I cut my teeth on comic books. As a quiet little boy who loved to read, the fantastic powers of Superman and Aquaman and The Flash captured my anything-but-quiet imagination. As I grew, so did my love of fantasy and science fiction; I enjoyed reading books and stories by Madeline L’Engle, O. Henry, Isaac Asimov and others.
When I became a Christian in 1975, my reading (along with my life) took a sudden, decidedly serious turn. In fact, for the next 20 years or so following my conversion I read only one work of fiction–The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, in the last few years, primarily because of looking for good books to read out loud to my kids, my own childhood (or childlike) love of fantasy and fiction has been reignited.
One of the authors we’ve grown fond of is N.D. Wilson, son of theologian Douglas Wilson. I bought Leepike Ridge shortly after it was published and read it out loud to the entire family. I’ve since read the first two books in the 100 Cupboards series to my two youngest boys, to their immense delight. And incidentally, they’re not going to be too happy with me if I don’t get Book 3 of the trilogy (which was just released a couple days ago) ordered pronto!
So, having read several of Wilson’s books, I naturally found this quote on Justin Taylor’s blog, taken from an old interview with Wilson, thought-provoking and at the same time potentially controversial. It did in fact spark quite a bit of discussion on JT’s blog, which may still be going on by the time I finally get around to posting this. Here’s the quote. It’s Wilson’s response to a question about the proper role of magic and the supernatural in children’s literature:
I consider the appropriate role of magic in kid lit to be the same as the appropriate role of magic in reality—though it will look different. This is, after all, an extraordinarily magical place. Sunlight makes trees out of thin air (literally), tadpoles turn into frogs, human love turns into children, and you can trick the air into lifting an enormous steel bus full of people up to thirty thousand feet if you know how to curve a wing and harness explosions. And it’s not all cheerful, happy, kittens-in-baskets magic either.
What happens if one of our wizards splits an atom? I think magic in children’s books is at its best when it wakes kids up to the mind-blowing magic all around us—when it overcomes the numbness of modernity and makes them watch an ant war on the sidewalk with all the wonder it deserves. Ironically, Christians, who profess outright to believe in magic (what else is water into wine, resurrection from the dead, calming storms, etc?) are the most upset when you put it into a book, while authors like Pullman (a materialistic atheist who believes reality to be all mechanism as far as I can tell) works with it comfortably and well. It really should be the other way around.
I think it’s undeniable that magic has a certain amount of universal appeal. But many Christians take exception to statements like the one Wilson makes. After all, it seems pretty clear from Scripture that magic, sorcery, and witchcraft in any form is condemned as evil. (If you doubt that, go to the ESV Bible Online and search first for the term magic and then for the partial word sorcer)
That puts me in an awkward position. I recognize the power and beauty and even what I perceive to be the legitimate value of fantasy literature. I also recognize that magic and sorcery are always portrayed in a negative light in Scripture. Those two observations appear to be odds, and I’m not sure how to reconcile them, or if it’s even possible to.
But setting aside my dilemma for a moment, let’s suppose that it is possible in some way to justify the use of magic in literature. Immediately other questions arise: Does all magic have equal moral value? Is it possible that something subtly sinister lurks just beneath the surface of at least some of the magic found in our books and stories? Those are questions that many thoughtful Christians have pondered. Author Timothy J. Stoner addresses some of those questions in this incisive critique of the fantasy genre in general and the Harry Potter series in particular:
According to Tolkien, the compelling impulse behind fantasy is “the realization of wonder”. Its “holy” purpose is to awaken us to an imagined world which is so wonder-full we become more open to reverential awe of its Source. Whereas mystery humbles us, fantasy awes us. But both point away to the One Who is Above and Beyond and is to be worshipped. While Lewis and Tolkien succeed, Rawlings [sic] does not even make the effort. Nowhere in Rawlings’s [sic] writings are we prompted to humbly bow and worship. What is lacking in her world is the holy. There is only impersonal power used for good or ill by those who intend good or ill.
Tolkien admonishes us that we, image-bearers and thus “sub-creators”, are fallen and all too easily tempted to use our creative gifts toward idolatry and the creation of a reality that is antithetical to that of our Creator’s. This is what I would argue is ultimately askew at Hogwarts. It is a world in which God does not exist. He is absent. And what has taken His place in the cosmos is impersonal energy which can be manipulated by the clever and the committed. Aslan (the Good, the Holy, and the Mighty) never appears. There is not the slightest intimation of His presence anywhere.
Kevin Bauder expresses similar (though not identical) concerns about Harry Potter in this paper, and comes to this conclusion about the Harry Potter series:
I do not believe that mature readers will be harmed by these volumes. Even should they fall into the hands of our offspring, the damage will probably be minimal. Harry Potter is not spiritually healthy fare for the immature, but it is more like junk food than it is like poison.
Neither Stoner nor Bauder conclude that the Rowling’s fiction is altogether pernicious, but both think it’s seriously deficient, in significant ways, when compared to the fantasy of Lewis, Tolkien, and others.
I had no intention of writing about Harry Potter when I started this post, nor am I now either condemning or condoning the series. In fact, I’ve never read a single page of any of Rowling’s books. And with the limited amount of time I have for reading, it’s unlikely that I ever will, given that I still read mainly non-fiction.
However, my original intention was to stimulate some discussion about the propriety of magic in literature for Christian readers, in light of the clear biblical condemnation of magic and sorcery. As is often the case, I have more questions than answers.
What do you think? Is the fantasy genre and all of the magic and sorcery it entails inappropriate for Christians? Why or why not? Can you defend your answer biblically? I have to say at this point I don’t believe it’s inherently inappropriate, but I’m afraid I can’t give a solid biblical justification for my view. And that bothers me.