Three ways to love a fiction “legalist” — that is, a Christian who opposes fantasy or fiction, or more often simply considers them pointless, useless and unnecessary to Godward growth:
- Part 1: Ask pointed yet gracious questions about what Biblical reasoning exists to reject even “secular” fantasy such as Harry Potter, such as: are we sure we’re not avoiding “magic” with beliefs that themselves are based on mysticism and not Scripture?
- Part 2: Remember that we all lapse into legalism — even while we are trying to avoid being legalistic! Enjoying fantasy or fiction, while condemning someone who simply doesn’t as legalistic, could be more of the same problem.
- Part 3: How best to love a fiction legalist? Share our own stories of how God used fantasy to sanctify our own lives, grow us in holiness and joy, and glorify Himself.
So who do I know best, besides myself, whose life was truly changed by fantasy and fiction? My very own wife, Lacy. In fact, I can directly say that were it not for the oft-cited Masters, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, we would not have met on a message board — NarniaWeb — and continued a long-distance courtship into marriage (as of May 30, 2009).
Naturally this topic frequently recurs in our conversations. And Monday morning, we brought it up again, this time recorded and specifically for this column. With questions and often devil’s-advocate input from me, Lacy shares how God used Lord of the Rings to draw her to Himself.
Lacy: I was ten to eleven. … And I was saved when I was five; I said the little prayer when I was five, all that fun stuff. And I really believed.
… [Mom] started with The Hobbit, which was fun. … When we got to The Lord of the Rings, it was — I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to explain. And in fact, a lot of times when I talk about this, I’m kind of worried that what I say will taken wrong.
Stephen: Mm. Certain Christians might say, “You don’t believe in the sufficiency of Scripture!”
(Whilst drinking her morning coffee, Lacy has a hilarious reaction to that potential objection.)
Lacy: Yeah, certain Christians would. But that’s not what it was at all.
Stephen: You did believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.
Lacy: As much as my ten-year-old self could grasp that concept! But I think, honestly what happened was that … it opened my mind to bigger things, to things outside myself and what I could see — creepy as it sounds, the spiritual world. And then there were so many of the characters that personified, not Christ Himself, but qualities of Christ, that oddly enough, made Him, with fantasy, more real to me than He had been before.
For a kid, you know, I’d read the Bible stories over and over again. This was a fresh take on Who Christ was. Gandalf’s sacrifice, the returning King motif, that kind of thing. …
And even then, I realized this is not an allegory. That was just stupid [to think], even for ten.
Stephen: So it wasn’t introduced to you by your mom or your dad — same thing with Narnia — like, “Here is an allegory, of the Bible, and Aslan is Jesus, and Gandalf is Jesus, and Frodo is Jesus, everybody’s Jesus! — except for Sauron, who is Satan.”
Lacy: No, no. In fact, my mom — I don’t remember her even speaking about the Christianity of it, at all. It was just a good story. She just wanted us to read it.
Stephen: But you started picking up on it. … Were you an abnormally smart little ten-year-old who could see the secret messages?
Lacy: No, I was kind of a dumb one. So they had to be pretty good to hit me over the head like that.
Stephen: So even self-professing “dumb” children could see these motifs and these messages that were written in the book, without having a giant list of study questions at the end, or [the book] introduced with the proper evangelical setup.
Lacy: Exactly. In fact, the very fact that it was outside the evangelical setup, all the things I’d heard before, [helped.] … Not that those were bad, [only unhelpful] at that time in my life. …
It made me want to read the Bible more. It made me want to find out more. … Like, “Oh, obviously this is like Jesus. Well, where does that come from in the Bible?” It actually ended up pushing me toward Scripture rather than pulling me away from it.
Stephen: So you didn’t come out believing that, “Well, compared to the real-life Bible, which is boring, these fantasy stories are amazing.”
Lacy: No way. I went back to the Bible thinking, “Wow! This is what was in there all along. And I was missing it.” Probably not articulated at all in my ten-year-old brain, but nevertheless, that’s when I really started reading the Bible and wanting to have a more personal relationship, if you will, with Jesus, because — wow, He is pretty darn cool, just like this!
Plus I had the images. I had images in my mind, rather than just the Bible story images — which were kind of lame, quite honestly, the kind that you’re fed, most of the time, in Sunday school. I had this powerful white-robed, bearded person, standing on a bridge and doing damage to a demon! … And this enigmatic, charismatic king, who’s coming back to his throne after years and years … especially given the way people treated him, the utter reverence that was there. … It opened up my mind to the reality, even though it was a fantasy.
And usually when I tell people that, they look at me and go, “Yooou are crazy, aren’t you?”
Stephen: That leads to the next point. No one’s saying, or no one should be saying, that you have to go through this phase, or otherwise you’re not going to see the Bible as amazing. But for you, that’s the way God decided to work. That was your sanctification stage.
Lacy: I’m very glad He did! And I don’t go back to Lord of the Rings to get more spiritual insight. … I read it often because of the memories associated, because it’s just a good story. But I never [had this particular phase of spiritual growth] more than once. … I do still enjoy the allusions, and it is encouraging. … I enjoyed searching for those and being encouraged by those. But it only ever had to happen once, the sudden — whoa, like that!
Stephen: Why do people think that’s crazy? [Others] go off about how “God led me here” or “God told me this.” And for all we know, maybe that did work for them; it’s just not the same for every Christian.
Lacy: And for most Christians, it’s not fantasy that does it.
Stephen: It just doesn’t sound very spiritual to say that “Lord of the Rings opened my eyes to things beyond the earthly grind.”
Lacy: Exactly, and it’s not connected at all with Scripture in any blatant way. So it does seem almost wrong. So people don’t understand. Not that that’s a horrible thing, but they just don’t. That’s never happened to them in that way, like you said, the epiphanies.
Stephen: We would need to try to come to a mutual understanding that God works in different ways. So if it’s not explicitly forbidden by Scripture, it’s okay.
Lacy: I think too … there’s that stigma with fantasy. … “Really? God could use that?”
Stephen: God could use something [“secular”] and not just some super-spiritual thing.
Lacy: If you’re going to say anything, you expect the owl-stare-thing going on, and the, “Oh, that’s nice.”
Stephen: So what … having a little bit more background, having analyzed it and read from the masters about the way myth can convey truth, what would you say to somebody giving you that owl stare? Because those are the readers we’re trying to reach, beyond those who already agree with us. What would you say to a fiction legalist?
Lacy: It would be difficult to say, “Give it a chance,” because they would be like, “Yeah, right.”
Stephen: “Give witchcraft a chance!” it may sound like to some people. Or just “Give something completely useless a chance.”
Lacy: But realize that God is not limited by our — this is going to sound awfully postmodern — by our prejudices against things that aren’t sin. That it’s always good to do your research. And that it doesn’t have to happen to you to be true.
Stephen: Guided by the Word. And something outside the Word may or may not be un-Biblical.
Lacy: And praise God that His Gospel is getting out, and go on with life. And be open to the fact that that might open your eyes … not to experience, but to truth.
Stephen: There is some bad [fiction] out there. … But a Christian who’s grounded, who knows what truth is, who’s studying and who has the right heart attitude and motivation — delight in Christ and thereby get rid of anything that’s going to displease Him — they’re going to even read the bad stuff, and be able to sort through it, and find the good stuff if it’s there, a la Harry Potter. Nobody’s going out planting mandrakes — or no Christian would.
Lacy: And you worry about your kids? Sure, be careful. But don’t try to put God in a box … that He doesn’t put Himself in.