Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why Fantasy is a Good Thing: A Response to John MacArthur

In his sermon from John 11:1-16 entitled A Death for the Glory of God John Macarthur stated the following:
There were no special effects.  How do you compare that with Harry Potter, flying witches, angels, vampires, transformers, aliens who constantly defy natural law, time travelers, people who morph into some other entity, displaying supernatural powers?  So what’s the big deal about a resurrection in a village in Israel 2,000 years ago?  Again, this is Satan’s successful effort at confusing people about the miraculous and confusing them about reality, and Satan is very adept at this.  
He then adds:
By the way, as a footnote, Jesus told stories.  He made up stories.  They’re called parables.  He invented them.  Not one parable Jesus ever created is a fantasy.  It has no components of fantasy. 
All His stories are in the real world, real people, real things, real issues, real relationships.  He never used fantasy to articular a spiritual truth, never.  You’re not going to find things like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in Scripture.  You’re not going to find them in the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus never moved into the world of fantasy, but the closest He came as His depiction of the real world when He talked about the rich man in torment and Lazarus in the presence of God.  But Jesus didn’t use fantasy.  He used reality to communicate reality. 
It is rare that I say this but  I disagree with John MacArthur whole-heartily. As a Christian pastor I regularly encourage members in my church and in my own family to invest in the fantastical writings of men like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

This issue illustrate one main criticism I have for John MacArthur. He is a man who lives in a very black-and-white world even when it comes to minor theology issues. Read enough of his books and listen to enough of his sermons and one will struggle mightily to find much ambiguity.

This has been a source of real strength for him which has allowed him to deal with central theological truths like the gospel (especially in the Lordship Salvation controversy), the Holy Spirit (especially in regards to the charismatic movement), the perspicuity of Scripture (in relation to its attack from the Emergent Church), etc.Yet on lesser issues (like the legitimacy of reading fantasy), MacArthur's strength becomes a real weakness. Is the issue raised above worth the time dedicated in a sermon on the resurrection of Lazarus?

This is not to say that I believe that such fantasy novels ought to replace a regular diet of Scripture. Certainly not. Nor do I believe that such stories are perfect parallels to the biblical narrative. On the contrary, such narratives help our imagination to better understand Scripture.  

Fantasy Can Be Abused

Before defending fantasy, we must be clear that some fantasy can be dangerous. Clearly the two key fantasy writers worth defending are Anglican Clive Staples Lewis and Roman Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien. Both men not only wrote major works of fantasy which remains beloved and influential today, but wrote significant articles on the subject. Most notable is Tolkien's essay On Fairy-Stories. There he warns:
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors' own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
Like everything else in the world, fantasy can (and often is) abused. Such forms of fantasy ought to be avoided or at least read with a critical ear. Christians should not defend such literature (whether fantasy, science fiction, or romance). The Christian should always be vigilant to live pure lives discerning what is good, beautiful, and true. Living in a fallen world should make this point assumed.

With that said, let us look at the issue at hand.

Fantasy Illustrates Vividly the Christian Worldview

This past winter, on a cold, snowy night I re-watched the most recent version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005). One often overlooked detail significant to the story regards the change of seasons upon the return of Aslan. Under the White Witches totalitarian thumb, Narnia is stuck in an endless cold winter (and never Christmas). Aslan's work (centered on his death and resurrection) overcomes the Witches winter with a warm spring.

This is a vivid way to summarize what Jesus means when early in Mark's Gospel Jesus states "Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'" (Mark 1:14-15). Christ arrives to take back what is his from "the god of this world." Fantasy portrays that in a way that a simple parable cannot.

Another example of the power of fantasy regards evil. Where does evil lie? Watch the typical Disney princess movie and one would think that the ultimate good is to "follow your heart" (I'm looking at you Ariel, Pocahontas, and Merida). In those stories, the protagonist defies her family (usually her father), sides with the antagonist (usually a witch of some sort) in order to follow their heart. The assumption is that evil is primarily external: like parents or any authority that limits personal autonomy.

Lewis and Tolkien tell a very different story. Tolkien is perhaps most illustrative here as the question of evil is a major subject in his fantasy. Evil is external in middle earth. Sauron, Sauronman, and Smaug are external enemies that must be defeated. Yet evil is not exclusively external; it is also internal. The reason no man can (or ever will) destroy the ring is because the ring of power reveals the true nature of the human heart. That is why it is providential that Bilbo found the ring in Gollum's "lair" (Gollum is himself an example of what uncontrolled lust personified in the ring does to us all). Finally, evil is systemic as well. The orcs chop down trees, destroy towns, and murder senselessly. Allies must rise up not just to destroy the ring or to defeat the Dark Lord, but also to overcome corrupt societies.

This is a much more robust (and biblical) understanding of evil in the world. Disney often provides a more simplistic theology of sin. Yet it is fantasy which, strangely enough, more strongly reflects reality. Evil is all around us. It is a good thing Aslan is not a tame lion after all!

It is here we should briefly step away from Lewis and Tolkien and look at another semi-fantasy novel: The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. Perhaps no other book (apart from the Bible itself, of course) has had greater influence on Christianity in the English-speaking world than this classic. No serious study of Charles Spurgeon, for example, can be undertaken without appreciating Bunyan's influence on Spurgeon throughout his ministry. 

Scripture Includes Semi-Fantasy Literature

Consider the following from Judges 9:7-15:
Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, “Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you. Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?’ 10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?’ 12 Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?’ 14 Finally all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come, reign over us!’ 15 The bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon.’
There are fantasy elements in this parable (most obvious is talking trees). MacArthur is right when he suggests that Jesus's parables were exclusively common, everyday experience, but that is not true with the rest of Scripture. The imagery in the prophets and in the apocalyptic passages utilize fantasy-like elements that it is wrong to suggest that Scripture forbids the genre.

Fantasy Reflect Reality

Consider the following from C. S. Lewis:
[The fairy tale] is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations. ("On Three Ways of Writing for Children")
As I suggested above, fantasy might include over-worldly characters and events (talking trees, elves, and fawns), good fantasy portrays reality in vivid ways. I agree with Lewis in the above.

Christianity Liberty Permits It

Ultimately, this issue ought to come down to Christianity liberty. I see no reason to condemn or ban fantasy literature as a whole as inappropriate or anti-Christian. MacArthur might be a "stronger" brother on this issue, but preaching against it as he did in the sermon above seems to violate Paul's words in the epistles on Christian liberty issues (like eating meat sacrificed to idols).

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” -CS Lewis,
Though I am in agreement with MacArthur on most of what he has to say, I do believe that Christians are not only free to enjoy good fantasy fiction, but ought to. There is something beautiful about a mother or father sitting at the foot of their child's bedside reading about Narnia - always winter and never Christmas - or the Shire.
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