Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Morality & Magic (Part I: What is Magic?)

Art by Jeremiah Morelli
If magic isn't the most tentative subject in tabletop role-playing games, then it certainly encroaches as second best. There are many, particularly among us Christians, that regard the concept of magic as a fictional element to be somewhere between unpleasant and blasphemous.

Whether it be Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time, or even Christian-inspired works such as Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, a lot of us find the idea of magic daunting. Certainly a valid concern; the Bible specifically condemns magic several times and there have been decades of generally subversive connotation associated with the topic in our culture here in the United States. As both a Christian and a fan of fictitious fantasy, I have put a large degree of thought into the subject over the course of my life. So, with the advent of the Casting Lots blog I decided to delve into the research of magic as a concept; as it relates to culture, scripture, and the games we play.

Now, while I have tried to be thorough in my research of the topic, I do not want to turn this article into a thirty page technical essay (though having said this, know that this article will still be a long one). Instead, I thought it best to break down the subject over multiple articles. So while I will discuss in varying lengths how different forms of magic translate in the Bible from English to Hebrew and Greek, the moral and ethical implications of its use in fiction, and the effects of using it in the game, this is (and I imagine will continue to be) a topic of immeasurable complexity and discussion. So whilst you read this article, keep in mind that different people can have different opinions without being wrong.

Definition & Context
Now to consider the implications in the use of magic in fiction, it is imperative that we first take a step back and look at what magic is; what it means in our culture and in the Bible. Magic is a word that encompasses a very wide scope. Here in the real world, the word magic most commonly used to describe a concept, event, or atmosphere which is extraordinary or cannot be conventionally explained. Consider Harry Houdini, David Blaine, Penn & Teller; while they hold no supernatural power, they use misdirection, props, and legerdemain to make the impossible seem possible.

This, however, is not the kind of magic we have come to deliberate over. What I refer to instead, is the manipulation or affiliation with supernatural elements.Typically, in this context we think of wizards and sorcerers manipulating some arcane energy to create balls of fire or conjure up illusions. This idea of wizardry and magic, which I shall call 'Merlinistic' magic, manipulates fundamental forces of their fictional world, rather than calling upon outside entities as a priest, or a druid, or a witch might.

Were we to draw parallels from this Merlinistic magic to our real world, it would be more appropriate and more accurate to compare it to science. These wizards harness the natural laws and forces of creation through the manipulation of their properties. Of course, there is no source of arcane energy here in the material universe, but much like a wizard in the fantasy world draws arcane power through a magic wand, Nikola Tesla might harness the power of lightning through a wound coil (And yes, my comparison of Nikola Tesla to a wizard was quite deliberate).

Now, the magic we see in the Bible refers instead to the calling upon of external forces for perceived power. Whether it be Joshua, petitioning God to suspend the sun and moon in their place, that they might continue to fight in the daylight, or the priests of Egypt calling upon their gods in a display of power. To draw parallels into fantasy, we see this presented not in wizardry, but in the form of priests, clerics, and paladins; these characters who act as a medium or conduit for supernatural forces or spirits. For the purposes of this article, I shall refer to this as 'Mediumistic' magic.

Merlinistic vs. Mediumistic
These two ideas of magic appear in fiction in a variety of different ways. Most commonly, the differences are illustrated as arcane (Merlinistic) and divine (Mediumistic) magic. In the Bible, both Old Testament and New, the strictures regarding magic are imposed against seers, augurs, and diviners, which is to say, Mediumistic magic. God's followers were commanded not to seek council with these prognosticators, as this act in its very nature was offensive to God; to seek out power and council from a spirit other than God, even through a medium. Naturally, there is no mention of this 'Merlinistic' magic in the Bible, as it does not exist in our world.

The moral question does not lie within the act, but in the source. God himself has performed 'Mediumistic' magic, providing us with prophets and miracles throughout the Bible and beyond. To barter power with a spirit other than Him would be a betrayal of His trust and a hurtful thing to do to one's relationship with Him. On the other hand, one could not affront God with the use of 'Merlinistic' magic, as it does not exist and therefor cannot be harnessed. Even so, should 'Merlinistic' magic exist, it would have no greater moral bearing than lightning or gravity. It would exist as part of the creation God breathed into existence.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting viewpoint, which you might get into in Part 2 (which I'll read next), is that magic is the religion of outsiders. If you think historically, about druids and mediums and witches, they were practicing other forms of religion apart from the status-quo Christianity of their day. If, say, the Roman Empire had converted to druidism rather than Christianity, it would be the Christians practicing magic and the druids evoking miracles.