Standing Up For Magic


magic-book
Several speculative writers (E. Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, for one) have been looking at the subject of magic from the vantage point of Christians trusting something other than God and His word in their pursuit of righteousness—including their efforts to controvert magic. As a result, some in this camp take a stand against speculative fiction, whether from a Christian or not, that includes magic.

I’m convinced that those who would blackball a work of fiction for including magic are in the minority, but I don’t think it hurts to take another look at the subject. Here’s a reprise of an article that examines magic using the lens of the Bible.

– – – – –

Some time ago I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture, starting with the fundamental question some ask: how does a Christian fantasy writer handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … Someone may well say God’s work is miraculous, not magic. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in August 2013.

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Christian Forgiveness: Conditional Or Unconditional?


The_Crucifixion001I read a new thing about forgiveness today—well, new to me. The idea popped up on a post at Spec Faith by Stephen Burnett, then expanded as I followed a link to a post by Kevin DeYoung. I respect both of these men, but I have to admit, I think they’re missing something important about Christian forgiveness.

As I understand the principle they’re presenting, they believe there are two ideas about forgiveness: one, a therapeutic forgiveness that is popular today even in the secular world, and two, a Biblical forgiveness that is dependent upon the repentance of the offender.

In his article about these two types of forgiveness, Mr. DeYoung goes to pains to explain that the second type of forgiveness in no way condones an attitude of bitterness or revenge:

We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them.

The foundational thought to this idea that a Christian only forgives those who repent, is that we are to forgive like God forgives and He forgives conditionally—that condition being repentance.

Let me back up and explain “therapeutic forgiveness.” I’d not heard the term before, but I think it does describe a humanistic co-oping of a Biblical principle. The idea here is that giving forgiveness makes the person doing the forgiving feel better. There is no intent to reconcile, however. It’s just a way of escaping negative feelings like anger and bitterness.

Many Christians, influenced by Lewis Smedes and a lot of pop psychology, have a therapeutic understanding of forgiveness. They think of forgiveness as a unilateral, internal effort to get our emotions under control. (“What Is Forgiveness?”)

The Biblical view, according to Mr. DeYoung, is that forgiveness is the means to reconciliation. Hence, the Christian should always be ready to forgive, but true forgiveness only comes when both parties move toward one another, repenting and receiving or offering forgiveness as necessary.

Again the rationale behind this concept is the Scriptural statement that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (ESV, Eph. 4:32)

I’ll admit, I have problems with this approach. First, I don’t think there has to be two choices: either therapeutic or Biblical conditional forgiveness. I think there can easily be a third option: Biblical unconditional forgiveness.

Part of my thinking is that some Bible scholars get tied up trying to think the way God thinks. Mr. DeYoung, then, says God’s forgiveness is conditional and therefore ours should be too, as if it’s possible for us to understand the conditional nature of God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but doesn’t Ephesians 4:32 say that’s how we are to forgive? I don’t think necessarily it does. I don’t read the verse as saying we are to forgive in the same manner that God forgives, but that we are to forgive because we received forgiveness.

Paul says essentially the same thing in Col. 3:13:

bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

The intent does not seem focused on forgiving in like manner but extending to others the forgiveness we received.

In other words, I see these verses mirroring Jesus’s instructions to forgive in response to the forgiveness we received. See, for example, the parable He told about the slave who received forgiveness for his debt only to turn around and withhold forgiveness from his fellow slave:

Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ (Matt. 18:32-33; see the entire parable in vv. 23-35)

It seems apparent to me that this “in the same way” is not talking about manner or even condition. In reality neither slave asked that their debt would be forgiven. They asked for more time to pay it off themselves. The act of forgiveness was an extension of mercy—the undeserved offer to cancel the debt.

This is what Christ did on the cross

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14)

As I read those verses, I’m convinced that God didn’t forgive us when we had put ourselves in a position to deserve it by repenting. He went to the cross while we were yet sinners.

Consequently, I don’t believe as Mr. DeYoung does that God’s forgiveness was conditional. He gave His forgiveness to anyone and everyone, but not everyone has accepted it. When Scripture says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16), I think the words “world” and “whoever” remove conditions from God’s side of the equation.

When Paul instructed Timothy to pray for all men, he explained his reasoning this way:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.

There are literally dozens of verses throughout the Bible that carry this same idea. But one of the most telling, for me, is 2 Thess. 2:10ff which looks at salvation and forgiveness from the side of those who do not accept it:

[the lawless one will come with all power and signs and false wonders] 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (Emphasis added.)

These who perish did not receive, implying that they could have received. They took pleasure in wickedness, implying that they could have refrained from taking pleasure in wickedness. They did not believe the truth, implying they could have believed the truth.

All this to say, the third reason I don’t believe forgiveness for the Christian is conditional, based on the repentance of the offender, is because I don’t believe God’s forgiveness is conditional.

I understand there are believers of a different doctrinal persuasion from mine who will disagree, but maybe two out of three reasons will be enough to make the case against this idea that forgiveness needs to be earned by repentance.

Standing Up For Magic


magic-bookRecently I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture.

Some years ago Stephen Burnett recounted a question that came up at an ACFW Conference. Seems one of the conferees was asking how a Christian fantasy writer is to handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … God’s work is miraculous, not magic, someone may well say. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This article, except the opening paragraphs, is a re-publication from an earlier post here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Disobedient Harry Potter


Earlier this week I said critics of Harry Potter had two main complaints, one being the issues of wizardry and the second being Harry’s disobedience.

It’s true that Harry is not The Perfect Boy, but I wonder about this as a reason not to read the books. As I recall, Tom Sawyer wasn’t the perfect boy either, nor was Huck Finn. Ann Shirley wasn’t the perfect girl and neither was Jo March. To bring the discussion back to fantasy, Edmund Pevensie wasn’t the perfect boy, and his sister Lucy, as lovable as she is, happens to fall sort of being the perfect girl, too.

The point is, if readers are only going to pick books with perfect characters, then we all must stop reading fiction. Stephen Burnett in a post at Spec Faith does a brilliant job deconstructing this argument:

Jesus told parables in which people behave badly, using those to show points about His Kingdom and the natures of those who’ll dwell there…

[Examine this criticism] Harry Potter is a scoundrel. So was King David, the apostle Paul, and every person before Christ saved us (and quite a lot afterward, too!). Even for stories, whence comes this sudden rule that characters must behave perfectly? Jesus did not follow that “rule.” Instead He told stories about ten virgins behaving “selfishly” (Matt. 25: 1-13) and a shrewd money manager (Luke 16: 1-13), not to say “imitate all their behavior” but to say My Kingdom is coming; you’d best respond accordingly. (Anyway, Harry doesn’t stay a scoundrel; he grows, as part of a much bigger story.)

Because Christ Himself in his parables did not follow these “rules” for Christ-figures and moral behavior, why might we expect more of Potter?

Of course there is disobedience that serves to warn and there is disobedience that trumpets rebellion, so one might argue that when books do the latter, they should be shunned.

Does Harry Potter trumpet rebellion? I suppose the answer might be somewhat subjective, but I think I can build a case for the opposite. Harry Potter is not rebellious unless you think standing up to evil is rebellious.

Some of his teachers saw the Big Picture and understood the serious threat that Harry alone was qualified to fight. They counseled him and protected him as best they could, and at times that included extending him mercy. At other times, he faced just punishment. Never was he applauded for disobeying, however.

The overall impression, in my opinion, is that Harry obeyed as best he could.

He was shamefully abused by his uncle and aunt, yet early on he submitted to them. There came a time when he did stand up to them, yet in the end he righted the relationship to the best of his ability. If anything, his relationship with his relatives shows the growth in his character.

Some of the adults in Harry’s life were misguided and some were evil. Some Harry suspected of being evil but didn’t know for sure. Again, as best he could, he obeyed those in authority over him. When he disobeyed, he did so because he believed he was advancing good or standing against evil.

To discuss whether or not he should have made himself the authority to determine who he should or should not obey is similar to a discussion of whether or not Christians should have obeyed the Nazis.

Today the church is fiercely criticized for complying with Hitler’s forces. But I suspect at the time many believed they were doing the right thing to obey the authority over them.

Regardless of a person’s conclusion about Harry Potter’s virtue, I believe the books and movies offer rich opportunities to discuss just such matters. I can’t help but think society is better off if we discuss a topic like obedience after having read Harry Potter rather than something like vampire love after having read a certain set of popular books that escaped the vitriol aimed at the boy wizard.

Published in: on July 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Comments (11)  
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What Makes Fantasy Work, Wrap


I’ve read a few fantasy books whose authors are trying to Imitate Lewis. But there’s a catch: their Christ-figures, a la Aslan, aren’t much like Aslan, much less so the Biblical Christ. Sure, they have all the loving-humble-helpful parts, but few to none of the sovereign-holy-kill-his-enemies parts. And these Christ-equivalents exist, not with their own missions, but mainly as sidekicks for the real hero of the story, the Self-Doubtful Often-Angsty Gifted protagonist, who is on a Quest.

Stephen Burnett penned (typed) those words as part of his post today over at Speculative Faith. Interestingly, those lines state, in part, what I wanted to address today.

Fantasy that works says something important.

There are lots of ways that fantasy can say something important. Stephen particularly addressed the issue of stories with a Christ figure. Not every story written from a Christian worldview needs an allegorical Christ figure, in my opinion. But those that include one have set themselves a huge task.

After all, C. S. Lewis created such a strong character that remained consistent with Christ’s nature, that any other may seem either derivative (there’s that dreaded word again!) or inadequate.

Does that mean we should shy away from showing Christ in Christian fantasy? No, I don’t think so. However, I believe that’s a high goal. If an author sets that high goal, rightly the reader must judge whether or not his story works by whether or not he successfully met the goal.

I tend to think that the problem Stephen mentioned in the quote above—that the Christ figure is a “side-kick”—occurs primarily because some authors back away from the high goal of putting Him meaningfully into a story as Lewis did with Aslan.

One secret here is that Lewis said he was not writing an allegory. Today, I think many Christian fantasy writers are writing an allegorical character, if not an allegory.

What was Lewis doing instead? He termed it “supposal.” In a world with fauns and talking animals and centaurs and dwarfs, Lewis asked, how would God show Himself?

Perhaps that’s the question we fantasy writers need to ask more often rather than forcing Christ-by-another-name into our stories.

But I said earlier that I don’t think stories have to have an allegorical Christ figure to still be Christian.

That doesn’t mean I think a story about not telling a lie is automatically Christian because it contains a moral value consistent with Christianity.

Rather, I believe—and this is quite subjective—stories that “till the soil” can be powerfully Christian. Such stories create the longing for the wholeness Christ gives, or for the acceptance His sacrifice made possible, or for the purpose His relationship frees us to achieve. I believe stories can show sacrificial love that is extraordinary and that will create a thirst for sacrificial love. I believe stories can show forgiveness that is pure and unmerited and it will create a thirst for similar mercy.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Instead of putting God into a story, I think it’s possible to put one of God’s characteristics in a story and show it so clearly that it becomes something that draws people, maybe even causes them to say, Wouldn’t it be great to know someone like that?

Last point. I think the biggest thing we Christian fantasy writers have to be careful about is saying the same thing over and over in the same way. No examples on that one. I’ll let you mull it over for yourself (as I mull it over too 😀 ).

Fantasy Friday – Speculative Faith


Some of you who have been visiting here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction for a while know about the team blog Speculative Faith—a site set up by Stuart Stockton to discuss speculative fiction from the perspective of our Christian faith.

A number of writers participated. For a time Karen Hancock wrote regularly. Bryan Davis did a short series. We had interviews with editors like Nick Harrison (Harvest House) and with writers like Robert Liparulo. We did reviews and had lengthy discussions about books and movies alike. In short, it was a wonderful success.

But gradually, one writer after the other began to pull back. We were a loose organization and no one filled those gaps or took the lead to insure that each day had content.

I was the last of the regulars, and then my computer crashed. When I was back up and running, I had so many things to catch up on, and Spec Faith was low on the priority list. Then the spam set in. When our core group still wanting to see Spec Faith work took a look at the site, the clean-up alone seemed daunting.

In the end, we agreed to start afresh at WordPress. This time Stephen Burnett took the lead and began transferring posts and designing the new site. We began posting a couple weeks ago, with Stephen doing most of the writing. The next step was to secure regular writers, but we also wanted to include a good selection of guests.

I’m happy to report that the schedule is coming together. I’ll once again be writing on Mondays. Stuart will post on Tuesdays. New to the team is Rachel Starr Thomson, writing on Wednesdays (though she may share the slot—this detail is still being worked out). Then Steven will post on Thursdays. Fridays are the designated Guest Blogger Days.

We have invitations (and some acceptances) out to a number of writers. It should be an exciting lineup. All this to say, you are hereby invited to stop on over at Speculative Faith (affectionately known as Spec Faith 😉 ) and join in the discussions. We also are on Facebook and Twitter, so we’d love to have you follow us or friend us on those sites as well.

Fantasy Friday – Faith and Fiction


There’s a phrase that appears on judge sheets for some Christian fiction contests: “faith elements.” The term recently came up again in an online discussion. I have to say, that phrase bugs me. It makes “faith” sound like some part of the fiction that needs to be crafted in, as the setting should be or the opening hook.

Pre-blog, when I was spending a lot of my time discussing fiction over on the Faith in Fiction board, I used to claim that the neglect of creating intentional themes led to tacked on “faith elements.” Perhaps.

But as I thought about the question, What are the “faith elements” in my story, I had to answer, all of it, and none of it. All of it, because the story (talking about my short stories as well as The Lore of Efrathah) is centered upon faith. It is foundational. Without the “faith element” there would be no story.

Yet there is no “element,” as in one particular, identifiable article. For example, in The Lore of Efrathah, I have created a world that has no religion. There is no God as our culture thinks of Him. A number of my short stories are similar.

As I thought about this, and how different my stories are to those of the writers discussing “faith elements,” I got to wondering if the difference isn’t one of the ways fantasy differs from contemporary fiction.

Over at Spec Faith, one of our contributors, Stephen Burnett, initiated a terrific discussion because of a review of The Dark Knight. (Just as he did some weeks earlier with a review of The Shack.) One visitor, an atheist, brought up some theological questions that some of those engaged in the discussion backed away from initially. But this commenter pressed the point with this:

the issues raised by the literature [discussed] on this blog [do] tend to raise these very fundamental issues [the origin of the universe; evolution; the existence or not of a good, omnipotent God; the origins of evil; suffering; and so on]

Did you catch that? Not issues raised by the blog. Issues raised by the literature discussed on the blog—science fiction and fantasy. There seems to be an awareness by those in society at large that speculative fiction does more than reality fiction.

As I close in on the end of The Lore of Efrathah (the first revision of the final book), I am more aware than ever of the awesome potential for fantasy to tell the whole truth, to be More Real than reality fiction. To produce an entire faith story, not just a single element.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 4:33 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Need for Christian Worldview SF/Fantasy


I’ve mentioned this in passing a time or two, but recently the point has come home more forcefully. Speculative fiction is hugely popular in the culture, but for the most part, since there has been little Christian science fiction or fantasy published, the genre is driven by those with an opposing worldview.

But what makes this particularly different from suspense or mystery or literary fiction, movies, or television? After all, CSI isn’t Christian, and neither was Murder, She Wrote. Mysteries have a long history, with few surfacing as Christian, and no one seems to think this is a serious problem. So why would it be for SF/fantasy?

Simply put, because of the required tropes. In a mystery, a crime is committed and someone has to solve it. Justice triumphs. There is little leeway. In science fiction and, more so in fantasy, good clashes with evil. Good wins out. But, and here’s the central issue, what is “good”?

Spec Faith blogger Stephen Burnett wrote in his post yesterday about the British sci-fi television series Doctor Who. From what he says, I thought of the Star Trek: Next Generation or Voyager or Deep Space Nine or even Enterprise. All those showed essentially a fight between good and evil, but good was defined as sentient life that is willing to do no harm to other sentient life. Those wonderful shows primarily said night in and night out, Can’t we all just get along? No matter the sexual orientation or the cultural practices—unless said practices harm others.

I called them “wonderful” because they built these captivating worlds and populated them with interesting people, but I also think the programs reinforced a solid humanist worldview. Certainly, for a Christian aware of this, the shows were informative, providing a basis for understanding our culture. And yet, there was that “reinforcing” aspect.

In some ways, this is the question, Does art reflect culture or influence it? I suggest the answer is, Yes.

Which brings us back to the issue of the need for a Christian worldview in SF/fantasy. While humanists have been defining good and evil for some time, now atheists are beginning to do the same. And New Age writers, Buddhists, Mormons …

Once, even in works by a-religious authors, a good/evil struggle nevertheless mirrored Truth. But with writers shaping good after their own image or in the image of their favorite idolatrous religion, good has been turned on its head.

I was reminded of this just last Wednesday when I saw the Spiderwick Chronicles at our local dollar theater (which charges $1.50 😉 ). In that movie there is a clearly defined evil, but good? Not so easy to spot. The closest representation of supernatural good was actually more concerned with self-preservation than with anything else, even becoming an antagonist at one point to those trying to defeat the evil.

And who was fighting evil? Humans. So, the real good vs. evil struggle was humans vs. supernatural evil, with supernatural good sort of neutral—sometimes aiding and sometimes hindering.

God? Not present.

Is this the Truth we think art should reflect … or the influence on society we would like to see prevail?