The Divine Magician | Notes & Critical Reflections

Peter Rollins. The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and The Discovery of Faith. Howard Books, 2015. (189 pages)

Gladys Ganiel review; Jeremy Jernigan review; The Divine Magician introduction videos on YouTube;

The Sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.

— Book VI of The Histories by Tacitus, commenting on the discovery of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus upon entering the Holy of Holies in 63 BCE


…a term most likely parodying the proclamation hoc est corpus (this is my body) uttered by priests during Mass. (4)

What if one of the best ways of understanding the core proclamation of Christianity is precisely by looking at it as a vanishing act? (5)

SECTION ONE: The Pledge: An Object Is Presented

An Object Is Presented

Chapter 1: Conjuring Something from Nothing

A mammoth amount of time and energy is spent on the question of whether Christianity offers a perspective that complements contemporary theories of the world, conflicts with them, or deals with a different set of issues entirely. | But despite which view one picks, the shared understanding is that Christianity offers a concrete way of understanding the world and our place within it. It is one of the few things that (9) both religious apologists and their adversaries actually agree on–both accept that Christianity makes certain knowledge claims and both accept that these claims attempt to reflect the nature of reality in some way. (10)

I wish to argue that this founding event–which I will explore as we go along–is not concerned with a set of beliefs concerning the world, but rather calls us to enter into a different way of existing within the world. The good news of Christianity–that is to say the life-giving event harbored within the tradition–is not an invitation to join an exclusive party. Indeed, as I hope to show, this good news involves discovering that those parties aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and that there is a way of celebrating life that is more authentic, enriching, and healing than anything we might find through membership to some special club. A way that is not limited to a conservative or liberal, optimistic or pessimistic, theistic or atheistic worldview, but rather one that can operate happily and through them all. (11)

The event of Christianity is not an intellectual position we take with regard to the world, but a way of immersing ourselves in that world. (12)

The Creation of the Sacred-Object

…the experience of a lack in our lives … sacred-object to describe whatever it is we think will fill this lack… (13)

The Story of Adam and Eve

The no of the parent doesn’t extinguish the desire of the child, but acts as a mechanism that redoubles the intensity of the original desire. (14)

The fruit takes on a special and excessive value because Adam and Eve experience the fruit as barred. …therefore transformed into a type of sacred-object. (14)

The prohibition can make a mundane object appear sacred, i.e., as something that has the power to satisfy us and render our existence meaningful. (14)

The no bestows upon the toy a sacred property that is not an inherent part of the toy. (15)

Stealing a Masterpiece That Never Existed

Adam and Eve were not forbidden to eat something that would satisfy them, but were faced with a prohibition that made them think that the fruit would satisfy them. (15)

Virtual Reality

The prohibition thus creates a sense of dissatisfaction. Not an everyday type of dissatisfaction, but a deep sense of gap in the heart of our being that marks every part of our lives. (19)

We (falsely) believe that the sacred-object can offer us wholeness and lasting pleasure; but in actuality, it is responsible for birthing our sense of dissatisfaction. (19)

In philosophical terms, the virtual is a type of reality that cannot be adequately grasped in the terms of existence or nonexistence. Rather, virtual objects insist. (19)

A virtual reality only begins to dissolve when people stop acting as if it is real. (20)

I Want What You Want

We find ourselves wanting the things that the people we desire want. (21)

The story of Adam and Eve is our story; what it describes is not some outdated origin myth, but rather something that mirrors our contemporary situation caught up, as it is, in wanting to find something that removes our lack. (25)

Chapter 2: The Curse of the Magician’s Curtain

The prohibition, the sacred-object, and rationalization are all reliant on each other in such a way that getting rid of one means exorcising the others. (28)

The Fall

…the true problem: how to be free from the excessive drive for the fruit in order to enjoy a life not weighed down by the negative power of the lack that it creates. (29)

The Fall is rather about the oppressive and engulfing power of the sacred-object that enslaves us to an unhealthy obsession. (29)

The Alien Within

Longevity Without Depth

While death is a reality for all living creatures, in the story of Adam and Eve we witness the description of a death that operates within life, a death that is manifested in this incessant inner drive that causes us to act against ourselves. This acts as a major motif in the biblical literature, which often uses the term death to describe a form of life rather than the end of life. (33)

Mere longevity cannot render life meaningful any more than brevity has the power to make it meaningless. (35

A Relationship That Can Never Be

The obstacle creates what it seems to block. (39)

..the obstacle is often something we sustain in order to prevent ourselves from being disillusioned, from coming to know what we already suspect: that the sacred-object is just a fiction after all, and that the other side of the rainbow would be much like the side we’re already on. (40)

The Scapegoat Mechanism

If the figure who is fantasized to be holding the fascist community back were ever to be wiped out, then the unconscious fear of the community–that it will not be rendered whole by the obliteration of the other–will be made manifest, and the community will either collapse through schisms and infighting or have to invent a new enemy in order to restore equilibrium. (42)

For the Poor You Will Always Have

If the underlying scapegoat mechanism is not decommissioned, then new “others” will always arise to protect the group from its own internal conflicts. (45)

In order to destroy the scapegoat mechanism, a different strategy must be adopted. Instead of trying to create a community where there is no outsider, the real answer lies in understanding that there is a sense in which we are all outsiders. In concrete terms, this means that a community faces its own lack, rather than ignoring it and thus creating a scapegoat who must carry it. (46)

The idea here is that the choice is not between a world with poverty and a world without poverty, but between a world where our own internal poverty (our lack) is projected onto real people and one where it is directly faced within ourselves and accepted. (47)

The Knowledge That We Do Not Know

The Pledge

SECTION TWO: The Turn: An Object Is Made to Disappear

Chapter 3: Saint Paul’s Optical Illusion

Garden Temple
Open Garden Court of Gentiles
Prohibition Curtain
Forbidden Fruit “God”

Theologically speaking the temple can thus be read as a symbolic restatement or restaging of the primordial scene of Eden. In short, it provides an architectural representation of the existential predicament described so perceptively at the beginning of the Torah. (58)



The Magician’s Theater

Open Garden

Court of Gentiles

Front of House




Forbidden Fruit



The experience of “participating in the Crucifixion” is then the shock of realizing that the sacred does not exist out there in some particular place. (61)

What the claim of Pompeius Magnus and the one reputedly made by Gagarin share in common with the Crucifixion is the insight that the sacred is not to be found in some particular place. | It is this shocking experience of absence that lies at the very (62) heart of what it means to experience conversion–an event that is mostly quashed in the actually existing church, a reactionary space which betrays the scandal of the cross attempting to hold on to the idea of a sacred realm existing somewhere “out there.” (63)

Behind the Dark Glass

…beyond our current experience of lack and unknowing there is a sacred fullness. So then, while we might currently exist in a state where things manifest themselves as incomplete, this is merely an appearance that results either form the absence of specific revelation (in the fundamentalist/conservative case) or from natural human limitations (in the liberal/progressive case). (64)

the removal of the dark veil doesn’t expose a presence on the other side( the sacred-object), but rather exposes us to a traumatic absence. (65)

In order to get to a truly enriching relationship, a few stages of disillusionment must first take place. (67)

Paul means that w will find a sacred fullness on the other side of the barrier, when all that is claimed is that the removal of the glass will give us a clear line of sight to what is on the other side. The truly shocking aspect of the radical reading is that we are confronted clearly with something we already dimly perceive. We already dimly perceived that the sacred-object is powerless to make us whole, but the Christ event fully confronts us with that fact through the act of the Turn. (68)

…Bohr and his colleagues advocated a more radical vision, namely that the world could not be reduced to some kind of objective, full knowledge, not because of mere human limitations, but because there was an incompleteness built into the very structure of reality itself. … The implications being that the gaps we encounter in the quantum world are not merely epistemological in nature (to do with our lack of knowledge), but rather are gaps that exist in nature itself. This new perspective signaled a move toward the idea that what lies on the other side of the observable universe was itself incomplete. (69)

The Gap Within God

While standard religious systems postulate a kind of separation between ourselves and the sacred-object–whether this is due to our ignorance, misdeeds, or state of being–Christianity draws us into an embrace of the idea that there is a gap operating within the sacred-object itself. Our seeming distance from it is then actually a hint at the very nature of the thing we think we are distant from. In short, the sacred-object doe snot offer wholeness, because it is not itself whole. (70)

We break through the dark glass. | We walk through the torn curtain. | And we undergo an existential experience in which the incompleteness that we previously thought was due merely to our limits is felt to be constitutive of life itself. (71)

The magic act operating within Christianity is thus a type of supernatural event in that it is an event that isn’t located within nature (as an object of study), but rather changes how we interact with nature. (72)

Crucifixion as Rupture

Chapter 4: The Disappearance of Nothing

In our natural state, we believe that our fundamental problem relates to separation from the thing that will make us whole, yet it is exactly this diagnosis that is the problem. For salvation to mean anything, it must refer to a state of living in which this understanding of the problem is overturned and in which we are freed from what we think we most need. (77)

…the freedom from the sacred-(78)object is not a retreat from life, but a way of stepping into life more deeply. (79)

The Forgiveness of Sin

Theologically speaking, we can call this Turn of Christianity “forgiveness of sin.” …the experience of being loosed from the sacred-object. (80)

This is why the event harbored in Christianity should not be thought of as the means of bridging a gap. This event is nothing less than the smashing of the whole chasm/bridge idea that Gnostic spiritualities buy into. The liberation that this narrative expresses does not offer us the fullness we seek, but rather frees us from the need to seek fullness. (85)

The temple structure is more than an external structure; it capture something of our own internal structure. In theological terms, we are the temple. And it is within the temple of being that the temple curtain must be torn down. (86)

SECTION THREE: The Prestige: The Object Reappears

Chapter 5: Smoke and Mirrors

The Return of the Sacred

The sacred is no longer that which pulls us away from the profane, but rather is that which emanates from the profane. (90)

A Failure That Succeeds

We begin by experiencing the defeat housed in the victory we achieve, and then experience the victory embedded in the embrace of this very defeat. (93)

…parable of a rich businessman who, while returning to work after lunch, saw a fisherman get up from the side of a river with a bucket of fish.

“Where are you going?” asked the businessman.

“To the market to sell these fish,” replied the fisherman.

“And how long did it take you to catch those?”

“A couple of hours.”

“Well, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the fisherman. “I guess I’ll just go sit on the beach with my family, drink wine, and chat to passersby.”

“But if you keep fishing you could catch enough to earn more money!” said the businessman.

“And why would I do that?”

“Well, you could buy better equipment to catch more fish. Within a few years you’ll have enough for a boat and a large net. Why, eventually you might even own a fleet of boats!”

“And then what?”

“Why, then you could sit on the beach with your family, drink wine, and chat to passersby!”

What we are confronted with here is the way that the businessman fails to see that the path to his own ideal is a type of failure. His own work has failed to give him the very thing he wants. We see that he could actually have the very thing he seems to want, if only he could acknowledge the failure of his current position. (95)

For Those with Eyes to See

The Resurrection testifies to a Return in which the sacred is revealed as having no place in the world and then is discovered in the lived experience of care and concern for the world. (95)

It is rather a way of seeing what is already clearly visible. | Of perceiving or receiving what is already given. | This approach is captured in the idea of God as love. For God as love expresses the idea that the sacred is not found in a distant object toward which we focus our love, but rather is testified to in the act of loving itself.

| Faith, then, is not a set of beliefs about the world. It is rather found int he loving embrace of the world. | Because the actual existing church has reduced the Crucifixion and Resurrection to religious affirmations held by a certain tribe, rather than expressions of a type of life, the event they testify to has been almost completely eclipsed. (96)

The Idol and the Icon

The idol is simply a theological term for the imaginary thing we believe will make us whole, while the icon is a way of holding something that draws us into an experience of wonder and awe. In contrast to an idol, which eternally stands outside our world, an icon is in our world. (97)

The Body of Christ

Chapter 6: The Empty Cabinet

To have hope for those we love is to give ourselves to their betterment. (102)

The Critique of Signs and Wisdom

…the event of the Crucifixion is actually the very contradiction of our expectations. (104)

The attempt to provide a cosmic meaning for the Shoah is not simply misplaced, it is a profound offense. (106)

The Empty Box

This means that radical Christianity is fundamentally antagonistic to all ideological systems, for ideological systems are those frames that provide stable meaning and justification for the status quo. Whether they rely on ideas like fate, history, or progress, ideological systems justify the way the world is against revolutionaries who seek to challenge it. (107)

Since being wedded to the state with Constantine, the church has been justifiably viewed as serving the interests of those in power by placating those without power. (108)

Such fools are needed by the system in order to allow its people a certain edgy pleasure. (111)

From Belief to Faith

If we believe that the world is meaningful–yet do not love–we cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. However, if we believe that the world is meaningless–yet we love–we cannot help but experience our world as mean-(115)ingful. (116)

[Faith] instead describes a lived protest against forms of life that treat existence as worthless. (119)

The Miracle of Faith

…there is a different way of approaching the supernatural, one that doesn’t see it as describing a change in (119) the natural realm, but rather as describing a change in how we interact with the natural realm (hence supernatural). This is a view of the supernatural that can be affirmed by the theist and the atheist alike. (120)

Here a miracle isn’t directly encountered in the resurrection of someone from the dead or in feeding of us crowd of strangers with crumbs (as amazing as these acts would be). Rather it is indirectly glimpsed in that change in our life when we judge a person worthy of being brought back to life, or when we discover a compassion that makes us believe a crowd of total strangers should be fed. The miraculous is then testified to in that moment when we come to feel that life has infinite significance.

| Thus the true miracle of faith is not something natural, but something that takes place in the natural. (120)

In purely physical terms, music is powerless to transform anything. It cannot raise the dead, cure heart disease, or bring back a lost lover. Music does not change the world we live in, reverse time, or transform history. Neither does it promise practical solutions to life’s woes.

| But music is anything but impotent, for it can assist us in changing the way we interact with the world in which we live.

| It can help us affirm life, embrace it, and sublimate it.

| Music can help sensitize us to and celebrate the life that we participate in.

| So, too with poetry. The poet is one who can help us experience life as inscribed with a rich and sensuous texture. She can help us call forth, confront, and confirm our existence, inviting us to find a courage that might enable us to say yes and (120) amen to life int he midst of its complexity and in spite of our anxiety.

| In this way we might begin to appreciate how a real miracle is not something that raises the dead, but something that raises the living to a place where life is not experienced as death. (121)

INTERLUDE: Trickster Christ

Rather than return as a privileged son–living off the fat of the land–he decides to return as a hired hand. (127)

What we bear witness to in the story of Christ (as opposed to the prodigal) is the fundamental rejection of the sacred-object and, with it, the discovery of a new life committed to the world. This new life reflects the basic trickster (133) move, namely a cutting against one’s own system of meaning insofar as it inoculates itself from a commitment to he world. (134)

SECTION FOUR: Behind the Scenes

Chapter 7: Outside the Magic Circle

What we witness in such examples is how a new religious or political community (whether positive or negative) arises as the direct response to a deadlock in the existing system. They are attempts to resolve antagonisms that are being repressed or disavowed int he community they are responding to. (140)

By treating the new Christian community as a foreign intruder rather than as a symptom, Saul was effectively avoiding a confrontation with the problems that had given rise to this group in the first place. Thus the peace that Saul might have imagined would result from the destruction of the Christians was a fantasy, a veil obscuring the truth of a problem within the existing religious order. (140)

The logic of the cross exposes the scapegoat as the way of salvation. (144)

A King Is a King Because We Treat Him as One

To question the system was not simply to debate the political and religious structure, but to rebel against the laws of nature and the will of God. (147)

To be “crucified with Christ” thus speaks of a breaking of strict identity markers. This doesn’t mean that people now no longer have identities, but they now hold them in such a way that they no longer define the scope and limitations of their (148) lives. (149)

Holy Crap

The radical community is thus the place that displaces us, the place that challenges us to be in the world but not of it. (150)

Religious Belief Requires Unbelief

It’s Not That You Believe Too Much–You Don’t Believe Enough

This is why it is often true that the closer we get to the inner circle of the church the more we find cynicism, hypocrisy, and repression. A layperson can avoid a confrontation with the impotence of her beliefs by imagining that if only she were more involved, things would be better. But those who are the most involved often have no fantasy left to sustain them. They’ve been to the center, and they’ve discovered that the center is no better than the edges. But now they rely on that center for support, so they give themselves to support it. (154)

I’m Not Disagreeing with You; I’m Disagreeing with Myself

This is why people who have beliefs and practices that are foreign to such communities can be so threatening. It is not because of their “otherness” as such, but because of the way their otherness threatens to expose the otherness that already exists within the community. (155)

…the inner antagonism that arises from a person’s own repressed doubts is directly outward, thus obscuring the true source of the conflict: a conflict existing due to a clash between what the person professes as true and the repressed doubts he has. (155)

Chapter 8: Restaging the Trick

The Living Idol

What we most often confront in fundamentalist and conservative settings is not the “full believer,” but rather the “ironic believer.” (160)

It’s not, then, that the Fundamentalist affirms that “God” (as the sacred-object) is alive. It’s that she subjectively claims this “God” is alive, while demonstrating her unbelief in this “God” through her actions. (161)

The Unconscious Idol

Just as fundamentalist communities offer a security blanket through their belief, the liberal and progressive communities are able to do so through their liturgical affirmations. (162)

The Dead Idol

The point then is to help break the false distinction between the idea that there are those who are whole and those who have a lack. For the true distinction is between those who hide their lack under the fiction of wholeness and those who are able to embrace it. (163)

This divestment of power is what a community, which is seeking to remain true to the event within Christianity, should attempt to emulate. People will come to the community for answers and yet gradually come to realize that the answers are not there. They will find, instead, a group of people attempting to live well amid the loss of the perfect answer. (165)

Chapter 9: The Vanishing Priest

Radical liturgy is dedicated to the formation of spaces in which we actively confront our own lack in order to rob that lack of its sting. (167)

God, You Gotta Love Him

…it would be perfectly possible to change the entire content of our beliefs without altering the way our beliefs function. (169)

If we move away from the importance of what we believe to questions concerning how our belief functions, then it’s easier for us to acknowledge that there might be some of the theist, the atheist, and the agnostic in each of us, even though one might take precedence over the others. (172)

The Art of Disruption

Agents of Decay

Decay confronts us more fully with the reality of the death. (175)

The Disappearance of the Pastor

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 not only breaks apart the strangle hold of dogmatic beliefs and destabilizes rigid community markers, but also one that makes the leader’s ongoing presence ultimately superfluous. This means that the leader’s final magic trick, after helping to reenact the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige of the sacred, must be to enact her own disappearance. | Just like with Jesus and his two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the show ends with the disappearance of the one who helped perform the trick. (179)


In the name of goodness, of love and of broken community
In the name of meaning, of feeling and I hope you don’t screw me
In the name of darkness, of light and ungraspable twilight
In the name of mealtimes and sharing and caring by firelight

In the name of action, of peace and of human redemption
In the name of eating and drinking, and table confession
In the name of sadness, regret and holy obsession
The holy name of anger, the spirit of aggression

In the name of Forgive and Forget, and I hope I get over this
In the name of father and son and holy spirit
In the name of beauty and broken and beaten up daily
In the name of seeing our creeds and believing in maybe

We gather here…A table of strangers
And speak of our hopeland…And talk of our danger
To make sense of our thinking…To authenticate lives
To humanize feeling…And stop telling lies

In the name of Philosophy, of Theology and Who gives a damn
In the name of employment, and study and finding new family
In the name of our passions, our lovings and indecent obsessions
In the name of prayer, and of worship and demon possession

In the name of solitude, of quiet and holy reflection
the lost, the lonely and the without-direction
efficiency, stupidity, and the wholly ineffectual
the straight, and the queer, the transgender and bisexual

In the name of bootclogs, and boobjobs and erectile dysfunction,
schizophrenia, hysteria and obsessive compulsion
in the name of Jesus, and Mary and the mostly silent Joseph
In the name of speaking to ourselves saying “this is more than I can cope with.”

In the name of touchup, and of breakup and breakdown-and-weeping
therapy, and Prozac and of full-hearted breathing
sadness and madness and years-since-I’ve smiled.
In the name of the Unknown the Alien and of the Wholly-in-Exile

In the name of goodness and kindness and intentionality
In the name of harbor, and shelter and family

– Pádraig Ó Tuama


Peter Rollins is the “un-Christian,” a person who identifies with a faith of which he has no identity. Because of his unorthodox (or “orthodox”) philosophies, his writing is definitely not for everyone. However, for those on the edges, wishing to maintain some semblance of a bond to Jesus in the midst of a myriad of philosophical binds or existential bombs, Rollins offers a truly remarkable way of perceiving one’s self, and one’s religious journey through the lens of Christ. In fact, those philosophical conundrums and existential crises are the very pathways toward true belief. In this way, that which appears to be anathema are in reality redemptive movements.

Respectful Critiques

Some of his processing, however, falls short. Here are some of my respectful critiques.

On page 77, he writes:

In our natural state, we believe that our fundamental problem relates to separation from the thing that will make us whole, yet it is exactly this diagnosis that is the problem. For salvation to mean anything, it must refer to a state of living in which this understanding of the problem is overturned and in which we are freed from what we think we most need. (77)

This very short excerpt captivates a circular problem, that at times–in order to substantiate his argument–he must redirect from (or tear down) Christianity itself, or at least the construct of some of the core tenants of Christian faith. In other words, he may be getting at something deeper within our spiritual consciousness, something that may actually be true, however, it then is no longer Christianity. [I’m currently reading Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright, and much of what Rollins writes about resonates with the core thesis of Wright’s book. More of that after I finish.

After I wrote that critique, he “prebuts” me (rebuts me before I turned the page) on page 78-79:

…the freedom from the sacred-(78)object is not a retreat from life, but a way of stepping into life more deeply. (79)

I stand by my original thought in that the argument could be fashioned, “Christianity is not true when it leads to a shallow/bad/unfulfilling life. Life more deeply is what is true, and that, then, is Christianity.”

Mind you, I am not necessarily making that argument, but attempting to perceive how his book is really architected underneath it all.

Last, on page 145, referring to Saul of Tarsus, he writes,

He changes his name to Paul… (145)

Which I have written many times before, is false. This narrative is still alive and well, even though it is untrue.

With Gratitude

There’s much to be wrestled with in Rollins’ work. There’s much to consider, a challenge to embrace. And, there’s much to let go of in the process of reading Rollins. Wrestling, embrace, and letting go?! Therein lies the magic.

About VIA

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