Wednesday, August 6, 2014

7 Ways to Deal with the Problem Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers

First off, what is the problem with magic for Christians? Or sorcery? Or witchcraft? (Are all of those things even the same?)

An entire book could be written on this topic (perhaps I'll do that someday) but to keep this as brief as possible, the short reason this is a problem is the Bible has nothing good to say about the practice of magic (neither does extra-Biblical Christian tradition). No translation of Scripture will record the 12 Disciples watching Jesus walk on the water and say, "Wow, that was magical!" Nor is the mana falling from heaven in Israel's wilderness wanderings described as some kind of powerful spell that Moses used, nor even is his rod described as "magic," even though Moses had the power granted to him by God to turn it into a serpent at whatever time he chose. No, the Bible describes events like these as "miracles," or "signs," or "wonders."

On the other hand, when the Bible talks about "magic" and calls people "magicians" or "sorcerers" (you could substitute "wizards" if you wanted), it includes the court magicians of Pharaoh, who resisted Moses by demonstrating to Pharaoh that the power Moses showed from God was not really that special after all. The Bible also makes mention of a death penalty for witches (Exodus 22:18--though the Bible does not record any instances of this particular death penalty being carried out). It also mocks the interpreters of dreams who worked for Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, showed sorcerers converting to Christianity and demonstrating the genuineness of their faith by voluntarily burning all of their own scrolls of magic (Acts 19:19), lists magic as a sin from which the Earth under judgment from God will not repent in Revelation 9:21 (the Greek word for "magic" or "sorcery" there is linked to the word "pharmacology" and indicates the use of drugs to induce mental states associated with sorcery), and in general has only bad things to say when the word "magic" or related words like "sorcery," or "witchcraft" come up.

A verse in Isaiah (8:19) directly contrasts reliance on God with the use of magic: "When they say to you, 'Consult the mediums and spiritists who whisper and mutter,' should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on the behalf of the living?" (NASB--the King James Version uses the word "wizards" instead of "spiritists.")

So this seems to be the basic problem with magic as the term applies in the Bible. As defined by the examples the Scriptures provide: Magic is the attempt to use supernatural power outside of relying on the one Creator God of the Bible. Note I've phrased this so that it does not comment on whether "magic" really does contain supernatural power. The very attempt to circumvent God to gain access to the supernatural is, Biblically speaking, a problem.

"So why bother putting magic in stories at all?" someone might ask. "If magic is an issue, why shouldn't a Christian writer leave it out of stories altogether?" I'd say there are three basic reasons to work out a means to include it: 1) Fantasy is a popular genre with loads of readers. It makes sense to desire to reach them from a strictly analytical point of view. Not to mention it can inherently interesting to write fantasy for people who've read it--and fantasy normally contains magic. 2) Fantasy has the ability to use analogy or allegory to create powerful messages about the world we live in. And what is called in the story "magic" can be a key part of any such analogy. C.S. Lewis achieved using magic that way in the Chronicles of Narnia, in fact. 3) And it so happens to be that magic is a staple of fantasy as much as aliens are a staple of science fiction. You could write the one without including the other, but it would not really represent the genre well for the most part. Or be as interesting.

So, how to proceed? I would say the basic task is to make it plain the magic in the story world is not the same thing as the sorcery the Bible condemns. In order to harmonize with the Bible's condemnation, a Christian writer must make it plain that the supernatural power referenced in the story is not in fact in opposition to reliance on the Creator God of the Bible. I know of six good ways to do this (and will reference a seventh):

1. Only the villains have "magic." 
This is probably the most straightforward approach. Bad guys use spells, sorcery, incantations, and magic items. Good guys are stuck with either plain items devoid of any magical powers, or have supernatural power openly linked to God and under His control rather than theirs (and which is never described by the term "magic"). The Left Behind series actually shows baddies into witchcraft whereas the good guys, especially the two prophets in Jerusalem, call down supernatural power overtly in the name of God. To take this notion into the realm of fantasy, take this same sort of thing but instead of setting it on planet Earth, put it in a world of imagination, but one where God is still God, though perhaps under a different name (e.g. Aslan--though note that magic in Narnia is not just reserved for the villains).

2. Rename miracles and prophets as "magic" and "wizards."
Take a person who acts like a prophet of the Old Testament, but call him or her something other than "prophet." Create situations similar to Moses parting the Red Sea or Elijah lighting the sacrifice to God with fire from heaven, but don't call it prophecy or a miracle or a sign or a wonder. Call it "magic" or "sorcery" instead and those who them "wizards" who call upon the equivalent of the name of God in the story. Or along those lines. Doing this would take advantage of the fact that fantasy readers expect magic in a tale, but turns their expectation on its head so the story magic works the opposite from how the Bible negatively uses the word. Therefore, done correctly, such wizards would really point back to prophets and their sorcery powers back to God's power (by whatever name He is presented in the story). Readers who are not Bible-savvy may not immediately notice that the story points back to a Biblical way of seeing the supernatural, even though that's what it would do. By the way, L. B. Graham, Christian author of fantasy, mentioned at a previous Realm Makers conference using an approach roughly similar to this method in some of his books.

3. Treat "magic" as an allegory for the workings of God.
I'm thinking especially of how C.S. Lewis used the term "Deep Magic" as a description of what the "Emperor-beyond-the-sea" had written in the stone table where Aslan was sacrificed (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). It stated that the White Witch was entitled to kill every traitor and if anyone denied her that right, then all of Narnia would perish in fire and water. But an even deeper magic said that if a willing innocent victim was killed in the place of a traitor then the Stone Table would crack and death would be overcome. Clearly this references how Christians see Christ dying on the cross for sin, but is phrased as "magic." A story could call other acts of God or properties of God that parallel what we know to be true, magic. Wizardry of this sort would not allow characters to use spells and as such might call for the addition of another method of dealing with "sorcery" (one that does allow spells). Though I can imagine a fantasy story without spells at all in which all references to "magic" are simply to acts of God in allegorical form.

4. Treat magic as a form of undiscovered science.
In the multiverse I've imagined behind my book The Crystal Portal, I imagined there is a kind of physics that operates in other universes that is undetectable here. I conceived of magic as a form of power that flows though the multiverse not unlike how electricity flows through a circuit. For universes closest to the source, this power is readily available. It's subject to manipulation by acts of the will and spoken words (so the use of this power resembles spells), but other universes drain most of the power by the time it hits our reality, so it has never been discovered in our world. In universes that have active magic, wizards are like scientists who study the properties of the invisible and learn how to use it, like how scientists learn to manipulate the forms of energy and matter we know about. Like science, such power can be used for either good or evil and like technology, there are unexpected residual wastes that can be harmful. 

Other novelists have invented other means in which "magic" is either science by another name (as I've done myself in the "Time of Magic" referenced in Medieval Mars) or have stated magic is an undiscovered science. Note that making sorcery equal science may create a story universe very similar to ones written from a non-Christian perspective, of the sort that have wizards and spells. But the difference is the kind of story that creates magical power which can be used in a neutral sense isn't really supernatural power anymore. It's the power derived from the ordinary physical world as much as photography, internal combustion engines, and atomic power is. What is called "magic" really should be considered part of the natural order.

It still would be possible for someone to seek supernatural power in an illicit way in such a story world (as magic is referenced in the Bible). Which would make the sin of witchcraft, i.e. trying gain supernatural power while circumventing God, a separate thing from the use of magic, which would in fact be science by another name or in another form.

5. Blend the lines between the supernatural and natural.
What I just suggested in effect blends the supernatural and natural by making acts that would appear to be supernatural merely the acts of a type of science instead. But I'm suggesting here applies stories that go the opposite way. 

Instead of giving everything a natural explanation, nothing has one. Everything is off-the-rails strange and nothing can be said to be a deliberate attempt to achieve the supernatural without God because everything (or most everything) is already supernatural from the point of view of planet Earth as we know it. I'm thinking of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz type story universes, where scarecrows and rabbits talk, where changing your size is a matter of what you eat and drink, and tornadoes will transport a house to another land without killing its occupants. If magic is so worked into the fabric of everything that it isn't special and using it is as natural as walking and breathing then that sort of magic does not relate to the Biblical condemnation of people seeking the supernatural without God. Though such a story can shut out God by never mentioning Him and can act as a sort of allegory for witchcraft, it certainly does not have to be. A story universe like this can just as soon mention God in various ways, even though the classic examples I mentioned do not.

6. Treat magic as an innate special ability in analogy to spiritual gifts.
This approach in some ways is a subset of #5, but can also employ notions of #4 as well. It might seem logically contradictory for a story to be both more and less scientific in its approach to the supernatural at the same time, but the author I know who uses this method makes both work. Kat Heckenbach in both Finding Angel and Seeking Unseen (both these books are listed on her website that I linked) treats the power of magic as a gift that an individual has, given from beyond herself or himself. As such, her approach runs parallel to what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts, almost forming an allegory of them. Yet since working the supernatural is just a natural ability, she in effect makes the supernatural more common and ordinary as per point #5. But at times she gives specific descriptions of how someone's ability affects matter or energy in terms someone who has studied science on planet Earth would recognize. Which goes back to #4. In truth, Kat's approach is unique, but her basic idea of making magic an inherent gift the magic user possesses can well harmonize with a worldview that does not include witchcraft in the Biblical sense of the term.

7. Downplay the Biblical objection in the first place.
This approach would be to either ignore altogether what the Bible says about magic or claim it only references a specific kind of attempt to gain supernatural power without God. I have heard people use the verse I quoted in Isaiah to claim the Bible does not condemn all magic, it only condemned necromancy, that is, trying to interact with or raise the dead. Which is why I gave examples outside of Isaiah. No, the Bible condemns far more that just necromancy. It takes a broad shot at magic as a whole, though we need to understand by study what that really means.

I don't recommend approach #7. I think one of the things that distinguishes an overtly Christian writer of speculative fiction is the attempt to work these issues out by some means or other. Not to ignore them. It does not mean conformity to just one way of thinking and it doesn't mean it's impossible to be creative or imaginative. (Kat certainly is creative in her solution.)

There's no reason in most cases to use just one of 1-6 above. In some instances, you can blend two or more of them. Or create your own. I'd be fascinated to see in comments below if there are any other methods to resolve this issue that I didn't think of. If you have an idea, please share it. (thank you) :)



  1. Thanks for sharing, Travis. I appreciate your balanced approach.

    1. Thank you, Ruth. I appreciate you mentioning that.

  2. Great list of ideas Travis. In my novel 'The Great Silence', I am using something similar to #6. A character has prophetic dreams and gains the ability to speak, understand and read any language that she has never encountered before. This is explained as a gift from God to help her achieve her mission of bringing the gospel to a group of humans who have been cut off from Earth since before the flood.

    The approached used by Brandon Sanderson in Mistborn (while not writing from a Christian worldview as such) is to treat magic almost like a super power. His allomancy follows pseudo-scientific rules and gives characters abilities. The word magic is never used in the books (I think). This ability is just something that exists in his world. Ultimately, this ability turns out to have come from the god in the story universe, so I guess this is a little like combining #4 and #6.

    1. Adam, great points.

      I think superhero stories often do something with special abilities, which is similar to #6. But they also tend to lower the bar between what is and is not possible. Not to the Alice in Wonderland degree, but in world of superheroes, things that make no sense are assumed to be true--e.g. the yellow sun of Earth gives superman his powers, though there is no real reason at all this should be so. So #5 winds up being mixed into a world of superheroes to a degree...

  3. What about the ... I guess I'll call it the "Different World Justification." It goes something like this: in our world, we have explicit commands from God that warn us not to communicate with the dead, cast spells, etc. But this might not be true of other universes. Perhaps there are places where God has not prohibited these things.

    The usual justification I've heard for Christians opposing magic is this: when you try to seek magic in our world, whether it's masquerading as "nature magic" or "sorcery" or something else, you end up dealing with demons. Every supernatural power in our world that doesn't explicitly come from God comes from somewhere evil and dangerous. But one can imagine fantasy worlds in which some supernatural forces are neutral or friendly, without being angelic or holy per se.

  4. The point I made in #4 relates to your "different worlds" suggestion because I imagined universes in which what would appear to be magic really is just science. So saying a spell in our world would involve demons but saying a spell there would be a way to manipulate scientific principles that don't manifest themselves in our world, no demons necessarily involved.

    But your approach that in another universe it simply may not be forbidden because dealing with spells DOESN'T automatically trigger the demonic is a different way to look at the same sort of thing. Especially if you were to take it so far as to say that another universe doesn't have any demons..(probably not a direction I would go, but it could be interesting).

    My story containing an alternate universe would be mainly different in that it would still be possible to attempt to gain demonic assistance in spell casting. So magic as we know it would exist in parallel with what I'm calling the "scientific" kind.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate your input!

  5. I am facing this problem in my current novel. My somewhat unimaginative solution, which I will call the 'Merlin was a good guy' rule, is to make the good guy's magic either explicitly Christian, that is, the hero prays to a saint to trigger the supernatural effect (whether the saints are real or this is just a confidence builder in the hero's mind is left unsaid) or the good guy with magic is explicitly said to be either (1) not a human being, hence not someone the Creator ever told not to use magic or (2) not lawful and not good for you, but something the good guy is struggling to leave behind him, like a drug addict or (3) an art or craft from another world which only looks like magic to us, but does not call upon demons or spiritual powers for its effects.

    By way of contrast, the bad guy's magic is explicitly devil-worship that expand their pride and leads them into sin and destroys them. There is small chance that a reader will mistake only of my good guy Jews levitating or building a Golem by using the scripture (or my nonhuman good guy mermaid using an ability native to her race, of charming men to sleep with song) with my bad guy Chaldaeans from the Tower of Babel who call upon the star-lore to plan the future, to destroy hope and free will, deflower virgins, torment captives, and burn unarmed villages.

    To a very strict Puritan, even the good magic I describe above will be condemned: but Puritans denounce the rites and rituals, not to mention stained glass windows, used for thousands of years by Christians just as faithful, and a fair bit older, than they. I am not willing to eschew an awkward solution in the phantasmal search for a perfect solution.

    1. One could say your approach involves mostly my #1 option by making it clear that "magic" in the Biblical sense only belongs to the bad guys. To make the magic part of another world is a bit like my option #4 or make it part of a non-human creature's nature is like option #6. But you show unique flair with a non-villain doing magic because it's an addiction, something I didn't think of at all. A very cool idea. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great article Travis. I've been working through the basis of the fantastical elements in my Fantasy series (Akrad Legacy's series) so this is a timely article for me. I'd say that I've used a combination of 1), 3) & 6). The villains use sorcery and a manipulative magic (which taps into or awakens evil supernatural powers but the 'good guys' who worship and follow the Maker have innate 'magical' abilities which they see as gifts from God; and are in many ways an allegory for God at work in the world. Your article has helped me clarify my approach :)

  7. Your books sound interesting. Please share a link where I can find them.

    And I'm very glad I could help. :)

  8. A very nice look at the subject.

    In my Prospero's Daughter trilogy, I went with magic being bad for humans, but Prospero's family having been given a special dispensation from an angel to use protect mankind from the supernatural. They all knew that the magic was hurting them, but they did it anyway, because they felt it was important.

    In my current series (the books of Unexpected Enlightenment), the issue is a bit different, because my characters start out on a world that has magic, but no Christianity...and they don't learn about Christianity until later in the series. So, the main characters have no reason to believe magic is bad as the story opens...though there is a general agreement that some magic is dark and not good. It will be interesting to see if/how their opinions change as they discover more about the real universe. ;-)

  9. It occurs to me that I should say something else...all of your options assume that the author is trying to justify the use of magic in their characters...but the other option--the one I often go with--is that magic is probably something they shouldn't be doing, the way smoking, drinking, killing, sleeping around, and dozens of other things that people and/or characters do is something that they shouldn't be doing.

    I wouldn't want a real person to act like James Bond, but I still like Bond movies.

    The question, then, becomes to what degree the characters will suffer comeuppances for whatever it is that they do wrong.

    1. I wouldn't so much use the term "justify" as say I'm looking to show a way magic could be something other than the league-with-the-devil sort of ultimate evil the Bible categorizes it as. Note that using magic as science does not necessarily imply it's good or just, because science can be used in evil ways--so can magic be evil in a magic-as-science system.

      To say "magic is something they shouldn't be doing" as in it's harmful to them (like eating transfats or something) is an interesting approach. The closest I came to paralleling that idea was in saying magic in its science-by-another-name form would produce waste that is harmful to people, in parallel with industrial waste.

      But an approach that portrays magic use as sin, though not fundamentally different from other kinds of sin, including portraying the natural consequences of disobedience to God, certainly is different from any means of dealing with the issue of magic that I proposed. In fact it's more like the idea John Wright suggested above in treating magic like drug addiction.

      So thank you for your original contribution. I appreciate hearing your perspective. :)

  10. In my WIP fantasy story, currently on the back burner, there are three forms of magic: innate abilities of some creatures (shapechangers with major limitations: they can only switch between two forms, and can only make changes to their 'ordinary' form once a decade), pseudoscientific potions made from extracts from particular plants, like high-powered herbal remedies (e.g. the nectar from a particular flower acts as a sleeping potion, the nectar from the flower that always grows next to it counteracts its effects while also working as a cold cure), and 'spells' in the form of an ancient trade language that almost everyone has long forgotten, which is for making polite requests of the spirits in charge of the soil, wind, rivers, mountains etc. (their names in that language being indicative of their roles, the spirit of the river being literally 'the truth behind the river' and all such spirits being answerable to 'the truth behind the truths'), so there is no guarantee that a spell will do what you want, especially if you make a selfish request. You could always try their evil 'counterparts' for that, but any time they grant your request it's going to be very bad for you in the long term.

    1. Your first two ideas with innate abilities and with potions treat magic as if it were science, which is an approach I mentioned.

      Your last approach, however, asking spirits for things, unless you make it clear that the good spirits are directly linked to GOD, you have in fact created a system that works much like REAL witchcraft. And I would not recommend that approach.

  11. Hmmm. . . from the Bible list, you left off the Magi. Also known as the Wise Men. whose wisdom did seem to profit them.

    Also Simon Magus. Who did commit the sin that was named for him, simony, and we can easily imagine that he may have been encouraged in that by his studies, but Peter rebuked him for the simony, not for being a magus.

    I note that at the time, "magica" was not trafficking with spirits (either evil in goetics, or (purportedly) good in theurgy); it was using the hidden properties of things. Including, say, willow bark tea for headache. St. Augustine warned people to be very sure of the purity of their motives if they didn't understand how something worked, for fear it was a signal to a demon, but like most Christians, regarded as not intrinsically evil.

    1. From the text of the Bible itself, there is no evidence that the Magi were magical, so my omission of them was appropriate. They perform no spells of any kind in the Bible text--they only thing they do is watch stars, which does not have to be a magical act. (It isn't magical when astronomers do it.)

      Simon Magus I could have used, but as his magic did not seem inherently different from other kinds of magic, and since the idea that he continued to practice magic after his conversion being tenuous at best (he is never stated to cast a spell afterwards), AND since the nature of what he wanted to buy had an almost magical aspect--he wanted to be able to control the Holy Spirit as if the Spirit were a genie in a bottle--Simon Magus seemed to me an insignificant example.

      As for the definition of the word "magic," my examination of Biblical passages involves multiple words in both Hebrew and Greek languages that do things we would recognize as "magical" and then condemns such things as trafficking in spirits. That the definition of the word "magica" used to be once different in the past was insignificant to my point. I was not trying to define that one word but rather find what we recognize from various texts as "magic" and see what the Bible says about such things. And such things the Bible sees in an exclusively negative light from what I was able to observe. FYI.