Tuesday, May 19, 2020

In Christian Fantasy, How Far is Too Far?

   I love fantasy. A lot. Some of my favorite stories are fantasy stories: Ilyon Chronicles, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (no, Star Wars is not really science fiction, it is a space fantasy, and yes, I will die on this rock). Fantasy, however, can be a mixed bag, full of Lewis knockoffs, Tolkien knockoffs (I swear, if I see one more stuck up nature obsessed absolutely perfect elf race that is so much better than humans in every way, I will throw up), or Star Wars knockoffs. Sometimes if you're especially lucky, you'll find one that is all three at once (Eragon, anyone?). Christian fantasies done well can be world-changing (see stories mentioned above except Star Wars), but done badly can be super cringey. However, worse than bad writing is Christian fantasy that attempts to work in Christianity in some way, shape, or form, but does it in a way that misuses the Bible.

   There are many ways to incorporate the Christian faith in a fantasy novel, but there are three different ways that are by far the most common.

1. Transplant the Bible into your fantasy world
   This first option uses a fantasy world but just doesn't change anything about the Bible. Jesus is called Jesus, historical figures like Daniel, King David, and Moses are talked about, etc. This is the option in the type of fantasy referred to as Kingdom Adventure tales and in any fantasies set primarily or exclusively on Earth.

No messing with the Bible.
No grey areas.
No blurred lines.
No worries.

No magical powers. Obviously, if you're working with the rules of our world, you can't just throw magic in the mix and expect people to be okay with that. If you want something like magic anyway, you'd better have a science gobbledy-gook explanation to pass it off as superpowers or something. Use lots of Latin words and mention anatomy stuff like mitochondria and the blood-brain barrier. Leave no ambiguity. There can be no room in here for demons, because, sadly to say, in this world, there are real things like witches and mediums that aren't always just con artists. 
No races other than humans. Otherwise, your theology gets stretched and weird and it just doesn't work. Bryan Davis tried to put literal dragons in his modern fantasy set on Earth, and he still wanted his characters to go around quoting the Bible and converting people, so he wound up having an ordinary human-dragon kid traveling to literal Hades (which is different from Hell in his books) and becoming a literal Messiah to lead the dragons to redemption because the last Adam-first Adam thing means that Jesus died for the human race (see Answers in Genesis articles about aliens), and without this random half-dragon kid to die for them, the dragons would be stuck in Hades forever. Yeah. Best just to avoid the whole thing. If you still want other races, see the next option.
The more obvious it is that your world is not Earth or a fictional country on Earth (a la Wakanda), the more you stretch your readers' suspense of disbelief. If this is clearly a fantasy world, there needs to be a really good reason why they're using Earth's Bible. You get a little more leeway the younger your target audience is, but if your target audience is teens or up, this obvious break of suspension of disbelief can ruin a story for some readers. 

2. Lewis's Supposal
   Next, you have the Lewis route. That is, you have the Bible and the Christian faith in your world, but everything is called by different names. The Jesus figure might be a lion. Everything is adapted to fit the fantasy world, but it's still clearly the Christian faith.

You don't have to stretch readers' suspension of disbelief to the limit.
Your world can have different rules than our world, as long as you don't bump against solid theological rules.
More races! (Just please...no elves. I'm begging you! And if you have to have elves, please, for the love of all that is holy, don't portray them as perfect and more holy and just overall better than humans.)
Your story can be very powerful with this supposal
More freedom with world-building.

As many ways as there are to do this right, there are many more ways to do this wrong. This creates a whole lot of grey areas and blurred lines, and it's hard to know what's right and what's not. There are quite a lot of pitfalls you can fall into. However, if done right, this option can be the most fun.
The different terms for familiar things can get super clunky.
Sometimes, authors seem to forget that their fictional representation of the Bible is just that: fiction. Fantasy authors that choose this option sometimes write dedications and even write internet posts referring to God with their made-up fantasy name, and it's somewhat disturbing. We should never forget while writing fantasy like this that our fictional representation is just a fictional representation and should never start worshiping our idea of God rather than God Himself.

3. Nothing At All
   This option is kind of the opposite of the first one. In this option, you keep Christian morals in your story, but forego any references to the Christian faith except the extremely subtle ones. This is the option Tolkien used in Middle-Earth in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings*. 

None of the sticky situations present in the second options.
No deciding which rules are specific to Earth and which are fundamental to the Christian faith.
A little more leeway on magic.
Lots of freedom with world-building.
Reaches a wider audience.

No obvious Christian elements (prayer, conversion, Bible verses, etc.).
Christian themes have to be subtle.

*Silmarillion not included. I feel like it doesn't really count.

   Option Three is the easiest one to pull off in the world of fantasy. No skirting around rules or inventing weird theology is necessary, just general Christian themes. However, as much of this frees up storytelling options in some areas, it also limits them in others. Sometimes, and especially depending on the author, option one or option two is the best way to go. However, as I mentioned before, these can get into uncomfortable theological situations that can cross the line and even sometimes border on blasphemous. So, how far is too far? Of course, it's impossible to know for sure, but here are some situations that should probably be avoided in most circumstances.

1. Putting a supposal on Earth
   This may seem a little obvious, but I read a Christian fantasy where seven random Earth kids were put in sleeper pods for no apparent reason and survived a nuclear war. They woke up to a post-apocalyptic Earth that was basically just a fantasy world with "radiation" to explain all the changes, and promptly meet "Goel", who's basically just Jesus. It would have been a decent fantasy series if set in another world, but to have this church-going kid and his new friends to immediately believe this mysterious dude who claims to lead a religion or something and then immediately start spreading "Goel's truth" to the world without even once making the connection that this sounds suspiciously like Christianity (and, on that note, immediately abandoning their presumed Christian faith for this new religion) was just weird. Also, post-nuclear war, there was no reason for Jesus to suddenly start walking the Earth again, except going by a different name. Plus, the Bible isn't really mentioned at all post-nuclear war, and the world eventually ends, but doesn't follow really any of the apocalyptic prophecies in Revelation. Don't use this option on Earth. Just don't.

2. Having entire scenes set in literal Heaven or Hell
   For this one, there are definitely exceptions. Notable ones are The Last Battle and Dagger's Sleep. But here's a hint: if your characters wind up seeing the literal Lake of Fire as described in the Book of Revelation, you've probably gone too far (especially if you're not even portraying a world ending, the characters just take a merry trip to see their enemies thrown into the Lake of Fire). A general rule for this is to use it super sparingly. After all, Heaven is perfect, which means there's not much room for strife in anything set in Heaven. Also, Heaven is indescribable and incomprehensible for us that are still on Earth, so the more you describe it, the less impact it's going to have. Finally, don't have a scene in Heaven as a cheap cop-out because you want to make readers feel better about the fact that you killed all your characters at the end of your story. You're not going to be able to recreate The Last Battle. Just acknowledge that you are a morbid writer. It doesn't make us feel better that your fictional characters went to fictional Heaven. They all died horrible deaths.
   Hell. I feel like I shouldn't have to elaborate on this, but apparently some authors haven't realized this isn't okay. First of all, Hell is literally Hell and way too freaky in its reality for any book scene. Second, you're never going to properly recreate Hell. Third, Christian characters should never ever take a visit down to Hell no matter what. Born-again Christians can't go to Hell. Remember Jesus telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus and how there's a gulf between the two places and men that can never be crossed? Fourth and finally, fantasy is a completely different genre than Pilgrim's Progess and Dante's Inferno. Those books are religious allegories, in which the setting of Hell is more appropriate. In pretty much any other genre, it's not.

3. Having an angel as a member of the questing party
   It's best to avoid having angels as characters at all, not the least because of the dangers of deus ex machina, but having an angel just...tag along on the quest? As a side character? No. No, no, no. Angels are not made in the image of God and do not have souls. They are not basically people. What angels actually are is pretty incomprehensible to the human brain. And you definitely shouldn't have scenes from the point of view of the angel.

4. In fact, it's probably best to keep angels and demons out of your fantasy story as much as possible
   Especially demons, and especially in the spiritual warfare vein. Either they're not going to be realistic and you're going to misrepresent them, or they will be realistic, in which case you're going to bring a level of horror to the story that most fantasy readers don't want. In addition, having a demon as the main villain is a bad idea for multiple writing reasons: First of all, it's simply tacky. Second, while you may think it raises the tensions and story stakes, it actually lowers them. After all, it's obvious the demon has to lose. (Sauron doesn't really count. Not only is he not even Satan, the readers don't know that he's supposed to be a demon unless they've already read The Silmarillion or live with an uber Tolkien nerd, and I hold that The Silmarillion doesn't really count.)

5. NO Biblical fantasies
   This pretty much applies only to fantasies set on Earth. Historical fiction set in Bible times is really good if done well, but fantasy shouldn't touch Bible stories. Don't ever, ever add your own fantasy twist to an Earthen Bible story. Any time you do that, it borders on blasphemous. Plus, it's really easy to get details wrong, which just doesn't look good. For instance, while I really like the character of Elam in Bryan Davis's Oracles of Fire series, it really bugs me that he was supposed to be Shem's son Elam. See, Elam in the series was kidnapped, wound up immortal, and was trapped underground for over a thousand years. He was kidnapped at too young of an age to marry or have kids, and yet Elam, Shem's son, in real life gave rise to an entire nation of Elamites which lasted for thousands of years until finally being assimilated into the Assyrian Empire.

6. The character of the Jesus figure doesn't resemble Jesus in the Gospels
   This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if your fantasy has a representation of Jesus, then the Jesus figure should resemble Jesus. You don't have to try and represent every aspect of Jesus. That's impossible. But it should be fairly obvious to readers, if not to the character, that the fictional character is supposed to represent Jesus. If you can go two-and-a-half books without the readers being sure whether the character is a generic Chosen One or a representation of Jesus, there is something fundamentally wrong with your representation of Jesus.

7. Scenes from the POV of the character that represents Jesus
   Yes, I have actually seen this in a book. Sadly, it's from an author I actually really respect. Although, I'm not entirely certain, because it's also the situation in the last scenario. However, the fact that I've gone over two books without being able to tell whether Telwyn is supposed to be the Messiah or not is disturbing. He's not enough like Jesus character-wise to properly represent Him, but there are enough resemblances for Telwyn to not be appropriate if he's just a random Chosen One a la Anakin Skywalker. Please, don't ever, ever have scenes from the point of view of a character supposed to represent Jesus. It's just wrong.

What are your favorite and least favorite fantasy stories?

P.S. I don't hate every story with elves. I like Legolas and Farrandel, and their respective series. It does, however, take a lot to win me over.

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