Magic as metaphor, not menace

Time once again for a brief defense of fictional magic!

From time to time I encounter the view that any use of magic in a story is unedifying or wicked. Especially if it’s the good guys doing magic. Magic is inherently evil. The Christians in Ephesus burned their magic books when they converted to Christ (Acts 19:19). We should not imagine a world where evil (magic) is good and good is evil. This position leads to abstaining from the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, books by Christian authors (Inklings C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), as well as any other fantasy books with spells, etc. Why would we mess around in our stories and in our minds with the idea that magic COULD be okay?

Good question. Here is the answer.

Definition and context matters
How magic is used in a story makes a lot of difference. There is some equivocation in the definition of magic in the above position. Considering just Narnia for a moment, magic is used differently in various places by C.S. Lewis. It plays the role of the supernatural - Aslan calling children into another world. It describes the moral laws of the universe embedded by the Creator - the Emperor’s deeper magic from before the dawn of time. And there is sorcery and conjuring (Jadis vaporizes a closed door with a spell). These are different uses and they cannot all be rejected with one broad stroke, just because the WORD magic is used for them. When the children try conjuring Aslan it is rejected – Aslan wouldn’t like it. Good authors will put Biblical bounds around how magic is used in their worlds. Using the word magic to teach children about moral law embedded in the universe, is like Paul using the statue to the unknown god to point to the Almighty God. You start with what they know and move to the truth.

Suspension of disbelief is okay
It is okay to get caught up in a story. Younger children are not yet capable of consciously setting aside reality: “This is just a story.” So we need to be extra careful what books and movies they take in. There is nothing wrong with imagining a world with creatures God didn’t make. There IS a problem with reveling in a morally opposite universe, where good is evil and evil is good.

We need to train discernment into ourselves, not by steeling ourselves against getting gripped by a story, but by understanding how good writing leads to gripping you, and then reflecting on your emotions and the ideas asserted afterward. There is a real power to rhetoric and story-telling, that can suck you in and influence you to believe something you didn’t before (some have called this power the Muse). God uses this power to convict David of his sin through Nathan’s story. Jesus told many parables, using this same influence. Stories are used to explore moral dilemmas. A bad example is the Hunger Games. A Biblical example is the story of Rahab. It is good to explore such ethical questions, and bad to let the emotion of a movie (or sympathy for a fictional character) decide your ethics for you.

Love the weaker brother
Paul tells us to not set meat before a brother whose conscience tells him he shouldn’t eat it (1 Corinthians 8:7-10). The same would apply to alcohol consumption or how to evaluate Narnia and Middle Earth. These are secondary issues where practicing love for the brethren is called for. Adult converts to Christ coming out of the occult or alcoholism are going to connect the use of wine or magic with heathen rebellion against God. It may take them awhile to distinguish, to realize one could enjoy Narnia or a Merlot, without sinning. Maybe they never will. Like with the weaker brother, those with knowledge of the truth should not press either one on them before they are convinced. At the same time, we teach the truth of what is allowed (1 Cor 10:25; Rom 14:14). To paraphrase Romans 14:3, “Let not the one who reads Tolkien despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains from Narnia pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”

The argument will be raised that the use of magic is not this kind of issue. It is clear-cut wrong in Scripture (2 Chron. 33:6; Galatians 5:20)! Yes, but see “Definition and Context” above. Just because there is meat on the table that was sacrificed to an idol doesn’t mean the sin of idolatry is happening in the Christian eater. Just because there is alcohol present at the table doesn’t mean the sin of drunkenness is also present. Just because a book uses magic themes doesn’t mean the sin of sorcery is present. Back to Corinth: eating meat sacrificed to an idol was wrong as a pagan god worshiper. Now as a Corinthian Christian it was okay, because they realize those gods aren’t real? Paul says, Yes! (1 Cor. 8:4-6) But it sure FELT wrong to eat meat, yet. That is what it is like for the occult dabbler or alcoholic when they come to know the Lord. That weakness needs to be honored and dealt carefully with, not trampled, despised or mocked. It’s easy to throw labels at each other. The anti-magic position is legalistic. The pro-Narnia camp is compromising and letting the devil have a foothold. I realize I may have applied a different label - weaker brother. But let us speak the truth in love AND refrain from passing judgment on each other, while making our case with grace and clarity from the Scriptures.

For further reading
What I Learned in Narnia, Doug Wilson - book

The Meaning of Magic, by Jared Miller - article

The Use of magic in Literature – 8:00 video - Doug and N.D. Wilson

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