Magical Thinking, Grace, and Ted Williams

Americans love a comeback story. Americans also love magic. Sometimes the two converge as they did in the Ted Williams story. He was a radio announcer, with a great voice, who became a drunk and a drug addict. He was on streets for decades. He left a lot of wreckage, including 9 children, in his wake. According to some media accounts, even though he says he’s been sober for more than two years he’s remained on the streets, making a nuisance of himself. One reporter interviewed businesses where Ted was known to loiter over the last few months and they accused him of being a pimp. One person interviewed claims to have offered Ted voice-ver work regularly but Williams chose to remain on the street, even after sobriety.

These accounts emerged in the press after the initial “feel good” story about a homeless guy with a golden voice who, by happenstance, was found  by  reporter who got some video and audio of him demonstrating his gift. The first place I saw the Ted Williams story was on some evangelical blogs, which seemed to cast the story in the same way the rest of the media did.

Americans love magic. We love a good “second chance” story but people don’t end up on the streets overnight and it takes a long time to reverse the damage done. American evangelicals also love dramatic conversion stories. A good conversion story will get one a long way in evangelical circles. It’s a lot more important for credibility in evangelical circles than is church membership or faithful attendance to public worship and what Reformed folk “the means of grace” (the preaching of the word and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

The evangelical reaction to the Ted Williams story was the American reaction because evangelicals are children of American culture. That’s one of the unspoken  dividing lines between confessional Reformed Christianity and the evangelical sub-culture. The Reformed churches confess conversion, but we’re not conversionists. We believe that God the Holy Spirit sovereignly and freely operates through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (Rom 10) to bring dead sinners (Eph 2) to spiritual life, to grant them faith (trusting in Christ and in his finished work for sinners) and repentance (sorrow for sin and a growing hatred of it), union with Christ, and gradually conforms them to the image of Christ through the  due use of the ordinary means of grace. It’s not magic. It’s not necessarily or even ordinarily sudden.

Some media figures have likened the Ted Williams story to winning the lottery. People who play the lottery are guilty of magical thinking. They probably know the odds but they think that somehow they will be the ones to pick the winning number. When one knows that something is irrational and does it anyway, in hopes that things will turn out differently (or better), that’s magical thinking. In some contexts it’s considered insanity.

Christians too often think about grace in magical terms. This is as true for evangelicals as it is for Romanists. Where the Romanist invests the sacraments with magic (they are said to do what they do because they are what they are) the evangelicals think that God tends to operate immediately, i.e., without any means, suddenly, wonderfully and happily. There is also a connection with the easy-believism of the post-Finney revival tradition. If the preacher is good enough, if the song is hot enough, the sinner will walk the aisle, pray the prayer, and bada-bim, bada-boom, he’s a new man. The revivalist evangelical conception of grace and the Roman conception are both magical. To be sure, God is free to operate however he will. He is free to act according to his nature but what we know from the Word (Deut 29:29) and what we’re to expect is that he will act according to his promise and he’s attached promises to his means.

We’ve seen this magical thinking in the conversion of celebrities. I saw it first hand when a popular singer came to my hometown in the mid-70s. His “secular” career was fading and he was embraced by the Christian music business. It was clearest in the case of Bob Dylan. Almost as soon as his conversion to Christianity was announced evangelicals tried to make him into a religious leader. I remember how exciting it was to get his Christian records at the radio station, to run the great nationally produced commercials, and the thrill of having my faith validated by a rock and roll hero. If Bob Dylan believes then it has to be right, doesn’t it? Thirty years later I can see that I tried to make Bob Dylan into a sacrament, a sign and seal of the faith and means of strengthening my faith. God didn’t institute pop stars as sacraments. He instituted bread, wine, and water as sacraments. The sacraments are a theology of the cross. The sudden conversion of pop stars (as a pseudo-sacrament) is a theology of glory.

The fall may have been sudden or episodic but in the post-fall world corruption (the effect of the fall) is not sudden. It is gradual. One beer becomes twenty. A weekly night out becomes a nightly. Over time a man’s life slips away until trust has been destroyed, relationships broken, and all that is left is the next hustle and the next high. Handing a fellow a few feel-good, high visibility jobs isn’t going to reverse twenty-years of manipulation and dishonesty. That will take time.

Enter the biblical doctrine of grace, not magical stuff or an thrilling moment but the favor of God merited for sinners by God the Son. The Spirit works where he will (John 3). He works imperceptibly. He works immutably, irresistibly. We don’t know where he comes from or where he is going. We would like to see his appointment calendar but that belongs to God. He works through his appointed means, in his appointed institution (Matt 16). Grace isn’t magic and magic isn’t grace. The Ted Williams story isn’t magic but it isn’t over. Anyone who has ever worked with addicts knew that there was more to the story than we knew initially. Anyone who knows the grace of God knows that it is wonderful, sweet, and ordinarily, gradual.

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