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Fantasy, Theology, and The Depiction Of Evil

In contrast to reality fiction, fantasy can have evil show up in whatever imagined form, but inevitably, the real truth about evil comes out: it is opposed to good. That’s the heart of evil.

Mike Duran
This morning on Facebook, author and friend Mike Duran posed a question about the theology of speculative fiction. Theology? Indeed. Stories say something. Something meaningful or frivolous, something true or false, something obvious or thought-provoking, something about God or about His world and the people in it.

My contention is that fantasy, and other speculative genres, can do more in the realm of theology than can “reality” fiction. I presented my case for fantasy showing evil in an article published in the first iteration of Speculative Faith, some eight years ago. Nothing’s changed in my thinking on the subject. Here is that article.

“Reality fiction” (as opposed to speculative) requires evil to show up in a known form. The protagonist faces opposition, from things outside himself and from his own wayward heart. The inward conflict in fantasy may look much the same as that in reality fiction, but the external conflict may be considerably different. In this difference lies fantasy’s strength.

External conflicts in reality fiction center on day to day problems: a cheating spouse, job stress, disobedient children, and such. Or on day to day disasters: child abuse, pornography, Internet predators, drugs abuse, serial marriage, same sex marriage, child sex slaves, gang violence, homelessness.

For argument’s sake, suppose a Christian author decides to write about child sex slaves. Does he present Christ as the answer to the conflict he paints? Or as a peripheral subject? Does he show Christ as the comforter instead of the answer? Who then saves the day? Some social service or governmental agent? Or Christian? Can the author realistically show the character’s Christianity as the motive for what he does to solve the conflict?

And what about a story dealing with cultural issues that are widely debated in society such as abortion and homosexuality. Can the author of such a story avoid oversimplifying on one hand, with stereotypical answers, or giving anti-biblical views on the other, with culturally relevant open-endedness.

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All the while, can the author avoid the appearance of condemning the sinner instead of the sin?

In contrast, fantasy can have evil show up in whatever imagined form, but inevitably, the real truth about evil comes out: it is opposed to good. That’s the heart of evil.

What was the problem with Adam eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Because God told him not to. Adam chose against God.

In fantasy, choosing against God can look like eating Turkish Delight or keeping a ring you set out to destroy. It can look like a White Witch or a roving Eye or a disembodied wizard who too oft remained nameless.

Turkish_Delıght

I believe depicting evil with this broader stroke is not only truthful, but it gives the Holy Spirit room to use the story for His purposes in the life of the reader. What was Turkish Delight but a sweet treat? Until it became More. Until it became the the thing that enticed Edmund to choose against Aslan. And as they think about the story, do readers dwell on Turkish Delight or might they consider their own enticement?

In addition, without a reality-sin issue at the heart of fantasy, few readers can assign the problem to Others. (Oh, sure, those Other people—the ones addicted to Turkish Delight—they really need to read this book, but that’s not me!) Thus fantasy depicts evil in a universal way, even as it personalizes the protagonist’s struggle, thus allowing readers to identify with the character, though their own struggles may be with vastly different issues.

In short, fantasy tells the truth about evil—it is a problem primarily because it opposes good. And fantasy depicts evil in a way that makes it understood universally.

Can reality fiction accomplish these things? Possibly. But in my opinion, not as often and not as well.

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9 Comments on "Fantasy, Theology, and The Depiction Of Evil"

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ionaofavalon
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I agree wholeheartedly. In my stories, the main opponent is fear (choosing fear over God). My evil wizards use “fear magic” to inspire fear in others and try to convince them to give into the darkness.

ionaofavalon
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I agree wholeheartedly. In my stories, the main opponent is fear (choosing fear over God). My evil wizards use “fear magic” to inspire fear in others and try to convince them to give into the darkness.

Audie
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I’d like to make a case or two from the side of what you call reality fiction.

One is from a manga series called “A Silent Voice”. The evils in it are fairly common ones among school children–bullying, teasing, mean-spirited pranks, basically making life miserable for a child who is different, in the case of this story a girl who is deaf. But it’s also about grace, reconciliation, acceptance of people with all their flaws. There is no real “bad guy”, even the main bully grows up to want to make up for his actions when he was younger.

The other manga series deals with some more intense things. The evils in “Bitter Virgin” are a step-father molesting his step-daughter who is in her early teens, getting her pregnant twice, and how those things have affected her.

Neither of these stories would be considered “Christian”, though there are some interesting nods to God in Bitter Virgin. But that does raise some thoughts to me about what Christianity could mean for the characters in these stories. What could a Christian view add to a story about a former bully who wants to apologize other other person he used to torment? What could it say to a person who use to be picked on? What about to the girl whose been abused like the girl in the Bitter Virgin story? Or, for that matter, to the person who treated her that way?

And, finally, how often does any kind of fiction, Christian or secular, spec or reality, deal with such heavy stuff? Granted, there is a lot of fiction out there now, so I can’t say with any authority that it’s a lot or a little, but just that it seems to be very little.

Audie
Guest

I’d like to make a case or two from the side of what you call reality fiction.

One is from a manga series called “A Silent Voice”. The evils in it are fairly common ones among school children–bullying, teasing, mean-spirited pranks, basically making life miserable for a child who is different, in the case of this story a girl who is deaf. But it’s also about grace, reconciliation, acceptance of people with all their flaws. There is no real “bad guy”, even the main bully grows up to want to make up for his actions when he was younger.

The other manga series deals with some more intense things. The evils in “Bitter Virgin” are a step-father molesting his step-daughter who is in her early teens, getting her pregnant twice, and how those things have affected her.

Neither of these stories would be considered “Christian”, though there are some interesting nods to God in Bitter Virgin. But that does raise some thoughts to me about what Christianity could mean for the characters in these stories. What could a Christian view add to a story about a former bully who wants to apologize other other person he used to torment? What could it say to a person who use to be picked on? What about to the girl whose been abused like the girl in the Bitter Virgin story? Or, for that matter, to the person who treated her that way?

And, finally, how often does any kind of fiction, Christian or secular, spec or reality, deal with such heavy stuff? Granted, there is a lot of fiction out there now, so I can’t say with any authority that it’s a lot or a little, but just that it seems to be very little.

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