Christian at the Movies (3) – Magic and Fantasy

Many Christians are alarmed at books or movies that involve magic or fantasy. They feel that the one is dabbling in the occult, and the other is immersing oneself in what is unreal and possibly even false. They wonder that any Christians could read or watch something containing magic, wizards or any reference to the occult. Can Christians, in good conscience, watch stories related to magic or pure fantasy?

On the first score, not all magic is created equal, so to speak. There is magic and magic. The occult practices of Deuteronomy 18:10-11 are forbidden, and any story which glorifies them or encourages participation in them is to be shunned by Christians.

The problem is, not all of those films or TV shows accused of promoting the occult practices of Deuteronomy 18 actually do so. It becomes guilt by association, or more accurately, guilt by equivocation. Not all that is called magic in films and books is occultic and satanic. The term magic refers to more than forbidden witchcraft, and it is easy to paint everyone who uses the word with the same brush.

For example, in the Bible itself, the wise men who visit Jesus are called magi, which is the word related to our word magic. Daniel himself was the chief of these “magicians”, a term which referred to astronomy, astrology, philosophy as well as occultic arts. (Indeed, the English word wizard comes from the Middle-English word for wise one, and simply meant sage or philosopher.) We can be certain Daniel practised only that “magic” that was pleasing to God, but it would not be incorrect to call Daniel a magician. In fact, as late as the 17th century, a believing scientist like Isaac Newton was regarded as “the last of the magicians”, since he took seriously the practice of alchemy. Magic is a term that broadly refers to knowledge and power, and usually supernatural power. We might want to use the term to restrictively speak about what is forbidden in Deuteronomy 18, but then that is our quirk, not one we can impose upon all authors and film or TV producers.

This brings us to books and movies containing magic. In each one, we have to be fair to the author and ask how he or she is using the term and idea of magic. Is magic, in that story, simply power granted to one or more of the characters? Is magic one of the laws of the internal universe created by the author of the story? To link magic in a given story to necromancy or calling upon demonic beings or anything that corresponds to Deuteronomy 18 requires some warrant. We need to ask what the author means by magic on his own terms, and how it functions in his literary world. Only if the author is drawing clear correspondence between magic in his created world and the magic condemned in the Bible can we say that we have a real problem. The mere presence of the term is not enough to go on, nor is the presence of fantastical creatures with fantastical powers. The Bible contains talking trees and flying dragons, too.

For example, in Tolkien, very little is magical. Certainly the creatures are remarkable, but not magical, since they belong in the world Tolkien has created. Yes, there are “wizards” (the Istari), but they turn out to be the equivalent of angels, with powers from Illuvatar, the one true God. Tolkien even has Galadriel tell Frodo that the powers the elves possess should not be called by the same term “magic” as what the Dark Powers possess. One is sub-creation, the other is manipulation and domination. Nothing in Tolkien remotely corresponds to the prohibitions of Deuteronomy 18.

Similarly in Lewis’s Narnia. It is very clear that both good and evil power is present in Narnia. They do not come from the same source, nor are we ever encouraged to pursue interest in the dark arts. (Indeed, we see the very opposite in The Magician’s Nephew and Prince Caspian). Aslan calls the laws behind justice and atonement the “Deep Magic” and the “Deeper Magic”.

If fantasy just isn’t your cup of tea, no problem. No one requires that you like Tolkien and Lewis. But to shun Tolkien and Lewis for supposed occultic leanings would be misguided indeed. It would be to refuse two of the only contemporary Christian mythologies on the mistaken basis that they are courting and encouraging involvement with the fallen spirit world. To lump Lewis and Tolkien with the abundant occultic R-rated material coming out of Amazon and Netflix would be poor judgement of the first order.

The same could be said of many of the fairy tales that emerged from folk cultures. Most of them are morality tales, mixing in various amounts of the supernatural as part of the story. I have yet to come across a fairy tale that encouraged active and real-life disobedience to Deuteronomy 18.

Frankly, in a world that despises and discounts talk of the supernatural (except when it suits it), I think it is helpful and important for a child to have plenty of stories with the supernatural in them, told from a Christian point of view. We want to overturn the materialistic narrative of the Darwinists and naturalists, and Christian stories with magic are some of the best ways to do so.

But what of the objection that fantasy is encouraging false notions of unreal worlds? Lewis answers this objection:

“But why,” (some ask) “why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?” Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characterisation. Much that in a realistic work would be done by “character delineation” is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book (The Lord of the Rings) Eomer rashly contrasts “the green earth” with “legends.” Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is “a mighty matter of legend.”
The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity.” The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

 

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