by Celeste Allen
Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars. The American public seems to be under siege from the world of fantasy. Once relegated to a small group of people stereotyped by an eccentric appearance and poor social skills, fantasy has soared into the purview of mainstream America. The furor in the Christian community nearly matches the profusion of the commercial marketing campaigns. But is all this controversy justified, or is it a matter of "sound and fury, signifying nothing?"
Christians must be alert to the content and intent of the media, but condemnation of the “fantastic” speaks more of misunderstanding than of any sinister designs on the part of fantasists. Fantasy is not inherently evil. It is, in fact, a manifestation of God's creative image in mankind. And, it is a powerful tool for opening the doors of communication.
Some Christians feel an overarching distrust of fantasy because the inhabitants of fantasy worlds can behave in apparently antibiblical fashions. Yet this belief is based in the fundamental misconception that fantasy worlds are somehow meant to be real. In our world people practice all manner of evil by means of satanic ritual, demonic allegiance, and ignorant experimentation with the occult. However, the biblical admonition "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" refers to real witches in our real world, a world in which any suspension of the laws of nature is the direct result of the supernatural—either divine or occult.
The worlds of fantasy are not intended to be this world. Whether Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea, which is clearly another world, C. S. Lewis' Narnia, which is entered through "doors" into an alternate world, or the contemporary fantasy of Diane Duane and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, which look like our world but are peopled by magical or fantastic inhabitants—these worlds are not the earth on which we live. They possess different laws of nature, laws by which magic works not through supernatural intervention, but as a part of the natural order.
In the current climate of New Age and occult interest, avenues exist through which fantasy could be used as an enticement toward the occult. Yet the same could be said about corporate management books that can promote the dehumanization of employees or the Christian romance novels that can tempt people to dissatisfaction with their own marriages. As Steven R. Guthrie of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts stated: “[Fantasy] can be diabolical, but it is no more or less fallen than the rest of our humanity.”
The ability not just to mimic our own world, but to envisage new worlds—complete with their own consistent internal systems—is an outworking of the image of the creative God made manifest in man. It testifies that man is greater than the sum of his parts. Like God, in whose image he is made, the fantasist does more than simply take the fabric before him and reshape it into a garment; he delights to weave a whole new cloth.
Every genre (including fantasy) can turn out mind candy: from instant biographies appearing in conjunction with current news stories, to trendy self-help books, these works are readily produced and consumed, but lack any substance. Yet also like any other genre, fantasy at its best does more than just entertain. It offers a pointed commentary on the human condition and the inextricable interplay of the mundane and the divine.
What appeals to the fantasy aficionado is not simply the sense of wonder, but also the fact that fantasy addresses themes as poignant as those of Jesus’ parables. From The Odyssey to A Midsummer Night's Dream to Through the Looking Glass, great fantasy writing carries the imprint of God's truths. Accordingly, the most prevalent fantasy themes reflect biblical paradigms: magic that is lost through evil (the Eden analogy), the outcast who saves the day (the rejected Cornerstone analogy), the quest that leads home (the Jacob analogy) and the ultimate battle between good and evil (the Revelation analogy). Add to this such common themes as the disguised visitor (the Lot analogy), the unrecognized gift (the Joseph analogy), the hero-warrior who rescues his people (the conquering Christ analogy), and it becomes abundantly clear that God's creative hand touches the heart of every fantasist, believer or not.
Just as God often required the Old Testament prophets to do unusual, even bizarre things, to illustrate the realities He revealed to them, so the fantasist uses magical characters and situations to make truth claims about our world. The physical dilemmas that affect fantasy worlds allegorize moral dilemmas real people face every day. A common fantasy theme is the unleashing of chaos as a result of one character's actions (a variation on the Eden analogy). When greed, carelessness, or self-indulgence can have not just an evil face, but literally the face in the mirror, the reader is challenged to recognize his own capacity for evil. This ability to reveal reality without appearing pedantic, coupled with fantasy's thematic analogies, can be an effective starting place for soul-searching.
Christendom may never know how many sermons, seminars, and personal discussions featured the deliberate self-sacrificial death of one of the main characters in the original Star Wars film. Yet the unequivocal echo of the man who "lays down his life for his friends" still rings in the ears of many a Christian and non-Christian alike. How many people have come into the Kingdom because a Christian friend could steer them to the work of Christ that this fantasy scene reflected? Christians need to look for these "truth moments" in fantasy and use them as bridges to discuss spiritual reality.
The proliferation of popular and respected Christian fantasists, from George MacDonald to J. R. R. Tolkien to Ray Bradbury to Stephen Lawhead, make it clear that fantasy is not the Devil's playground. Rather fantasy is a fertile field in which the people of God can roam, explore, and re-create His values and insights in ways the world may be more readily willing to see and accept. Its creative analogies and its ability to view the realities of the human heart through different, sometimes clearer eyes are a rich source for the kind of dialogue that can lead people to hear the voice of God.
Celeste Allen has published short stories in literary, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, western, and historical fiction magazines and anthologies. Her poetry and nonfiction works have appeared in newspapers and devotional collections across the United States. She currently serves as a missionary in the United Kingdom.
Steven R. Guthrie, “Capturing the Imagination: Rediscovering the Depths of Faith and Discipleship.” Lecture presented at the Wycliffe Hall/Regent University Summer School, Oxford, England. The Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts is located on the campus of the University of St. Andrews, St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews, United Kingdom.