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When Derren met Richard: the atheist illusionist and the Christian priest
The UK’s most famous illusionist recently sat down with the country’s best known vicar to talk about faith and happiness. Justin Brierley introduces their conversation
Derren Brown and Rev Richard Coles have a lot in common.
For one thing, they’ve both had successful careers in entertainment. Brown is the UK’s leading illusionist of stage and screen, while Coles is a nationally recognised TV and radio personality, who first found fame as a pop star in the 1980s. They are also both dog lovers, both gay and both frequent Twitter users.
When it comes to faith, however, their journeys are almost the mirror-opposite of each other.
Brown was a Christian as a young man, and attended a charismatic church in his teens. However, as his love of magic and stagecraft developed while at university, doubts about faith also surfaced and by his early 20s he had become an atheist. Not that he tends to use that term of himself, insisting that atheism simply entails a lack of belief (“You might as well describe someone who doesn’t collect stamps as an ‘a-philatelist’,” he says).
Nevertheless, the illusionist often uses his platform to critique supernatural claims. His recent stage show Miracle saw Brown convincingly replicate the effects of a charismatic healing rally.
In contrast, Coles’ faith journey went in the opposite direction. As a young man he was certain that Christianity “was a fairy tale”, which “nobody with their wits about them could seriously believe”. His early music career as one half of the Communards with Jimmy Somerville led to a hedonistic life of “sex, drugs and 80s synth-pop”, peppered by hit singles. But, after the group disbanded, Coles hungered for something more. A friend suggested going to church.
“I went in as a sceptical, critical spectator and came out a participant,” says Coles. “I had a moment of conversion which was decisive and powerful.” Speaking of his unlikely subsequent vocation as a priest, he jokes: “If you look at a video of me in the 1980s, there’s obviously a vicar struggling to get out!”
If anyone should be ok with the notion of losers, it should be the Church
While Coles insists on being identified as “Reverend” on radio and TV (complete with dog collar for his star turn on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing), he rarely gets to talk about his faith on-air. However, no such restrictions applied when I invited him to engage with Brown for an edition of The Big Conversation, a video series from Unbelievable? that brings notable atheists and Christians together.
Brown was happy to discuss the big questions of purpose and meaning. His recent book, Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine (Corgi) brings the philosophy of the Greek Stoics to bear on how to find direction in life in the absence of religion. Coles, meanwhile, was unapologetic about “the reality of the resurrected Christ” being the turning point in his own search for meaning.
Their dialogue was generous, honest and often funny. Brown’s dry sense of humour was matched by a ready supply of self-deprecating anecdotes from Coles. For his part, Brown sounds curiously spiritual when emphasising the value of transcendent experiences, while Coles grounds his faith in the reality of a life lived out of weakness rather than any self-help success version of Christianity.
Coles recalled being tasked by his diocese to create a church strapline. “In the end I came up with ‘The Church: welcoming losers since nought’. But they wouldn’t have that. They didn’t like the word ‘losers’, unfortunately. You’d think if anyone should be OK with the notion of losers, it should be the Church really.”
Can we have meaning without God?
Rev Richard Coles: Most of my friends are not believers and I don’t see anything in them which suggests to me that they live lives of impoverished personal morality. But of course, most of my friends grew up as I grew up, in Britain in the late 20th Century. And whether we like it or not, that’s a place, time and culture hugely influenced by Christianity.
I was having an argument with a friend of mine and he said: “I can live a decent moral life without any recourse to Christian tradition at all.” I said: “OK, sum up your beliefs without having anything to do with Christianity.” He said: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
Derren Brown: But if you were to look through any biblical content with a moral message, there are bits that you discard and say: “Don’t pay attention to those bits and pay attention to these bits, because they’re more useful now.” But ultimately our moral sense lies outside of that, otherwise how would you be able to look through the Bible and go, “Well, that’s not relevant and that is”?
RC: I wouldn’t edit the Bible to suit the sensibility of someone born in the late 20th Century in Britain, because it needs to be a narrative which involves more than that.
The most persuasive thing about Christianity, for me, is not the niceness, it’s the nastiness. It’s the toughness, it’s the taking you to places you don’t want to go. It’s the echo it sends back which makes you feel bad. It’s the realisation of the very narrow limits of your own competence and fitness. That’s the stuff which, for me, ultimately becomes persuasive.
Why does the story of Christ’s resurrection remain persuasive 2,000 years later?
RC: That experience of encountering the reality of the risen Christ, as Paul had on the road to Damascus, is something which still continues to happen to people. I would never have been persuaded by a sermon or by Christian doctrine (as if I was ever going to read it)...even by the Narnia books!
But that experience of an encounter with the reality of the resurrected Christ was life-changing. And I still continue to live in the changed reality that you experience in that.
Our myths have abandoned us in the last few hundred years
Derren, what do you think is going on with Richard’s encounter? Presumably you think it’s something psychological?
DB: I don’t think it matters. I think what matters is that it happened. What’s interesting is the richness and the truth of something that makes us connect with that thing that is outside of ourselves. And I can’t put a name on that or call it God. The trouble is finding the very words for it.
It’s an experience. How you live in a way that is coming to the edge of all the things you comfortably accept. I think that would also include a lot of religious teaching as well. Coming to the edge of those things, the dialogue with yourself and where the individual meets the infinite, is where meaning happens. I just resist the idea of giving it a name.
“I’m not really interested in a fulfilled life. I’m interested in trying to be a faithful disciple of Jesus”
I think it is a psychological experience, but I think the most important and valuable one that we have.
Fascinatingly, you don’t sound like an atheist at this point, talking about something beyond yourself...
DB: Well, beyond myself, but also entirely myself, and ultimately myself.
I ended up at a very happy-clappy church at the peak of my religious experience. I remember we were all told to stand up and talk in tongues, which only a small percentage of the congregation would have been used to. So the pastor said: “Just start making a noise and if you think, ‘Oh, this is just silly, I’m just making a sound’, that’s the devil telling you that.”
And I stood there thinking, “It can’t just be me that thinks this is just creating a sort of sensation? This has all become reduced to a kind of a show.” But I don’t know how you totally avoid that either because you need to appeal to the emotions too, which religion has always been so good at.
RC: It’s one of the interesting things about getting ordained to serve this life-changing mystery that you’ve encountered...and you end up handing out hymn books and using green china a lot. It’s in the nature of institutionalising something elusive and yet unforgettable.
DB: I’ve wondered this; once you become a vicar, do you feel like a politician being asked questions? Do you feel like there’s a party line that you have to toe and that expressing doubts is no longer really appropriate?
RC: People don’t ask that sort of question normally. They ask something like: what have I to say about the agony that they’re experiencing? Or the joy that is out of reach or perhaps overwhelming? So I try to talk to that, I try to avoid talking too propositionally about it. Also, I’m not very good at it. I’m a pretty ropey theologian.
People don’t relate to doctrine or sermons. They relate to people who make a commitment to it. People are very curious about that and they relate to personal stories. It’s sort of symptomatic of our time, I think.
Derren, as more people tick the ‘non-religious’ box, are they struggling to find a ‘story to live in’?
DB: Yes, there was a time when we woke up every morning and our meanings and our role in things were defined for us, and we don’t have that now.
If you watch a movie or read a book, that last chapter makes sense of everything that’s happened before. That doesn’t happen in life. We get to the end of a life, and things just sort of end, and it’s absurd and it’s meaningless. It’s a good example of where our myths have abandoned us in the last few hundred years – there is no narrative around death. I think religion does that much more effectively.
It’s scary and it’s lonely; you probably feel like a cameo in your own death because the main roles have gone to the doctors, or your loved ones, or people making decisions for you. And that one time when you should be able to really take ownership of a story, and find closure for it in the way that you might do in a film or a book – forgive who needs forgiving, and just end those things in a way that’s meaningful – you’re normally being denied.
Richard, you counsel and bury people in your ministry, don’t you?
RC: Yeah, I do deathbeds. One of the interesting things about them is how often people do want to have a meaningful moment there. A sort of reckoning, or things that need to be said.
One of my favourite, most memorable moments was when I went to the deathbed of a much-loved parishioner, a very devout and faithful man in a nursing home. He was on morphine and oxygen, at the end of his life and not quite there. He was a traditionalist so I read to him from the Book of Common Prayer, some of the psalms (I thought, rather beautifully). I’d anointed him and prepared him according to the tradition. Then he stirred, so I removed his oxygen mask and said, “Yes?” And he said...“Shut up, you stupid twat!”
“There comes a point in life when you realise the ego has to step down”
I was the person there who was trying to be a good, diligent priest and richly imbue what was happening with meaning, and the guy was dying. And it’s a thing that happens, and you need to get on with that.
Derren talks about the idea of living in a story. Has the Christian story given you a sense of what it means to live a fulfilled and meaningful life?
RC: I’m not really interested in a fulfilled or meaningful life. I’m interested in trying to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And that might not produce something which looks either fulfilled or meaningful, in fact. What’s much more important, I think, is trying to be faithful to the “fathomless riches”, as St Paul puts it.
The most persuasive thing about Christianity is not the niceness, it’s the nastiness
It’s not a self-help philosophy that we’re invited to?
RC: No, it’s not. It’s more self-harm than self-help.
DB: But actually, what’s valuable there in terms of psychological development, is the idea of serving. And one of the things that we probably learn, if you’re attentive to that sort of thing, is that there comes a point in life when you have to realise that the ego has to just step down a bit and serve something. I don’t think it’s particularly a religious idea, but it’s very, very important.
RC: I think you often see it with people loving somebody else, beyond wisdom, or beyond what’s good for them, or even despairingly, but nonetheless still loving them because it’s important.
Again, that’s something which is not always attractive to see, or even advisable, but it is often surprisingly the case, I think.
Watch The Big Conversation between Derren Brown and Rev Richard Coles in full: https://www.thebigconversation.show/derren-brown-and-rev-richard-coles