Between December of 2017 and February of 2018, the world was taken by storm by two films - landmark releases from two major film franchises. The first was Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi, which in typical Star Wars form destroyed box office competition. Shortly after, the release of Marvel's long-anticipated Black Panther film broke pre-sale records and became an impressive cultural phenomenon.
Both of these films shared some common characteristics: oversight by Disney, participation in the science-fiction and action genres to some extent, and also an element of fantasy and magic. In Black Panther, the protagonist T'Challa comes from a nation that practices animistic ancestral veneration. T'Challa himself gains superhuman powers from the Panther god Bast. Interestingly, Bast has some real-world mythological basis as a cat-like goddess in some religions, including the religion of ancient Egypt.
And of course, Star Wars as always highlights the influence of The Force - a concept created by George Lucas based on the theologies of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and some others. The Last Jedi especially brought Taoist themes into focus, digging deeper into concepts of light and darkness being balanced on both a cosmic level and a personal, internal level. The returning hero Luke Skywalker, among the cast of other supernatural characters, performs some incredible feats using the power of the Force.
What is Magic? Is it real? And what does the Bible have to say about it?
Christians have long be wary of the influence of magic upon societies and cultures. In the contemporary western world, magic is regarded as a silly fairytale idea that has no real value or legitimacy. Live-performance "magic" shows have been evaluated and explained in TV documentaries, showing the lighting, stage props, and misdirection techniques used in theater to create magical illusions. Many western people are content to believe that magic does not exist since we have sen it exposed as a stage trick. Interestingly, this disbelief in the reality of magic coincides with a general lack of belief in supernatural things, including God, angels, demons, and so on.
In other parts of the world, however, the supernatural world seemingly does less to hide itself from people in real life. Various forms of real-world magic are practiced, often with the intention of either contacting supernatural powers or dead people, or else to harm the living. People from different parts of the world have very clear and vivid stories about the influence of magic on their actual lives. When these people are Christians, they often recount their stories with horror and revulsion.
This is not without cause. The Bible contains many solemn and serious warnings about magic.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1 ESV
While modern “magicians” rely on sleight of hand, stage tricks, and other technologies to pull off entertaining stunts, the Bible speaks of a different kind of magic. Certain people, sometimes called “sorcerers”, could access power from demons and evil spirits to perform supernatural feats. (Exodus 7:11)
Others were simply inspired by evil influences to perform tricks, which could deceive and mystify people even though they were fake. (Acts 8:9-13)
While things like this may seem strange or even silly to a modern, western audience, there are many places in the world where religious forms of magic are practiced. Some words used in the modern world to describe different kinds of magic and magical beliefs are Vodou/Vodun, Obeah, Animism, Neopaganism, Wicca, and so on. These labels represent widely different cultural and religious beliefs, which cannot all be treated or understood the same way. Some of these belief systems believe in drawing power from gods, or from nature itself, or perhaps from the spirits of ancestors.
For Christians, the Bible is clear about a couple things. First, it is wrong for Christians to worship or have spiritualistic interactions with things that are not the Creator (Romans 1:21-23). Furthermore, there is a type of magic that is mentioned frequently in the Bible that some people still practice today: necromancy. This is the art of attempting to contact and communicate with the dead. People who do this are called mediums, or necromancers.
The Bible clearly prohibits any attempt to contact the dead via necromancers or mediums (Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-12), and notes that many of the people in those days who practiced these things were also involved in human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10, 2 Kings 21:6). Because the dead know nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6), it is not even possible to contact them; but it is possible for demonic spirits to deceive you into believing you have contacted a dead person.
Compared to the experience of the Bible times, some things that today are called “Magic” are not magic at all, while others are very real. To those outside of the Christian faith, many Christian beliefs and practices may simply look like another kind of magic. The requirement of discernment in the life of a Christian means that we need to learn how to distinguish imaginary things from real things. Luke Skywalker and T'Challa are not real, even though their mythologies are based on real things from our world's history. We should not try to re-write history as though we can pretend that none of these things ever existed.
For example, the story of Black Panther is predicated on the idea of an African nation that was never colonized by foreign powers. In the telling of such a story, does it not make historical sense to depict the people as practicing their native form of spirituality? To observe and respect the fact that some people have had certain practices is not the same as to adopt those practices oneself.
Likewise, the real world may not have Jedi Knights like Luke Skywalker or Rey, but there are martial arts based on certain philosophies and religions that have given people remarkable abilities that can be somewhat explained by science while seemingly defying the limits of human capability. And there certainly is and ongoing struggle for power between the dark side and light side in the real world.
Christians should be careful and discerning, trusting God’s guidance and avoiding potentially dangerous spiritual practices, without wasting time and effort fighting against non-threats. Ultimately, we must trust in Jesus, who had power over all spirits.
One book of the Bible that sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to supernatural powers and magic is the book of Ephesians. Read the following passages from Ephesians. What does it tell us about Christ, his Church, and the supernatural powers? Ephesians 1:19-23, Ephesians 3:7-13, Ephesians 6:10-18
Many Christians warn about magic without being familiar with the kinds of magic that were practiced in the ancient world. Read the following Bible verses and describe what purpose these kinds of magic seem to serve. (Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-12) See also Deuteronomy 18:10, 2 Kings 21:6 for information about human sacrifice. Are there any practices today that mirror their ancient counterparts that we perhaps should avoid?
In Exodus 7 there is the famous showdown between Moses and Pharaoh. Interestingly, it is a magic showdown, where Moses turns a stick into a snake through God's power, and the Egyptian magicians seemingly already know how to do the exact same "miracle." See also Exodus 8:7, and 8:18-19. Read the passages for yourself. Does the scripture give any indication as to whether the Egyptian magic was real or fake? What are the implications for the rest of the Exodus story?
The apostle Paul had a very interesting relationship with the supernatural powers that existed in the world around him besides God. Read Acts 17:16-24 - how did Paul feel about using pagan literature and ideas to communicate to people in a culturally contextualized way?
Again with Paul, read 1 Corinthians 8-10 and see how Paul walks back and forth between different perspectives on food that has been sacrificed to idols? Does Paul say we can eat such food or that we should avoid it? How can you tell the main point of his argument? How might this apply to us today?
Do condemnations against soothsayers and mediums apply to contemporary superstitions like like horoscopes, cootie catchers, and fortune cookies? Why or why not?
Can the escapism and fantasy of magical stories in the modern world also apply to other, more mundane/regular things, such as power or sex? When does escapism become destructive?
Fantasy writer and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis was not always a Christian. For some time, he was a very staunch atheist, until a number of conversations with his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien (the author of Lord Of The Rings) convinced him to reconsider the possibility of God. Tolkien famously told Lewis that writers like them did not consider myths to be silly or frivolous, but profound windows into reality, and that Christ was simply "the true myth." Lewis would later say this: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrows. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
What do you think of this quote? How does it contribute to our understanding of the representation of various forms of magic in popular media? Do you agree with Lewis and Tolkien? Why or why not? Compare what you think about this to what we learn about Paul's visit to Athens in Acts 17:16-24, or his discussion on meat sacrificed to ideas in 1 Corinthians 8-10