In today’s world, we have a greater variety of entertainment to choose from than any other generation in history. As such, the question of what entertainment is acceptable for Christians to consume has become a constant hot-button topic. In these discussions of what entertainment is acceptable to enjoy as a Christian, the genre of fiction that seems to come up most often is fantasy. Christians and the fantasy genre have had an interesting relationship to say the least. Perhaps more so than any other genre, fantasy seems to provoke the most volatile reactions from Christians.
In the 1980’s, during the height of what became known as the “Satanic Panic”, many churches publicly spoke out against the rising popularity of the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) which was labeled by many to be satanic in nature. When Pokémon made waves in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was also labeled by many churches as a demonic game that encourages kids to summon spirits. Most famously for my generation, stories of churches publicly burning copies of the Harry Potter books made international headlines, and the books themselves were often a continued source of division among Christian circles. Many Christians claimed the story of Harry Potter emulates Christian themes of love and self-sacrifice while many others claimed it teaches children how to practice real spells.
From what I have observed, there a few key reasons as to why fantasy is often singled out by Christians compared to other genres. For one, it is undeniable that fantasy takes inspiration from real-world mythologies and religions that have their origins in paganism. Pagan folk stories such as Beowulf, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the stories of King Arthur are some of the most prominent inspirations for the current fantasy genre in Western culture. Secondly, the inclusion of magic and magical elements causes many Christians to feel uncomfortable, due to the Bible’s prohibitions on the practice of magic. Finally, the tendency of people to be swept up completely into a made-up world worries many Christians.
With such extreme reactions against fantasy taking center stage, it can be difficult to form a nuanced opinion of the subject. In this article, I will attempt to cut through the noise to get to the heart of the matter. I will address the concerns listed above as well as provide my reasons as to why I believe good fantasy can be beneficial for Christians to engage with.
Mythology Versus Religion
Fantasy as a genre and mythology are practically inseparable. The most common fantasy tropes – honor-bound knights, princesses in distress, and greedy dragons – all have their roots in ancient mythology. It is well-known that Beowulf was the primary inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales were the inspiration for a large number of Disney’s classic films such as Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. These original stories don’t come from the Christian tradition. Rather, they developed gradually over time from the folktales of ancient Nordic and Germanic peoples. With these stories not being Christian in origin, is it okay for Christians to expose themselves to them?
In short, I think mythological stories are fine to engage with, so long as we remember that they are just that, interesting stories. I personally find mythology incredibly fascinating, as it gives the reader a window into the psyche of ancient cultures in a way that historical documents don’t. They are early examples of the human imagination expressing itself. From that perspective, they are incredibly revealing as to what we as humans value and wish we could be.
When looking at any fantasy or mythological story, it is important to bear in mind the difference between fantasy and reality. While many secularists will try to say mythology and religion are inherently the same, there is a clear distinction. Mythological stories exist to provide an explanation for natural phenomena and occasionally teach some kind of moral lesson. Religion, by contrast, seeks to build a systematic framework by which humans should live and show them how they should relate to God. In middle school, I was really into the young adult book series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. As a Christian, the idea never crossed my mind that Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon were as real as the God of the Bible. If a middle school boy can understand that difference, I am confident that any Christian can.
Fantasy Magic Versus Real Magic
Similar to the question of fantasy’s ties to mythology is fantasy’s ties to magic. Too often fantasy magic gets automatically conflated with magic in the Bible without understanding that there are stark differences between the two. Most of the time in fantasy, magic is depicted as an otherworldly force that allows characters to utilize abilities that would otherwise be impossible for humans. There is also typically a distinction between those who practice “good magic” and “evil magic” such as the wizards in Harry Potter or the Jedi and Sith in Star Wars. At its core, magic in fantasy is used as a way to show characters solving problems or fighting in a way that is different from the real world. It helps immerse the reader in the universe and hook them into the story.
Magic as the Bible describes is always portrayed in a negative light. Miraculous events are acts of God while magic is always associated with the devil. The Bible contains several direct commands in the Old Testament against the practice of necromancy, consulting with mediums, and trying to perform miraculous feats apart from God.
Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.– Deuteronomy 18:10-13
Generally speaking, the way fantasy stories depict magic is not in line with what the Bible describes. When Gandalf makes his staff light up or Harry Potter flies on his broom, these are not example of real world magic. They are the imaginings of authors trying to make their stories feel other-worldly and filled with wonder. They are not in line with Satanic practices nor do they give children a template from which to practice real magic. Much as with mythology, we need to understand that there is a difference between fantasy and reality. At the same time, the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t can often become blurry, especially in stories that depict real-world practices like human sacrifices or seances. Ultimately, every Christian needs to know their own heart and follow their own convictions, so that they avoid anything that will cause them to fall into temptation.
Fantasy As A Healthy Reprieve from Reality
With our entertainment-saturated society, it can be hard to imagine having a healthy amount of escapism, but I do believe it is possible. What makes fantasy a great form of escape is its ability to transport the reader to another world. One of my biggest problems with much of today’s entertainment is how much of it has a dark and cyclical edge. While there are a number of dark stories that I do like, when I’ve had a bad day or am feeling down, I’d rather not read or watch something that makes me more depressed. While dark fantasy is becoming more popular, fantasy has generally been one more of the lighthearted genres out there, and this is not a criticism. It is important, even as adults, that we engage with entertainment that helps encourage us rather than push us down.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.– Philippians 4:8 NIV
This is the standard that I have tried to use whenever approaching a new piece of entertainment to engage with, whether it be a book, movie, show, or video game. Every Christian has to come to their own convictions on what kind of entertainment is acceptable for them because ultimately, the media we consume does affect our mental state and outlook on life. With this in mind, I argue that fantasy is one of the safer genres for a healthy form of escapism.
Fantasy Can Convey Biblical Truths to the Unchurched
Finally, I believe Christians can use fantasy stories to encourage fellow believers as well as reach out to the lost. No one understood this better than C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian author best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series. The Chronicles of Narnia books were personal favorites of mine growing up, and they contain some of the best written Christian allegory in fiction – Aslan as an allegory for Jesus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis said of the genre of fantasy:
At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies.
Rather than see fantasy as antithetical to the Christian, Lewis recognized the inherent ability of the genre to get readers to consider important truths they might otherwise ignore. Likewise Tolkien, whether intentionally or not, weaved a great number of Christian themes and lessons into The Lord of the Rings which can be seen both in the books and the live-action movie adaptations. Throughout history, Christian have used every art form they can to glorify God and point people towards him, so the genre of fantasy should not be seen any differently. I’m not saying that fantasy literature should be a substitute for the Scriptures, but I am saying that it could point people to Scripture when they might otherwise be adverse to going to the Scriptures directly.
Like any other genre of fiction, whether a fantasy story honors God or not depends entirely upon the person writing it. As a Christian who both consumes and writes entertainment, I hope to honor God in all that I do. While the current trend of fantasy seems to slipping more and more into depraved territory, my hope is that the upcoming generation of Christian writers will be able to craft fantasy stories that convey profound biblical truths. I firmly believe that as Christian creatives, the best thing we can do when we see something in fiction that doesn’t honor God is to create something that does.
Keep in mind, that this is all my opinion and feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts on how we as Christians should view the fantasy genre. God bless you all!