What do you see when you first wake up in the morning? How do the colors of the world come together—as they are, or as they aren’t quite? What about the shadows of night, or the short-circuiting flicker of an overtired mind?
Perception is broken. Nonetheless, it’s accurate enough that we are capable of recognizing the existence of truth. Somewhere between the brokenness and the certainty is something artists call a lost edge: a blending of the one into the other.
In visual art, this happens for a powerful reason: to bring the most important details into focus. The place where things begin to blur away is a frame of reference that points the eye to what matters.
In fiction, one speculative genre accomplishes this by refusing to draw a solid line between the everyday and the fantastical. Welcome to the world of magic realism.
Magic realism or magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought. It is a film, literary and visual art genre.
Is this the same as when an angel steps into a Christian story to change everything? Not exactly. Magic realism offers no justification or explanation for its strange or even utterly implausible events, and that’s something that’s almost never done in Christian fiction. Our religious culture is so laden with crosscurrents, preferred emphases and paradigms, and even outright disagreements over How To Be Godly, that it’s de rigueur to express the supernatural with a fully realized context and definition. All the lines sketched firmly in place.
And this need for definition may indeed contribute to accusations of two-dimensionality in Christian fiction. In art, the lost edge is what makes things lifelike.
In Christian writing, supernatural fiction tends to define its events through overt statements or through very clear context. Christian fantasy in particular tends to lean heavily on the strict parallelism of allegory in order to ensure all’s interpreted as prescribed.
Magic realism? Forget the contextual requirements. Forget the careful definitions. Forget the rules. It just is, regardless of whether anyone believes it.
Those who define everything that exists as the natural haven’t told us anything of significance. I could just as easily define everything as hablabadaba. It would mean the same thing and deliver the same informational content. Customarily, the word natural is invoked to describe a realm of energy, space, time, and matter, and any other conceivable or unknown physical entity, whether it be a part of this universe, or a detached natural realm outside the spatio-temporal universe we inhabit. Anything outside the natural realm, as commonly thought, would be supernatural, preternatural, extranatural, or the like.
But perhaps those who do this are not offering a definition. Instead, maybe they are making a claim about the way things really are, as in nothing exists outside of the natural. Here, however, we receive a check…. Where does this leave our non-omniscient naturalist? In a state of agnosticism, presumably, though many will call it atheism.
From Less Real than we Think, More Real than we Want by Marc Schooley
Christians accept their sense of the spiritual realm as something that exists. It’s part of the Christian definition of the “natural,” in the sense that we don’t exclude it from our reality. In many ways, our sense of the supernatural is tidily codified into what Schooley refers to as “a detached natural realm outside the spatio-temporal universe we inhabit.”
This approach, while comfortable to the modern Western mindset, is both at odds with the original context of the Bible and also risks degrading the supernatural through an imposition of pragmatic naturalism. This is how Western Christians become practical atheists all the while invoking heaven and hell, angels and demons. Those things are somewhere out there, to be encountered according to the categorical rules we’ve invented for a detached natural realm—“the spiritual.”
Whether the rules are wild or tame, nonetheless we have rules for these things, and by the rules do we define our truths and lies. Nothing exists outside of that.
But this is not lifelike in its presuppositions about the lost edge of truth and perception. Magic realism presents a unique window on the epistemology of awareness and the unsterile mess within the human heart and mind. And then it conjoins that mess with the intrusion of the spiritual upon everyday life.
As t.e. George has discussed, there is much unexplainable and unexplained; there are many moments where the light shifts strangely as we wake or fall into sleep. Do we then acknowledge them, or shove them out of the box of religious naturalism to be ignored?
Was it not Blaise Pascal who said, le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point?
The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing…this is a truth of the biblical paradigm, where hearts are deceitful and desperate, and yet can indeed ring true against all our tidy, self-serving rationales.
However, American evangelical writing has only just begun to make a place for the role of magic realism. We seem to be standing on the cusp of many things in Christian publishing, where either everything is growing, or everything is falling down. We are not sure which.
It could be both. There are things that happen. And anything is possible. These may or may not be truths; what’s certain is that they’re not exactly comfortable thoughts, depending on how one perceives them.
Sitting in my bed, I saw shiny black and rippling silver scales flash in front of me. I could see them clearly. In my joy of this miracle, I got out of bed and did not question where this creature was taking me.
I followed its beauty and compelling voice through dark hallways and out to the courtyard. Although it was winter, I did not feel the cold. The strange creature settled under the cherry tree’s naked branches.
The creature slithered and curled into the branches of the tree. “Come up here, Wen Ming,” it said.
“I will stay here, where I won’t fall.”
“Then you will miss a beautiful sight.”
“I cannot see. So I will miss it anyway.”
“What if I promised you that you would be able to see clearly all the way to where the earth and heaven join?”
I peered up at it. When I looked at it, I saw clearly. When I looked away, all was dark again. But I had not lived my life as an orphan for nothing. I did not give my trust easily. “Why should I want to see that?”
–Lucky Baby, by Meredith Efken (Howard Books, 2010)
She can be found online at ScitaScienda.com.