Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Morality & Magic (Part II: In Vain; From the Desk of M. Joseph Young)

Image by Gonzalo Ordóñez Arias
 Last time in Morality & Magic, I discussed the use of magic in fiction and my perspectives on it as a Christian. During my study, I concluded that the chief concern in regards to the concept of magic is it's source. Is this power drawn from God or from something opposed to him? Now, this can be analyzed clearly in the real world by studying the Bible and consulting with the Holy Spirit to assess whether something truly extraordinary is in line with God's Word.

 In fiction we must look at this concept through an additional lens, and that blurs the answer much more thoroughly. In our real-world struggle between the spiritual world, what are the implications of playing a character who affiliates themselves with a fictional deity? Is this idolatry in the eyes of the Lord, or is it simply storytelling whose spiritual weight is dismissable?

 Well, as a point of addressing this dilemma, I'd like to introduce you to an article written by the venerable reverend M. Joseph Young, author of Faith & Gaming and a model of inspiration for me personally. He wrote an article entitled 'In Vain' which has provided me amazing insight on the subject and I really cannot laud this man enough. I'd like to share this article with you as anything I can say, he has expressed so eloquently in this excerpt;
In Vain
M. Joseph Young
November 2001
 Is it appropriate for characters in a fictional world to call upon any deity? It is not a simple question.  At every turn God has commanded magic, that we have no regard for other gods; it is top of the list in the Ten Commandments, the concept behind many of the prohibitions (from sorcery to cutting the corners of your beard), and the reason why Israel and Judah were conquered by foreign nations.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  But at the same time, you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  We are caught between the proverbial two horns.  When we are creating fictional characters in fictional worlds, who do they worship?  On whom do they call?  Do we allow them to call on gods whose names and perhaps whose powers and expectations are different from the Creator?  Or do we risk offending God by using His identity in our tales, possibly misrepresenting Him in the process (after all, we have trouble knowing how He will answer our real prayers--how can we know what He will do in response to fictional petitions)?  On whom should our characters call? 
  At this point we might consider it fair to reconsider whether we should be telling fictional stories at all.  After all, there are enough true stories in the world which glorify God that we could never tell them all.  Should we go back to our consideration in Settings and again ask whether we should be imagining things that are not?  But we have covered that ground, we have come to this point.  It is time to ask ourselves the bounds of our portrayals of the supernatural realm:  do we bring the Real God into our games and stories, or do we invent and borrow imaginary gods to play parts on the supernatural stage? 
  Perhaps it will help to bring the question, and the possible answers, into focus if we attempt to list the possibilities. 
  We could include God in our games as He represents Himself in scripture.  This is not easy; for one thing, He represents Himself in different ways at different times for different reasons, and He does not always choose to tell us the reasons.  He ordered Israel to destroy entire cities with all their populations including the children and the livestock, but God has called us to peace.  He is not willing that one should perish, yet Himself destroyed the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness.  To say that there is a danger we might misrepresent God in our stories or games is to understate the case.  It is certain that at some point we will misrepresent Him, for we are fallible.  
Does doing so dishonor Him?  The Masorites who preserved the text of the Old Testament among the Jews for centuries were so afraid about misusing the Name of God, the four-letter Tetragrammaton, that they mis-marked the vowel points so as to indicate the word adonai, "Lord", should be spoken instead (leading to the completely unfounded use of Jehovah by early English translations); and some Jews today will write the letters G-D from the same reverence for the forgotten Name.  Should we so avoid making a mistake about God that we avoid using His identity in our games and stories? 
  Or perhaps we should include Him, but change His name.  C. S. Lewis did this, calling God Maleldil in his space trilogy and using Aslan for Jesus in Narnia (where in one volume the Great Lion directs the children that they must come to know Him by the name by which He is known in their world, but doesn't say what that would be).  Can we escape any affront to God by putting the thin veil of another name over Him, permitting us the comfort of being able to blame our mistakes on the fact that it isn't really Him we are portraying, yet at the same time avoiding any charge of idolatry in that it in some sense is Him?  I knew a young Baptist girl who sometimes prayed to Jesus by the name Aslan; to her, the Lion of the story was the same Person as her own Savior--it was as Morning Star or Lion of Judah, another title for His Person.  To Lewis, it was not possible to imagine a world in which God was not God if God was God in any world; thus the Gods of his worlds were thinly-veiled copies of our God.  Yet they were imperfect copies, something that could be excused since they were distinct from God by virtue of their names.  Can we have it both ways? 
  Or do we remove it another step?  J. R. R. Tolkien created Elbereth, the Creator God of Middle Earth.  He perhaps was not so powerful as God, and the people of Middle Earth did not rely on his power to deliver them, but on their own.  But he sent the wizards, much as angels, to help them, and he was worshipped by the elves, and those men who knew.  It was a world with one god, perhaps not The God, but not different from Him in character.  Yet by moving the identity of Elbereth away from God, Tolkien was able to make him weaker, less involved, and so move his story forward without having to consider what God would do at any point.  (After all, should not God have intervened against the evil of Sauron, who has all the marks of a fallen angel attempting to enslave mankind?)  Does creating an ethical monotheism that is clearly not that of the Bible provide us with sufficient distance that our god can be less than perfect?  Or does devising an intentionally different single good god even in fiction offend the True God? 
  We could go a step beyond this.  We could imagine a world in which there are many gods, or gods that are very different from God who are yet gods in some real sense.  Whether we get these from ancient mythologies or modern fiction, or invent them ourselves, they are less like God and more like characters, perhaps like angelic and demonic beings vying for control in the lives of men.  It is much easier to portray the spiritual battle that surrounds us if we can for the moment ignore the fact that the Good side has with it the One Who can win the battle with a word, Who can unmake all that He has made if He so chooses.  A world in which good and evil powers are more evenly matched may have philosophical problems (How do you definegood if some of the gods are against it?  Is it a matter of our own personal preference, or is it something greater than the gods?); but it permits the struggle between good and evil to be more poignant, more vital, and perhaps at least a little bit uncertain (if good cannot lose, what need is there to defend it?).  And we are completely free of any concern that we have misused the identity of God, as He is no longer suggested by our backstory.  We have admitted that our gods are imperfect, limited, fallible.  We are now completely free of any fear that we might misrepresent God, as He is not an issue.  Yet we are also most dangerously close to the idolatry which so offends Him.  Is this an answer, or a worse problem? 
  Given the difficulty involved in representing God in a game or story, perhaps it would be better to exclude Him entirely--to have no God, no gods, no spirit powers at all, in our imagined worlds.  Yet this would seem to be most offensive of all.  How can there be a world without God, if God is God?  To suggest this is to suggest that it would be better to teach that God doesn't exist than to risk making the slightest error about Him.  Yet every preacher runs the risk every week of misrepresenting God; and every teacher lives with the possibility that he might be wrong about God, and is encouraging others to believe a mistake.  I could not justify any world that encouraged people to doubt the existence of God, or to ignore Him and pretend He didn't matter.  Some answer must be chosen, and it should not be one that denies all spiritual reality entirely. 
  There is no easy answer to this problem.  You can't even escape it by refusing to play games or read stories, as each of us will have his own image of Who God is and will share that with others, with all its flaws.  We are going to misrepresent God; we just want to keep that misrepresentation to a minimum. 
  My own solution, expressed in the pages of Multiverser, is to suggest One Supreme God, and a multitude of created supernatural beings who could be called gods, some of whom work on His behalf as they are able, some of whom work against Him, none of whom are perfect or omniscient or omnipotent or any of the other things only G-D can be.  Then as I tell my stories and run my games, the characters interact with the admittedly imperfect angelic and demonic gods, and I rarely have to represent what The God would do.  But this is an imperfect solution; it misrepresents the natures of angels and devils to some degree, and in so misconstruing creation misconstrues the Creator.  Other solutions succeed in avoiding this pitfall, but fall into another.  If there is a perfect solution, I have not found either it or anyone who thinks they know it. 
 But I am convinced that it is better to misrepresent God in our games and stories than to exlclude Him. Understanding that we will never present Him perfectly, we should allow ourselves to represent Him imperfectly to whatever degree we are comfortable, and trust that He will use our imperfections for His greater glory.

1 comment:

  1. As a huge Tolkien nerd, I have to point out that Elbereth is one of the Valar, but not the creator. The creator was Illuvatar, also called Eru ("the One"). Elbereth was wife of Manwe and queen of the valar, who are kind of like powerful angels manage Middle-Earth like lesser deities. So, sorry. Had to nerd out there.

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