‘The Greatest Trick…’ Crucifixion as Misdirection | Religion as Illusion [3]

by , under Theology

Religion as Illusion [ 1 ] |  Religion as Illusion [ 2 ]

I watched The Prestige again last night, and was even more impressed by it second time around – it really is a magnificent film, and, for me, more interesting than Nolan’s next work Inception.

Some of the reaction to this mini-series of posts has been interesting, especially around the idea of the Mass as a ‘trick.’ One wrote this:

The mass is not a trick, certainly not in any catholic eucharistic theology, it really is Christ present to us in the same way he was present to people in the 1st C AD. In that sense it is totally unlike magic and exactly like our material reality.

I really don’t get these sorts of reading of catholic theology, they seem to desperately miss the point, being pre-occupied with the ‘how’ rather than the grace poured out to us through the sacrament. As such such readings are indelibly modern and atheistic.

This was ringing in my ears when as I watched the film, and came back to me as one of the magicians tells the other:

If people actually believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn’t clap, they’d scream.

Next time you go to Mass, and see a man uttering the words “HOC EST ENIM CORPUS MEUM” – from which we got the phrase ‘Hocus Pocus’ – remember that he is not performing an illusion, but actually transforming wheat and grape into human flesh and blood… and then asking you, as God is actually incarnated in physical form, but butchered on a plate, to come up and eat this… next time you do that, and truly believe it, I ask you to try not to scream…

However, it’s not that that I want to focus on in this post, but on the idea of misdirection, which is so central to magic.

In The Prestige, both magician protagonists explore in different ways the lengths they will go to to achieve the greatest trick. ‘Sacrifice,’ Borden says towards the end, ‘is the price of a good trick.’

In the film, it is not a ‘good’ trick that these men are after, but the ‘greatest’ trick: that of the ‘transported man’ – the methods of which are the issue on which the film turns. This ability to transport from one place to another is the ultimate act. It is why ‘apparating’ is perhaps the last piece of magic that Hogwarts’ student learn.

Drawing in another film here, The Usual Suspects, you might remember the line about ‘the greatest trick’ that it wove into the screenplay, in a stunning scene where Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal, is talking to the police:

‘Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.

‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.’

Verbal – who SPOILER ALERT! – is in fact Keyser Soze – is able to pull of this feat of disappearance – right under the nose of the detective questioning him – through a supreme act of misdirection. He throws up names, places, events, extreme stories of violence – all drawn from random things pinned on the detective’s wall, to make himself effectively disappear, to reduce himself to nothing, as if he hardly existed.

Now, I’m going to throw something pretty radical out there as an inversion of this… not something I’ve fully sorted, but what the hell, here goes:

If the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick God ever played, was convincing the world that he did exist.

In order to pull this trick off, like any magician, like Verbal, god is going to need a supreme act of misdirection. Why? Because, like Verbal, god has been caught in an uncomfortable cross-examination, and wants out. So, like Verbal, he throws dust in the eyes. He creates an avatar, a scene of brutal violence… The cross, in this deeply heretical reading, is an act of divine misdirection, which allows god to disappear. Un-noticed, the temple curtain rips, and god escapes…

Why? What would be the purpose?

For Verbal / Kayser Soze / the devil, the trick of non-existence was to enable him to exist, and thus, under the cover of non-existence, do his worst work in order that he might better be able to exist later.

For God, it is the opposite. The trick of existence was to enable him to not-exist, to subvert any conception of actual existence, in order to do his best work, and thus be better able to exist later.

People need a god… God, people always need some kind of god. So by throwing up the apparition of existence, by throwing this physical being to humanity, a being who ended up being persecuted and killed for his divinity, god could disappear into non-existence to allow humanity to believe their theo-cide… in order that god might re-emerge without the burden of religious bindings at another date.

God needed to pull the trick of existence, in order to successfully not exist.

What does this mean in practice? Well, as a first stab, thinking on my feet developing these thoughts this morning, for me, god does not exist. God did, but has now died. But that death of that existing god – that current non-existence of god – is grounds for a great hope that god might one day re-exist, and do so in a way that is outside the ‘illusion of religion.’

And that, in every trick, is the essence of ‘the prestige’ – the reappearance of ‘the transported man’, and the wonder, the applause, that comes with it. But until then, ‘like that, ‘poof…’ and he’s gone.’


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  1. Barney

    And interesting read although I’m not quite sure I agree with the conclusion, you seem to be running a little close to the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy argument for the non existence of God (god must exist therefore he doesn’t).
    Out of curiosity have you ever watched Big Fish? It fits the three stages of a magic tricks you discussed yesterday well and the “prestige” in the final scenes parallels your last few paragraphs.

  2. KB

    Or, Chris, as MC Hammer rephrased it: you can’t touch this.

    Cazi – I’d forgotten about that series actually, but yes, I did watch it, and it does resonate. Worth another look I think. Thanks.

    Barney – no, not watched Big Fish, but will have a look. Having thought about this today, I think I’d probably summarise like this: God does not yet re-exist. And that’s a good thing, for now.

  3. helen

    That is a very interesting conclusion, I love the use of these excellent films to put the points across. Maybe you could write a book about it, you seem to be good at that…

  4. Evan

    Love your trajectory of thought. However, I’m surprised the Resurrection didn’t make it into your treatment at all. I would think it fitting with the discussion of apparating and all.

  5. KB

    Thanks Helen 😉

    Evan – I did wonder about getting into the resurrection part, but I felt the post was heading into ‘too long, won’t get read’ territory. Perhaps I should add another post to the series touching on it…

    Interestingly, the resurrection can be seen as part of the prestige of the ‘trick’ of crucifixion… or as part of the pledge of the next trick… with the ascension as the turn, and the prestige yet to come.

    But all that’s going to take a longer post!

  6. Dan Hauge

    Yes, sort of along the lines of resurrection–my first reaction after reading this post was “if that was god’s idea, it sure didn’t work: that whole resurrection thing got in the way and got Christians making an eternal God out of Jesus ever since. Until at last the post-structuralists figured out what was really going on”. But I guess if the ascension is the turn of the next trick then you could keep it going from there . . .

  7. Alex

    I wonder, like Dan above, if the structure you are proposing works better for the ‘Ascension of Christ’ or perhaps more hermeneutically correct ‘transition of Christ from the physical to the spiritual realm’.
    He can do more as spirit than physically with the disciples. He can be with all believers through all time rather than being physically present with but a few, eventually maybe to reappear physically at the second coming as he returns to bring the Kingdom of God in it’s fullness.
    Great parallels though.

  8. Joel Hafvenstein

    “For God, it is the opposite. The trick of existence was to enable him to not-exist, to subvert any conception of actual existence, in order to do his best work, and thus be better able to exist later…. by throwing up the apparition of existence, by throwing this physical being to humanity, a being who ended up being persecuted and killed for his divinity, god could disappear into non-existence to allow humanity to believe their theo-cide…”

    If that was the point of the trick, wasn’t it rather unsuccessful? The Crucifixion didn’t allow God to disappear into non-existence, because the belief in Resurrection galvanised Paul and the early Christian ekklesia to bring him right back.

    On this account, God’s greatest trick thus had to wait for Sts. Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Bloch, Altizer and Caputo to achieve its “turn,” let alone the long-awaited prestige.

  9. Joel Hafvenstein

    Whoops — posted the above before seeing that Dan Hauge had posted the same thing already…