Harry Houdini

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Even though Harry Houdini has been gone almost 100 years, people continue to tell stories associated with his legendary career as a magician and escape artist.

One of the most spectacular of those stories is connected to his 1903 visit to Russia.  During the course of a private performance in the Kremlin, Houdini asked each member of the royal family to write down on a slip of paper some impossible task for him to attempt.  He then randomly selected one of the requests.  He read it aloud: “Ring the Kremlin bells.”

That may not sound particularly audacious.  But the bells had been silent for over a century.  There weren’t even ropes attached to them.

Houdini opened a window facing the Kremlin belfry and looked out into the snowy night.  He dramatically raised one arm.  Incredibly, the bells began to ring.  Rasputin, the “mad monk” who had endeared himself to Czarina Alexandra by pretending to exude supernatural powers, seethed with envy. 

How in the world did Houdini pull it off?  Through sleight of hand he had ensured that “ring the Kremlin bells” would be the chosen request.  His wife Bess, standing at the window of a nearby hotel, had been awaiting Houdini’s signal.  As soon as he raised his arm, she pinged the enormous bells by means of an air gun.

It’s a great story. 

If only it were true. 

Houdini did indeed perform at the Kremlin.  But he never rang the bells.  Rasputin wasn’t even on site until 1905.  It appears that Orson Welles, the famous film director and Houdini admirer, made the whole story up just for the sheer fun of telling it. 

It’s notoriously difficult to separate Houdini facts from Houdini fiction. 

Consider the opening line of the magician’s autobiography:  “My birth occurred April 6, 1874, in the small town of Appleton, in the state of Wisconsin, USA.”  Most of that sentence is false.  Houdini, whose real name was Eric Weiss, was born March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary.  He didn’t arrive in Appleton until he was four years old, and lived there only a short time.

Why did Houdini play so fast and loose with the facts?   

When you think about it, he was just being true to his vocation.  A magician promises to deceive you.  And then he does.  Can a stage performer really cut a woman in half and then rejoin the pieces?  Of course not.  It’s an illusion. 

But Houdini was deceptive even when he didn’t need to be.  He lied obsessively throughout his career, and unashamedly hired creative writers to invent aspects of his life story. 

Which brings us to the account of someone else whose public life astonished crowds, and about whom people still tell amazing stories.

On what grounds should we believe that the stories about Jesus of Nazareth accurately describe reality – especially since they supposedly happened a whopping 19 centuries prior to Houdini? 

No one would say that millions of people look to Harry Houdini for peace of mind.  But it’s not inaccurate to say that hundreds of millions of people are grounding their emotional wellbeing and betting their personal futures on the assertion that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

How do we know that Jesus’ followers didn’t invent such stories about him just for the sheer fun of telling them?

One important clue is that those same followers stood behind their claims at the risk of their own lives. 

Chuck Colson, one of the Nixon administration officials imprisoned in the Watergate scandal, was shocked at how hard it was for a group of highly motivated individuals to cook up a conspiracy and stick with it.  None of the conspirators wanted to go to jail, after all.  But as soon as things got hot, they turned on each other.

It’s all the more remarkable that the earliest Christ-followers stuck with their stories about Jesus. 

They did so all the way to prison and to their deaths in Roman arenas. 

People don’t give up everything they have for what they know to be false. 

Unless they have compelling reasons to believe that Jesus, when it comes to death, just happens to be the greatest escape artist of all time.