Good evening Mr. & Mrs. Catholic, and all you other Christians at sea. We interupt this blog with this news flash. As fate would have it, right on the heels of our review of Oz The Great And Powerful, the fine folks at Aleteia have also requested we take a gander at Steve Carell’s latest effort, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Moviegoers haven’t seen this sort of magical mini-trend since 2006 when they were pummeled with the one-two punch of The Illusionist and The Prestige. Of course, this year’s presentation of prestidigitation isn’t quite as angsty as the previous go around, but still, if you like magicians, it’s not a bad time to be a ticket buyer.
But if the recent spate of pseudo-mystic movies hasn’t brought enough magic into your life, then not to worry because apparently there’s another place where you can catch a magician at work… your local church. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, according to world renowned illusionist David Copperfield, there’s one name that towers above the rest when it comes to magic craft, one man who rises above the great, the powerful, and the incredible, one man who is the greatest magician of all time, and that man is… Jesus Christ.
To be fair, the clip from TMZ provides no real context, showing nothing more than Copperfield spouting off a quick answer to some bothersome reporter. From only that brief exchange, there’s no way of telling if he’s being serious or snarky, or perhaps even a little bit of both. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect Copperfield believes what he’s saying because the notion that Jesus was simply a really good stage magician with delusions of grandeur goes back a long, long way.
The accusation seems to have first appeared in print during the 2nd century when Greek philosopher Celsus published his book On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians. In a treatise worthy (if that’s the proper word) of Richard Dawkins, Celsus insinuated, among other things, that an adulteress Mary gave birth to Jesus illegitimately and then raised him in Egypt where he picked up the magic tricks he would later use to befuddle the poor and stupid into believing he was a god. The early church father Origen of Alexandria was so unimpressed with these arguments that he wrote Contra Celsum, a work Professor Henry Chadwick describes as “the culmination of the whole apologetic movement of the second and third centuries.” In this book, Origen systematically demolished Celsus’ arguments, pointing out some obvious inconsistencies such as the fact that your average magician doesn’t typically cure the sick or come back from the dead.
But as Origen was quick to add, the “tricks” performed by Jesus weren’t just designed to prove his superiority over others. “There would indeed be a resemblance between them” Origen wrote, “if Jesus, like the dealers in magical arts, had performed His works only for show; but now there is not a single juggler who, by means of his proceedings, invites his spectators to reform their manners, or trains those to the fear of God who are amazed at what they see, nor who tries to persuade them so to live as men who are to be justified by God. And jugglers do none of these things, because they have neither the power nor the will, nor any desire to busy themselves about the reformation of men, inasmuch as their own lives are full of the grossest and most notorious sins. But how should not He who, by the miracles which He did, induced those who beheld the excellent results to undertake the reformation of their characters, manifest Himself not only to His genuine disciples, but also to others, as a pattern of most virtuous life, in order that His disciples might devote themselves to the work of instructing men in the will of God, and that the others, after being more fully instructed by His word and character than by His miracles, as to how they were to direct their lives, might in all their conduct have a constant reference to the good pleasure of the universal God? And if such were the life of Jesus, how could any one with reason compare Him with the sect of impostors, and not, on the contrary, believe, according to the promise, that He was God, who appeared in human form to do good to our race?”
In short, miracles are indeed spectacular, but unlike with ordinary stage magicians, the important question one should ask of Jesus and the wonders he performed is not really how did he do that… but why. Of course, be it Celsus or Dawkins or even Copperfield, the skeptics don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to ask that question. Maybe they don’t want to hear the answer.
And with that, we return you to your regularly scheduled blog, signing off as is our custom with the immortal words of the great Les Nessman. Good evening, and may the good news be yours.