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Gospel Magicians Give Earthly Tricks Heavenly Meanings

As the church adopts new media to preach the gospel to an increasingly “visual” population, there’s one performance art that’s been in Christianity’s employ for half a century: magic.

This week, the Fellowship of Christian Magicians is celebrating its 50th anniversary at its annual international convention, held this year in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Marion, Ind. The convention, featuring popular magician André Kole and FCM founder Stan Adair, will last five days and includes seminars, performances and vending booths.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The FCM counts 2,185 worldwide members as of May 2003, according to FCM International President Steve Varro, who resides in Hermitage, Tenn.
 
Some members are amateurs, others are professionals. Some practice magic part time, others full time. Some do only gospel magic, whereas others supplement gospel performances with “secular” shows as well.
 
All members, however, sign a faith statement, which includes both theological rigor (e.g. biblical infallibility, the virgin birth) and professional standards (e.g. regarding the disclosure of how illusions work).
 
Varro, nearing the end of his second two-year term as president, estimated that roughly 10 percent to 20 percent of FCM members were full-time, professional magicians, whereas the rest are either part time or amateur.
 
Varro, 53, has been a professional magician for 32 years. He has performed with notable names like Harry Blackstone, David Copperfield and Roy Rogers.
 
He said interest in magic continues to grow.
 
“As far as secular magic, there seems to be an ever-growing increase in that,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “The gospel magic has been growing. Our organization has probably picked up 200 members over the last couple of years.”
 
Bob Hill is a part-time magician and long-time FCM member. He and his wife, Maria, live in Athens, Greece, where he serves as a missionary with Greater Europe Mission. Hill has “invented” several gospel tricks, as well as authored an article, “Should a Christian Do Magic or Conjuring?” that has become a staple for the defense of gospel magic.
 
There’s a difference between Christian magician and gospel magician, said Hill in an e-mail from his home in Greece.
 
“A Christian magician does magic that does not necessarily have a Christian message, whereas a gospel magician uses magic as a tool to communicate spiritual truths,” he said. “Those who are against Christians doing magic usually don’t want any Christian doing any kind of magic.”
 
Varro said, “Basically, the problem that some Christians have with gospel magic is more a matter of semantics than anything else.”
 
Part of the problem, Varro said, stems from Bible translations that use the word “magic” when they should use “sorcery.” He makes it clear his routine has nothing to do with the latter, and says he now encounters less resistance to the notion of gospel magic than he did 30 years ago. He was once picketed in Canada with signs asserting that Satan was the first illusionist.
 
Tom Gibson was president of FCM’s Middle Tennessee chapter from 2001 to 2002. A minister, Gibson said he doesn’t have to spend much time defending his craft. “I suspected I would,” he said. “I was a magician before I was a minister.”
 
Gibson said he really dove into magic when he took a college summer job in a magic shop in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He worked in various magic shops and is now a full-time pastor and part-time magician, or a “part-time professional.” He’s been doing this for 27 years.
 
“Most people nowadays can distinguish entertainment from occultism,” he said. “There are no dark overtones in my act. I don’t think I fool anyone I’m in league with the devil.”
 
Nevertheless, some of the more cautious churches requesting his act have asked him to forego the word “magician” in favor of “Christian illusionist.”
 
Semantics aside, gospel magicians strive to convey gospel messages using tricks, sleights and illusions.
 
“The purpose is to illustrate Christian principles,” Varro said.
 
Gibson said: “It’s one more way of getting the gospel message out. This is a very visual presentation of the gospel—a way of tying visuals to verbal information that improves the ability of some people to retain that.”
 
Hill, an American who ministers mostly in the Greek language, said: “God has opened doors for me to minister ‘by magic’ in prisons, state orphanages, home situations, camps, conferences, theaters, and on the street. I rarely do a program in a church.”
 
Gospel magicians create their performances in various ways. They sometimes take “secular” tricks and adapt them to gospel routines. They share such routines and ideas through The Christian Conjurer, the FCM’s bi-monthly magazine.
 
Gospel magicians also purchase tricks and illusions from gospel magic suppliers—Dock Haley Gospel Magic Co. among them. The company was founded in 1973 by Dock Haley, who died in 1997. At his death, Varro, a long-time customer, purchased the company from Haley’s widow.
 
Varro and his wife, Barbara, now own and operate the company, which manufactures about 200 gospel magic products and distributes them through the Internet, magic shops and conventions.
 
“All of our effects that we sell come with instructions not only for doing the effect, but with ideas and routines for delivering the message,” Varro said.
 
Gospel magicians have an extra challenge. They must not only perform a trick, but they must also apply it to Christian principles. Thus, the gospel magician’s “patter”—the magician’s dialogue during the routine—is critical.
 
Gibson said he uses several approaches in his gospel magic routines. Sometimes he explains the message as he performs the trick, and sometimes he holds the message until after the effect.
 
“When you do the trick and then explain it, I call that the parabolic method,” he said, noting its similarity to how Jesus told parables and then explained them.
 
Every gospel magician has several favorite tricks to illustrate various principles. One of Varro’s favorites is a torn-and-restored newspaper routine.
 
“It’s a fabulous illustration of the restorative power of Jesus,” said Varro. “When your life feels like it’s in pieces, the power of Jesus can put it back together.”
 
Gibson mentioned a chain escape he plays for laughs, even as he shows the marks that the chain leaves on his wrists. “Look at the marks that chains make,” he tells his audiences.
 
Hill referenced “a classic routine” known as the Twentieth Century Silks. It’s a “vanish-with-reappearance that perfectly illustrates the gospel, concluding that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes it possible for man to be reunited with God,” he said.
 
So what really makes a good gospel magician?
 
“Somebody who knows what they believe,” said Gibson. “It’s easy to learn tricks. You need to know what you believe so when you do a trick, you know what you’re talking about so if anyone questions you later, you can explain your belief.”
 
Gibson also stressed the importance of professionalism.
 
“A good Christian magician needs to be a good magician too,” he said, suggesting that if a person is sloppy at one thing, he or she might be sloppy at something else too.
 
Hill echoed Gibson’s sentiments regarding the makings of a good gospel magician, saying it requires a commitment to God, good application of the gospel to magic, presentation skills and technical competence.
 
Gospel magicians thus practice a craft that becomes art in God’s service.
 
“We do something when we perform by bringing a little joy into the world,” Gibson said. “And that’s no small thing.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
 
Learn more about the Fellowship of Christian Magicians at www.fcm.org/