Friday, January 10, 2014

Do you believe in magic?

I have always loved magic. I remember when I was probably 7 or 8 years old having a children's magazine with Doug Henning on the cover. It was one of my most prized possessions, and Henning was my hero. I watched his "World of Magic" with total fascination, and looked ahead to any opportunity to see magic performed on TV or live by anyone.

Miss this guy.

I never tried to learn to do magic myself, as I preferred to watch a skilled performers doing tricks. I also didn't really want to know how some of the tricks were done. I was always sure that what I was watching was only a  trick: an illusion. None of the "magicians" were actually doing "magic". If I had any doubt about that, Penn & Teller cleared it up by actually revealing how some of their tricks are done. But even knowing that I was simply being fooled, and that the magician had no supernatural powers, my pulse would still race and I would get a thrill from seeing a well executed illusion.

When I was a teen, I became involved in sports, and then music. I learned to play guitar, I got involved in theatre, and started a rock band. My entertainment time turned away from magic. I became involved in church, and substituted a quest to unlock the mysteries of the Bible for the thrill of mystical magic performances.

I was taken by the idea that there was a God who really had supernatural power. The Bible describes many miracles, the most important being Christ's return from the dead. But what was most fascinating was the idea that this power was available to all believers, who could pray and move mountains. I was content the think that maybe someone would be healed once in a while, so I never asked for mountains to be moved.

Cartoon from NakedPastor. Check him out!
This phase of my life lasted for years, and during this time I think I slowly slid away from trusting God with my prayers. I don't remember when I stopped reading the Bible, or when I stopped talking to people about my faith. But I continued to go to church and take my family with me, I continued to play in the worship band, and I still held all the same beliefs, both publicly and privately. I just had lost my enthusiasm.

The pastor of our church was a progressive Christian, and often said things that were challenging to us. I am grateful for this now, because I believe otherwise I would have abandoned a church that did not provide intellectually stimulating messages. I would have wandered the plains forever, searching for a new spiritual home and never finding one. But one Sunday in his message he said something that shook me completely loose from my tree.

He said he had never seen a miracle.

I know that this doesn't sound like a big deal. A lot of Christians would not claim to have seen miracles. A lot of Christians don't believe that they happen. But to me, the miraculous power of God was the whole reason I was in a church at all; I was attending a church that claimed to do healing and change things with their prayers, and my leader himself had just come over the top with the admission that nothing supernatural had ever come across his sights. He had never in his years of college and seminary, his time in ministry at a number of churches of different stripes, seen an honest to goodness miracle. And I took notice.

Because I had never seen a miracle either.

Things from my childhood came back to me, how I always loved illusions but never believed that they were really magic. I wondered if my faith could have all been based on one enormous trick. I had to find out.

Miracles, magic, the supernatural - these are the things that defy the natural order of our world. We know that if we drop an object it will fall to the earth, and we know why. If the object did not fall to the earth, and if it was not a trick, then what must it be? It would be a miracle, of course! Yet all the time, people get confused and mix up categories of events. Your mother is ill, and when you pray, she becomes well. Is that a miracle? No, people heal on their own all the time. Now how about if her arm is amputated, and you pray for healing and a new arm grows? That would be a miracle. Yet as far as we can tell, that has never happened to anyone. Sure, so-and-so has a story about her neighbour's friend, who saw a stranger at a prayer service with one leg shorter than the other grow to match. I say, let them go to the doctor and have the story published in a medical journal. Do you know why there are no stories about amputees re-growing limbs in the medical journals?

Because it just doesn't happen, that's why.

I started to look into everything that I had thought was magic, to find out what was really behind it. I started studying sciences so that I could have a firm grasp on what was natural and what really was supernatural - so that I could recognize a miracle. This investigation did not bode well for my trust in the Bible. I had to reason that if there were no miracles today, why would they have only happened in Bible times? Why would God withold his power from us? I already had an axe to grind with the Bible over it's dubious moral teachings. When I started looking at all the unbelievable things from its books that I had accepted as a matter of fact over the years, I could no longer take it seriously. I was becoming a skeptic.

But the Bible wasn't the only target of my new found crusade to unravel the weave of magical events. When I heard people talking about psychics, I tried to see whether it was plausible that they could have such a power. James Randi makes a pretty good case that it's not, and he's put a million dollars on the line for any psychic who can prove it. When prayer (any religion) is suggested, it only takes a few minutes with google to find that any unbiased study has shown it to not be effective. When I saw "The Secret" on Netflix, I watched it with my children as we laughed at audacity of believing in the "law of attraction."

The secret is the Emerson had no idea his words would be abused by these jackasses.

The bar for my acceptance of any claim has been raised, and I now require evidence and rational explanations for things. I don't think that's an unreasonable request. Even so, I can't tell you how many people I have used Facebook's "mute" feature on, because they continually share things that can be disproved with very little effort, yet they accept them as gospel. Maybe I'm just becoming cranky and cantankerous in my old age. Actually, I'm sure that this is true. I have little patience for people making stuff up, and even less patience for those who repeat things without asking if they are true. Hence my low threshold for entertaining conspiracy theories. I'm beginning to recognize that life is to short to waste on making accommodations for things that are probably not true.

This guy? Not worth my time.
My mind has gone through a transformation. And it was not without a lot of work on my part. I have been reading, making up for many years when I did not bother to study because I had finished school. Books on physics, biology, history, textural criticism, philosophy and critical thinking replace novels. My understanding of the world I live in has never been more clear. And it does not allow room for things to just happen magically.

Things can appear magical. If I traveled back in time a couple thousand years, my iPhone would be enough to convince the people of the era that I am a God. Well, at least until the battery dies. It was Arthur C. Clarke, the writer of "2001: A Space Odyssey" who said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The irony is that today, with all the advanced technology that we have available, people are still looking for magic to do things that we can do with technology.

"Why don't you open your own own freakin' pod bay doors, Dave?"

The more I learn about the world, the more fascinated with it I become. I can't answer all my questions, but I would rather live without an answer to something than assume it happened by magic. Just like as an 8 year old I who worshiped Doug Henning for his ability to fool me, knowing that there is no magic to anything that I see does not spoil the beauty of the trick. The illusion itself is the magic.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Dealer - a short play in 3 acts

Loosely based on a true story. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty). This play is dedicated to the fine staff of Kustom Auto Sound, for reasons that will soon become obvious. 


Curtains open on a couple in a mid-sized SUV. They are wearing winter coats and gloves, and their breath is visible in the cold air. The man, sitting in the driver's seat looks annoyed, as he takes out and starts dialing a mobile phone. The woman is shivering and adjusting the climate control unit.

Man (to Woman): This will just take a minute.

Ringtone can be heard over bluetooth connection.

Receptionist: Hello, thank you for calling Fundai, this is Susan.

Man: Hello, Susan. This is Joe Shmoe. I am having a problem with the remote car starter in my Fundai Albuquerque. Not the best time for it to happen, as you can imagine!

Susan: Oh, no not at all!

Shmoe: As your service department installed it, I assumed I should call you.

Susan: Oh, I can schedule you an appointment for tomorrow morning.

Shmoe: Wait... before you do, you see, I've had problems with it before.

Susan: Yes.

Shmoe: When you installed it originally it did the same thing. The car lights up, you see, but never tries to start it.

Susan: Yes.

Schmoe: So I want to make sure that I am not charged for this service.

Susan: Oh, I see. Well, I can't really tell you that. You will need to talk to our service department. Would you like me to transfer you?

Shmoe grits his teeth and looks at Mrs. Schmoe.

Shmoe: Yes, I'll talk to them.

Susan: Please hold.


Still in the SUV, Schmoe has put his gloves back on. Mrs. Shmoe is looking at Facebook or texting on her own phone.

Service: Hello, this is Katherine.

Shmoe: Hello Katherine, this is Joe Shmoe. I am having a problem with my remote car starter that you installed. Not the best time for it to happen, as you can imagine!

Katherine: Not at all! Very cold outside.

Shmoe: Yes, it is. So I need to know what to do about it.

Katherine: We can make an appointment for you.

Shmoe: Yes, I understand. But you see, it's only been installed about a year, and this problem seems to have happened before, so I was hoping you could assure me that you can look after this and that I would not be charged.

Katherine: I'm afraid that won't be possible. It has been just over one year, and the warranty on the starter is only one year.

Shmoe: So you can't tell me anything about what I can expect, other than that I can expect a charge.

Katherine: I'm not sure.

Shmoe: Well, never mind. Since you are not offereing any warranty on it, I will have it serviced elsewhere. Goodbye.


Breath is no longer visible in the vehicle. Shmoe is dialing again. Mrs. Shmoe has given up on her own phone and is staring blankly out the front windshield.

Mrs. Shmoe: Can we go now?

Shmoe: I want to try the custom shop to see if they will fix it.

Ringtone is audible again.

Custom Shop Employee: Hello, Personal Auto Sound.

Shmoe: Hi, this is Joe Shmoe. I'm having a problem with my remote car starter. Not the best time for it to happen, as you can imagine!

Personal: No, that is cold out there!

Shmoe: You didn't install it, it was installed by the dealer, but they haven't been very helpful. When I try to start the car, it lights up the headlights, but simply does not start the car.

Personal: It was installed by the dealer? Is it a factory system?

Shmoe: No, it's an "Auto-Start" brand.

Personal: Auto-Start? Are you sure?

Shmoe: Yes, it has "AS" on the key fob, and remember that name being used when it was installed. I'm actually in the vehicle right now.

Personal:  OK. Can you turn the vehicle off right now?

Shmoe: (Turns vehicle off) Done.

Personal: Now, turn the key from the "off" position to the "on" position 5 or 6 times.

Shmoe: (Turns key several times) Yes.

Personal: OK. Try it now.

Shmoe: Really? (Presses button on key fob, vehicle starts) Hey, that worked.

Personal: Well, there you go!

Shmoe: Uh, thank you. Thank you very much.

Personal: No problem. Have a nice day!

Shmoe: Yes, you too. Thanks.

Shmoe and Mrs. Shmoe look at each other. Shmoe mumbles a profanity and the name of the Fundai employee under his breath, puts his phone away, and puts the SUV into "drive".