For all of us looking for the Holy Grail of sure-to-please cocktail party anecdotes–you know, the elusive mix of neuroscience and Vegas magic–well, look no further. In an article entitled Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion, Jonah (the) Lehrer explains: For Teller (that’s his full legal name), magic is more than entertainment. He wants his tricks to reveal the everyday fraud of perception so that people become aware of the tension between what is and what seems to be.
Evidently, Penn & Teller’s success has been due, in part, to the interest people have in being exposed to the limits of their perception. One of their most famous acts is essentially, a step-by-step expose of the famous Cups and Balls trick. “The eye could see the moves, but the mind could not comprehend them,” says Teller, “Giving the trick away gave nothing away, because you still couldn’t grasp it.”
All that criticism got press attention, which made people want to see Penn and Teller even more. Before long, they were performing Cups and Balls on Letterman. The trick became a centerpiece of their first off-Broadway show. “It was so liberating to be able to treat the audience like intelligent adults,” Teller says. Instead of engaging in the “usual hocus-pocus clichés,” the clear cups forced the crowd to confront the real source of the illusion: the hard-wired limitations of their own brains. Because people were literally incapable of perceiving the sleight of hand—Teller’s fingers just moved too fast—it didn’t matter that the glasses were transparent.
I highly recommend the article (even if only for the Youtube clips of the above tricks), because it provides a different perspective on a common theme that we routinely write about here: namely, the unreliability of our sense-perception of reality. And while I’m certainly no proponent of Penn & Teller’s professed atheism (though that may be in doubt), the message of the Cross has a similar regulating and critical function as these magic shows for our sense of self-reliance and trust in self-awareness; there is a difference between what we perceive and what is true, and the Cross provides the corrective lens through which we begin to get a glimpse of reality.
Now, this is not a “theology about the Cross,” as Jacob has thoughtfully pointed out, because our claim is that we never see “through or beyond the Cross” to the other side to a place where we have figured God out. We never say, “Oh, NOW I see how it all makes sense,” rather, the Cross is a constant reminder that we have been seen and are now exposed for what we are: We are all Beggars, said Luther; this is the corrective the Cross.
In respect to magic tricks, Lehrer comments that this growing awareness, “may be why exposing the “secret” of a magic trick is so often deflating. Most of the time, the secret is that we’re gullible and our brains are riddled with blind spots.” With respect to who we really are, we can rest in the hope of forgiveness on account of the Cross. Jesus’ commentary on our self-awareness, captured in his prayer “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,”–affirmed by Paul in Romans 7 and confirmed throughout the pages of human history–reveals the heart of the Christian faith as one not of active, rational deliberation and discussion, but rather one of received, shown and proclaimed forgiveness and mercy on account of of the blind, darkened, and false perceptions that we mistake for reality. Thanks be to God.
1 Cor. 13:12: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.