The origin of the word “gospel” is just like it sounds. The Gospel is “God’s spell.” In Old English, before it took on it’s more magical connotations, “spell” meant simply “story.” In my experience the Gospel has not failed to correspond with its later enchanted associations. This is probably because stories are, in their essence, enchanting.
I like the Cambridge Dictionary definition: “Enchanted: changed by magic, or seeming to be changed by magic.” Stories have the power to change us as if by magic. When a story is dissected, pulled apart into an exploded diagram, or overworked by the intellect, it loses power. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts. A story draws a something out of us without demanding that said something be completely understood. A good story draws us into that something so that something new can be drawn out from us, namely ourselves. It will be our truest and best selves if the story is truest and best, which God’s story is.
“[The story of the Incarnation] begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that [humanity] would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical [people] have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Today, it seems to me preposterous to contradict Tolkien’s assertion that the rejection of God’s story leads to sadness or wrath, especially wrath. Wrath seems to be the inevitable trajectory of human history; despair the only viable alternative for those who have lost the will to fight; but God’s story is the enchantment of a hopeless and miserable age, a too-good-to-be-true alternate reality that can, by faith, become at least augmented reality if not a completely transformed vision of every reality.
Not too long ago, my nephews let me play with their oculus headset. I rode a roller coaster and almost felt nauseous while seated in a chair. I slashed light sabers to the beat through oncoming colorful squares. It was tons of fun! This is virtual reality –an invented vision that does not exist. Many who reject God’s spell relegate it to such a realm of falsehood. There are no loop-de-loops. There are no colorful blocks. You are seated in a chair in your brother’s foyer. You are swiping at the air, bumping the light fixture. Many say that the Gospel is virtual reality. Many say, “Perhaps it is a well-crafted thought system; perhaps it is a worthy ethical template; perhaps, even, it is something one could wish were true but cannot because one ‘knows’ it can not be true.” I do not believe those who say such things. There is more to reality than we can know.
Just this week I downloaded the Star Walk app for my phone in preparation for a visit to Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, one of the darkest places on the East Coast, and thus a great place to observe the stars (and show my kids the Milky Way). The Star Walk app has an augmented reality mode which allows me to hold my phone to the horizon and see the constellations which are rising behind the thick cloud cover and light pollution of Tuesday night in South Jersey. At Cherry Springs State park the augmented reality overlay on the phone screen will map directly onto the stars which we will see shining brilliantly without clouds (pray with me for clear skies in late June!). This image is closer to the kind of reality I’m talking about.
The Spell of God’s story is more augmented reality than virtual reality. I do not close my eyes or hide them behind a screen to see the magic. The story of a God who came to live among us as a human that we might begin to comprehend perfect love enchants this reality — my life, my vision, my relationships. It augments reality and in so doing it brings to full brightness the mundane beauty dulled by our vision and familiarity. We can cooperate with this promised brightness. It’s giving ourselves to the magic.
When Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that the eye is the lamp of the body he meant that the eye is the place from which the person’s light shines. How we see the story of our lives unfolding before us, how we see the normal wonder of a day in May, how we see the faces of those with whom we spend our lives; all these are changed by magic when God’s Story, the Gospel, enchants us; when our eyes shine with God’s spell.
Reducing the spell to a technique is like reducing the story to a moral. Getting the Gospel down to a four point exposition has been the goal of many of my faith family, but if we want the Story to do it’s magic best, we need only submit to its enchantment ourselves, see by the light of the story that holds us and with the eyes that shine from that spell. We can see augmented reality. Spells wielded by humans are meant to do the augmenting. This is a perversion of magic. God’s spell is a showing out of what already is. The truth is overlaid on top of a disorienting dullness. The light shines in the darkness and even if the darkness cannot understand it, hold it, wield it; the light shines on and it will never go out.
Life in the light, in augmented reality, is the necessary alternative to a world gone mad. When you begin to see by this new light, the sorrows weighing heavy on your shoulders won’t stop you from walking on. You will find yourself more able than you thought and growing stronger to endure with every step. Then the goldish-green of newly leaved trees here in the Northeastern United States, and whatever phenomena the drama of the year is unfurling in the outsides of your homeplaces, will reveal more than a tilted planet’s revolution around an incomprehensibly large ball of gas burning millions of miles away. Then your heart will strangely warm with love and compassion when once it rarely melted.
These changes will creep up around you and from within you like the the fade from night to day which has explosive moments of color but cannot be stopped and rarely captured justly in a photograph. You will be enchanted. Your reality will be augmented. Stars will tell the stories of ancient peoples whose creative force did not spontaneously generate in their imaginations. The Creators love will spring up from every source. The Glory of God will shine out from all your joy, and also all your grief. The infinitude of time and space will conspire in eerie harmony to ignite your awe. And the stories of humble saints, those who saw the story and joined in the spell so conspicuously that they were remembered and honored for generations, will invite you into a life like theirs which actively brings the story into sharper focus even as you are brought along by it.
And the storytellers of every generation, especially those who saw the Christ-light shining will sing you songs of deliverance, give you courage and show you many things you never knew. Even if you can’t tell them yet, for storytelling is a magnificent and daunting art, treasure these things and ponder them in your heart, friend. Do not discount the magic you feel when you can’t say it, and say what little you can as often as you’re sure of it.