Magic, Meaning, and Transformation at YDS
By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.
“Magic was born in dreams,” said the man with the voice of a veteran storyteller to the divinity students and magicians seated in the Yale Divinity School Common Room. The audience held fast to every word, as though a spell had been cast over them.
What type of person would bring together magicians and students of theology? The answer: former professor of philosophy and comparative religion at University of Illinois (Champaign) and Muhlenberg College, two-time Close-Up Magician of The Year award winner Eugene Burger—who also happens to a YDS alumnus, ’64 B.D. Burger, who sports spectacles and a beard suggestive of a wizard, dropped by his alma mater on Nov. 15 to give a demonstrative lecture entitled, “Do We Need Magic?”
A showman at heart, Burger began with a bag of magic tricks. First he appeared to make a handful of one-dollar bills instantly transform into twenty-dollar bills, only to turn back into one-dollar bills again. Throughout the trick Burger offered a running commentary that ended up making a point about the danger of pride. (Originally, Burger had the idea to do a routine of tricks based the Seven Deadly Sins.) Burger mesmerized the audience with feats that included tearing up playing cards only to find them again in mint condition, burning up a piece of knotted string only to unravel it unscathed, and letting audience members make selections out of a deck of cards only to reveal he had predicted (or influenced) their selections unbeknownst to them.
The act was an admixture of comedy, contemplation, and jaw-dropping magic. These hallmarks have made Burger one of the 100 most influential magicians of the 20th century, according to Magic Magazine. With great insight and thoughtfulness, Burger conversationally lectured on magic’s significance today. “Magic as a word and concept was completely rehabilitated in the 20th century,” he said, noting that magic survives and thrives today for five reasons: It’s fun and entertaining; it incites curiosity as a call to ‘wake up!’; it surprises; it defies possibility; and, lastly, it is mysterious. Tricks are metaphors for mystery that provoke questions of meaning, Burger insisted. Recalling the influence of Paul Tillich and Gabriel Marcel, he made the existential point that magic reminds us that we are living in the middle of meaning, that life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
Autobiographically constructing his theory of magic, Burger recollected first feeling “called” to become a magician when he was eight years old, watching an illusionist in a Chicago theater. But it was not until after careers in the ministry and academia that Burger began work as a professional magician. Transformation and change are “the base meaning of all magic,” according to Burger, and YDS played a pivotal role in his own transformation into a magician. “When I returned to magic,” he recalled, “I returned with knowledge I accrued here at YDS.”
Burger advised divinity students in the audience that they probably would not recognize how the “magic” of YDS changed them until years after graduation. He concluded with some encouraging words: “You’re the magician in your life. You can run from the magic or embrace it—the choice is yours.”