Fantasy and faith

June 3rd, 2019

Dominating culture

HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones ended its eight-season run in April, dominating the cultural conversation in a way few other TV shows have achieved. The final episode alone brought in 19.3 million viewers and was the network’s most-watched telecast ever.

That same month, Avengers: Endgame capped a sprawling 11-year, 21-film narrative arc, destroying box office records in the process. As of this writing, Endgame is the second highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and worldwide.

Readers and viewers have long loved fantasy — stories either “impossible in the world as we perceive it” or set in impossible other worlds (the definition offered in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). But when fantasy commands so much cultural attention, it’s natural to ask what fuels our fascination with it and, as Christians, to wonder how, if at all, its appeal connects with our faith.

Fantasy as human art and common ground

Although the recent biographical drama Tolkien didn’t work much box office magic, the mere fact that a major Hollywood studio would make a movie dramatizing the life of the Oxford don who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings shows how much his fantasy stories matter. Arguably, no single work has shaped modern fantasy more than The Lord of the Rings (published in three volumes from 1954–55). Exploring its author’s views on fantasy seems a good way to start answering our own questions about the genre.

In his 1939 lecture “On Fairy-stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien made a case for taking fantasy seriously as a high form of art. He defended it against its detractors as a “natural human activity.” A devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien believed that fantasy is an important way we reflect the divine image in which we were created. He explained that a successful fantasy story produces a compelling “subcreation” —  the world of the story, as believable and internally consistent as the real world for as long as the story lasts. Tolkien believed that not all fantasies are “beautiful or even wholesome,” because human beings are fallen. However, he argued, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

The Reverend Scott Higa understands Tolkien’s argument. A pastor at Community Baptist Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California, Higa also runs a website and podcast he calls The Christian Nerd, which “examines the intersection of the Christian faith and nerd culture.” For him, “nerd culture” embraces fantastic stories like Marvel superheroes and Star Wars movies. I asked him via email why he thinks Christians should take fantasy seriously. He responded, in part, “Fantasy stories . . . help us understand other people better. . . . Christians like to focus so much on what separates us from the rest of the world; these stories can show us what we have in common.” Fantasy lets us understand and connect with others because, as Tolkien insisted, imagination and creation are vital to human nature.

Fantasy as sacramental activity

Higa also told me, “Having a conversation about Harry Potter or The Avengers is a great place to start any connection or relationship. Maybe that’s all it will be, and that’s fine. . . . If the Spirit provides an opportunity for something more, even better.”

Tolkien experienced such an opportunity in his friendship with C. S. Lewis. In an essay on the official Lewis website, Sarah Arthur, author of A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, as well as devotional books inspired by both Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works, explains that prior to meeting Tolkien, Lewis believed “myths were man’s attempts to make sense of a senseless world. All myths, including the Christian gospel, were not true — beautiful, but not true. But then he met Tolkien, and slowly Lewis started to come around to a different understanding. In Christianity, he realized, myth became fact.”

Tolkien asserted that the gospel is “a fairy-story” that “entered History.” He didn’t mean Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection didn’t actually happen; instead, he meant that the story of Jesus gave all fantasy stories their distinctive character. Tolkien believed genuine fantasy contains moments of eucatastrophe, a word he coined to describe the “sudden joyous ‘turn’ ” of events, a “sudden and miraculous grace” that gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” He argued that these moments in fantasies have “the very taste of primary truth” because they echo “the Great Eucatastrophe” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

For Christians, God has promised to be present with us in baptism and Holy Communion. Although fantasy in itself isn’t sacramental, perhaps the Holy Spirit can use fantasy in ways that help communicate grace and truth to all audiences.

Jesus and holy imagination

It would be an overstatement to claim Jesus as a fantasy author, but he did tell imaginative stories as part of his teachings. In fact, in some of these stories, strange and unexpected things occur. But in this world of unexpected actions and outcomes, we’re also invited to imagine unexpected acts of compassion, like the Samaritan’s, or unexpected celebrations at which all are welcome, even a prodigal’s estranged elder brother.

Although the world of Jesus’ parables isn’t a “fantasy world” as we understand the term, these fictional stories can guide and goad us into developing holy imaginations. We can imagine new possibilities, new ways of living and new identities for ourselves and others, then ground them in the real world. In this way, we’re invited to imagine the kingdom of heaven Jesus heralded and help bring it to earth. Imagining how this world could be different is the first step in making it different, for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel.


Socially relevant fantasy

The latest revival of The Twilight Zone launched on the CBS All Access streaming service in April. Writer-producer Rod Serling created the original series (which aired 1959–64) in part so he could tackle controversial social topics, such as war and prejudice, in the guise of fantasy and science fiction to challenge viewers’ consciences without running afoul of network censors. Similarly, the revived series examines modern moral and ethical issues through stories of the supernatural and strange. For example, in one new episode, “Replay,” a black mother uses a camcorder that turns back time to try and save her son from a racist white police officer.

Executive producer Jordan Peele told The New York Times why he thought the time was right to bring back The Twilight Zone: “In many ways it feels like somehow the wires got crossed and we’re in the wrong dimension. . . . It felt like, if Serling were here, he’d have a lot to say and a lot of new episodes he couldn’t have written back in his time.”

Though The Twilight Zone’s flavor of fantasy might not have satisfied J. R. R. Tolkien, he did affirm the ability of fantasy “to clean our windows” and help us recover “a clear view” of the world. Might this “clear view” of the world also offer us, as a society, the inspiration to grow and change?

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