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Christian Fantasy Novels: Our Theological Buffer

Christian Fantasy Novels: Our Theological Buffer

by Mike Duran · 30 comments

Fantasy, often of the YA variety, appears to comprise the largest segment of the Christian Speculative Fiction category. Bryan Davis, Jill magic-wand-1Williamson, Donita K. Paul, Wayne Thomas Batson, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, Christopher Hopper, Jeffrey Overstreet, D. Barkley Briggs, C.S. Lakin, Vox Day, Karen Hancock, G.P. Taylor, Stephen Lawhead, are just a few of the Christian authors with entries in this field. By way of example, the last three Christy Award winners in the “Visionary” category have been Fantasy novels.

Having bemoaned the disparity of Spec titles in the Christian Fiction market, it’s rather fascinating (to me, at least) how so many of the titles that DO make it into the market are in the Fantasy genre. Why is this?

I’m sure there’s lots of possible reasons. On the surface, you could say we’re simply following the footsteps of two of the greatest Christian novelists ever in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Narnia and Middle Earth sagas have shaped the genre. But I have another theory. It goes like this:

Fantasy Fiction is a buffer against theological scrutiny.

This is the “Christian” part of “Christian Fiction.” Our tales must jibe with revealed biblical truths. Stories that take place in make-believe worlds are LESS subject to theological analysis than stories in “real-world” settings. In realms where magic is tolerable, ethics may also have wiggle room. If I am free to create Elvish races, then binding those races to the Ten Commandments (or some equivalent) is my prerogative. Which is why one reason for a Christian novelist to write Fantasy is to evade the Theology Police.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

My first novel,  The Resurrection, takes place in a “real-world” setting. Stonetree is a small coastal community with a dark history. Apparently, a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.

And I pretty much agree.

At Speculative Faith, novelist and editor Rachel Starr Thompson addressed this subject in an entry entitled When Speculation is… Confusing. She compared two recent books she’d read, one of them being The Resurrection. Rachel wrote:

I’m somewhat ambivalent about speculative fiction that takes place in this world… I mean, when we’re making up an entire world from scratch, then I think we’ve got fair license to make it work however we want. But if we set a story in this world, don’t we have some responsibility to play by the rules of this world? If we don’t– if we blur the lines between reality and fantasy– do we risk causing confusion to our readers, especially as pertains to spiritual realities? (emphasis mine)

Let me be clear: Rachel’s review is fair and generous. I don’t consider her part of the Theology Police (a term I’m wielding with lotsa snark). However, I think Rachel’s approach is indicative of how many Christian readers approach fiction.

It’s also why writing Fantasy provides a theological buffer.

In writing fantasy worlds, the author has a “fair license” to create her own laws. On the other hand, stories rooted in the here-and-now are somewhat bound by “the rules of this world.” In other words, I am free to sacrifice characters to pagan gods. I am not, however, free to allow those gods to be stronger than the Christian God.

Unless, I write Fantasy.

In writing Fantasy Fiction, not only can the Christian author be ambiguous about God or gods, she is free to create a world where that God / those gods interact with their creation and its denizens in whatever ways appropriate. So in Middle Earth, souls can be bound under lock and curse without a problem (see: The Dead Men of Dunharrow). In Stonetree, however, the “dead” must stay that way.

Which is one reason I’m suggesting that Fantasy Fiction is so prominent among Christian novelists. Christian Fantasy novels provide a buffer against theological scrutiny. So the author can write what they want without fear of being nabbed by the Theology Police. After all, you don’t need to watch your theological P’s and Q’s if the world you create uses a different alphabet.

Your thoughts?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Bobby B January 14, 2013 at 9:25 AM

It really is a fascinating paradox. Christians will let all kinds of things slide for fantasy, but not the real world. CS Lewis used pagan myths all over the place in Narnia, and Tolkien used faux magic.

Even the strictest doctrinally-sound folks (e.g., Calvinists) love CS Lewis and usually, by extension, Narnia.

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Mike Duran January 14, 2013 at 10:45 AM

Bobby, I’d intended to use Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength” of just such and example. All kinds of odd theological bugaboos in that one. Like the magician Merlin, buried and existing in a timeless state, not dead. Merlin is later possessed by angelic powers, called Oyéresu (singular “Oyarsa”), that guide the planets of the solar system and thus correspond to Greek gods and goddesses. How’s THAT for “real-world” Christian spec?

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Nikole Hahn January 14, 2013 at 9:30 AM

The only time I become more critical of Christian spec. fiction are when writers write about Heaven or angels. I think if we’re going to write under CHRISTIAN spec. fiction and use heaven or angels that should be according to the Bible. Books like C.S. Lakin, Donita K. Paul, and especially Anne Elisabeth Stengl wrote very well without being preachy. It was a story. I like stories that don’t preach. The Resurrection is still my favorite novel of yours as the message was good, not preachy, and the story compelling and well-researched. I got lost in the story and didn’t worry about theological stuff. The same goes with the current novel I am reviewing by Shannon Dittmore “Angel Eyes.” It draws the biblical story of Elisha in with this current world of angels.

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Alan O January 14, 2013 at 11:11 AM

three thoughts:

1) I agree your logic makes sense, but it’s an argument that probably finds its most receptive audience within the insular world of the “speculative crowd.” In the broader Christian community, the messages I hear are the opposite: Listen to Moody radio programs, or Focus on the Family (evangelical media) and you’ll find the word “fantasy” a major red flag. In those circles, its not a buffer against theological scrutiny…it’s a lightning rod. Over the years, I’ve heard far more (and more intense) Christian criticism of scifi/fantasy than I have of The Other Speculative Category: Supernatural suspense. In part, I think that’s why authors like Peretti, and the early Dekker, gained such wide acceptance. Their works (like “The Resurrection”) contained supernatural elements, but were “close enough” to the real world to be judged “ok” by most.

2) Rachel’s question: Do we risk causing confusion to our readers…? Always. No matter what we write. Because we do not control the mind set, attitudes, and presuppositions that readers bring to the table when they pick up our work. Which leads me to:

3) I’ve always found it interesting how people’s theological views, whether they are conscious of it or not, are significantly colored by their personalities. (i.e., we assume we’re making theological choices based on reflection, when so often we’re playing out “scripts” in tune to our God given individual bents.) This topic is one small example.

The length of leash given to Imagination varies from person to person. Some prefer to “keep it real”…and they like their thoughts (and stories) firmly set in the known world, with known factors in play. (Romance, Historical, Action, Crime, etc ) Others (a much smaller group) are drawn like moths to a flame whenever “World building” is in evidence. Everyone falls somewhere on that continuum…but the overall population leans decidedly in favor of the Real…which is why Sci Fi, Fantasy, (both in ABA or CBA) has always been the province of “those people”… (that’s code for introverts..and, yes, Sci Fi & Fantasy preferences do correspond with introversion, because introversion corresponds with speculative kinds of Imagination. Introverts tend to be deep thinkers, and “speculation” is about giving freer rein to thoughts of ‘what if.’)

So, the majority of Christian readers will use theological grounds to justify/rationalize what is (more correctly) a personality preference… and will shy away from Fantasy because–for the way they are wired–an alternate world is too “out there.”

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Mike Duran January 15, 2013 at 6:42 AM

Great points, Alan. The one I’d quibble with is in #3 where you suggest that “Sci Fi & Fantasy preferences do correspond with introversion” and that “…the overall population leans decidedly in favor of the Real.” I think the proliferation of fantasy / Sci-fi in pop culture reveals far more tolerance and Imagination than does the Christian marketplace. Christian readers may prefer Real. But American culture at large prefers Imagination, introverts or not.

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Alan O January 15, 2013 at 11:54 AM

You may certainly be right…it’s a complex and interesting topic.

I was thinking of certain studies such as the Harris poll from 2010, that found that, among American adults who read fiction, 48% choose to read Mystery, Thriller, or Crime. 24% of readers report reading Literature. 21% report reading Romance. All of those categories are primarily, (though there are sub-genres that provide exceptions), focused on “this world, real word” stories. On the other hand, only 21% reported reading Sci Fi. (Fantasy was not singled out as a category)

Definitely agree that American culture at large shows “far more tolerance” than the Christian culture for the fantastical. No question, when you compare the two.

But if you’re comparing preferences *within* that “American culture”… I think I’d still say that the general market leans heavier towards “real” worlds than speculative. General culture *is* more accepting of the speculative, yes, but speculative still represents a smaller slice of the overall pie, even there.

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Kessie January 14, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Wow, Mike, the Recent Comments are going crazy over there. I wonder what your hit counter looks like for January?

Anyway, I agree with everything said about the theological buffer. Writers of modern/urban fantasy seem particularly targeted by this. As long as it’s a fantasy world with elves, Christians will let it slide. But set it in LA and suddenly we have problems.

In my WIP urban fantasy, at one point the characters are being attacked by a monster, so they build a magic circle and set off what amounts to a magic EMP blast. My beta readers have had the worst time with the magic circle. All being Christians, they have all gently warned me that magic circles are witchcraft, and do I really want to convey witchcraft vibes in a story written by a Christian?

Which has left me cold. They use magic circles in So You Want to be a Wizard, and the Chrestomanci books, and even World of Warcraft uses them everywhere. But I’m not allowed to use them because Satanists also use them.

I’m going to use it anyway, but that’s what I’ve run into.

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Kat Heckenbach January 14, 2013 at 11:19 AM

I think you need to stress the word “appears” in your first sentence. YA fantasy APPEARS to take up the bulk of Christian spec-fic. Looking from the side of a YA writer, it appears that we’re in a minority. Or, I should say, there are a handful of authors who make up the bulk of Christian YA fantasy, and in other parts of Christian spec-fic you have a bigger variety of authors.

Also, most of the authors you named have been published for years. There seemed to be a wave several years ago that those authors caught…but it has since ebbed. Try to find a Christian publishing house that is looking for YA fantasy NOW. Go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ve been waiting for five years already….

OK, now that I have that out of my system, I will say I do agree with you a bit. I happen to write fantasy partly because I don’t have to make it overtly Christian. Although, I will have to admit one of the obstacles I found when querying my YA fantasy was that it wasn’t overt enough. I lost out on the Grace Awards last year for the same reason. (I was told they judges talked more about my book than the others in the YA category, but it “lacked faith elements”.) Still, yes, fantasy gives an author more room to play, and that is a big attraction for me.

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Katherine Coble January 14, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Please don’t be offended by this, but the fact that your book “lacked faith elements” (ie. wasn’t a hit-you-over-the-head 1:1 allegory) is one of the major reasons I rate it so highly and am comfortable recommending it to other Fantasy readers. It has a very Christian philosophical underpinning but is allowed to be a story of its own.

Had it won a Grace Award or a Christy I think I would have been much less willing to read it.

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Kat Heckenbach January 14, 2013 at 1:12 PM

Offended? Not at all! :D Quite the opposite.

I never intended to write “Christian fiction” from the get-go. I was totally aiming for mainstream. But there is no denying there is faith woven into the underlying fabric of the story :).

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Margaret Mills January 14, 2013 at 12:12 PM

Long ago I took a post-grad Lit class and for my project chose to research and write a paper on the Inklings (including C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, etc.) I discovered they spent a lot of time and thought on the idea of “Deep Myth.” The idea behind a lot of their works (and that of Geo. McDonald before them) was that fantasy could be used to illuminate theology, truth, and spiritual reality in a very fundamental way. Their fantasy resonates with us yet because it reflects deep truth. Lewis used a lot of pagan mythology, but he also believed it was a premonition or foreshadowing of Christianity (i.e. Truth). It is possible to use magic and pagan rituals to illuminate Christian theology – I believe that is what J.K. Rowling has done – but maybe more writers need to be aware of the concept of “Deep Myth?”

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Bobby B January 14, 2013 at 1:04 PM

Or Christian publishers/book sellers need to be more aware. Because basic Evangelical Christians are so consumed with the idea that we’re in a culture war, allowing magic into our stories might give even the tiniest glimmer of ground to the enemy.

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DD January 14, 2013 at 8:58 PM

John Eldridge writes often of this Deep Myth, though never in fiction. In Epic he writes:

“It’s true of every fairy tale, every myth, every Western, every epic…Have you ever wondered why?

“Every story, great and small, shares the same essential structure because every story we tell borrows its power from a Larger Story, a Story woven in the fabric of our being…

“All of these stories borrow from the Story. From Reality. We hear echoes of it through our lives. Some secret written on our hearts. A great battle to fight, and someone to fight for us. An adventure, something that requires everything we have, something to be shared with those we love and need.

“There is a Story that we just can’t seem to escape. There is a Story written on the human heart.”

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Rebecca LuElla Miller January 14, 2013 at 2:05 PM

Interesting article, Mike. I don’t quite know if Stephen Lawhead’s latest work would fall into the fantasy category, though–more like science fantasy because it’s closer to time travel than anything, but he uses the concept of “ley lines.” Good stuff.

There are lots of other writers you could have added to the list, of course: D. Barkley Briggs, Christopher and Allen Miller, Eric Reinhold, Amanda Davis, Scott Appleton, Brock Eastmon, R. J. Larson, Patrick W. Carr, and soon-to-be released Robert Treskillard. Oh, and Matt Mikalatos (Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living Dead Christian) dipped into middle grade fantasy with his latest, The Sword of Six Worlds.

I agree with your premise–fantasy allows for God-honoring themes without worrying about getting in all the theological nuances. The exception would be true allegory–a John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress type story.

Interesting to note that Bethany House seems to be the newest publisher to add to their group of fantasy authors, next to Thomas Nelson/Zondervan, AMG, and WaterBrook.

Becky

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Joel Q January 14, 2013 at 2:26 PM

Totally agree… if it’s all made up, you can rest in the gray areas a bit, and not worry about being “Christian enough.”

If you write about our world, you are kind of stuck. Unless you can work on the edge of the Supernatural elements of the Bible, spiritual elements, that aren’t completely understood. Then you can what might be called true fantasy elements, at least a bit.
That’s what I’ve done.
JQ

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R. L. Copple January 14, 2013 at 2:35 PM

I don’t know enough to say otherwise, but some of the strongest “theology police” have come out against fantasy, especially YA. Harry Potter being the obvious one. I’ve even received one review at Goodreads warning about my theology in Reality’s Dawn, a totally made up world. And I don’t have that many reviews.

Maybe this-word fantasy does get more scrutiny, but I don’t know that the difference between them is that wide, and the theology police are active in both sub-genres.

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Lyn Perry January 17, 2013 at 8:08 PM

“…a few new age concepts, such as Spiritual formation (as opposed to spiritual growth or discipline)…” (from a GR review)

Watch out for that biblically tricky word ‘formation!’ We don’t want to confuse it with such generically biblical terms like spiritual growth or discipline. – says anyone who can read Romans 12.2. Oh, and about that ‘new age’ (in Christ) thing…

sigh

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Guy Stewart January 14, 2013 at 5:55 PM

(As I have more than once, I wonder if my comment will stop the thread again?)

Isn’t ALL fiction fantasy?

“if we set a story in this world, don’t we have some responsibility to play by the rules of this world? If we don’t– if we blur the lines between reality and fantasy– do we risk causing confusion to our readers, especially as pertains to spiritual realities?”

But every novel that covers more than a few hours of time (the time it would take to read the book); every novel that delves into the THOUGHTS of a character; every novel that pretends that a 21st Century writer could possibly understand the motivation, thoughts or mindset of a 19th Century Amish woman; every novel that was written by a male from a feminine perspective…I could go on but I’ll let you come up with your own list of novels that purport to be “real” but are fantasies that pretend to “play by the rules of this world” (real linear time cannot be compressed; mental telepathy will not allow you to read someone else’s mind; time travel does not allow anyone to go into the past; gender swapping — well, that would be a FORBIDDEN topic in the real world…but is perfectly acceptable in Christian fiction).

For me, objections like this are at their very best and most sincere disingenuous and intentionally ignore the real “real world”.

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DD January 14, 2013 at 8:53 PM

“if we blur the lines between reality and fantasy”

Isn’t that a primary purpose of fiction? The definition of fantasy? Sure, we all write our worldview and theology into our works, but it sounds as if some approach “Christian fiction” the same way they would read a nonfiction theology book. I’m afraid that method strips fiction of its power to tell stories.

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Keanan Brand January 14, 2013 at 10:34 PM

I want characters to be real, in that they behave as real-world people behave — and, if they don’t, there’d better be a darn good reason.

However, I do like the fact that F & SF worlds allow for all sorts of “unrealities” and even allow the magical or unexplained. After all, there’s much about the real world we don’t know. And yet I prefer that a fantasy version of God still be true to His character as revealed in scripture. (He doesn’t lie, manipulate, act childishly or petty, share authority, and so on).

If that’s right, I can set aside all the finer points of theology, and just enjoy the story. And, as a writer, I like the freedom of creating a story in a world that does not now nor ever did exist. It’s a lot of fun!

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D.M. Dutcher January 15, 2013 at 12:09 AM

It’s not that the christian fantasies are even exploring theology though. Most of it really is formulaic, at least from the mainstream presses. Heroes journey/conversion, with worlds that really are just there. It’s narrow even for epic fantasy, and you have to go to small presses and self-pubs if you want something as simple as a non-european style of fantasy, urban fantasy, or science fiction.

I don’t know. I wonder if the problem is modern christian culture is obsessed with safety and purity. Not that it’s entirely bad to be worried about that, but it is to such a point that it’s backfiring on us and making us weaker when dealing with the world, not stronger. Giving too much power to the culture and in a way making the individual believer a weak reed blown by every single puff of wind. There’s a bit too much fear here, and I think a lot of believers need to wake up and realize that they are stronger than they think when it comes to reading or evaluating culture.

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Patrick Todoroff January 15, 2013 at 6:49 AM

Good call, Mike. Very different from the old hue and cry of “It’s Satanic because there’s… magic in it. And a wizard!”

Guess I stumble at the notion the burden is on the writer to uphold theological consistency in any type of fiction. I understand the need to create a credible and internally consistent world. I’m all for it. But how is a contemporary piece with zombies or superheroes is obligated to cross-reference Grudem’s Systematic Theology when the D & D module gets a pass?

Guess it comes down to the reader’s frames of reference and sorting mechanisms. I still maintain if they can get over the hurdle in a fantasy piece, they must be capable of it in a contemporary or sci fi story.

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J.S. Clark January 15, 2013 at 7:12 AM

I think it does provide a bit of a safety net. I know when I’m writing I intentionally try to draw a line between “reality” (my fantastical perception of it) and fantasy (my realistic imagination of it). But when I stop and think about it, I’m not exactly sure. I agree with the commenter, everything is fantasy.

I mean think about the most Christian novel you can, in it a writer is PRETENDING that they KNOW what God would do or not do in their story IF it were really real. That is FANTASY!

Still, I do feel more comfortable distinguishing between our immediate fantasy and my remote fantasy. I want as part of my story to reinforce what is right, even if I do bend the rules in other places. I suppose it’s a matter of what God’s gift leads you to accentuate in a story. Yeshua praising an embezzler. Was Yeshua praising defrauding your employer? No, he was praising working with intelligence specifically toward making friends of as many as you can, but the vehicle was someone doing something wrong. Yeshua accentuated one truth by using a story (which could have been true) but on the surface condoned a lie.

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Katherine Coble January 15, 2013 at 2:46 PM

This is why I don’t read much Christian fiction at all, and avoid Christian Fantasy outright.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said here before that if something calls itself “Christian” I watch very closely for theological Orthodoxy. Because to me if you’re claiming kinship or asserting that your work has a kinship and a vaunted place within the framework of the Faith then I expect it to actually do so.

If you want to avoid the Theology Police like me then I strongly suggest you write for the mainstream. If I come across a book in the mainstream that has Christian Elements but isn’t theologically orthodox I just think “well, those Christian elements were a nice surprise/treat/twist.”

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who like the idea of marketing to Christians. Some think it’s easier to get published in that sphere. Historically that sphere has been continuously profitable even in a downmarket for general publishing. Some feel that is their calling. Whatever the reason, that’s their choice.

I don’t think it’s wrong for me as a Christian to expect them to honour that choice by actually playing by the rules of the faith they’re claiming to mirror.

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J.B. Simmons December 5, 2013 at 1:54 PM

I just stumbled upon this great post. I think there is a lot of truth to what you say about evading the theology police. That said, Tolkien had an excellent and different insight into your question. It’s from his essay On Fairy Stories. I highly recommend reading the whole essay, but here’s an on-point quotation: Fantays is “not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most Potent.”

In other words, Christian Fantasy may stand to be the most potent of fictions. It is also incredibly difficult to pull off well, but that’s a worthy aspiration.

J.B.

http://jbsimmons.com

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