Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic, Fantasy, and Allegory (Part One)

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Unless a really major breakthrough happens in the next few hours, the ayes have it on My Lady Bibliophile for "Magic, Fantasy, and Allegory". Thank-you all for weighing in your opinion. :)

Don't worry. The good news is, the other series will be coming as well, in the order of their popularity. And since one last vote squeaked in this morning (one vote on Advertising Discernment was a tester from Yours Truly to make sure the poll worked) "How to Deal With Dirty Words" wins silver, and "The Ins and Outs of Advertising Discernment" wins bronze.
But the gold medal definitely goes to Magic. And to be honest I had no idea what to write until yesterday morning.

I think many people struggle on how to handle this issue. After all, how does one handle wands and called-up thunderstorms and winter that never ends? Part of the problem can come from extreme literalism--taking things to be literal that are only meant to be symbolic. Many of the issues really are legitimate. So let's dig a little deeper.

To be quite honest, I've been putting off dealing with this issue for years. I couldn't reconcile some things in my ever-favorite Chronicles of Narnia, and I was scared to find out more about the rights and wrongs, simply because I loved them too much. But the issues that we refuse to deal with never go away. They'll come slinking back around in our lifetime, or worse still, in our children's. So it's best to reconcile them as they come.

Now granted, this won't be exhaustive, nor even as comprehensive as I would like. I'm dealing with it in my present understanding of Scripture. That changes, and refines, and expands. I'll probably be returning to this issue somewhere along the line. But I can offer a little of what the Lord has shown me so far. And I realize full well that you may differ with me. That's certainly just fine, and I wish you all grace and wisdom as you search out this issue for yourself.

Second of all, we're not going to rush through this. I have no idea how many parts it will be, but I'll deal with magic on Tuesdays until further notice. Fridays will be something else.

Thirdly, it is not my goal to teach my readers, or to learn more myself, about the abomination of witchcraft. I shall be endeavor to be discreet in the terms that I use and the depth to which I go. We're not here to learn about witchcraft. We're here to learn a biblical way to handle books that contain "magic".

And finally, I'm not going to be dealing with Tolkien or Lewis, but with magic in general. Because while these are the two most classic examples, a trend is on the rise in modern literature to include everything bizarre and fantastic. And I want to include some tips on how to deal with it anywhere, not just with those two authors.

So here we go. And I covet your prayers as I seek wisdom on this myself.

A Few Starting Points

1. Supernatural  Powers Exist--
Anyone who reads the Bible understands that God works phenomena in ways that we cannot explain. Creating everything out of nothing was his very first evidence of supernatural power--then creating man out of dust, woman out of man, wine out of water. Holding the sun in its course, sending illogical terror on entire armies, walking on water, and raising men from the dead--some of whom had been dead for extended periods of time. And since He is an eternal God (1 Timothy 1:17) none of his attributes (including miracles) can ever pass away. The word "supernatural" implies something "being beyond or exceeding the powers or laws of nature; miraculous." (Webster's 1828 Dictionary). Therefore, supernatural implies something that men cannot achieve on their own. God can do supernatural acts through men, and he can do them without men, but men cannot on their own. Only spiritual forces have that power. Angels and demons have that power, but they cannot receive that power apart from God. For this post, we will use the term "Supernatural" to mean "miraculous events that occur by God's power, in subjection to His authority."

2. Demonic Powers Exist--
Another issue out of whack in our society is the issue of demonic power. Without going into detail, we'll be using the term "Sorcery" to refer to "events exceeding the laws of nature, executed through God's power, but in rebellion to His authority."
Because of the Fall, everything on earth has Good and Evil. Every natural thing has a right way and a wrong way to be used. And supernatural powers have both a Good side and an Evil side.
This makes many uncomfortable, and C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that humankind either has an unhealthy interest in, or ignores demonic power altogether. But I don't want to dwell on this heavy subject for long. Needless to say, they do exist, but the Christian can be assured that all evil is subject to the supremacy of Jesus Christ. The devil is vanquished by the cross, and though he is still allowed to rule the earth for a little while, Jesus will one day make a final end of him. We need not fear, but we do need to be aware.

3. Magic is Not a Neutral Issue--
A subject is either taken dominion to the glory of Christ, or it is given over to the workings of the devil. Therefore, we need to be informed about magic in the books that we read. And the purpose of these posts are to give a few pointers for evaluation.

4. Oftentimes We Misunderstand Our Terms--
Many people are confused between the meaning of "magic" and the meaning of "supernatural". Or more specifically, the difference between black sorcery and miracles of God. What about wizards, witches, and magicians? 'the "good" witch of the North" and 'the "bad" witch of wherever-it-was'?Sometimes we call something evil because we misunderstand the meaning of the term. We've already looked at sorcery and supernatural, but let's look at a few more:

witch: a female sorcerer, no doubts at all. They are wicked, and should be portrayed as such.

wizard: originally meant "philosopher or sage" in the middle of the fifteenth century. Therefore, you may want to check the author's intended meaning before you throw the book out altogether. Granted many probably draw little difference between "wizard" and "magician" but some still do. While it has negative connotations because of the changes in English language, it may not always be intended to refer to sorcery.

magician: a male sorcerer. No bones about it. They are wicked, and should be portrayed as such.

5.Oftentimes We Misunderstand Our Times--
The English language changes. Profanity alone is evidence of that. Sometimes words that have negative meanings today did not have those same meanings at the time of the author's original writing. Therefore, if it was written in a time when the words/meanings were good, then I take it at the time when it was written, and consider it good. But if it was written at a time when the meaning was bad, and the author knew better, then I give no room for excuses. In other words, I apply 19th century meanings to 19th century books, but I don't apply 19th century meanings to 21st century books.

That's all for today, fellow bibliophiles. I'm dipping my toes in the pool, so to speak, and next time I will cover further questions and issues. If you have thoughts or comments, I would love to receive them by email, or in the comment box. Please be respectful of differing viewpoints, and grant grace to each other. Right is not relative, but we are all at different stages in our spiritual growth.

And on Friday, I will have a stand-alone article on an important issue for the bibliophile. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. I am happy you are doing this series. The entire subject- how Christians should handle magic & etc in books (and films)- has been an ongoing topic of thought for me for some time now, and so I look forward to reading your thoughts on it as you look into God's word and share here.

    Interesting about the original use of the word "wizard", I did not know that. I always did draw connotations between a wizard and a magician, so to know that it was not always so is enlightening (and, somewhat specifically answers another question about which I have been wondering too).

    1. I did not know that either, until a couple of months ago, when I first read Lord of the Rings. :) I, too, found it enlightening, and realized that there is a lot more to the meaning of a book than meets the eye,especially with the meaning of words and such.

      Made me feel somewhat better about Gandalf, even though I still have my reservations. :)

    2. That is quite interesting- because *my* questions about wizards too came from the fact that I am re-reading Lord of the Rings and wasn't quite comfortable at first with Gandalf being a wizard. I still have my reservations too- but they are somewhat more assuaged. I guess we think somewhat a like on these lines.

    3. If I may add my two cents? :) With the greatest respect to Lady B, I would point out that the word "magician" comes from the Persian scholars, astrologers, and Zoroastrians known as "magi" (as does our word "magic"). Remember that it was Magi who saw the star in the East that led them to Our Lord. So, while the word is somewhat different, it also has similarities to the etymology of "wizard".

      While "wizard" did have an innocent meaning in its first youth (which is the sense in which Tolkien used it, as meaning "wise one") it is regularly used today to refer to practitioners of sorcery. So it may not be helpful to say that wizards may be OK but magicians are not. That said, Tolkien himself certainly meant "wizard" in a more innocent light. But he himself wasn't using it in the sense of "wise man; philosopher" exclusively. After all, Gandalf wields some kind of supernatural power.

      Here's what Tolkien actually said about Gandalf--which may address some of your reservations, Krystina:

      "But G. is not, of course, a human being (Man or Hobbit). There are naturally no precise modern terms to say what he was. I wd. venture to say that he was an incarnate 'angel' - strictly [a] messenger: that is, with the other Istari, wizards, 'those who know', an emissary from the Lords of the West, sent to Middle-earth, as the great crisis of Sauron loomed on the horizon." (Letter 156)

      Since Lady B isn't going to be addressing Tolkien or Lewis specifically, I'll take this opportunity to shamelessly self-promote my post on The Lord of the Rings, which deals with the nature of magic in that book, and also The Silmarillion, which explains the cosmological rulers of Middle-earth: ie, God, angels, gods, and demons.

      I'm looking forward to this series!

    4. I had forgotten that Gandalf was an "angel figure". Made much better sense than what I was trying to make him out as. I'm thinking I should read Tolkien's letters. I would highly second your post links to all my readers. :)

      Many thanks for your two cents. I must say, in my etymological wanderings I can't find anything good in the meaning of magician. After all, the Magi themselves were pagan priests and astrologers, and therefore, any word derived from them gives rise to question in my mind. The only loop-hole I can see is a rather round-about one. Magi means "magician or astrologer". Now, originally, astrologer did not have the negative connotations it does today. "Astrology" meant the same as "astronomy". But even then, my notes tell me that it still had connections with predicting future events. Now, depending on what events they were trying to predict, this could be anything from the weather to events among the stars, to future history of mankind. If the latter, it would certainly be a negative meaning.

      But I'm willing to be wrong on that point. :) Do you have any sources/stories where magician is used in a positive manner? That would be really helpful.

      I agree, wizard is certainly used today to mean sorcery, and therefore it's original meaning cannot be relied upon in every book that has a wizard. Tolkien used it well, but not all other authors do. Good addition.

      I'm looking forward to your input on this series as well; your knowledge on these points is very helpful. :)

    5. Thank you for your wisdom, Suzannah, it was most helpful. Especially so the quote from Tolkien's letters: an old acquaintance once told me that Tolkien intended Gandalf to be moreso an angel-like being (and for some reason I thought she said something like that Gandalf was to be a prophet as well, but upon further reflection, that does not make too much sense, as I don't think Gandalf was ever really foretelling anything, as most prophets, at least in the Biblical sense, were), but it was good to read the direct quote from whence that which she said came.

      I did not have the chance to read all of your post on Lord of the Rings, but I did read what you said about magic and what Tolkien said on the subject, and I thought it to be very good what you had written- and quite helpful too.

    6. Lady B--you're right, 'magi' were never as innocent in meaning as 'wizards'. Yet I find it interesting that God revealed the Messiah to some of them, who came to worship him, even (possibly) through their attempted astrological practices. Pure grace: surprising, unexpected, saving.

      Krystina--I would also draw similarities between Gandalf and a prophet. The role of a prophet is not merely to tell the future. Rather, a prophet is one who represents God to His people. In that sense Gandalf firmly fits the mold. For just one of many examples how Tolkien mines prophetic imagery for Gandalf, when Gandalf turns up at Edoras to speak to Theoden, Wormtongue accuses him of always bringing trouble. This is exactly like King Ahab calling Elijah a "troubler of Israel".

      I totally understand if you can't read my whole post on LOTR! But if you read the section titled "But I Don't See Christ in The Lord of the Rings" I try to show that the three Christ-figures of LOTR are Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo; that each of them fulfills the specific Christological role, within the story, of priest (Frodo), king (Aragorn), and.... prophet (Gandalf). So, thematically and symbolically, Gandalf is certainly a prophet.

      *smacks own wrist* Leave off yattering about fictional characters on the internet, my girl, and go do some work!

  2. Interesting series! This is something I've always been interested in too (er, how it meshes with Christian worldview in books, not sorcery itself :P). Looking forward to reading the rest.

    1. Hehe, I know what you mean. :) I hope you enjoy it.

  3. Dear Lady B,
    Wonderful post! I'm glad you did the one I voted on! :) I'm looking forward to this series!!!!
    Love, Sister


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