The rods of Moses and the Magicians turned into Serpents
A while back, I received this letter from a pastor who follows my blog. At the time, he was unfamiliar with the debates inside Christian writing circles concerning speculative fiction, the use of tropes containing magic, and the characteristics of Christian fiction in general. That changed when he entered the ministry:
I am a brand spanking new pastor, and I am already engaged in a divisive discussion with one of my congregants about fiction, particularly the use of “supernaturalism” in fiction. For example, this person believes that when Aslan uses “magic” or does things “supernaturally” like breathing on Mr. Tumnus, and does NOT give glory and honor and credit to Jesus Christ IN THE STORY, that it is occultism, since his power is derived from elsewhere than from the one true God. I think this is a bit, shall I say, crazy. I was just wondering if you have encountered such thought elsewhere, or am I the only one so uniquely blessed!!! And what would you say about the claim that any “powers” that occur in a fictional novel, especially Christian novels, are subtly promoting occultism. Thanks for your work.
This pastor may find solace in the fact that not only is he NOT alone in this debate, but that the position assumed by this congregant is, sadly, all too common among Christian readers.
As much as I’d like to offer a definitive answer to this question — How can we know when “‘powers’ that occur in a fictional novel… are subtly promoting occultism”? — I don’t think there is one. In fact, the more we demand a definitive answer, the more we create (inadvertently?) a “magical” scoring system to sanitize our fiction for “discerning” readers.
Before I proceed, let me back up and clarify. The reason I placed the word discerning in quotations above is not because I advocate for ignorance. The Scripture is clear about our need to “test the spirits” (I Jn. 4:1), “test everything” (I Thess. 5:21), and “have [our] senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). Because of this, I applaud the congregant above who asks the question. At least they are taking such biblical charges to heart. In fact, it could be said that the reader / cultural consumer who never asks hard questions about their literary and visual diet could find themselves worse off than the individual they decry as puritan. So in this sense, taking seriously the commands to be critical and discerning of what we put into our mind is healthy.
Nevertheless, there’s a couple problems with the approach and/or conclusion reached by this discerning congregant.
For one, many “Christian” things — not just fantastical stories — can be twisted to “promote the occult.” A good example could be the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:6-9. A plague of serpents was sent among the rebellious Israelites. God provided a way of escape from this punishment by commanding Moses to build a bronze serpent on a pole. Whoever looked upon this image would be saved. However, years after this incident we learn that the bronze serpent was being worshiped and in a series of reformations, King Hezekiah destroyed it.
He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). 2 Kings 18:4
This story illustrates what is all too common among our fallen species — we worship what we shouldn’t. In many cases, even good things, sacred things, or simply neutral objects, can be deified. Whether its religious icons like crosses or statues, people whom God has used, or even systems and rituals, just about anything can be vested with a “power” never intended. Point is, fictional magical powers aren’t the only things that can be used for occult purposes.
In fact, that approach itself can become a type of superstition. Let me explain this by asking a question: Does attributing a supernatural incident to God or the devil actually change its power source? Or to use the example above, if Aslan had stopped and given glory to God, would that have turned his magic from “bad” to “good”? If so, what made the supernaturalism bad in the first place?
To follow this line of reasoning, the real “occultism” resides not in the supernatural event (Aslan breathing upon Mr. Tumnus and bringing the faun back to life), but in the author’s defining of it. Or more clearly, NOT defining it. Thus, to the more conservative Christian reader, the greatest potential “evil” for a Christian writer is to depict ambiguous magic, i.e., supernatural power not directly attributed to God.
Which makes fiction, “magic.”
However, this creates huge problems for authors, the least of which is feeling bound to clarify the source of every character’s supernatural action. Spells, miracles, alchemy, and enchantment are only tolerable in Christian fiction as long as we’re clear where they are coming from. However, this type of approach not only potentially strips our stories of mystery and nuance, we treat our readers like auditors who’ll be combing our novels for pesky heretical gnats.
The point here is to highlight how our approach to fiction can often be as problematic as the stories themselves. The congregant above who worried over Aslan’s apparent lack of Divine attribution is emblematic of a breed of religious reader who approaches fiction with a rather rigid doctrinal lens. Am I suggesting that we should put down our “theological” guard when we read and be less discerning? Absolutely not. But we need to see fiction as doing something different than simply illustrating and reinforcing Bible doctrine.
Truth is, if Aslan had explained that the power came from Jesus Christ he would have been lying. Why? Because Jesus never breathed on the faun. You see, fauns aren’t even real. And neither is Aslan. So how can we say Jesus breathed life into Tumnus the Faun? Such a charge carries its own sort of blasphemy in assuming that a fictional character can be attributed with the actual power of Jesus.
(To be fair, some have pointed out the difference between allegory and fantasy fiction. The Christian claiming her story as allegory is more bound to theological rigor as it is intended to parallel some existing doctrinal truth. This is the grounds upon some object to The Shack. So this may or may not apply depending upon one’s view of Narnia, its mode of fictional transport, and how far one is willing to turn Tumnus from a fictional faun into an allegorical archetype.)
Such discussions can quickly become an exercise in endless hair-splitting. So let me return to my basic point: In their attempt to maintain theological integrity, many have embraced superstition, a “touch not, taste not” mentality (Col. 2:21) that purports a magic all its own. In other words, we believe there is magic in biblical (?) formulas. As if God was bound by incantations, recipes, rituals, and our personal holiness program.
How is this any different from sorcery?
Yes, Scripture is clear that there can be false prophets and false miracles. The world of occultism, we are warned, is not a plaything. Nevertheless, the Bible is not always clear in defining the source of real magic or the trappings for conjuring it.
Take the case of Moses’ encounter with the Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex. 7). Both sides produced, more or less, the same “magic,” turning staffs into snakes. Question: Is it wrong to turn staffs into snakes? Answer: It can’t be because Moses did it! So the problem wasn’t necessarily with the “magic” (i.e., staff charming), but with the intent, motivations, and allegiances of those who wielded it.
The similar distinction is made in the apostles’ encounter with Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-25). Simon “had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria” (vs. 9) with his magic, so much so that he was called “the Great Power of God” (vs. 10). But after Simon “believed and was baptized” (vs. 13), he coveted the power of the Holy Spirit and asked to pay for it (vs. 19). Notice carefully Peter’s response:
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23 NIV)
Interestingly enough, throughout this record Simon’s power is never attributed to Satan. However, he is upbraided “because [his] heart is not right before God.” So what was Simon’s sin? Apparently sorcery wasn’t the big one; his magic was less at issue than his sinful heart.
A case could be made, I think, that supernatural powers (and their fictional depictions) aren’t bad in themselves (see staff charming). It is the hearts and motives of the handlers that is evil. Not all staff charmers are wicked. Which means staff charming is up for debate.
The concerned congregant above (and the “anti-magic” crowd in general), go astray when they focus on forms of magic (levitation, incantations, objects, staff charming, breathing upon petrified fauns, etc.), more than the purveyors. It is far easier to make an external checklist — You know your character’s supernatural powers are NOT occult when you _________ (fill in the blank with preferred magic you avoid or attribution you render) — than to allow internal assessment and potential ambiguity.
Either way, no amount of attribution can prevent some readers from misinterpreting you. Heck, even the Bible is misinterpreted to say things it doesn’t. So why should our stories be any different? The truth is, readers can potentially mistake anything I write about as endorsing something I don’t.