Magic, Fantasy, and the Christian Writer

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.[1]  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.

Magic, Fantasy and the Christian Writer courtesy of sattvaThere 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.

While we all know what magic is when we see it, actually defining magic is difficult.

As we seek for a definition of magic, we quickly run into a problem.  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.

The crux of the problem lies in this: 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.  And so, while we might use the same word to describe all of this, we’re really describing many different things with the term.

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.”[2]  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.[3]  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.

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. 

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 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.  And, 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.

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 conclusion, 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.

 

[1] Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:9-14, Revelation 21:8.

[2] 1 Corinthians 10:20.

[3] Exodus 7:14-25.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.
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Comments

  1. I found this article highly helpful in my personal writing and reading. i love fantasy stories but have always had a problem with understanding what was okay by Gods rules. Thank you very much! God bless!

  2. Excellent article! This is something I’ve wondered about, and formed some similar (although not nearly as well thought out or expressed) ideas. Two thumbs up.

  3. Hana - Marmota says:

    Excellent summary! As Nattie says, I’ve already arrived to similar conculsions, but having it laid down in such clear terms really helps to think about it.

  4. Excellent explanation, Josiah. One thing that caught my eye was your declaration that “there are higher standards set for writers.” This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and wondering where “the line” is between what I’m okay with writing and what I’m okay with reading and how those are different. I have personally decided not to write anything I wouldn’t condone/promote, even under the statement that the author does not necessarily agree with everything written and yadda yadda, simply because it could be taken that way, and as a Christian I have a testimony to guard. But as for reading things I don’t agree with…the line is a lot fuzzier, one could say. I know this doesn’t directly pertain to writing, but I’d like to hear some other people’s thoughts on what gives a book redeeming qualities even if it contains things we don’t agree with.

    Anyway, wonderful article. Thank you!

    • Good thoughts. I agree that discerning what exactly is fine to read can be a difficult question. I tend to look at Philippians 4:8 as a good guideline for what makes a book worth reading or a movie worth watching. But it gets messy when you have stories that have a lot of stuff on both sides of the moral spectrum.
      For me personally, I tend to draw a distinction between stories that are bad because they have bad morals or arguments (e.g. Star Wars, Asimov’s Foundation series, The Epic of Gilgamesh) and stories that are bad because of unsavory content, whether it be sexual stuff or stories that dwell on darkness more than is necessary or appropriate. The former class, when well-written, I think is fine for mature Christians to read when they’re grappling with the false ideas and rejecting them. They can force us to think more about deeper matters and also help us to understand where different people are coming from. The latter, however, poses more of a problem because there parts of the story are just tempting and lack any redeeming elements.
      Where you draw the line I think is dependent a lot on wisdom and individual circumstances. I believe that discerning readers can wade through some of the latter safely if they aren’t dwelling on it or are skipping certain portions of the book. But not every book is worth reading.
      For me, it’s easier to look at a particular book and judge whether or not it’s worth reading than to create a general principle to apply to all works, so I’m not sure how helpful this comment has been, but hopefully my above thoughts are somewhat coherent. 🙂

      • I think they were coherent. 🙂 It’s a good point about the difference between the morals/opinions and just the kind of content in the book or movie. And that makes it more clear how Christians can write books with imperfect characters and still be promoting the kingdom of God. I realized my statement of “I don’t write things I wouldn’t condone/promote” might’ve sounded like I have a cast of perfect characters, which wouldn’t be such a great idea…!

        Thanks for your thoughts!

    • These are good thoughts. I agree, it’s important not to write anything that may seem like you’re saying something that you’re not in “real life.” The writer of The Shack and Eve has used his “fictional” books to try to share his idea of God and the Bible in a way that he seems to be meaning to. It’s a danger to accidently do the same; putting ideas in writing that you don’t think but that makes it look like you do.

  5. Hi!
    I usually judge books and movies by the effect that they have on me. I was reading a series that made me think some pretty bad thoughts that wouldn’t go away. I realized that the series didn’t contain any strong redeeming character qualities, just entertainment, so I dropped it. (Also, after watching certain TV shows, I dreamed that I was murdering someone. Needless to say, I’ve dropped those, too, though they don’t seem to affect my friends that way). But then, I also read a novel practically riddled with bad language, that I was mostly able to block out. It had great redeeming character qualities and moral questions. So, I’d say, if it looks like the risk will be greater than the real, character-based reward, don’t read it.

    • Yes! I definitely appreciate your thoughts here, Megan. That’s a great concise way of putting it and I agree wholeheartedly with your standard. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This was extremely helpful. I had thought kind of this way before, but I wanted to get my ideas straight before I wrote a novel. One thing I wonder about is this: can you have both “good magic” and “bad magic” in a story pleasing to God? Can you have an evil witch or warlock over here fighting the star character and then the star character using good magic against the evil? I’m not sure if I’m going to have religous elements in the story (apart from good characters who do honorable things, that type of thing). Thank you for this article and thank you for this website, I knew the website before but a Google search of “how to have magic in a Christian story” led me to this article. Happy writing!

    • Hey Levi! Good question!

      Short answer:

      Yes! Just look at the story of Moses.

      Long answer:

      If we were going to put the story of Moses in a fantasy story context, one could call Moses a wizard, and the duel he had with the magicians of Pharaoh was an example of “good magic” against “bad magic.” Or how about when Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff? Or made water spring from a rock when he tapped his staff against it (against God’s will even, which I find very very fascinating). I’m sure you can think of many other examples of “good magic” in the Bible.

      The hang-up many Christians have though, is with the word “magic” itself, because of the Bible’s clear instruction that witchcraft is sin. They don’t want to call the power of God “magic” even though it is perfect appropriate given our modern definition of the word. It is supernatural and mysterious power that influences events. Instead of “magic” we Christians generally prefer the word “Providence” which I agree is a better word, but we shouldn’t get tangled up in semantics either. It’s important to realize there is a distinction between the “magic” we find in many fantasy novels, and the witchcraft of the Bible.

      The dictionary definition of magic is simply, ” the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” By this definition, Moses was a magician. He had the power of influencing the course of events by using mysterious and supernatural forces. Of course, it wasn’t actually Moses doing these works, but God. But we can’t ignore that Moses was the instrument God used. And then, also described in the Bible is witchcraft. What is the difference? Whereas the good “magic” comes from God, witchcraft is the sin of attempting to gain supernatural power apart from God (1 Samuel 15:23).

      So if the “good magic” your good characters are using stems from God, like in Narnia and Lord of The Rings, then it is certainly honorable to God. However, one is trying to paint witchcraft in a good light, supernatural power apart from God, or involving demons or other dark forces, then that of course would be wrong, just as it would be wrong to glorify murder or any other sin.

      As far as using both, I used to think it was wrong to have even the appearance of witchcraft in your story. Of course, I ran into problems with this stance, because the Bible depicts witchcraft. So if it is always wrong to depict witchcraft in a story, then the Bible must be wrong for depicting it. Haha! The Bible only says that witchcraft is sin, just like with murder, or lying, and most Christians would agree that depicting these sins can be appropriate in novels (although they must be handled carefully). So I think there can be situations where you can both show good and bad “magic” in a story and have it be honoring to God. I am of course just speaking in general. As with most things, the details matter, and you often can’t say something is always wrong, or always right.

      This is also just my opinion. If you haven’t already, study for yourself and see what the Bible really says on the subject of witchcraft and magic. 🙂

      I hope this helps!

      – Reagan Ramm

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