Last week I shared an updated version of a personal blog post I wrote before I had any interest in becoming a publisher–a post that discussed ways to avoid the problem magic in stories creates for Christian authors. A post that didn’t in fact proscribe any specific solution but offered some potential answers. I also said that the only solution I don’t recommend is to ignore or downplay this issue altogether. I could say I had established “why not” well enough without referencing any potential harm that can come to people. I did so by explaining the Bible uses the terms that translate as “magic,” “sorcery,” and “witchcraft” when addressing supernatural power that comes from a source other than God (because God has allowed has allowed his enemies some measure of power, something Rebecca LuElla Miller also noticed, as captured in her post from 2016)–which is forbidden by the Bible. Therefore, if God forbids it, we should be concerned about reproducing in fiction that which God doesn’t allow.
I found myself a bit surprised by several comments that in effect stated this isn’t a real issue at all–it’s only an issue to treat seriously in order to avoid triggering the ire of certain Christians. And one commentator implied perhaps my only reason for stating this concern was based on a desire to sell books to Christians. Um, not so–again, I wrote this post for the first time before I had any inkling of conforming content to match reader expectations.
For me, the issue most importantly is about the commandment Jesus stated was first, that we are to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:36-38, which refers back to Deuteronomy 6:5). If we consider God to be the source of supernatural power we are allowed to have access to through prayer, a power which at times was also accessed by other means in the history of the Bible, such as via the urim and thummim or Moses’s staff, then why would we want to portray supernatural power that has no connection to God? Why would we want to give credit where credit is not due and create stories where God is left entirely out of the picture–where magic is power that does not in any way point back to the Creator of all power or which even worse is stated to come from gods other than the One Lord? Why would we want to undermine the authority, power, and wonder of the God we love “heart, mind, and soul”?
But the issue is more complicated than where I think our hearts should be in regard to desiring to honor God in our portrayal of magic. Yes, we should desire to honor God–but does a mere portrayal of, say, a world that entirely excludes God, does that represent some kind of potential to do harm?
Again, the issue here isn’t just about a potential to do harm, it really should be about us desiring to honor God even in fiction. But is there any potential to affect someone in a negative way via a fictional portrayal of magic? Is there any potential to do harm?
Let’s make this question broader. Is it ever possible to put something in fiction that could harm people?
Let me give a specific example that ties directly into the genre of fantasy. I started reading speculative fiction first in science fiction. But around age 16 or so I started reading quite a bit of fantasy (actually for me it was Narnia that opened the door to reading all kinds of fantasy, whether with Christian themes or not). And I happened to read a book called Tarnsmen of Gor. Gor, if you haven’t heard of it, is a sword-and-planet type fantasy in which the protagonist travels to another world. There’s a lot of sword fighting and nefarious bad guys (who were priests in the first book if I recall correctly). Standard fantasy stuff–though in Gor, slavery is common. Sexual slavery too. Oh, did I forget to mention that in the Gor books women like being enslaved sexually, it gives them pleasure, and is portrayed as a positive good? That women are shown getting slapped around in these stories at times–and they like it? “Slavery is good for woman” is a direct quote from one of the Gor books if my memory serves me right. I don’t remember which one, but it had to be from one of the two I read (at least I stopped at two).
How could that possibly do harm? It’s only fiction, right?
The example I just shared, dear reader, is intended to illustrate how ridiculous the “it’s only fiction” response is to this sort of thing. Yeah, could it be that certain men might read Gor when young and impressionable and draw the conclusion that women really are to be treated as sex slaves? Or at least they could be influenced in that direction? And why in the world would we want to portray women that way in the first place–who would even want to read about women being treated that way?
Though…in spite of my purpose to ridicule the “it’s only fiction” response, I know some people will still offer it. And mean it.
And let’s “give the Devil his due” here, they are not entirely wrong. You can read books that portray serial killers in graphic detail without getting anywhere close to becoming a serial killer yourself. You can read about sexual slavery of women without ever joining the modern trade in sex slaves. And you can read stories that portray magic tied up in Paganism without ever having any interest in becoming Pagan yourself.
But on the other hand, how many serial killers had never even heard of other serial killers? And how many sex slavers had never fantasized about domination of women (and children and men at times) before actually going out and doing it? And how many practicing Witches and modern Neo-Pagans (literal worshipers of gods other than God) had never read about fantasy magic before seeking out the power they perceive exists in their religion(s) of gods and goddesses? (Or for Wiccans, i.e. modern Witchcraft, the singular male god and the singular, much more important, female goddess?)
News flash: People who engage in lifestyles we think of as shocking from a Christian perspective hardly ever jump right in without ever having imagined it first. Normally people are first exposed to an idea, then they think that idea over for a time (sometimes a long time), then after that, after the idea has been meditated on for a while–then they actually do it. Yeah, sometimes a person is introduced to the full thing directly from someone they know and don’t go through much of a “thinking about it stage.” But “normally,” as I said, people think about it first.
Sometimes people never get past the “thinking about it” phase. Frequently even. And some people think and fantasize about evil for a while then wind up violently rejecting this kind of thing and go the opposite way–like a certain publisher of Christian fiction I happen to know very well (ahem).
But in general, even though we cannot predict all the things people do, people in general empathize with the protagonist of a story and at times adopt attitudes and even on occasion practices and beliefs the protagonist holds. Portraying magic in a positive light in a way that has no connection to God invites some-but-nowhere-close-to-all people to seek out magical power via means other than God. And such magical practices really do exist in the real world, even though they are quite different from how fantasy magic is usually shown.
Some people will never even fantasize about using magic themselves based on reading about fantasy magic, some will fantasize about it but that’s all, but some, even if a tiny percentage, will actually seek out real magical power and will find in the world of the Occult not exactly what they were looking for, but real power nonetheless.
Note how different what I’m saying is from the standard Christian objections to, say, Harry Potter. A perception based on a certain view of spiritual warfare holds that particular actions or thoughts give Satan rights to interfere with your life. YOU WILL BE OPPRESSED BY THE DEVIL! if you read Harry Potter. Supposedly. But the view of Satan having rights over a Christian based on specific activities is not actually found in the Bible and I don’t believe things work like that. Satan will not rip off the top of your skull and crawl into your brain if you should ever dare crack open a volume that contains fantasy magic that ascribes power to gods other than God (like Percy Jackson) or continually shows people having power without them ever thinking about God or tying anything back to their Creator (as happens in Harry Potter and Cinderella and Frozen and most other stories that feature fantasy magic).
In fact the latter is the most common kind of fictional story in our world–whether referring to a tale that features magic or not–most stories simply leave God out and thereby encourage the notion that God really isn’t that important after all. So that’s another reason to cite God as the source for magic or to seek out a way to honor God in your magical system, however you decide you want to make one. People should not be apathetic to the importance of God in their lives but often are.
I want magic systems in fantasy I write or publish to point back to God, even if very subtly, not just because there is a real, not-high-but-not-zero-either chance of actually doing harm to someone. But because I want to honor God and remind people to think of their Creator. Though that doesn’t mean the issue of harm doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter.
I’m going to end this article with what will seem at first like me changing the subject to something completely unrelated to fantasy magic. But bear with me–it relates.
Did you know the ancient Romans used lead piping to deliver the water that aqueducts brought in to homes and public fountains? Did you know they also used containers made of lead as cooking or serving dishes at times–in particular to cook a syrupy sweetener made from grape juice?
Did you also know that some Roman writers actually warned about the dangers of lead exposure based on observation of medical problems for workers in lead mines? But in fact lots of people used lead piping and lead dishes and it didn’t harm them right away. The Romans lacked statistical methods and sufficiently developed standards of public health to prove that exposure to lead could have long-term affects on people. Modern analysis concludes that the exposure from water piping wasn’t so bad because the water supply system flowed continually and flushed out dangerous oxides quickly–but the lead dishes and in particular the sweetener cooked in lead pots was very dangerous. Yet the Romans could never prove the harm was there. People just absorbed the poison over a long period of time, suffered, and died. And life went on as if all of that was normal.
Did you also know that statistical methods of modern times work well in identifying medical ailments, but detecting how attitudes and ideas spread is much harder to measure, because it depends on surveys, and surveys require people to both know the truth about themselves (sometimes people are in denial) and to tell the truth (of course sometimes people lie)? So don’t look for any percentage figure of modern Neo-Pagans who started out being exposed to their religion via fantasy magic. Such a measurement probably cannot be made.
But let’s not ignore effects just because we can’t measure them. Let’s not in effect cook our stories in lead containers and then feel justified if no one is affected right away. Let’s try to avoid things we have reason to believe are contaminants, even if the effects are subtle. So lets take the portrayal of magic without any reference to God seriously–let’s work to avoid doing that, because there actually is a potential for harm. Even if harm isn’t the primary issue that we should care about.
Note I did not say to ban all portrayal of magic or adopt some sort of legalistic standard in how magic must be portrayed. I haven’t said that at all. Nor have I made any comment on stories you may happen to enjoy. I’m talking about guidelines for creators of stories here.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Of honoring God and concerning the potential for harm?