Thoughts on Magic, Part 1

Christian fantasy writers usually encounter at least some objections from concerned fellow believers. These usually hinge on the “magical” aspects of their storylines and are bolstered by biblical passages like the following:

“There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee. Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God. For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-14)

Verses concerning idolatry and witchcraft can also be found in New Testament passages such as Galatians, which lists them among the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). Opponents of Christian fantasy usually quote them with the intent of labeling “magic” as an inherently Satanic concept that no Christian writer should use in their storytelling (these same critics sometimes oppose fictional storytelling in and of itself, but that’s another topic for another time). 

I’ll take a moment here to emphasize that I am in no way trying to minimize the very real spiritual danger existing from contemporary forms of witchcraft. I could talk at length about real-life occult practices such as Wicca, various forms of New Age spirituality, and the modern revival of overt Satanism. These are all unfortunate realities of the world in which we live and are exercising an increasingly widespread and insidious influence on Western society. I believe it is the duty of committed Christians to stay as far away from these things as possible.

With that being said, more nuanced considerations come into play when we consider “magic” in its fictional meaning and context. Mine is not the first word on this subject, and neither, I expect, will it be the last. Nor is it a particularly exhaustive treatment. In fact, I would invite anyone reading this to add to it. With that being said, I hope what I am about to say contributes at least some original thoughts. 

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HISTORICAL/SCRIPTURAL BACKGROUND 

Though the term ‘magic’ has come to carry exclusively supernatural (and sometimes, yes, devilish) implications, many would be surprised to know that it has a far more varied history. Its ultimate root lies in the Old Persian magush, also rendered as magus (singular) and magi (plural), which carries a meaning similar to “wise man” – specifically referring to members of the Persian priestly caste. Those familiar with the Gospel accounts will also recall the Three Wise Men (magi) who brought gifts to the Christ-Child (Matthew 2). 

The later term ‘magic’, (which appears only in later English Bible translations and nowhere in the King James Version) referred to practices undertaken by members of this caste, which embraced both the supernatural and natural sciences (the modern distinction between the two did not exist in ancient thought). In the Old Testament, we also see the prophet Daniel named “master of the magicians” under the King of Babylon (Daniel 4:9; 5:11). Although few explicit details are given as to what exactly this position entailed, we know that magicians at that time were responsible for interpreting dreams (Daniel 2) and ‘understanding science’ (Daniel 1). Earlier accounts are given in Exodus of the magicians of Egypt using enchantments to imitate the miracles of Moses (Exodus 7). The use of the same term (and all surrounding context) heavily suggests that their Babylonian counterparts had similar practices. In short, a “magician” at that time could be equally involved in sorcery and in what we would consider experimental science (it’s well-known, for example, that modern chemistry and astronomy grew out of alchemy and astrology). Both, in this sense, would have been considered “magic.” The fact that we see one of the biblical prophets officially holding the status of a magician almost begs such an interpretation – he could hardly have accepted such a position if it necessarily required violating the Law of Moses. 

I point this out simply to dispel a bit of the automatic “buzzword” status that magic has acquired in many Christian circles. When people use that term in the negative, evil sense, they are, in fact, referring to witchcraft and sorcery – which involve the achievement of “miraculous” feats by calling upon evil spirits. Though we now commonly use the term “magic” as a synonym for these activities, that is not, as we’ve seen, its only or necessary meaning. As used in fantasy fiction, its meaning leans far more towards the “scientific” interpretation than the supernatural one, something I’ll expand upon in Part 2.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Magic, Part 1

  1. Not all magical realism contains sorcery and spells. There are no witches in Kafka for example.

    Magical realism is just a splinter of spec fiction. My point is it contains the word “magical.”

    Like

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