The Theology of Fantasy
Before I begin to breakdown the Christian worldview as it relates to fantasy, I first have a few disclaimers about this series of posts. The first is that I am offering this writing as a way to help the Christian work out their liberty and Christian freedom that Paul taught about in 1 Corinthians 10. As with all things, considerable care is required on the subject because what one Christian feels is acceptable fantasy and within there conscience may cause another brother to stumble. The second is that I am leaning on the collective wisdom of other Christians who have done a far better job articulating the argument for fantasy. I will bring many of my own thoughts to the subject, however I will be careful to let God’s Word speak on this as well as many other Christians who have researched and written on this topic. Lastly, I come to this with a bias. I love fantasy. I will do my best to present a balanced approach to the theology of fantasy while ensuring I do not allow too much bias to bleed through. My hope and prayer in this writing is to help the Christian find peace with their love for fantasy. – Dan
We live in a world that is dominated by fantasy. Major motion pictures about super heroes are exceeding billions of dollars in revenue, video games have never been more popular or profitable, we are living in the golden age of board games and fantasy books are the highest selling genre of all time. When our children are young, we celebrate playing pretend, we being the scary monster who eats toes, they being the innocent victim with yummy toes. Far away lands are encouraged, imagination is cultivated and bedtime stories include grand tales of good versus evil. Something within us stirs a longing for another world, a place full of adventure, where a hero defeats the villain and everyone lives happily ever after. However, for the Christian this can cause an internal struggle. Shouldn’t we be doing all things for the glory of God? How can I possible sit down and read the 1,703 page Mistborn Trilogy rather than the latest Christian bestseller? How do I reconcile my enjoyment of comic books or video games when the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 13:11 “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Many truths in the Bible could cause a Christian to step back and wonder if their love for fantasy is God honoring or childish. That’s why I am writing this.
The Theology of Fantasy – Why it matters, and what is at stake.
Based on the overwhelming popularity of fantasy, it’s important to have an idea of how we as Christians can be in the world yet not of it. (John 17: 14-16) There are three things we have to take into consideration when discussing fantasy: 1) What does the Bible say about fantasy? 2) How do you glorify God through fantasy?, 3) How does a solid worldview of fantasy allow the Christian to reach the nations with the Gospel? I will use this three part series to break down each of these questions.
What does the Bible say about fantasy?
Before doing research on what the Bible says about fantasy, I wanted to find out the definition of the word. According to Merriam-Webster fantasy is “something that is produced by the imagination.” My first reaction was that this is a rather interesting definition. It is much different than the immediate thought that comes to mind when I think of the word fantasy. My first reaction when I think of how to define fantasy is to immediately go to a tangible description, such as make believe worlds or Zelda cosplay. The interesting thing about the Merriam-Webster definition is that it’s a high level, broad generalization. To find out what the Bible says about fantasy I did a Logos Bible Software search for the word “fantasy.” I have over a thousand resources on Logos so I thought it would be a pretty simple exercise. I found zero results. But just because the word “fantasy” doesn’t show in the English translation of Scripture doesn’t mean the concept of the word isn’t there. Based on my research, I found two different words that were suggested as possible replacements for “fantasy.” One was “creativity” and the other “imagination.” Isn’t that interesting. The terms used within the Bible that would best fit the word “fantasy” are “creativity” and “imagination.”
The core foundational truth of Christianity is that God has the ultimate imagination. He embodies creativity because He is the Creator, as revealed in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God spoke and His imagination became life. God’s most magnificent creation is humanity. I say that with confidence because God Himself said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:16) When God was finished creating all the universe, finalized with man, He said “Behold, it very good.” (Genesis 1:31) It’s with this same imagination and creativity that God has written all of human history and the amazing story that He revealed in the 66 books of the Bible. God is the greatest story teller. You may be wondering where I am going with this. Give me time.
The Power of Imagination
For God to have imagined and then created the entire universe is enough to bring Himself glory. And yet He chose to make mankind, but not only that, He chose to make mankind in His own image. This doesn’t mean that God physically looks like a man, because Scripture makes it clear that the Father is spirit. (John 4:24) This means that mankind has taken on several of God’s attributes, such as reasoning, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, etc. While we do not exhibit these attributes to perfection as he does, we still have the ability to display them. That leads me to the attributes that I think all of mankind seek to exhibit in some way, and that is imagination and creativity.
God has imparted with all mankind the ability to imagine and create. While mankind is unable to create as God did ex nihilo, we have the ability to create from what has already been created. We are also able to create worlds and experiences that are not real but imagined. This is where fantasy comes into play in the Christian life. The story of God’s redemptive plan to bring sinners back to Himself is historical knowledge through revealed Scripture. However it is through the use of imagination and story that brings the message it’s power. The Holy Spirit ignites within us a desire to behold the splendor and majesty of Jesus, and it’s through stoking our imagination that we are able to experience this. An example of this is in the Book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 6, God reveals the splendor of Jesus in a vision to the prophet. Isaiah’s imagination was stoked by the Holy Spirit to detail Jesus’ majestic robes. (Isaiah 6:1) Without imagination, the term “fills the temple” wouldn’t make any sense. But through a vibrant imagination, you can see the robe swaying and folding and rolling throughout the temple. Jesus Himself taught in parables, because he knew the power of imagination and story. It’s this same imagination and creativity that allows Christians to enjoy God’s creation and to bring Him glory.
What I am describing here is the concept of Sub-Creation. This was termed by one of the most famous fantasy writers of all time, who also happened to love Jesus, and that is J. R. R. Tolkien. He described this concept throughout his writings, and it is basically the idea that humans have the ability to create their own worlds as sub-sets within God’s creation. Colin Duriez, who is a writer and expert in J. R. R. Tolkien and Christian fantasy writing, said the following:
The doctrine of sub-creation was especially congenial to Tolkien, both as a Christian and as a fantasy writer. As a Christian, Tolkien could view sub-creation as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators. As a fantasy writer, Tolkien could affirm his chosen genre as one of the purest of all fictional modes, because it called for the creation not only of characters and incidents, but also of worlds for them to exist in.
Duriez is speaking to the writer as worshipping God through sub-creation in that God is the focus and object of this creation. Tolkien’s focus was on God, not on the story or his own creation. This focus is very different from creating a golden calf and then worshipping the creation as the Israelites once did. Paul rebukes this in Romans 1:25 “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” (We will unpack the abuse of fantasy next week.) Tolkien was inspired by God to create worlds, using the imagination and creative genius imparted by God, that could explain concepts and realities that are easier to describe through story. As C. S. Lewis said “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”
In my research about sub-creation I have read a lot about C. S. Lewis and his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien. Prior to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, he had an objection that truth could not be found in myth (or stories.) I came across a poem written my Tolkien that countered this argument by Lewis when reading the blog of Justin Worley. He wrote an excellent piece but his condensed version of Tolkien’s poem is worth reading:
Inspired by God, man likes to create. Creating imaginative stories is not mere escapist “wish-fulfillment,” but instead peeking at the truth beyond the dreary shadow of this fallen world. Storytelling is not the “flight of a deserter” scorning this land; rather it is the “escape of the prisoner” towards his true home. Stories can contain hope. They contain a truth of a different kind which is equally necessary to our being and essential to being human. Truly, this is more necessary to our condition than a “just the facts” mentality, which cuts out our heart and imagines us as simply brains on a stick. A life of “pure facts” divorced from story leaves us cold, dry, and imprisoned. Good fantasy (the most unadulterated form of Sub-Creation) helps us to escape from our materialist prisons imposed by a secular culture. Human beings “are designed for transcendent truths, whether they know it or not, and they pursue these truths and some exercise of their spiritual faculties anywhere they can.” And we usually find them in stories.
It’s easy to see where the person engaging in the creative process can get a sense of fulfillment in glorifying God. We’ve unpacked that God in his kindness has given us the attributes of imagination and creativity. By exercising those attributes we are able to enjoy God and glorify His creation. Based on this truth, where does that leave the Christian who doesn’t create fantasy but just consumes it? How does reading comic books or playing video games actually bring God glory? That is what we will tackle next week.
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