I’ve recently finished Tara Isabella Burton’s superb book Strange Rites. The book’s central argument is that descriptions of our age as secular are overstated, and there are three great quasi-religious movements on the rise.
More on those movements another time; on her way to them Burton explores a range of subcultures that behave in religious ways, though the majority would most likely reject that designation.
She details the ways in which the Millennial generation (born 1981-1996) has a pick and choose relationship to belief and practice, called the large proportion of them engaging in these self-made systems the “Remixed”. The most intriguing thing about Strange Rites is that very few of those practices and beliefs that are being remixed in bespoke ways are what most of us would think of as ‘Religion’. A little of a fandom culture here, some of the ‘wellness cult’ there, a light flirtation with witchcraft, mix in some politics, bake for a few years and change it if doesn’t work.
It’s catnip to someone who loves watching culture. Burton suggests early on that there is a reason that as people abandon formal religions, they seemingly look for alternatives that better fit them and their age. Rather than abandon religion we find that we need something to take its place. Burton defines religion as something that provides meaning amid confusion, purpose in accordance with meaning, community to follow that purpose with, and ritual that solidifies personal and community identity. There’s also a fifth less identifiable feature which doesn’t fit her taxonomy but comes up again and again: magic.
Without religion people lack a sense of magic, of wonder, of enchantment with the world. Some people—though notably not all—feel this lack strongly enough to want to replace it.
The philosopher Charles Taylor in his influential A Secular Age defined one of the features of our secular age as ‘disenchantment’. A fading of belief in the supernatural, and of its influence on us from outside, has led to a view of the as a disciplined free agent. And we’ve stopped believing in magic.
By magic I don’t specifically mean hubble bubble toil and trouble, but a more general sense and belief in the supernatural: that the world is bigger and wider and wilder than we know. That beyond the next horizon there might be another valley or there might be untold wonder. Its not so long ago that most people thought hobs soured their milk. We might scoff at such unsophisticated talk, and we’re now aware why milk goes sour, but have we lost something by narrowing our vision to only what is before us and in us?
Many of those adopting the strange rites of Strange Rites think so, though most likely implicitly. There’s a need for a more enchanted life, there’s a need for wonder.
Those of us who follow Jesus can find all this very interesting in terms of reaching people for Jesus and think that it has little to do with us specifically. I think that’s a mistake. We are also products of this world and like David Foster Wallace’s proverbial fish aren’t aware what water is. Most of us have lost our enchantment, our wonder. We scoff at talk of angels and demons—though often it can be very silly. We also need to be reenchanted.
Is the Christianity you teach and practice and live, teaching your friends and neighbours that your life is full of wonder? Is the church you are part of and serve in instilling wonder in their people? Are we keeping Christianity a little bit weird? Is there a sense of magic about the whole thing?
I’m a raving Charismatic. I’m used to church meetings ending in a melee of Spirit-filled wonder and weirdness. Even so, are we teaching our people to live as though there was magic in the world? Deep magic from before the dawn of time, perhaps?
All this talk of magic would make a certain kind of quasi-fundamentalist turn green and run for the hills (not literally, Iron Maiden are devil-worshipping fiends, of course). I, on the other hand, am with C.S. Lewis and have heard the horns of elfland.
This is an allusion to the moment in Surprised by Joy when Lewis is describing his difference from his parents in his love for what at the time was called ‘romance’ and would probably now be called ‘fantasy’. I used to be embarrassed of my love of fantasy fiction. There are some examples with genuine literary merit, but much of the genre is stale reruns of Lord of the Rings and ‘good guy hits bad guy with sword until he falls down’. At its best though it reminds us that stories have power, there is more to the world than first appears, and there’s something worthy about heroism.
Hackneyed though the Lewis allusions might be, we could do worse than encouraging our people to read Narnia. There’s something about the communication of ideas and doctrine through story that captures the way theology should feel. Why are more Christian books not written with a sense of whimsy? Think of the way N. D. Wilson richly enjoys the world in Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl and you’d have a sense of what I’m aiming at.
This is not a disenchanted world. Its brimming with magic and wonder and fresh surprises. Dragons are real (and need to be killed). Suggesting otherwise doesn’t give anyone the resources to deal with the enormous issues of systemic sin that we see in our world. If we believed in the principalities and powers, and that dragons need dragon-slayers, and that we know one, we might approach the big issues of the day a little differently.
The Bible is a not a disenchanted book. It paints a rich world where every tree sings to us of the God who made it, the symbols it stands for and the great trees it knows. Where every sky and sunset, hill and home, human endeavour and hopeful face tell us of their maker. And not simply in a “isn’t it neat that God made these beautiful things” way, but in a way where each moment of beauty is allowed to sing of the particular truths they want to share about the one who laughingly spoke them into being.
What is at the other end of a rainbow? It’s better than a leprechaun.
We’re story people, and a disenchanted world is a world with no stories. Or, at least, a world with no good ones.