[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning: https://randallfcurtis.com/2016/01/02/the-dangers-of-fantasy/).
Many Christian fans of fantasy are well aware of the many dangers of the genre. However, they feel that as long as they enter into the experience of fantasy with their eyes wide open, the imaginative journey is worth the risks for the benefits fantasy provides. Besides pure entertainment value, people often point to the value of good themes.
Because fantasy takes place in an alternate reality, the reader is consciously or subconsciously drawn into comparing and contrasting the secondary world with our primary world. On the surface the differences between the secondary and primary worlds immediately stand out. However, in the long run it is the similarities that have the greatest impact.
The strongest similarities between the secondary and primary worlds are often found in the areas of characters and personalities, morality, choices, etc. These areas are the stuff of theme, so often the themes of fantasy can be drawn to the forefront far more powerfully than in other genres.
This principle is very evident in science fiction, fantasy’s sister genre. In science fiction the author often constructs a version of the future (or a science-based fantasy world) which focuses in on the elements that make up the author’s intended themes. Just think Hunger Games or Divergent – both sci-fi worlds that are oversimplified in order to highlight certain themes.
Fantasy and science fiction can play the role of a thought experiment – dealing with questions and issues that are hard to grapple with in our primary world. Or fantasy and science fiction can be used just to make a point more clearly.
Initially, the thematic emphasis of fantasy sounds attractive, but does it work well in practice?
First of all, I must remark that fantasy, like all fiction, is almost always less clear than direct, didactic prose. Like poetry, fantasy looks at reality slantwise. As a result, it can be hard to draw the proper conclusions from a fantasy novel – in fact, one could make a case that the concept of “proper conclusions” should not be applied to a fantasy novel.
Not surprisingly, the hermeneutics of fantasy bears greater resemblance to eisegesis than to exegesis. I find it amusing how Christians approach fantasy with the kind of reader-response, pick-and-choose hermeneutic that so horrifies them when applied to the Bible. Christians have a tendency to overlook the parts of the story that they disagree with and focus in on the parts with which they are in agreement. Or they will re-interpret a book because they think they see something symbolic of a biblical truth.
It is inevitable that fantasy, like all fiction, is full of error – by which I mean ideas in opposition to biblical truth. Much of the error in fantasy is merely the side-effect of fictionalization. It is impossible to represent truth perfectly in fiction. Some error is the fault of reader misunderstanding. And some error is intentional by the author – the author is propagating false ideas.
To find examples of error in fantasy, the easiest place to look is Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. One famous supposed error is a ransom theory of the atonement. Aslan appears to pay a ransom to the White Witch in order to save Edmund. Lewis has Aslan say to the White Witch that the debt is not owed to the White Witch herself. It is a debt owed to the old magic. Unfortunately, it is hard for that one statement to overcome the impression given by the scene at the Stone Table.
Another error is in Lewis’ character the White Witch. He identifies her as Lilith – the first wife of Adam. Lilith is a character from fringe, cultic Jewish mythology. I do not think that Lewis actually believes in the myth of Lilith. He must be using Lilith as some kind of symbol to convey some kind of idea. However, when reading the book, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence that Lewis does not take the myth of Lilith seriously.
What is perhaps the most famous error in the Chronicles of Narnia is what happens to the figure of the antichrist in the Last Battle (a donkey who wears a lion skin). The antichrist goes to heaven! Most Christian readers have a tendency to gloss over this appalling outcome and completely ignore that this was an intentional statement by Lewis. It is my understanding that Lewis believed all sincere, well-meaning pagans will go to heaven.
Granted, most works of fantasy do not attempt such strict one-to-one correspondence with doctrinal truth. With most works of fantasy we are dealing with more general themes, but even here I think many Christian readers are led astray. Let us look at some examples of popular “good” themes that Christians like to find in literature, movies, etc.
First, Christians like to talk about “redemptive” themes. This is a broad category that covers a lot of different concepts. There is no way I could cover everything that falls under the rubric of “redemptive,” especially since little of the content is linked to a biblical definition of “redemption” (purchase of freedom from slavery).
I would like to simply point out that I have never found a single example of redemption in a fantasy novel or movie. In fact, except for blatantly Christian stories like Fireproof, I have never encountered redemption in any work of fiction.
Let me give a single example to illustrate my point. The TV show Once Upon a Time uses the word “redemption” with surprising frequency. In the world of Once, any significant act of evil creates a visible black mark on the magical heart of an individual (which magic-wielders are able to extract and examine). Several of the characters intentionally seek redemption (their word). However, by “redemption,” they mean they are going to do enough significant good works to cleanse the black marks from their hearts. They are saving themselves by a type of expiation. I hope I do not have to explain all of the ways in which this image of “redemption” is horribly wrong.
There are other stories which offer a version of redemption that is closer to the truth, but in our idea of biblical redemption, approximation is not sufficient. Pick your story of “redemption” – Shawshank Redemption, Les Miserables, anything – you will find serious flaws in the image of redemption. The areas of difference are significant, and if they were suggested by a theologian, he would be declared heretical. For some reason when indulging in fantasy, we put on our reader-response hermeneutical glasses and gloss over the things we disagree with. “Kind of the gospel” is not the gospel. It is false teaching, even if it is fiction.
A second thematic element that Christians love to look for is a messiah figure. In Tolkien there are two main ones: Gandalf and Aragorn. In the Matrix there is Neo. Of course there are many others. Again, as with the redemptive themes, a “sort of messiah” is not the messiah. It probably borders on the blasphemous to liken Jesus to Neo. Neo is an amoral hacker who doesn’t mind sticking it to the man. He engages in premarital intercourse. He is almost evenly balanced with his nemesis. And he eventually dies without succeeding in bringing about full salvation. Both Gandalf and Aragorn have their own failings. I am not sure what is to be gained by identifying such characters as messiah figures. It seems to only do insult to Jesus.
A third big theme Christians harp on is a clear struggle between good and evil or light and dark. OK, think many Christians, this story may have a lot of not-so-great stuff in it, but at least it depicts a struggle between good and evil. But so do a lot of false religions and cults. A cosmic struggle between good and evil is a common theme in a lot of pagan religions. A work of fiction or fantasy cannot be justified by an appeal to a struggle between good and evil.
Besides, it is questionable how best to represent such a struggle in fiction. If the author oversimplifies the depiction, it can lead to an oversimplified black-and-white view of the world. If the author tries to be more nuanced in his depiction, then it can blur the lines between good and evil, leading the reader to wonder if perhaps there is no black or white, but only gray. Furthermore, the struggle between good and evil is generally depicted in military terms, as an actual physical battle between the military forces of good and the military forces of evil. In our phase of salvation-history, it questionable whether such a military depiction is advisable.
Finally, a lot of Christians will just settle for a book that promotes good moral values. Right is shown to be right, and wrong is shown to be wrong. But is it really helpful to depict good morality apart from a relationship with the biblical God? Is it helpful to use fiction to promote legalism? And how often have you really found yourself in 100% agreement with the morality of any work of fiction?
I have some thoughts on the proper use of stories for the communication of truth, but first I want to briefly discuss some outright sinfulness inherent in the fantasy genre.