Archive for February, 2018

Magic is one of those muddled issues for Christians where contradictions and hypocrisy rear their ugly heads. In my previous post, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Hell Burns, magic was placed in the ugly category with nudity, sex, and violence. The reason the category is “ugly” and magic is included in it is that it has to do with questions of material in art – especially film and television – to which there does not seem to be a clear answer. In her review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the issue of magic receives this treatment. Unlike nudity, sex, and violence, however, the answer concerning magic is not that hard. “As Christians, we know that NO magic is good magic or so-called ‘white magic,’ or ‘natural’ magic like Wicca. Sorcery is not make-believe. It’s real, comes from ‘below,’ and is never to be used, even for ‘the good.'” I say the world needs more magic.


In his book, Looking for God in Harry Potter, John Granger explains that there are two kinds of magic: invocational and incantational. Invocational magic is that which calls upon other “powers”: think the occult and other forms that invoke the assistance of a demon. Incantational magic on the other hand does not call upon anyone, but is a magic in tune with the world. Keeping this real distinction in mind is fundamental for addressing the issue of magic in stories and the spiritual influence of those stories on their audience.

When Harry Potter burst onto the scene there was an outcry among Christians that it was Satanic because of the prevalence of magic – all the main characters and most of the supporting characters were witches and wizards, and students went to a school of “witchcraft and wizardry”. Magic in itself is identified as evil because magic is condemned in Scripture, the books were condemnable due to their use of magic, and allowing children to read the books and watch the movies would endanger them by opening them to the occult. Concerning the debates between Christians who condemn the books and Christians who affirm their good qualities while saying we need to teach our children the dangers of the occult, Sr. Helena says,

I’m somewhere in the middle on this, because HP presents the use of magic BY young people in such a modern and compelling way, that it seems to me extra precautions need to be taken. However, if I were a parent, I would definitely accompany my child through this cultural phenomenon (allowing them to read/watch), not because it’s “inevitable,” but because I would want my kids to be equipped to reach the culture, their peers with the Gospel, and that would mean engaging WITH the culture.

She then goes on to list some of the virtues found in Harry Potter and lessons it teaches. The problem is that there is no need to view the books and movies with suspicion due to magic, nor to turn them into mere tools for engaging the culture. The books can be read for enjoyment, enrichment, and, yes, even growth in our life in Christ. Would such a statement as Sister’s be said of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia? Many of the Christians who denounce Harry Potter because of its magic are avid readers of both Narnia and the Ring trilogy. Those who affirm Lewis and Tolkien, but reject Rowling as dangerous have never been able to explain why the former are good and the latter is dangerous when magic is so prevalent in all of them. They are not able to do this because they agree with Sister’s statement given above – “that NO magic is good.” But to believe this while upholding Lewis and Tolkien is hypocrisy. Fortunately, Mr. Granger does answer the question and he answers it quite well. Rowling’s work can be enjoyed in the same way as Lewis and Tolkien’s precisely because the magic is incantational, not invocational. So let’s get into why this distinction is so vitally important and truly does make a difference.

First, the difference between incantational and invocational magic is not of the typical categories of white versus black magic. In schemes that use so-called white and black magic, they are of the same type. Invocational and incantational magic are of two completely different types. Second, invocational magic is condemned in Scripture and is intrinsically evil. It calls upon demons so as to work their various machinations. It calls upon persons (not just impersonal powers) beyond our world. It is also important to note that invocational magic is quite “real, comes from ‘below,’ and is never to be used, even for ‘the good.'” In every instance of magic being used in Scripture, it is this type of magic. Incantational magic on the other hand is not condemned in Scripture for a very simple reason – it’s not real. But even if incantational magic were real would it be condemned by Holy Writ? I do not think so for incantational magic is sacramental.

Incantational means literally ‘to sing along with’ or ‘to harmonize.'” (Granger, 5) So what exactly is being sung with or harmonized? Creation. As human beings we already do this. We participate in God’s creative act in multiple and varied ways. We use the stuff of creation to do extraordinary things. Some do this for good and to the glory of God; others abuse the good and act in opposition to God. The determining factor for good or evil is not the creative stuff which we use, but in how we use it and the purpose for which we use it. The thing (creation) in itself is good as God declared it to be. Incantational magic is part of creation. In the various mythologies in which it is present, be it that of Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, or any other of the fantasies from Christian writers throughout the centuries, magic is done by way of forces already present within creation. Just as we can harness various forces today such as gravity, so too could Gandalf, “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor,” harness that mythical force in his battle against the Balrog. This is where we begin to touch on the sacramentality of incantational magic.

The world itself is a sacrament. Creation was not just pronounced good; it was also sanctified through the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. Just as man is made of the stuff of the earth, so too did the Son of God take on the stuff of the earth when he took our humanity onto Himself. The truth, goodness, and beauty of creation point to God, draw us to Him, and become a point of encounter with Him. It only does this though if one looks upon it in wonder. Wonder over the creative work of the Lord is something that we have been losing for centuries in the West. In the materialist worldview, creation has been de-sacramentalized. It is not creation; it is simply something that is, a thing that could have been or not have been, with no purpose, no ordered end, or meaning. In the utilitarian worldview, creation is something to be harnessed and used simply as we see fit. It is a mere tool to be used for whatever ends we desire. At the other extreme, mankind is looked upon as a cancer that needs to be cut from the world. From this perspective, the world itself is seen as something other. One view idolizes man, the other idolizes nature.

We need to regain a sense of wonder, a wonder of the divine, of the work of redemption, and of the work of creation. In a previous post on the importance of the fantastic and grotesque in literature, I spoke of the way in which fantasy literature helps restore “a true sense of the natural wonder of God’s creation.” G.K. Chesterton expresses this well in Orthodoxy when he says, “[Fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” In addition to these little changes pertaining to material, size, creatures, etc., a strong component of fantasy literature restoring a sense of wonder is the presence of magic. As mentioned above, this magic is part of creation. In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says that “it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural; whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” Harry Potter uses incantational magic and its use of such magic inspires the kind of wonder that Chesterton and Tolkien speak of. When watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there is a childlike wonder and happiness one experiences with Harry and Jacob as they are introduced to the magical world, one that is not beyond their own, but is quite naturally part of it. Sr. Helena expresses reservations about magic being done “BY young people in such a modern and compelling way,” but that is exactly the point – it is the connection with the real that elicits wonder in the real.

Narnia lamppost

In addition to fostering a sacramental view of the world, there is also a moral dimension to these stories and magic. In all of them, there is a connection between the world and people. The presence of incantational magic in fantasy literature does not just address the material worldview, but also the utilitarian. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and it is precisely through the various uses of magic and power that this is shown. There are consequences to how and for what purpose magic is used. People’s choices really mean something and carry weight later in the story. There is trial, redemption, rebirth, pain, and all the other joys and sorrows that mark human life. In a materialistic, utilitarian world where aborted babies are sold for profit and research, people are used for immoral experiments, insurance companies offer suicide pills instead of treatment, and men and women sale their bodies for consumerism, perhaps we could do with a little more of the wonder and inspiration of magical stories such as Harry Potter.



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I was recently introduced to the blog of Sr. Helena Burns, fsp, Hell Burns (I do love a good sense of humor). Sr. Helena specializes in the theology of the body and reviews films through that lens. I have many of the reviews linked below. Check it out.  Unfortunately, in the final analysis, I do not think Sister and I can be friends; she did call Blade Runner 2049 a “blistering disappointment” after all. Joking aside, Sr. Helena provides much thought-provoking commentary which can be divided into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

the good


The following are links to reviews that I especially liked: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Silver Linings Playbook, Warm Bodies, Here Comes the Boom, The King’s Speech, Sherlock Holmes, and District 9. There were other reviews she wrote that could easily be added to this list, so the list I have included here is an exercise of restraint on my part. It also presents a diversity of movies and her surprise toward some of them. Nothing else to say on my part. Why add to what has already been said well?

the bad


After reading her review, I’m not sure what was blisteringly disappointing about Blade Runner 2049, and the issues raised deserve a little more consideration than they were given. I found the movie to be thoughtful and respectful of the story that came before. A driving question in this film is what makes us human. While the materialist framework for the question was wholly inadequate this did not bother me for two reasons: First, it was expected. Second, the inability of a materialist to truly work with the kind of questions being posed reveals the inadequacy of the position itself, prompting a broader consideration of the question. Regardless of what one thinks of the movie, in an age of writers/directors making prequels and sequels that utterly ignore the story that has been entrusted to them, 2049 is a rare light of filmmaking humility rather than the self-aggrandizing egoism that pocks the Hollywood landscape.

I am completely dumbfounded by the review of Noah. Sister simply gushes over this movie, calling it “the best Bible movie ever made” and “the ultimate example of ‘cinema divina.'”

Jack Black - I can't even

She insists upon this from exercising “a Judeo-Christian read of ‘Noah’. And it almost totally works.” Um, no, it doesn’t. It honestly worries me a little that someone of Sr. Helena’s background has embraced this movie so whole-heartedly. She says, “Sadly, it seems Catholics don’t know their Bible well enough to critique this film.” I wonder, however, if such a statement is a rock which can be thrown back. The film does seriously depart from the Noah story. You see, the (ahem) devil is in the details (the details of the story not the movie). Aronofsky’s handling of the character, Noah, and his relationship with God are abysmal. So important is Noah’s character and relationship to the story that to depart from this anchor is to radically change the story, which is exactly what Aronofsky did so horribly. In her review, Sister hardly addresses the radical change in Noah himself (such as his becoming homicidal) and confuses the mentioning of God throughout the movie for God permeating the movie. It’s one thing to be mentioned a lot; it is another to actually be there. Though “the Creator” was mentioned throughout the film, His presence was certainly lacking. My own review of Noah delves into both of these issues. It also fleshes out that ever-so-important detail that Aronofsky completely rolls over. You can read it HERE.

Other film reviews that make my bad list are AvatarTwilight (as well as Breaking Dawn, Part 2), and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. (An aside concerning Twilight: For anyone who enjoys the vampire mythos, a strong sacramental worldview, and questions that drive into the human and divine, I cannot recommend enough the very fine book, Jennifer the Damned. It was described to me as the antidote to Twilight and it is.)

the ugly


Sr. Helena shines in the good, but it’s in the ugly that I particularly like her. These are the reviews where we wrestle with the truth that one size doesn’t fit all. Is all nudity and sex in films bad? Is all graphic violence bad? If not, when are they good and acceptable, even if they’re not necessary? What about those films with nudity, sex, and violence that don’t seem to fit the conditions of acceptability and yet don’t strike us as morally unacceptable? What of magic? What of guidelines for parents who want to exercise responsible guardianship as the primary educators of their children? None of these questions are easy, and it is some of these questions that I would like to look at in future posts. Sister here doesn’t give many straightforward answers. In my responses, I won’t either. But the question of the portrayal of the body in art – and especially in film and television – is so vitally important today that consideration must be given at the very least. Sister Helena does this from the perspective of the theology of the body. A more fundamental question, however, may be: “Are Christians capable of a right understanding of the theology of the body when they have grown up in a culture that is both hyper-sexualized and prudish?” Capable? Yes. Easily? Not by any stretch of the imagination. And this includes those who specialize in the theology of the body. It is for this reason the questions above are so difficult.

Some reviews that wrestle with these questions that I would like to look at in the future are: The Book of Eli (question of violence), Ex Machina (question of nudity), Game of Thrones (sex, nudity, violence, and magic), and Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince (question of magic). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy perusing Hell Burns.


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