Thursday, 10 September 2015

Part Three: Reading Fantasy

by Jeanette O'Hagan

In the last post, we explored the fantasy genre from a writer’s perspective. Today, I want to think of it from a reader’s perspective.

Of course, there is considerable overlap between the two, but I know I often read far more widely than I would be comfortable writing.

As a Christian, I want what I write to be consistent with my values, beliefs as well as drawing on my experience, research and imagination. While my faith may not always be explicit, it informs who I am, what I write about and how I write it. 

However, I don’t just read Christian fiction or Christian authors. Whether fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or some other genre, I read books by atheists, agnostics, people of other religions or of no stated religion.

Why read beyond a Christian ‘bubble’?

It’s possible to learn from non-Christians.

In the Old Testament Joseph, Moses and Daniel and his friends learn from the pagan wisdom even while they remain true to Yahweh, the one True God. In the New Testament, Paul was not only educated in the Torah, but also in Greco-Roman philosophers and poets. He sometimes drew on these sources to persuade Christians (e.g. Titus 1:12) or connect with those outside the faith (Acts 17:24-29). 

It helps in understanding the worldview of non-Christians.

Even the most innocent romance or formulaic detective novel has an implicit world view – concepts about what or who matters, good, evil, the nature of truth, authority etc. However, fantasy and science fiction often bring big world themes and perspectives to the fore. And just as reading a novel embedded in a particular culture is a great why of understanding the nuances and mores of that culture, so is reading general market fantasy a great way of understanding contemporary worldviews.

It helps us connect to people.

We not only develop a better understanding of beliefs, values and concerns of people in the wider society, we can talk intelligently about the shows, films and books they enjoy – as I attempt to here, here or here.

For instance, Ursula Le Guin’s EarthSea explores facing fears and being willing to acknowledge that we are deeply flawed. In the original book Ged awakes a destructive shadow, which he flees, but eventually realises is part of himself. Do I agree with everything Le Guin portrays? No. For one thing, I don’t accept her view that life after death is no more than a shadowy echo or nonexistence (The Farthest Shore). Yet, her books make me think and can provide a discussion point about the nature of humanity and life after death.

And after all, great literature is great literature and we can learn from it but we need our eyes ‘wide open.’ I think this is true of all the fiction (and non-fiction) we read (or watch).


But that doesn’t mean I would read anything and everything.

While it is fantasy of a different kind, I have held off reading the notorious 50 Shades of Grey – not just because, by all reports, it is atrociously written, but because of its glorification of a manipulative sexual relationship as romance, among other things.

The strong and the weak

Paul’s discussion of ‘food offered to idols’ (I Corinthians 8-10) is relevant here. In the ancient world, animals sacrificed at the temple could later be sold in the meat market. For some Christians (especially new converts from Paganism) – this caused a quandary. Was buying the sacrificed meat from the market equivalent to offering it to idols? Or, to put it another way, is reading about magic in fiction the same as practicing it?

Paul argues that all food comes from God, so the meat could be eaten with a clear conscience. However, he acknowledges that believers should certainly refrain from participating in a temple meal (or the actual sacrifice) because of the malign spiritual forces involved (see post 2).

Paul states that we shouldn’t ignore the inner warnings of the conscience – though some people have oversensitive consciences while others’ consciences can be seared or hardened. He also urges people with a ‘strong conscience’ (informed and trained by God’s Word, the Holy Spirit and faith) to respond graciously to others’ scruples (1 Corinthians 10:28). Yes, he says, all things are permissible to the believer (a touch of sarcasm there) but not all things are beneficial or constructive, and some things can control us (I Corinthians 6:12; 10:23-24).

I think it’s important to put hedges around what images or ideas we bring into our imagination.  However, where those boundaries are drawn might differ between different Christians, because we all have different areas of weakness.

For instance, in my late teens, I was profoundly disturbed by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights because of the way it romanticised Heathcliff and Cathy’s selfishness, cruelty and twisted love, rewarding them, it seemed, with their special brand of heaven. Yet I know many people love this book.

And Children?

As adults we can make our own decisions guided by the Word and a Spirit-informed conscience. Yet, we have a duty of care with children because of their immaturity and vulnerability. Up to the age of seven or eight, children can have difficulty in separating the real world from the imaginary and older children and teens are developing their moral sense and the foundation for values and identity. Appropriate hedges will depend on the particular child and their age. The older the child, the more appropriate discussion rather than outright prohibition or careful supervision becomes.

While I’ve discussed appropriate hedges in more depth in the previous post, in summary, I think it’s appropriate to consider:

  1. How obvious is it that the fantasy world is different from or separate to the real world?
  2. What is the source of magic (God, natural or innate abilities or forces – or something else more illicit)?
  3. Is the magic metaphorical or allegorical in some way? What is the overall message — or themes of the story?
  4. Does the positive magic closely correspond with something a child (or adult) could become involved in the real world e.g. being able to fly as opposed to astrology or Satanic rituals?
  5. Are the magic users role models that children might chose to emulate (maybe even a ‘cool’ villain).

While some books are probably just not helpful or may open doors best kept shut, the appropriateness of many stories will depend on the sensitivities and age of the reader. Sometimes even the most innocuous book may be wrong for a particular reader because it triggers past experiences, weaknesses or harmful obsessions. But let's not forget the opportunities and possibilities as well.

What fantasy books (or movies) have you found helpful or have got you thinking? What stories have been less beneficial for you and why? What hedges would you suggest?

Previous Posts:
Part Three – Reading fantasy (That's this one)

Other posts:
Saints, Seekers and Sleepers
What is Christian Fiction?

Fantasy Image: Jeanette O'Hagan © 2015 
The Lady and the Bird Image: Jeanette O'Hagan  © 2013

Jeanette O'Hagan has a short story published in the general market Tied in Pink Romance Anthology  (profits from the anthology go towards Breast Cancer research) in December 2014 and two poems in the Poetica Christi’s Inner Child anthology launched in July 2015. She has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She cares for her school-aged children, has a Masters of Arts (Writing) at Swinburne University and is writing her Akrad's fantasy fiction series.  You can read some of her short fiction here

You can find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or at or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. What a wonderful three-part series, Jeanette. A real work of apologetics. Thank you for such an in depth look at this from all angles.

    We'd be poor indeed, if we only read books within such a narrow sphere. As Christians we sure need to know how non Christians view their world. And give them the answers. Sometimes in a straightforward way, sometimes in a subtle manner, and even pose questions via the plot ( & our characters' struggles) to encourage them to look deeper into life's purpose and meaning.

    1. Thank you Rita. I like how you express it :) And yes, posing questions can be just as important as giving (pat) answers. I love the world that God has gifted to us - it's beauty, complexity, immensity - and the fascinating, precious and flawed people He loves. I think our Bibles should be a lens that helps us to look out on the world, to understand it better, rather than a safe burrow. 1 Cor 10:26 "For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it." Thanks so much for your comment :)

  2. Another great post Jenny. I agree that it's good not to live in a Christian bubble. I try to read mainstream works as well and have learned a lot from them. When I was doing my Grad Dip at Tabor, there was one assignment where we had to read five mainstream novels or short stories and show how they intersected with issues of relevance to Christians. Three of the books I chose -- The Reader, Caleb's Crossing and Atonement -- all looked at the issue of sin, but the protagonists all came to the conclusion that they were unforgivable. It was a really fascinating process to look at the worldviews in those novels and work out how my views differed. Plus they were all beautifully written and really made me think, even though there were some scenes that made me uncomfortable. I don't read a lot of fantasy literature, but I think it's the same principle. It can help you understand more about yourself and others to read widely. Though as you say, you need to know where the line is for you. Thanks for another thought-provoking post :)

    1. Thanks Nola. And, yes, I think these principles as relevant to other genres - in terms of bridging with the wider community, learning the craft of writing and in knowing what lines to draw.

  3. Wow, you really knocked the ball out of the park with this series. I have a fantasy picture book in mind. I will definitely take your advice as to how I write it. I'll remember the age group and shield them from strong fantasy. I love your tips on reading outside the Christian bubble. I agree. I will look for Ursula Le Guin’s books. Can't wait to read them. Even if we disagree with her views, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy and learn from her stories. As you say, even many in the Bible learned from pagan wisdom. And I believe it made them stronger in the Lord.

    1. Thanks Robyn - Even with children - it can depend on the child as to what is appropriate for them. And yes to reading widely. Let me know what you think of Le Guin's books. She writes some interesting Science-Fiction too - The Lathe of Heaven for instance.