The world's most famous magician is unconsciously inspired by the life of Christ, argues Luke Coppen
David Blaine, the illusionist currently suspended above the Thames in a Perspex box, is famously terse. During one live television appearance he barely uttered a word, skewering the hapless interviewer with his cold-eyed stare. When he does speak it is usually to make bizarre, unnerving statements in his trademark lobotomised drawl. Sometimes these declarations are unintentionally funny. Just before he slipped into his box last Friday night a doctor gave him a last-minute examination, diagnosing him as a "complete nutter". Blaine looked about blankly, before insisting: "It's for my art". But sometimes Blaine's aphorisms must be taken seriously. A few years ago, he proclaimed: "Jesus was a magician and so am I." Once you get past the bravado, you find an interesting propositibn: Jesus was a master conjuror.
Blaine probably didn't know that he was tapping into an ancient tradition. Christian artists in the third and fourth centuries sometimes portrayed Christ with a wand in his hand about to perform a miracle. Some Gospel commentators have noted a magical element in some of Jesus' healing miracles. For example, in last Sunday's Gospel reading Jesus cures a deaf man by putting his fingers into the man's ears and touching his tongue with spittle. Why did Jesus not simply cure him with a prayer? The early Church allowed
Christ to be depicted with a wand, but she fought robustly against those who claimed that Jesus' miracles were a deft illusion. The Acts of the Apostles tells how St Philip converted the sorceror Simon Magus to Christianity. Simon had so astounded the Samaritans that they called him "the divine power that is called Great". But after his conversion the magician was himself astounded by the "wonders and great miracles" of the Apostles.
The Church has continued to regard magicians and sorcerers with suspicion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is uncompromising: "All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others... are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion." But this condemnation does not apply to crowd-pleasing illusions, such as pulling rabbits out of hats and sawing beautiful assistants in two. Certain eccentrics have even used such tricks to spread the Gospel. When St John Bosco was training to be a priest he used to baffle fellow seminarians by making a plate of steaming pasta disappear in one house and reappear in another. He could make red and white wine pour from the same bottle and produce two dozen eggs from a stranger's pocket.
In our day Don Silvio
Mantelli, a Salesian priest from Turin, invites the world's magicians to a special annual Mass, where jugglers, fire eaters, unicyclists and ventriloquists enliven the celebration.
Last year Don Silvio presented a wand to the Pope and asked the Pontiff to name Don Bosco as the patron saint of magicians. The Pope apparent. ly replied: "You'll need a lot of magic wands to change our world; but let's start with this one!"
ether W David Blaine's 44-day fast actually counts as magic is a matter of debate. Some people think it is more a test of endurance and willpower than an illusion. Indeed, Blaine does not refer to his most famous endeavours as magic. He prefers to call them "works of art" and "images in time".
His latest work of art has already provoked strong maclions. Many people have denounced it as a sick publicity stunt. Others have hailed it as a tribute to the resilience of the human body. Few have picked up on the act's religious resonance. Blaine's fast evokes the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the desert, and the masses gathering to see the illusionist's drawn-out suffering recall the crowds at Golgotha.
Above The Below? The Passion of David Blaine, more like.