Pop Culture by Daniel Blackaby November 23, 2020
Christianity and Magic
“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” — Francis Ford Coppola
Magic, sorcery, and the occult, oh my!
Fantasy—the oldest of genres—is a human rite. The earliest recorded stories are ripe with magic and wonder. At the same time, few storytelling elements produce as much angst, concern, and passionate opinions amongst Christians as magic does. We’ve experienced these debates firsthand at The Collision. Without exception, whenever we review a film with overt magical elements (Frozen II, Onward, The Addams Family, etc.), audience engagement spikes. The comments range from tinfoil-hat conspiracies about the cultist underbelly of animated Disney films to honest uneasiness about how to reconcile magical fairytales with a biblical worldview. As fantasy films and stories continue to permeate pop culture, it’s an important conversation for Christians to have.
As with most areas of entertainment and the arts, a biblical approach to fantastical storytelling resists simplistic answers. There is an unavoidable tension, the scales balanced on one side by a deeply rooted apprehension toward magic and on the other side by a long and rich tradition of magic in Christian storytelling. Indeed, the template for the modern fantasy genre is a phenomenon largely birthed out of a biblical worldview, forged by champions such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. Even many contemporary titans of fantasy, such as J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and George R. Martin (Game of Thrones), come from Catholic backgrounds.
A Christian who wholesale rejects the magical elements in today’s storytelling must paradoxically acknowledge that some of the most profound and beloved works of Christian literature are rich with magical and fantastical elements. With this tension in mind, there are two helpful ways to approach the question. The first—and most important—is the biblical standard, and the second is the cultural standard. Let’s look at both.
What Does the Bible Say?
While the Bible is relatively silent on entertainment choices, it does speak clearly about witchcraft and magic. Here is a quick sampling:
Leviticus 19:31: “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers, do not seek them out, and so make yourself unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.”
Deuteronomy 18:10-12 condemns people who practice divination, fortune telling, sorcery, and necromancy as an “abomination to the Lord.”
Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Yikes!)
Galatians 5:19-21 includes “sorcery” as a sinful work “of the flesh.”
Magic in its many forms is unequivocally denounced in the Bible. But an important factor should be noted. The biblical condemnation of magic is culturally and real-world specific.
The biblical authors were tackling a much different issue than magical fairytales. Magic in the Bible can be defined as “pagan cultural practices that opposed or conflicted with proper worship of the one true God.” Divination and sorcery were not abstract, fictional concepts; they were pagan practices happening in the culture surrounding God’s chosen people. The firm—and shockingly violent—prohibition on these practices was a statement about religion, not entertainment. The sorcerers and witches the biblical writers scorned were not flying around on brooms or shooting spells from magic wands (a la Harry Potter); they were embracing a real-life, satanic, dark spirituality (including child sacrifice, communion with the dead, and extreme sexual fornication). Thus, the biblical passages against “magic” must be read with this context in mind.
Where does this information leave us? A helpful parallel can be drawn with the Bible’s command against “graven images” (Exodus 20:4). Many Christians decorate their homes with paintings and images in clear violation of this command. Why? Because the original context makes it quite clear that the biblical command is against idolatry, not decorative paintings.
A similar distinction can be made between the practice of the real-life occult and the enjoyment of fantastical tales of magic. The first involves a false, anti-Christian religious faith, and the second is an imaginative creation with little bearing on faith. There is a significant difference between practicing real-world, sinister magic and enjoying a fictional story set in an imaginative magical world. That the Bible prohibits Christians from the first does not necessarily imply that they should avoid the other as well. After all, Christians are commanded to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and yet many believers have no qualms about enjoying an action flick.
But is it Wise?
Even if the Bible does not outright condemn or prohibit the enjoyment of magical storytelling, the question still remains, “Is it wise?” Let’s address two common concerns.
Is it a Gateway to the Occult?
The classic slippery slope argument. If a child sees Elsa use her magical powers in Frozen, what’s to stop her from gravitating toward witchcraft when she gets older? This concern is valid, but it lacks convincing data beyond leftover conspiracies from the early days of Disney fairytales and, more broadly, from early Christian skepticism toward cinema as a new entertainment medium. The fact that these prophecies failed to come true has not diminished enthusiasm for them. Despite many accusatory fingers pointed toward magical films and stories, the documented reasons why individuals fall into the occult has little to do with seeing Cinderella’s godmother turn a pumpkin into a carriage. Furthermore, if a two-hour animated fairytale is enough to set children on an inevitable path toward the godless practice of dark magic, then we have failed as parents and as the Church.
Doesn’t Fantasy Blur Perception of Reality?
Possibly? Absolutely. After all, extreme immersion in any fictional reality (movies, television, video games, books, etc.) without healthy moderation will negatively impact our view of the world. That said, children are far more capable than we often realize. Children intuitively grasp the difference between play and reality. The universal allure of childhood “dress up” is built on a firm awareness that there is a distinction between truth and fantasy. Few parents worry that hours upon hours of exposure to PAW Patrol will lead their kids to grow up with a distorted expectation of talking anthropomorphic animals. Kids are smart, and, with healthy parental guidance, they can likewise separate truth from fantasy and dangerous demonic magic from harmless imaginative magic.