January 2024
The Magic Is Real

We tend to separate fantasy and reality, dismissing the former as purely imaginative. But great fantasy comes far closer to the truth than most disenchanted views of the world. No one tells you that the deeper magic is real. And they should. Because that has huge implications for our faith.

They tell you never to trust what you feel,
That stories are stories for storytime souls.
Why don't they tell you the magic is real,
When rock-tight reality is still laced with holes?

The border between truth and fantasy is fainter than we think—more like a mist than a measured line. It's more accurate to use C.S. Lewis's language: if fantasy is the world of magic, then our God-governed reality is a realm of deeper magic. And this has two crucial lessons for theology. Let me first offer examples from Lewis and his mentor, George MacDonald. Then I'll end with the theological implications.

Sound before Substance

My favorite volume from The Chronicles of Narnia is The Magician's Nephew. I love a great beginning, that wondrous place where potency has a pulse you can put your thumb on. And for the beginnings of Narnia, that pulse is strong, and it comes through song. Digory, the main character, and a cab-horse named Strawberry stand in its mesmerizing beauty.

A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from which direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too; he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar. (Chap. 8)

The voice goes on. And with it comes reality itself.

And as [the Lion] walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave. In a few minutes it was creeping up the lower slopes of the distant mountains, making that young world every moment softer. The light wind could now be heard ruffling the grass. Soon there were other things besides grass. The higher slopes grew dark with heather. Patches of rougher and more bristling green appeared in the valley. Digory did not know what they were until one began coming up quite close to him. It was a little, spiky thing that threw out dozens of arms and covered these arms with green and grew larger at the rate of about an inch every two seconds. There were dozens of these things all round him now. When they were nearly as tall as himself he saw what they were. "Trees!" he exclaimed. (Chap. 9)

That's the fantasy account of Narnia's birth, a place of talking animals and unexplainable magic. The substance of that world comes through sound, not through the construction or gathering together of pre-made stuff. And so more rational readers will say, "Ah, yes. Narnia is a pleasant fiction, strange and creative." 

But what about the biblical account of creation? Isn't that also where substance comes through sound (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24), where voice leads to vegetation? Familiarity makes us fumble right past this. But I would say the creation account is profoundly magical. It's magical not in the sense of being fictional, but in the sense of being enchantingly supernatural.

The creation account is magical not in the sense of being fictional, but in the sense of being enchantingly supernatural.

Think of the fantasy-like aura around the creation of animate beings. God called the living creatures up out of the adam (Hebrew: earth, land)—bison from the black earth, rhinos from rock, crickets from clay, dogs from the dirt. A walking, snorting, braying, buzzing entourage of Eden.

And then comes the creation of man. "The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature" (Gen. 2:7). What sort of potent potter is this? An invisible three-personed Spirit lifts up dust from the earth, shapes it into a human form, and then blows holy wind into its nose holes. A little dust, a little divine breath, and there you have it: a human. Is that so far from the common portrayals of magic in fantasy? 

It's always surprised me that some Christians are so quick to stiff-arm fantasy literature and magic (e.g., think of the rage against Harry Potter back in the 1990s and 2000s), when our own faith is, in a sense, more magical than any fantasy writer could dream. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that many fantasy authors who have written a creation account (Lewis and Tolkien among them) are drawing on Genesis 1-3 for inspiration. It's not that the Bible is non-magical while fantasy writing is magical. It's that the Bible is the deeper magic that inspires the fantastic imagination. Supernatural truth is, and should be, wonderfully enchanting.

It's not that the Bible is non-magical while fantasy writing is magical. It's that the Bible is the deeper magic that inspires the fantastic imagination.

So, if Narnia is a world of magic, creation is the world of deeper magic. It's not the lack of unexplainable magic that makes our world "normal"; it's the pervasiveness of deeper magic that goes unnoticed—from the caterpillar in chrysalis to the starling in diaconate drift. Creation is ultimately impenetrable by the laws of logic. Surely, a divine logic is at work in creation, the constant soundings of the supernatural, but such logic reflects the mysterious character of God, which we can gape at but never grasp. We cannot rid truth of its supernatural enchantment. That is part of what makes it true. Its supernaturalism goes happily beyond us. The sound of God's voice made our world what it is, directs it in ten million places, and calls out for childlike wonder.

The World Beneath and Behind

Now consider Lewis's fantasy mentor, George MacDonald. My son (ten years old) and I read through a trilogy of his workAt the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie. Each was enchanting in its own way. My father had read The Princess and the Goblin to me as a child, and I was always haunted by it. Later, I was happy to learn that this was also G.K. Chesterton's favorite. Chesterton was enthralled with MacDonald's tale because of how it portrayed evil—not as in "the air up there," but beneath the world we inhabit, buried in the dark, threatening to collapse all that we stand on.

The biblical account, too, is like this. It's true that Satan is called the "prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2), but throughout Scripture, hell is depicted as something below the world we see around us. In the Old Testament, there is language of going "down to the pit" or "down to Sheol" in reference to death. And Jesus pronounces judgement on Capernaum by declaring it will be brought down to Hades (Matt. 11:23). The threats of death and evil are beneath us.

The evil beneath us, inside us, poses the greatest problem to the world we can see.

What's more, on a spiritual level, the evils of the world lie beneath the surface of human flesh; evil is within, not only without. Jesus said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:20-23). Evil is not an external threat; it's an internal one. The evil beneath us, inside us, poses the greatest problem to the world we can see.

This is the biblical truth our secular world is blind to, with its constant emphasis on external measures of redemption, especially through education. It's not that education isn't important (it's critical!); it's that education doesn't address the heart beneath. And that is where evil lives. MacDonald was a genius for physically depicting evil as under the entire realm, the goblins caverning like callows under the cellar of the king's castle.

But I think he was even more brilliant for portraying the inner worlds of human souls. This comes out beautifully in the grandmother's words to the princess when the latter is afraid her friend Curdie won't believe her report about what she's seen (The Princess and Curdie).

'You must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.'
'What is that, grandmother?'
'To understand other people.'
(pp. 418-419)

The grandmother perceived that something must change on the inside of Curdie before he could believe in something on the outside.

This inside-outside dynamic runs throughout Scripture, both socially and spiritually. Socially, we all have a deep longing to be fully known and fully loved, to be insiders with the God who can fully know and love us like no other. But in order for that insider dynamic to develop, we need a heart change. So, spiritually, God not only sees the heart and understands its workings (1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Kgs. 8:39), uncovering motives and intentions (Ps. 7:9; 44:21; 139:2-6); he also puts new hearts in the chest cavity of each person he foreknew.

Both the social and the spiritual sides to this insider-outsider movement are profoundly mysterious and invisible to us. They happen. We know they happen. And yet the only explanations we can give are explanations revealed in Scripture, which does nothing to expunge the matters of mystery, of supernatural "magic."

Lesson 1: The Place of Mystery

In both creation and the world of evil, these fantasy accounts from Lewis and MacDonald bear striking resemblance to biblical revelation. But they also evoke a sense of awed mystery that cups every child's imagination in worded hands. And when it comes to theology, we somehow think the mystery fades. In the midst of Latin and Greek, doctrine and deduction, mystery gets painted over with a heavy brush. But we can still see the deeper magic when we look more closely.

How, after all, does logic unpack the eternal and immutable God coming to take on flesh? Or three divine persons who are somehow one God? Oh sure, you get technical terms in Latin and Greek, which goes to great (and good) lengths to protect us from heresy. But the magic of mystery isn't lost on true believers, who see behind such words the aura of a God that is overwhelmingly rich, like a blinding sun in a cloudless sky. That richness and awe is often poured into poetry, like these lines from George Herbert in reflection on Christ's crucifixion.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

The red and salty substance running down the face and back of God's own Son turns to wine on the lips of those who believe in his Spirit-infused redemption. How can that mystery not make your jaw drop?

And yet mystery, we too often think, is something to be excised from life, something to be pulled away. Or perhaps we try to remove the mystery by likening God to something in our world. But, as one of my favorite theologians once wrote, "Nothing in the created world offers a full model for the Trinity" (Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity, p. 81). How could it? The world is beneath God. It cannot encapsulate him.

A fully explainable God and a fully explainable faith is a fully explainable illusion.

The lesson for theologians is clear: leave room for mystery. If you don't, it's not just the theology that suffers, but those who receive it with false pretenses. A fully explainable God and a fully explainable faith is a fully explainable illusion. What's more, the mystery and the magic are there for a reason. We would never worship what we understand.

Lesson 2: The Place of Imagination

Worship is a fitting place to transition to the next lesson. Worship is an out-pouring of what has gripped the soul. And what grips the soul grips also the imagination. This has sometimes been lost in a culture too familiar (if there can be such a thing) with the teachings of Christianity.

The more I read, the more persuaded I am that our imagination plays a pivotal role in our faith. I recently heard the poet Malcolm Guite talk about the moral imagination (it's a beautiful lecture, if you get the time to listen). And he pointed out that Jesus's parables are invitations to not just understand his teachings, but to imagine them with creative, playful empathy. What might it be like, for instance, to be a seed waiting to fall into the earth (John 12:24-26)? Guite has a poem about this that helps us go much deeper into the passage, not through precise exegesis (which is a necessary practice!) but through the imagination, through embodying the images and senses that Jesus sets before us.

The lesson for theologians here is a bit harder to articulate. But as a writer who tries to express biblical truths poetically and imaginatively, I would say that it's not enough to be familiar with the truth you encounter in Scripture, to agree with it, to give assent to its validity. That's all necessary, too. But Christ calls us higher and deeper. He wants all of us, and that includes the beautiful and powerful kingdom of the imagination—that place where our hearts feel enraptured and enveloped by . . . yes, a magic that we can't explain, that we don't want to explain.

If Scripture doesn't grasp our imaginations—with its seeds sown to resurrection in the dark soil of death, with its blind men seeing through the saliva of a Savior—then something else will.

And if Scripture doesn't grasp our imaginations—with its seeds sown to resurrection in the dark soil of death, with its blind men seeing through the saliva of a Savior—then something else will.

That, it seems to me, is a problem many Christians face each day. They have captured the doctrine of Scripture, but they have not been captivated by its magic. Their ideas and convictions are biblical, but their imaginations aren't. Scripture seems to hold no magic for them.

Fall into the Magic

Writers such as Lewis and MacDonald are helpful reminders in fantasy that the world of non-fiction is, in fact, more deeply magical than we think. We just look past it. We let our imaginations be gripped by lesser things.

Well, here's to having our imaginations baptized in the deeper magic of Scripture, where angels climb ladders (Gen. 28:12) and ants instruct men (Prov. 6:6-9), where God turns water into wine (John 2:1-11) and men into fish (Matt. 4:19). Here's to falling into the waters of God's deeper magic and emerging with a love of mystery and an imagination cativated by the God who is always speaking.

Like this post? Check out Insider Outsider, especially chap. 16

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