Posted on May 31, 2021 by benjaminfrog
Thanks for checking out this series! If this is the first blog you’re reading on ‘Writing Speculative Fiction as a Christian’ then please see my intro on post #1 for context on the reason I’ve put this series together.
We’ve just about covered every topic by now, but there are a couple of subjects that Christian writers tend to struggle with most frequently when writing speculative fiction, and I’ve saved them both for last.
What about magic?
Christians who are also fans of fantasy tend to fall into two categories when it comes to the use of magic in stories, there are those who see no problem whatsoever, and those who panic at the first sign of anything feeling even remotely occult. Very few find themselves in a balanced place in between. I myself lean very heavily toward panic, and that’s why my advice on this subject is going to be more on the play-it-safe side and perhaps not as balanced as it should be. Keep that in mind and take everything with a grain of salt. I’m coming from a position of greater caution, but I also recognize the importance of proper balance.
The tension between the cautious and the carefree exploded with the rising popularity of the Harry Potter books. It has settled a lot since then but hasn’t entirely gone away, and the simultaneous re-popularization of the Lord of the Rings franchise raised a fair question that we don’t all know how to answer…
Harry Potter is a wizard. Gandalf is a wizard. What’s the difference?
Most Christians on the cautious side (or even the balanced side) will say that the difference is between magic as a make-believe power (Gandalf) and magic as a real-world occult power such as witchcraft (Harry Potter). Gandalf’s powers are endowed to him as a natural result of his being since he is actually a Maya in disguise, a privilege not everyone can access. Harry’s powers are learned through lessons and texts on witchcraft, something anyone can actually do.
There is a defense that can be used, a strategic approach to implying “magic” into your story, even in a real-world context, while getting the panicking Christians off your back, and that’s to avoid direct references to actual occult research. A lot of the Christian outcry over Harry Potter came from the assumption that what was being taught in the books was actual witchcraft.
Having not read the books myself, I cannot give an educated confirmation on that one way or another. I can say that as far as the films I did not see much that set off my own personal alarms (apart from one scene on divination in one of the films). The only question left in my mind as far as the material in the films is the words (or incantations) spoken by characters in order to perform spells. I’ve avoided learning any actual spells myself, so again, I can’t confirm if the spells spoken in Harry Potter are real or made-up incantations.
Which brings us to the specific subject of spoken words. As far as I am aware, there is nothing wrong with making up your own words and having characters speak them out, if you’re using a fictional language made up for your story. The only remaining issue is that some members of your audience may still be uncomfortable. I myself get uncomfortable if I don’t know what language is being spoken or what a character is saying. In Chronomancer, my counter to this issue was to include an appendix at the end that includes language origins and meanings for every fictional word in the book. That way, if a reader was uncomfortable with not knowing what a character had said, they could look it up in the appendix.
Keep in mind that heading to the end for an appendix isn’t an option in films or television, and that some members of your audience may still be uncomfortable with a character chanting something in a foreign language, even if it’s a made-up language, because made-up languages are not always immediately apparent. It’s safe to say though that any incantation-like chants that sound Latin will raise red flags.
Back to the primary subject though – is it okay to have magic in your story if you’re a Christian writer? I would say yes with an Asterix. As long as the type of magic you’re using is purely fantasy-based in nature, and not based on anything resembling witchcraft or other occult powers, then you’re good to go. A big question that arises, and that you’ll have to address for the sake of your Christian readers, is what is the source of the power?
Again, Gandalf was essentially “born” with his power because of the kind of being that he is. The same could be said of elves and other fantasy races. In Chronomancer it is mentioned (or implied?) that magic ability was something bestowed on a few select creatures and individuals in the early days of that world for the purpose of helping to shape it, and that inborn power has been passed on to even previously non-magical races like humans through cross-breeding.
It gets trickier when you make magic into something that can be taught or given to individuals who don’t already have it inborn, because that’s where it gets dangerously close to sorcery. My recommendation would be something like suggesting that magic can be contained in substances like potions, and that characters can gain the potential for it that way, rather than it being something that can be gained purely through study.
It gets especially tricky if your story is set in the real world. In fact, to avoid confusion I would avoid using the term “magic” at all if your story is set in the real world, unless you plan on specifically taking the time to show or explain the distinction between the power being used in your story and real-world witchcraft. Otherwise, I suspect many Christians would start to feel uncomfortable with the content.
What about references to various mythologies?
It’s common for writers of both science fiction and fantasy to make references to old-world mythological figures, particularly from Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies, in order to add meaning to something using names that most educated audience members are familiar with. For example, if I call something “The Eye of the Basilisk” people would generally know that it’s a reference to death, and if I talk about rising like a Phoenix then people generally know that it’s a reference of new life coming out of death.
Where some Christian writers and audiences draw the line though is references to entities which in those mythologies were worshipped as gods. We are told in scripture to not even have such names on our lips (a figure of speech, since the scripture itself mentions many of these entities by name, but the clear implication is that we should not be praising or celebrating these things).
What are referred to as “gods” in these mythologies are what Christians would refer to as idols, and sometimes we would leave it at that and say that these are purely fictional things not even worth talking about. Paul says as much, in part, (1 Corinthians 8:4-6) but he goes a bit deeper (10:19-20) to explain that these things are representations inspired by demons, and that these idols are the demons’ way of being worshipped. This is why God is against it.
There are ways around this issue. If you’re writing fantasy then your own world may have its own completely different set of entities with different levels of power. I think this is okay as long as the entities are not referred to as gods or worshipped as such.
This was Tolkien’s approach when it came to Middle-earth. (Apparently not in his earlier works, because when Christopher Tolkien published them more or less as-is they used the term “gods” even though those terms had been abandoned in his primary works prior to publication.) I think he understood the issues his widely Christian audience would have with such terms and understood how to work around it. This has been my own approach as well.
There are benefits and drawbacks to such an approach. On the one hand, if the things in your story have nicknames based on your own invented mythos, then you don’t have the benefit of the audience knowing right away the meaning behind these names.
On the other hand, more hardcore fans may delve into side information like appendices (if you include them) and look up the meanings for themselves. Seeing that you have an entire mythos built into your fictional world really reels in deep-thinking audiences who are drawn to that kind of depth of world-building, as long as your story is interesting enough to be worth investing in in the first place.
Also, I would say that not all names and creatures in various mythologies are named after the deities of those cultures. I mentioned the Basilisk and Phoenix creatures earlier, neither of which are worshipped, they are simply creatures that inhabit those worlds. If you’re not sure, then I would recommend looking up info on such creatures online, particularly name meanings and etymology, since that can give you an idea of whether or not a creature’s very name is something to be avoided.
You can also stick with Bible references and use popular names from those stories instead of mythologies. Many Biblical names are well-known and have recognizable meanings when mentioned. The risk on that side is accidentally saying something sacrilegious, so be careful to give respect where it’s due.
This is the final post in this series, at least for now. After this I will have covered every topic that comes to my mind at the moment in terms of the aspects of speculative fiction writing that Christians sometimes wrestle with. I am absolutely open to doing more posts along these lines though if more subjects are brought to my attention. Are there any topics you feel I haven’t covered in this series? Leave a comment and let me know – I may do some additional posts in the future. But for now, thanks for checking out this series, and stay safe out there!
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