Christian Magic

Thursday Throwback on Friday again, my apologies. Another from the annals of our Superversive Blog:

Subversive Literary Movement

lion-of-judah-1-2-1
Painting by Spencer Williams

In Part One, Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time, I discussed the philosophy, the idea, of Christian Magic. In this second part, I want to give some practical examples.

First, the definition: Christian Magic is when objects or ideas from the Judeo-Christian tradition appear in the story as part of the magic. By magic here, I mean specifically “a mood of mystery and wonder,” and not “the occult” per se.

Also, I am differentiating between this use of Christian ideas and stories that have a pious nature. By pious, I mean a kind of assumption that Christian and holy things are good but everything else is bad. In case not everyone understands what I mean by the term pious, as applied to writing, here is an example from the work of fanfiction, Hogwarts School of Prayers and Miracles:

“Tell me how to get to this heaven place!” Harry cried wistfully, clapping his hands together. Sometimes the wisdom of the little ones is really amazing. We think we grownups know it all; but then God speaks through the mouths of little ones; and shows us how we are all mortals struggling along the path of life. Humility.

This is a superb example of what Christian Magic is not.

Pious stories do not feel magical. There is no mystery, no wonder. Instead, the basic assumption is that everyone (who matters) already agrees with the premise, so things “we” agree with are praised and everything else is trashed.

In stories of Christian Magic, on the other hand, the Christianity is introduced in the same mood and manner as the rest of the magic.

And now, some examples:

First, I will include, yet again, the quote from C. S. Lewis about deeper magic from before the dawn of time. Yes, we just read it in part one, but it’s that good…

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (Aslan, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.)

At this point, perhaps you are asking, is there Christian Magic, outside of Narnia? The answer is yes—even if no one else does it quite so well.

An early example of Christian Magic comes from the book Dracula. We now think of it as par for the course that crosses drive back vampires. So much so, that many vampire stories have to take time to establish that crosses do not affect vampires, if they don’t want readers to assume they will. But when the matter came up in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, it was new. (Or rather, it was an old folk lore idea brought to light in a new way.)

In Dracula, crucifixes, not crosses, drive back vampires—much to the dismay of the Protestant main characters. Holy wafers are also used to keep vampires at bay, and holy ground is considered important. These things are introduced into the story as if they are natural and part of the same background as the vampires, flocks of bats, and other elements of the story. They are not handled with hands wistfully clapped together or cooing over the amazing wisdom of the one who lays the holy wafers around the newly-risen vampire.

Holy ground also played into the movie Highlander, adding just a hint of Christian Magic there. ( By the TV show, holy ground was interpreted to mean any kind of holy ground—Indian burial grounds, etc., making it merely spiritual magic rather than Christian magic—but in the movie, the scenes involving holy ground were in churches.)

Another great example of Christian magic comes from The Dresden Files. This ongoing series includes such Christian elements as swords made from the nails of the cross, the cursed silver coins used to pay Judas for betraying Jesus, and the noose Judas used to hang himself. Also, I believe the latest book introduced the Spear of Longinus. The series also includes priests, churches whose holy ground protects from various evils, and angels.

Yet all these things are introduced in exactly the same mood as the vampires, fairies, talking skulls, fire magic, and the rest of the things that Harry Dresden encounters. The author weaves them all together so seamlessly and expertly that those who do not care for Christianity seldom object or possibly even notice.

But these elements are there.

Some readers even believe that Butcher is superversive–that the big bad Outside may turn out to be the devil and that Michael and Uriel will be proven right in the end. But the agnosticism of the character Harry allows the author to introduce these elements as easily as he introduces Odin or Temple Fu dogs. If he has a “true meaning”, it is not yet visible to his many adoring readers.

As a young person, I remember enjoying one of Katherine Kurtz Deryni books very much. I think it was Saint Camber. The thing I remember most was that this was the book where I first came upon the concept of wards. In particular, protective wards maintained by angels who were called to stand watch in the four directions. I still remember how amazed I was because it was the first time I had seen Christianity and magic portrayed as not inimitable to each other.

I had wanted to describe a great Christian Magic bit that comes up more than once in my husband’s new, up-coming novel, Somewhither. However, he tells me that this bit is a secret until it comes onstage in the story. So, after the book is published, I will write a post about it.

A few final examples:

I am sure there are many other great examples of Christian magic out there, but I cannot recall them off hand. I hope, dear readers, that, as you come upon hints of Christian Magic in the books you read, you will let me know. For now, however, we are reduced to examples from books that most of you probably have not read.

My apologies.

From Prospero In Hell.

In this scene, the King of all Djinn is burning a chamber holding holy relics collected over the years by the magician Prospero. One of the items is a wheel made by the carpenter, Joshua Ben Joseph. Caurus is one of Prospero’s airy servants.

A loud snapping-crackle behind me caused me to whirl about. The table in the Holy Chamber was aflame. To my horror, the tent made by St. Paul and St. Peter’s fishing net ignited. In a single instant, the fire consumed the two thousand-year-old relics that had once belonged to the most holy men who ever trod the Earth. Helpless, I saw the tongues of fire began licking the Savior’s wheel.

Unable to watch, I turned away and ran the rest of the distance to the Weapons Chamber. Behind me, to my great joy, I heard Caurus’s voice.

“Look!” he shouted, amazed, “The God of the Bloody Cross is more powerful than the Lord of Djinn!”

“Arrgghhh!” The cry of Iblis al-Shaitan shook the room, followed by a burst of heat worse than any that had come before. Caurus screamed. Turning again, I saw the Fire-King reeling back, clutching the simple cart wheel. No matter how he tried to burn it, the wood remained untouched.

(A brief aside, I have often wondered why we don’t hear more about wooden objects made by Jesus when he was a carpenter. Did they sell these, too, back in the middle ages when they were selling all those other relics?

Also, as proof that this is not a pious treatment of the material, in the next scene, they use that same wheel to hold down the top of the vessel in which they have trapped the djinn king. )

From Prospero In Hell

A fallen angel speaks of his memories of Heaven:

“Imagine you went to live in a house that looked a great deal like your father’s mansion, only nothing was ever quite right. The doors would not close properly. The well did not work. The servants were rude. The walls were moldy. The halls smelled of rotting fruit, and no matter how many logs you put on the fire, you were always cold.

“Nor can you ever grow used to this new house, precisely because it reminds you so much of your old home. You cannot see the blighted rose without recalling the beauty of your old gardens. You cannot walk the corridors without its layout bringing to mind the house you loved. You cannot look through the dingy windows at the overcast sky without remembering the glorious skies above the mansion of your youth. Everything you see makes you heartsick for the original, of which this current place is but a dark reflection. That is what it is like to remember heaven and dwell on earth.”

From Prospero Regained,

The main character’s brother is questioning to Hermes, who has explained that as Christ came to mankind, a different Savior came to visit the gods.

My brother was not so forbearing. He frowned severely, “But how can Our Divine Father approve of you? You are a pagan god, a devil! Does not your very existence violate the First Commandment?”

The Swift God snorted. “You are lucky, Twice-Pope, that you amuse me, or you would be but a cinder now. We divine beings who serve the All Highest are forbidden from inciting mortals to worship us. This is why, since our conversion—which came your Savior visited you—we no longer have priests and keep up temples on the earth. But that was ever a small part of our nature. We have our tasks to perform, our spheres of influence to oversee, such as my duties as a messenger.”

The previous examples had hints of Christianity. This, however, is an actual example of what I truly mean by Christian Magic—the Christianity is providing the magic. This scene takes place in the throne room of the demon queen Lilith.

“Is that so? Then, have you not heard,” he opened his mouth: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.

Everything within the sound of his voice suddenly seemed tawdry and hollow, as if its true nature had been revealed and found wanting. The chamber became so flimsy that, for a tiny instant, for a fraction of a split second, I saw right through it….

That’s the best example of what I mean that I have, but here’s one final example from the yet unpublished Rachel and the Technicolor Dreamland—an encounter between the main character and the Lion of Judah.

Out there before her now, invisible behind the fog, lay the memorial gardens with its many shrines, where offerings could be made to numerous gods. Rachel wished, not for the first time since she came to school, that her family had chosen a household god—someone she could pray to for guidance, for strength. She wished recklessly that some deity would manifest, as in the tales of old, and offer her comfort in return for loyalty.

No figure appeared amidst thunder and lighting. The only moving thing visible on the lawn below was Kitten Fabian’s familiar, padding its way across the damp grass. The little Comfort Lion, a golden-maned lion the size of a house cat, stopped and turned its head. Its golden eyes seemed to stare straight up at Rachel. It was probably a coincidence, but an eerie horripilation ran across Rachel’s body.

She thought back three seconds. In her memory, the Lion was gigantic—bigger than elephants, bigger than houses, bigger than trees. It looked down from the sky, its expression reminding Rachel of Mistletoe, when he sat watching a hole from which he expected a mouse to emerge.

There was no mistaking it. Its great golden eyes were focused directly upon Rachel.

 

Deeper Magic From Before The Dawn Of Time

This post is on one of my favorite things of all things: Christian Magic.

Travis Perry at Travis’s Big Ideas has an excellent article on ways that Christians handle magic to make it more or less in keeping with the Bible. You can see it here:

Seven Ways To Deal With The Problems Magic Poses Christian Fantasy Writers

This post is not on that.

For decades, there has been a large gap between traditional fantasy stories and Christian stories—fantastic or otherwise. This gap is growing smaller, especially with the existence of such things as Enclave Publishing, which specializes in Christian fantasy and science fiction. However, if the gap has been crossed successfully, more than possibly a few times, I have not yet heard about it.

What is this gap?

It is the gap between the wondrous and the pious.

The traditional fantasy stories include very little reference to Christianity. Many are overtly anti-Christian. The Christian stories, on the other hand, tend to be overtly pious, with no ambiguity or deviation from the particular strict doctrine.

I don’t know about you, but my life is not like that.

My life is more like being behind enemies lines. All around me is the secular world, filled with its terrors, its sorrows, its terrible doubts. I find myself challenged from all directions—both by the difficulties of life and by the skepticism of mankind. Those who are not Christian question my reliance on God, and many who are want to argue with me about the particulars of how to worship.

Yet, in the midst of all this comes glimpses of brilliant light, as if the Hand of God itself reached down from Heaven and touched some aspect of my life.

Miracles occur.

Many of them would not convince a skeptic. They are too subtle to point at: a sudden release from dark thoughts, an unexpected change in a seemingly hopeless situation. But some are more obvious: poison ivy on a baby instantly healed, a baby with a high fever instantly healed, back pain instantly relieved, Lime’s disease, which had progressed to such a degree as to cause semi-paralysis, instantly healed. The list could go on and on.

To continue, however, would be to miss the point, which is that it was not the physical changes that made the events so amazing, but the spiritual uplift that came with them. The moment when there was no hope—and suddenly, hope was present after all.

Unexpected touches of grace.

That is what I find missing from most overtly Christian stories, that moment when something totally unexpected but totally real happens. How could they be there, if the religion is so obvious that no one could miss it?

Where are the stories about people who discover the wonder and majesty of God, the way cleaning maids come upon unicorns or farm boys discover that they are Jedi?

Where are the stories that are as amazing as what happens to Gideon in the Bible? Or to Elisha? Or to Jacob?

(And if you have forgotten how utterly amazing and unexpected it is when three hundred men route an army, or when chariots of fire appear on the mountain, or when an angry, betrayed man who is coming to kill his brother suddenly embraces him instead, you might enjoy rereading a few of these stories.)

They that be with us are more than they that be with them. (2 Kings 6:16)

At this point, I must digress and discuss the purpose and meaning of magic in stories. In real life, I am not a fan of magic, if by magic, you mean the occult: casting spells, reading tarot, praying to gods, and other things that try to usurp the power of the Creator into our own hands (or the hands of some lesser power). I don’t personally find these things offensive. I have friends who enjoy them regularly. However, my personal experience suggests that those who engage in such pursuits may ultimately regret having done so.

But is magic in stories the same as magic in life?

I believe that it is not.

Or rather, I believe that magic in stories can have two different interpretations or purposes.

The first is the same as real life—the occult. People who worry that reading fantasy will lead to interest in the occult are worried about this interpretation. And they may have some grounds for concern. I fear good Professor Tolkien would be rolling in his grave if he knew how many modern Wicca had found their way to their current beliefs by first stepping upon the path trod by Bilbo. (Spinning fast enough to run a generator…but I digress. This is not an essay on Tolkien Power.) I personally have a family member who pulled out his tarot cards and crystal ball every time a new Harry Potter book came out. But, then, my family member is mentally ill and may not be a good indicator of the reading population in general.

The second is as analogy, when magic in a tale represents the sense of wonder that would come from greater things in real life. In this sense, the magic in a story represents the existence of wonder, of things greater than our eyes ordinarily show us, of hope.

Because, when praying, faith is required—and by faith here, I mean, specifically, a willingness for the prayer to actually be answered. One of the things that kills faith the quickest is doubt, lack of hope, a sense of certainty that the bad situation will never yield. This tends to interfere with the sense of acceptance of good often necessary for miracles.

So to the degree that magic in a story reminds us that there is more to life than what we see—that we should be open to the new and unexpected, to hope—I see it as a very positive thing.

Perhaps, there are those who read fantasies and turn to the occult, but then I also know people who, even as adults, credit their coming to Christianity to having read the Narnia books as a child.

Let me use an example: In the movie, Polar Express, the young man doubts the existence of Santa Claus. He wants to believe, but he doesn’t want to be fooled, bamboozled. There are two ways a Christian can take this.

1) This movie encourages belief in an idol, Santa Claus. It does not talk about God or Jesus, and thus takes away from the true meaning of Christmas. It is blasphemous.

2) The boy’s struggle concerning his faith in Santa Claus is an analogy for our struggle with our faith in God—where we want to believe, but we don’t want to discover t hat we’ve been fooled, bamboozled. This analogy reminds us of our own struggles and leads us to examine our faith more closely and thus is a signpost on the path to God.

This second option is how I, personally, view this movie, which is why I love it so very much. I always walk away feeling inspired to renew my efforts toward a more perfect faith.

And this is how I view magic in stories—not as a symbol of the occult, but as an analogy to help wake us out of the dreariness of our false concept of real life. It reminds us of that the real world is much vaster and more wondrous than we tend to give it credit for.

So, having come this far, what is it that I mean by Christian Magic?

I mean when something happens in a story that feels like magic-all marvelous and wondrous—but its source is Judeo-Christian, rather than occult or pagan.

In Narnia, we are told that the White Witch knows Deep Magic from the dawn of time. This allowed her to claim the right to slay Edmond the traitor. But Aslan knew a deeper magic still:

It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.” (Aslan, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.)

If you can read the last line and not have your heart lift, even slightly, this post—and the whole Superversive movement—is not for you.

And it may not be. No literature is for everyone.

But if you read this, and the notion that Death itself would start working backwards touches something deep inside you—like a finger from on-high brushing the harpstring of your soul—and your whole being thinks: Yes! Then, this whole effort is for you, just for you, and for those who—to paraphrase John Adams from 1776see what you see.

End of Part One. (Next time, in two weeks, actual examples of Christian Magic in stories.)