Hocus pocus for Jesus

Some people like a little razzle-dazzle with their proclamation. The Fellowship of Christian Magicians attempt to bring together the theatricality of their craft as illusionists with the call to proclaim the Gospel. The results can sometimes be tacky, sometimes moving, often fun, but is it also distracting?

Catharine Price at Mother Jones describes her experience at the convention with Christian illusionists:

As the annual convention of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians kicks off on a hot July afternaoon, the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University is awash in displays of irreverent reverence. Ventriloquists converse with Scripture-quoting puppets, unicyclists pedal through the halls, and a man plays “Amazing Grace” on a turkey baster. In the gym, vendors sell mysteriously materializing Communion cups, paper that dissolves in water (perfect for making sins “disappear”), and fire-spouting Bibles ($50 each, they open “with or without flames”). Visitors to the auditorium are greeted by a Noah’s ark and Jesus, life-size and complete with cross and crown of thorns, made from balloons by a group of self-described “balloonatics.” Outside, preteens wearing gold crosses and short shorts practice high kicks: The five-day event coincides with a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders.

One of the main attractions is Duane Laflin, a 54-year-old former fellowship president who’s known for taking his showmanship as seriously as his message. Notebook- and camcorder-wielding fans pack into a small auditorium to see him deliver a lecture titled “Gospel Magic With a ‘WOW’ Factor.”

Laflin opens with a series of standard scarf tricks that ends with a twist—a silk square emblazoned with Jesus’ face. “One of my theories is that you have 15 seconds to connect,” Laflin tells the crowd. “You need to do something wonderful in the first 15 seconds, or you’re going to have a hard time holding on.”

To demonstrate one of his favorite bits of legerdemain, Laflin selects a boy named Drake and asks him to mark a quarter. “This quarter represents Drake’s life,” announces Laflin, delivering a stream of well-rehearsed patter. “Now, it’s a treasure, isn’t it?” He places the coin in a small box, and retrieves a silver cube, which, he says, represents God’s will for Drake’s life. “Would you like to know what’s in the cube?” Laflin asks. Drake nods. Music swells from a set of portable speakers. “There’s only one way for you to know—you must give up your life. You can keep the quarter or pick God’s plan for your life. What’s your choice, Drake?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Drake picks God’s plan. Laflin hands him the silver cube. Nervously, the boy lifts its lid—only to find that it contains six smaller boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Inside the final box is a handkerchief with two quarters inside. One is unmarked; the other is his original coin. “When you make the decision to live for God and give your life to him, God gives your life back to you so you can live for God,” Laflin says as Drake stares at the coins in amazement. After Laflin finishes his lecture, audience members—mostly middle-aged men and teenage boys—line up for autographs.

It might all be fun and games, except that that old “plain teaching of scripture” argument regularly intrudes. The same folks who think that “Dungeons and Dragons” and Harry Potter are agents of the devil believe that “Christian magician” is an oxymoron. In response to the criticism that the Bible expressly forbids magic, Laflin says that the “magic” he does has nothing to do with what is called “magic” in the Bible.

Laflin agrees that the Bible forbids magic, but says it’s a “terminology thing.” “The magic that it’s speaking of is trying to speak to the dead or cast spells on people,” he explains. “What I do is sleight of hand. It’s literally optical illusion. It’s not what the Bible forbids at all.” Gospel magicians regularly assure their audiences that they don’t possess real mystical powers. (“I do tricks, just tricks,” Laflin tells his audience. “But the power of God is real and wonderful.”) Some have eliminated the word “magic” altogether, referring to themselves instead as “gospel illusionists.”

If “magic” in the Bible is supernatural power that is not of God, then other side of the coin is also problematic, namely the confusion of magic with the miracles of Jesus.

That’s a trick question, of course. For some gospel magicians, the very fact that their powers aren’t supernatural is proof that the biblical miracles were real. “I carry tons of equipment in order to do my shows,” says André Kole, a famed magician who consults for David Copperfield and has mastered an illusion where he appears to walk on water. “If Jesus was a magician, you’d have to visualize 2,000 years ago Jesus and the disciples walking through the dusty streets of Galilee wearing sandals, with three diesel trucks behind them carrying all their equipment.”

As in any artistic or theatrical craft in service of the Church, there are perplexing questions. Are we doing this for the fun of it? Are we in it for the applause? Do we take ourselves too seriously? Is God served in what we love to do?

Just before midnight on the third day of the convention, a group of about 45 magicians gathers in a dorm lounge for “the late, late show”—a tradition where they share insider tips and tricks until the last one heads off to bed. Laflin is again the center of attention, demonstrating illusions as a thunderstorm erupts outside. He does a banana trick, earning groans when he describes its “appeal.” He fields a stream of questions: How do you pull off a thumb palm? Should a Christian performer wear makeup? A man on a couch raises his hand. “Can you talk a little about posing, staging, pausing for applause—things like that?” he asks.

It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the gospel magicians’ conundrum. While they seek to thrill and entertain, they must never derive too much pleasure from performing, lest they divert glory from God. Given that most successful magicians (not to mention preachers) are born scene-stealers, this can be tough.

Laflin considers the question for a moment. “Audiences like to clap,” he says. “And if you do something that others enjoyed, you ought to let them thank you. It’s just a matter of keeping your heart right.”

Johnson says that both “magic and miracles do share something in common: Both tap into our desire to believe in something greater and more mysterious than ourselves.”

Mother Jones: Jesus is magic.

HT to RNS blog.

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