Saturday, December 28, 2013

Is Christian Fantasy an Oxymoron?

Definition:  Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and/or other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting.

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”- Albert Einstein
Fantasy is a far better word to describe such stories, for the word contains connotations of both ‘fantasizing’ i.e. dreaming, imagining, freeing oneself from the bounds of fact; and of the fantastic, a quality of strangeness and wonder. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and … the most potent.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

For many of us interested in the fantasy genre this is a question we have all asked ourselves. The world of fantasy has captivated the imagination of children and adults alike since The Epic Journey of Gilgamesh. However, in today’s Harry Potter happy society lots of people are now asking the question, is fantasy appropriate?

What is the difference between Christian Fantasy and Secular Fantasy? I pose that the real underlying difference between these two writing forms is, in essence, basic worldview. A common misconception that I think we run into is believing that all Christian works must be specifically “Christian” (I.e. they speak the name of Christ in a form other than profanity or present the gospel message).
While it’s possible to read C.S. Lewis and not pick up on the Christian analogies, Tolkien’s works are a bit more toned down in nature and easier for the non-believer to overlook. Few who read Lewis’s work doubts the allegory he has expertly woven into his tale, but many across the board fail to recognize the worldview deeply rooted in Tolkien’s work. Does this classify Tolkien as a Secular Fantasy Writer? Of course not! The basic worldview of Tolkien’s masterpiece is inherently Christian.
During the 16th century fantastical tales were told to children to teach them biblical truths. During this time England proclaimed an official state church. Any other religious teachings were strictly forbidden. So for the next three centuries those who refused to join the state church developed creative ways to teach their beliefs to their children. A perfect example of this is the song The Twelve Days of Christmas.

While the song seems very harmless and, dare we say, fantastical, it actually has a hidden Christian message. So just what do french hens, golden rings, and milking maids have to do with Christian faith? In the song, My True Love is a reference to God. The children could openly sing about their Savior in the streets without fear of punishment. Each day goes through the Christmas story, telling the tale of Christ. The world has taken songs like The Twelve Days of Christmas and completely secularized it so that you can no longer recognize its Christian origins. Because the song does not specifically name the name of Christ does this make it any less of a tool that teaches the concepts of Christ?
This leads us to bring up an interesting question. If Christ is not specifically named in a work of fiction then can we classify it as Christian Fiction? Look at works like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sherlock Homes, literary classics that present truths to our children and young adults that are vital to their development. However they are not packaged as Christian works. This does not make them any less of a valuable resource or a good read, does it?

Fantasy has been a tool used throughout the ages to teach morals and heroism to our young people. For countless generations croaky voiced, grey haired grandparents have taken their grandchildren on their knees and spun wondrous tales that filled their minds and sent their imaginations soaring. These tales were told to spur them to emulate the character portrayed, a character almost always put against insurmountable odds and overcoming them through it all. They were characters who challenged us to a higher standard, to push ourselves beyond what we think is possible. Unfortunately the youth of today’s culture don’t have very many good role models to imitate.
The desire of Christian fantasy writers should be to present a Christ centered worldview in their writing, even if the Deity of Christ is not named or alluded to. I believe there is one main opponent that draws the line between Christian and Secular Fantasy. Christian Fantasy battles the corrupted idea that the universe revolves around self. This form of me centered narcissism is a theme prevalent in secular works of fantasy. Works of this nature revolve around themes that imply the universe revolves around you, the individual. This idea is rampant throughout our culture, not only in works of fiction, but across the board. Greed, envy, malice, and violence all stem from the belief that your momentary desire is the only thing that truly matters. Therefore, it should be the desire of Christian Fantasy writers to debunk this thought process and challenge their readers to selfless acts of heroism and sacrifice. I think this is what differentiates Christian Fantasy from Secular Fantasy. Fantasy should reveal the world or life view of the author.
I propose that instead of abandoning the fantasy genre, something long held as a Christian tool, we should reclaim it. Don’t abandon this wonderful God given gift just because the world has skewed it, rescue the wonderful art of storytelling and use it once again to enhance young minds to do great things. Christ created music as a wonderful outsource of our praise and worship. Satan took that beautiful creation and twisted it into something evil. Does that mean we reject music as a whole? If you answer no to this question then why do we change our standards when it comes to Christian Fantasy?
The threat of sorrow and failure is a very real feeling for readers. What Fantasy does is take that feeling and give you a fleeting glimpse of joy and discovery as an underlying reality or truth. Fantasy fiction does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain, as so many people seem to think. Instead it gives us the possibility of failure so that we can feel the piercing sense of joy when victory is with difficulty won. You cannot experience exalting victory without first tasting the bitter reality of hardship. You see, fantasy casts a shadow at the same time it illuminates. Fantasy offers the hope that a happy ending is possible. Children need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world.
I believe Fantasy is vital to a child’s ultimate development and growth. If you take Fantasy from them it causes creative atrophy. If we only expose kids to what actually exists, we have for all intents and purposes limited them. How can you dream big if you have no imagination? Tales of fantasy show us what the fantastical and impossible might look like? If you’ve never seen a hero conquer seemingly insurmountable odds and achieve them, where will you find the courage to try? If you’ve never read about someone reaching for the impossible and attaining it you might not have the bravery to try. Our imaginations are vital to our existence. How can we empathize with someone, if we can’t imagine what they must feel like?
Fantasy literature has the capability to move a reader powerfully. Kids hunger for a sense of wonder, especially in today’s world of Wiis and iPhones (not that I have anything against either). The previously unexplainable and unbelievable is now a reality. Today’s kids are even hungrier for that sense of magic, of exciting and surprising mysteries that we don’t understand.
Our imaginations were meant to soar through the skies on the backs of Dragons. They were meant to engage in hand to hand combat and rescue the damsel in distress. If we take away Fantasy from children then we have robbed them of a very wonderful gift the Lord has given. The Lord gave man dominion over all things. Fantasy is just another aspect of our dominion. God gave this wonderful creation as a gift. We should take it and use it for the glory of God.
So, you be the judge.  Is Christian Fantasy really an oxymoron, or have we just let the world dictate to us that it is?

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