Hunting Magic Eels by Richard Beck was a great read. In a way, gave me “permission” to be enchanted and to allow for more of the experiential aspects of faith in my life, the aspect of encountering God. Christianity is not just about morality, but about our experience with God, and sometimes all we need to change to begin to see and experience God is our perception. When we start looking for God, we just might begin to see Him everywhere. As Beck says in his last few sentences, “Where you stand is the gateway to heaven. The world is shining like transfiguration. Even the eels. It only takes a little willingness to see.” (pg. 234)
Hunting Magic Eels cuts across “progressive” and “conservative” lines and is helpful for Christians of all persuasions and perhaps even non-Christian readers. This is because it gets at something we all deal with in this post-modern era: disenchantment. We are all influenced by the waters of modernism and naturalism that sprung out of the enlightenment, whether we identify as “conservative” or “progressive.” Our age is harder than any other for people to look at the world through the eyes of faith.
Beck does a good job of simply showing why enchantment is the “better” way. He avoids usual apologetic arguments (even showing how they at times contribute to disenchantment) and instead focuses on how the enchanted view of the world leads to the best results for our lives. For example, he argues that the value of every human being is actually an “enchanted” perspective that comes from a position of faith. There is nothing inherently valuable about humanity from a scientific perspective. Thank God this “enchanted” belief was “snuck in” to much of the secular world and we all pray it stays. Christians, however, are more logically consistent in affirming the value of every human being, even if this comes from a position of enchantment: “Our belief in the sacred, inviolate worth of every human being is an enchantment that’s been smuggled past the border guards of our doubts. And thank God this enchantment persists. Life would be inhuman without it.” (pg. 49)
I also had some of my own revelations while reading Hunting Magic Eels. I started to think about my own disenchantment, whether conscious or subconsious. The chapter on Charismatic Christianity was especially helpful because it gave me permission to attribute much in my life to God. For example, I’ve decided to see God’s movement in my life in leading me to my wife. My decision to marry my wife Nicole came about from much prayer and seeking God’s wisdom, yet I’ve still struggled to recognize God’s movement in leading me to her. Hunting Magic Eels helped me to give myself permission to attribute much in my life to God’s work, whereas other influences (both “conservative” and “progressive”) led me in a “disenchanted” direction of viewing the major events of my life.
I’ve realized I am just as hesitant to give God the credit as I am to give him the blame for what happens in my life. Beck calls this posture a state of “disenchantment” and is endemic of our society as a whole. I’ve come to name it “practical deism.” This “practical deism” views God as mostly detached from the details of life. Deism is a view of God that considers Him detached from the universe and was a common view of the Enlightenment that still influences us today. God wound up the universe like a clock, and now lets it run on it’s own. If God does intervene, it is extremely rare. God does not permeate throughout creation, and remains distant for most of what occurs within it.
The conviction I gained on this point is that we don’t need to have “evidence” for every time God is involved in our lives or in our decisions. We can simply trust that God plays a role in every aspect of our lives. Our lives are actually “enchanted” with purpose, and this is not just limited to the big moments, but even the humdrum events of daily life.
One might object at this point that if we attribute much in life to God and things end up going bad, we could blame God for how things went in our lives, or we could misattribute things as being from God that really aren’t. Beck has something to say about this objection: “…that’s absolutely true; experience must be checked or all sorts of bad things can happen. We need to discern the spirits and heed the exhortation of 1 John 4:1: ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.’ You and I will kick the tires of the various enchantments on offer in the world in order to separate God’s enchantment from the kooky, the dangerous, and the self-indulgent.” (Pg. 15)
While I understand the above objection (and have used it myself), I’ve realized detaching God from the decisions of my life hasn’t been all that helpful for my relationship with God. Is there really danger in over-attributing the positive events of our lives to God? Isn’t the alternative to attribute good things in our lives to ourselves? We may get to heaven and realize that God was not active in that situation, but if we are operating from a worldview where God is active and present we don’t have to have indisputable “evidence” for divine activity in every situation. We know God is working in our lives and we simply trust that every good gift is from him.
When it comes to attributing negative events to God, this understandably a risk. For many, it’s easier to be a practical deist because it helps us not to feel as disappointed with God. If we don’t expect God to be intimately involved, we won’t be disappointed when he doesn’t show up how we would like him to. It becomes easier to just view God as distant and uninvolved. If we don’t expect God to help we won’t end up praying, “God, why aren’t you helping me right now?” or “God, why are you allowing me to go through this? This doesn’t feel good for me.” We don’t have to pray these difficult prayers if God does not permeate creation and is unlikely to be involved in the details of our lives. When things seem unfair, we won’t go to God because we do not expect God to be involved or to help. We won’t just not complain; we won’t even ask.
The biblical authors believed God permeated creation, so you find them both praising and blaming God. Just read the Psalms. From Abraham to Moses to Job to David to Hannah you find many complaints, frustration, and questions aimed at God. This is because these people had a view of God that had him intimately involved with creation, and the expectations of how they felt God should interact with creation was not always met how they felt it should. So as much as they feared God, they complained, they questioned, and they expressed frustration. They would not have done this if they were practical deists. In fact, they may not have spoken much to God at all.
Another objection may come: Won’t that lead you to just sit on your hands and wait for God to do everything? Yes it will if you don’t have a theology of co-partnership with God (see 2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians with this theology do not sit on their hands. They are not lazy. They work hard as they watch God work. Yes, their are times to sit back and let God work, especially when we are working from a place of self-sufficiency, but attributing much to God puts our work in proper perspective and allows us to rest at the appropriate times.
Lastly, I want to point out how this book gave some practicals on enchanting time and space that I’m still working out how to put into practice. I’ve started with making the Sabbath day holy and using this time for rest and reflection. This has been immensely helpful for me. But I have plenty more I would like to try in enchanting time and space to make more room for God in my life. I would like to extend this weekly “enchantment” to recognizing times of days, months, and years to make room for God. If you read Enchanting Magic Eels, I’m sure you will get some good ideas for ways you can make room for God in your life as well.
Beck regularly uses rhetoric in the book that some readers may be tempted to take literally. For instance, when he says, “I don’t think God is dead yet, but God is most definitely on life support” (pg. 20), the reader should consider what he is saying in light of the overall argument of the book. Taking Beck too literally at several points of the book would be unwise and detract from his overall argument. In my opinion, this adds to the power of the book. The whole book is simply about “re-enchantment” and Beck stays on target with this goal refusing to chase other rabbits. When he sees the Enlightenment, Protestantism, and even apologetics as the culprits of disenchantment, while praising Catholic, Celtic, and Charismatic Christianity, the reader should keep in mind this focus.
A conservative reader who believes in the historicity of all (or even most) biblical events may find a couple statements problematic in Hunting Magic Eels. His rhetoric sometimes sounds a bit post-modern at points. For example, an event in the Bible that is represented to be historical, such as Moses and the Burning Bush, is used to say how we should simply shift our “attention” so that we can see God: “How enchantment flows out of perceptual intention and attention is wonderfully illustrated in Exodus in the story of Moses and the burning bush…Intrigued and fascinated, Moses says, ‘I must turn aside and see this strange sight.’ I must turn aside. This is the key point. Encountering God’s presence requires a shift of attention. Moses must intentionally direct his attention to behold this strange sight.”
Such an observation of the burning bush event is a little odd if one thinks it is recording an actual event. A burning bush is difficult to avoid! Beck does something similar with the story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel. However, I do agree that one’s perception can determine what they see as truth. Recognizing this is helpful for the believer, whether we label it as “postmodernism” or not. It is common sense that where we put our focus often becomes our “truth.” For example, one could call naturalism “truth” because it only takes into account what we can experience with our senses and allows for no other “truth.” As Christians, we accept that there is truth beyond what we can see and that requires widening our perception to things we cannot always directly experience. We can decide to attribute events in our life to God or attribute them only to ourselves. As Christians we have a different perception of truth than the world does, and I think Beck makes a strong case that we need not apologize for it.
This has been a clumsy attempt to summarize, review, and reflect on this awesome book. There is much more that could be said that personally affected and challenged me. My recommendation is to buy the book and read it for yourself to see how it calls you into an “enchanted” life with God.