Monday, February 14, 2022

Anonymous Asks (184)

“As a parent, where would you draw the line with allowing your children to read/watch/play video games about demons, wizardry, etc.?”

This sounds a lot like the famous Harry Potter question that was bandied about in Christian circles twenty years ago when the Rowling books were at their most popular and the movie adaptations were just starting to come out. Christian parents were all over the map on that one, from mindlessly legalistic at one end of the spectrum to imprudently casual at the other.

Still, there is probably a more biblical answer than “Let’s split the difference.”

The Occult and Evil

There’s no argument to be had about the unremitting evil — not to mention the banality and unpleasantness — of real-world witchcraft. If you have any doubts about that, spend a few moments looking through the window of Moon Child World or some other Wiccan supply store and try to get your head around the offbeat creepiness of it all — and that’s the commercialized, candy-coated version of the occult designed to draw you in, not the seedy, forlorn, morally disastrous reality.

Scripture speaks unambiguously to the wickedness of wizardry and witchcraft. The Law of Moses says things like “You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes” and “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them.” Trying to get in touch with other-worldly powers was strictly forbidden in Israel. Moses was told, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” Moreover, we have historical examples of things going very badly for those who resorted to the dark arts for guidance. King Saul’s trip to see the medium at En‑dor terrified him and did not help his cause in any way.

Moving to the New Testament, we see that the problems with witchcraft and necromancy are not limited to the fact that they were forbidden under a now-obsolete set of Jewish laws. We find the Lord Jesus and his apostles driving out evil spirits, and believers who had practiced the magic arts burning their books and rejecting any involvement with the occult. This was not on the basis of the Law of Moses, but because such things are always evil in every age. Christians are to have nothing to do with them. The book of Revelation finishes with “Outside [of the glorious New Jerusalem] are the dogs and sorcerers” and other evil-doers. In scripture, there is no such thing as “white magic” or playing around with the occult for fun. Demons are no laughing matter.

Fantasy Witchcraft

So then, real-world witchcraft is to be totally rejected by believers. But of course we are not talking about the real world, but about fantastic realms that operate on their own logic, in which scary-looking monsters, witches and sorcerers with no association with the spiritual powers of scripture exist alongside dragons, fauns, orcs, centaurs, minotaurs, elves, dwarves, talking animals and other well-known and much-loved mythical creatures. The argument that is made that, at least in certain fantasy worlds, magic is a natural science and has no particular religious connotation — certainly not Satan worship or congress with the world of the dead.

This all sounds plausible and fair-minded. And yet, while Christians a few years back were telling us the fantasy world of Harry Potter in no way resembled real witchcraft, Wiccans and pagans were not the least bit unhappy with what it accomplished:

“Entire generations have been taught that [the occult is] all make-believe nonsense, and by presenting it in an almost academic way, JK Rowling has managed to open up imaginations again. That itself is an act of very powerful magic.”

“Opening up imaginations” is not always a good thing, as scripture will attest, and it is indeed “very powerful magic”. If occult dabblers see the portrayal of fantasy worlds like Harry Potter as a “gateway drug” to open up young minds to the normalization of their obsessions, that is reason enough for Christians to be a little more careful about endorsing them uncritically.

Presence and Portrayal

Now, to be fair, the fact that some version of witchcraft, demons or necromancy may exist in a work of fiction, even when accurately portrayed, is not necessarily a reason Christians ought to prohibit their children from any contact with it. We recognize that the Bible itself is full of unstinting portrayals of various kinds of human and spiritual evils. Christian parents have for generations been faced with helping their children navigate a book where you can open any page at random and encounter rape, homosexuality, murder, open marriages, genocide, epic violence, graphic sexual imagery and, yes, demons and witchcraft — and all of this in aid of producing godliness in the reader! And it definitely works as designed.

So then, the problem is not so much the mere presence of the occult in fantasy as how the occult is portrayed. Christian writers have known this and dealt with it quite reasonably for years. For example, Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the good guys. He is cautious about the use of supernatural power and reluctant to wield it even in defense of good. He has no desire to acquire arcane knowledge for its own sake. Saruman, on the other hand, is willing to do whatever he has to in order to accomplish what he believes to be desirable goals. He is both misguided and ultimately evil. But here’s the important part: I’ve never seen a fantasy-reading child who wishes he were Saruman rather than Gandalf. For that matter, no Narnia reader wants to picture themselves as Jadis or Uncle Andrew. These are not noble or heroic characters, and they are not desirable human beings, though we may recognize some of their qualities from our own experiences.

Nor would I necessarily want to limit a child to reading Christian fiction, some of which is better than others. There are secular writers who have successfully portrayed the desire for and use of occult power as a cautionary tale. Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant is a man driven by guilt, perhaps not the best motivation in the world, but readers are in no danger of living out some kind of demonic power fantasy through him.

Shielding and Filtering

Like all other difficult subjects, the occult is real, and a potential spiritual problem for anyone who engages with it. Children need to know how to think about that. The parent who hides difficult subjects from his children will inevitably find they acquire their knowledge elsewhere. They will learn these things secretively and inaccurately, perhaps from people who are promoting them. You will not necessarily get to weigh in until far too late in the introduction process. We would like to think we can shield our children from the unpleasant realities of the world, but in fact the best we can ever do for them is act as a sort of filter, bringing the teaching of Christ to bear on every new idea. The object should not be to keep our children from knowing about sin, but to teach them to think rightly about it and reject it for themselves.

So where should Christian parents draw the line? Obviously it will require the investment of time to know with any certainty whether what your children are reading, watching or playing is “safe” for them. Chances are it will be imperfect at very least. The dangers of exposure to imperfect or tantalizing portrayals of the occult vary from child to child and are often age-dependent. But once they enter the teen years, from my perspective, the goal is not to become their censor. All this stuff is out there in the world, and they are perfectly competent to get to it for themselves.

What is more important is that they bring heads and hearts full of truth and a carefully cultivated godly perspective to every new experience. If you can give them that, they will quickly have a pretty good idea what to do with Harry Potter and his ilk.

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