In Defense of Magicians and Trickery

(system) #1

I am troubled by the general thesis of this week’s lesson that God purposefully leads us into situations that God foresees will cause us suffering, because God also sees how such situations may provide some greater benefit. A woman who worked with children once told me a story about one of her small clients that set forth the general tenure of my difficulty with such suggestions as well as any I have ever heard.

A small child with whom she worked came to school one day with a bandaged hand.

When the clinician asked about the hand, the girl of six or seven would not tell her what had happened. So, the clinician, with a great deal of skill in eliciting information from children, asked the child to tell a make-believe story.

In the make-believe story, a small girl, who bore a great deal of resemblance to the child now telling the story (one might even confuse them for being one and the same), was drying the dishes, as was common for children to do in the days before dishwashers—a great invention by the way that, at least from the perspective of small children, fails to receive its due accolades for drying as well. Now it is a known fact that small hands and slippery cups and glasses were never a very good match, and in the case of this small girl, as was the case for most children of her age, she had dropped her fair share of slippery objects, much to the frustration of their guardians.

In this particular case, the father in exacerbation decided to teach the child a lesson, so he made her pick up the broken shards of glass in her bare hands. Then, to teach her a lasting lesson, he squeezed her small hands in his large hands—alas, the reason for the bandages.

I tell this story, not as Alyosia tells the story to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, of another childhood training story that went awry, when a small girl beat her tiny fists against an outhouse wall, crying, “Dear Jesus save me!” until her cries grew silent in frigid Russian night.

Alyosia’s question for Ivan was, “If you were God, and you knew that even one child would thus die, would you have created the universe?” My question is not the moral indictment of a good God allowing evil. Theologians and philosophers have offered many strategies for resolving this conundrum.

My question is rather whether a moral being should ever purposively employ the mechanisms of suffering and pain in order to acquire allegiance or dependency for one’s self. I purposively ask the question in the general sense, because I fear that we have all been tempted at one time or another to win allegiance for ourselves by wanting someone else to feel terrible without us. But that is precisely my issue. We recognize such incidents as examples of moral turpitude, rather than as divine example. Like Plato, I am troubled by using excusing the gods for actions that are inexcusable for us, just because they are gods. I believe that we should indeed teach our children noble stories. So how should we explain the story from the Exodus in this week’s lesson?

In this week’s lesson, God tells Moses to reverse directions in Israel’s flight from Egypt, so that in the eyes of Pharaoh’s spies, the fleeing slaves would appear lost and headed into a certain trap with the Red Sea preventing their escape. According to the narrator of the story, this was all a masterful trick. By leading the Israelites into a trap, God accomplished two important ends. God devastated the Egyptian army, so that it was no longer a threat to Israel for centuries to come, and God provided the first of many miraculous deeds to convey to Israel their need for him—which from the narrator’s point of view the operative pronoun is necessarily masculine, because God is like a father or jilted lover of children or a spouse who pays him little attention.

The usual explanation for this story is that a careful reading of the story reveals that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart by giving him a long series of examples of God’s clear superiority. The deeds of Moses and Aaron were shown repeatedly to far excel any of those performed by the magicians or priests of Egypt. By resisting clear and persistent evidence, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened by his own progressive resistance to God.

This moral lesson is certainly available to the story. The only problem with this moral is that it goes against the narrator’s own point, which is that God’s intention from the beginning of the story was to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could destroy him. As a matter of fact, the narrator seems to delight in the trickery and magic acts that are at the heart of the story, as much as does any child or adult who attends a magician’s show or watches clowns at a circus.

Perhaps, rather than being a fault in the story, the trickery is intended for our delight. Perhaps, rather than being read as a moral primary, the story should be read as the kind of magical story that at once delights and terrifies. In such stories magical powers, even when employed by the good, are never far from the dark side, as we are reminded time and again in the epic series of Star Wars<>/em> and Lord of the Rings. The moral rigor of such stories is derived ultimately, not from the protagonists, since even the good have real or theatrical moral laps that heighten the story, but from the level-headed expectations of the audience. We in the audience know how the story should go, even though we delight and demand the twists and turns and that hold us in suspense and terrify us so.

In the case of the Exodus, we know how it should go. God, by whatever understanding we bring to the idea of God, must be stronger and better than we are, even on our very best days. This means, that God must be at least as moral as we are. Whatever interpretation we give to the story, therefore, we must not allow that God is worse than human beings, and we certainly must not allow questionable human behavior to serve as an example for our own moral behavior, just because we find God acting in a way that is certainly wrong for humans to act.

This is my complaint against a great deal of the literature that seeks to justify human suffering under the purview of divine love. Although a case can certainly be made that human beings use hardship, whether in sports, the military, or stories of quest and love, as a vehicle to arrive at a higher or more valuable state of existence, the use of evil to bring about good, particularly attachment to one’s self as the benefactor or object of love and devotion is always suspect, for it undermines the only legitimate and real ground for devotion, namely, the free and unexpected love of another that has no source or means other than the love itself.

To suggest that God first makes Israel absolutely and utterly dependant for their sustenance and existence upon him, and then God chastises them for being unable to think and act on their own, other than to stand around dumbfounded and scared out of their wits when God leaves them by themselves until the very moment they believe that they will in fact die, only then to have God sweep to their rescue with all kinds of belittling reprimands for their tears is, and I want to make this utterly clear, child and spousal abuse, plain and simple.

As I was writing this essay my sister called. She had traveled two hours to visit an oral surgeon, because there is no closer doctor. The physician told her that someone had ground a tooth down so far that the crown had cracked and she would need major dental work to the sum of five thousand dollars. As she was preparing to leave the parking lot a large pickup had parked so close that she feared hitting it, so as she back out paying close attention to the pickup, she failed to see that someone in the car beside her had entered his car and pulled out behind her. My sister hit the car and put a large gash in the side of her car.

Does anyone really want to say that God planned this particular excursion so that my sister might learn some important lesson, or perchance, give me an apt illustration? Such possibilities put God on the same level as the father at the beginning of this essay. I have no easy answer of suffering and pain, but I absolutely refuse the suggestion that God acts as an abuser, which is perfectly permissible, because God is God. And I refuse with even greater might the suggestion that we are given the right to harm others, because we are only doing as God does. The high amount of abuse of children and women found in fundamentalist sects is at part at least an outgrowth of the stories they tell about God.

So what if we read the Exodus story as a story told by an ancient sage around a campfire, what would it teach us? It would teach us that life is complicated; it often takes unexpected turns—which may still turn out for our good. It would teach us that however despairing we are of life at times, and certainly such times exist, there are always other forces afield. We are never the only thing happening in the universe. Sometimes we are at the good end of those forces and at other times we are the losers. But most importantly, if God really exists, then we, the audience, know how God must behave and how the story must end, despite the losses on the way.

In this way, the Bible must be read as any great story of tricksters and magicians. We don’t know the answers to most of our questions, but that is what keeps the story going. In the meantime, we can exercise our talents, marshal our courage, sharpen our wit, enrich our humor, and set as our goal to live a life as interesting and noble as that of any great hero or trickster, win or lose. Such is storytelling at its best.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at