So I just finished the last book in a children’s series I’ve been reading. It was one of those popular books set in a fantasy world with magic, witches, and princesses. Sizzling spells, epic battles, Good versus Evil, that kind of thing. And even though the author tried to spice things up by deconstructing our commonly held notions about what makes Good good and Evil evil, by the end of the story the lines were drawn pretty clear.
Most of the time it’s easy to tell who the bad guys are in fantasy. Usually if an orc is headed your way brandishing a meat cleaver and growling, you’re not invited to wonder whether or not he’s got a pretty lady-orc somewhere that he’s been in love with since he was a teenager, or what family situation may have led him along the life path that has brought him into the service of a Lord of Darkness who is trying to destroy the world. That’s just how it is. Fantasy simplifies things.
Maybe it comes from fantasy’s fairy tale past, all those brilliant short stories parents would tell their children to keep them from wandering out at night, or trusting dangerous strangers, or else to inspire them to be hardworking and faithful and kind. Or perhaps it comes from fantasy’s mythic past, those grand epics that explained to people why the world is the way it is, and what a human being’s place in it should be. Either way, there’s always been a strong moral center to fantasy: black robes or white, Sith or Jedi, Slytherin or Gryffindor, the twisted followers of the White Witch or the shining army of Aslan.
My best friend once told me that the story most crucial to forming his moral viewpoint as a kid was Star Wars. Not the Bible. Not David and Goliath, or Daniel in the lion’s den, but Luke Skywalker taking on the evil Empire to save the galaxy.
Human beings are moral by nature. There’s a place in the Bible where it says something like that:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” Romans 2:14-15
The point is that we have this Ultimate Moral Law written in our hearts. It’s hardwired into us, right from the start. Even babies have a sense of morality. We have a sense of right and wrong from childhood.
Sometimes that moral compass can be set spinning. Young minds are pliable, ready to absorb everything around them. All it takes is a guardian with a twisted sense of morality hacking away at their souls, and the image of God in us that should lead us to being loving, gracious, and merciful people can be shattered.
The world has had an effect on us all. Only one of us was ever unbent by the corrupting power of a fallen world. But children are especially vulnerable because so much of their personality is still being formed. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” The fairy tale is one of the most basic of moral stories. There is usually an implied if not outright stated moral code behind the story. Whether things turn out “good” for the characters in the tale or not (some stories are quite dark), these stories encourage a deep-seated acceptance of such a thing as ultimate Good and ultimate Evil.
Go to almost any superhero movie in theaters today, and you’ll see that modern storytelling continues to rely on a simple black and white view of morality, an emphasis on Good versus Evil. Maybe that evil is a destructive alien race. Maybe it’s a league of robot clones or some mutated madman. Whatever it is, it wants to do something that we can all universally acknowledge is horrible.
This simplicity can be a good thing.
Oh, you’ll still catch me complaining about how the forces of Evil are portrayed on screen and in stories, because they are so dehumanized (usually aliens, robots, monsters, zombies, or foreigners belonging to a specific evil Empire or country). The one good thing I find in this kind of simplistic storytelling is that it shows how most of us haven’t reached the point where we no longer believe in an absolute Good and Evil. That knowledge is a part of us. It’s written on our hearts.
Good versus Evil stories indicate that we haven’t completely fallen into moral relativism. C.S. Lewis’s grim warningof a society of “men without chests” hasn’t arrived. At least not in full. We’re not yet ready to sit down with Sauron and Voldemort and politely tell them, “Well, I see your point of view and it is just as valid as my own.”
Reinforcing a basic Good versus Evil morality prepares us to recognize the Enemy when he shows up in the real world. Does this situation/movement/person show the qualities of Good [insert Fruit of the Spirit here], or does it have the qualities of Evil? Having a sense of right and wrong that has been strengthened by stories equips us to know where to stand when the lines are drawn.
Jesus makes things simple, so simple a child can understand: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 We can ask ourselves in any situation, “Is this stealing, killing, and destroying, or is it abundant life?”
As geeks, we’re drowning in Good-versus-Evil storytelling. It’s in our books, our movies, our video games, our Dungeons & Dragons sessions. We tend to ask ourselves all the time what kind of entertainment is okay for Christians to take part in. We’re always talking about the appropriate levels of violence, swearing, and sexual content, but in the middle of all that there’s something bigger we’re asking: What’s the moral conflict? What makes the Good side good and the Evil side evil? And that’s a good thing. Because as long as our stories are trying to convince us to cheer for Good to conquer Evil, there is a precious simplicity to them that will help steer us true in a complicated world.
A lover of Jesus and of fantastical fiction, Silas Green talks books and Christian living on Geeks Under Grace. He spends the rest of his free time trying to write stories and exploring the paradise island in the Pacific on which he is stranded.
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