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Invoking Truth: Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy

By Josh Herring

“Sing Muse, Achilles’ Rage, black and murderous” (The Iliad, line 1).
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” (The Odyssey, line 1).
“I begin my song with the Heliconian Muses” (Theogony, line 1).

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]omer and Hesiod both began their greatest works invoking a higher power beyond themselves. Rather than seeking to portray something new, the ancients followed the convention that their stories were inspired by Muses and as such partook of the mythic truth overseen by the goddesses. While modern authors rarely invoke deities to begin their novels, the best authors infuse their stories with truth transcending time and space. Lev Grossman is such an author.

Defying genre boundaries in his Magicians trilogy, Grossman’s writing reflects a clear knowledge of literary structure, devices, and intertextuality. It meets all of Tolkien’s criteria for a true work of fantasy: magic is taken seriously, it is set within a believable non-technological secondary world, and it has the “consolation of a happy ending.” The Magicians trilogy could also be taken as a coming-of-age story portraying the journey of a Millennial (Quentin Coldwater) as he grapples with dreams smashed against the harsh post-collegiate world.

While Grossman told a fan that he did not spend much time concerned with religious questions, his novels reflect several key components of Christian theology: the Imago Dei separating man from the rest of creation, the necessity of divine death to resurrect life, and the fallen nature of the world. Just as Homer and Hesiod may not have believed in the Muses yet by invoking them raised a mythos on which their narratives rested, so Grossman invites the possibility of his novels fitting in the Lewis, Tolkien, and Waugh tradition of infusing his fictional world with Christian truth.

Grossman’s magic system corresponds with the Christian concept of the Imago Dei, man created in the image of God. Magic in this world is an endlessly inventive capacity possessed by some who spend a lifetime exploring its potential. As an inherent quality, magic must be developed, and it reaches its fullest expression in new creation. Magic is that part of humanity which aspires to divinity, and livens up a seemingly meaningless world. For those characters who have this quality but have not yet discovered it, reality is a drab, dull place.

These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God.
Magic endows the world with meaning, and gives magicians a role as stewards of this great power. In Genesis YHWH creates man and gifts him with kingly authority, lordship over all creation. The world is his to work because he alone has the breath of life, the divine spark God breathed into Adam. Longing for beauty, truth, and goodness are all components of this Imago Dei, and Grossman illustrates the necessity of cultivating humanity through the use of magic. Through magic, his protagonist temporarily rises to the divine in the final book.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Magician’s Land chronicles Quentin’s discovery of a spell of world creation, and concludes in his successfully creating his own land. Before this scene (which functions as an epilogue), Quentin participates in the cruciform conclusion of the trilogy. Michael Gorman coined the term “cruciform” to describe the cross-shaped, sacrifice-oriented way of life Christians should have as they await the eschaton. Cruciform seems the best way to describe the end of The Magicians’ Land. Fillory has a single god who inhabits two rams—Ember and Umber (a di-unity?)—and to save Fillory from self-destruction, the god must die. Only in divine blood can resurrection occur for the dying land.

Thus far, Grossman draws on Christian and Norse tradition, but he pulls from C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra for the finale. In Perelandra the Edenic temptation is reenacted, but Ransom kills the devil-figure, removing the temptation before another Fall can occur. In The Magician’s Land, Grossman explores what might have happened if Jesus (the sacrificial Lamb) had reached the Garden of Gethsemane and been too cowardly to die.

Ember the Ram-God waits for Quentin to arrive, knowing his death is necessary that Fillory must live. At the last moment, however, Ember struggles seeking to prolong His life. In contrast, Umber meekly submits to the sword. In the death of two rams, Fillory is given rebirth. The divine nature and power pass to Quentin, and he recreates the world resembling the Genesis creation account (even concluding in rest).

In Christian theology, rebirth and resurrection are possible only through the death of God. In Christ’s death, sinful humanity’s debt is paid. Grossman does not continue in this vein; he does not have a resurrected savior-figure. He does, however, have a quasi-Trinitarian correspondence.

Where Christianity maintains that God is one and three (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), Grossman concludes the recreation of Fillory with a conversation between three characters each of whom have held some portion of divinity throughout the story. Julia appears, now three-quarters divine and queen of the Dryads. She corresponds to God the Father, explaining the overall story. Alice, the recently restored human who had been a demon for the previous book, corresponds to the Holy Spirit. Quentin corresponds to God the Son, who created and sustained all things. These correspondences are not exact, but they form an interesting parallel at the end of a creation scene. Fillory, however, is done with gods. The power of the gods leaves Quentin and will remain dormant for an age. In essence, Quentin remade the world in a Deistic fashion, winding it up and calibrating Fillory to run without divine supervision.

The final element Grossman illustrates is the Christian understanding of the world as fallen. These novels trace the development of Quentin as an adult, moving from naïveté to disenchantment to finding joy in an evil world. As a child, Quentin longed for the purity and goodness he found in the Fillory books. He thought his magic training would lead him to the place of happiness; as he grows in the first two books, he learns that both Earth and Fillory are complex, evil realms inhabited by broken people. Fillory has a dark side, composed of monsters, villains, and laws which reject Quentin. Earth has disappointments.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a way, Quentin resembles Odysseus, the “man of twists and turns” whose name translates as “son of suffering.” Out of suffering grows wisdom. From no other path can men grow to understanding, according to the Greeks. By the end of this trilogy, Quentin comes to believe that the world will always be fallen. His joy cannot come from escaping to a perfect, imaginary world like the Fillory of his eight-year-old imagination. Joy comes from struggling in the world, from human interactions. Joy is found in good food, excellent wine, and love worked out across years.

These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God. Man is made bursting with potential, in the very image of God, yet few realize their potential.

While The Magicians trilogy highlights elements of Christian theology, it operates like half of a syllogism. Internally consistent, it neglects the hope Christianity offers. This broken world will be redeemed, recreated by the resurrected God who died for its sake. God died, but is not dead. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the proof of redemption. Fulfillment of the Imago Dei is found not in becoming God, but in submitting to God.

Grossman writes a brilliant story, filled with vivid characters. While not himself a Christian, he reached for Christian truths which uphold his narrative. His story is like a tapestry woven on the loom of undergirding truth; because of the strength of the supporting truths, his story is that much stronger. His characters are real, with dark consequences that spiral beyond expectations. Their motivations run deep, pointing to desire for love and significance at the root of human nature.

Image: “Map of Fillory” from

Mythopoeia: Evidence of the Image of God in Literature

By Josh Herring

As a young boy, I loved to read. I would spend hours at the library roaming the shelves, selecting a stack of books to read for the coming week. I became intimately familiar with Asimov, Tolkien, Lewis, Heinlein, Bruce Coville, Lloyd Alexander, and dozens of others who fit somewhere within the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I eventually migrated upstairs from the children’s section to the adult fiction wing of the library, and discovered dozens of new authors who shaped my reading tastes. Though my mother was excited I loved to read, she despaired at getting me to read serious material. “Twaddle” was her word for the kinds of reading I enjoyed. She had little love for Oz, Fantastica, Asgard, or Professor Xavier’s Home; fictional reading was good as long as it was something worthwhile. None of the stories I loved fit the bill.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the love my mother instilled in me for reading, thinking, and debating. When she challenged my reading choices, it always made me pause and seek to justify why this was “a good book!” In hindsight, many of the books I read were terrible: the prose was inane, the plots simple, the characters flat. And yet, they peopled my childhood with excitement, stories, and worlds beyond measure. My mother and I still disagree on the value of many fantasy authors; catching her reading the latest Dresden Files book might be a sign of the Apocalypse. Some years ago, I ran across a poem in which J. R. R. articulates a great defense for all forms of literature both high and low.

Mythopoeia encapsulates Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation which he works out in longer form in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien wrote this poem after an all-night argument with C. S. Lewis in which Lewis claimed myths were worthless, because they were lies “even if breathed through silver.” Challenged by his friend, Tolkien wrote his defense in rhyme and meter.

The poem centers around two worldviews—one materialistic and scientific, the other transcendent and Platonic. Borrowing heavily from Plato’s theory of forms, Tolkien argues that

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

Without the form existing in the transcendent realm, Tolkien argues, no man could form an idea. He continues in his defense of myth, arguing that their creation is directly connected to the bearing of the imago dei.

Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Tolkien argues in these lines that man, though fallen, stills bears signs of being made in the image of God. His lordship is demonstrated in the “creative act.” The implications of Tolkien’s idea are huge—far from literary work being unimportant, worthless in comparison to some other work, it demonstrates the hand of God within mankind.

Tolkien unpacks the details of his theology in “On Fairy Stories.” In essence, he contends that since God is a creator, whenever man creates something he images his Creator. Tolkien then ranks works on how well they either correspond with reality, or how convincingly they connect the reader to the “inner consistency of reality” in the secondary world.

Authors are a special kind of artist in Tolkien’s theory. They use the same medium as God (words) to create a lesser version of primary reality. Whether they realize it or not, authors we love tap into some aspect of the “single White” which is the “refracted light. . . splintered. . . to many hues. . . endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” When I enjoy the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, or George R. R. Martin, I do so because they are imaging the creative work of God through their writing.

Year later, I still disagree with my mother over books. What we can come to agree on, however, is that all men are made in God’s image. When we work “as unto the Lord,” we demonstrate his handiwork within us. In world-building, authors (both Christian and non), exercise the creative faculties which cause us to remember that our world too is a secondary creation, one which will one day be joined with Primary Reality when the Lord returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth.


Image: “Tolkein in Athens” by T. Rich and L. Katon. CC License. 

Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture

by Joshua Herring

For two thousand years, Christians have made an extraordinary claim: that a set of books contains the words of God, written through human authors, and that this Bible is sufficient for “life and doctrine.” With conservative estimates dating the Revelation of St. John to approximately 90 AD, Christians believe that writings from 1900 years ago are both relevant for today and contain truth to cover all circumstances. When stated so baldly, this claim seems ridiculous. But what if it is true? What if the Bible is enough to communicate God’s truth to a chaotic world, no matter how it changes?

The world has changed significantly over the past century: from the horrors of the Holocaust to the shifts of feminism in the West, from the rise of legalized marijuana, to the ever evolving sexual landscape. Such changes, systemic as they may seem, are nothing new. St. Augustine wrote his timeless classic The City of God in response to the apparent end of the world in the 5th century sack of Rome. In 1000 AD, Western Europe was convinced the millennial kingdom was imminent. In 1215, Beijing altered irrevocably with the arrival of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol hordes. In a world where tradition appears immovable yet is gone like a leaf in the wind, does the Bible actually provide the counsel of God?

I believe the answer is yes, and want to illustrate timeless biblical wisdom by examining the microcosm of a single but deeply telling issue: polyamory. Polyamory combines two Latin words—poly, meaning “many,” and amor, meaning “love.” This term describes open relationships which may or may not define themselves as a sort of group marriage, or as a single couple who remain together but pursue other sexual partners. Polyamorous relationships fascinate journalists, and have entered into mainstream public discourse in recent years.

I am not arguing that polyamory is something new; there have always been strange sexual practices. From the mystery cults in Greece and Rome to temple prostitution in ancient Sumeria, aberrant practices have always existed outside the norm of marriage. What is unique about polyamory, however, is that it seeks to become a new normal. Where previous generations have had bizarre sexual cults and practices, the present generation stands out for attempting to make these practices appear normative (by which I mean the attempt for the new practice to replace the traditional). One way in which polyamorous couples do this is by implying that traditional marriage is limited, and consumed by jealousy. They are on the moral high road, allowing all consenting adults to fulfill their desires.

The Bible does not describe any polyamorous relationships. It deals with polygamy, monogamy, adultery, fornication, beastiality, and homosexuality, but does not specifically address this manifestation of human sexuality. Does polyamory defeat the idea of the Bible being sufficient for life and doctrine? No—instead we need to examine how the Bible portrays marriage as a training ground for understanding the concepts of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, allowing us to discern that polyamory threatens a truly human concept of fidelity. The prophet Hosea can help us on this journey.

Hosea is written by the eponymous prophet, one of a group of 10th-8th century BC men who preached messages from God to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Assyrian destruction of northern Israel and the Babylonian exile of southern Judah. He wrote before Israel’s destruction, and communicates a message of judgment and eventual restoration. Where Hosea becomes unique, however, is the way in which God commanded him to show his message. The book opens with “When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (Hosea 1:2). Hosea proceeds to marry Gomer, who remains faithful to Hosea until the after the birth of their first child. The fatherhood of her second two children, however, was suspect. Gomer eventually became a prostitute, and was redeemed by her husband. They had a total of three children, each of whom was named to communicate an aspect of Israel’s infidelity.

On one hand, this is the most appalling scene in the prophets. Can you imagine a preacher getting a vision from God saying, “Go! Marry a prostitute! And when she betrays you and goes back to selling herself on the street, go and buy her back from her pimp, and treat her as if she never left.” Hosea does so, and honors God in his obedience. Rather than stopping at shock in methodology, perhaps the better question is, “Why would God use this living metaphor, and this language?”

It is impossible to read this prophecy and miss the pain and horror of what God commands Hosea to do. These actions are not done purposelessly. Instead, God has a clear point. He reaches for universal human experience to communicate how unjustly Israel has forsaken him. The metaphor of the adulterous wife transcends the context of 8th century BC Israel. It is a picture that the whole human race across all of time can recognize as betrayal, as wrong. This transcendence is part of the beauty of Hosea—reading this prophecy does not require background knowledge. Anyone can pick it up and recognize that Gomer betrayed her husband, and caused him great pain, for no discernable reason. The idea of a woman selling her body is also a universal phenomenon, recognizable through literature where it is not visible on the streets. The vocabulary and metaphor allows the book to transcend the geographic and temporal context and appeal to perennial human experience.

As such, the book communicates on at least two levels. On the divine level, Hosea teaches the reader about God’s response to the betrayal of his covenant with Israel. There will be consequences to that betrayal. It also shows God as the jealous husband, who wants sexual exclusivity with his wife (which in this case represents exclusive worship by his covenant people Israel). On a human level, the reader sees Hosea’s unfailing love for a woman who clearly does not deserve it. Gomer should have been tried in court, divorced, and (under the fullest application of the law) even stoned. Instead, here is the faithful husband who buys her back, and restores her to honor. Hosea’s faithfulness functions as an example for how husbands should love their wives.

Hosea is a beautiful book of prophecy and poetry. Its use of extended metaphor allows it to appeal to all times and places communicating a high ethic of love while also showing the consequences of covenant betrayal. It foreshadows the gospel, where all mankind is Gomer (as we worship other gods and ignore our rightful LORD) and Jesus is Hosea (painfully purchasing the human race from Satan’s reign at the cost of his own blood).

What then does Hosea have to say about the topic of polyamory? Hosea illustrates the biblical teaching that sexuality should occur within fences, within the confines of marriage. When sexuality occurs outside these fences, there are consequences. Polyamory functions as a denial of this foundational principle. It begins with the premise that there should be no fences, no limits to human desire. For the polyamorist, marriage is not predicated upon sexual exclusivity but upon emotional closeness which can exist between multiple partners. Instead, the polyamorist argues that desires are the highest value and that when one person desires sexual intimacy with another, no marriage agreement should stand in the way. Polyamory goes as far as to argue that those who insist on traditional mores limit themselves, and fail to experience the best pleasures.

Where Hosea provides a living metaphor of faithfulness and infidelity, polyamory destroys the structure within which faithful marriage can exist. It denies a fundamental part of our human nature—marital jealousy is right and proper, according to God’s example in dealing with Israel. Polyamory holds up jealousy as evil, where Scripture holds up faithfulness of one spouse as a good. Hosea shows us that these two visions of the good life stand in opposition: they cannot both be true. Either polyamory is correct, and traditional marriage is enslavement to one partner, or biblical morality is correct that as people we are made for exclusive love in marriage just as we are made for exclusive worship of the Triune God.

For two thousand years, Christians have looked to the Bible as their source of how to live life, and what to believe. The world is always a different place; each generation wrestles with how to answer fundamental questions about what it means to be human, how to live the good life, and where to find wisdom. The Bible serves as the Christian bedrock. For all that this world may shift, evolve, and metamorphose, the teachings of Scripture remain true. Regardless of what new phenomena develop, whether it is the national legalization of marijuana, the widespread acceptance of homosexual marriage, or the normalization of polyamory, the Bible still holds the words of the Living God. Scripture is sufficient for all circumstances, and remains our source of life and doctrine.


Image: “Hosea” by Peter. CC License. 

The Faustian Bargain of Fifty Shades of Gray

Editor’s Note:  A longer version of this piece was originally published at The Federalist:

By Josh Herring 

(Josh Herring is a seminarian and humanities instructor in Wake Forest, NC. He enjoys contemplating the great ideas of humanity and seeing how they interact with the truth of Scripture.)

In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.

Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.

Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.

In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?

Photo: Marguerite’s garden in the original production, set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry. Public Domain.