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Theologian says Jesus was a ‘trickster’–but it’s not as offensive as you think

"In Jesus, we see a trickster figure, one who respects the beliefs and traditions of real people, yet also questions them, challenges them and subverts them for the sake of political and religious transformation," says post-modern theologian Peter Rollins. - Image courtesy of Peter Rollins
"In Jesus, we see a trickster figure, one who respects the beliefs and traditions of real people, yet also questions them, challenges them and subverts them for the sake of political and religious transformation," says post-modern theologian Peter Rollins. - Image courtesy of Peter Rollins

“In Jesus, we see a trickster figure, one who respects the beliefs and traditions of real people, yet also questions them, challenges them and subverts them for the sake of political and religious transformation,” says post-modern theologian Peter Rollins. – Image courtesy of Peter Rollins

Harry Houdini … David Copperfield … Criss Angel … Jesus Christ?

Putting these names together might seem like a game of “One Of These Things is Not Like The Other,” but according to post-modern theologian Peter Rollins, it might make more sense than you assume. In his new book, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith, Rollins argues that the Christian event is like a “magic trick” and Jesus was a “trickster.” This (and much in the book itself) will make some traditional Christians uncomfortable, it may not be as offensive as they might assume. Here Rollins discusses his ideas and why he thinks they matter.

RNS: You say Christianity is like a magic act with three parts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. What are these three acts in short?

PR: A classical disappearing trick is made up of three parts. The first involves the presentation of an object. This has been called the Pledge. Then there is the Turn, this is the part of the trick in which the presented object vanishes before the eyes of the audience. Finally there is the Prestige. This names the point in the trick when the object reappears. Yet what returns isn’t what vanished. In the standard form of the trick what returns only looks the same as what vanished. The coin that vanished at the beginning is rarely the coin that returns at the end. 

Courtesy of Howard Books

Courtesy of Howard Books

RNS: But those three parts of a “magic act” are really the parts of an “illusion act.” Nothing really changes in that kind of “magic.” But it seems that transformation is central to Christianity, so doesn’t that challenge your analogy a bit?

PR: Illusions are anything but impotent. The power of an illusion can, of course, be witnessed very clearly in the case of someone suffering from some form of psychosis. But illusion is a part of all our lives. From when we are young, we embrace illusions that profoundly affect us. Think of the small child imagining that they are a warrior, and in doing so, finding the strength to deal with a situation they might otherwise flee. Or in love, we experience the powerful illusion that the object of our desire is better than everyone else. The point of the book is to show that the subjective event called “conversion” reflects a transformation in our perception of the world and thus a transformation in how we live.

RNS: You say that the Christian”magic trick” is reenacted through the Eucharist. How do you understand what happens when Christians participate in this sacred meal?

PR: There is an interesting link between what early magicians where doing in their shows and what the Priest was doing during the Eucharist. Indeed, it is likely that the very term “Hocus Pocus” is a parody of what the Priest said during Mass when he uttered the Latin words, “hoc est copus.” Like the three part disappearing act, the Eucharist is composed of three acts. There is the Pledge where the sacred is offered as an object (i.e. – bread and wine). There is the Turn, where the sacred object disappears into our bodies. Finally there is the Prestige. This reflects the moment when we are to realize that the sacred has returned to us. Not as some special object, but as a depth dimension in mundane objects. In short, that the sacred is found in real flesh and blood. The sacred is no longer an object that we love, but that which we discover in the act of love itself.

RNS: You say humans search for a sacred object to make them whole. What do you mean? 

PR: The sacred object is the object that we treat as offering us wholeness. It is that seductive thing in our lives that appears to sparkle with  promise, offering us freedom from our trauma. This is object that is not only a fiction but a dangerous fiction, a fiction that prevents us from doing the difficult work of facing our traumas and finding a way of bearing the full range of human emotions. Christianity is, for me, nothing less than the freedom from this sacred object. This is the pledge that must be made to vanish so that a different understanding of value can emerge. Not as an idea, but as a lived reality.

RNS: When people hear you say Jesus is a “trickster” figure, they may be offended. What does this mean and why is this helpful?

PR: Tricksters are revolutionary figures that challenge the natural order. They poke holes in what everyone takes for granted and fight systems that oppress. They work within a given religious or political system, but they wrestle with it, challenge it and transform it. In Jesus, we see a trickster figure, one who respects the beliefs and traditions of real people, yet also questions them, challenges them and subverts them for the sake of political and religious transformation.

Consider the example of Jesus supplementing the greatest commandment with a description of a second commandment that is just like the first, namely to love ones neighbor. Here we see that Jesus respects the common belief of the day—the existence of God and the need to love God—but also ruptures it by saying that one knows one loves God when one loves ones neighbors. This is not some atheistic critique of belief in which a person says, “forget God, love people.” It represents a type of working from within.

RNS: Part of the beauty of magic is that we don’t know how it works. Is there a parallel here to faith? How important is the mystery of faith to faith itself? 

PR: If I’m not a magician I likely won’t know how a magic trick works, and that does give it a certain mystical appeal. But I still know full well that it’s a trick. If I didn’t know this, I would likely scream at the end of the illusion, rather than applaud. The knowledge that it is a trick does nothing to diminish my awe, indeed it might even enhance it. Knowing that a person has spent countless hours learning such an impressive skill is more amazing than thinking he was born with a supernatural gift.

RNS: This book is billed as a provocative and unconventional work along the lines of Rob Bells’ Love Wins. What will readers find most controversial?

PR: I am attempting to give the reader a frame for understanding why I reject the idea of Christianity as a worldview. For me, Christianity is not connected with some set of beliefs about the world, but rather is concerned with a way of being in the world. Christianity, in its subversive core, is not about belief in God, Jesus or the Bible, but is an invitation into a life where we take responsibility for our actions, face our suffering, kill our idols, and learn to embrace our anxiety. I’m arguing for nothing less than a fundamental reformation of Christianity. One that has no concern for whether you are a theist or an atheist, but that calls upon all of us to smash our false gods, whether they be secular or sacred. The future church that I am fighting for is one dedicated to helping people expose, accept and even celebrate  the impotence of whatever they believe will make them whole. Thus, removing the sting from our experience of death and finding better ways to live.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

23 Comments

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  • You make it sound like Jesus created his “second commandment” on his own. In fact “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes directly from the Torah (Leviticus 19:18). The Gospels indicate that the Pharisees agreed with Jesus on this. The quoted Pharisee’s answer that these two commandments were more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices is historically accurate, as the rabbinic Judaism emerging at that time held, committed to after the destruction of the Temple, and still holds today. Rashi cites Rabbi Akiva (born in the Holy Land c. 40 CE) as saying that Lev. 19:18 was a fundamental, all-inclusive principle of Torah. Any “rupture” was held by both Jesus and the rabbis toward the Temple cult and the priests that ran it.

  • Many people today say that Christians believe in magic but so do all of the
    atheists and the people who believe in evolution cause they say the earth
    formed out of nothing and then became everything so they have faith too!
    It really takes more faith to believe this whole world/universe just came into
    existence all by itself with the design is being blind to say it’s just random
    chance with the sun set where we don’t burn or freeze. Many deny God
    cause they don’t want to be told how to live which Romans 1:18-32 says
    that people love their sin so they deny the Truth cause of sinful desires.

    When people see their sin for what it is most get convicted but many today
    never get confronted with the Truth about their sin so they don’t see a need
    to get saved or a need for a savior because so much of the preaching today
    is about going to heaven instead of getting saved. We must get saved and
    many today have faith that is surface only and is why so many don’t change.
    They want to go to heaven but don’t want to Repent which is why so many
    so called “Christains” still get drunk,be mean/have sharp tongues,gamble,
    gossip,covet/are jealous,take the Lords name in vain and/or sleep around.
    1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists all who won’t inherit the kingdom of God/heaven!
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

  • but according to post-modern theologian Peter Rollins,

    A generation ago, the political scientist George Liska offered that much unwise literature in his subfield had been produced by people who simply could not accept the role of making small incremental additions to an existing body of knowledge.

    Theology: now a playground for attention whores.

  • I dunno. Tricksy, sneaky little hobbit, post-modern theologianses. Sorry, it’s the only thing I can think of when I read tripe like this.

  • I’m very disappointed in this interview.
    What does Peter Rollins mean by all these terms?
    Why can’t we challenge him?

    Here comes another Christian reformer who refuses to de-weaponize these dangerous toys.

    “The sacred object…offering us freedom from our trauma..a dangerous fiction.. prevents us from doing the difficult work of facing our traumas.
    Christianity is, for me, nothing less than the freedom from this sacred object.”

    what ???
    Blatant, unthinking circularity.
    Jawdropping.

    “Christianity, in its subversive core, is not about belief in God, Jesus or the Bible, but is an invitation into a life where we take responsibility for our actions, face our suffering, kill our idols, and learn to embrace our anxiety. I’m arguing for nothing less than a fundamental reformation of Christianity.”

    What responsibility?
    Vicarious Redemption – the most immoral core of Christianity – is the belief that one’s irresponsible behavior can be wiped clean by foisting it upon a tortured, dying person on a cross. It is just scapegoating.
    Nothing good has come from this Christian nonsense in 2000 years which is why it keeps needing a re-write! Will someone please figure this out?

    Religion’s easy malleability combined with ‘absolutist claims’ should terrify people.

    “Christianity is not connected with some set of beliefs about the world, but rather is concerned with a way of being in the world.”

    What?
    Completely meaningless yet very dangerous. Because it apologizes for Christian cruelty. Imagine if the same thing were said about Allah?
    “Islam isn’t about belief, it is about how to ‘be in the world’!
    Nonsense. It fixes nothing.

    And that is the problem with religion – it isn’t based on anything true
    so it invites all sorts of speculative shenanigans without ever being told to put down its weaponry!

    Religious claims such as Peter Rollins’ should be challenged forcefully.
    This is not mere philosophy that we are dealing with but absolutist claims about what is true and what is false.

    Rollins seems to pretend there is a soft middle ground where it doesn’t matter whether God is real or not. Yet that doesn’t stop him from saying there is a correct way to see Christianity – and it is his way.

    “Execute my enemies in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    I submit that there is no safe way to play with these Christian ideas unless they are totally de-weaponized. These barbaric speculations are of no use to civilization.

    “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)

    Religion doesn’t need reform.
    It needs to be de-weaponized.

    Admit that there is no Yahweh and the Bible is mere speculations and fables and I’ll grant these Jesus stories to be merely philosophical playthings on the same level as speculations about Leprechauns and Unicorns.

    Not enough skepticism is being applied here.
    Allowing empty claims to be accepted as ‘fact’ is dangerous.

    “Slay the infidel wherever you find them” (Surah 9:2)

    Until we De-weaponize religion by admitting that god is a manmade object -we cannot treat it as a mere philosophy. It is too dangerous.

  • @Stephen,

    “You do never stop your atheist drivel, do you, Atheist Max”

    Hmm..How dare I question wild claims made up out of thin air.
    What did I say that was either wrong or untrue?

    The cruelty of believers is really astounding.

    Those of us who were raised in religion and believed it with all our hearts hold a special hatred of religious claims because this garbage toyed with our lives.

    Only you seem to take my hatred of these despicable claims rather personally as if you were somehow the author of those claims. I find that peculiar.
    The evidence I have shows me that Jesus is a rotten bug. Now tell me why you take that personally?

    I say Jesus is as bad as Charles Manson. Why should this matter to you?

    Unlike you, I made personal sacrifices for these lies over 44 years – all of them needless. Religion tells us we need to sacrifice everything in this life for some magical afterworld. This is garbage. I know that now.

    Religion poisons everything it touches. It seems to have no limits.

    I don’t care what you want to believe. Enjoy your Jesus.
    But remember there are millions like me who think it is a matter of global urgency that religious claims be put in their place. If a claim is unsupportable it fits the definition of a lie.

    We reserve the right to laugh at Jesus, question claims of Theologians, question any nonsense wherever it appears – especially when it claims it is above reproach! Nothing is above reproach. How dare religion anoint itself as special in that way.

    In a world where people cannot draw certain pictures without being threatened by the hollow claims of religion someone needs to be civilized and shout down these weaponized lies when we see them.

  • @Stephen Lewis,

    Why do you always attack the messenger instead of the substance of the message? Are you so thin skinned that you cannot contemplate the idea that other people might disagree with you? That is a very fascist position.

    People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.
    The idea of wishy-washy spirituality is bogus.

    Sister Geraldine can speak for herself, but I don’t see where she attacked your credibility, your integrity or the validity of your comments.

    We who make comments at RNS may attack ideas forcefully – not the person posting them.

  • @Karla,

    “Many people today say that Christians believe in magic but so do all of the atheists and the people who believe in evolution…”

    Wrong.
    If evolution were not real, antibiotics would never become useless.
    Did you know that bacteria evolve and that the evolution can be measured – AND PREDICTED?

    You claim to care about prophecy – yet you ignore the perfect prophecies of science. Consider eclipses!

    There is no reason to believe the ‘universe came out of nothing’.
    There is no reason to believe there ever was a nothing.

  • STEPHEN:

    “When I demolish your feeble atheist ideas I demolish every atheist in general”
    I’ll judge that when I see you demolish something – which you haven’t done.

    ” as you all share the same basic fatal flaw in your attacks on religion and God-consciousness.”
    What is God consciousness?

    “None of you knows…”
    That is bigotry and prejudice.

    “your narcissism…”
    Oh really?

    “To be able to speak intelligently about a subject you have to know about it first hand”
    Then what is your excuse?

    “You all need to take basic course in critical thinking”
    How did you determine this?

    “Without spiritual consciousness experience”
    White noise.

    “you just plain don’t have a clue about God or the Christ phenomena.”
    Nobody does.

    “I just am rather bored seeing atheists wasting everyone’s time”
    And I’m bored with Christians explaining that I don’t know something – while they continue to FAIL at explaining even a crumb of evidence for their lists of wild claims.

    “Only agnosticism is legitimate inquiry into spiritual consciousness from those who have never experienced it.”
    What is wrong with you? Atheism is simple Non-Belief which is no different from Agnosticism!

    “atheists make up their minds without proof of anything”
    NO – THAT IS CHRISTIANITY.

    “they don’t know anything about except hearsay from others.”
    AGAIN, CHRISTIANITY, all religions are entirely hearsay!

    “If you posted as an agnostic I wouldn’t come down on you”
    Atheists are AGNOSTICS!!!

    “you post as an atheist and as such you have nothing substantial to add to any discussion on God or spiritual consciousness.”
    You could demonstrate the existence of a God – if you had any evidence – and that would be the end of every Atheist who ever posted anywhere.
    But you can’t seem to provide it.

    If you claim something without having evidence for it you are either lying about it or willfully fooling yourself.

  • STEPHEN:

    “And the child abuse is inexcusable which won’t stop until all the priests are married and the homosexual ones too.”

    Pedophilia is merely the result of sexual repression? What a slanderous thing to say.
    Pedophilia is sociopathic, psychopathic, narcissistic, perverse and criminal.
    And your Church protects entire networks of these sickos.

    Cardinal Bernie Law who ran the Boston Pedophile Priest Network for decades which abused THOUSANDS of children knowingly hid evidence and he hides out in the Vatican to this day out of the reach of JUSTICE in a special suite just for him! THERE ARE MANY OTHERS THE CHURCH IS PROTECTING FROM JUSTICE.
    The Popes support pedophile priests even to this day!

    For Shame!

  • Stephen:

    “You have ZERO credibility to make any judgments about a phenomena you haven’t a clue about”

    Instead of talking about my credibility why not try to answer a question?
    Where is your evidence for your wild, dangerous claims?

    “Zombies walked for Jesus to raise awareness” – (Matthew 27:52)

    Answer the question! Explain your evidence for this.

    I am not making these claims – YOU are!

  • “For instance the fact that “Nature” through evolution has decided spiritual consciousness is such a good thing for human beings it is now hardwired into human brain consciousness.”

    There is no evidence for ‘spiritual’ consciousness. You have provided nothing but claims.

    Consciousness is not ‘spirit’ and it is a shame to claim so if you don’t have evidence for it.

  • Okay, boys. Put your swords away and act with civility; your bickering is unflattering and doing nothing to persuade the other person or anyone reading your comments.

  • @Stephen,

    “Not only are human brains hardwired for spiritual consciousness mentally, they are hardwired to show spiritual contact PHYSICALLY,”

    Where is your evidence?

    “When I have received spiritual visions the strongest ones literally shake my body…”

    Your personal story is not evidence. I must reject it. Otherwise I have to start believing stories about Sasquatch and mermaids to be consistent – and I don’t believe in those things either.

    ” with the Spirit energy flowing.”

    Makes no sense. You are free to believe it but I shall dismiss it.

    “Quakers and Shakers were known for this physical affect of Spirit contact.”

    I’m calling it fakery and self-delusion because that is what the neurologists call it.

    “Spirit speaks and gives spiritual instructions and visions.”

    That is a claim, not evidence. And it is a set up. If you accept one you must accept all – and that is impossible.

    “Biomystical Christianity came into effect and evolved through visionary episodes over a 35 year period into Celestial Torah Christianity”

    Bio..? It is cheating when you make up stuff.

    “Please explain as an atheist how these physical effects happen”

    Delusions, mental raptures, drugs, over active imaginations…etc.
    Those are far more likely explanations than Sasquatch.

    “If you can make your whole body shake on command, please demonstrate this feat. Otherwise, listen and learn about real spiritual phenomena which of course you won’t, being ego-bound

    You are free to believe whatever you want.
    But you must not try to insert these concepts into our laws.

    “…to a failed secular philosophy.”

    Science is not failing anyone. Secularism would do a lot right now for the Middle East – too bad the religious won’t let anyone try it.

    Separation of Church and State must be upheld.
    These sorts of empty claims must be kept out of our laws.

    And that is my problem with religion. It won’t stay out of our laws.

  • Athiest Max, I don’t think you have actually read any of Peter Rollins’ work. He is an atheist. He simply uses the Christian narrative as a means of engaging more deeply with the world and people’s anxiety.

    His work is a combination of Slavoj Zizek, John Caputo, Kester Brewin, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. All atheists. If you engaged with his actual books I don’t think this strand would be necessary.

  • Atheist Max,
    I love you man.
    I believe completely that you dedicated you life for forty-four years to religion as you understood it. I had a spiritual experience in accepting Jesus as my savior when I was about twelve years old. In the next sixty-two years there were times of doubt, fear, pain, grief and so on. But some how with all of life happenings, I still believe. I hold to my experiences of the majesty and love of God. One of the darkness times in my life, I threw all my beliefs about God up, so to speak, but I did not completely lose my faith. There is still something, who I choose to call God, I believe in greater than myself. I certainly can be called liberal by those who are fundamentalist.

  • The quarreling between Stephen Lewis and Atheist Max has got to be among the strangest exchanges of posts ever on these boards.

    Pity the poor moderator — looking for some evidence of appropriately bland political correctness to reward….and finding these two, who appear to be from another planet.

  • The communion bread is not a magic pill to sanctify you.
    At the Last Supper Jesus called the bread and wine his body and blood
    symbolically, and the way he broke one bread and shared it with them
    instead of each one taking his own bread like people normally would,
    likewise with the wine.. this is the what Jesus said to do in remembrance of him.
    It is remembrance of him that matters, and applying his teachings that sanctifies.

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