Thursday, 8 December 2011

When Are Your Character’s Supernatural Powers “Occult”?

I recently received this letter from a pastor:
I had just read your article “Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction” and I thought that it was a great insight into the debate. I am a brand spanking new pastor, and I am already engaged in a divisive discussion with one of my congregants about fiction, particularly the use of “supernaturalism” in fiction. For example, this person believes that when Aslan uses “magic” or does things “supernaturally” like breathing on Mr. Tumnus, and does NOT give glory and honor and credit to Jesus Christ IN THE STORY, that it is occultism, since his power is derived from elsewhere
than from the one true God. I think this is a bit, shall I say, crazy. I was just wondering if you have encountered such thought elsewhere, or am I the only one so uniquely blessed!!! And what would you say about the claim that any “powers” that occur in a fictional novel, especially Christian novels, are subtly promoting occultism. Thanks for your work.
This pastor may find solace in the fact that not only is he NOT alone in this debate, but that the position assumed by this congregant is, sadly, all too common among Christian readers.
As much as I’d like to offer a definitive answer to this question — How can we know when “‘powers’ that occur in a fictional novel… are subtly promoting occultism”?— I don’t think there is one. In fact, the more we demand a definitive answer, the more we narrow our fiction, dumb down our readers, and drift into a superstitious, and rather unchristian, worldview.
Nevertheless, I want to attempt a response to this pastor and his concerned congregant. Let me begin with a question:
Does attributing a supernatural incident to God or the devil actually change its power source?
Or to use the example above, if Aslan had stopped and given glory to God, would that have turned his magic from “bad” to “good”? If so, what made the supernaturalism bad in the first place?
To follow this line of reasoning, the real “occultism” resides not in the supernatural event (Aslan breathing upon Mr. Tumnus and bringing the faun back to life), but in the author’s defining of it. Thus, to the puritan reader, the greatest potential “evil” for a Christian writer is to depict ambiguous magic, i.e., supernatural power not directly attributed to God.
Which makes fiction, “magic.”
However, this creates huge problems for authors, the least of which is feeling bound to clarify the source of every character’s supernatural action. Spells, miracles, alchemy, and enchantment are only tolerable in our fiction as long as we’re clear where they are coming from. However, this type of approach not only potentially strips our stories of mystery and nuance, we treat our readers like   auditors who’ll be combing our novels for pesky theological gnats.
The point here is to highlight how our approach to fiction can often be as problematic as the stories themselves. The congregant above who worried over Aslan’s apparent lack of Divine attribution is emblematic of a breed of religious reader who approaches fiction with a rather rigid doctrinal lens. Am I suggesting that we should put down our “theological” guard when we read and be less discerning? Absolutely not. But we need to see fiction as doing something different than simply illustrating and reinforcing Bible doctrine.
About his then-recent viewing of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, C.S. Lewis wrote:
“…[the play] is merely the scaffolding whereby Shakespeare (probably unconsciously) is able to give us an image of the whole idea of resurrection, [and] I was simply overwhelmed. You will say that I am here doing to Shakespeare just what I did to Macdonald… Perhaps I am. I must confess that more and more the value of plays and novels becomes for me dependent on the moments when, by whatever artifice, they succeed in expressing the greatmyths.”
– C.S. Lewis from a letter dated September 5, 1931 (emphasis mine)
Notice that Lewis describes the actual play as simply “scaffolding” for a bigger idea. In fact, it is this big idea (here, the great myths), expressed “by whatever artifice,” that characterize the great tales. Alas, when we become preoccupied with a story’s “scaffolding” and niggle over literary “artifices,” we will inevitably miss the bigger story. But that’s exactly what the congregant above, and the opponents of fictional “magic,” do.
When it comes to our fiction, the easiest (and worst) thing we can do is to embrace a checklist mentality. Rather than cultivating discernment and rendering creative license, we become “scaffold inspectors,” making sure every plank and cross-beam meets standard. No wands. Check. No spells. Check. No ghosts. Check. No vampires. Check. No crystal balls. Check.  No broomsticks. Check. And plenty of explanation. As if this ensures we will never mistakenly promote occultism.
However, in their attempt to maintain theological integrity, many have embraced superstition, a “touch not, taste not” mentality (Col. 2:21) that purports a magic all its own. In other words, we believe there is magic in biblical (?) formulas. As if God was bound by incantations, recipes, rituals, and our personal holiness program.
How is this any different from sorcery?
Yes, Scripture is clear that there can be false prophets and false miracles. The world of occultism, we are warned, is not a plaything. Nevertheless, the Bible is not always clear in defining the source of real magic or the trappings for conjuring it.
Take the case of Moses’ encounter with the Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex. 7). Both sides produced, more or less, the same “magic,” turning staffs into snakes. Question: Is it wrong to turn staffs into snakes? Answer: It can’t be because Moses did it! So the problem wasn’t necessarily with the “magic” (i.e., staff charming), but with the intent, motivations, and allegiances of those who wielded it.
The similar distinction is made in the apostles’ encounter with Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-25). Simon “had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria” (vs. 9) with his magic, so much so that he was called “the Great Power of God” (vs. 10). But after Simon “believed and was baptized” (vs. 13), he coveted the power of the Holy Spirit and asked to pay for it (vs. 19). Notice carefully Peter’s response:
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23 NIV)
Interestingly enough, throughout this record Simon’s power is never attributed to Satan. However, he is upbraided “because [his] heart is not right before God.” So what was Simon’s sin? Apparently sorcery wasn’t the big one; his magic was less at issue than his sinful heart.
A case could be made, I think, that supernatural powers (and their fictional depictions) aren’t bad in themselves (see staff charming). It is the hearts and motives of the handlers that is evil.
Not all staff charmers are wicked. Which means staff charming is up for debate.
The concerned congregant above and his kin, the “anti-magic” crowd, go astray when they focus on forms of magic (levitation, incantations, objects, staff charming, breathing upon petrified fauns, etc.), more than the purveyors. It is far easier to make an external checklist — You know your character’s supernatural powers are NOT occult when you _________ (fill in the blank with preferred magic you avoid or attribution you render) — than to allow internal assessment and potential ambiguity.
Either way, no amount of attribution can prevent some readers from misinterpreting you. Heck, even the Bible is misinterpreted to say things it doesn’t. So why should our stories be any different? The truth is, readers can potentially mistake anything I write about as endorsing something I don’t. But just because I fictionalize sex or violence or sorcery or dog fighting or street racing, does not mean I’m an advocate of it.
It’s just the scaffolding.
So when are your character’s supernatural powers occult? Hmm. Probably when you say so.

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