Some argue that the genre of “fantasy” is escapist, that spending your time reading that trash is a waste of time. These same people say it is better to dwell on what is good, true and honorable (see Philippians 4:8). They say that concentrating on the hard, cold facts of everyday life and the literal interpretation of the Bible are more valuable.
I say that people who reason in this ironclad, mechanistic mentality have no idea what it means to love God with all of their heart, mind and body. Their concept of truth is passing down to the next generation an inheritance of dead doctrines that shapes their idea of God into their own image. They are more inline with the confining philosophies of modernism then the living biblical world of theism.
It’s not their idea of, “dwelling on what’s good, true and honorable” that’s wrong, but their distorted understanding of what “good, true and honorable” actually is. When I’m lingering in the Middle-Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien and can feel Frodo’s compassion, which stops him from taking the life of the poor creature Gollum, that is “good.” When I immerse myself into the world of Narnia and learn that Aslan is not a “tame lion,” that is “true.” And what can be more “honorable” than Charles Wallace and Meg Murry triumphing over the evil, soul-destroying “IT” with the power of love in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time?
Of course I have no problem with the idea of interpreting the Bible literally. But what these critics against fantasy don’t understand is that when you interpret the Bible correctly, it’s the imagination that’s at play. A parable should not be treated as history, nor should poetry or apocalyptic literature (both of which contain many symbols) be treated as straightforward narrative. Reason can help you understand the connections, but only imagination can grapple with the themes of truth.
If it’s true that fantasy is escapist, what are we to make of the current popularity with the genre? Have the youth worldwide been seduced by a Harry Potter cult, or are they just naturally hungering for the supernatural, which modernism has tried to inhibit? From birth we are immersed into a world of ideas, a world we consistently and justifiably question. What is reality? Is there really a God, and what is our duty to this God? Are there absolute standards for good and evil? What is the purpose for my life? What happens to us when we die? The foundation of our humanness is defined by these essential questions. And how we answer these basic worldview beliefs will determine the rest of our lives. No device helps us better to answer these questions then the medium of story: especially the genre of fantasy and myth.
G.K. Chesterton said, "not facts first, truth first." What he meant was that there is another world that transcends the physical, a world where love and hate are more real than observation and quantification, where good and evil solicit our allegiance—all metaphysical realities that can be conveyed best in fantasy and myth.
J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the world’s greatest fantasists, believed fantasy and myth were the only true way that we were able to really understand “truth.” He believed it was a way to escape, not out of reality, but into reality and that from the corruption of the fall and original sin, our minds have lost the ability to view the true beauty of the world, the significance of humans and the capacity to be in awe of the holiness of God.
But just like all things that we fallen creatures touch, fantasy can also be used for appalling purposes. No one can read the atheistic fantasies of Philip Pullman or the dark fantasies of Clive Barker and not sense their appetite turning to their sweet poison propaganda. But that’s exactly why Christians need to read and write in the genre, so that we can bring the truth of God’s Word to bear on the lies of the enemy.
So is fantasy a form of escapism? If by “escapism,” you mean hiding from reality and living in some kind of bubble far from the pain of the world, then the majority of American Christians already have this covered, as they hide out from the world in the four walls of the church. And even when these Christians break out of their cocoon and try their hands at writing or reading novels, it ends up sounding like a nostalgic mix of 1950’s values and amateurish plotting. Reading their safe stories where everyone gets saved and lives happily ever after is comparable to eating cotton candy for a whole week straight. The first day your taste bubs are stimulated, but at the end of the week, you’re puking rivers of pink. Fantasy like Lord of the Rings is far from envisioning that kind happy-go-lucky existence. Instead, Tolkien shows us a world where good and evil are in continued battle for the hearts of its people and where faith is a struggle—not just a handful of sugar-glazed, happy thoughts.
Now that the tide has turned away from hard, cold modernism and we are all left to swim in the murky waters of postmodernism, Christian fantasists are especially needed. And you can tell that people are hungry for the truth in fantasy when movies like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings become major blockbusters.
If you’re hoping that these movies are just a fad, you’re in for a rude awaking, as other major movie companies have contracted film fantasies. Coming in the next few years will be Walden Media’s film version of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Then Disney will get into the game with versions of Clive Barker’s newly released Abarat and Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time. At the same time Narnia comes out, New Line Productions will be completing their film version of His Dark Materials Trilogy by atheist Philip Pullman. If Christians don’t come back to the understanding that God created us to feed off stories—for entertainment and meaning—I feel that the next generation will go to some other source to find their nourishment, even if it is laced with rat poison.
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