Skepticism and Low Anthropology: Beholding the Magic While Missing the Point

“When I Listened to Him there was Such a Strange Joy and Pain within Me, I Don’t Know How to Describe It”

Josh Retterer / 2.1.21

If you ever have had the pleasure of watching a street magician, someone like David Blaine, you’ll notice they do a little trick before doing their big trick. They pick the people they are going to perform to/at and then tell them where to stand. The magic is dependent on where you are looking. Why? Because magic is an illusion and depends on a mutually agreed-to suspension of belief. An unskilled magician makes the audience do more than their fair share of that suspension, which ruins the trick. 

I think that’s why I like writers like Robert Farrar Capon, Flannery O’Connor, and C. S. Lewis. They describe a Christianity attractive to an audience who have been disappointed by an illusion of Christianity, inviting them to come and look at it from any angle they like. They aren’t worried you are going to see something you shouldn’t, spoiling the illusion, because it can’t be spoiled. It isn’t a trick. 

The early 20th-century Czech writer, Karel Čapek wrote about Christianity, thought about Christianity, but never seemed to embrace it. He had particular trouble with the Holy Spirit, once writing, “Spirit that doesn’t directly answer practical needs seems to us indeed to be something useless and undisciplined. We respect it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” Despite his doubts, he did have a robust low anthropology, often interacting with biblical figures in surprisingly insightful ways, and always with compassion and humor. You get the sense that he knew, despite his doubts, that he couldn’t spoil the illusion of Christianity, because the fallen humanity of those biblical figures hadn’t managed to spoil it either. Arthur Miller wrote the foreword to a 1990 collection of Čapek’s work titled, Toward The Radical Center. He sums up everything I just wrote in half a sentence because he is … Arthur Miller. 

… it is time to read Čapek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it.

There is a story from his Apocryphal Talesa book I’ve written about before — that sums up the anguish and hilarity of humanity’s insistence on missing the point. The story is “The Five Loaves.” Here Čapek writes from the perspective of someone who was a contemporary of Jesus, heard Him speak, and was familiar with His ministry.  

What have I got against him? I’ll tell you frankly, neighbor — it’s not that I have anything against his teaching. Not at all. I listened to him preach once, and believe me, I came close to becoming one of his followers myself. Why, I went back home and told my cousin the saddle-maker: you really ought to hear him; in his own way, he’s a prophet. He speaks beautifully, no doubt about it; it makes your heart turn right over. I’m telling you, I had tears in my eyes; I’d have willingly closed up my shop then and there and followed him so as to never let him out of my sight. Give away all you have, he said, and follow me. Love your neighbor, help the poor, forgive those who wrong you, things like that. I’m just an ordinary baker, but when I listened to him there was such a strange joy and pain within me, I don’t know how to describe it: such a weight inside that I could have fallen to my knees and wept, yet at the same time I felt so fine and light, as if everything had fallen away from me, all my cares and anger.

This next part is where you get a glimpse of Čapek’s brilliance; makes me laugh every time I read it.

So I said to my cousin, you dummy, you ought to be ashamed of yourself; all you can talk about is money, who owes you what, and how you have to pay all those tithes and markups and interest; you ought to give everything you have to the poor, leave your wife and children, and follow him.

It’s just like Paul Zahl says, we become semi-Pelagians the day after we become Christians. I also love how quickly the shoulds and oughts come, complete with a pointy finger aimed squarely at his poor cousin! The baker does generously defend Jesus’s healing ministry against the doctors, who, of course, are nonplussed. 

The quacks are all crying out against it, you know; they say it’s fraud and meddling and they want him stopped and what not. But you’ve got all kinds of interests at work here. Anyone who wants to help people and save the world is bound to bump up against somebody else’s interests; you can’t please everyone, it isn’t possible.

But then he asks if we’ve heard about the feeding of the five thousand, or as he calls it, “the great injustice to bakers.” Talk about hitting a nerve! He rails on for a few paragraphs about supply chains, firewood costs, taxes. He even hilariously throws a little shade at Jesus’s feeding the four thousand as a sort of failed second attempt.

We’ve already had to knock down prices as it is; on my honor, we’re offering baked goods at less than cost just to keep from closing our shops. If things go on this way, it’ll be the end of the bakery business. They say that at some other place he fed four thousand men besides women and children from seven loaves and a few small fishes, but they only took up four baskets of fragments there; it may be that his business isn’t going so well after all, but he’s ruining us bakers for good. And I’m telling you right now, he’s only doing it out of hostility to us bakers. Of course, the fishmongers are crying out against him, too, but they charge outrageous prices for their fish, you know; it’s just not as honest a trade as ours.

After missing the point, in ways that are disturbingly familiar to all of us, the baker unwittingly proves why Jesus came in the first place. 

There’s no profit for me in staying here; in truth, I’d rather give away my few measly possessions and follow him and cultivate love for my neighbors and everything else he preaches. But when I see the stand he’s taking against us bakers, I tell myself: Oh, no you don’t! I can see, as a baker, that this is no redemption of the world, but a ready-made disaster for our trade. I’m sorry, but I can’t let him get away with it. It won’t do. Naturally, we filed a complaint against him with Annas and with the governor for interfering with trade regulations and for disturbing the peace, but you know how these officials take forever to get anything done. You know me, neighbor: I’m a peaceable man and I don’t go seeking quarrels with anyone. But if he comes to Jerusalem, I’ll stand out in the streets and shout: Crucify him! Crucify him!

In his enormous book, Clinical Theology, Dr. Frank Lake once wrote directly to Čapek’s baker. Despite our objections, gluten sensitivities or not, the baker is us

The truth in the inward parts of the human race all came out in the crucifixion of the Son of God. Now we know, if we could not believe it before, that God is well aware what it is like to live in the world he has made.  

We attended the crucifixion in our crowds, turned on the Healer, strengthening the hands of his persecutors, yelling full of rage and spite, ‘Crucify him!’ Our rage is focused on him as they hammer the nails through his hands. The Roman soldiers do not want to be the murderers of this innocent man. Their centurion saw him for what he was, the Son of God. It was thoughtful of Jesus to pray for the crucifying soldiers at that moment, just the prayer they needed; ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.’ So even as the soldier hammered the nails into God, facing the naked truth that he was not cast out of his sight as a murderer, but forgiven and restored. While he kept this in mind, he would never need to turn away from the painful truth in the inward parts.

Christ didn’t come because we are so good at grasping the obvious. He came because we are so blind, hungry, and dead that we can’t. He was crucified and raised so the blind could finally, and truly, see again, the hungry could be forever full, and the dead … dead no more.

Even the bakers who miss the point.