Or: Why do humans imagine impossible things?
A few weeks ago I wrote about my love affair with the fantasy genre and how it’s going south, and I got some interesting responses from friends. (Not in the comments on the post- other places, like in real life.) I promised at the time that I’d try to write more about the role I think that fantasy and SciFi can play in the faith, and why I don’t think it benefits people to be too skittish about imaginary worlds.
It’s a difficult thing to write about, because like most of the topics I seem to dip my toes into people have very gut reactions, based off of tradition and personal experience, and I really hate to risk offending someone by poking them where they are already sensitive. Yet, I find that my ongoing relationship with those genres compels me to write, especially since I’m considering reintroducing Science Fiction Saturday. You see, what some readers of this blog might not realize is that long before I wrote here, I tried to break into the fiction genre writing SciFi and Fantasy. It isn’t just my first love as a reader, it’s my first love as a writer.
But I’m a Christian, right? What am I doing playing around with such darkness?
I’ve heard all of the arguments against Christians being involved in anything that relates to witchcraft or “unnatural worlds”. It might open doors, says one argument. We’re only supposed to dwell on what is holy and beneficial, says another. It’s wasting time, says a third. I respect each of those arguments and where they come from, but I find that I don’t completely buy into them. Is it true for some things in the fantasy genre? Yes, absolutely. It’s also true for some things that aren’t in the fantasy genre. The book that gave me the worst nightmares of any book I’ve ever read was Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. It wasn’t a fantasy novel but boy did it “open doors”, that man touched on an evil that definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. (Chalky! ten internets to anyone that gets that reference.) What makes a book a conveyer of darkness isn’t what genre it is in, it’s the spirit and intent of the author. Books written with the intent of enlightening and teaching valuable morals will do just that, books meant to disturb and haunt and corrupt will do just that. The only way to know which is which is to practice good discernment and do your research about the authors. The genre and cover art don’t tell the whole tale.
The book that made me love fantasy was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, a Christian author.
“At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” -CS Lewis
CS Lewis used fantasy, myth and magic, not to “open doors” to darkness but to open them to light. He created a world which made a metaphor for faith, and through that world he taught all of the values of Christianity in a way that a reader either unfamiliar with the faith or biased against it could understand and believe in the value of it. Aslan was God and Christ, the values he taught echoed Christianity in the most beautiful of ways. There are still points today where in frustration I will stop using the Bible to try to explain my beliefs and instead turn to a very powerful passage in The Last Battle. Those books enriched my young learning experience immeasurably.
After the Chronicles of Narnia I turned to the geek’s ever present hero, Frodo of the Lord of the Rings, and from there on out I read as much as was on the shelves of the SciFi/Fantasy section of my library as I could manage to carry home. I learned a lot of lessons there. I learned that there is honor in loyalty regardless of the price. I learned that true friendship sometimes means telling someone something that they don’t want to hear, or walking away from a friend that is destroying themselves. I learned that people are more than the stereotypes that you hear about them, and regardless of what a situation may look like to the naked eye there is inevitably more under the surface. I learned that the hero can be flawed and broken and make horrible mistakes and sometimes the true hero is the person you least expect to hear the call. I learned that we are all, each of us, what we make of ourselves and there’s no prophecy or fate stronger than the choice any one person makes in the moment.
I learned something else, too. Not from the fantasy section, but from the Bible. I learned that there are some lessons you never hear when someone tells you outright: some things have to be covered up in a story and mulled over for their true meaning to really sink in. The Bible is full of lessons that come in the form of stories. Jesus himself often turned to stories so His message could be easily repeated, puzzled over, and eventually understood. I believe our propensity for imagination is one that God gave us on purpose, one that is intensely Godly. Think, for a moment, of how Creative our Creator really is. Shouldn’t that creativity be reflected in our own lives?
Fantasy and SciFi can tell tales that aren’t so easily told using the auspices of our present world. I could probably write a really compelling story about relationships between Islam and Judaism. But I can guarantee that such a story would press a lot of hot red buttons and offend a lot of people. I don’t think I could ever write that story well enough to have the impact I hope that it would. And I also can guarantee that a lot of people I would want to reach wouldn’t want to read such a heavy, depressing tale. But I bet they’d watch an episode of Star Trek TNG where the Klingons and Ferengi have to learn to work together. They’d laugh, and have an enjoyable time, and somewhere beneath all the hoopla the message would still be the same: we are more than our differences.
And that’s why as a Christian I continue to enjoy these genres that so many people find useless. I understand the power of fantasy to take people to a place where they are receptive to ideas the real world builds walls around. Does that make enjoying the genre perhaps a little risky, because of those doors we don’t want opened? Sure, but that risk is all around us every day, on the TV and in the newspaper. It’s not the genre that creates the risk, it’s the world full of evil people doing evil. A strong, discerning mind doesn’t have anything to fear. If I’d listened to my gut and never read Thomas Harris, I could’ve spared myself all those nightmares.
And I’m going to keep writing fiction, and start posting it on this blog again, because I believe in the power of fiction to give us relief from the burdens we carry in this world, and to teach us lessons we would otherwise tune out.
For my friends that find fantasy distasteful, please feel welcome to not click on my Saturday Sci-Fi posts.
For those that enjoy it, please do so.