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The Hobbit, Magic, and the Christian Worldview

A good question was recently asked by Scott Doherty.  He wrote,

“I have a suggestion for you fellows, seeing that once again the Tolkein books are being made into movies. A perennial question among Christians is the tension between truth to be found within good literature and the sometimes otherwise forbidden form of that truth. For example, no magic white or otherwise is permitted by God, but the good guys in the literature use magic. How should Christians reason through this?”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved fantasy.  Countless hours have been spent scribbling images of strange creatures and arcane weapons in worn notebooks (usually to the consternation of my teachers).  Even as an adult, I still very much enjoy the genre of fantasy, not only in its written form, but especially as it exists in games.  Crawling through a dungeon with a torch in hand is still a blast, not to mention hurling a fireball at a mob of orcs.  Here one need only check out the wildly fun and popular game Orcs Must Die! or the vast and expansive world of Skyrim to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

And yet, in spite of all the creativity and fun and excitement, a serious question emerges for the Christian.  It’s the perennial one articulated so clearly in the question quoted above.  How should Christians view the use of magic in literature or fantasy in general?

Over the years, I’ve seriously struggled with this problem, so it isn’t just a matter of theory for me.  I’ve thrown away expensive table-top models, feeling that they crossed a dangerous line in what they represented.  I’ve also stayed away from certain games, or character classes, some of which were painful to relinquish because they were cool and appealing to me.  The strategy card game Magic the Gathering, a true masterpiece in its own right, and a game I loved to play (far too much, I might add), proved too much for my conscience.  I had to give it up, and it was very hard to do.

So, yes, I’ve grown more discerning over the years, not to mention sensitive to the issue at hand.  That being said, I’m confident that what I’m about to articulate will leave some feeling uncomfortable.  There’s a spectrum of convictions, and I land somewhere in the middle on this issue; or maybe a tad left of middle.

So where to start?

The Bible, of course.

If anything is evident, it’s that sorcery and divination and witchcraft are forbidden and evil.  So there’s no question there.  Men and women should not engage in such practices.  But the challenge is how to apply this to the realm of the imaginary.  For example, in the case of The Lord of the Ring_s,_ there’s an undeniable element of magic, a kind of sorcery that resembles, to some degree, that which is forbidden.

But isn’t that just it?  Isn’t it imaginary?  Is it really occurring?  Of course not.  In the same way that nobody is really dying throughout the story, no one is really practicing magic.

But does that settle the issue?  Well, no.  A couple things should come to mind.  When a man lusts after a woman, he isn’t committing adultery physically, but he is in his mind.  So imagination matters.

There’s another component as well.  Paul commands, “Abstain from every form [or appearance] of evil” (1 Thess 5:22).  A gamer might argue that he isn’t actually murdering people in the violent video game Grand Theft Auto, but he is so graphically playing out the sin, so emulating the evil, it clearly crosses a line.  Wanting to pretend to shoot hookers is depraved.  In the same way, why would someone want to pretend to consult a medium or study the entrails of an animal to divine the future?

The challenge in all this is how to discern when something goes too far.  Should you let your child wear a pirate hat at Long John Silver’s?  Or what about The Pirates Who Don’t  Do Anything in Veggie Tales?

There are some Christians who take this very seriously and avoid all such “appearances of evil.”  Others don’t think twice about it.

At the end of the day, I’m of the conviction that much of this, so far as the minor examples just mentioned are concerned, is a matter of conscience.[1]  They’re disputable issues and each person should be fully convinced in his own mind (See Romans 14).

Do some find the ill-defined use of magic in The Legend of Zelda objectionable?  I’m sure there are some.  But is drinking a blue potion that allows you to jump higher really a matter of emulating the dark arts?  I don’t think so.  It’s innocuous.  Or what about Mario in Super Mario Brothers?  How does he shoot fireballs?  Through sorcery or by simply touching a flower?  To suggest the former seems absurd to me.

But these are easy examples.  The real question is how to navigate the harder ones?  What about, for example, Tolkien’s or C.S Lewis’ use of magic?  Those are a bit trickier.  And for those I’d just like to make a few observations.

Observation One:

While I’m not a diehard fan following the lore of Middle Earth, and am therefore unable to fact check this, I remember reading an interesting article by Steven D. Greydanus in which he compares and contrasts the works of Lewis and Tolkien to that of Rowling.  He examines how each of the authors handles the issue of magic.  Interestingly, he observes that both Lewis and Tolkien are careful to restrict the use of magic to non-human persons and evil humans.

He writes,

“Tolkien and Lewis relegate the pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation to characters who are not in fact human (despite the human appearance of some, like Tolkien's Gandalf and Lewis' Coriakin; whom in fact we are told are, respectively, a semi-incarnate angel 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.”

This subtle move on the part of Tolkien and Lewis, if true, demonstrates a certain care and sensitivity toward the issue.  They aren’t trying to subvert God’s Law, even in the realm of the imaginative.

Observation Two:

I’m of the opinion that fantasy can be distinguished from the kind of magic forbidden in Scripture.  Allow me to illustrate.

I’ve long been a fan of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons).  For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s basically a game of imagination.  There’s a DM (Dungeon Master) who creates a world for his friends to run around and quest in.  The rulebook provides players with a dice based system for determining combat, personal skills, character development, etc.  It’s fairly complex.

As many are well aware, AD&D has a bad reputation.  There’s some hype here, but there’s also some truth.  AD&D has a fairly advanced system of magic.  Tons of spells and lots of magic.  While some of the magic could be viewed as rather benign, the game does adopt the language of real sorcery.  There are witches, warlocks, wizards and all the rest.  But it goes further than that.  Not only is the language picked up, but it mirrors it.  For example, there is a spell called divination, and it allows a character to divine the future.

So, yes, AD&D has some features that, for the Christian, should be avoided.

That being said, I can see no reason why a person can’t play around in a “magical” world so long as it doesn’t try to emulate the real sorcery of our world.  Basically, as the DM, I define things differently.  Not only do I avoid any such references to divination or mediums, but I also steer clear of anything that would resemble it.

Let me put some flesh on this.  One of my characters has something called a bag of holding.  It is a small brown bag; perfectly normal in its appearance.  However, it is a “magical” bag.  If you were to drop a brick into it, the bag would weigh no more, nor any less.  Moreover, it can hold items far beyond that of what a normal bag its size could hold.  Pretty handy.  Now is that sorcery?  I don’t think so.  The mechanism by which all such “magical” items work is ill-defined.  It’s just the way the fantasy world works.  Perhaps it’s a strange kind of technology.  Or maybe it’s a matter of different physics.  But it is not a power obtained by tapping into the spiritual realm.  As a DM I want to play this game to the glory of God.  Therefore, I am careful not to act as if there’s a quadrant of my life/imagination where His Word isn’t ultimate.  The Lordship of Christ extends to every square molecule, even pretend ones.**           **

So in the case of the original question, I wouldn’t want to communicate truth through a forbidden form, unless of course I’m making a point about evil. ** **Bad guys are often evil wizards after all.  The “magic” of the fantasy world would need to be sufficiently emptied of any earthly connections.

Observation Three:

Life is complex.  And as such, there are a multitude of specific cases that could be presented that would perplex me.  I’m actually wrestling with one at the moment.  I’m a huge fan of the table-top war-game system Warhammer 40,000I love the strategy and hobby element.  However, in the game there are wizard-like people called psykers who can manipulate the powers of the warp (some bizarre force in outer space).  They’re pretty powerful warriors and not a little useful for winning.  Basically, these guys can either provide some kind of defensive benefit to your army (like better armor), or negatively affect your opponent (like reduce their armor), or just blast your opponent (like with something called living lightning.  Imagine a guy shooting a bolt of lightning at a particular unit or tank).

I’m fine with all that.  But what bothers me is that they called one of the charts that you randomly roll powers on divination.  Now in the world of gaming, these terms are thrown around with little care or purpose.  So I know the designers of the game just thought it would sound cool to call it that.  And when you see what those powers do, they’re clearly there to help improve dice rolls.  It isn’t about the “sorcery,” but merely improving your odds.  Nevertheless, it’s called something that is forbidden in Scripture.  And it bugs me.  So should I refuse to play on that particular table of powers or play with the knowledge that it isn’t doing what it is called?

Some Christians would say that it is better, when in doubt, to simply refrain from the questionable activity.  There’s certainly wisdom in this.  But then again, if it’s permissible and you want to do it, then why not do it (assuming it isn’t a stumbling block)?

Here I’m reminded of a truth that should be factored into the equation.  It has to do with discerning between good and evil.  Consider how Paul puts it in one place,

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2.  See also Philippians 1:9-10; 3:15; Eph 5:10; Col 1:9).

Some of these challenging questions can be more readily discerned through spiritual maturity.  Therefore, a good place to start when confronted with a dilemma or ethical question is prayer and study and counsel.  Actually, it begins long before the particular issue surfaces.  Wisdom is accumulated over time.  Holiness is often a slow and painful process.  Discernment requires time.  So I would say to prepare now for the future.

In the end, I’m comfortable with what Tolkien and Lewis have written.  And I for one have thoroughly enjoyed their works.  On the other hand, while the Harry Potter series is certainly well-written and thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, I couldn’t, as a Christian, have written it with a clear conscience.  I feel it blurred some lines that should not have been blurred.

[1] And yes, I’m begging the question here by calling them “minor examples.”  But it’s my position.