It’s really hard to write about magic without talking about the supernatural.
Yes, Arthur C Clarke argued that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but there really is a distinct difference between the two. Tech is science, and because science is all about what we can observe and objective facts, we look at any piece of technology and assume that with training we could understand it. We don’t know how HAL, the artificial intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey works, but we assume that if HAL existed we could get a team of experts from Caltech who’d eventually explain how he works.
Magic, on the other hand, is rooted in mythology and folklore – which, as one writer for io9.com noted, is why we never fully understand it. Nobody assumes you can break down and understand the powers of the gods in Homer’s Odyssey, and even Hermione Granger never tries and locate the hidden gene that gives wizards magic powers. That is the supernatural, and we are merely natural beings.
So does magic’s connection to the supernatural make problems for Christian writers? Well, generally no. Many writers have been able to write excellent fantasy stories regardless of their religious backgrounds. Where it could potentially become a problem is that to write fantasy, Christian writers have to use terms to describe the magic or its practitioners. Since magic is linked to the supernatural, many of the popular genre terms reference the occult or at least have negative spiritual associations if you look far enough.
Many people enjoyed ranting at the Harry Potter series some years ago for using terms like “witchcraft,” and “warlock,” but actually the whole fantasy genre tends to do that.
In David Eddings’ The Belgariad series, we have good-guy magicians who are referred to as “sorcerers” (depending on which translation of the Bible you read, “sorcery” and “witchcraft are interchangeable, and both are spoken against).
In Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, we have “Druids,” which comes from “a member of a pre-Christian religious order among the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland.” There is debate over this, but it appears the Druids had occult/pagan practices, and that St. Patrick fought various Druids during his missions work in Ireland.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, we have of course several evil witches, but also a good-guy magician named Doctor Cornelius in Prince Caspian who knows how to utter spells (58) and use a magic crystal (83).
Even J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings has the term “wizard,” which has a negative Biblical association if you’re being really technical.
So, where does that leave Christian writers? Is using these terms paramount to doing positive PR for the other side, or is that overreacting?
My personal opinion is that is overreacting, but I won’t pretend that’s a definitive answer for every writer. Some people may feel more strongly about this than I do – and if nothing else, it’s interesting to think about.
Instead of giving a definitive answer, let me offer these tips to Christian writers who are trying to figure out their position.
The first tip is Christian fantasy writers should be willing to really study the Bible’s perspective on the supernatural and evil. That probably sounds old-fashioned or simplistic, but everyone needs a rock to stand on in this word, a world where the trendy idea of what’s right and appropriate is always shifting (and usually not for the better). For Christians, that rock is Scripture. It should inform everything they do.
The second tip is Christian fantasy writers must be willing to do research and understand what they’re referring to when they use these terms. I don’t mean they all have to go buy copies of The Devil Rides Forth and become experts on neo-paganism, but it’s important to understand there is some supernatural evil out there – and Christians need to be careful what they say about it. Words, as any exorcist knows, do in fact have power.
Thirdly, and this is more of a defense to use when writers are attacked by fundamentalist readers, remember that as far as fantasy literature is concerned, many of these terms have changed over time. Like Christmas trees, these terms have evolved and taken on more diluted meanings and cultural associations when they’re used in fiction. Witchcraft, as Lee Strobel noted in his book The Case For Faith, is still practiced in different parts of the world, but when it’s used in fantasy literature it means something very different than it did when the Brothers Grimm mentioned it in 1812. Especially when it’s described as something more like a superpower and in a story which has an atmosphere which indicates there is good and evil and evil should be avoided.
In short, Christian writers should always be careful to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents.