I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with a mature Christian friend about their uncertainty of the role of fiction and imagination.
They may know it’s good in a nebulous sense, but what should they do when their child suddenly has an appetite for fantasy? What if they ask to read Harry Potter?
They don’t consider themselves fundamentalists, yet they think fantasy poses a real threat to their child.
In November 2017, my article, “The Dark Alleys of Young Adult Fiction” was published by Desiring God. This piece was intended only to warn against sexual content in young adult fiction. But the Facebook status that accompanied the article was confusing to say the least. It read:
In their defense, they might have meant sexual fantasy, not the genre. But that isn’t how many people read it—and understandably so. The emails I received afterward questioned not only the cleanliness of their child’s literature, but also the fantastical elements.
Is a specific book or series okay to read? How can parents tell if a fantasy novel will encourage their child to use magic?
Those are the wrong questions to ask.
In all my years of reading fantasy, I have yet to meet someone who joined the occult after reading a book with magic in it.
Ask yourselves this instead:
What negative impact will it have on my child’s mind and heart if I don’t let them read fantasy?
That is a far more pressing concern and one more Christian parents should have.
“In the beginning God created . . .”
The first character trait we learn about God is that he is creative. In the same chapter we discover our own place in the cosmos: “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.’”
That last bit is known as the “cultural mandate.” As divine image bearers, we’re commanded to fill the earth, subdue it, cultivate it.
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers argues that creativity is the primary way humankind are made in God’s image. Our ability to create beauty is an essential part of fulfilling the mandate. This includes everything from farming, engineering, music composition, and space exploration—cultivating all the possibilities of God’s creation.
So why advocate creating fantasy specifically? After all, there’s a lot of fantasy out there that’s just plain weird, for example, anything made by Tim Burton, Jim Henson, and Hayao Miyazaki. We think these storytellers must be very strange. How did they come up with something so jarring and disturbing? We decide they’re probably mentally unstable, therefore what they’ve created must be bad. We certainly wouldn’t want to expose our children to the creation of a mad man!
In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien addresses this issue:
I am thus not only aware but glad of the . . . connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only ‘not actually present,’ but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all. . . . That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent. Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being ‘arrested.’ They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control: with delusion and hallucination.
When we encounter stories that jar us with their strangeness, we should not run from them but to them. They’re strange to us because another person has experienced things we haven’t and has grown their imagination either in a different direction or to a larger degree than we have. This is not evil. Imagination, especially the arresting kind, increases our ability to stand in awe of God and his creation. Strangeness draws our eyes, and in so doing, places special emphasis on truth and reality.
Even non-Christians have something to teach us about reality through unreality. God has given them common grace—the grace that God gives all humans to see and understand truth. Armed with our ability to think critically about culture, we can learn from them and grow our own imagination to better worship God. Any yet, it’s because we cannot think outside the box of normalcy that we cripple our critical thinking capacity.
The Bible itself has excessively weird stories, many of which are metaphors—unreality used by God to convey truth. And yet we not only disengage from such practices when people create similar stories, but condemn it.
Back to the original question, what do we deprive from our children when we don’t allow them to read fantasy? It’s not like many people will spend their lives sub-creating—when a human creates an imaginary world in divine imitation—in the same manner as Tolkien. Yet, if using imagination to create—whether it be a story, a car engine, plans for a building, a board game, or dance choreography—is a virtue, expanding its scope through unusual stories will only further our talents as well as our sanctification.
Reject the notion that fantasy is mere entertainment. That is an ugly word for what is really going on in our hearts when we engage with fantasy. We are seeking our own joy, and in so doing, expanding our imagination which furthers our journey toward virtue, and therefore, glorifies God.