Hunting Magic Eels

Hunting Magic Eels

A summary of Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck.

We long for enchantment, like hunting for magic eels in a medieval well. We ache for it, and the pain is making us sick. It is not a matter of belief so much as perception; of understanding so much as imagination; of knowledge so much as experience. We are deeply convinced of the sanctity of life but struggle to see beyond its anatomical parts.

We have become disenchanted as our society has become secular, sceptical and scientific over the last 500 years. As a result, we can no longer see God shining through everything, everywhere. Faith, then, is not so much about belief but rather overcoming attention blindness in order to perceive. Moses had to turn aside to see the burning bush – what Marilynne Robinson describes as the Lord breathing “on this poor ember of Creation and it turn[ing] to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life.” Simone Weil said “attention is the only faculty of the soul that gives access to God.”

Beck explores these themes in four parts.


A. Slow death of God

As a result of modern science, we have come to imagine the world mechanistically: it works according to immutable laws, without the need for any further involvement from God.

As a result of Protestantism, we have come to imagine space, time, saints and the ‘Lord’s Supper’ differently: nothing is sacred, set apart or miraculous anymore.

We have replaced the mystical with the moral, and pursued what is good instead of God.

B. The Ache

Our disenchantment with disenchantment is leaving us feeling anxious, unsettled, lonely, depressed and fragile. This “Ache” is like the chalk outline of where God died (or is dying). We may find it hard to believe in God, but we clearly desire Him. Here are 4 indicators:

We think of the natural world, and of human beings in particular, as more than just atomic building blocks.

We feel the need to hallow both pain and celebrations through ceremony, ritual and even prayer.

We need life to be meaningful and for our lives to matter: those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’ (Viktor Frankl)

We need to connect with something beyond ourselves because we keep changing.


A. Eccentric Experience

Mystical experiences come not from with us but from outside, beyond our present dismal circumstances. In the early 20th century, William James observed they are universally …

Ineffable – beyond words. We rely too heavily on words, thinking too much and not paying enough attention.
Transitory – so we need to remember
Received as a gift – not manufactured
Revelations – realisations / insights into depths of truths / convictions / calling

B. One-storey universe

We have unhelpfully come to think of God as being “upstairs” and therefore as remote from us in space and time. In fact the universe has only one storey. So, it turns out that “if we bring a little willingness to see, we’ve been bumping into God our entire lives.”

C. Good catastrophe

A good catastrophe is when something overturns the status quo and the boring becomes surprising. Enchantment isn’t a flight but a return. It is rediscovering the world. It’s a recovery. It’s what Tolkein calls “cleaning our windows.” (Tolkein)

It tells us why life is worth living, in spite of the facts.

“Boredom is the price of possessiveness. Monotony is the cost of acquiring and hoarding.” (Tolkein). On the oher hand, wonder, hope, joy, gratitude, and dignity are found in a grace that comes to us from the outside.


Different Christian traditions help highlight ways in which our faith can be re-enchanted:

A. Sacramental (such as Catholic and Orthodox) teach us that matter matters. Grace comes to us through the material world. The Spirit comes to us in the physical.

B. Contemplative (such as monks like Ignatius or Brother Lawrence) teach us to develop our awareness of God’s presence – experienced as peace and joy – in ordinary, everyday tasks. Through regular examen, we can discern where we are being drawn towards God and where we are being drawn away from Him.

C. Charismatic teaches us that:

There is a spiritual battle raging.

We should expect the miraculous and be exuberant in our gratitude. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” (Blaise Pascal) “The truest things in my life are feelings, not facts.” (Beck)

D. Celtic teaches us that:

God is mediated to us through the natural world of which we are a part, which is something we can celebrate in poetry.

Spiritual potency comes through ascetic discipline: fasting makes you more appreciative of the feast.


A. Shifting enchantments

There is a danger of mis-enchantment to be aware of: the immanent in place of the transcendent. It is not that creation is sacred by itself; rather all the wonders of the world point toward God and declare, “He made us!”

Transcendent enchantment challenges the central conceit of the modern world: that no one, not even God, can stand in judgment of us.

B. Sacrifice

“God’s love falls like sun and rain on the entire world. And we are called to contribute our drop, to be more gracious today than we were yesterday. This is a hard-won, cross-shaped love, and it’s dearly bought. The price tag is our Golgotha.”