Book Review: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins’ new book, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith, is a provocative theological reflection, and to my mind is Rollins’ best work yet.

The book picks up where his previous work, The Idolatry of God, ended by reiterating that the meaning-laden concept of “God” can actually be the very thing that the bible and Christianity in general prohibits. While there are a few basic re-treads from that work, one that is of particular importance is Rollins’ interpretation of original sin as the desire of the prohibited object. This reiteration from Idolatry is of seminal importance to Divine Magician, as it lays the foundation for the analogy of the three-part magic trick that gives the books its title.
That analogy, incisive as it is, may also give cause for discomfort for those who adhere to a rigidly Cartesian understanding of the world. This seems, of course, intentional on the part of Rollins. Nevertheless it is an effective and provocative way of interpreting the central narrative event in Christianity—namely the Death, Burial and Resurrection of Jesus. The central argument in Rollins’ reading of that event is that through it we become aware of the non-existence of the thing that we think we seek through it—the empty room of the Holy of Holies. It is not simply that God has left, but that God was never there to begin with, and it is through the death of God the Son that God reveals this truth of Godself to humanity; that God is not confined to some sacred space but is rather in the seemingly profane. 
While this may be troubling to some (and there are elements of it that are troubling to me as well—as there should be! ), it is where Rollins takes this thesis that makes it compelling: by removing the idea of a sacred loci for God—if not the idea of God in a locus full stop—Rollins is then positioned to make a persuasive and inspiring challenge to those who identify as Christians to relieve themselves of their infatuation with God as the Divine Magician who solves all of their problems. Instead, with that God being revealed by Godself as being a sham, the implorance of the bible becomes un-entangled from the pseudo-platonic trappings of transcendence and clearly reveals itself to be an active engagement with the world within the world while subversively remaining “not of “ the world.

This is the triumph of The Divine Magician—where The Idolatry of God concluded with a rather vacuous extortion to do nothing (and this was my primary critique of that work [and I know that may not actually be the conclusion of that book, merely the seeming conclusion]), Divine Magician exhorts to engage. It argues for an embodied Christianity that lives into the (subversive) reading of the Resurrection’s call to cease seeking the redemption unto desired status, and see instead the redemption of the profane that is present in this world as revealed in Christ.

While I found The Divine Magician stimulating—and in many ways encouraging—it is not a work of comforting theology. It is instead a provocation that calls into question the very bedrock structures of our religious perspectives and deftly subverts them. It is a book that unsettles the comfort of avoidance and demands an honest (and sometimes necessarily overstated) evaluation of how our perspectives match up to the reality we inhabit. I would not recommend this book to everyone as a systematic theological argument that lines up perfectly with my own, but I would recommend this book for everyone as a challenge to that system which in many ways pushes fruitfully beyond that system and reveals—as it argues the bible does—the inadequacies of any such system as ultimate. 

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