Your Online Cup of Tea
“The most important question I ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology that in our world displaced magic?” (1)
This quote was shared as part of a First Things article on Facebook titled “Harry Potter’s Magic.” First Things “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life,” frequently has articles to get one thinking seriously on various matters. With sometimes deeper analysis on various issues. And this was no different. The relationship between Christians and Fantasy stories has sparked everything from serious scholarly debate, dogmatic denunciations from pulpits and secular derision. Or even headaches and conflicts of conscience in many sincere believers.
Anyone who reads my blog (what a funny thought), will notice my love of fantasy stories. Ever since I was a child, hours could be spent on my own without notice, so long as I had my imagination. It’s something that’s true probably of most children. But not everyone carries this with them into adulthood. Writing fictional stories is a more “mature” manner of inviting your friends to playing in a world of ones own making. At the same time, I think it’s more than playing games. I can’t pin it down exactly, but truly believe that storytelling (of any genre) is part of something fundamental to human nature. It resonates with something deep in our souls. And for me, fantasy does that the best. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, but my focus is on something a lot more specific. In trying to be faithful to my Christian worldview, I’ve had to see where and how these would fit. If we are made in the image of God, then we flourish most when we best reflect Him. As St Paul himself exhorts us “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).” Yet there are some Christians who find that things related to the world of fantasy are dangerous. That if one is to be faithful, they ought not to participate in it. At least in anything that resembles magic or the supernatural. To some degree or another these are tolerated or completely rejected. Some won’t even touch Narnia with a ten foot pole. Others would hang Aslan on their walls, while finding a cupboard beneath the stairs of the house too comfortable for Potter.
I understand the reasoning too. As a Christian, the realm of the soul is just as real as our bodies. And their preside forces loyal to God and those opposing. God has already prescribed the proper means of communication with Heaven. There are protocols to follow when dealing with the realm of the supernatural, for the safety of humans involved. Without them, we are left as sitting ducks, for we cannot even trust what we believe to be good experiences. After all, the enemy is cunning:
“And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19).
“And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).”
“Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.’ How can I curse those whom God has not cursed?… For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.” (Numbers 23:6-8[NIV], 23:23 [ESV]).
Now, such concerns may seem daft to those who do not believe. And not surprising, this is a worldview matter. And part and parcel to this discussion is the idea of supernatural as a relative term. It would indeed be supernatural to a less advanced society that we can communicate via telephone or video. But not to us, since the mechanics are understood and we grow up with these tools as part of our every day life. At the same time, if beings that could dematerialize and communicate telepathically were to reveal themselves to us, we would call it supernatural. But again, to them it is not. For natural is simply what we view as the norm. Anything that seems capable of defying this is seen as super/above natural. So too superstition is a relative term. For the one who believes that matter is all that exist, believing that one can influence the world in means the laws the physics don’t allow, is superstition. So too for the Christian who does not have a sacramental worldview. For them blessing a house by anointing the doors with oil, would be superstition. The sacramentalist herself, would have views she finds to be superstitious. These simply being beliefs in the supernatural that aren’t warranted by one’s own worldview.
This degree of acceptance for the supernatural can be one major factor in various Christian reactions. Some are so lax towards fantasy due to little or no concern for spiritual realities. In particular in the West, it seems that the belief in things such as angels and demons are acknowledged as props of the faith. Which aren’t as important as the main show. A different picture for many of us who may have come from African or Oriental Christian homes. Where the supernatural is more at the forefront our consciences. There is a balance to be had for all of this. It is true and cannot be ignored that our enemy is spiritual and no less real than the atmosphere. As the blessed Apostle Paul says “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Isaiah 6:12).”
God also promises to one day destroy these dark forces in the spirit realm for good ” On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth. They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished (Isaiah 24:21-22).”
All that being said, it would be mistake to think that our everyday life should be like an episode of Christian Ghost Busters. Most of us have probably never experienced something so manifestly supernatural and demonic before. At least not in a manner that was obvious to us. In reality, our spiritual warfare consists mostly of prayer and the “mundane” task of guarding our minds. Consider the language that St Paul uses in Ephesians 6 to this “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).”
So let’s not make an either or out of a both and. I think CS Lewis has it right when he says:
“To be sure, the morbid inquisitiveness about such beings which led our ancestors to a pseudo-science of Demonology, is to be sternly discouraged: our attitude should be that of the sensible citizen in wartime who believes that there are enemy spies in our midst but disbelieves nearly every particular spy story. We must limit ourselves to the general statement that beings in a different, and higher ‘Nature’ which is partially interlocked with ours have, like men, fallen and have tampered with things inside our frontier (2).”
So then how should Christians deal with fantasy stories? Particularly those that more explicitly involve magic. That’s a question I’ve had to wrestle with myself. Arriving to my current position with much prayer, seeking of council and going to the scriptures. I don’t claim to have the final answer on the matter and I’m sure many will not be persuaded by my line of thought. And I think there are people who have dealt with this question better than I (3). But I do want to add something to the discussion in hopes of helping others, who like myself enjoy this genre and want to be faithful to their worldview. The following is a Facebook conversation generated by the First Things article between me and some friends of mine. I think that some useful information was shared here and hopefully some better understand the issues at stake. For more on the benefits of fantasy stories, I recommend the blog-post by one of my friends, Aaron (4).
But at the end of the day, I believe this is a matter of individual discernment. And for those of us more comfortable with fantasy, a note of caution is to be kept. Just like alcohol which is not bad in and of itself, some had better stay away from it. And those who drink it, ought to watch themselves. So too, if your conscience irks you on this issue, then don’t force it on yourself. And if it doesn’t, watch that you don’t embrace just anything because it passes under the heading of fantasy. Even in non fantastical books, Christians are to be discerning with the material they feed their minds, rather, their souls with. With that said, here is the conversation that ensued. May God use to benefit all who read:
Me: I actually wanted to blog a bit about this, since I know the issues of fantasy and magic related to the Christian worldview can be tricky. In sum I would posit a position as such:
Magic is not a thing in and of itself that just exists as a force in our universe. Power isn’t the issue. The source of power is. Even Pharaoh’s magician could turn a staff to a snake. Why sorcery is forbidden in our world, is because of its source. In our world, spiritual power comes either from God or the enemy. The power isn’t the issue, but the source and who is authorized to use it. In fictional worlds it’s a different issue. If the fact that people can do supernatural things is what’s causing you issue, then I think it’s missing the bigger picture. In The Lord of The Rings and Narnia, it’s natural to their World. Magic is but the name for spiritual power. So in the Harry Potter world, some people have the ability, some don’t. The magic isn’t coming from an external force, whether good or bad. It’s inherent. The issue is about the source of power. If you had a book where people are channeling the demonic in order to receive power, having that in it, in and of itself isn’t bad, it’s just a fact of the story but if you portray it as positive, that’s another thing. This is a worldview issue. Fantasy stories help portray spiritual truth because they set a context where the supernatural is normal to occur and really they help the imagination and are another form of our God-given ability to express ourselves. Just because things work differently in a story than our universe in regards to physics, biology and relationship of the spiritual and physical, doesn’t make it bad (God could have made it that way). As a Christian that loves to write fantasy and seeks to please The Lord, these are questions I’ve asked myself too. Ultimately there is freedom in Christ on this issue, but I believe it needs to examined carefully.
Sri: I personally feel much more comfortable with magic in Tolkien’s world than in Harry Potter’s. The ‘good’ mages in Arda are Eru-worshippers, and especially in the case of Gandalf, it is clear what the source of the power is. In his words spoken to the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, he declares himself to be a servant of the Secret Fire, which is but the Holy Spirit in Arda.
Me: I get what you mean. Though to be fair, in HP, this magic is an inherent power not drawn from any source. What is uncomfortable is the real world mixture (eg it’s set modern day England and they even celebrate Christmas. Not to mention that McGonagall’s dad is a Presbyterian minister). Part of this mixture includes being dressed in language and uniform which we take from our world to be truly associated with the occult. In other words, it provides the uncomfortable narrative that we had been wrong about witches and wizards.
Sri: Actually, what I’m uncomfortable with is this very ‘ontology’ of magic, if one might put it thus, that it is something inherent without a particular source.
Aaron: I think there are quality distinctions to be made about the sources of magic and the use of magic within the books – especially for children. Tolkien’s magic is always made obvious by surrounding details and descriptions. Rowling’s magic seems morally neutral, moving the crux of the issue to the goodness or badness of the individual using it – it is not so clear where the magic comes from.. just that it is. Certainly clarifying that is helpful there, but once clarified it becomes obvious what magic is “good” and which is “bad” and even allows for moral and ethical issues to come about. One thinks of the forbidden magics being used on the living creatures before the children. Horrifying. I think, being horrified at something is a gift – it allows us to face the fact that something is abhorrent and allows us to question with the children why. In this way, I think Rowling’s magic is very safe.
Me: Yes, I think the idea of magic as a substance or force being evil in and of itself is misguided. Good and evil are personal properties, not attributes of natures or impersonal forces. That’s why the fact that we don’t see an explanation for the magic, but rather simply have it known as something inherent isn’t a problem. It puts the focus back on the real issue which is how persons use power that is natural to them. Ultimately, I think that the world of HP implicitly teaches the idea of a higher power, due to some of the specificity of the rules of magic it has. I mean, it’s kind of arbitrary in a non guided impersonal universe that there is a law prevent the creation of food or money ex nihilo? Unless of course, some super powerful council could have put these measures in place, in such a fashion that it can’t be undone. Either way, it implies a sort of intelligence to me.
Sri: Food is one of the exceptions to Gamp’s law, to quote Hermione 🙂
Me: Yup, unguided evolution really screwed up on that one.
Clay: Well, this was an interesting conversation that happened while I was working.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (1947)