Sacred Longings: Re-enchanting the World in Richard Beck’s Hunting Magic Eels

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Clack! Clack! Clack!

A man was striking a well-seasoned crab with a mallet. He was middle-aged and sitting alone at a booth in a seafood joint north of York, Pennsylvania, on Sherman Street. This was the kind of place perfectly suited for men and women coming off a long day’s work to eat quality food at a suitable price. I watched the man, who was immersed in this ritual of extracting—and eating—crab meat.

The image—a man hunched over his plate of crabs—sticks with me because of how his meal occupied his whole being. In my many discreet glances over at him, I could not help surmising that he was involved in a religious—some might say, liturgical—experience. His whole attention was devoted to his plate. In that 45 minutes or so of dining in the restaurant, he did not look up once. To me, this was the embodiment of someone singularly devoted to a task that required work, but that you might even say was  sacramental, connecting the divine to the ordinary.

In his recent book, Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age (2021, Broadleaf Books), Richard Beck explores the theme of perception and how current assumptions about the good life assume disenchantment, or lacking an understanding of the supernatural realm. Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, begins the book by describing a trip he made to Wales. He visited an abbey with a well where eels were supposedly kept in the Middle Ages. If a person threw a token into the well, that person’s romantic future could be predicted, depending on the eels’ response. The legend of these eels drew pilgrims to the well for many centuries, but then came the Protestant Reformation and modernity followed, enhanced by the Enlightenment, and the well no longer carried its enchanted power.

For Beck, the problem with the West is that guiding principles are steered by scientific naturalism, the belief that the physical is all there is. However, Beck makes the point that a lot of what drives people—desire and love—is more fundamental to who we are as opposed to mechanistic or rational understandings of nature.

Beck references novelist Marilynne Robinson to illustrate this point: “The Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or year.” What Robinson is getting at is attending to God’s explicit presence. Of course, even in our milieu, where “Science” is the defining prism of existence, there is enchantment, which Beck defines as being purposeful about the sacred ability to “see and experience” God in the world. Beck is careful not to pit science against religion but is simply turning modern assumptions upside down, so that God is at the center of that which moves the “sun and other stars” as Beck says (quoting Dante).

Beck accurately points out that we still desire things to fill up the God-like void. He calls this the “Ache.” All sorts of consumeristic rituals have replaced what is traditionally called religion. Examples of this include fitness culture, where as long as I can get the right Peloton bike, then everything else in my life will fall in line. Wellness communities then form around this almighty bike that can unlock the secrets of a flourishing life.

Tara Isabella Burton in her book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020, Hachette Book Group) remarks that the rise of “nones,” or those who do not subscribe to an institutional religion, still find a lot of meaning and identity in online “communities” and gathering places. Of course, this affects those who do adhere to Christianity as well. In some ways, it is easier to stay home Sunday morning to buy and sell materials on Etsy or Amazon than to belong to a church where you cannot choose the other congregants you worship with.

Modern rituals such as these still do not quench the Ache that Beck discusses. Because our world is devoid of a united underlying purpose and the adventure of mystery, it is difficult to find solutions to nonmaterial problems: belonging, love, and validation.

However, societal forces outside the church are not solely to blame. Partaking of the sacraments, namely Communion, allow for a space where heaven touches earth. By simply believing that the bread and wine are symbols, the church itself is participating in a disenchanted understanding of creation. As Beck points out, “God is everywhere, but when He is everywhere, He tends to be nowhere.”

The culprits of this disenchantment have as much to do with events that occurred outside the church as inside. The downplaying of the sacraments in many churches does not allow for there to be a sacred space where Christ can shine through. As Beck points out, God is everywhere, but when He is everywhere He tends to be nowhere.

How can we overturn modern assumptions that are true, good, and beautiful but that seemingly leave out the enchanted realm? Beck uses the example of the burning bush in Genesis. Moses was busy with another task and had to “turn aside” to focus on the bush. Like the bush, the world is completely transfigured by God but is not combusted or destroyed.

Thinking back to the crab-eating gentleman today, I wonder what thoughts were going through his mind as he was bent over the crabs with his mallet. Was it a sacramental liturgy for him? Did he delve into a deeper consciousness from that experience? Or was he just eating crabs? Based on his posture, how could he have not experienced enchantment?

[See below if you are interested in 1) an extended excerpt or 2) a list of books for further reading on this topic.]

Author Tony McClure taught upper school history for four years at Logos Academy in York, PA. Since then, he is a lifelong learner who is a Pittsburgh resident and lover of 3D puzzles, movies and books.

Note: Guest bloggers share their own thoughts as classical educators and learners and do not represent ClassicalU.com or Classical Academic Press. If you are interested in writing guest blog content, please contact us with your name, connection to classical education, and ideas for a blog post.

Excerpts from Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck:

Living as we are in a skeptical world, the journey back toward enchantment starts with a disenchantment about our disenchantment, cultivating a disillusionment with our doubts. Many of us, though, have learned to embrace our doubts so strongly that this may be hard for us, especially if we’ve used our doubts and questions to create an image of ourselves as courageous and bold seekers of truth. It will be difficult for some to face the fact that our doubts are hurting us. But if your entire life has been devoted to putting question marks next to everything—especially the things you hold most sacred—is it any wonder we’re all feeling a bit fragile and anxious? I think it’s time to question some of those question marks.

…Too many Christians are living like atheists, operating as if God doesn’t exist. We don’t expect to bump into God around the watercooler or doing the dishes. We might believe in God, but we don’t expect to encounter God.

…Christians live like atheists, according to the Orthodox priest and author Stephen Freeman, because we think we’re living in a two-story universe. In this two-story universe, the cosmos is a house with two floors. As Freeman describes it, “We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the story in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle.” For us to see or hear from God, God has to come downstairs to visit us. But most of the time, it’s just us alone on the first floor. God is absent, upstairs and minding his own business.

When we live our lives in the two-story world, we practice what Freeman calls “Christian atheism.” Since God is “upstairs,” God is “not here.” God isn’t close; God is elsewhere, far away and distant. And not just physically distant, mentally distant as well. God is at the back our minds, an afterthought, if we think of God at all.

What we need to recover, according to Freeman, is a one-story vision of the universe. We need to see that God is, in the words of Freeman, “everywhere present and filling all things.” In a one-story View of the universe, God and humanity are all living on the same floor. We’re roommates with God and expect to see each other all the time. Like Jacob declared, we’re living in the house of God.

…Theologians have a fancy name for this one-story view of the world. They call it a “sacramental ontology.” Ontology is concerned with “existence,” our thoughts and ideas about “reality.” A good definition of sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” Putting the two together, “sacramental ontology” is about how everything around us, everything that exists, points us toward God. All the world is a sign.

But that’s not quite right. Sacraments are more than signs. …If sacraments are merely signs, we’re back to living in the two-story universe, with the downstairs “sign” pointing toward an upstairs “reality.” But as Flannery O’Connor teaches us, sacraments participate in and embody the spiritual reality they symbolize. Sacraments bring the miracle close. As Catholics say about the Eucharist, God is “really present” in the sacrament, in the same room with us, and not just observing us from the upstairs. A sacramental ontology expands this vision, coming to see God as “really present” in all things and everywhere in the world. Again, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God’s vitality and life crackle through nature. …The sunlight, the wind, and the rain are not just signs pointing us toward the Creator. God is “really present” in nature. God is embracing us in the sunlight on our face, the raindrops on our skin, and the breeze in our hair. God comes to us in people as well. As Hopkins wrote in a different poem, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” God is really present in the faces and hands of other human beings as we love each other.

…This sacramental ontology shows up all over the Bible. My favorite example comes from Acts 14, the first sermon in the history of the world preached to a wholly pagan audience. …Unable to appeal to Abraham or Moses, Paul turns the attention of his audience to the natural world. God is “every-where present” in this one-story world. Just like a roommate, God has always been speaking to us. As Paul says, “He has not left himself without witness.” God’s voice is heard in the rain and in the harvest. God is close where there is good food and the laugher of friends. God has been with you this entire time, declares Paul, “filling your hearts with joy.” Start with joy if you’re looking for enchantment. Let gladness be your guide to the gateway of heaven.

Recovering this sacramental ontology is the next big step toward enchanting our faith in this skeptical age. This is a one-story universe. So let’s stop going through the day living as if God doesn’t exist. God is everywhere present. God isn’t that mysterious neighbor living in the apartment above you. God is closer than you can imagine. The signs and sacraments are all around you. …You are living in the House of God.

Additional reading on this topic:

  • How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith (helpful introduction to A Secular Age by Charles Taylor)
  • Roland in Moonlight by David Bentley Hart
  • Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe by Stephen Freeman
  • Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (especially chapter 4 “The Ethics of Elfland”)
  • The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature by C. S. Lewis (especially chapter 6 “The Longaevi”)
  • “On Fairy-Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien (an essay available in multiple books)

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