When I was in eighth or ninth grade, I participated in a Disciple Now weekend hosted by a nearby church. In my church's youth group, boys were a rare breed, and I was the only guy from my church to go to the conference. At the host house for guys my age, I was essentially a stranger in the group, and for the most part I was okay with that. As the group leader encouraged us all to introduce ourselves, I decided to go ahead and admit it.
I was writing a book – a fantasy about elves and magic.
I expected some questions from the curious, and apathy from the rest, but what I didn’t expect was to be told by one of the other guys in the group that “elves are of the devil.”
Apparently, in this kid’s view, anything to do with (fantastical, in-story) magic was evil (though I didn’t hear any such condemnation of Fable, which some of the other guys played that weekend). While it surprised me to hear him say it, I wasn’t surprised that people thought that way. Around the time this happened, I’d had a Sunday School teacher try to argue with me and an older guy in our class that The Lord of the Rings was evil and Gandalf was a demon fighting other demons. Right. That’s why he’s got the whole white wizard bringing light and hope thing going on.
As a kid, the use of magic in fiction (Christian or otherwise) didn’t really seem like an issue to me. It was part of storytelling, and usually a large part of the stories that mattered the most to me – like Narnia, the series that inspired me to start that book about elves. (You’d have expected Tolkien to inspire that one, but it was Lewis’ story about building a story around the image of a faun in the snow that made me say, “I want to do that.”) Most Christians who were aware of it accepted Narnia and LotR, but an awful lot of them still seemed to find the idea of magic in stories too close to witchcraft and Satan worship.
My solution in those early days was to make certain that any story I wrote with magic in it (e.g. all of them) made it explicit that the power the elves, wizards, and other characters wielded stemmed directly from God. Every ability they manifested was God-given, regardless of whether they acknowledged this themselves. Fortunately for me, almost all of my stories at that point kept the magic squarely in another world. No one in our world used magic, unless they were from one of these other worlds or using some method to reach that other world. I had dodged the bullet.
Then came my Albion books.
Like many Christian kids who grew up in the age of Harry Potter, I was aware of the controversy over Rowling’s books. I’d heard arguments from all around me (including that Sunday school teacher who argued Gandalf was a demon) that the books were filled with actual spells and opened kids up to possession and all sorts of other things that turned out to be untrue. I had experienced both sides of this controversy, going from the kid who wasn’t allowed and didn’t want to be allowed to read/watch the series to the youth who admitted that there probably was nothing wrong with the books but didn’t care to read them to the college student who sneaked friends’ copies home on trips with him and read the whole series in a couple of months. I had had to carefully navigate a few conversations with my parents on the subject, slowly warming my mom, younger brother, and dad to Harry’s adventures. While we were all fans of the series when the idea that sparked my Albion books came to me, the strife we’d gone through when I started the Harry Potter books was still fresh in my mind. And for the first time I really questioned what sorts of magic were acceptable for me, as a Christian author, to put in my books.
The initial idea for my Albion series was to see what would happen if the Merlin of Arthurian legend became a student in a modern high school. While the concept (and scope) of the series has evolved from that point, the issue I faced almost immediately has not changed. How could I write about wizards (to say nothing of the Djinn, Valkyries, and other mythical beings that populate the books) without violating the Biblical proscription against magic?
In order to answer that question, I had to go back to what the Bible actually says about magic, and the text that deals most explicitly with magic is Deuteronomy 18 (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dt18.9-21).
What I discovered in revisiting Deuteronomy 18 was that God condemns (along with specific practices like human sacrifice) putting man’s methods above His own. When it comes to magic and the occult, the concern of Deuteronomy and other Scripture is where the person’s heart is, whether there is a desire to control one’s life and environment either apart from the will of God, or outside His prescribed methods. (For more on this passage, see http://www.speculativefaith.com/deuteronomy-18-witchcraft-what-it-is-and-isnt/ and http://www.speculativefaith.com/winners-dont-do-witchcraft/).
When I came back to my Albion books, I went into them with the understanding that the magic was a God-given talent, as I had in my other books; but now I added the idea that there were certain things within the realm of magic that weren’t acceptable (and not just the three big things of murder, torture, and compulsion that Rowling uses, with all kinds of gray area hexes running amok). I decided that these would all fall under the label of sorcery (which actually refers to the casting of lots, attempts to control other people, and speaking with spirits). [http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sorcerer; http://www.dictionary.com/browse/sorcery]
Obviously, stories like those in Practical Magic or The Raven Boys, which feature divination and vaguely Wiccan earth/nature worship, slant closest toward Deut. 18's prohibited practices, if they don't outright utilize or glorify them. In some cases, they even make the case for these practices and beliefs being more normal, natural, or healthy than the Christian worldview. Even the great fantasy series The Dark is Rising, in its titular book, makes the mistake at one point of equating Christian belief in God with other beliefs in "a higher power". Just because there's a clear line in Scripture for what is and isn't acceptable doesn't mean it's always easy to spot in fiction (especially if the story isn't 100% on the side of idolatry and divination, as with The Dark is Rising). And even in these stories, the exception in fantasy fiction and not the rule, there are still very clear lines about good and evil uses of the story world's magic. This doesn't excuse the characters' use of idolatrous methods, but it does complicate the issue of whether these stories are "bad" or "good".
Magic in fiction – and its place on the spectrum of holy or unholy – is as nuanced an issue as any. It takes discernment beyond "if it smacks of X, it must be evil" to determine whether the story is going to be a negative influence or whether the practices one reads about or sees on television are truly sinful or just fanciful imagination. It also requires a certain level of self-awareness, a reliance on the Holy Spirit's direction, and a willingness to listen to that direction.
When it comes to magic in Christian fiction, the concern should not be whether magic is present, but what its presence says about our characters. Is the magic present diverting attention from God to men (that is, is it idolatrous)? Do the main characters attempt to divine God’s will via occult routes rather than Scripture? And, if the actions described in Deut. 18 are present, are they presented in light of Scripture, as condemnable practices not worth our time and devotion? Perhaps the ultimate question to ask about magic in fiction is whether the power comes from God or some other supernatural source. For most Christian fiction that involves magic, there is a clear understanding that the power either comes from God alone (and is available for use by good and evil men like the mechanical and gravitational forces we are familiar with) or comes from God and the forces opposed to Him (in which case the power from God is good and only good, and the power from evil is … evil). In my experience, the former situation tends to lead to more nuanced stories and discussions.
So, are there books that you’ve read which contain magical practices condemned in Deut. 18? How were those practices presented? Have you written (or are you writing) any stories or novels that deal with magic in a nuanced way?
Elijah David is a copywriter, editor, and fantasy novelist. He writes, and occasionally blogs, from the Chattanooga area, where he and his wife live and work in love with their church family. He is involved with the Tolkien-based Canadian journal Silver Leaves and his stories have been published in anthologies from Oloris Publishing and The Crossover Alliance. His blog can be found at elijahdavidauthor.blogspot.com.