What is Magic?
- Dr. Stanley J. Ward
- 2012 10 Jan
For the sake of fairness, readers need to know who I am so they can judge my biases. Before becoming a baptized Christ-follower, my imagination was baptized into the world of Middle Earth through the 1977 animated Hobbit television movie (I even had a poster hanging over my bed when I was in the first grade). Later in elementary school and then in both junior high and high school I played various role playing games (including Star Wars, Star Frontiers, Champions, and the infamous Dungeons and Dragons, aka D&D). None of those games involved actual magical incantations, and demons never showed up for pizza and polyhedral dice. When confronted with the notion that D&D might somehow be Satanic, I set my cumbersome Thompson Chain Reference Bible on top of my D&D boxed set overnight, to see if anything happened. When my boxed set wasn't seared by righteous fire the next morning, my junior high logic assumed I was good to go. For those of you who might be wondering, when I went off to a Christian college, I did throw away all my D&D supplies. Yet I was motivated more out of a concern about the artwork in those books that seemed inappropriate for an adolescent male libido rather than a concern for the demonic possession of players.
I've kept my role-playing interests on the down-low because of the potential for controversy (which I will address in just a bit). However, when Crosswalk asked me to write this article, I felt like my concern for an active imagination, good Bible reading, and accurate Christian thinking demanded I write a few lines on the odd relationship between magic and Christian faith.
Do I think the demonic is real? Well, my African friends take nature magic and the presence of the demonic very seriously, so I don’t discount its reality. Yet I do challenge how some Christians instantly dismiss any imaginative work associated with “magic” as somehow demonic (please let me address that next). And sometimes I wonder if some well-intentioned Christians may be practicing their own kind of “magic” in the pews (and I will address that last).
MAGICAL CONFUSION IN THE BIBLE
Defining “magic” in the Bible is not like defining a triangle. In spite of numerous appearances in the Bible (including the infamous Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), there doesn’t seem to be any singular and consistent definition – it’s like readers are supposed to know what magic is without being told precisely. While readers may not have a singular definition, there are multiple examples of supernatural activity which is either in opposition to God or condemned by God. Consider the following. In the Old Testament, the magicians of Egypt are in opposition to Moses in Exodus 7-9. Some form of witchcraft is evident in Ezekiel 13:17-23 (referencing the catching of souls). In the New Testament, the root idea appears associated with drugs or potions (Revelation 9:21; Revelation 18:23; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:15 and Galatians 5:20). Interestingly, the term magos used to describe the wise men in Matthew 2 could also be translated “magician.”
OK, so "magic" is expressly forbidden in the Bible in a variety of ways. But what exactly is it? The New Bible Dictionary suggests that practitioners of magic are those who use supernatural or psychic forces to accomplish their desires. Here the supernatural becomes a tool whereby the user can transform his or her psychological will into material fact. It is a counterfeit religion that offers self-guided dominion in place of God-guided service.
MAGICAL CONFUSION IN FANTASY LITERATURE
I think some of this confusion about magic as a term is part of the divisiveness regarding magic in fantasy literature. So set some Biblical guidelines for the discussion. In both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses “religious scruples” (a concept I first heard about at seminary). Romans 14 suggests that such disagreements must be resolved by a patient love for each other. What makes 1 Corinthians 8 relevant is that Paul is discussing meat sacrificed to idols, so the incident provoking his comments deals with supposed supernatural forces, similar to our dilemma about magic. Paul's rule of thumb: follow your conscience – if you believe eating meat sacrificed to idols violates your faith, then don’t. If you don’t believe idols are real, and therefore don’t associate meat sacrificed to idols with the demonic, then you are free to partake – as long as you don’t harm the conscience of someone else (I realize this is tricky stuff – sometimes both reading the Bible and living the life of faith are more like an intricate dance than driving along a one-way street).
Why do I mention all this? Well, because I believe that the “magic” in some fantasy writings (i.e., Tolkien, Lewis, and even the Harry Potter series) is not “real.” It is simply a kind of fantastical technology. If the books were science fiction, instead of fantasy, some futuristic technology would be the tool used to accomplish something instead of a magic wand.
A thorough discussion of this topic would be ill-informed if it did not look to J. R. R. Tolkien’s personal letters for guidance.2 In a letter which distinguishes between the so-called “magic” of the Elves and the magic of the Enemy, Tolkien reminds the reader that the Elven queen Galadriel has to correct a hobbit who confusedly uses the term "magic" for both the art of the Enemy and of the Elves, explaining that the object of Elvish magic is art and not power. The Elves do not seek “dominion” or a “tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (146). Why do I recount this? To underscore an earlier point: those who would use the supernatural to dominate the free will of others are the evil magicians of Tolkien, Lewis, and J. K. Rowling. Like Uncle Andrew or Jadice in The Magician’s Nephew they consider themselves free from the moral laws that constrain humanity. This same concern for objective morality is an issue in Harry Potter.
Another example about confusing “magic”: although I have heard believers object to Christians reading fantasy literature, I have never (personally) heard anyone object to a staged magic act as a gateway into the occult. Why isn’t stage magic a threat? I suggest the reason for this is a kind of unstated agreement between stage magician and audience members where the audience allows themselves to be “tricked” without attributing the stage magician with supernatural powers.3
So there are two points of necessary application here. First, if the reader understands the "magic" in a fantasy novel to be a literary device, a metaphor for inborn talent, power, and choice, then I say no harm done. But I add this caveat - if reading about magic in a fantasy novel creates a longing for the non-fictional occult, then we have a problem.
My second concern is even greater. Sometimes fiction creates a universe without morality, where what we would typically call "evil" is simply a matter of personal convenience rather than moral conviction. Worse yet, some literature may even suggest that greed, jealousy, and betrayal are positive things to be practiced whenever needed and without fear of any kind of judgment. Although I am comfortable with fictional magic, I am not comfortable with fictional amorality. When fictional characters profit from amorality without any consequences, I get very uncomfortable (and while I do allow my children to read books that include fictional magic, I do not allow them to read books with an amoral universe).
MAGICAL CONFUSION IN THE CHURCH
Ok, so now for the real application: magic in the pews.
No, I'm not going to suggest that an occult practitioner is secretly a member of your church (although such accusations do pop up occasionally in Christian fiction, such as This Present Darkness4). Rather I argue that we must re-examine our practical theology. By "practical theology" I mean how we act based on our beliefs about God.
Here are some questions to ponder about prayer:
1. Do we believe that if only we use the right words (utter the right "incantation"?), our prayer requests will be answered according to our wishes?
2. When we pray, exactly whose will are we trying to conform to whom?
Remember, although God certainly invites us to ask (i.e., John 14:13), he also reserves the right to say “no” (even to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). And that right to say “no” is often what makes prayer so difficult to practice in faith. Likewise, any time we go through a religious ritual thinking it will cause a particular response from God, we start to slide into something closer to magic than Christian faith.
Since we are on the subject of magic and the demonic, a few quotes from The Screwtape Letters seem especially appropriate on the mystery of prayer. In letter 27, Screwtape explains that if God grants our requests, we can easily be convinced that our request would have happened anyway. And if our request is not granted, we can easily be convinced that prayer does not work. Either way, we are convinced that prayer is an empty ritual.
So what then is the solution to attempts at controlling God on one hand and practical atheism on the other? Once again, let us consider Screwtape’s advice. In letter four, Screwtape warns his demonic nephew Wormwood against allowing his patient to pray to God as God really is, rather than as the patient simply thinks God to be. So the solution to our magical confusion is to pray that God would show us what things really are, rather than what we simply think them to be. Whether in literature or faith, believers must strive to separate fantasy and reality.
For an extensive discussion, see “Harry Potter: Saint or Serpent” in Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara’s (2006) From Homer to Harry Potter. Those interested in learning more about Christian faith and fantasy literature should also see Rolland Hein’s (2002) Christian Mythmakers.
See Humphrey Carpenter’s (2000) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.
While researching this article, I came across an organization called The International Fellowship of Christian Magicians, whose webpage provides an answer to the question, “Should a Christian do magic?” http://www.fcm.org/usa/should_a_christian_do_magic.php
For a helpful summary review of This Present Darkness, see http://www.equip.org/articles/this-present-darkness
Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also the author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.
Publication date: January 10, 2011