davies, in the afterword to this book, claims that these stories are the bottom scrapings of the barrel. The stories are not bad, “rather they are disappointing in construction and surprising in their unpleasantness. … We can see that while some of the stories are weak in plot development they are also fascinating because of the dark and cruel nature of their content” (297).

Despite Davies’ write-up, I enjoyed the stories. The darkness in content reflects the ethos of a world at war. It was also interesting to read the voice of Sherlock Holmes in two of these stories. (Typically Doyle wrote in the voice of Watson, Holmes’ assistant.) Doyle did well at differentiating his perspective from Watson’s in the prose.

If this is the weakest collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, I’m really going to enjoy the strong ones!

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004).