It was inevitable that this subject would eventually surface in this series. After all, the supernatural elements in many role playing games are the ones most feared and criticized by those who oppose them, and eventually something would have to be said about them.
But it is just ironic coincidence that the issue has come up in October, the month in which issues of pagan magic and supernaturalism are most debated in the church, the month in which most Americans, at least, celebrate what some still think is the ancient and mystical pagan Druidic festival of the New Year, Samhain, thinly veiled under the pseudonym Halloween.
So what is it about imaginary magic which gets so many people so upset? And how can we who dabble in such imaginary arts justify such actions in view of their claims?
The complaint is that witchcraft and sorcery are roundly condemned in the scripture. The Law of Moses made it a capital offense to be involved in such things; they were declared to be offensive to God. This was renewed in the New Testament, where again the use of divination and magic was rejected. If this is so solidly opposed in scripture as a reality, it is suggested, it must be the case that even imagining it is repugnant to God.
I’m often surprised at how minor texts get blown out of proportion when the speaker has nothing at stake and wants to be right. The scripture says far more about immorality and adultery. Breaking and keeping promises gets much more attention. Even having proper regard for Sabbaths, remembering to pay tithes, and leaving gleanings in the fields at harvest for widows and orphans would appear to rank higher on the list of God’s concerns. And far, far more is said about the importance of making the proper sacrifices at the proper times (and this was not abrogated by the first century church—more than once Paul made sacrifices in fulfillment of vows, and the other apostles encouraged him in this). Sorcery does not appear to have been more important in the law than obedience to parents (judging from penalties) or maintaining a kosher diet (based on the amount of text dedicated to it). It was not even on the list (in Acts 15) of things the Jerusalem church wanted the gentile Christians to observe so as not to offend Jewish Christians. To hear the critics, you would think that entire books of the Bible were written about the evils of magic, when in fact it’s only a handful of verses out of the thousands.
But indeed there are verses in the Bible that condemn sorcery. Saying that it is a minor issue doesn’t cause it to cease to be an issue; it must be considered.
We as Christians face a difficult problem in relation to “magic” and “supernaturalism”: not everything that includes such ideas matches our beliefs about it, and there are real concerns about people being led into a supernatural belief that opposes God. But we miss a critical point about our own age which was never true before the late nineteenth century. There is a far more dangerous and pervasive view about magic and supernaturalism abroad today. Many people believe that such matters are completely irrelevant at best, nonexistent at worst. We, as Christians, very often very foolishly trick ourselves into thinking that it would be better to read that spiritual questions are immaterial than to read wrong answers to those questions. But the notion that spiritual questions don’t matter is a much more wrong answer than any that can be given by anyone of any faith, even worse than answers which are made up out of whole cloth.
There’s probably a danger that someone attending a Pentecostal camp meeting could come away with a very wrong idea about magic, convinced that if you just believe something hard enough, regardless of what it is, you can change the world. Such nonsense is sometimes bantered about in the medical community—that faith healing really exists because the faith of the people who believe in such things works psychosomatically within their bodies to promote natural healing at a highly accelerated rate. Certainly there’s evidence for that; but it ignores the power of God to heal. (I want to state that I am not Pentecostal and have not been involved in faith healing; that I do believe God can and does work miracles today; but that I don’t think every claimed miracle is genuine.) Any time you convince someone that there is a supernatural world they have not previously credited, you run the risk that they will embrace wrong and dangerous ideas about it. But until they embrace some ideas about it there is no hope that they will turn to God and the truth.
So anything that promotes a belief in supernatural power such as magic is better than anything that discourages such a belief. Certainly some kid might grow up to seek answers to his hunger for the supernatural in Wicca or Satanism or Buddhism; but better to have him seeking spiritual answers than believing that there are none. Christian authors of the past century made a point of using magic in their stories as a pedagogical allegory for the spiritual battle that rages around us. In most games that include magic, it is one of the chief weapons in a spiritual war made manifest in the imagined reality. If it leads people to consider whether such a supernatural battle might be raging in our reality, it has done a great thing, even if not all who see the question immediately find the right answer.
But what about those Bible verses? Do we just toss them out because we want to use something God says is bad as an allegory for something good?
First, we must come to understand that what modern popular culture means by sorcery and witchcraft is not at all what God meant when those words were written. In our western world we have created a concept of the wizard dabbling in arcane arts, learning to use supernatural power directly through potions and sigils and devices. But in the biblical age no one had imagined such a notion. Sorcerers and witches believed and knew that their powers came from gods, from spirit beings who were in competition with the God of Israel for their worship. Their magic involved religious rituals and rites which amounted to worship of these deities in exchange for favors which amounted to power. They didn’t do divination by some magical cards which had the power to tell your fortune; they did it by praying that some spirit being would use the cards to do so. They didn’t curse and bless by some charm that contained the power to do so; they did it by praying to some spirit to curse or bless. They didn’t work miracles because they had some magic wand or staff that contained power, but because they petitioned their gods to work on their behalf. The “magicians” of Egypt were not embarrassed because Moses was more powerful than they were. They were embarrassed because Moses’ God was more powerful than the gods on whom they called. The plagues of Egypt were an affront to those wizards not because Moses had more power than they had, but because God made a particular effort to demonstrate that He was Lord in all the things in which they believed their gods held sway.
God is not against divination. He directed His people to cast lots to determine His will in regard to the division of the land; he honored Gideon’s requests regarding the dew and the fleece; He gave the Urim and Thummim to the priests so that they could divine His will. He doesn’t object to divination, but to divination which calls on other gods to answer. He doesn’t object to blessings and curses—He commanded His priests to bless and curse—but to blessings and curses which call on other gods. He doesn’t object to the use of “magic” powers, power from the supernatural world breaking into the natural world to do the miraculous; his prophets parted rivers, called fire from the sky, brought water from rocks, caused food to multiply, controlled the weather, and raised the dead, often without so much as a by your leave to the Almighty whose power they wielded (and on one occasion being scolded by God for not doing it the way He wanted). He forbids His people from getting such magic power from anyone but Himself.
The imagined godless magic which we find so offensive is a fantasy construct. It has no counterpart in reality and is not mentioned in the Bible. The magic opposed in the Bible is that of competing religions that would lead God’s people away from Him.
In other words, it is not the wizards in such games who should concern us. It is the priests. Those characters who use some sort of freely available magic power which they have learned to tap are not involved in the sorts of activities God condemned and forbade in scripture, because their powers have nothing to do with the worship of other gods. The cleric characters are the ones who call upon spiritual beings to work on their behalf, and it is thus these who would be offensive to God. Yet since such games have generally been “doctrinally neutral”, that is, not supporting or opposing any particular religion, it is also the priest characters who best represent that form of magic of which God approves. It isn’t what kind of magic they are doing that matters, but on Whom they call for the power and the answers.
Maybe we are on thin ice here; maybe there is a problem with having characters in a game call on any deity. But that is a bigger subject than this month can contain, so it will have to wait for another time.
This article was originally published in October 2001 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.