Thursday, December 15, 2005

Answers to Questions on Magic in Fiction

Mrs. B asked me for my opinion on books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, so here it finally is.

I grew up loving The Chronicles of Narnia, having them read to me and eventually reading them myself. The Christian elements in them are so strong: creation, fall, antithesis, promise of a seed, betrayal, sacrifice, resurrection, redemption, etc. I also have grown to love The Lord of the Rings trilogy over the past few years, and find great Christian themes in it as well, albeit not as strong. While Harry Potter certainly has many noble, moral themes in it, I find it to be in an entirely different class, and although I have seen two of the movies, I have never read the books, nor plan to read them or watch any more of the movies.

First off, I think care in choosing books related to magic is a good thing, and I certainly believe that anyone who has doubt when reading a certain book would be better not reading it (Romans 14:23). I am not advocating making people read a series of which they feel uncomfortable. I would, though, like to explain how I personally feel about magic elements in fiction.

Second, I am fully aware that I have readers both to the right and to the left of me on this issue. I am merely giving my honest opinion on the matter, which I have formed after much thought, prayer, and research. You can disagree with me and that's fine. Just hear me out :).

One thing I've been pondering recently (concerning an unrelated issue) is that our moral assessment of a situation should be approached quite differently if it is an assessment for ourselves or for others. For ourselves, we should err on the side of safety, choosing not to do anything we have misgivings about, and choosing to do anything that we feel we may be required to do. In regards to assessing the actions of others, we should use the opposite approach. We should err on the side of safety by giving others the benefit of the doubt in areas of which we are not certain. I admit I am the first to fail in this regard, so I say this in all humility.

Back to magic in fiction, let us first of all go to the Bible for a few relevant verses:

Deuteronomy 18:10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you.

This verse shows that witchcraft is a serious offense before the Lord, and not to be taken lightly. As such, anything related to witchcraft should be carefully considered (note I am not saying automatically discarded). Now obviously there is a big difference between practicing witchcraft and reading about it (or watching a movie about it). But that doesn't mean they are incomparable. God cares about what we think, not just what we do:

Phillipians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.

Here we see that not only should our actions be controlled in holiness, but our thoughts as well. God is the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30) not merely our actions. So whether or not one is actually participating in the act of witchcraft is not the entire issue; the issue is whether one is willingly subjecting himself to reading or viewing something that is an abomination to God. I won't spend any more time on this aspect now, except to say that this is precisely why I am so picky in my choice of movies, and why I almost never watch TV.

So now the question is not whether it matters if one reads or watches immorality, but if any of these book series fit that description. Furthermore, one must differentiate between different portrayals of filth. It is one thing to read a movie like Pride and Prejudice, which although containing a subplot concerning a wild young girl running off with an officer, treats the incident like the shame and immorality it is. It is quite another to watch a movie where such an act is treated as fine or even noble. My problem is not so much the presence of sinful acts, as it is the portrayal of the act as right or wrong; I like my lines to be clear, not blurry. If sin is portrayed in a "neutral" or positive light, then it is a mockery of God's law.

Furthermore, sin that is portrayed in such a way as to tempt others to fall into it should be avoided, particularly by those (like children) who are more prone to such temptation. Shortly I will expand upon this, but for now it will suffice to say that if our right hand causes us to sin, we must cut it off. Drastic measures must be taken in our sanctification.

So now that we've established that (a) sorcery is an abomination to God, (b) we are held accountable for our thoughts as well as participatory acts, (c) sin must be portrayed in a proper light, and (d) we must particularly avoid portrayals of sin that will tempt us, what about the three series that are before us?

Doug Phillips wrote an excellent article on magic in fiction. Make sure you get through the whole article before you draw conclusions on his own opinion. His article is a longer version of what I stated just above, namely that we must not subject ourselves for entertainment sake to a favorable depiction of immorality.

I also found another excellent article by Steven Greydanus that contrasts Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings. This really is a masterpiece and if you have the time it will clearly explain to you the differences that I see in the three series. Below I will outline a few of the main points of the article to explain the differences between the series, but if you want more detail you will have to read the article in its entirety.

I will say that Doug Phillips' article is a little farther to the right than I am, while the other is farther to the left. I am not by any means saying I agree 100% with everything in these articles, but I do respect both of these Christian men for their honest, thoughtful opinions on the matter. Both articles are a good read if you have the time.

The above referenced article by Steven Greydanus focuses mainly on point (d) from above - we must particularly avoid portrayals of sin that will tempt us, although touching on the other points, especially (c), as well. He explains how the three series are different in this respect, forwarding seven "hedges" or safeguards that exist in the latter two series of books, but are noticeably absent in the former:

At the very least, then, these seven “hedges” disprove the claim of some Harry Potter fans that parents cannot consistently disapprove of the magic in Harry Potter while approving of Tolkien and Lewis.

Here are the seven hedges in Tolkien and Lewis.

1. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to wholly imaginary realms, with place-names like Middle-earth and Narnia — worlds that cannot be located either in time or in space with reference to our own world, and which stand outside Judeo-Christian salvation history and divine revelation. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a fictionalized version of our own world that is recognizable in time and space, in a country called England (which is at least nominally a Christian nation), in a timeframe of our own era.

2. Reinforcing the above point, in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fictional worlds where magic is practiced, the existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science — even if most of them might have as little chance of actually encountering magic as most of us would of riding in the space shuttle. By contrast, Harry Potter lives in a world in which magic is a secret, hidden reality acknowledged openly only among a magical elite, a world in which (as in our world) most people apparently believe there is no such thing as magic.

3. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are numbered among the supporting cast, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify. By contrast, Harry Potter, a student of wizardry, is the title character and hero of his novels.

4. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis include cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on their protagonists: Frodo is almost consumed by the great Ring; Lucy and Digory succumb to temptation and use magic in ways they shouldn’t. By contrast, the practice of magic is Harry Potter’s salvation from his horrible relatives and from virtually every adversity he must overcome.

5. Tolkien and Lewis confine the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human beings (for although Gandalf and Coriakin are human in appearance, we are in fact told that they are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angelic being and an earthbound star.) In Harry Potter’s world, by contrast, while some human beings (called “Muggles”) lack the capacity for magic, others (including Harry’s true parents and of course Harry himself) do not.

6. Reinforcing the above point, Tolkien and Lewis emphasize the pursuit of magic as the safe and lawful occupation of characters who, in appearance, stature, behavior, and role, embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, mysterious, remote, unapproachable, who serve to guide and mentor the heroes. Harry Potter, by contrast, is a wizard-in-training who is in many crucial respects the peer of many of his avid young readers, a boy with the same problems and interests that they have.

7. Finally, Tolkien and Lewis devote no narrative space to the process by which their magical specialists acquire their magical prowess. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in the least encouraged to think about or dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic. In the Harry Potter books, by contrast, Harry’s acquisition of mastery over magical forces at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft is a central organizing principle in the story-arc of the series as a whole.
I think it important to note that the portrayal of magic in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings is limited to two types of people. First, in the two above mentioned series magic is limited to those beings that are clearly portrayed as evil. Second, it is limited to those beings gifted these powers by Aslan, the "powers for good", the Creator, etc. in a made-up world where these figures represent God, unlike a portrayal in the real world where they would represent opposing powers to God. "Magic" powers are not in and of themselves evil; it is when they are used contrary to an ordination and blessing from God that they are indeed a mockery of God's power. Witchcraft is evil because it breaks down God's created order and hierarchy of powers and is an attempt to displace God from his rightful place as ruler and sustainer of the universe. This is where I believe Harry Potter falls short, not recognizing nor safeguarding the power and sovereignty of God over the laws of nature and the universe.


Mr. Baggins said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking. I especially liked the 7 hedges. Glad you found such a good article.

Mrs.B. said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this, Susan, you've given me much to think about and as I have time I will read the other two articles you mentioned as well. (o: