Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Christian Perceptive: Magic Pt. 1

     DISCLAIMER: Ok, I'm finally going to do it. I will take the plunge and start a post series on what I believe a Christian view of magic should be and how we should deal with it in literature (I'm lumping books, film, and T.V under the heading of literature, because that's just how I do). Also, I think this will be fun because Halloween is just around the corner! This first post will be an exploration of what magic is, how it has been defined  historically, and what the Bible actually says about it - but in a blog form and not an intellectual paper form. What follows are my own views and opinions. I am not an authoritative expert. I did take a class last semester that touched on this topic, so I'm not completely un-educated. At the end of the day, however, I urge you to follow the dictates of your own conscience. 

I know that a lot of people in the Christian community have a lot of reservations concerning magic. Now, you wouldn’t really think that this would be a problem; this is the modern world after all. We live in an age of science and technology; we don’t need to resort to superstition in order to explain the world any more. And in some ways that sentiment is true. Science and technology have allowed us to explore the world. We have made incredible natural discoveries. However, this has led to a rather ignorant attitude about magic and the culture of spell craft that existed well into the seventeenth century (yeah, you read that right).

Now there are several reasons that Christians especially should have an accurate understanding of what magic is and what it isn’t, which I will be exploring in a post series of sorts. The first reason, and the one that most Christians are apt to point out (rightly so) is that sorcery is explicitly forbidden by the Bible. For example one can consult Isaiah 8:19-20, Deuteronomy 18: 9-12, Leviticus 19: 26, 20:6, Revelation 21:8 etc. There are bunches (that’s a good academic word, right?) more that all basically say the same thing: don’t practice sorcery or divination. That seems pretty straightforward, only it actually isn’t. Before you break out the torches and pitchforks let me say this. The reason these verses aren’t straightforward is not because they’re ambiguous, because they’re not. The reason they’re harder to understand than you’d think is because contemporary society has no idea what magic actually is. When the Bible says ‘magic is bad’ what the ancients heard when the word magic was used and what moderns hear are very, very different.

I can say with all confidence (and I will in another post) that the magic condemned in the Bible is not Harry Potter magic, or Star Wars magic, or Narnia magic, or even fairy tale magic. The Medievals had a much better word for what the Bible condemns: maleficium (lit. wrongdoing). This word, maleficium, was not a general word for bad actions, but referred to sinful acts of a peculiarly spiritual variety. It refers specifically to intentions. In this kind of magic powers are used, tapped into, whatever, for specifically sinful intentions. Curses, spells, charms, potions, etc. were all incredibly prevalent in the ancient and medieval world. There was a trade in them that had probably been around as long as humans had. You used them to protect yourself from harm and to hurt your enemies. Most of these practices, practically speaking, were probably harmless but they rested in a tradition that was spiritually dangerous. In the traditional understanding of magic you needed to know the right words, and you needed to have the right tools, but ultimately the power did not rest in the caster. The ancients and the Medievals believed that there were powers in the world that, if you knew the right things, you could tap into and use. This was the kind of magic that was expressly forbidden in the Bible because, as it turns out, there really are dark spiritual powers that are more than willing to take advantage of human beings who invoke them carelessly (or carefully).

It’s perfectly true that this idea of maleficium is condemned by the Bible, and not just the casting of spells but the calling of spirits as well (for more obvious reasons). However, the Bible’s condemnation isn’t so much against the practice of calling on greater powers (or else prayer and the performance of miracles would be suspect too) what's being objected to as the sinful intentions behind these acts. Why did people practice maleficium? There are several reasons, each as ugly as the next. Malice, greed, bitterness, lust, and pride. The fact that you’re calling on dark powers to help you realize your own evil desires is sinful because it acts as a sort of inversion of holy prayer and miracles. Instead of maintaining holy desires and relying on the power of God, human beings chose to foster sinful impulses and turn to evil supernatural forces to help them realize their goals. It’s your intentions, just as much as your actions, that matter. And on this point I agree with those who say we should have nothing to do with magic. Magic, properly understood, is without a doubt condemned by God. It is real, and it is dangerous in so much as those who play with that sort of thing open themselves to demonic influences. As such it is to be avoided and condemned.

     What I want to explore, however, is whether all magic is like what I’ve described above, or whether or not the English word magic is a sort of blanket term that refers to a sundry of different practices, and whether any of them are acceptable for Christians to engage with and in. Keeping in mind what exactly the Bible is condemning as I move forward, I will posit that, yes, there are different sorts of ‘magic’ that the Bible says absolutely nothing about, and that good Christian men and women have explored. In my next posts I’ll be looking at Natural Magic, Faerie, and Literary Magic specifically. It should be fun! :) Stay tuned!

Christianity and Magic Posts:
Natural Magic
Fairy Tales
Literary Magic
Harry Potter


  1. This sounds like a great series! This is a very controversial topic. I went to a Christian writers conference three years ago and got unwittingly caught in the middle of a tense talk about this. I was one of those homeschoolers who wasn't allowed to watch Disney princess movies because they had magic, but Narnia was okay, which confused me a lot when younger. I've since, especially after that talk at the conference, formed my own meager beliefs and have started reading LOTR (Tolkien is a genius, just to say). I cannot wait to hear what you have to say! I love posts that make me think. I definitely admire you for diving into a controversial topic. Yay! I'm excited now. :)

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah, it is a controversial topic. I was never kept from things with magic in them as a child (as a result fantasy became my go to genre), but my parents also warned me to be very discerning in what I read (and they helped guide me as I grew up). I have been on the receiving end of some anger regarding my reading choices so finding good reasons why the things I loved were ok was important to me as a Christian. So I think it is an important subject for Christians to deal with culturally :) I'm glad that you decided to read Tolkien (he is a genius), his works are so lovely and it's really interesting to see fantasy done brilliantly from a Christian perspective. I look forward to doing more with this topic. Thanks for reading!

  2. Looking forward to reading your further posts! Magic is viewed in an incredibly flippant way in our culture; I actually have a friend who said to me last Hallowe'en, "hey, we should go to a graveyard and do a ritual to call up spirits!" But of course - even though we don't think it, most of the time - magic can manifest itself in the world today. Great post!

    1. Thanks for reading! And I agree, it's incredibly important for Christians to be discerning, to be able to tell what things really inspire virtue, which are harmless fun, and which are potentially dangerous! And besides, going to a graveyard on Halloween to call up spirits would be creepy even if they didn't exist!


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