By K. Rex Butts.
We live in an age of secularism, which likely is of little surprise to anyone. The challenge of secularism is what Charles Taylor describes as disenchantment in his monumental book Our Secular Age. Whereas past societies lived with an enchanted view of life in which an awareness of a transcendent reality, such as God, was present in all aspects of life, we now distinguish between the sacred and ordinary. This distinction is one of disenchantment, in which we live with a buffer between us and the transcendent that allows us to live much of our life, if not all, as though God is nonexistent. A consequence of this secular reality there is a growing skepticism in which doubts and disbelief. Believing and living with such faith is more difficult than ever.
Enter into the conversation the latest book from Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, 2021. Published by Broadleaf Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this book consists of four sections, divided into eleven chapters along with an introduction and epilogue, and is 237 pages in length. The author serves as a Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and in addition to teaching at the collegiate level, he teaches a weekly Bible study for inmates at a maximum-security prison. The book itself answers the question of how believers may cultivate a faith that sees the presence of God in every aspect of life. Readers will encounter a very easy-to-read book that weaves together concepts with real-life stories and some very concrete practices for recovering and maintaining an enchanted faith.
One issue with secularism is that no matter how disenchanted life seemingly becomes, people can never completely escape the sacred. For example, people believe that human life matters and that people possess a dignity that cannot be explained away by the machination of the modern world. So when someone suffers, people will offer their thoughts and prayers. Also, a question on the minds of many people has to do with the meaning of life. As Beck points out, “Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine…” (p. 48).
For Christians, recovering an enchanted faith has to do with encountering the God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. So Beck turns to some wells of spirituality found within Christianity, such as (but not limited to) Thomas Merton, Blaise Pascal, St. John of the Cross, Flanary O’Connor, J.R. Tolkien, and Martin Luther King Jr., to go along with his engagement of scripture.
The third section of the book gets to the very theological praxis necessary for cultivating an enchanted faith. I use the phrase theological praxis because these chapters discuss practices that are embedded within Christian theology, which matters because any separation between theology and practice is bound for a disaster. The four chapters—Liturgical Enchantments, Contemplative Enchantments, Charismatic Enchantments, and Celtic Enchantments—draw on a wide array of Christian traditions. From prayers and icons to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and chokti (and Orthodox prayer rope), to a radical openness to God, and to the poetic way of seeing all life as sacred, space opens for reimagining what it means to embody an enchanted Christian faith.
What also is appreciated here is both the invitational tone that Beck writes with as well as his awareness of some of the problems that can arise. For example, he acknowledges the excesses that can exist within Charismatic spirituality but he also knows there are problems with the detached skepticism of our age and in his estimation, the latter is a greater danger (p. 151).
As more people seek to recover some sense of an enchanted life, one of the great challenges in America is the trend towards a consumer-oriented spirituality. I once met a person who described herself as an Episcopalian, Buddhist, and Wikan. That’s probably an extreme but people do wish to pick-and-choose their own spirituality and, as we know, more and more people are turning away from Christianity as an option. (To be fair, I believe the Christian church bears some responsibility for this turn from Christianity in the way that too many Christians have, in short, lived a life that is more American than reflective of the gospel.)
Aware of the challenge brought about by the consumeristic mindset, a good question is whether recovery of enchantment is possible through a spirituality that one chooses rather than receives. Beck raises the question on pages 214-215:
Can an enchantment we pick up and lay down at a whim really give our lives the sacred meaning and weight we’ve been longing for? Can an enchantment we choose for ourselves become anything but narcissistic, a reflection of our own highly selective and cropped self-image? Immanent enchantments are on the rise because they are perfectly suited to our consumeristic age. And that is the fatal, fundamental flaw.
He continues a paragraph later saying:
The critical issue, Then, for both the religious and spiritual like, is this; Can your enchantment judge, criticize, and unsettle you? How can your enchantments point out your selfishness and self-indulgence? Can your enchantment, be it burning sage for your spell or singing, ‘God bless America’ In your pew, hold a mirror up to your hypocrisy? Can your enchantment weigh your nation or political party on the scales and find it wanting? Does your enchantment create sacrificial obligations and duties in your life that you cannot avoid or ignore? Does your enchantment call you to extend grace to people you’d prefer to hate? Does your enchantment bust up your cozy self-satisfaction and dogmatic self-righteousness?
The answer for me is no! Not if we create a “spirituality” of our own making, even one that borrows elements of Christianity, rather than receiving the fullness of Christian faith available to us through scripture and tradition. This is why discipleship, forming people in the way of Jesus, is so necessary for ministry among church plants and already established churches.
I really enjoyed reading Hunting Magic Eels and believe you will too. More importantly, I believe you will benefit from reading this book, especially if you serve as a leader among a Christian community. In fact, I regard this book as the most helpful book I have read thus far in 2021, which is why I highly recommend you read it. Like any book, there may be a place or two where you find yourself in minor disagreement but overall this book is on point and comes at a very necessary time.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.