Meaning of the Trick

This coin, as well as the trick you can do with the coin, visually express a pyrotheological way of reading Christianity. It expresses the existential movement from the painful sense that we lack the secret of life, to a confrontation with the secret of the Lack. The following, adapted from the introduction to The Divine Magician, offers an outline concerning the meaning of the trick.

book excerpt

This coin trick expresses the three basic movements of a disappearing trick  —Pledge, Turn, Prestige— along with the importance of a little patter (the magician’s distracting talk) and the use of an esoteric incantation uttered at the key moment of the Turn. 

Both of these elements have some interesting connections with the Christian world.

The term patter is most likely derived from paternoster, a word that refers to the repetitive, mesmerizing prayers used by nuns and monks in religious orders. For the medieval magician, their own distracting talk had a similar trance-like result as the repetitive prayers of the monks, helping to make the audience less aware of what was going on around them.

In a similar way, one of the most popular “magic phrases” used by magicians in the seventeenth century was hocus pocus, a term most likely parodying the proclamation hoc est corpus (this is my body) uttered by priests during Mass.

It was then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson, who first noted this interesting connection in the late 1600s. In one of his published sermons, Tillotson preached that the magician’s words were nothing more than a “ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.”

For Tillotson, just as the magician only pretended that something supernatural was happening during the vanishing act, so too, the Catholic priest during the Eucharist, as he proclaimed that the bread and wine were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ upon his blessing. Both were stage shows of a sort, a fancy game of deception designed to take in and amaze their respective audiences. Both, Tillotson said, falsely claimed to be part of something supernatural: one in the name of some dark powers, the other in the name of God.

The magician would make an object disappear then reappear. 

The priest would preside over the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

For Tillotson, hoc est corpus was as impotent and ignoble an incantation as hocus pocus. In pointing this out, he wanted to ridicule and discredit the theory of transubstantiation, exposing it as nothing but a cheap parlor game played by a cynical or naïve institution to confound their congregants. 

For Tillotson, the authentic Eucharistic meal had nothing whatsoever to do with superstitious hocus pocus, but was rather a solemn act of ritualistic remembrance. Thus, in contrast to the idea of the bread and wine changing their essence, he affirmed the Communion meal’s straightforward, pragmatic significance as a reminder of the Resurrection event. 

No doubt the church today would share in Tillotson’s desire to distance the Eucharist from a mundane magic trick. Whether they would seek to affirm the meal as an act of remembrance or, instead, claim that something supernatural was taking place, no church authority would equate this central sacrament with that of a mere conjuring act. Any such comparison to playing a game would be wholly rejected.

However, what if one of the best ways of understanding the earth-shattering, deeply life transforming meaning of the Eucharist—indeed, the core proclamation of Christianity itself—is precisely by looking at it as a vanishing act?

What if Tillotson was right in seeing a connection between a magic trick and the Eucharist . . .  but wrong in thinking that this took away from its significance and mocked it?

A parlor trick.

A cosmic sleight-of-hand.

In The Divine Magician, I make the argument that this three-part sacramental act is a fundamentally irreligious movement that has nothing to do with theism or atheism, or with doctrines, dogmas or denominations. But rather is an event that we participate in and that takes what we hold as most sacred, makes it disappear before our very eyes, and then returns it to us in an utterly different way.

Communion thus reflects a profound type of Pledge, Turn, and Prestige. First there is the presentation of the sacred as an object in the bread and wine. Then there is the disappearance of this sacred-object in the consumption. Finally there is the return of the sacred through a realization that we are the body that we consumed. It thus offers us a snapshot of Christianity in its most radical, non-religious and non-confessional form.