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09:54 am: Superversive Blog: Christian Magic — Part Two

Subversive Literary Movement


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.


Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)


[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2014 06:14 pm (UTC)
My memories of Benary-Isbert's THE WICKED ENCHANTMENT are old and tattered, but it might have what you want. Chute's GREENWILLOW much less, but some.

The wooden wheel that won't burn reminds me of Charles Williams's Grail, his Muslim Stone, etc. What do you think of his books?
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2014 06:23 pm (UTC)
I think of Charles Williams as being part of the same mindset...but, alas, I've read so little of his work that I don't know enough to draw examples. I really should read more.
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2014 06:28 pm (UTC)
And thanks for the book titles. I'm making a list of books to investigate and possibly list or post about later.
[User Picture]
From:Peter DaDalt
Date:November 12th, 2014 09:20 pm (UTC)
Christian Magic resonates when done well. Of course, that's because I think "good storytelling" reflects the "Good Story". But then, I may be just a tad biased.

You mentioned Butcher's Dresden, and rightfully so. I recall him saying one time that he had "a well above median background in theology". His riffs on choice are particularly good. And I'm waiting for TWG (The White God") to make an "explicit" appearance in his books.
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2014 09:59 pm (UTC)
He may be as multi-cultural as he appears...but if he were to have a sudden resolution of the sides in favor of God and evil, that would be the most Superversive series Evah.
Date:November 12th, 2014 11:32 pm (UTC)

Christian magic

The only two books that come my mind that "might" meet your definition are "The Shadow of the Lion" by Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey, and Eric Flint and "The Adept" by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris. I'm a little more confident of the first book, especially since Kat is given help to defeat evil in the final battle.

- Eleanor
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2014 11:49 pm (UTC)

Re: Christian magic

Date:November 13th, 2014 12:29 am (UTC)
That was excellent. An excellent description of the examples of how (and how not) in show elements of the sacred in fantasy.

Thank you.

Date:November 13th, 2014 12:33 am (UTC)

An Almost

Peter F. Hamilton ALMOST pulled this off in his Night's Dawn Trilogy, giving a priest the power to banish the returned dead with an exorcism. Unfortunately, he seemed to chicken out and used a lot of hand waving to weakly explain that it wasn't really Christian magic. Too bad: the series is rife with occult and Christian references and allusions. I sometimes wonder if he or his editor just got spooked by having such a blatant scene (he IS a British SF author, after all).
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 12:41 am (UTC)

Re: An Almost

That could be. Interesting.

John recommended the Exorcist as an option. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it.
Date:November 13th, 2014 04:24 pm (UTC)
Christopher Stasheff tried (is trying? I'm not sure if the series is still being written) to do this with "Her Majesty's Wizard" and sequels, in which the magic looks like more or less generic Fantasyland stuff, but Christianity is part of the accepted background of the parallel universe. And evil magicians typically learn their skills from infernal grimoires, because Hell will teach anyone. I found it only moderately successful.

The fairly obscure author Lars Walker does a creditable job with his Viking historical fantasies, in which the narrator character is an Irish priest. Most of the magic they have to deal with is pagan, but Christianity does have supernatural power. His contemporary fantasy "Wolf Time" has the same attitude and features an excellent brief appearance by an angel. His "Blood and Judgement" is less successful on all fronts; I haven't read his more recent "Troll Valley" or "Doors of Death and Life," but they probably follow the same pattern.

In John's Dreaming duology, and to a lesser extent the Chronicles of Chaos, Christian elements are one element of the general mythic-magical stew. Would you consider them to feature Christian magic? I don't think I would, because it seems clear that the Christian elements are part of a larger non-Christian context. (Compare to the Dresden Files, in which Butcher has avoided so far determining whether the Christian or Lovecraftian elements are more ultimate.)
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 05:57 pm (UTC)
I think Christianity as part of a stew is still Christian Magic. If the Christian powers have...well, power, it's Christian Magic. For story purposes, it does not require that other magics not work.

Mr. Stasheff, alas, died some years ago. I met him once or twice. He was a fine gentleman.
Date:November 13th, 2014 09:56 pm (UTC)
Consider a work in which Christian magic has power because it -- like all magic -- derives supernatural power from human belief. This isn't particularly uncommon: it shows up in the idea that a cross drives back vampires because of the power of faith, and (implicitly; often explicitly) a symbol of any other faith would work the same way. I would say that is no longer Christian magic.

Similarly in the Dreaming books it seemed to me that magic ultimately came from the same source, which wasn't Christian; some of it happened to wear Christian garb, but that isn't enough to make it Christian. The Chaos Chronicles may be another example, or maybe not: the question is actually raised and left ambiguous. Parallel to the Dresden Files, I suppose.

Stasheff (RIP: I may have heard about his death but had forgotten it) sets up "His Majesty's Wizard" so that the protagonist thinks he's in a belief-creates-magic world but then finds out that Heaven and Hell seem rather to have independent power: the next step past ambiguity.
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 04:50 pm (UTC)
the problem I have with the Deryni books is that the magic pushes awfully close to theurgia at times. A prayer that begs their protection and offers gratitude for the virtues of natural magic that they are about to use would be neater. . . .

Yes, there are those who take any reference to magic as a gateway to the occult. There's a limit to how far you can go to cut them off.

On the whole, pragmatic, useful magic would seem to be the greatest temptation to trying to practice, AND -- it would also seem to be least useful for a sensawunda. If Agnes the Witch summons up witchlight in lieu of turning on a flashlight, it's hard to find it much more wonderful.
Date:November 13th, 2014 04:55 pm (UTC)

Yes, But....

This has always been a stumbling block for me, and I've never seen a way around it that's consistent and Biblical.

I've been a lover of Fantasy as long as I can remember. I can quote Tolkien like a mullah knows the Quran. I've played D&D since 1979. The theology section of my library has a whole shelf of Lewis. But.

I can't find any justification for Christian characters using magic - particularly in a "real world"-analogue. I'd put Harry Potter, the Dresden Files, Monster Hunter International, and Mr. Wright's Everness books in that category.

I'm not talking here about menacing Dracula with a crucifix (despite my Scots Presbyterian streak, I can still see that being easily justified) but casting spells, reading incantations from dusty tomes, etc.

In Middle Earth, I can rationalize that Gandalf is really an angel of sorts and is really using his inherent power as such, Aslan in Narnia even more so. In stories set in our world, however, I'm left with either "In this imaginary version of our world, God never forbid those things." or "This is entertainment, don't think too hard about it." I wouldn't accept that for another sin ("Oh, in Bible that exists in The Boredflak Chronicles, adultery is not condemned!").

The idea of redeemed pagan gods (or that they were angels all along) appeals to me, but it seems like a cop-out. Dr. Dimble's discussion of "narrowing" in regard to Merlin in That Hideous Strength in some sense justifies Merlin, but would very clearly not apply to us moderns.

I'm sorry to drag all this out, but I feel like two dear friends are having an argument in my head, and I believe that on this blog I'm among people who understand both points of view.

Thanks so much,
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 06:02 pm (UTC)

Re: Yes, But....

Nice analysis...and one that makes it ways in to many stories.

In my Prospero series, for instance, it is pretty clear that ritual magic is bad for humans. The Prosperos do it anyway, because they are trying to protect the rest of the human race, but the price they pay is pretty high. (And they have some supernatural backing.)

In real life, I think magic really is inimitable to Christianity--but I can certainly think of alternate rules and circumstances where that might not be the case.

(If you read the previous post, you alreay saw the section on magic as wonder in fantasy vs. magic as the occult in real life.)
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 09:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Yes, But....

There are three kinds of things that are now lumped together as "magic."

Goetia: trafficking with evil spirits. Forbidden, and obviously bone-headed because they are more powerful and clever than you are. How could you force them with the necessary reliability to qualify as magic?
Theurgia: trafficking with angels or God. Deletes the problem with their evil, cranks up the problem with their being stronger, and adds impiety to boot.
Magica: Using the natural but occult(that is, hidden) properties of things. Drinking willow bark tea was magic, once. Usually called Science nowadays, because it went through a wringer to check whether it worked, but there's no actual harm in hypothesizing a world in which the results of the wringer differed from ours.

Edited at 2014-11-13 09:54 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:November 13th, 2014 05:21 pm (UTC)
As a complete tangent:

"Harry cried wistfully"

How do you cry wistfully? Crying implies eagerness and excitement. And why would he be wistful, looking for information?
[User Picture]
From:Sarah Pierzchala
Date:November 14th, 2014 02:35 am (UTC)

Christian Magic

Interesting discussion---love to see I'm not the only one wrestling with these considerations. I'm going to second the works of Charles Williams---so unique and memorable!

I devoured the whole Prospero series! I loved that you dared to even raise the issue of demons' salvation. By coincidence, I had recently read "The Boy who met Jesus: Segatashya of Kibeho", by Imamaculee Ilibagiza.

It falls into the category of "private revelation", but there is an eye-opening account in it of a conversation between Jesus and the boy about what would happen if Satan repented....I'll say no more :)
[User Picture]
Date:November 14th, 2014 03:08 am (UTC)

Re: Christian Magic

I'll go take a look, thanks.

Ironically, I had committed to writing up the books of Unexpected Enlightenment...before I found out what the game they are based on was really about. So if there turns out to be a similar theme in this series...it's not my fault. ;-)

And thank you!
[User Picture]
From:Earl Wajenberg
Date:November 17th, 2014 03:02 am (UTC)
Since Charles Williams has come up in this thread more than once, I offer a summary of his novels.

In the first three, some good and holy thing(s) are wrenched out of their proper place and into our world, and it is the job of the Christian heroes to restore proper order:

War in Heaven (1930):
The Holy Grail exists and is presently in the parish church of the small English village of Fardles. This becomes known and the race is on between good guys and bad guys. The bad guys want to offer it to Hell and the good guys want to stop them.

Many Dimensions (1931):
Somewhere, there is a Sufi order that guards a small cubical stone. The Stone was once mounted in King Solomon's crown. It contains the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. It grants the holder miraculous powers, but also brings divine judgment down on them. Watch it get passed back and forth between good guys and bad guys, and see the results.

The Place of the Lion (1931):
A small English village is plagued by mysterious destructive forces. This is because a retired philosopher has (accidentally or deliberately) called down the hierarchy of angels, who turn out to be Platonic archetypes, into the world. They are as unhuman as natural forces and they are absorbing their ectypes. E.g. Power gets personified as the titular lion, and starts prowling the neighborhood. Everywhere it goes, it soaks up all the examples of power, starting with electrical power and the strength of buildings. Then more personifications show up, like Cunning and Speed and Beauty. What do you do when the world starts to run out of adjectives?

In the next two, something not obviously holy erupts into the world and must be put back.

The Greater Trumps (1932):
A young lawyer is delighted to discover that his fiancee's father has inherited the original Tarot deck. The father doesn't know about the deck's magical power, but the young lawyer does, and is eager to get his hands on the deck and start experimenting.

Shadows of Ecstasy (1933): Nigel Considine, an English adventurer in the British African colonies, claims to have discovered, and to teach, a way of turning all the emotional energy created by joy, love, and beauty into strength and life, a path to immortality. He has started a political movement, the "African High Executive," dedicated to overthrowing not only colonialism but "rationalist civilization." Does he really have the power and immortality he claims? And is he good or evil?

The last two have strange circumstances thrust ordinary Christians more or less bodily into the visionary or spirit world (it's never made clear, or if there's a difference), there to battle evil with courage and wit and faith, because of power they have zip.

Descent into Hell (1937):
In the prosperous London suburb of Battle Hill, noted poet and playwright Peter Stanhope helps a local theatre group put on a pretty little play. While they work at that, various living and dead people find their ways to heaven and hell, young women are terrorized by dopplegangers, a man meets the literal Girl of His Dreams, and we learn what Lilith is doing nowadays.

All Hallows' Eve (1945):
Right after World War II, Father Simon le Clerk appears on the international scene, preaching a new religion or revival movement (the details never made clear). This was his cover for a bid at messiahship, energized by Hermetic Magic. His plot is discovered by a young widower, the ghost of his late wife, and their friends.

Edited at 2014-11-17 03:03 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2014 03:18 am (UTC)
Wow! Those all sound fascinating!

I wish I had reading time. I wonder if I could find some.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2014 09:07 pm (UTC)

Christian Magic

It's been probably a couple of decades since I read it so I don't remember very clearly, but I seem to recall a Wrinkle in Time having Christian magic. At least I think it referred to angels.

Also Arthurian lore is a pretty prominent example. The power of the Grail is a pretty universal element, and if you dive deeper into the older texts you find all kinds of references to Christian texts and lore.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2014 09:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Christian Magic

Wrinkle in Time certainly has a Christian feel and deserves its own post.

I hadn't thought of Arthurian lore! Good point!
[User Picture]
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