In Susanna Clarke’s wonderful fairytale Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, she tells a story about the rediscovery of magic in England in the nineteenth century. In the beginning of the tale, magic has vanished from England. It remains part of English folklore, like the story of King Arthur, but no one has actually practiced it in many years. Nonetheless, there were men who called themselves magicians. They did so in spite of the fact that “not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.” These magicians spent their days in lengthy arguments about theoretical magic, debating the use of this spell over that, nitpicking the details of magic’s history in England, meeting once a month and reading “long, dull papers” to one another. The idea of actually practicing magic was vulgar.
Then Mr. Norrell showed up. He cast a spell that made all of the statues in Yorkshire’s cathedral come to life: shouting, singing, and telling stories about the deaths of the men and women those images they bore. The magicians of Yorkshire were speechless. The world was far different than they’d believed.
I couldn’t help but feel a certain sadness reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I found myself identifying with the magicians of Yorkshire. My life as a Christian had left me with a certain amount of fluency with faith: I could keep up in conversations about theology, the history of the Bible, the world of the first century, and the history of the church. I could talk a bit about apologetics and worldview. And I could talk a good bit about worship and liturgy in the church. But as I read Clarke’s book, I couldn’t help but feel the gap between knowing and know-how, between what I knew I could say about my faith and what I could do with it. At times, my faith felt like a boxed-in corner of my life, separate and distinct from the rest of it.
Strangely, this isn’t because of a lack of events in my life that could be called miraculous. In fact, I’ve seen more than a few things that I can’t explain rationally, and I’ve had spiritual experiences that felt no less than spectacular. But these, too, felt somehow boxed-in, an island I occasionally took a ferry to, rather than the mainland of my everyday experience. Even the little things that make up a “Christian” life—going to church, reading the Bible, and so on—felt tacked on and disconnected from the rest of my life. My ordinary life felt strangely irreligious.
Much of this book is an attempt to understand why such a gap exists and what we might do about it. It’s an attempt to sketch out the spiritual landscape of an age that has been called a “secular age,” an “age of anxiety,” and a “culture of narcissism,” and an effort at finding a path into a different way of life.
Transformation is a before-and-after story, and to know what the after looks like (and how to get there), it’s necessary to have a sense of the before. For most Christians, our before picture is shaped by decades of immersion in this strange world and strange culture that surrounds us. It’s had a deep and powerful formative effect on us.
This is an age where our sense of spiritual possibility, transcendence, and the presence of God has been drained out. What’s left is a spiritual desert, and Christians face the temptation to accept the dryness of that desert as the only possible world. We have enough conviction and faith to be able to call ourselves believers, but we’re compelled to look for ways to live out a Christian life without transcendence and without the active presence of God, practicing what Dallas Willard once called “biblical deism”—a strange bastardization of Christianity that acts as though, once the Bible was written, God left us to sort things out for ourselves.
In such a world, the Bible feels like a dead text and our prayers seem to bounce answerless off the drywall. Practicing our faith feels more fruitless than talking about it, and we end up very much like the magicians of Yorkshire, able to talk fluently about magic and almost certain that it doesn’t exist. The practical magic that’s missing isn’t just the dramatic—healing the sick or raising the dead. Rather, it’s the more quiet and invisible magic of how anxious souls find wholeness and how broken people find healing. We might be fluent in the language of faith but unable to pray, overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, and victim to the compulsive, distracting habits that fill our age. We might be able to articulate the doctrine and dogma of the gospel but feel as though we’re doing so from the outside looking in.
I want to better understand how we got here, the reasons we feel this resistance, and the ways we’ve intentionally and unintentionally cultivated it. Most of all, I want to try to describe how we might live differently.
Mike Cosper is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. In 2016, he founded Harbor Media, a non-profit media company serving Christians in a post-Christian world. He's the host of Cultivated: A Podcast about Faith and Work, and is developing The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a podcast about faith and culture.