Monday 17 August 2015

What about Fantasy? Part One

by Jeanette O'Hagan

What does Christian faith and fantasy have to do with each other? Should Christians write or read fantasy? Is it Biblical? Is it perhaps harmful or deceptive?

Supernatural tales have been around since the dawn of time (myths, legends, fairy tales, tall stories) and the 18th century novelists loved tales of Gothic thrills (ghosts, spooky castles etc), With advent of rationalism and modernism such romantic fantasies became less popular in the 19th and 20th century though arguably, in the mid-twentieth century, it is two staunch Christians, C. S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, who did much to  reignite the interest in fantasy which the proliferation of the genre one sees today in books and film. It’s hard to deny the influence that Tolkien has had on modern fantasy – and it has been recently been cogently argued that Dr Who may (in part) have been inspired by Lewis’ Narnia (which makes the 2013 Christmas Special even more poignant). Both Lewis and Tolkien were influenced by George MacDonald’s modern fairy tales (another Christian writer). Many would argue (myself included) that Lewis’ fantasies strengthened their understanding of God and, in some cases, brought them to faith in Christ. Philip Yancy (an influential Christian author) credits reading Lewis’ fiction as part of his way back from atheism to Christian faith. In a world that often tries to exclude the supernatural, fantasy can whet people’s appetite for the transcendent.

On the other hand, when the Harry Potter phenomena was sweeping the world, turning reluctant readers into avid fans, many Christians argued that the books were harmful and should be shunned. To be honest, I had my doubts about them and resisted the pressure to read them when my daughter was young – though we have both since read the entire series. I was once told that the Narnia series shouldn’t be read because it ‘had witches in it.’

Some Christians would say that fantasy is harmful, perhaps even demonic, and should be avoided. Of course, some even argue against Christian romance – or any fiction at all because it is ‘telling lies’ or mere escapism. But fantasy (and certainly horror or paranormal fiction) seems to be particularly open to criticism because it pushes the envelope of reality and usually (but not always) includes supernatural beings and magical powers. After all, doesn’t the Bible enjoin truth telling? Doesn’t it say:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Philippians 4:8 (NLT)

And doesn’t it also contain strong prohibitions against witchcraft and the practice of magic:

I will put an end to all witchcraft, and there will be no more fortune-tellers (Micah 5:12, NLT) or And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft. (Deut 18:10, NLT).   (See also Lev 19:26, 31; Deut 18:14, Isa 2:6-8, 18, 20; 8:19-20; 47:9,12; Ezek 13:18-21; Acts)

Is fiction telling lies?

God does value honesty and the Bible is full of history — with a careful respect for the names, dates, locations (Genesis to Chronicles, the Gospels and Acts). However, both the prophets and Jesus used parables, some realistic and some more imaginative. God himself used symbolism in dreams — and the Apocalyptic books (much of Daniel and Revelation) revel in the use of symbolism and almost bizarre images to express God’s truth. An imaginative use of metaphor and story can engage our emotions and reveal truths we may not otherwise have understood.

Is fiction, and particularly fantasy, escapist?

Well yes, to some extent. Freud claimed fiction was ‘fantasizing’ – a form of egregious wish fulfilment. The hero always wins, the heroine gets her happily-ever-after or we can imagine ourselves visiting other worlds or having superpowers. Yet, as we have seen with parables, imaginative stories can help us see and deal with profound truths. In fiction we can use themes, metaphors and images to communicate realities that can touch the heart in the way a treatise or rational argument may not. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Charles Dickens’ novels had a tremendous impact on 19th century social consciences. We can tell stories not only to sooth, but also challenge and inspire, to imagine other possibilities and other ways of dealing with the world’s problems. Science Fiction and Fantasy are particularly good at exploring the big philosophical questions as well as the personal. Moreover, fantasy (along perhaps with historical fiction) is genre where inclusion of the supernatural and/or religion is almost expected even in the general market.

Is it unsavoury?

Some Christians will argue that we should only read ‘clean’ fiction that doesn’t deal with difficult issues. Some object to any portrayal of dark or satanic forces or magic in Christian fiction.  However, it seems to me that the Bible itself is not a ‘clean’ read by these standards. Like God himself, His Word doesn’t shy away from showing life in all its grittiness or displaying the ugly, broken side of human nature, sometimes in rather earthy language. It also mentions spiritual forces and practices opposed to God. It includes demons, witches, sorcerers and magical practices (through a critical lens). What it doesn’t do is glorify immorality (calling bad good or good bad) and it always points to a way forward in God, sometimes boldly (Exodus, the Gospels) and at other times with more subtlety (Ruth, Esther).

It seems to me that we need to be careful to honour God in all the fiction we write and read and that fantasy is not isolated in this respect. Some time ago my husband and I decided to stop watching a heavy diet of crime shows, because the shows seemed to be getting grislier and more bizarre to maintain their shock value and this was giving a distorted picture of the world. Another friend stopped devouring romance novels because it fuelled a sense of dissatisfaction in her marriage when her husband did not come close to living up to the romantic leads. Does this mean it’s wrong to watch crime shows or that romance is not helpful? No, I don’t think so. What I think it means is that we need to be sensitive to the effect of what we read and watch has on us and that this will differ between different people.

This post has just opened the lid of this fantastical ‘can of worms’ J Next month, I will continue exploring the issues it raises:

Monday, September 7 Part Two — I’ll look at writing about magic/supernatural in fiction.
Thursday, September 10 Part Three — I’ll look at what’s helpful/beneficial in reading fantasy. 

For a more extended look at what fantasy  is - check out Fantasy and Faith: Part 1 & Part 2.

What about Fantasy?
Part One - Should we read/write Fantasy (that's this one)
Part Two - Writing Fantasy
Part Three - Reading Fantasy

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

Fantasy Image: Jeanette O'Hagan © 2015 

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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 children, has just finished her 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 on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes


  1. You sure have touched on a variety of issues here, Jeanette, as you have opened up this fantastical 'can of worms'! Thanks for your thoughtful, meaty blog. When I read about such issues, I always think of Matthew 13:10-13, quoted from 'The Message':

    The disciples came and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
    He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories; to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.

  2. Great post Jenny. I agree that fantasy writers can have an impact for good and help people to see God's truth. I guess the problem lies in where to draw the line between what is helpful and what is not. For example, the Harry Potter series has a lot of good values (e.g. good triumphing over evil, loyalty among friends, caring for the underdog etc), but it may have also encouraged some children (and adults) to dabble in witchcraft. Maybe it's different for different people.

    I remember reading an article once by a Hollywood 'script doctor' who was a Christian. When the pilot of the series Charmed was in production, one of the original actresses was a Christian and was unsure about staying with the series because it dealt with witchcraft. The 'script doctor' was called in to talk to her. The actress eventually decided not to continue with it and was replaced before the series came to TV. But the script doctor chose to work on it so that she could bring a Christian influence into the storylines. She cited an example of one episode where one of the characters was estranged from their family, but was reconciled by the end. Someone who had seen that episode wrote to the script writer and said how it had prompted her to get in touch with her own family. So who was right? The actress who's convictions prompted her to leave a show which went on to be a big hit or the script writer who stayed to inject Christian values where she could? I think God would have honoured both of them.

    Interesting food for thought. Looking forward to Parts 2 and 3.

    1. Hi Nola, I think you have pinpointed the nub of the issue - where to draw the line. I agree that Harry Potter implicitly draws on the Christian capital in Western society, encourages good values and providing a criticism of some problematical social practices as well. As you say, the issue is whether it encourages children to become involved in the occult - and I don't think the answer to that is straightforward. I'll be tackling the issues this raises in my later posts :)

  3. I come from a non-christian family and first felt God tug on my heart when I was eight. I didn't really know what to do with that and so life went on as usual. By the time I was fourteen I'd largely adopted the agnostic cynicism of my parents. But then came Star Wars : Space Opera with a good splash of fantasy in 'The Force'. I loved that movie and saw it three times. I remember that year I would pretend I had The Force in me when I played tennis (it didn't really help though - lol). The story so impacted me that I began once again to wonder about unseen realities. It was as if my imagination went ahead of me to create a space for the reality :). I didn't become a Christian for another eight years but that 'fantasy' world was one of the 'signposts' along the way that I can look back on and say 'that was important'. Now there is no way that Star Wars is Christian in its philosophy. It's a hotchpotch of a bunch of eastern religions but God used the fantasy in it to woo me along the path towards knowing Father, Son and Spirit and having God's love in my life. I think there are some negative works that we should avoid but if as Christians we ban fantasy or don't let children read it then I believe we are in danger of stultifying the imagination and the sense that there are mysteries in the world beyond what we can see, feel and touch :).

    1. Hi Sue, I love how God reached out to you through Star Wars. Your last sentence is spot on - I suspect that fiction that is told relentlessly from a materialistic point of view that makes no allowance for the mysteries in the world beyond what we can see, feel and touch' or indeed no fiction at all, is just as damaging to the pysche and the soul as dark fantasy.

  4. Hi Jenny,
    It's a great, comprehensive article. I couldn't agree more with your points and look forward to parts 2 and 3. I've come across fellow parents, and school librarians, who deny the children under their influence the chance to read fantasy. They believe the whole thing about promoting lies and flirting with the supernatural, so I'm glad you and others are writing these articles, to clear the waters for honest seekers.
    I well remember the commotion over the Harry Potter books in the 90s, when my kids were very small. It prompted me to read them myself, to find out whether or not I agreed, which I might not have done otherwise.

    1. Thanks Paula. It's good, I think, to be aware of the issues and certainly to be ready to discuss them with our children. Perhaps the line is different for different people. I'm not sorry that my daughter didn't read Harry Potter when she was 8 or 10 but am glad that both she and I have read them at the same time when she was older. I do feel for children who are banned from fantasy altogether and miss out on books like the Narnia series, or the Wind in the Willows etc, is the Hobbit.

  5. Absolutely. I always wonder if the Christians who insist everything we read should be 'clean' have ever read much of the bible. There are a lot of horrible things in there, things that turn my stomach. But a lot of people accept that by simply saying, 'Well, that's the bible, so it's different.' But is it, really? If God can wake us up by reminding us of terrible events, can't fiction be used the same way, as long as the ultimate point is that those things are wrong and need to be overcome? As CS Lewis himself said, 'Pain is the megaphone God uses to arose a deaf world.' Keeping things clean and nice makes sure we are comfortable, rather than awakening us to things that we need to do to make things better, such as right wrongs and fight injustice. Our fiction can help with this, through God's grace and guidance.

    1. Yes, Lynne - absolutely. We are not called to be comfortable - and while there is nothing wrong with 'clean, safe books', I think Christian fiction can be so much more than this. As G. K. Chesterson said “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

  6. Great post Jenny and well thought out too. I am not a fantasy reader or writer but the Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings grabbed me early. I've also been realising of late that it's fun to create imaginary worlds and of course God's given us our imaginations to use and to use well for the benefit of others. As you pointed out, the Bible too has plenty of gory stories! :)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Thanks Anusha. I can attest to the fun of making up imaginary worlds :) And well said 'God's given us our imaginations to use and to use well for the benefit of others.'

  7. Thought provoking Jeanette, thank you. When I picked up the Bible in earnest, I could not put it down for the next ten years and rejected every other writing as 'time wasters.' Extreme, yes. But I came from a Catholic background and after I left home, I mainly mixed with atheists, Buddhists and New Age practitioners for the next 25 years. I needed this time out (a decade or so) from the 'positive thinking crowd' to settle my thoughts and draw close to My Creator. Now I believe that we all have a calling of some kind to fulfill and who are we to judge another for how we fulfill our calling? I certainly know of plenty 'escapists' who would never hear about all the good stuff if it weren't for Christian Fiction and Fantasy writers.

    1. Thanks Mimi - and great point. I love that you devoured the Bible for a decade or more. I grew up on Bible stories - and its history and teachings - they have formed my beliefs, my character and shaped my walk with God. It's still the most important book in my life - so I can understand how you wanted to focus on it alone. As you say, we have different callings and are at different points in our journey. As a teen C S Lewis' Narnia deepened my emotional understanding of God - it didn't replace the Bible, it helped me to read it with new more perceptive eyes. And, as you say, for some such stories are their first taste of God's truth.

  8. Thanks Jo'Anne. I agree, the books often better than the movies :) I just re-read the Hobbit recently and fell in love with it once again. Actually the first time I read it was after reading the The Lord of the Rings so it was a bit of a let down then so I can better appreciate it now.

    I think you are right, it's a question of balance and also thinking about what is beneficial or helpful.

    I'm glad that my thoughts came across concise and to the point. I had so much I wanted to say, and to say it in a nuanced way, that I was concerned I might be waffling a bit :) I did pray that God would give me the words to say so glad it has left you with food for thought :)

  9. Oh, so wonderfully explained, Jeanette. Many years ago I used to be an avid secular SciFi reader until I read some anti-God stories and it turned me off. How I would have loved reading those written by all you Fantasy / SciFi writers of today. Jesus judged his audience. Some got the Word hot and strong. Others were nudged into realising the correlation between here and now and eternity. After all, who gave us our imagination in the first place? .

    1. Thanks Rita. Jesus knew his audience and so did Paul. We too need discernment as readers and writers. I think any genre can have a stories coming from a range of philosophical/religious perspectives. I find that it helps me understand where others are coming from. I'm sure you would enjoy Lynne's Sci-Fi and Paula's fantasy - and we have a good mixture of contemporary and Spec Fic in our upcoming anthology Glimpses of Light :)

  10. A new visitor here. Intriguing subject and you did a revealing, indepth post on fantasy. Reading is like going to a restaurant -- not all dishes will be to our liking. We just have to have discernment on what our palate will tolerate. :-)

    I write for everyone. I try not to turn anyone off with my personal beliefs. Yet, my world view comes through.

    My little hero, Victor Standish, talks all the time to God -- whom he calls Elohim since to him tele-evangelists have smudged the name God. He figures Elohim has a pretty hard time of it with this violent world, so he tells Him jokes -- and he tries not to ask Him for anything since he figures all He sees of us is us with our hands outstretched.

    The Hannibal Lector of my linked series of books is DayStar. And if you know your Isaiah, you know who he is. I do not say outright that he is who he believes himself to be -- I leave that to the reader to decide.

    I write of Native American heroes who call God the Great Mystery. And my Texican protagonist, McCord, calls Him that, too, since what He is up to most of the time is a great mystery to him.

    I just try to spin tales that Christians will feel comfortable reading and that non-believers will enjoy enough to stick with the thrills -- and maybe reflect on what they truly do believe. :-)

    1. Hi Roand thanks for stopping by and sharing your approach to writing fantasy. I like your image of a restaurant and your aim to write for both Christians and the general reader.

    2. Sorry I meant to say Hi Roland. Apologies. (My L key has been playing up).