Magic – just the mention of it can cause many a “good Christian” to draw dividing lines, take sides and ready for attack. Magic – what poison hides in this simple word that causes such a commotion and brings some to cast judgement of damnation on those who employ its use in their fiction? Are we being discerning or just overreacting?
My brother and I host an online community wherein thousands of teens interact daily in discussion forums about our books, life in general, entertainment, current events and topics of faith. Recently the topic of Narnia’s use of magic has risen to the surface for many of our young readers and the arguments on both sides of the conversation has our membership debating the value and dangers of magic. While we do not take nearly as many liberties with magic in our stories as C.S. Lewis has, the discussion has led us to start drafting our response to the growing concern over what is okay to engage in when it comes to the marriage of faith and magic.
Magic in the Story is a series of blog posts targeted at exploring the various uses of magic in fiction over the next few weeks. We’ll be heavily using references from Chronicle of Narnia series as an example because…well…it’s likely the most visible, liberally executed and well-known example of “Christian magic” in the genre. (There we go applying the label “Christian” to something again in hopes of making it sound more holy. Can I get a Grilled Cheesus anyone?)
To that end, I invite you on the journey with me.
Part 1: What’s the Big Deal? <—you are here
Part 2: The Two Faces of Magic (next week)
C.S. Lewis’ use of “magic” in his books is, perhaps, one of the most well known and hotly debated topics of fiction within Christian circles. To say that some Christian readers don’t like the Chronicles of Narnia because characters in his stories employ the aid of magic, astrology, mythical gods in their adventures would not be anything new or shocking. I’m sure you’ve heard the arguments before, but here are a handful of some of the bigger ones.
1) Story magic is wrong because “magic is witchcraft” and witchcraft is strongly condemned by the Bible. “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18) How can followers of Christ/Aslan performing magic spells be okay?
2) Astrology or at the very least, medieval cosmology, is a form of idol worship and the Bible is very clear about the dangers of consulting the stars. Isaiah 47:13 – “All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame. Here are no coals to warm anyone; here is no fire to sit by.” So how is it that Christians should go along with children reading about Prince Caspian’s mentor who predicts the conjunction of two ‘noble planets’ Tarva and Alambil and says: ‘Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia.”?
3) Pagan mythology and deities are mixed with allegory of faith thereby blurring the lines between true faith and mere myth. “…Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. …Understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:6-17) So, should we be comfortable to mix the “Christ figure” of Aslan with Bacchus? Surely these elements are incompatible, for ‘what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14).
4) The appearance is evil and anything that defies God and/or the Bible or contradicts them or anything like that is, in essence, an appearance of evil. “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:22
To be sure, these are are very strong and valid points, backed by very direct and clear scripture. There is no doubt that the occult and its magic are not to be taken lightly in our world. It is a very real evil and a sin that God abhors. There is no middle ground on that. But before diving into the specific use of magic in Narnia (our running example for all of fiction) we must first ask ourselves a larger question about the use of story magic and the differences between it and the magic of real life (if there are any).
Is Story-Magic Safe in Fantasy Fiction?
For starters, we would do well to consider the genre in which the story is being written. The fantasy/fairy-tale genre, is one in which a variety of magic elements play an integral role in the mechanics of the storytelling. For example, the magic by which a goose might lay a golden egg in a land of giants is clearly a storytelling device employed by Aesop’s fables that causes us to think about our own foolish desires and the greater lesson of greed that comes from the tale. While we might all be pleased to discover a goose laying a golden egg on our doorstep, none of us expect to actually find one. Why? Because we realize it is merely a story – a fable. I contend that this kind of story-magic is not the same at all as the real-life occult magic or sorcery against which the Bible warns. The two “magics” have no common ground with each other any more than the magic of walking through a doorway to another world is possible in our world.
The lesson the magic allows us to teach may, in fact, be very real, but the means by which the lesson is learned is quickly dismissed by the reader as quickly as it is consumed. Why? Because the very definition of the title “fantasy fiction” is “an unrealistic or improbable supposition”. With this in mind, the reader of such fiction should know going into the story that the words on the page bear no actual parallel to our own world at all. To be sure, the lines between fiction and reality are often blurred in these stories. What is real and what is not is not always clearly defined. But this is no different that the God-given imagination at work in a child’s mind when they are at play. In the end, the imaginary worlds are put away and we are left to live and breath in this one. The only reality by which we are judged. No explanation can be given – nor need it be.
By now we must realize that the role of magic in story is primarily symbolic. It is symbolic of power. It is a means of seeing what might be if. It is the joy of childlike wonder and imagination. These are all good things to employ when designed to shed light on truth. Christ certainly sparked the imagination and wonder of children as he told them stories.
There is also another form of magic at work in Narnia and implied in many other fictional tales. It is the magic of the unknown natural laws of God’s world. In the medieval world there was often overlap between science, medicine, faith and magic. Much of what was considered magic was merely natural cause and effect reactions of the natural world applied. What we call alchemy and astrology were actually the early precursors to modern day chemistry and astronomy. Even then, both of these disciplines of “magic” were grounded in the medieval Christian theology of the cosmos which believed the universe to be natural and supernatural forces which were held together by God.
In Narnia, as in many fantasy worlds, the “magic” is often part of the fabric of the world. It is the laws by which the worlds are held together. Without this magic, life itself would not exist, and there is so much more to it than we will ever know. We are continually discovering new elements of this magic.
Perhaps it is better to think of it as music. The sound of music is a magic of sorts. If we were to dissect what makes music work, it would be rather difficult to do. For starters, the actual source of well written music appears to the untrained eye as little more than a confusing arrangement of black and white dots on the on paper. To those who have mastered music, the ones who hold the key to deciphering its message, they can conjure these dots (which they know to be notes) into a melody that can uplift the spirit in a way that makes us smile. And yet, why music should even make us smile or frown is still a mystery. Even the greatest scientists in the world have never been able to understand this magic. Yes, there is much magic in the fabric of our world that is not understood.
By placing Narnia (or any other fantasy fiction world) in a medieval context, one could easily make the case that the author is able to draw on the symbolic richness of the old world without endorsing its limited knowledge of science or its checkered theology.
That is all for today’s post.
I invite you to join in the discussion and to come back next week when I further unpack “The Two Faces of Magic”