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Should Christians Enjoy Fantasy?

As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?
| Aug 29, 2014 | 25 comments |

maleficent-posterI taught a workshop on writing fantasy in 2008 at a conference. I opened up for questions at the end and got hit with a biggie. A woman asked if Christians should be writing or enjoying fantasy as the Bible teaches us to avoid sorcery, fortune telling, and other such dark arts. She was genuine in asking as she wanted to write fantasy but felt troubled. I find this a fascinating topic since I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and never had a doubt of whether I should or not.

I believe great truths can be told in a good story. Jesus told stories, many with fantastic elements, like a camel going through the eye of a needle or the vision between heaven and hell (Lazarus and the rich man.) The Bible has lots of speculative images and stories, like Eli riding up to heaven in a chariot of fire and Jacob seeing the angels travel between heaven and earth. And Revelation goes without saying.

I think there’s a difference between using magic and wizards and sorcery to move the plot along, and glorifying the practice of them. As Christian writers, we must be on guard so we don’t make the dark arts appealing to our readers. As Christians who read or watch fantasy, we must be on guard for the same reasons. But a good fantasy includes these things. There has to be something for the hero to fight against, right?

When you hear the word fantasy, what comes to mind? When I think of fantasy, I think of fairies, elves, dwarves, and characters like that. I think of magic and wizards and a quest to save the world from a dark and evil force. Sound familiar to you?

Webster’s dictionary defines fantasy as:

1) imagination or fancy; esp. wild visionary fancy
2) an unnatural or bizarre mental image
3) an odd notion; whim; caprice
4) a highly imaginative poem, play, etc.
5) same as fantasia
6) a daydream or daydreaming, esp. about an unfulfilled desire

Fantasia is defined as:

1) a musical composition of no fixed form
2) a medley of familiar tunes

A term I wasn’t familiar with was caprice, so I looked that up, too. The definitions are:

1) a sudden, impulsive change in thought or action
2) a capricious quality or nature
3) music same as capriccio (a lively musical composition of irregular form)

I don’t see anything in those definitions that fit in with my thoughts of fantasy. But let’s take a look. Any kind of fiction takes imagination, of course, but fantasy even more so. Fantasy writers need to come up with new worlds and characters. My novel, Fairyeater, (Hope Springs Books, Feb. 2015) has fairies, dwarves, humans, a witch, a dark lord, and characters of my own creation. And now that I think about it, a bizarre mental image is needed to picture them. If I write them correctly, my readers will also be able to picture them.

And what about God? Does good fantasy include God? The God of the Bible? Other gods? No god at all? A fellow Christian fantasy author said this about his WIP on my blog: They have the same God that we do, not our God mapped into some other form.

I attended a one-day workshop with SCBWI in 2008 and got the opportunity to talk with a senior editor from Scholastic. We talked about including God in fantasy novels. Her advice to me about having God in the story is to make sure it’s a natural part of the culture, whether fantasy, sci-fi, or futuristic. “Don’t put God in your story simply for the sake of making it inspirational or Christian,” she said. “The reader will know if you’re hitting them over the head with a message.”

DragonKeeper BookplateShe also advised me to give Him another name – I was calling Him “The Most High God” in my story. That was too much like the Bible, and fantasy writers need to keep in mind that there are not fairies, elves, wizards, or dwarves in the Bible. That made sense to me. So, I renamed Him Celtar. I think it works. Since then, I’ve read several fantasy novels where God has another name, but because I’m a Christian, I know it’s the God of the Bible. Donita Paul does this in her Dragonspell books, and it’s a natural part of the story. I just finished reading A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr, and he includes the Trinity with different names, but the same roles. It was beautifully done.

I include God in my writing because He is such a part of my life. But there are other characters in a novel: the protagonist, the antagonist, sidekicks, and other secondary characters. Whether you read fantasy or write it, you need to be aware of each and how they affect the story.

What makes a good hero/heroine? They need to be someone the reader can sympathize with or care about right away. How can you create interest right away? My friend, novelist Joyce Magnin, says to put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him. I can do that because I know how I’m going to get them down from that tree. But as a reader, it makes me nervous at times, especially when the author gives me no clue how they will escape. And some authors, like George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), kill off many of their main characters. How does this make you feel when you are reading? When I read a well-written novel, I feel like the characters are real. When they die, I will weep and mourn.

What makes a good dark foe? What characteristics should you give him or her? What makes your antagonist different from all others out there? Sauron, Darth Vader, Maleficent—just three examples of fantasy, sci-fi, and animated villains. One was redeemed. Two fell to their tragic deaths.

As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?

As Christian readers, how do we choose a fantasy novel to read for enjoyment? How well do we know ourselves? What can you handle in a speculative novel? Do we only read Christian spec? Is there good fantasy in the general market? How do we know what’s good and what’s not? Once you read something, it’s there in your brain – forever. Scripture tells us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …” (Philippians 4:8) Are there fantasy novels like that?
Of course, there are. Lots of them. If you love speculative fiction, do your research. Ask your friends. Read reviews. If you pick a novel and it doesn’t sit right with you, stop reading it. Yes, I heard some of you gasp. Stop reading a novel? Sacrilege! But if the Holy Spirit is poking you in the gut, yes, stop reading. Stop watching that movie. Stop going to that blog or website. It’s really okay.

Now it’s your turn. What do you look for in speculative fiction? As a Christian, where do you draw the line? Let’s talk!

– – – – –

Pam HalterPam Halter was a home-schooling mom for nine years and has been a children’s book author since 1995. She has published two picture books, Beatrice Loses Her Doll and Beatrice’s New Clothes (Concordia, 2001), articles (The War Cry, Fandangle Magazine), and has contributed to several devotional books. Fairyeater (Hope Springs Books, 2015) is Pam’s first fantasy novel. She is a panelist on The Writer’s View, a member of ACFW, is the county branch leader for the NJ Society of Christian Writers, and hosts a blog about writing fantasy. She was selected to attend the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop for Fantasy, May 2010. Pam lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and one cat. Look for her at her website, blog, on Facebook and Twitter (#pamhalter).

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25 Comments on "Should Christians Enjoy Fantasy?"

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Kessie Carroll
Member

It’s really a shame that this is a question–there is reality, and there is fantasy. But people (and for some reason, Christians) have trouble distinguishing between the two.

 

Elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons? Fantasy! They’re just trappings to tell the same stories we’ve been telling for centuries–the simple farm boy who overcomes terrible obstacles and achieves greatness, or boy meets girl, or girl learns to love monster. Those stories fit into Western trappings, Outer Space trappings, Contemporary Romance trappings, you name it, it fits.

 

I think we Christians have this filter we strain all our media through, instead of chewing the meat and spitting out the bones.

sally apokedak
Guest

Lots of great food for thought, Pam.

 

I love fantasy. I love that fantasy, and all fiction, really, give us so much room to tell the truth.

 

I have never understood Christians who think fantasy is sinful, or worse, that all fiction is sinful, because it’s just a bunch of lies.

 

YIKES!

Gloria Clover
Guest

Yes, lots of Christians have been taught, and so repeat, that fiction is lying and the worst fiction is fantasy. However, what I find even harder to believe is how few Christians are aware that there is an entire industry called Christian fiction for them to explore. Books written by Christians whose intent is to teach and glorify the truth of God. Imagine how exciting that could be for them if they could just believe Christian fiction is truth-sharing not lying.

Just strikes me as I write this that people don’t give the pastor grief when he shares a joke that everyone knows was tweaked (or completely made up) for a laugh.

But, to answer your original question, I look for the same stuff in fantasy that I look for in any book –engaging characters, entertaining plot, interesting world, and good kicking butt on evil. I expect the worldview to be undergirded by the same God who holds together mine — whether there is magic or magical creatures or miracles.

I have no problems separating fantasy from real life, any more than I have problems recognizing romance novels as fantasy or action adventure movies as fantasy. The problems I have are the news shows and the reality tv where I cannot believe real people behave in such fashions.  My husband assures me those are fantasy as well.   🙂

merechristian
Member

My problem with the “fantasy is evil” or “fiction is lying” stuff is that it makes Christians for most of history, even the Apostle Paul himself, evil. It kinda brings the Word of God into question since it includes Paul using pagan references, and even a pagan religious teaching, to make his points, preach. Paul was well-read in the culture of his time and never seemed to believe that reading/knowing/enjoying pagan myths at the time (or Jewish ones before that) was a sin.

Christians proceeded to record and read the pagan myths for centuries. They survived the so-called “dark ages” (which are seriously not what schools teach sometimes, but still) due to CHRISTIANS keeping records of them and presumably, enjoying them. Beowulf was originally, quite obviously, a pagan epic reworked into a mix of pagan/Christian elements.

What is my point in all of this? Well, I guess that it is arrogant of many of the people in the, you name it, Christian fiction only, no fantasy, fiction is lying, wholesome stuff only, so on, groups to make their claims when the Bible and history goes against them. They would have to conclude that Paul (including his biblical writings inspired by God) down through the ages until around the past century or so, was wrong, and they are right. That, or else the pagan writings are only good for “special” Christians like the Apostles/early church, or are somehow “grandfathered in”. Neither of those possibilities can find biblical support.

Jason Brown
Guest

The worst part of the whole debating idea is how tenaciously stuck to certain traditional ideas certain people are. There are those that absolutely hate the Harry Potter series yet love Lord of the Rings. Both include wizards as integral characters. Others have an uber-strict belief that literally anything with any element in the normal realm of “fantasy” is automatically demonic (much like how they would think of horror), and if it includes a reference to God, it may as well be blasphemous.
Back in ’09, I talked with a street preacher about if he liked to read books (wanted to distract him from calling everyone on Marshall University’s campus every demeaning term he could think of that wasn’t considered a cussword), he said “self-help”. When I asked him what he thought of fiction, he said “Fiction is lies, and lies are an abomination against God.” Irritated at how he said that, I prayed to God for some help, and He gave me one word. Parables. I immediately knew what to say, “Jesus told parables.” When the street preacher looked at me like an annoying bug and asked “So what?,” I told him “If a parable is a story and a story is a lie and Jesus told parables, then-”
He interrupted me and demanded “Are you calling Jesus a liar?” I told him I wasn’t, he was. I was using his logic to point out that flaw in thinking. I’m not the best at debating in terms of mathematics nor science… but in terms of stories, I become a little feisty…

HG Ferguson
Guest

Let us always remember how much personality/temperament feeds into this.  The person you describe did not read fiction, because fiction is evil, so the argument runs.  Truth is, when you peel away the viscera, this person just simply did not like anything creative because he didn’t possess that temperament.  I don’t like it, therefore no one should.  American culture also feeds into this.  To borrow an allusion from Franky Schaeffer, when an American looks at a tree he doesn’t see a living, growing, beautiful thing of God’s creation — he wonders how many tables and chairs he can get out of it once it’s cut down.  (Also sounds a lot like what Tolkien decried :)!)  Fiction has no purpose, therefore, because you can’t”get” anything out of it.  The “fiction is evil” crowd furthermore cannot deal with Jotham’s fable in Judges 9:7-21.  Though it had definite real-world application, the way Jotham framed it is as fictitious — as fantasy — as it gets.  This crowd also cannot deal with expressions like “the trees of the field shall clap their hands” and other colorful, fantastic allusions in scripture.  Sure, it’s figurative language. but trees don’t have hands.  That’s fictitious.  It’s not…true…  But let God be true, and every man a liar!  Because it’s in God’s eternal Word!  

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

There’s more than a little cringe-worthy irony/hypocrisy in enjoying “self-help” books while calling fiction the work of the Devil. #Discernment

Janet Ann Collins
Guest

LOL!

Jason Brown
Guest

I like how Tosca Lee said it, best: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” I personally can’t think of a better way to put it. I’ll also look up that fable in Judges, I’m not aware of it, so thanks!

Janet Ann Collins
Guest

A lie is a statement intended to deceive. Since nobody expects fiction to be literally true it’s obviously not intended to deceive. But stories can convey truth in ways people who wouldn’t have understood or accepted it otherwise will understand.

I think fantasy is an especially good way to do that because readers let down the walls of what they think is correct. In historical fiction or a police detective story, for example, if there’s one thing that’s not exactly accurate it draws the reader out of the plot and makes him or her question everything else. But when the whole world is made up as long as it’s consistent that sort of thing doesn’t happen.

Jonathan
Guest

I love to read fantasy and I am a Christian. I don’t see the big deal, but I do avoid fantasy that is New Age. Has anybody read The Wheel of Time series? I wanted to know what people think about it since I am interested in reading it.

Nicholas Downing
Guest

Great point and I agree with the importance of letting the Spirit lead us in the way The Lord intends for us to go. I’m writing the sequel to Talon’s Test and the Shield of Faith right now and struggling with whether or not to introduce blatant sorcery as a weapon of one of the antagonists. I’m leaning toward yes because I think it is important to understand that in the battle between good and evil, those who follow evil have powers as well, albeit limited and temporary by design. My intent is not to glorify evil but to highlight how inferior it is to the power of righteousness. When we knowingly choose to allow the “dark side” into Christian Fiction, I think we must first ask ourselves why? What purpose does this serve? Is there value in going there? If the purpose is to glorify God and leading others into temptation is not a likely consequence, I’m typically all for it.

Eileen
Guest

So what about good mages fighting against evil mages? I’m not trying to glorify anything of the dark arts in my WIP but magic is used for both good and evil–kind of like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. (Didn’t the elves use magic?) I think I’m okay but this little prick of conscience makes me wonder if I’ve crossed some invisible theologically correct/moral line.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I have a few.

All this should come back to Scripture. What exactly does God forbid? Why does He forbid it?

Without basing the discussion in Scripture, we go off looking for answers from other sources.

Often Christians will try to define or discern the “dark arts” based on what non-Christians say.

But I’m not sure why we should be giving them the time of day on this particular issue.

Reading Deut. 18 and asking, “What exactly does God forbid? Why does He forbid it?” really helped me. Quick spoiler: He forbids divination, getting “answers” about “fate” or His will in ways He did not prescribe — thus the “final Prophet” promise — and trusting others over Him.

Meiglan
Guest

I’m very fond of a show that uses fantasy. There isn’t really much along the lines of magic (mostly it’s considered technology or something like that) but recently it mentioned religion. It talked about someone believing in two gods, and while it was simply one characters belief, some of it was true to the story. The strange thing is that the beliefs mentioned are similar to Christianity. It’s very interesting, and nothing has been presented as truth, but the mention of more than one God has me concerned. Any thoughts? Also, I know my comment isn’t book related, but hopefully it’s similar enough.