Magic can be a hot-button topic in Christian fantasy circles. Is magic ever okay? What is the difference between the magic in Lord of the Rings and the magic in Harry Potter? Should we just avoid it all? Does the faith of the author make a difference?
As with the other topics addressed in this series, magic in fiction is a matter of personal conviction and the intention of these posts is not to tell you what to think but rather to pose food for thought and my personal understanding of the topic based on what I see in Scripture.
To start with, I want to highlight a few different categories of “magic,” because I think a lot of conflict arises when we’re unclear about what we mean by “magic.”
I tend to see three categories of “magic” in fiction. There’s “magic” that comes directly from the world’s God-figure, “magic” that is built into the world (which thus comes indirectly from the world’s God-figure), and there’s the type of magic condemned in the Bible which is an attempt at gaining power apart from God (usually through outright evil/demonic methods).
Magic #1: Divine Intervention
“Magic” #1 would involve things like miracles or a river that’s given supernatural properties. This category encompasses things that have been specifically put in place by God and are acknowledged as such, generally things that cannot be explained any other way. Miraculous healing in a world where healing abilities are unheard of, the sudden blinding of an enemy army (2 Kings 6), speaking a foreign language without knowing that language, etc.
I doubt most Christians would have a problem with this sort of “magic,” unless it’s called such in a story and the simple name trips them up. While I don’t see the point in throwing out “magic” simply due to its title (whatever category is discussed), it may be more considerate to write miracles and the like without using the word “magic” so as to avoid confusion.
Magic #2: Part of the World’s Make-Up
This category would encompass most fantasy magic systems and refers to abilities or boons that are inherent to a world, built in by its creator. “Magic” #2 would include, for instance, my many magic systems which are passed down through genetics or are otherwise a part of the world’s inherent make-up. “Magic” in my sci-fi world, for instance, is a semi-sentient life form that lives in humans like a symbiote, interacting with a particular gene to grant people supernatural abilities. It’s something that was created with the world by the Creator and therefore is, indirectly, a gift from him.
This category would be more of a fantastical science than magic, since it’s as natural to the world as gravity, though we often refer to it as “magic” for its difference from the real world. I don’t think a fantasy world has to adhere to the same limitations as the real world as far as what is naturally possible, so I don’t see anything wrong with this category.
When creating a “natural” magic system, authors should be careful that it doesn’t too closely resemble real-world magic. Magic systems that are clearly fictional aren’t likely to gain any serious imitators, but something that dabbles too closely to real-world witchcraft, even if it’s built into the world, could be a stumbling block. (This is, to the best of my understanding, one of the main reasons for Christian objections to Harry Potter’s magic system.)
Inherent magic systems also ought to have clear limitations, the bounds of which cannot be crossed without consequences. Attempts to cross these bounds might be categorized with Magic #3, which brings us to…
Magic #3: Stolen Power
Magic #3 is the only one I believe is wrong. This would be magic along the same lines as real-world witchcraft and would be anything otherworldly (for the fantasy world) and evil, as well as anything that involves characters trying to gain power without God/through unnatural means. Allying with darkness, dabbling with death, etc. Even trying to do something good, but pursuing means other than what the world’s God-figure has provided, would qualify as sinful.
I suspect this will be the most controversial part of this post, but I think even this type of magic can be written… ONLY so long as it’s shown to be evil and the author is verrrrrrrry careful about how deep they go. As with other sin, magic can be written about without being gratuitous or participating in the sin. Don’t write spells. Don’t describe seances in vivid detail. But if magic is not going to tempt you or your intended audience, if you’re writing it as the evil it is and revealing its consequences, if you write to expose the works of darkness (Eph. 5:11), if you’re called to expose this particular evil, then go ahead and approach with caution and discretion.
Circumventing the world’s God-figure isn’t the only way characters might try to steal power; they might instead try to harness the God-figure’s power themselves, outside of the intended design (take Acts 8:9-25 as an example). This might include things like bending “magical” resources to their own will or altering their genes to harness a genetic ability. (This latter example is the biggest error in my sci-fi world, where a company forces the world’s “magic” symbiote to latch onto people’s genes to create super-soldiers.)
Personally, I think the safest way to approach this issue within a fantasy world is to make use of a distinct “natural” magic system and reveal the consequences of operating beyond its boundaries, without venturing too close to real-world witchcraft—the great thing about fantasy is that it provides opportunities to explore themes like this without the real-world trappings—but I think that each option can have its place in revealing the darkness and consequences of seeking power apart from God and the gifts He’s already given us (again, carefully and with care to communicate expectations to readers, as with false religions).
With any type of magic in fiction, it’s your responsibility to be clear on the boundaries of your world and the cultures within it, to know how those boundaries do or don’t parallel boundaries in the real world, and to make those boundaries and differences (where applicable) clear to your intended audience.
If you want to reveal the hazards of stealing power by way of a culture that doesn’t see anything wrong with it, you need some way to make clear to the reader that what’s fine in this culture is not just fine altogether (through consequences, a contrasting worldview, etc).
If there is some magic in your world that you think is fine within a fantasy world but would be hazardous in the real world, there needs to be a clear distinction between the rules of one world and the other. The positively-viewed magic system within the fantasy world ought not be similar enough to real-world magic or its trappings to mislead the reader. If a magic system can be intentionally imitated in the real world, it’s probably not a good idea to portray it as a good thing. If, however, your magic system is clearly fantastical (and both you and your readers are clear on the rules of both the real world and your created world), you probably don’t have much to worry about.
What do you think? Is there anything you think I missed? Do you agree with my categories? Share your comments and/or questions below!