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Magic, Sorcery, and Children’s Literature: Should We Enjoy It?

I place before you here a short discussion by childrens author N.D. Wilson and his father, (author, pastor) Doug Wilson, on a subject close to my heart. Is it appropriate for Christians to appreciate the use of magic in stories? Yes, if you want to read the Bible. But not so fast, what about the idea of authority? Some useful, worthwhile thoughts.

Ask Doug – Magic in Literature from Daniel Foucachon on Vimeo.

Here’s the video for those on Facebook if it doesn’t show up.

14 Comments

  1. But the real question is can Christians likes vampires in stories? (I ain’t talking the sparkly kind.) I’d be curious what Wilson thought of movies such as The Addiction. It ends with a great quote from R.C. Sproul: “We’re not sinners because we sin. We sin because we’re sinners.”

  2. Ken, I don’t much know, but I’ll give it a shot.

    I see it as a particular power or ability that is not ordinarily granted or present.

    It may be used for good (under the authority and with the gifting of God– as with Elijah, Moses, etc.).

    It may be used for evil (out from under proper authority –see witchcraft, sorcery, witch of Endor, Egyptian wizards, etc.).

    Anybody else have a better notion?

  3. Honestly, I think he’s trying too hard to define something that, in fiction, is just a storytelling device. Part of me suspects that if a person thinks magic in storytelling needs defending then that person is so far divorced from an understanding of storytelling as an art form that all the defense in the world is just falling on deaf ears.

  4. I see your point, Pete. But fiction cannot be so entirely divorced from reality, in my view, without harming both the story and the truth about the world God made.

    The question about witchcraft for believers in fiction, in my view, is not a dumb one. The issue of authority is central to all of life, from Genesis 3 to my relationship to my father, and my Father and so many other authority structures ordained by God.

    Sorcery is actually forbidden by the real God and that’s all about authority. It’s a real evil, not a surface one.

    So, a Christian couldn’t pull off writing that a rapist (for example) was using that “power” correctly, contrasted against bad rapists, anymore than they can easily use sorcery as an amoral device for fiction. It is not neutral.

    The authority issue is key, therefore.

    That’s my two-cents, but I’m still working through it. Make any sense?

  5. But the rapist analogy doesn’t work, does it? The other side of that coin is a healthy sexual relationship within a marital context. One, as they say in the video, is the exercise of power over another person and is therefore repulsive, the other is an act of intimacy and union and is therefore beautiful. The act itself is neutral, the enacting of it and the intent of it is the defining factor.

    And that’s why I don’t like the ‘magic’ discussion. Who cares if there is magic or not. Call it the force if you want to. Call it the matrix. Call it a superpower. It’s all the same thing and it’s how it’s being used and what’s being done with it that’s important.

    If a person is seriously hung up on the fact that it’s called ‘magic’, then I question whether or not it’s even worth my time to enter that debate because such a person and I share exactly zero common ground in the realm of story, literature, or art.

    I do agree on the authority issue. It’s important to note the alleged ‘authority’ from which power is received meaning that a summoner of demons, even if acting in a way that seems righteous, must be in the end an evil character because his power is derived from an evil authority. If that’s not the case, then I’d consider that a book or story that is harmful.

    Generally, though, magic in literature is an inert force, as in Harry Potter, or Star Wars. It’s simply something people use, it has no intrinsic morality and the only authority at work is that of the character using it.

    It’s no more use to throw out stories because of magic than it is to throw out stories because of guns…or bananas.

  6. Pete very generously sent me 3 bananas, when I had only requested two. Therefore, I agree with (and love) his final sentence 🙂

  7. I agree with what you are saying, Pete, by and large. But I do think there is a point of disagreement.

    I love magic in stories (that is, wonderful things happening, or special abilities) and am for using it. That’s not my concern, really.

    My point, as I stumble around to make it, is this.

    Witchcraft, or sorcery, is not neutral. It’s not like bananas and guns. It’s like rape.

    The rapist analogy works, in my view, because of this simple point of contrast:

    Some things God clearly forbids, cannot be used for good:
    -rape
    -sorcery

    Some good things
    -marital love-making
    -using whatever gifts God gives you, under his authority, miraculous or not

    Dark magic, witchcraft, sorcery is evil. It is about authority, which is simply why it’s evil. But it actually is evil. Like murder, rape, lying, disobedience, adultery, idolatry, etc.

    A sub-created (key phrase in this discussion), invented world might have a different set-up in many ways than ours, as in Middle-earth. I love that and am all for it. But as Tolkien beautifully demonstrates, it is possible to write a thoroughly Christian representation of hierarchy, rebellion, sacrifice, etc. without compromising the essential truth of the actual world God made. Without lying, or misleading.

    No one does that perfectly. But Tollers did it really well, in my view. Others do it poorly (as Lucas) and others horrendously, and harmfully (Pullman?).

    Of course the same problem with authority exists in other genres as well. It is just often more explicit in witchcraft tales.

    I’m sure we agree that Christians must start with the Bible, not work backwards to it. That’s my intention.

    Again, I’m not necessarily refuting all that you said, just clarifying that witchcraft, sorcery (what the Bible in places calls “magical arts”) is evil. I am not even saying it shouldn’t be in stories, just as in some stories rape may be appropriate to portray (in some fashion) -but it should be what it is: repulsive, wicked –an exercise of rebellion against God.

    That is what witchcraft is.

    Of course, I may be wrong, as is often the case. I sincerely want to know how, because I want to be faithful and tell the truth (especially to my kids, whom God has placed in my care –as well as any readers I may have in life, on whatever scale).

    Thanks, man.

  8. I think we are saying basically the same thing.

    In your analogy:

    magic = sex (an inert natural act)
    witchcraft = rape (an immoral corruption)

    My primary point is that this subject is generally one that only comes up amongst the sorts of people who burn Potter books and claim dancing and card-playing is evil.

    In that context, I have no desire to even engage in the conversation, that sort of person isn’t looking for an explanation or an answer, they are looking for the devil and they are going to find him everywhere they look (they probably don’t spend much time looking at themselves though, do they?)

    It’s like arguing with someone that thinks the King James Bible is the only ‘true’ Bible. That person isn’t coming from a place of logic, clear thought, or even common sense. The best argument I can make in those cases is generally to refuse to engage in the debate and instead go on my way demonstrating through my own life, writing, and action the many ways in which the world and my God is bigger that their blinders allow them to see.

  9. I share your frustration with unthinking critics of Harry Potter.

    But I have the same view towards unthinking advocates of the same.

    Both are, it seems to me, overly simple, naive views.

    The representation of witchcraft as neutral in HP is clearly a problematic element, and I don’t fault thoughtful people for having a biblically-informed concern over that.

    For some that’s a dealbreaker (especially for young kids) and that doesn’t bother me at all. Each man should do what his conscience, guided by the Word and Spirit, allows.

    The abstainers are not always the bad guys, and I don’t want to pile on them. I think many of them are thoughtful, God-honoring people.

    But I understand what you mean about being frustrated over the sometimes-painful engagement with a fear-based, thoughtless advocate of Gnostic nonsense. It can get pointless fast, and a waste of time. This kind of man is so afraid and confused he cannot hug his wife without guilt overtaking him.

    Of course the same can be said for the other side of the equation: the person so disconnected from the Bible’s actual teaching and accountability/authority in his life that he can’t discern what is worth avoiding and almost can’t imagine anything avoidable. Like the knight in The Holy Grail he thinks he is still in fighting form, but meanwhile his legs and arms and head are cut off.

    I want to be conversant with both camps as much as is fruitful/possible. But the extremes of both sides really are an inordinate burden and, usually, a fruitless endeavor.

    I appreciate your feedback. I think thinking about this kind of thing is important/useful.

  10. So I was at the gym today and the Hulk movie was playing in front of the treadmill and it got me thinking that there are times when the situation is even less black and white than we’ve already talked about.

    Example. Hulk is generally considered a hero and his ‘magic’ is his herculean strength coupled with uncontrollable rage. So in this case, the authority by which the hero exercises his power is Anger or Rage. Neither of which are virtuous.

    But that’s precisely what makes the Hulk an interesting character. He’s a man at war with himself. The extent to which he is able to direct those forces toward good will ultimately determine whether he’s a villain or a hero and that should be a theme that resonates with everyone. Are we all involved in that same struggle?

    More complex example: Hellboy

    Hellboy is the son of Satan. According to the storyline, he is the creature that will ultimately bring about the destruction of the earth. He’s a demon. Pure and simple.

    And yet…

    He’s a good guy. And not just good because we like him or because the story is manipulated to make him ‘seem’ good. Instead, he’s good because he chooses to act counter to what the world tells him he ought to me. He’s good because he chooses not to be a monster. He’s, once again, at war with himself and his own destiny.

    So here, the authority by which Hellboy exercises his power is actually Satan himself. Right? And yet, in the movie at least, there’s a great deal of Christian symbolism telling us there’s more to that story. Maybe the authority governing his power is instead freewill (a gift his ‘father’ gave him)?

    Food for thought.

  11. Aaaaannnnndddddddddd the Satan character in Paradise Lost is somewhat sympathetic and a “hero” to many.

    What about that?! 🙂

    Let’s burn Milton. Resurrect him. Then burn him.

    I guess a saying occurs to me: “An open mind, like an open mouth, is good, but meant to close on something.”

    I think we can get lost in a forest of vagaries, when there are some clear directions to be had if we look for it like lost treasure.

    How’s that for a pile of bad metaphors?

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