Stories For Christians 1: The New ‘watchful Dragons’

C.S. Lewis wrote about “watchful dragons” on guard against religious trappings that seem incompatible with enjoyment. But many Christians today employ different Churchian Dragons, who tolerate fiction (if they do) mainly if it plays well on their own moralist pragmatic grounds.
on Aug 25, 2011 · No comments

Christian corporation with staff of mostly elderly retirees, thirtysomething parents, and rarer college or high-school students, seeks responsible Christian fiction writer for fun, games, and long walks on the beach — but only so long as writer can use said fun, games, and long walks, which are otherwise useless, as part of a far greater good to include and endorse Moral Values and Safe, Family-Friendly Themes in the resulting product of fiction.

Must adhere strictly to the perceived rules of Allegory, and either include an overt call to Conversion or else include a “subtly” overt Symbolic call to the same.

Christian storytellers with no other skills beyond writing and yarn-spinning need not apply.

Optimal candidate will instead also be skilled in religious programming and evangelicalese, and have a preexisting platform of nonfiction Church Ministry —

(Job announcement is interrupted by static, which pops erratically and ominously. It is finally interrupted by a moan and a snarl, then a husky, snarling voice like Darkseid.)

“The dragons are still watching.”

Imagination Dragons

After my two-part rebuttal against frequent calls for Christian writers to target only secular readers (Why we should write fiction for Christians), it occurred to me that since C.S. Lewis wrote about stealing past “watchful dragons” who guard against dull, familiar guises, similar shields remain firmly in place. But they may be formed by an entirely new set of stigmas.

These words from Lewis’s essay On Stories are among his most-quoted phrases, especially among the Christian-visionary reading/writing community. After Lewis had already begun exploring the pictures he had long had in mind for stories like The Chronicles of Narnia — and was not trying simply to write Christianity-promoting propaganda — it nevertheless occurred to him that these new fairy-tale-like stories could actually fulfill another purpose:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could.

Yet I suggest one should read Lewis’s Meditation in a Toolshed essay to, er, shed more light on this. He describes standing in the dark structure, from outside looking at a beam of light. This Lewis called Contemplation. But when he moved to look along the light itself, and saw what the light revealed outside the walls — that was a more personal experience: Enjoyment.

So what did these Imagination Dragons watch for, to reject if they saw it? The sense of must-do Contemplation. Any presentation of truth that sounded “religious,” which caused a reflexive religious mode to switch on, but cut off resulting imagination and Godly joy. “Sunday school associations,” jargon, plastic decorations — many of which resulted, I would suggest, from previous attempts to use art and creativity to help truth go down more easily. They may have engaged the mind, or even supported intellectual Contemplation as Lewis would term it. But they didn’t empower self-forgetting, God-enamored Enjoyment.

What was Lewis’s response? Don’t fight against the Imagination Dragons. Instead, remove all the bulky armor once originally intended to keep Truths poignant, but which now weighed them down. Instead, dress Truths in new vestments of blazing color; let them run freely, and dance past those dragons — powered by God’s grace, creativity, and Enjoyment.

Many Christians are still called to do the same. And those who grew up with stilted religious mindsets, whose forebears wrongly severed creativity, joy, and natural emotions (“religious affections,” Jonathan Edwards called them) from Truth — all such readers need new stories, songs, art, and more, to battle their Imagination Dragons watching for religious trappings. Yet might we forget about another species of watchful dragons?

Churchian Dragons

Some of these dragons guard against supposed evils in stories, but contrary to many writers’ rhetoric (including my own!) refuting that approach, most of these Dragons simply ignore many visionary stories because they seem useless. I’ve seen it done. And they hardly realize they’re doing it. It’s axiomatic. Instinct. Their perceived light that reveals all other beliefs.

They do not guard their imaginations against pietistic platitudes, but the opposite: against anything that doesn’t seem Useful, or Serve a Moral Purpose, or Help My Kids Learn Values.

Am I saying morality and values aren’t important? By no means! But they, along with truth study, reading Scripture rightly, the very Gospel call of repentance and faith itself, and Godly imagination, are all means to other ends: eternal joy in the One Who saved us for His glory.

Already, though, Christian visionary writers have a few battle strategies against Churchian Dragons. I believe many of them are wrong or, at best, severely limited in their effects:

  1. Ignore them. “I’m shaking the dust off my sandals; if they won’t listen, I shall go to the Gentiles.” But as the previous series argued, that neglects the Bible’s call to love Christ’s bride the Church, and others’ calls to write stories for her benefit.
  2. Taunt them. “I Art in your general direction! Your mother was a legalist and your father smelt of fundamentalism!” Some may hear the traces of truth in those taunts, and turn away from the pietistic platitudes — and I hope to Christ and more-Biblical life practice. But more likely, this just makes the Dragons roar and spit more fire.
  3. Write for Churchian Dragons anyway.

Naturally, I prefer the last option. But it can be a trap. And I think we see many authors seem to fall into that trap, because even many people who buy Christian visionary novels are doing it Mostly For the Children or out of moralistic pragmatism.

Are most people seeking books with this question: Is this visionary novel well-written and based organically in truth, to help me draw closer to God through Enjoyment of story? Some do! Thank God for them. But one can guess the likelier motive: I want a nice book that does not contain Objectionable Material but will instead have Moral Values, and reinforces for (select one: myself / my kids) all the Useful Things we need to be better Christians.

Churchian Dragons: 1. Christian Visionary Authors: well, 0.1.

But does today’s score even matter if many visionary authors are playing on the Moralistic Pragmatism-owned field anyway?

Of course, some Christian authors have gotten past the Churchian Dragons’ watch. Lewis himself did. And let’s face it: many authors — whom some doctrine-thumping Christians like me may like to tweak — have been successful with their fantastic stories. Frank Peretti. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Maybe also those guys who did the Superbook series.

But maybe they got past the Dragons only because their works were considered Useful.

That’s why I wonder if Christian visionary authors have really been very successful at all.

How do we change this?

How might one do as Lewis did, in reverse, and thus cast God-glorifying story Enjoyments themselves into imaginary worlds, strip them of their negative associations — “uselessness” and moral-pragmatism slavery — and make them appear in their true potency?

One of the best ways to begin discerning solutions would be to survey those who’ve already stolen past the Churchian Dragons. How did they do it? And do we want to do the same? In some cases: no, we don’t. But might we want consciously to put on that disguise? Or at least avoid the appearance of flagrantly anti-Churchian Dragon behavior, such as banging on our thick metal “We’re All About Story As Enjoyment and Not Just Propaganda”™ brand armor?

Names and more thoughts, next week, in Stories for Christians 2: Stealing past Churchian Dragons. Before then, what are your ideas, or suggestions of authors who’ve done this well?

P.S.: Also see tomorrow’s article from one author who’s well-known for meeting Christian readers where they are, in his fiction and nonfiction, while also challenging them to move beyond moralism into Enjoyment, now and anticipating the New Earth: Randy Alcorn.

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. […] How that may be done, then, remains for a later article, likely next Thursday: Stories for Christians: the new ‘watchful dragons.’ […]

  2. Thank you for this. These are all issues I grapple with as I think on the questions I may be asked when my trilogy debuts next year. It’s YA, first of all, which hasn’t yet made a huge mark among CBA houses, and it’s a “supernatural romance” which I fear will have the dragons spitting fire. 

    But, there’s truth there. Lots of it. It’s not written as a moral tale and I’ve wondered if that will distract CBA audiences from seeing the truth of the story. But, we’re prayerful, right? And we let God help us be creative. And we, like Lewis, hope to find an audience for the stories birthed in our brains and in our gut.

    I so appreciate your efforts here. I want to wave this site like a banner, encouraging Christians everywhere to think, think, think about what they believe and cling to.

    God bless, Stephen. 

  3. Kessie says:

    I’ve chewed on this all morning. All I can think of are other people in ages past who were trying to impact their culture with fiction. Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and so on.
    Why not with satire and humor? When the anti-God people want to sell us an agenda, they don’t hit us in the face. They couch in in humor, in comedies and sitcoms. They make it funny. As soon as you’ve laughed at depravity, you’ve lowered your guard against it. I think we can learn a lesson from that.
    Why don’t we write satire and poke fun at the watchful dragons? What’s wrong with laughing at the mega churches and the harassed families who forget to pick up one of the kids from Sunday School because they were in such a hurry to make it to small groups? There’s lots of humor inherent there. We just don’t touch it because that’s a Sacred Cow, and Someone Might Be Offended.
    But if we can get people to laugh, we might get a toe in the door for a wider agenda. It works for depravity. Why not good things, too?

  4. Galadriel says:

    And I would also add Ted Dekker as a sucessful author who snuck past Churchian dragons

  5. SoniCido says:

    THERE IS humor there, Kessie, my whole life is an offense in the eyes of many– from Churchian mice to a fire-breathing dragons…and I intend to write about it. haha 🙂

    I am late commenting on this because I was in court yesterday in Bisbee with a real-life dragon!– I took the article with me.

    Thank you Stephen, for pointing out that discerning  [the authors who] successfully sneaking past the watchful eyes.. (or, perhaps, boldly stepping past) the dragons is one way of dealing with them. (sorry about the mechanics on that–I better make some coffee)

    First of all,  I think that we should be bold and confident in every thing in our lives, (no matter where we are in life) and writing should not be the place where we hold back.

    Second, if there is a story churning in us, and we have a relationship with our Creator, then is should be told, no matter who might want to read it.

    Thank you for reaffirming that!


  6. Why not with satire and humor? When the anti-God people want to sell us an agenda, they don’t hit us in the face. They couch in in humor, in comedies and sitcoms. They make it funny. As soon as you’ve laughed at depravity, you’ve lowered your guard against it. I think we can learn a lesson from that.

    Kessie: oddly enough, some of the most successful cheesy and Family-Friendly Christian comedians can get away with gentle parody of Churchianity. Speaking both from personal experience and from seeing other people, I think the cheesy comedians get past the Churchian Dragons mainly because they are perceived, and very likely are in actuality, as One of Us. Therefore he is allowed. He is trusted.

    If a Christian comedian pokes gentle fun at silly churchiness, it’s okay. If a liberal, atheist, or someone else does it — not okay. I’m not saying it’s right; but it certainly is more understandable, isn’t it? People will allow more from those they already trust.

    However, I’m still trying to figure out how come Tim Hawkins, arguably the reigning king of Christian comedy, can get away not only with spoofing silly Churchianity, but also stunts like bathroom humor and fart jokes and even acting effeminate onstage. They’ll even let him turn churchy songs into secular songs. How does he do it?

    Why don’t we write satire and poke fun at the watchful dragons? What’s wrong with laughing at the mega churches and the harassed families who forget to pick up one of the kids from Sunday School because they were in such a hurry to make it to small groups? There’s lots of humor inherent there. We just don’t touch it because that’s a Sacred Cow, and Someone Might Be Offended.

    Could be. Or it could be because we’ve seen the “bad guys” do it — the aforementioned liberals or atheists — and we frankly don’t want to be seen as joining them. That’s also understandable, I think. As mentioned last week, especially in the comments, we already have plenty of people blasting the Church without showing equal love for her.

    I think that’s the key — joined also with the apparent truths that “edgier” Christian artists can “get away with more” if they have won and been maintaining trust with Christians. The dragons recognize one who is one of their own, who shares their concerns. They see that such Christian artists aren’t trying to score cheap points with non-Christians by blasting the Church. Rather, he’s doing affectionate parody or criticism.

    More thoughts on that came in my interview with Ted Kluck. By the way, he had already won my “trust” with his contributions to two more-serious nonfiction books: Why We’re Not Emergent and Why We Love the Church, with Kevin DeYoung (Kluck’s views are quite clear from the titles!). Kluck went on to write two works of parody with another author (recently featured on Spec-Faith — Zachary Bartels). Their first was Kinda Christianity, a spoof of emergent silliness and even anti-Biblical beliefs; and their second was Younger, Restlesser, Reformeder, a spoof of guys like themselves (next-generation “Calvinists”). That book, I found, was even more hilarious due to their inside knowledge. I didn’t mind their “good-natured roast,” and it helped me laugh at not only the general “our” antics, but my own. And that, of course, can help with humility!

    Still, given the bad or hostile parodies out there, I can understand (perhaps even better) how this can lead to concern. That’s why I wrote a followup column, which I hope explored the issue and especially the concept of affectionate parody in further.

    Yet again, perhaps talking about and analyzing and discussing the philosophy of loving, affectionate parody can only go so far. One must also show how this may be done …

    Any thoughts on that, or perhaps firsthand examples? I have a few to show myself. 🙂

    • Kessie says:

      Thanks for all the article links! I’ve been reading them in bits all evening. (Along with a bit of cross-checking to look up what in the heck this whole Reformed movement is about. I don’t get out much these days.)
      I agree with you pretty much on everything you said about spoofs and humor. It slips under the radar if you’re “one of us” and if it’s not mean-spirited. And there will always be people who don’t get it.
      But I was thinking of spoofs more in the realm of speculative fiction. Like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: it was this parody-spoof humor thing set in space.  Then there’s the whole Discworld saga by Pratchett, which is a huge slice of fantasy as a vehicle to spoof pretty much everything. (I recently read Guards! Guards! and laughed my head off the whole time.)
      After reading a bunch of these articles (and Randy Alcorn’s article today), I think just a good story can get past defenses, too. But it’d better be well-written and have great characters. I can’t help but think of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books (exploring the question of what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like had both sides had an air force of dragons). They’re written like stuff from the late 1800s and you need to be reading at more than a 3rd grade level to follow them. But they have a massive following. Which goes to show that people have a higher reading level than the publishers are willing to admit.
      Rabbit trails aside, that’s why I was chuckling at the idea of writing my werewolf character in church, having to hear about why magic is evil. I’m afraid I can’t write satire. I’m much better at playing a silly situation completely straight, like in the Henry Reed books, when they do crazy things like start a gold rush or babysit a girl older than them, but it’s played straight. So halfway through you realize this is funny and start giggling.
      I’d be very interested in any examples you have, Stephen. Right now I’m in the middle of a story about catgirls, assassins, sentient power suits, and inter-world travel. And the bounty hunter and the assassin he’s hunting falling for each other.
      At least nobody sparkles.

  7. Marion says:

    Good article, Stephen.
    How do we get past the Churchian Dragons?  Hmmmm….
    I’m glad these questions are finally being asked.  Like I’ve written in previous posts, Christian Art is trying to mature and there will be some bumps on the head and even falling down on our butts.  But we must keep moving forward.
    I believe the power of story with good characters and something the reader can relate to…will ultimately get a writer past the Churchian Dragons.
    However, there will always be people skeptical of fiction.  Which I truly don’t get because these same people will watch a “reality tv” show….and that’s nothing but fiction. LOL!
    I believe we must push for writers and readers of Christian Fiction to ask (and even demand) for better stories and promote those who are doing just that.
    We will never know who will be the next author that can get past Churchian Dragons and out of the Genre Ghetto…but I believe those things are decided by things beyond our control.
    My concern is we keep looking for that visionary author to show our secular counterparts that Christian Fiction is just like you and we have arrived.
    Sometimes growth and maturity takes time.  Even though, we don’t live in a patient society, life still moves one day at a time whether we like or not.

What do you think?