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Amazing stories from times past

On conmen and other masters of deceit

God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices (Eccl. 7:29)

There are vagabonds and there are villains; there are crooks and there are victims; and sin and temptation are present in the hearts of all. Listen to the story of a man who stood behind an old woman just ahead of him at the checkout counter at his local supermarket. The woman was crying. She was well-dressed, although a bit on the shabby side. He tried not to pay attention but could not help but notice that she was in distress. Eventually compassion overcame him and he spoke to her, tapping her on the shoulder: "What is the matter? Can I help you?" She turned to face him, looking surprised, tears visible on her wrinkled face. "Oh, I'm sorry to have disturbed you," her voice, soft and genteel, awoke more pity in his heart, "I've recently lost my son. He died last month." "Oh, I'm so sorry," the man murmured. "The truth is," the woman continued softly, "that he worked here." She stopped to blow her nose, and the man thought of his own mother. "He worked here," the shaking voice went on, "and I would see him every time I bought my groceries." "It must be quite painful for you," the man replied, overcome with sympathy. "The most difficult thing," the bereft woman added, "is remembering that he would always wave to me after my groceries were packed and when I reached the door with my cart he'd say, 'Bye, Mom. See you soon.'" She bent her head and two tears rolled down her cheeks before she looked up at him again. "I don't suppose," she said tremulously, "that you would say, 'Bye, Mom', and wave to me after my groceries are packed and I reach the door, just to help me this first time?" "Of course, I will," the man agreed instantly. The woman's turn at the checkout arrived. The bus-boy packed her things and wheeled her cart to the door. At the door she turned and looked the man in the eye. He waved to her with his right hand and called out loudly, "Bye Mom. See you soon." This single act made him feel good inside and a bit emotional. He began unpacking his own items, placing them on the counter, and thought about how he should call up his own mother that very evening to ask how she was doing. Lost in thought, he was startled when the checkout girl told him the bill was more than $300 dollars. "You must be wrong," he said, "I didn't buy that much." "Oh, but your mother did," she responded with a smile, and instantly he knew he'd been had. Yes, there are crooks and there are victims, and evil resides in the hearts of all of us. When we hear questions like, "How do you keep from getting parking tickets?" and laugh at the answer "By removing your wipers," that is because there is something within us which resonates with getting the better of someone. A master of deceit One of the most infamous masters of deceit and trickery was a man by the name of Victor Lustig. Born in 1890 in Bohemia, now known as the Czech Republic, Victor was gifted with a brilliant mind. Part of an upper-middle class family, his father was the mayor of a small town, so small Viktor's future was, humanly speaking, rather secure. In school he studied languages, easily becoming fluent in Czech, German, English, French and Italian. Victor could have used these talents to become a wonderful teacher or diplomat. Instead, he opted for gambling, turning his abilities to billiards, poker and bridge. In his early twenties he went on pleasure cruises and cheated many gullible, wealthy people out of their money. However, when World War I put a stop to these cruises, he headed for the US. Giving himself the title of "Count," his devious mind conned many in the States out of huge sums of cash (including the gangster Al Capone). The story that really put the native born Czechoslovakian in the news occurred in 1925 when he was 35 years old. Lustig was in Paris at this time and he read in the newspaper that the Eiffel Tower was in great need of repair. The cost of fixing the monumental fixture seemed rather prohibitive. There was even a brief footnote in the article which mentioned that the French government was considering scrapping the tower as it might be cheaper for them to tear it down than to repair it. Upon finishing the article, Lustig's fertile and calculating mind literally saw huge sums of money floating by. His connections with other nefarious characters enabled him to acquire official French government letterhead giving himself the title of "Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs." He typed up letters in which he said that he had the authority to sell the 7,000 ton steel structure to the highest bidder and sent this letter to five leading scrap metal dealers in the city. He instructed the recipients of the letter to keep the matter secret as the public would most likely be upset about the demolition of such a landmark. All five scrap metal dealers showed up and Lustig carefully picked the one most apt to be his patsy: a man by the name of Monsieur Poisson. Poisson gladly paid a handsome amount of money for the privilege of obtaining the contract, and upon receiving it Lustig quickly retreated to Austria. Hearing no news of the swindle, he concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed to have told anyone. Boldly Lustig returned to Paris and tried to sell the Eiffel Tower a second time. This time, however, the police were made aware of the swindle. The conman barely eluded authorities and was forced to flee to America. Ten years later, in 1935, after having flooded the US with counterfeit bills, and having cheated many more people, the Secret Service finally caught up with Lustig. They reacted to an anonymous phone call made by his mistress who was jealous because Victor was cheating on her. He was arrested and sentenced to twenty years in Alcatraz. Although he initially escaped from jail, he was re-apprehended and spent the next twelve years behind bars. A set of tips, known as the "Ten Commandments for Conmen," are attributed to Lustig. They are:

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a conman his coups) 2. Never look bored 3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions; then agree with him 4. Let the other person reveal religious views; then have the same ones 5. Hint at sex talk, but don't follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest 6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown 7. Never pry into a person's personal circumstances (they'll tell you eventually); 8. Never boast - just let your importance be quietly obvious 9. Never be untidy 10. Never get drunk

There is accounting In 1947 Victor Lustig contracted pneumonia and died after a two-day illness. His last enemy, death, was not to be conned out of its prey. Having shunned God's commandments, and the One Who kept them perfectly, he had no place to hide. Although proficient in languages, he was forced to clap his hand over his mouth. Perhaps our lives do not compare with Viktor Lustig's life; perhaps our deeds shine when we hold them up next to his obvious deceitfulness; but we do well to remember that we ought to

...fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Christine Farenhorst is the author of many books, including a short story collection/devotional available at Joshua Press here. She has a new novel - historical fiction - coming out Spring 2017 called "Katharina, Katharina" (1497-1562) covering the childhood and youth of Katharina Schutz Zell, the wife of the earliest Strasbourg priest turned Reformer, Matthis Zell.

Daily devotional

June 30 – You shall not live by bread alone

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God. – Deut. 8:3 Scripture reading: Deut. 8 Why do churches reject God? We see the slow degradation of churches in our neighborhoods. People will give any number of causes: not following the confessions or the church order, or external causes like TV, cellphones, rock music, the internet, cultural degradation or secular universities. Ultimately these are symptoms. The central problem is that we have forgotten God, His statutes and His rules. We have forgotten the Word: our Lord Jesus Christ. We have grown rich and tell ourselves that we ourselves have brought about the peace and prosperity that we experience. We have left our Bible on the shelf, or interpret it so it no longer pierces our hearts. We’ve forgotten what God did for us in Jesus Christ. We no longer desire to fully seek and obey every word that comes from God. We’re starving for spiritual food and seek to fill that hunger with the filth of entertainment, with vague platitudes of loving and respecting everyone, or with comfort. God warns us in Deut. 8, “If you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish because you would not obey the voice of the Lord.” If you love God, you will dig deep into His Word and seek Him. GodHimself encourages you in this task, “Strengthen yourself and be of good courage.” May He be with you. Suggestions for prayer Repent of your failures to put the Word at the center of your life. Seek the bread of the Word of the Lord and the strength of the Spirit in comprehending and applying that Word.

This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Rev. James Zekveld is the pastor of the Ambassador Canadian Reformed Church In Niverville, MB.

News, Science - General

Genetically-engineered babies have now been born

Human experimentation has been happening around the world for the past four decades, with research scientists actively carrying out experiments on human embryos. The stated objective, in usually something noble-sounding: to learn more about human biology, or to possibly treat some disease conditions. And while few scientists will admit to an interest in cloning people, or in actually producing genetically-altered individuals, this is the direction our society is heading. Indeed, modern society does not value unborn babies enough to protect them, and at the same time society is terribly afraid of genetic abnormalities. Under these conditions – little respect for unborn human life, and little respect for those with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome – it would seem human cloning and gene alteration is inevitable. But it isn’t acceptable yet. That became clear when, on November 26, 2018, the scientific and medical world reacted in horror to the announcement by Dr. Jiankui He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had created modified human embryos. These embryos had been implanted in their mother, and in early November, twin baby girls had been born in China. This was a world-wide first – the first genetically-edited full-term human babies.  What happened Ever since the 1970s introduction of in vitro fertilization of human eggs with sperm outside the womb, the stage was set for scientists to experiment on such embryos. Many people, mindful of the special nature of humans at every level of development, protested against such work. Even some scientists were nervous about the implications of these experiments. However, for many, the concern was only that individuals damaged in laboratory experiments should not be allowed to develop to term. They were okay with the human experimentation – they just didn’t want these babies to be born. As a result, a general understanding was reached between ethicists and scientists, that no experiments on embryos would continue longer than 14 days – at this point these embryos were to be destroyed. The 14-day limit was chosen because it is at this point that the embryos begin to develop specialized tissues and thus becomes more obviously human (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). But as the experimentation has become more sophisticated, scientists have begun to promote the idea of a longer timeline for their investigations. Thus, a conference was held in May at Rice University at which 30 American scientists and ethicists discussed “whether and how to move the [14-day] boundary” (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). About the same time, Nature magazine published an announcement concerning such research:

“At present, many countries …prohibit culture [of human embryos] beyond 14 days, a restriction that reflects the conclusions of the 1984 UK Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (also known as the Warnock Report. Whether this rule should be relaxed is currently being debated” (May 3, 2018 p. 6, emphasis mine).

Scientists are clearly seeking to relax the rules governing their studies. “Germ-line changes” Research on human embryos has continued worldwide since those early days. However, all parties once agreed that on no account should modified embryos be implanted into a mother and be allowed to develop. The reasons included society’s disapproval of experiments on people, but especially because such individuals would carry “germ-line changes.” Changes to most cells in the human body have no impact on future generations – these changes die with that individual. However, changes to the gametes (egg and sperm) are called germ-line changes because these modifications will be passed on to each subsequent generation. It is not that the scientists involved actually object to germ-line changes. The problem is that they want their results to be predictable and “safe.” Any uncertainties could lead to catastrophic results, ensuing hostile public opinion and big lawsuits. It would be far better to proceed cautiously. Thus, it is illegal in the US and many other countries to alter genes of human embryos or gametes. However, within the last decade, another new biomedical technology has appeared on the scene that has drastically streamlined gene editing in numerous organisms. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has made gene editing much easier and much more precise.* Obviously, it was a mere matter of time before someone used this to try his hand at gene editing in human embryos. The scientific community offered no serious objections when Dr. Jiankui He of China presented an account of such work at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during the spring of 2018. At this conference, Dr. He discussed the editing of embryos from seven couples. However, at that point, this man made no mention that any of these embryos had been implanted into their mothers. Dr. He “edits” babies to be HIV-resistant According to a Nov. 28 news item at Nature.com (David Cyranoski's "CRISPR-baby scientist fails to satisfy critics") Dr. He recruited couples in which the male was HIV positive but the female was normal. Individual sperm cells were washed to remove any viruses and the cells were injected into eggs along with CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes carrying a gene for resistance to HIV infection. A total of 30 fertilized embryos resulted of which 19 were deemed viable (able to live) and apparently healthy. These were tested for the CCR5 mutation which confers resistance to HIV infection. From one couple, two of four embryos tested positive for the mutation. One embryo carried the mutated gene on one chromosome and a normal gene on the other, while the other embryo carried the mutation on both maternal and paternal chromosomes. These embryos were implanted into the mother who successfully gave birth to twin baby girls early in November. No information was forthcoming on the fate of the other embryos, although Dr. He now says that another woman may be pregnant. The response of the scientific community has been shock and horror. But why are they so horrified? Is this not what they have been working towards? The scientific community is afraid because the risks of this procedure at this preliminary stage of research, are substantial. There are, at present, major questions as to whether the genetic modifications will actually have the desired effect. A well-known problem is that the CRISPR apparatus sometimes cuts the chromosomes at other places as well as/ or instead of the desired location. This off-target effect has been found to be a major problem in some studies. In addition, most genes are known to influence a number of seemingly unrelated traits. This phenomenon is called pleiotropic impact of one gene on other genes. These risks are particularly serious when we consider that these are germ-line changes, that will impact subsequent generations from this individual. Response The same Nov. 28 Nature.com news item declared:

“Fears are now growing in the gene-editing community that He’s actions could stall the responsible development of gene editing in babies.”

Indeed, a commentator on one website reflected that “if this experiment is unsuccessful or leads to complications later in life … [it could] set the field of gene therapy back years if not decades.” In view of these concerns, many individuals and medical and scientific institutions released statements expressing condemnation for this gene-editing work. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, declared that the NIH “does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” The Chinese Academy of Sciences declared that Dr. He’s work “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law." A colleague and friend of Dr. He suggested that the gene-editing work lacked prudence, that it could, unfortunately, serve to create distrust in the public. Obviously, an important concern on the part of the scientists was that the promise of this technology not be rejected by the public. Dr. David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute (heavily involved in CRISPR research), insisted of He’s work: “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.” Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, summed up the feelings of many colleagues when he said:

“It’s possible that the first instance came forward as a misstep, but that should not lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider [a] more responsible pathway to clinical translation.”

In other words, many scientists seek to continue to pursue the goals also sought by Dr. He, only the rest of them will proceed more slowly and carefully. Conclusion It is largely Christian objections to treating human embryos as things, rather than as persons (made in the image of God), that has led to the ethical rules that control this research. It is a vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage which limits scientists from just doing whatever they want. They have to obtain permission from ethics committees to conduct their particular research program. Of course, Christians want to see this work made completely illegal, but if political realities make such a ban impossible, then we can still seek to restrict this work as much as possible. It is interesting that a news feature in Nature (July 5, 2018 p. 22) articulated the fascination and unease that some scientists derive from this work. Bioethicist Dr. Jennifer Johnston of the Hastings Center in upstate New York, reflected on the respect that the human embryo commands even in secular observers:

“That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings …..  It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Are there any good results from this controversy over genetically-engineered babies? Perhaps there is one. The event may cause more people to pay critical attention to the experiments that are, every day, conducted on human embryos. Let the whole world know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, from the very first cell onward, and manipulation in laboratories should have no place in our society. For further study * For more on this topic, see: Dr. Helder’s book No Christian Silence on Science pages 32-39 for a discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (ie. CRISPR). Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book  A Crack in Creation: the new power to control evolution, page 281. Dr. Helder's article, providing further background to CRISPR, Natural Firewalls in Bacteria

Satire

Ode to hurt...or why my tolerant nature can't stand your opinions

I’m hurting I am, and I want you to know, That the pain I am feeling, isn’t likely to go. I’m hurting I am, it’s your opinions you see, I just can’t accept them, I do not agree. D’you not pay attention, d’you not see the news? This post-modern world has no place for your views. They’re outdated, outmoded, outrageous no doubt, And lots, lots more words beginning with out. Reactionary, Dark Ages, Stone Age repression, And other assorted clichéd expressions. That’s what I think of your bigoted rants, Which contrast so starkly with my own tolerance. You’ve made me so angry, so hurt, even bitter, What can I do, but to go onto Twitter? Hashtag #BigotedIntolerantPhobe, Said something that hurt me, so I’m telling the globe. I’ll put it on Facebook, Instagram too, The world needs to know the pain caused by you. Pain that keeps giving and won’t find relief, For I simply can’t cope with a different belief. But being free-thinking, I’m perfectly fine, That others have thoughts that are different to mine. I must draw the line though, with views such as yours, Against which there really ought to be laws. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100 percent, Committed to free speech and the right to dissent. But it’s Twenty-Nineteen and I can’t understand, Why opinions like yours still haven’t been banned. The law ought to treat them as Hate Crimes, it should, Then you’d have to keep them all up in your head, yes you would. And not only Hate Crimes, but Hurt Speech I say, On account of them really upsetting my day. Enough is enough, I’m really perturbed, My tolerant nature has been greatly disturbed. From now on I beg, keep your views well hid. Did I tell you they hurt me? Yes you hurt me, you did.

Rob Slane is the author of A Christian and Unbeliever discuss Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Adult fiction, Children’s fiction, Teen fiction

After Lewis and Tolkien

A conversation about Christian Fantasy with Bell Mountain author Lee Duigon

It’s hard to believe but C.S. Lewis has been gone from this earth long enough for his works to have entered into the public domain – in Canada that happens 50 years after the author’s death. His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien outlived him by a decade, but has been gone now for four. How is it, then, that their fantasy fiction remains as popular as it ever has been?

The answer, in part, is because the secular fantasy fiction doesn’t understand the way the world really is. That’s the secret to great fantasy writing – it has to be anchored in reality for it to have an impact. Yes, there can be wizards and elves and all sorts of unreal creatures, but at its core a fantasy novel has to say something truly true. So, while Tolkien was far more subtle than Lewis about the inclusion of his Judeo-Christian worldview, it was this worldview that allowed him to see and share truths about the pull of temptation, the strength of humility, and the nature of love. Lewis’s series is intriguing for children, but it is his Christian understanding of man’s failings and God’s grace that give the books enough depth for adults to read again and again.

However, if it was these two men’s Christian worldview that elevated their fiction, then why, in the decades since their deaths, haven’t we seen other Christian writers joining them at the top of the fantasy genre? Why, in fact, is most of the fantasy you’ll find in a Christian bookstore simply dreadful?

These are good questions, and Lee Duigon is the right man to ask. He’s not only blogged about how to improve the state of Christian fantasy (see www.LeeDuigon.com), he set out to do something about it himself. Since 2010 he’s published eleven books in his Bell Mountain fantasy series about a boy and a girl and an assassin and a wise clever squirrel-like creature who all set out on a quest. A review will be coming, so it will suffice here to say, these are a better brand of Christian fantasy fiction then we’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Duigon graciously agreed to an interview and what follows is an edited version.

Magic, wizards, elves, and dragons are core elements of most fantasy. But your Bell Mountain series doesn’t have any of them. Why not?

For one thing, wizards, elves, and dragons have all become clichés. Fantasy is supposed to ignite your imagination, but clichés have the opposite effect.

Wizards, elves, and dragons have been so overdone it’s like, “Oh, well, ho-hum, there’s some elves.” They’re so common in the literature, they might as well be checkout clerks at your local supermarket. In my books I have replaced these with figures which I hope readers will find refreshingly unusual. Instead of elves, I have little, hairy, manlike creatures – like Wytt – who fulfill the literary function of being “other than human,” but are intelligent and able to interact with humans. Instead of dragons, I have creatures patterned after little-known prehistoric animals. And instead of wizards, I offer some dangerous and nasty human beings who play at being wizards and create the illusion of having magical powers.

As for magic, well, the reason I don’t use it is because it seems a lazy writing device. Things in a story that get done by “magic” might also be accomplished by hard work, ingenuity, faith, hope, or love, and wouldn’t that be far more interesting?

We are God’s creation, living in the world He created and subject to His laws of nature, whether we like it or not. Genuine “magic” – as opposed to technology or trickery that only looks like magic – would circumvent or overturn those laws, thus making the magician himself a kind of god.

So on the one hand, the writer who resorts to magic is lazy, using it as a shortcut to getting things done. On the other, he is imagining something which is not allowed. God has not permitted us to do real magic. It would disorder His Creation – and surely we already make enough mischief without any magic whatsoever.

So would you still classify your books as fantasy, and if so, how would you define fantasy as a genre?

I say my stories are fantasy because they describe an imaginary world, different from ours but still subject to God’s laws. The whole point of fantasy is to fire up the reader’s imagination: to gain access to regions of the heart and mind not easily reached by other kinds of fiction.

An excellent example of this is the classic fantasy movie, The Princess Bride. There’s nothing in that story that violates God’s laws of nature. But it’s certainly full of unusual people, places, and things.

To that formula I have added the presupposition that God reigns in my imaginary world just as He reigns in our own. And following the trail blazed by C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia, I have the characters in my fantasy world interacting with God’s will and coming to know Him better – although their interaction with God is more like it is in our own world than in Narnia. God speaks to them through scripture, prophecy, and promptings of the spirit – with the occasional use of a spiritual messenger. For this my inspiration and model is not fiction, but the Bible.

Why do so many readers crave fantasy?

For the same reason we crave science fiction, romance, westerns or what have you. For escape, of course.

Now the whole idea of escape is to go to a better place, from a worse. People don’t tunnel into prison camps. So the fantasy reader has always the desire to seek a better world, an imaginary world, and escape into it, if only for as long as it takes to read the book.

How are we able to imagine a world that seems better to us than the one we live in? If you imagine yourself in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance, you have monsters and dragons to deal with, not to mention a terrible Dark Lord. But you don’t have politicians’ lies to listen to, enormous taxes sucked out of your paycheck, race hustlers, militant sodomy, squawking idiot liberal churchmen, or natural beauty spots torn down to make way for “smart growth.” You don’t have any of that. So you escape to Middle-Earth for a few hours and are all the better for it.

How is it, asks Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis‘ The Silver Chair, that a few children playing a game can imagine a play-world that licks the supposed “real” world hollow?

Because the God who made us built into us an unfailing desire for something better.

Our worldly leaders promise us a better world, but can’t deliver. Our Science with one hand gives us air conditioning and YouTube, but with the other gives us nerve gas and Darwinism. Our worldly philosophers give us what can only be described as dreck.

God gives us salvation and a promise to regenerate His whole creation, but many of us don’t seem very interested in that.

Tolkien said that Christianity is the one myth that is true. We should be hearing that from our theologians and our pastors, but in all too many cases, we don’t.

Never mind. We’ve got the Bible, and it tells us the truth. That’s where the thirsting fantasy writer found the water of life – because that’s where it is.

What reasons are there for Christians, and particularly parents, to be wary of secular fiction? What are its most common faults?

Its biggest fault is that most of it seems to be written with the presupposition that there is no God.

It also omits any mention of description of the religious dimension of human life. If a space alien were to try to learn about life on earth by sampling our fiction, he’d never know there was any such thing as a religious impulse. And that’s not a realistic description of human life, unless you want to count what goes on in faculty lounges.

On your blog (LeeDuigon.com) you point to C.S. Lewis as an example of Christian fantasy done right. What does he get right?

In his Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis makes it clear that the source and creation of all life is Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Great Lion, Aslan. And Aslan tells the children who come into Narnia from our world that they were there because He has called them; and that they will know Him in their own world, too – only “by another name.” It takes a very dense reader not to know that this other name is Jesus.

This is what Lewis gets right. In all seven Narnia books, the theme is getting to know Christ. For the most part, this is accomplished through obedience and love. This is a very big thing to get right.

Though you praise Lewis, you’ve also written that you respect parents who have a problem with the way Lewis uses magic in some sections of his books. Could you explain?

As a former atheist groping his way to a better knowledge of Christ, Lewis did makes some mistakes along the way. I cringe when one of his characters says, “It’s all in Plato.” Anyone who comes to Christ through Plato has performed a very neat trick.

The real magic in Narnia, the “Deep Magic,” belongs to Aslan/Jesus. In that sense it isn’t magic at all, but rather the underlying law of all reality.

But then there’s the White Witch, whose magic imposes winter on all Narnia for many decades. She is not human, and her “magic” can do nothing but destroy. She cannot create.

There’s also “minor magic” done by some of the characters in Narnia, and magic attempted by lawless human beings like Uncle Andrew – “magic” that never turns out as desired.

I can’t say why Lewis allowed this. His friend, Tolkien, warned him not to. Tolkien saw it as a flaw, and I agree. The only Biblical basis for it is Pharaoh’s magicians’ ability to imitate the first few miracles that God performed against Egypt through Moses and Aaron. The witch of Endor did succeed in raising the ghost of Samuel, but I always feel she was surprised it actually worked. But all the rest of the “magic” in the Bible is revealed as fraud; and that’s how I handle it in my own books.

By allowing a certain amount of magic in Narnia, Lewis deviated from the Biblical model. In deference to his evident love and reverence for Christ, I overlook it as a human failing. But those readers who are uneasy with it – and I’ve heard from quite a few of them – have nothing to apologize for.

I wanted to ask you about the role of magic in Christian and secular fantasy. I’ve just been reading a series by Christian author Andrew Peterson, his Wingfeather Saga, and he uses a conversation between mother and son to lay out his own thoughts on magic. After the son has a vision, his mother tells him:

If you asked a kitten, “how does a bumblebee fly?” the answer would probably be “Magic!” [The world] is full of wonders and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker – it isn’t something that [your sister] Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit.

What do you think of Peterson’s take on magic here? And what principles do you think Christian authors should follow in using magic?

I like what Peterson writes here. It’s an elegant way of saying that just because we perceive a thing as “magical” doesn’t mean it really is. We are a long way from understanding everything about how God’s creation works. The kitten sees the bumblebee’s flight as “magic.” And if you brought a flashlight into the world of King Arthur, his people would think it was a magical item.

In my books I don’t use magic at all. My fantasy world contains a few pieces of technology left over from an ancient period of history. Readers will understand that these are not magical items, but the characters in the stories won’t. The few individuals who get a chance to use these items think they’re making magic.

If a Christian writer simply must use “magic,” he would do well to remember that all power comes from God. It would be a challenge to square that with a story in which a teenage girl uses a magic spell to lasso her dreamboy (ugh – there’s so much of that in YA fiction). As a matter of realism, I would always allow the appearance, or the illusion, of magic. We still have plenty of that in our own world today.

I would allow fantastic creatures, as long as they don’t violate the laws of nature – as would, for example, a flying hippopotamus. But to a person living in another world – a world, say, where unicorns exist – a kangaroo or a chameleon or an octopus might seem an utterly fantastic creature which he might refuse to believe in.

If a fantasy can’t stir up a sense of wonder, it isn’t much of a fantasy. As Ray Harryhausen used to say, no one goes to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes.

But “magic” has been so overused in fantasy, it’s really more of a challenge to the writer’s imagination to get things done without magic.

Why is so much Christian fantasy fiction so bad?

It seems to be a rule of the market that when demand for a certain kind of story is high, but the supply is low, publishers fill the gap by publishing bad books. Fantasy, especially among young readers, is very popular. And there’s a demand for stories that don’t insult the Christian reader’s sensibilities. Simply, there isn’t enough high-quality fantasy being written to meet the demand. That’s because it isn’t so easy to write as a lot of people think it is.

Some Christian writers seem to think that the rules of literature shouldn’t apply to them because they’re writing about the Kingdom of God. So they feel perfectly free to traffic in corny dialogue, one-dimensional characters, ridiculous coincidences, and clumsy language. But all you wind up with, that way, is a bad book.

But while a lot of Christian fantasy is bad, a lot of secular fantasy is bad, too. I’ve read fantasies so awful, they could dry up ponds. I’ve read Christian fantasies in which the writer excelled at handling his theme, only to have his book go belly-up because he can’t write dialogue. Few authors have a gift for fantasy, but that doesn’t stop everyone and his brother from thinking they can write it.

What are some of the most common mistakes made in Christian fantasy writing?

Here’s a couple:

1) Write it as if it were a perfectly ordinary fantasy story, like everybody elses, only plug in a few scenes of characters praying or going to church.

Like Christian rap and Christian rock and Christians vs. Zombies video games, Christian fantasy is too often a not-very-good imitation of a secular pop culture product with some outward trappings added. I read a “Christian thriller” recently in which the good guys, every now and then, as if it had just popped into their heads for a moment, would pray or casually make some trifling Bible reference like, “Yeah, we gotta hang tough, like David.” Period. My rule of thumb is, if the story can get on without the “religion” you’ve put in it, then that’s not a critical element and you haven’t written a Christian fantasy.

And that’s usually because the writer has mistaken the outward appearance of Christianity for the real thing. It’s easy to throw in a few sentences that show your characters praying or going to church. The mistake in “Christian fiction” is to settle for that.

2) Have God give the good guys better magic than the bad guys have.

Remember what happened to Moses when he snapped at the children of Israel, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock?” God did all the miracles, but here was Moses taking credit for one of them.

I just read a book featuring a great big magical duel, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. “May the mightiest magician win!” is hardly a sentiment found anywhere in the Bible. What we do find in the Bible is God using weak and inconsequential things to confound the great and powerful. So Balaam is rebuked by his donkey, David slays Goliath, and the whole world is conquered not by armies, but by a baby in a manger.

Any attempt to write Christian fantasy must be anchored in the truths of the Bible, be they applied to this world or to an imaginary world, and must focus on the spirit of Christianity rather than any outward show of it – unless, of course, you’re writing about the vanity of outward show. In a Christian fantasy, the story must grow out of the writer’s quest to know God better and to share Him with the readers – and all without being heavy-handed, obvious, or preachy.

Over that last several years there has been a dystopian trend in the Young Adult bestsellers with books like The Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner. Many of these same books have teens killing teens. Why are Young Adult books so grim these days?

YA books are dark and unwholesome because they’re written by adults with troubled souls and a superficial understanding of life. Maze Runner, for instance, is idle, pointless cruelty, obviously not written by a teenager.

It’s a common fallacy among the pseudo-intelligent that whatever is ugly, painful, destructive or mean must be “realistic.” On the other hand, Divergent is written by a professing Christian who seems to be warning us not to let our world deteriorate into the grim and nasty world of her stories.

Every day, we’re all bombarded by bad news, always stuff we can’t do anything about. Enough of this will make anybody downhearted – which is just another good reason for writers and readers alike to steep themselves in the Bible.

Why should Christians read fantasy…and write it? How can fantasy be “truer” than some other genres of fiction?

Fantasy is like poetry. A good fantasy gets under your skin. It says more than it appears to say.

If you’re writing Christian fantasy, what you’re doing is going into the parable business. You’re writing extended parables. And although Christ’s short parables were fiction, He used them to tell truths. This is what our long parables should do.

Christians should write fantasy because there’s such a high demand for it, especially among the younger readers. If Christians don’t write it, non-Christians and anti-Christians will. Do we really want to concede such a big chunk of our popular culture to the godless? Christians should remember how energetically, a few years ago, the ungodly pushed – to teens and pre-teens – Philip Pullman’s aggressive atheist fantasy, The Golden Compass. We ought to be competing with junk like that and trying to crowd it off the shelves.

I won’t say Christians “should” read fantasy. It’s a matter of personal taste. But if the fantasy writer’s art is up to the challenge, and the reader is open to it, a visit to an imaginary world can sometimes shock the reader out of his habit of taking reality for granted: and by showing him strange new things, we may move him to see the old familiar things from a new perspective.

In my books I force my characters to live in contact with God and His will. He’s shaking their world, and won’t allow them to take Him for granted anymore. Let the reader wonder, “Wow! What must that be like?” If I’ve gotten the reader to think along such lines, I think I’ve done a good job.

This article was first published online on May 4, 2017.


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