The Metaphysics of Magic:
Writing Christian Fantasy from a Christian Worldview
While a philosopher by trade, I am a fantasy writer by heart. But sometimes these worlds collide and I can’t help but to allow the left side of my brain to wrestle and pin down the right. I can’t stand to do anything passionately until I understand what it means to do that specific action. That’s why I’ve had to address my own questions: “What does it mean to write 'Christian' fantasy? What are the essential marks of a Christian fantasy writer?”
Christian fantasy writers are of a different suit than other artists. Painters create works of art, musicians write songs, and dancers dance, but fantasy writers are charged with creating another world; an alternate or additional story to the reality we now inhabit. The writer is free to ask, “What if our world was different? Or if it never existed at all.”
With this in mind it’s safe to say that fantasy writers are artists who teeter on blasphemy. For if we create merely for the sake of creating, or put even more selfishly, if we write for our own mere enjoyment, then there can be nothing more blasphemous. For to create an alternate world with no intent to bring God the glory is a bold and brazen attempt at being God, who did create this world for His own glorification.
While there may be some disagreement on this last point, I make it merely to showcase the concept that a positive intent is a necessary component of Christian fantasy. It’s not merely a fantastic tale, there must be a focus on “something more.”
Please don’t interpret this last sentence as an argument that all Christian fantasy must be blatantly gospel-laden. Rather, just like Tolkien’s notion that Lewis’ Narnia was “heavy-handed,” I think that Christian fiction writers may sometimes be too overt in their integration of the gospel. Just to think, we could have even more stories that end in a risen hero who has sacrificed himself to free his friends from some sort of bondage. While allegory is often practiced, it’s rarely done in such a way that seems original and entertaining to the reader.
One of the most neglected motivations for fantasy writing (and reading) is for discipleship. Many valuable lessons can be taught and learned from a truly good story. There are obvious examples like the value of friendship and sacrifice in The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books, but there are plenty of examples of philosophical and theological discipleship in other works of fantasy as well.
Consider C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, where the writer explores the nature of an alternate Adam and Eve that never sinned or even George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, where a young boy considers the problem of evil when the noble North Wind performs some questionable actions. Under the beautiful guise of fantasy, concepts about our Creator and general truths about our world should overflow.
While magic is not an essential part of the Christian fantasy story, it’s a quite common element to many. The question the writer should ask is not, “Should or shouldn’t there be magic in my story,” but rather the question should be, “How does the magic in this story work, especially if there is no explicit God figure in the tale?”
I believe it’s right and reasonable to ask, “From what or whom does this power come?” when you are reading a magical story set in this world. Is it from Satan or from God? This is exactly the reason why there was so much buzz and ridicule of The Harry Potter series. While Hogwarts was a magical school, it still took place on earth and the powers were not limited to an alternate world.
But if the magical powers or the story as a whole are bound in a different reality, the question above makes little sense. In a speculative realm what we may call “magic” may be as normal as simple physics. No one cried, “Foul!” when Gandalf’s staff illuminated, or Lucy’s cordial healed Reepicheep. Why? Because the reader realized that things of that world were very different from ours, and that no supernatural being (good or evil) was necessary for the magic to take place.
The question should then be reformulated pragmatically for the reader, “For what is this magical power used? Something good, or something evil?” For the source of the magic is no longer the question. The action is as normal as any other action in that world. The inquiry then turns to the motivation and consequence of the magical deed.
That leads us to our last point: there should be an easy-to-discern good and evil in the story. This doesn't mean that there must be a perfectly good protagonist and horrendously vile villain, but rather that goodness itself is established in the tale, and evil the obvious lack thereof. Goodness itself, the qualities that God personifies and the virtues we strive for should be clear, encouraged, and unquestioned.
While not an exhaustive set of attributes, the essential elements of Christian fantasy have been considered, and a manifesto of Christian fantasy writers has commenced. Comments, reactions, and differing views welcome below.
Dean Hardy, Bible Department Chair at Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina, is also the author of Magnus Kir, an allegorical YA novel published by Ambassador International. You can connect with Dean at his Facebook page.