Should We Visit Secondary Worlds?

[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning:

                A necessary companion to the idea of secondary creation is the concept of secondary worlds. In all fiction, but in fantasy in particular, the author creates a secondary world which the reader, by means of imagination, visits for a time. There are some elements required to make the visit possible.

First, the secondary world must be attractive to the reader, so that the reader will initially want to embark on the imaginative journey.

Second, the secondary world makes certain counterfactual assumptions about the reality within the secondary world. The author must be up front with those assumptions, and the reader must accept them without question. For instance, in fantasy the reality of magic and imaginary beasts is generally assumed. The reader must accept that assumption in order to enjoy the book. This acceptance is not a true belief. Tolkien called it “secondary belief,” and most other people call it the “suspension of disbelief.”

Third, the secondary world must be internally consistent. In other words, the secondary world must follow its own rules. It must make sense internally. If an author breaks his own rules, it snaps the reader out of their state of secondary belief, breaking the spell.

Many people falsely think that a fantasy world replete with magic has no need to follow any kind of logical rules, but the truth is that in the fantasy genre internal consistency is even more vital than in any other genre. A fantasy author is already asking the reader to assume so many counterfactual secondary realities that the author cannot afford to then shatter those secondary realities.

It takes a lot of work to develop a fantasy world that maintains a high degree of internal consistency – much more work than most authors (and especially filmmakers) are willing to invest. Tolkien devoted a lot of his imaginative efforts to maintaining the internal consistency of his world. The fact that he only published a few stories is a testament to the fact that he was never able to resolve all of the details of his secondary world to his satisfaction.

The high standard of internal consistency hints at a troubling and unspoken presupposition of fantasy – that it is possible to conceive of an internally consistent and coherent reality devoid of the biblical God. My belief is that an internally consistent and coherent reality is only possible based on the presumption of the biblical God. The biblical God is the only proper and possible starting point for reality and existence.

Of course, there are fantasy worlds developed by self-professing Christians which have as their foundation some god who bears great resemblance to the biblical God. However, besides the question of the propriety of inserting God into a secondary world made by a human being, there is the even more foundational problem that any god in a fantasy world cannot possibly be the biblical God. We know what the biblical God is like. More importantly, we know what the biblical God would do: he would make the reality that we all live in – the primary world. It is doubtful that the biblical God would ever make a reality with any slight deviation from this one, and he certainly would not make a world as startlingly different as the typical fantasy world.

Our culture’s obsession with virtual realities is indicative of a basic truth: we live in a cursed world. According to Romans 8:19-23, all of creation is groaning and suffering. It is enslaved to corruption. Futility is the natural end of everything in this world. As part of this creation, we too share in the deep unsettling feeling that this world is very, very wrong. We too share in the groaning of creation. It is only natural that we want to escape this reality into a more palatable reality – a reality that is controlled and is conformed to our comfort.

However, is escaping to a fantasy world the proper way to face the problems and evils of this world? When our stress level is too high, when the pain is too great, when the world is too much to handle, is the proper response to escape into a more pleasant world of the imagination?

Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. No one has ever faced greater pressure. No one has ever been more aware of the corruption of this world. Jesus did not try to distract himself with empty entertainment. He confronted his personal problems and all of the problems of the world on his knees in prayer. He brought his cares and anxieties before the throne of God. Like David, he comforted and strengthened himself in the Lord.

The corruption of the world is not something that can be sidestepped or avoided. It must be fought. We are to go to battle against the powers of darkness. One of our main instruments of warfare is the weapon of prayer. Prayer is also how we handle our own personal cares and worries.

Of course, the Bible does have a lot to say on the subject of rest (even leisure), and in places the book of Proverbs appears to recommend a certain level of escapism. For instance, honey is a gift from God for our enjoyment. Wine, likewise. In fact, wine is recommended to the poor man to help him forget his troubles.

There are at least three main differences between biblical principles for rest/leisure/distraction and escapist fantasy. First, the biblical sources of joy, pleasure, rest, etc. are grounded in the real world. Honey and wine are real and even tangible. Family, the pleasures of the marriage bed, etc. are all experienced within the primary world.

Second, I would describe the biblical, real-world joys as wholesome food as opposed to junk food. It is the difference between honey and Twinkies. In fact, it is even the difference between baklava and Twinkies. Escaping to a fantasy world can often (always) be like eating a box of Twinkies. It may taste good, and it may even have some minimal nutritional value. But in the end, your body will wish that you ate an apple instead.

Third, the biblical, real-world joys are much more God-focused. It is much easier to see honey as a gift from God than a fantasy novel. When consuming honey, it is much easier to say, “Wow! Isn’t it amazing how God made bees! Thank you God for honey!” When visiting a secondary world – the product of a secondary creator – it is much easier to say, “Wow! Isn’t it amazing how creative Tolkien is!” Sure, it is possible to thank God for the work of an author, but the connection is harder to make. So often reading a novel ends up being a God-less pleasure.

Ultimately, even the joys and pleasures of the primary world will disappoint. The corruption of this world taints all of our experiences. Hence the conclusion made back in Romans 8: all creation and all of God’s children are awaiting the new creation. There is a longing inherent in all creation. It is a longing felt by all human beings. We long for a world that is better than this one. That is what the Bible says we should be feeling. That is exactly the way it should be.

However, the answer to that longing is not found in the feeble secondary creations of human authors. The answer to all of our longings will only be found when Christ returns and remakes reality. We have to wait. Our hearts and minds and our whole lives are to be oriented towards that future re-creation. Why, then, would we want to replace that future, perfect reality with a flawed, present substitute?

I have a deep suspicion that escapism is our generation’s version of the great exchange of Romans 1. Since the fall human beings have exchanged the Creator for the created thing. We have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. We have erected in place of God idols of our own invention.

What I see now is not just a tendency to exchange the God of reality for a false God. What I see is a tendency to exchange the entirety of the God-based reality for a fictional God-less reality. We are giving up on the present joys given us by God and the future joys promised by God. We are spurning those wholesome, satisfying gifts, and in their place we are digging broken cisterns of fantasy.

Secondary worlds are subtly addictive. Have you ever binge-watched a TV show? It happens partly because you are loath to leave the secondary world and return to reality. Have you ever read one more chapter than you intended even when you had more pressing responsibilities? Have you ever caved to your child’s request to keep reading (or watching) past their bedtime?

And secondary worlds are deeply unsatisfying. Why do we shift from one book to the next, from one movie to the next, from one TV show to the next? We will even tire of a series before we have completed it. These human-constructed secondary worlds are not as satisfying as reality – especially reality as it was intended to be and as it will be when it is re-created.

Yet, we keep returning to the land of our imaginations to try one more secondary world after another. And over time in spite of our lack of satisfaction with secondary worlds, we allow the secondary worlds to subconsciously color our expectations of the primary world. For instance, after our fantasies of how romance ought to be, our real-life marriages begin to irk us.

Addictive and unsatisfying fantasies that lead us to grow more unsatisfied with our real-life experiences…It sounds disturbingly like pornography.

So when considering whether or not we should visit secondary worlds, we need to recognize their addictive and unsatisfying nature. We need to take into account their inherent God-lessness. And we need to purpose to face the problems of the world through prayer, to seek the God-given joys of the real world, and to bank on the hope of a future perfect reality.

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2 Responses to Should We Visit Secondary Worlds?

  1. billhoard says:

    So I think most of my disagreement with you on this post is theological and basically experiential. I would quibble with your literary claims as well (the author does not create counterfactual assumptions within the author’s created world precisely because the author is creating that world, it is simply different. The differences between the two worlds do represent contrary sets of facts, since otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction) and of course the facts of the story-world must yield to those of the real world, but each set of facts is proper to it’s own domain) but I think the theological and experiential are more fundamental to my disagreement with this post.
    Theologically I think you are making a number of problematic assertions: First that there is no good thing that God has not (directly) done. Your construct here would seem to amount to a rejection of all human (and even animal) construction. I believe that God has created us with the invitation to create beauty. If our stories are not so great as the great story that He is telling and into which He has entered, that does not mean that they are not still beneficial and for us to enjoy.
    Second you seem, again, to conflate the enjoyment of story with escapism. As we have made clear on other posts, I think there is a place even for escapism, but I would maintain that the enjoyment of good story (myth or not) is not automatically escapism. So it is not, by any means, sinful.
    But what struck me the most on this post is the experiential difference we seem to have when it comes to reading fantasy. Your description of the experience of ready fantasy is really alien to me. I finish good books, not with a sense of unsatisfaction but with a deep sense of satisfaction. There may well be a delicious trace of sehnsucht or maybe a simple longing to experience more of that author’s creation but it is not the pull of addiction. I generally find myself more able to enjoy my surroundings and those with whom I share relationship after a good book, not less.
    I think you have some really troubling psychological assertions here as well. When you say that we binge watch TV shows because we have become addicted to their alternate worlds, I think you are describing a fairly narrow subset of people’s experience. To use your food metaphor, it is possible to overeat even a salad when it is delicious. Good things can certainly go bad when they are overindulged and there is definitely a degree of moderation which is necessary when it comes to the delights of fiction, but that necessity can be just as much a side effect of fiction’s goodness as of some sinister quality.
    I think you may well have convinced me though that at least in your case, if this is your experience of Fantasy literature, you had better stay away from it. However I think you should be really careful about reading your experience on to others.

    • Again, as I said in my first post, it was NOT my primary purpose to respond to those who are enjoying fantasy purely for the sake of enjoyment. I am responding to other values assigned to fantasy.

      I think that it is important to recognize such verses as Ps. 136:4, which in context is speaking of God’s creative acts. There are other similar verses throughout Scripture. There is certainly enjoyment to be found in something a human being has made well, from cars to furniture to sculpture. With art I think that our experience of wonder is often disproportionate. In other words, we often get more excited over a photograph of the Grand Canyon than the sight of the Grand Canyon itself. We experience more sehnsucht from fiction than from life. I think this is a result of our incredible underestimation of the wonder of reality (both physical and spiritual), and our tendency as fallen beings to settle for (prefer?) the imitation rather than the genuine article.

      It is great that you are able to enjoy fantasy in the same way that many people are able to “drink responsibly.” I am not even trying to argue about whether or not that is the ideal. (Should we all be able to drink responsibly? If so, then should we all drink?) I am not sure that your ability to enjoy fantasy is representative of most people in American culture. My examples of binge-watching, etc. may not ring true to your experience, but I think they would ring true to the experience of many, many people — if not most people — who are regular consumers of fantasy.

      These psychological effects of fantasy (the act of imagining, not the genre) are becoming more generally recognized. I was just listening to a radio report about a secular study of advertising on online TV streaming services (I think Hulu in particular). Their conclusion was that more and more people are binge-watching TV shows, and that binge-watchers were far less likely to click on ads. The trend is becoming so strong that they may have to only advertise by product-placement. Their theory to explain this reluctance to click on ads was that binge-watchers in particular do not want to emerge from the secondary world — people want to be lost in the alternate reality.

      Another set of information is the studies being done on how a person’s thoughts, emotions, experiences, etc. are hardwired into the brain. One focus of these studies has been on the most potent of human fantasies (not speaking of the genre): pornography. Exposure to pornography hardwires a predilection for pornography into the brain, making it increasingly more difficult for a consumer of pornography to enjoy real intercourse or even to be attracted to real human beings. The fantasy (again, not the genre) eventually overpowers reality. (Thankfully, the brain can be rewired over time by abandoning pornography for reality.)

      Certainly fantasy (the genre now) is not as potent as pornography for most people, but it can be for some. But even in most people it can still produce similar effects in limited fashion. To not recognize this fact is to be blinded to one’s own frailties as a human being. Any consumer of fantasy (and even fiction) has to recognize the difficulty of entering into a secondary world enough to be moved and wonder-struck without receiving any negative “side-effects.”

      Yes, my personal experience has been different than yours, although my experience has probably not been as extreme as what you might think. Yes, I am sure that biases my views to a certain extent. However, I still believe I am right in asserting that the experience that I describe is more representative of the general public of regular fantasy consumers than what you describe. No, I do not have absolute proof of that. Yes, I know the perils of claiming to know the motives and thoughts of others. But my assertion still stands.

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