Rediscovering the Enchanted World

Allow me some magic.

Some dark, mammalian creature moves swiftly across the field outside my window at middle distance between the treeline and me. It traces a smooth, straight line across my field of vision, just far enough away in the early dawn light to be indistinct. Could Maxwell, the neighbor cat, be that far out into the open? Maxwell, who moves furtively from bush to shadow to the shelter of the porch of the abandoned house across the way? What would lure him to the frozen field?

Or perhaps it’s a fox. Or the world’s fastest possum. It disappears from view behind the house.

Now in the foreground, appearing from behind the house and walking the other direction is a woman in a red coat I haven’t seen before. There’s something anxious about her manner. She fishes in the large shopping bag beneath her arm for an object, pulls it out to look at it and returns it. Just checking to make sure whatever it is wasn’t left behind. She moves as if there is a bus to catch, but there are no buses. Only Parksley’s empty fields and streets.

Well, and also observers behind glass who try to make strange sense of what they see. It must be the case that the strange creature has re-formed into this woman. All the anxiety of the animal in the open transferred to the human in the street. We are all rushing nervously to a destination beyond reason. Meanwhile the house decays.

Richard Beck would call my perception here enchanted. I have refused the grim determination of science and preferred a mystical interpretation for what I saw. And suddenly the world is much more interesting place.

In his new book, Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age, the Abilene Christian psychology professor and prison Bible Study leader argues that the great tragedy of our age is that we have lost the power to see the world as an enchanted place, filled with the vital presence of a living God. In its place, the Enlightenment and even the Protestant Reformation have given us a world where God is largely remote or absent—a two-story universe, if you will, where God resides upstairs and rarely comes down to trouble our understanding.

In the absence of an ever-present God, we become absorbed in other things that fail to give us deep joy. Faith becomes an enterprise for encouraging good behavior, either on the individual or societal level. And as Beck says, “when faith is reduced to moral or political performance, life with God is stripped of its strange, startling, sacred magic. Faith becomes being a good neighbor and voting well.” (7) In such a flattened world, is it any wonder we’re constantly disappointed with the church. “God may be dead but we sure do miss him.” (43)

Only Beck doesn’t believe that God is dead; it’s just that we have stopped paying attention. Or we’re paying attention to other things. And the anxiety, distress, and depression we experience as we do describe the absence we feel. Beck calls this the Ache—our disenchantment with disenchantment. 

It’s not an easy thing to get a skeptical age to rediscover that the world is made of holy fire. It’s akin to the proverbial fish becoming aware of the ocean its lived in all its life. The remedy, Beck says, is developing some eccentric orientations, deriving from the root of the word ‘eccentric’ as that which comes from outside our circle.

Hope, joy, gratitude, and a sense of the inherent worth of our lives are clues to finding an eccentric grace. Enchanted Christianities, such as the liturgical, contemplative, charismatic, and Celtic traditions, have preserved some of what we need. Even things that make some Christians nervous, like poetry, nature, and feelings, are essential.

Yes, I know that there are dangers in the concept of enchantment. It’s not far from my dawn reverie to flights of fancy or darker conclusions. But Beck puts words to something I have felt for some time. The world we have accepted is far too thin. Our fascinations with puritanical judgments and toxic politics have become poisonous. And we are paying far too little attention to things that really matter.

If we could feed our hunger for a richer, fuller world, filled with the glory of God, it would come as balm. If we could “open our eyes to see more,” as Beck suggests, the dangers and the possibilities of this time would be more clear. For it’s true that the world is fierce and vast and devastating and beautiful and God is everywhere within.

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