After Magic – Preview 2 – Tell All The Truth, But Tell It Slant

Very excited that After Magic will be available in the next few days now. It’s a compact read at around 25,000 words, but covers a lot of ground within that.

As I’ve increasingly found with the books I’ve written, the source material that’s given rise to After Magic isn’t really the kind of stuff you’d necessarily find on the reading list of any philosophy or theology course. And that’s a good thing, right?!

I was talking with a friend about that the other day, and it struck me that this was something actually quite important, so I added a reference to it in the introduction:

I am convinced that in our love of power and influence we have ignored the subtle move that many stories take in renouncing magic at their conclusions. My argument in this book is that we need to listen to them. This may sound like a strange idea. Aren’t these just good stories? Sure, they hold our attention and make us think, but shouldn’t we be turning to more serious sources to fund our thinking on such serious issues?

It’s my strong belief that some of our greatest thinkers, philosophers and theologians are our great writers, film-makers and dramatists – yet they are also the least tapped and most ignored. We are foolish to underestimate the power of their vision and the richness of their teaching. The great artists – in whichever form or genre – are without exception those who best interrogate the human condition. Philosophers and theologians do the same work but come at the problem head-on, often resulting in sore heads and bloodied noses. Instead, as the great poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

The job of the artist is no more than to tell the truth, but at a slant – and it to these ‘slanted’ sources that these pages very deliberately turn, partly to inspire others to begin to see the great mass of serious and insightful thinking that lies beyond academic tomes.

What follows is a journey through the work of artists like Shakespeare and Christopher Nolan in the hope that we can explore something of what they have unearthed of our humanity, and thereby uncover a faithful re-reading of Christianity that follows their moves ‘beyond super-nature’ to something far, far greater. Beyond the religious domain, I want to propose that such a reading of Christianity will present not only a move beyond the problems of the infinite demands of an actually-existing god, but a way of dealing with the ‘very large’ demands placed on us by the ‘big other’ systems of capitalism, politics and technology that we have to interact with too. The hope is that by immersing ourselves in these stories, and accepting this radical re-reading of the Christian narrative as a model of life ‘after magic,’ our humanity will be restored and our addiction to power and violence broken.

I’m becoming more and more convinced of this. At best we’ve labelled works as ‘pop theology’ when they make strong cultural references. I think this is a major oversight. Great artists, like great philosophers, make it their business to interrogate the human condition. But their presentation of their findings is ‘slanted’ – wrapped up in stories or pictures. It’s tangential, parabolic… It is, in other words, based on parables.

My view is that ‘people of the book’ should be the ones out there devouring books, films and great art – precisely because they understand that it’s through the parabolic work of great artists in any genre that the truth can be approached.

This was the entire process for After Magic: the truths began in the world of film and literature, presenting such a strong archetype through so many different works over such a long time that it seemed incongruous  that orthodox Christian belief didn’t follow it. Until I went back to the texts and found that maybe, just maybe it did…



3 responses to “After Magic – Preview 2 – Tell All The Truth, But Tell It Slant”

  1. acetate monkey

    I have no problem with you making an arguement from ‘art’ rather then ‘thinkers, philosophers and theologians’. After all, writers of the second kind often produced plays etc. which still conveyed their thoughts. A seperation into worthy and unworthy writing is just a false categorisation (as you obviously know!).

    Looking forward to After Magic immensely. You always make me think1 🙂

  2. Michael J

    “I’m becoming more and more convinced of this. At best we’ve labelled works as ‘pop theology’ when they make strong cultural references.”

    I think this is exactly true. I continue to use film and music to underwrite “the book” as you mention. But it is interesting among those who only “cherry pick” things of “the book” how the silence is deafening when one links an artist/cultural reference to any so called theological notion. I am convinced that many of the “artistic” types have a sense of clarity about the “gospel narratives” and are able to express such realities in a genre that resonates with many because it is honest and raw. What I find amusing is that I was educated and grounded in an environment where it was important to make such links, we once called that making “application” or “illustration” of real life points of contact.

    But then again, making faith issues connect with “real life and real living” is meddling. And meddling can get you killed.

  3. I love this Michael – thanks.