When you think of the fantasy genre, three things probably quickly come to mind: swords, elves, and magic. And it’s the latter that can become a problem for the Christian writer.
We’ve all probably read, or are at least familiar with, the passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that condemn magic and warn God’s people not to practice it. Yet, we’ve also read fantasy novels where magic is used, whether it be in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Inheritance Cycle. And while perhaps it may be fine to read books with elements that you disagree with, when it comes to what’s okay to write as a Christian, the fantasy writer may have a more difficult problem with this issue.
There are many different positions taken and answers given by Christians on this issue, ranging from those who say any “good magic” in fiction is wrong, to those who say that anything is permissible in a fictional universe. My hope is to not gravitate to either extreme. Given that, in this article, I’d like to present a defense of magic in fantasy from a Christian worldview. I’m not going to try to defend every instance of magic in fiction; rather, I wish to provide a perspective from which magic in fiction can be understood. To do this, I’ll begin by looking at what magic actually is, before moving onto when it may be appropriate to use magic in fiction.
What Is Magic?
While we all know what magic is when we see it, actually defining magic is difficult. Is magic simply a disruption of the natural order? If that’s the case, the question must be asked about what the natural order is. In addition, this definition would also seem to define many of God’s miracles as magic, which may very well make us uneasy.
Another problem arises when we look at how far technology has brought us in the past four hundred years. If you were able to time-travel to the Medieval Ages, and you showed people an object that could listen to someone talking hundreds of miles away, you may very well have been burned at the stake for being a witch, even though it was just a phone.
Often, magic is simply that which we can’t explain; thus, not all magic systems really deal with the supernatural.
Magic is an incredibly broad term that is used to define a whole host of things, from the angelic magic used in Lord of the Rings, to the mismatched group of powers displayed in Harry Potter, to the more systematic and language-based magic utilized in The Inheritance Cycle. We even use it to describe the illusionary tricks a “magician” can do today. While we might use the same word to describe all of this, we’re really describing many different things with the term.
The Biblical Prohibition Against Magic
In order then to understand when it is permissible for a Christian writer to use magic in fiction, it is necessary to understand the Biblical prohibition against magic and why God put it in place.
In 1 Corinthians 10, addressing the Corinthian church about sacrificing to idols, Paul writes that “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.” This verse provides a foundation for understanding the type of magic that is condemned in the Bible.
In Deuteronomy 18, we find that one of the primary condemnations of magic is sandwiched between two passages concerning the provision of the Levites, and future prophets that the Lord will raise up. I don’t think that this is a coincidence.
The problem with magic in the Old Testament is that it was a way of rejecting God—it was a refusal to listen to His prophets and go to His speakers of truth in an attempt to seek truth or power apart from the only true and living God. By going to foreign nations, and participating in their magic, the Israelites would have been conducting this within their worship of idols. And, as Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Corinthians, this was really a worship of demons.
God therefore condemned magic because of what it was trying to do: it was trying to understand, and even manipulate the supernatural apart from God. Worse, it was attempting to do so by going to demons for help. This is why there is such a clear distinction, say, between Moses’ act of turning the river to blood, and Pharaoh’s magicians’ similar act. It isn’t just the fact that Moses’ act was more impressive and rampant. It’s that Moses’ miracle was accomplished by the power of God, while the magicians’ act was likely accomplished by the power of demons.
Why then was magic condemned in the Bible? I believe that it is because it was an attempt to manipulate the supernatural through demonic power. It was trying to find a replacement for God’s power. And, in doing so, it was a direct rebellion against God.
How Christian Writers Can Use Magic
How then can we apply this then to magic, and using it in fiction? Given how broad the term “magic” is, and the plethora of systems associated with it, it would be hard to lay down a direct set of rules. However, I believe that most of this application can be answered in this simple question: “What is the power of magic based on?”
Is it based on your story’s version of God, and a type of angelic power, as is the case in The Lord of the Rings? Is it just another way the natural world works, similar to science, as is the case in The Inheritance Cycle? If so, I don’t believe the biblical prohibition applies to this activity.
On the other hand, if your magic is based on a pantheistic force (Star Wars), subverts the natural order of life and death (Abhorsen trilogy), or looks and works very similarly to the magic that the Bible condemns (The Craft), then I’d say we have some problems. And while it may be fine for discerning individuals to read or watch some of these works, there are higher standards set for writers.
Examining this question may require writers to think a bit more about their magic systems. A lot of the times, fantasy writers just create a magic system but don’t really explain how it works, or what it does. In my opinion, this lack of depth or explanation may be part of the reason that this can be a tricky question.
However, by building a legitimate foundation for magic and providing an actual reason for why it works—whether it be channeling the power of your world’s version of God or simply part of the natural laws that He set in place in your world—many of these questions can be easily answered when there’s a clear understanding of the role of magic in your fictional universe.
Summing It Up
Yes, the Bible does condemn magic. But it utilizes a different understanding of the term “magic” than we use today. The appropriateness of magic in fiction therefore depends on what kind of magic is particularly used in the book.
This doesn’t easily answer all of the questions. While one can easily make a new foundation for magic in a completely fictional world, when set in our own world, some, myself included, may question how appropriate it is to tamper with the laws of our own world, given the clear dichotomy given in Scripture between the two uses of the supernatural. But this discussion can only really happen once we understand what magic is and what the Bible is addressing. The magic the Bible addresses is distinct from many of the types of magic presented in many fictional stories today. The Christian writer can therefore be free to include certain types of magic in his writings.