Joseph Campbell said that if we don't understand the meaning of our cultural symbols, we are doomed to a shallow existence, "like diners going into a restaurant and eating the menu." I always thought the smartest thing anyone other than J. K. Rowling ever said about Harry Potter was that the series is "the greatest evangelistic opportunity the [Christian] church has missed." The reaction of some Christians to Harry Potter is an example of Joseph Campbell's warning, probably the best example I have ever seen. These two ideas intertwine in my mind whenever someone asks me how I can be a Christian and write about magic, ghosts, and violence.
When writing a work of fiction, symbols are employed. This is true even when we experience realistic fiction, like, say, a western in which the good guy wears a white hat and the bad guy a black one. The ability to understand the action of the story depends in part on the ability to process the symbols . You can watch the whole western and figure out that the guy in the white hat is the one that ought to win, but if you understand symbols employed by the author (because they are symbols frequently employed by that author's culture), you don't need to do that. You can tune in to the final showdown and pretty much get the point: "Ah! guy in the white hat--brings order to disorder, defends honor and honesty, stands up for the little guy, ought to win!"
Now, does this mean that in our actual life, we think all the good guys and gals need to wear white hats? Do we send our soldiers to war wearing white wide-brimmed headgear? Even the suggestion brings a chuckle and a note of concern since, after all, doing so would make our good guys an easy target. Which speaks to the complexity of "real" life which we can avoid partially in a novel. In a story, we get to delineate good from bad to the extent that we wish; it's refreshing to do so. In real life, there are so many shades of grey, even when we try to minimize them. We have to camouflage our soldiers though we whole-heartedly believe they are on the side of good. Not to do so puts them in harm's way.
I can write about ghosts and magic in fiction because the story is not real. It's not meant to be real. It's not even meant to be realistic fiction. I'm employing symbols when I write about magic, or ghosts, or even depictions of violence. There are many things we experience every day that seem magical, that fill us with a sense of confusion and uncertainty and awe, maybe fear or joy or wonder. Take, for example, the subject I'm currently exploring with the Legacy series. My daughters are growing up, entering their teens. Soon they will be young women. But there's a part of me, to be honest, that expects to walk downstairs when I finish writing this and find them waking up, aged 9 and 7, asking me what to wear to school today and needing me to comb their hair. When my child hugs me and has to lean down to do so, I am filled with wonder and sadness. How can this be so? Wasn't she just small enough that I could take her in my arms and cradle her? Wasn't that just yesterday? Yet, she is beautiful now. I am proud of what she has become, even if I don't always understand how it can happen so quickly, how her childhood has slipped away from me. It happened so fast. I turned around and she was grown. It was like...magic.
And maybe there's a loved one you lost too early in your life. I know it happened to me. And maybe you like to think of that person watching over you, even offering you guidance. If you believe it is wrong to hold that thought, maybe you dream about them. Maybe in the dream they come and meet your children, tell you they are proud of you, tell you your problems aren't so bad and you will be OK. In a work of fiction, that same idea can be represented by the ghost offering guidance, demanding certain levels of performance the way that person did when they were living, requiring something of us that we are able to give, setting them (and in the process, ourselves) free.
There are lots of possibilities for future blog posts here, but, in short, I have always let my children read the books with magic in them because sometimes it is easier to learn about the hardest things in life when we absorb them first through symbols. I processed the death of a relative I loved very much by weeping over the passing of a magic spider, Charlotte, and I will be ever grateful to E.B. White for employing that lovely, accessible symbol for young children puzzled and terrified by death but longing to understand. Then I fell down a rabbit hole with a friend name Alice and learned that although the world is an incomprehensible mess I must still accept responsibility for my own actions. And there were all those trips to Narnia...of course I can write about magic. I was never going to write about anything else.