Should Christians avoid fantasy literature? I'm a teen girl who loves this genre, especially the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. But recently I stumbled across an article that has caused me to wonder whether I've been mistaken in this regard. The author said that Christian fantasy/fiction is an "oxymoron." To prove his point, he quoted I Timothy 4:7 and said that fairy tales and other stories of this kind are exactly what Paul had in mind when he told Timothy to stay away from "old wives' fables." Do you think he's right?
Based on what you've told us, we have the impression that the author seriously misunderstands the purpose of Christian fantasy. In particular, he seems inclined toward a misguided mentality that has tripped up many good, sincere, Bible-believing Christians-namely, an overly literalistic approach to life that fails to grasp the difference between art and reality.
The "old wives' fables" that Paul mentions in I Timothy 4:7 (Greek graodeis mythous, "myths told by old women") were not creative works of artisticfiction as we understand that term today. They were in fact aggressive contenders in the marketplace of serious religious ideas. As you may know, myths in the context of ancient Greco-Roman culture were something more than art or entertainment: they were both the foundation and the expression of a widely held polytheistic faith. Paul may have been thinking of these Greek myths when he wrote I Timothy. He might also have been referring to some of the stories appearing in the Talmud and Mishnah, writings of the Jewish rabbis which in certain circles of Judaism were held to be just as true and just as authoritative as the Old Testament. In either case, Paul's point is plain: he is urging Timothy to stick tothe Bible and to avoid the temptation to base his teaching, preaching, and pastoral work on other, non-biblical "scriptures."
It should be obvious that this warning doesn't apply to the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, and other writers of fantasy-fiction. These authors are primarily artists, not self-proclaimed "prophets" or teachers and promoters of new religious doctrines. Nobody "believes in" The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia in the same way they "believe in" the Bible, nor did the creators of these stories intend that anybody should. Yes, these tales are intended to reflect and embody many important Christian ideas. But they do it thematically, symbolically, and imaginatively, somewhat in the style of the parables of Jesus. They are not meant to be taken as "true" in and of themselves, in the same way that the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are "true."
For more insight into the purposes and intentions of Christian fantasy authors, we highly recommend that you take a look at what Tolkien and Lewis themselves had to say about their own work. Lewis, for instance, felt that the fairy tale genre gives a writer an opportunity to create imaginary worlds where the reader sees as if with enchanted eyes and is enabled to perceive familiar truths in a fresh way. He tells us that when he first considered writing The Chronicles of Narnia, he became convinced that a fairy tale could be an especially powerful tool for communicating the truths of the Gospel. He felt that, "by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency."
Similarly, Tolkien defined fantasy as a form of "sub-creative art," the goal of which is to make a "Secondary World" which is marked by "the inner consistency of reality." Within this world "the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true.' It accords with the laws of that world." You can read more about these ideas in C. S. Lewis's essay "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" and in J. R. R. Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories." Another quick and easy read on this subject is Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware's book Finding God in the Lord of the Rings.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our team, call us. Our staff of pastoral counselors would love to speak with you over the phone.
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God of the Fairy Tale: Finding Truth in the Land of Make-Believe