I ran into my friend Quinn recently. Quinn is a 30 year-old guy, who happens to be gay. He lives with his partner Terry and their son, Asa, in New York. Like me, Quinn is a pastor in the United Church of Christ denomination. If you need a box to put us in it would be the one marked “liberal.”
One of the things I most like about Quinn is that he’s not afraid to push his own people, meaning us liberals. We need an occasional shove, for in one of life’s little ironies, we liberals — or, if you prefer, “progressives” — can sometimes be so convinced of our own superior open-mindedness that nothing much gets in.
I asked Quinn what he’d been up to lately. Turns out he had just given a speech to a big church conference in the east on “magic.”
Really. What’s up with that?
“Well,” said my young friend, “if you were to go into some of the big chain bookstores right now, you would see they’ve added a new section. Right next to Biography and Travel and Art and Children’s Books and Home Improvement, you will see Teen Paranormal Romance.” He explained this patiently, slowly, as if he was describing an exotic, foreign culture to a clueless tourist.
“Yes,” he continued, “Hordes — hordes — of teenagers and young adults (old adults too) are reading about the love triangles of humans and vampires and werewolves and wizards.”
“And, where’s this going?” I wondered to myself.
Perhaps sensing my impatience he talked faster. “These stories (Twilight, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Hunger Games, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more) assume there’s a whole other, magical layer of reality just under, or beside this one, that we’re all living with all the time without knowing it, and all you have to do is be tipped off or invited in or put on magic glasses to have a whole world of wonder and mystery revealed to you. Your neighbor’s a vampire, your cousin’s a wizard, there really actually is a troll that steals a sock out of the dryer every time you do the laundry. And always, always, you are swept into a great struggle between good and evil in which you will play a decisive role.”
This was all very interesting, but I had an Easter sermon to write and was about to excuse myself when Quinn cut to the chase. “These kids, these young adults — and let me say, this young adult — are longing to believe in magic. To believe there is something to this world beyond rationality, deeper than rationality, a truth that lies beneath the surface and can’t be seen with the naked eye but which is old and powerful and worth trying to tap into.”
Which led back to what Quinn had said to the big church conference when they asked him to challenge them to be “bold,” which he did but not in the way they expected.
“I suspect,” he told his audience, “this being the United Church of Christ, that the kind of boldness you were picturing is being bold around some social issue: being loud on behalf of immigrants, or bold in serving your neighbor, or fearless in demanding peace, or brave in advocating economic justice or radical in extending a wide welcome to your churches. You should do all these things, but they’re not what I’m here to challenge you to do.
“Here’s the boldness I call you to: Dare to proclaim a faith that is at least partly irrational, unreasonable, unpalatable, indigestible to your modern, hard-thinking, critical selves. I challenge you to proclaim, revel in, delight in, dwell in mystery.”
And this would, for us, be bold. You see my crowd is so concerned about being associated with obscurantism, with fundmentalism, with credulity or the religious right-wing that we’ve bent over backwards to make our faith fit into the modern, rational, critical world and its canons. But in the process something — perhaps the most important thing of all — has been diminished, even lost. That something is mystery, magic and a wild, passionate faith.
The chickens come home to roost on this one at Easter time. As a pastor, I have come to expect hearing from my left-liberal congregation, at this time of year especially: “I just can’t buy it.”
“Buy what?” I ask.
“You know, Easter," they say. "Bodies flying out of graves, resurrections — all that.”
For years, I tried to walk people through this skepticism with talk of metaphor, of Easter and the resurrection as symbols of our own various dyings and risings.
I felt uneasy with this and it didn’t seem to convince many of them anyhow. So one year I took a different approach. When one guy expressed his disdain for Easter by saying, “I’m a modern, rational, scientific person. I just can’t swallow all this empty tomb, immortality resurrection,” I said, I get it. After all, what would a guy like you — powerful, privileged — want with a God who breaks our closed world open, says there’s more here than we know or imagine, tells us that we’re not in charge? Why would you be interested in that?
He eyed me suspiciously.
“But listen,” I added. “Stick around. We may be able to help you with this.”
At some point, when we reduce everything to the canons of modernity and rationality, we wind up with a world that is missing something essential and true. And missing something we’re dying for want of: magic, mystery, that layer of reality just under or just beside this one, and us being swept into that “great struggle between good and evil in which we will play a decisive role.”
“I’m talking,” said Quinn, wrapping up his speech on magic, “about divine mystery, ineffable truth, things that cannot be proved or observed or tested, which cannot in fact be true ... but are. Like what sits on the plate is both bread and, in some deep true way, the body of God too. And you don’t parse it, or explain it, or test it, or experiment on it. And you damn well better not be embarrassed by it. You just say, ‘This is the body of Christ’ and you eat and see what happens.
“You say, ‘Heaven is real.’ You say, ‘Life will win.’ You say, ‘He is risen.’ And even if you can’t prove it in a lab, you hold it true.”