Theology in the Mirror of (Fantasy) Story

by Josh Radke

It is common for Christianity to be judged as flat, if not irrelevant. Thus before many are even able to engage theology, to appreciate its richness and the benefits one receives from studying it, they have already moved on to other spiritualities more subservient to their perceived needs.

Christians, too, are guilty of the belief that studying theology is “what my Pastor does” or the “matter of theologians.” For many, the study of theology conjures up images of chilly libraries, musty books, and the kind of jargon that requires a person to read the same paragraph many times just to get a purchase on the concepts. Unfortunately, this attitude seeps its way into the mind, so that many of us become convinced that attending Bible studies, keeping up with personal devotions, or even paying attention to sermons is an exercise in futility — either to be strengthened in the Faith, or to stay awake.

Since at least the time of Christ’s ministry, Story has been an oft-used whetstone for studying theology. C.S. Lewis wonderfully articulates the reason in his essay on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. If you are tired of a real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.

Not only can Story work its magic on food, it can help bring us to repentance. Dr Angus Menuge points out in Aslan’s World:

Stories address the resistance of the heart to direct instruction. To simply tell someone that they have sinned and need forgiveness can provoke all sorts of excuses, evasions, and rationalizations. Our ‘watchful dragons’ quickly spot and attack any threat to the self-righteous portrait we like to paint of ourselves. We are all very good at seeing the specks in other people’s eyes while ignoring the logs in our own. Stories can take advantage of this human weakness by showing the sin first in the third person. Then, through the power of reader identification, it can draw us to see the resemblance to ourselves. (C.S. Lewis invented the term ‘watchful dragons’, which first appeared in his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to be Said”)

And if these, then why not also aiding us in theological study? And when it comes to using Story, not just any kind of literature will do: Fantasy fiction is the best way to explore the Christian faith theologically, and to make one confident for discussion of the same. Lewis writes in the just mentioned essay:

The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it.

The Divinely Gifted Discernment Tool: Imagination

God has created the human creature to be an imaginative creature. In Imagination Redeemed, Dr Gene Veith defines the imagination as “simply the power of the mind to form a mental image, that is to think in pictures or other sensory representations.” Whether read or heard, words and the imagination go together; like breathing, we do this without thinking about it. Dr Veith goes on to surmise that our mental faculties (also created by God, Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism) are accessed far more than our reason, emotions, or will. In Word Pictures, screenwriter, Author, and film critic, Brian Godawa makes an essential point when he says:

[Modern] theology’s emphasis on systematic and scientific discourse places it in danger of not merely inadequacy but a serious misunderstanding of God, for the structure and method of theology affects the content of theology. If the Bible communicates God and truth (theology) primarily through story, image, symbol and metaphor, then a theology that neglects those methods is not being strictly biblical in its method.

Like the rest of our nature, our imagination is also fallen, and can be used for base actions (Gen. 6:5, Rom. 1:21). Thus, like our bodies and our other mental faculties, our imaginations too must be trained and conformed regularly (II Cor. 10:5, Rom. 12:2), for these are certainly sanctified by God along with everything else He has immersed in His efficacious Word. The best way to train our imaginations is through studying His Word; the best way to have them tested is by engaging theology. Lewis noted in “On the Reading of Old Books” that he preferred doctrinal books to devotional books such as Kempis’s On the Imitation of Christ. He added, “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. Our Father of heavenly lights has gifted ‘Story’ to us to aid us in this.

We know that God has sanctified the use of imagination for theological study because of the vivid imagery and various narrative structures contained in Scripture, intended to captivate our minds and work our imaginations. And we know that stories — fiction as much as non-fiction — are sanctified by God to convey His theological treasures because our LORD used them often as part of His discourses and preaching; we know them as parables.

Writing on Giertz’s The Hammer of God, Dr Veith says in his “Fiction as an Instrument of the Gospel”:

What Bo Giertz does is explore that Gospel and the false theologies that obscure it by bringing them down to earth, showing what difference they make in the lives of ordinary human beings. He shows ‘tortured souls’ — often made such by the legalistic religiosity they embrace — how the Gospel of Christ is the ‘medicine’ that alone can heal them. He works not with abstract propositions but with concrete individuals and situations. He makes the case for orthodox evangelical Christianity not by setting forth an intellectual argument, but by writing a novel.

Fantasy, the Ally of Reason

The popular online resource, Wikipedia, defines fantasy as a sub-genre that predominantly “uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme or setting.” The site defines the supernatural, often a key element of fantasy, as “being incapable to be explained by science or the laws of nature, characteristic or relating to ghosts, gods or other supernatural beings, or to appear beyond nature.” Most telling, is that the modern world has placed fantasy, along with science-fiction and macabre (i.e. horror) within a broader genre known as speculative fiction. The term has late nineteenth century roots, but did not enter the literary community lexicon until the late 1940s by way of science-fiction legend, Robert A. Heinlein. Its use was established less than a score of years later by anti-establishment Authors; speculative fiction was initially a term synonymous with science-fiction before other sub-genres were included. Why might this have occurred? Perhaps the Wikipedia entry on the topic provides the best answer, describing the genre as “a broad category of narrative fiction that includes elements, settings and characters created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life.”

Whatever our feelings about Wikipedia, it is oft-used due to its convenient and widespread  accessibility, and thus can be a formidable obstacle towards defining a term or subject. The implication here is that because something is imaginative, it thus has to be something fictitious — and not just this, but something unrealistic, even unhistorical. We cannot assume that the average person knows that the imagination is not exclusive to fiction settings, or that what is considered “fantastical” need not be an element or an event that “strays strongly from reality.” If Christians agree to this definition, then how much of our theology has just been placed into the realm of speculative fiction? Indeed, this is an argument that none too few non-believers make against the Faith regularly, be they readers of fiction or not.

Perhaps if the point of placing theology into story was to convert, we should be wringing our hands. And yet, our LORD did not do this when the people listening to Him would not understand His parables, or when the Pharisees deliberately hardened their hearts against the them. Truly, these actions were spoken of by the prophet Isaiah (6:9-10), and repeated by Jesus when his disciples asked why He spoke in parables.

Dr Veith, summarising Thom Parham (a screenwriter and movie scholar) in his Giertz essay, points out that Art “communicates by means of symbol, metaphor, and other tangible images rather than just abstract propositions. The theme of a work of art is suggestive — rather than a message that hits the viewer (or reader) over the head — and it partakes of mystery.”

So if Story partakes of mystery, how much more so Story that intends to engage and connect the reader to the mysteries inherent to Christian theology. And if Christ allowed His stories to winnow the fields , then how much more should we be strengthened to focus on the matter of Story, while prayerfully allowing God to use Story to work according to His will.

Not only does Fantasy give numinous mystery a wide berth as no other type of fiction can (or will), it does so in a manner that also supports (indeed, hones) rational thought, while both in turn serve to edify faith as one studies theology. “The creation of a good fantasy writer pays homage to the creation of God,” says Dr Veith in Reading Between the Lines, “and increases our perception and our love for the mysterious reality that God has made up.” 

Tolkien and Lewis (after his conversion) were passionate about Fantasy (i.e. “fairy-story”) working hand-in-hand with reason. Lewis sets the table for us on the relationship of these two towards the end of his essay, “Bluspels and Flalansferes”: “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” And earlier, in that same piece, “For all of us there are things which we cannot fully understand at all, but of which we can get a faint inkling by means of metaphor.” Here, we may, for the sake of this writing, equate Lewis’s invocation of “metaphor” with Story, which by extension, of course, includes Fantasy.

Speaking of Fantasy specifically, Tolkien wrote in his famous essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, “Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”

Josh Radke is a seminarian at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ont.) and a student in the Bachelor of Divinity international programme at the University of London. He is also the Author of Stitched Crosses: Crusade (with more to come!).

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