A month ago, I was deep in the woods of Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula, serving my yearly stint as “camp pastor” for a group of 7th and 8th grade church kids. We (the campers, staff, counselors, and myself) had the precious opportunity to get away from it all for seven days, to a place where your cell phone can’t get a signal, but your sense of wonder at God’s eternal power and divine nature is at four bars. Look around and you’ll see evergreens, birch trees, a crystal clean lake, and a dozen quaint little cabins, each with a sentimental name like “Sunset Bay.”
And yet all the kids were talking about Harry Potter.
Okay, maybe not all of them, but it was surely a recurring theme. The final movie in the series had been released the Friday previous and a good number of the campers had seen it. Many more had plans to attend a screening upon returning home. Whether in casual conversation or in the group discussions that followed my twice-daily teaching sessions, Harry Potter was trending among Baptist youth that week. This was disconcerting to at least one adult leader, who thought that such wicked stories should not be mixed in with discussion of the Holy Scriptures—not in any way.
I shall leave that particular dead horse what little dignity he has left by not beating him further, particularly since I have not read or seen any of the books/movies in the franchise.1 And yet, in light of this phenomenon, I couldn’t help but think back to my days as a youth pastor, and a small controversy that I’ve come to refer to as Larrygate.
Larrygate centered around the selection of Vacation Bible School curriculum at a small Baptist church in 1997. No one had heard of Harry Potter back then, but there was all kinds of buzz around VeggieTales. And VeggieTales had a brand new VBS-in-a-box within our price range, which promised to draw in the kids with its it factor and build word-of-mouth among our target demo in the neighborhood. But then our old-school Christian ed director, Vera (not quite her real name), spoke up.
“I won’t have this at my church,” she said firmly. “It’s fantasy.”
Vera was concerned that mixing the proclamation of Truth (i.e. Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of sinners) with far-fetched make-believe (i.e. talking/singing vegetables with a penchant for ’80s pop culture and inside jokes) would confuse the children. Her argument was a modification of the old Fundamentalist Santa Claus refutation: how can we expect the kids to go on believing in God when they realize they’ve been, in some sense, duped?
Long story short: Bob and Larry were not invited to VBS at our church that year. Not yet being a parent and not being in a position of overseeing children’s ministries at the time, I really had no dog in the fight, and thus watched it all go down with a detached amusement. I found the absurdity of Vera’s argument entertaining, if not compelling. Did she really lack any concept of genre? She always seemed to me a rather bright and capable woman, and yet this was the hill on which she chose to die. Weird.
Things would get weirder. At the same church, a few months later, I found myself in a conversation with another church leader who insisted that the stories conveyed in the parables of Our Lord really happened. That’s right, these tales (in addition to conveying spiritual meaning) were historically accurate narratives, describing actual events. If not, this man asserted, then Jesus was being dishonest and deceptive in telling them. I tried to explain the ins and outs of the parable genre, a form that was well-known to Jesus’ original audience, but my friend would have none of it. Either Jesus is a liar (and therefore not truly who he claimed to be) or the Good Samaritan, the rich fool, the wicked husbandman, and the ten virgins were as much real historical figures as Christ himself.
Of course it occurred to me that his logic was swinging to the same absurd extreme as Vera’s had the summer before. And yet, neither of them were unintelligent people. Were I to begin a sermon with the words, “Once upon a time,” they would recognize immediately that I was making use of the fairy tale form as a sermon illustration, in order to help convey spiritual Truth. I doubt either of them would accuse me of deceiving or confusing anyone. Their world has always made room for this genre, and so they find no stumbling block when it is employed. Just like Jesus’ original audience knew at once that his parables were inventive stories meant to illustrate a spiritual principle (many of them already-famous parables given new twists by Jesus). And just like kids know instinctively that cartoon characters aren’t real, even while they might communicate very real (and important) concepts, like fire prevention or, say, the importance of telling the truth.
If the genre is comfortable, it gets a pass. I think we all find allegory rather nonthreatening—hence the lack of furor surrounding Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a gripping tale of an exciting journey which did not (and could not) happen literally, as such. And yet, Bunyan is rarely called out for confusing or deceiving the masses. Because allegory is nice and neat. Maybe that’s why we try and allegorize the parables, even when it tends to confuse them. (Try making sense of Augustine’s explanation of the Good Samaritan.) It may also explain why Lewis’s Narnia books (despite Lewis’s insistence that they are not allegories) are so widely accepted, even in circles where the Harry Potter books are fit to be burned for their depictions of magic (and Lewis’s other fictional works—for example, his Space Trilogy—are never discussed). And yet, as it has been pointed out so frequently of late, the magic of Narnia was depicted as having effects in our world.
Maybe that’s where the trouble begins: when the genre becomes, in any way, complex—when a story takes place in our world, and yet the only way we can find “biblical value” is to try and allegorize it. This has raised some eyebrows even in the world of “Christian Fiction.” The Oath by Frank Peretti (which I rather like, despite some pretty rough reviews) is perhaps the purest example. If the dragon creature, being sin itself, is a metaphor, then why are people putting their faith in Jesus within the framework of the story and finding salvation from non-metaphorical sin? Is it an allegory or not? If not, where do we file it? If a story is too complex to be categorized in a black-and-white Realistic Narrative / Allegorical Illustration dichotomy, can anything good come out of it? (Spoiler alert: Vera says no.)
Much of Stephen Lawhead’s work is similarly slippery and difficult to categorize, a problem which has reportedly vexed Zondervan to no end. In the end, even his Celtic Crusades series bears the word “Fantasy” on the spine, despite containing no elements that a Bible-believing reader would find outside of the realm of possibility.2 What makes it fantasy, then? That it didn’t really happen?
In that sense, I suppose all fiction is speculative, as it initially takes place in the author’s fantasy and involves the creation of worlds populated with people who do not exist. My latest book, 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay is a loose retelling of the story of Elijah the prophet, with a different genre (urban noir), setting, time period (present day-ish), etc. While Elijah was a real, historical figure who really did miracles and served God as a prophet (primarily during the reign of King Ahab), these events did not happen “that way,” and so I can only guess that there is a school of thought that would call me dishonest and even deceptive. And yet, my intended audience is as familiar with the conventions involved as a First Century Jew would be familiar with the parable. And, at any rate, everything from the cover design to the marketing copy to the Library of Congress category tells the reader what to expect.
Our God is clearly not against using a given genre (according to its own rules) to convey Truth. In addition to parable, we see lament, epistle, psalm, proverb, royal genealogy, and apocalyptic literature within the canon, to name just a few. God isn’t using borrowed capital in these cases. These things are already God’s and, in turn, he found each to be the best genre through which to inspire his eternal and perfect Word so that finite and flawed humans could grasp it.
Today, of course, the canon is closed. But we are still made in God’s image, and we continue to find and convey Truth through any number of genres, including many that did not exist when the Bible was being assembled. The question at the core of both Larrygate and Harrygate is this: which post-biblical genres should be considered entirely off limits and unable to convey Truth, either directly or indirectly? Action/suspense? Fantasy? Sci-fi? Snark-laden comedy? Anime? CGI slapstick? Graphic novel?
Let me return to the subject of VeggieTales, as it provides a simple case study. Now, I’m of the opinion that a heaping helping of Dare-to-be-a-Daniel-style Law (even with a God-made-you-special-and-loves-you-very-much dessert) is not the best way to communicate the Truth of the Scriptures to our children, and certainly no replacement for the Gospel. But my critique does not extend to the medium or the genre. VeggieTales creators Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki were pioneers in their field (a relatively rare thing in Christian circles these days), and are masters of what they do. Whether or not it’s the right message, the message is not lost in the “fantasy” as Vera feared. Because five-year-olds know that vegetables aren’t sentient; they just like the jokes, the characters, and the neat, gift-wrapped morals. My 13-year-old campers were well-aware that wizards aren’t real, but the Harry Potter epic gives them a test canvas on which to work out some of the biblical metanarrative against an alternate real world. And, deep down, we all know that we’re drawn to the world of good and evil, angels and demons, four-headed creatures, celestial cities, dragons, prophets, priests, miracles, magic, and wonder because of something that God placed within us—something that knows for a fact that there’s a world beyond our wildest dreams awaiting us on the other side of the veil.
It would be dishonest not to explore it.
- I mean no disrespect here to those who have been so passionately discussing the topic, only that I have nothing to add. In fact, if you will indulge me the McGuffin of the new Harry Potter movie, I shall focus on fiction that presents itself as Christian, avoiding the question of whether “secular” speculative fiction can be edifying as well … although I will tip my hand by saying that I believe any three stories in Machine of Death contain more spiritual insight than your average three Christian novels.
- With the exception of portraying Pelagius as a misunderstood orthodox theologian, persecuted for purely political reasons.
Zach Bartels is a pastor, an author, and an award-winning Bible teacher. He currently serves a church in Lansing, Michigan, where he lives with his wife Erin and their son. He holds degrees from Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
Zach enjoys film, fine cigars, gourmet coffee, reading, writing, and chopping down altars to Baal. His books include 42 Months Dry and two satires (written with Ted Kluck), Younger, Restlessler, Reformeder and Kinda Christianity, which peaked at #2 in the Religious Humor category on Amazon. He is presently writing a thriller, involving demon possession, undercover Jesuit agents, a hard-nosed detective, and a televangelist with really white teeth.
You can find more information and follow Zach’s blog at www.pastorzach.com.