What’s Wrong with Un-Christian Fantasy for Young Readers?

“Of course there must be lots of Magic in the world,” he said wisely one day, “but people don’t know what it is like or how to make it. Perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen …”
—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911)1

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
James 1:17

Visit the young readers’ section of your local bookstore, and you’ll probably be amazed by the plethora of fantasies. There are still plenty of more or less “realistic” novels, mainly dealing with sexual issues and assorted teenage angst; but it certainly looks like fantasy is king in this market.

In this sea of fantasy, islands of Christianity are few and far between. This seems strange when you consider that among the most famous young readers’ fantasies are those written by C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings), which are widely—we cannot say universally—recognized as “Christian fantasies” written by “Christian writers.”

But the bulk of it is anything but Christian. Whether the fantasy world described in a novel is openly antagonistic to God and His Word, or simply oblivious to Him, some of these books are bound to fall into young Christian readers’ hands. The booming popularity of fantasy practically guarantees it.

What’s wrong with un-Christian fantasy? How, if you deem it necessary, might you convince your twelve-year-old to stay away from it—or at least equip him to recognize its faults? And given the powerful allure of imaginative fiction, is it possible to offer your child “Christian fantasy” in its place?

Fantasy Families Even Christians, in our deeply secularized society, have been taught to compartmentalize their lives, creating many tidy little areas in which they find no place for God. A few have boiled it down to the point where the only compartment left for God is in the church on Sunday morning. And for many, “entertainment” and “recreation” have become God-free zones, as typified by remarks like, “Heck, it’s only a movie.”

Bearing this in mind, let’s look at some of the features that most of today’s young readers’ fantasies have in common.

1. The protagonists of these stories are teens or children, and they almost always have disturbed family situations.

To some extent, this is hard to avoid. To make a young teen the hero of a story, he or she must be able to act independently of his family, especially the parents. Normal parents can’t be expected to allow their children to go out on life-threatening adventures. The author must somehow get around that obstacle.

But in most fantasies, the authors resort to demeaning the protagonists’ families. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—the best-selling fiction series of all time2—Harry’s parents are dead and he lives with his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. Rowling depicts them as hopelessly stupid, ignorant, incompetent, and ineffectual, not to mention bigoted. Living at the Hogwarts School of Magic for most of the year, Harry isn’t seriously inconvenienced by his foster parents. On those rare occasions when they have the opportunity to interfere with his activities, he easily outsmarts them.

The hero of Tunnels, a new book by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, lives with a “rather strange and dysfunctional family,” according to a review in teenreads.com,3 featuring a mother who’s a TV zombie and “a kind but spacey father.” Gossamer, by Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry, centers on a boy who has been “uprooted from his abusive home,”4 while the hero of Philip Womack’s The Other Book is out from under his family because he lives at “a strict boarding school” that used to be a medieval manor until it was destroyed by another boy’s “power-mad father.”5 And let’s not leave out the gem of them all, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in which the heroine’s mother and father can’t seem to make up their minds whether to kill her or protect her: they are a pair of highly volatile characters.6

Providing the young protagonist with the freedom to undertake a death-defying quest is dictated by the needs of the story; but these authors go farther than they have to in order to accomplish this. We are left with a gallery of autonomous, powerful children—a frightening thought. An author who has written “Christian fantasy” comments:

To me, the most corrupting idea—and one that is really fostered today—is the notion that the universe revolves around you, the individual. This form of self-centered narcissism is rampant throughout our culture, and it is basically the original Satanic pride. Those who see themselves as gods cannot bring themselves to kneel before Jesus Christ, because to do so is to violate their core self-image. Hedonism, sexual abuse, greed and even violence stem from the belief that your momentary desire is the only thing that truly matters.7 We see quite a lot of this in un-Christian fantasy.

Power Apart from God 2. Magical power (or any kind of power) exists apart from the will of a sovereign God and can be exercised by anyone who learns its secrets.

Here most fantasy makes a radical departure from the Bible. St. Paul’s teaching, “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1), has made no impression on these authors.

In His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman endows certain man-made objects with awesome powers—a “golden compass,” a “subtle knife,” and an “amber spyglass.” Wielding these artifacts, a boy and a girl can divine “the truth,” open up passages to parallel universes, and probe the innermost secrets of the cosmos. Although made by man, these gadgets have an agenda of their own—nothing less than rebellion against God, who, in Pullman’s view, never created anything. If this sounds like idolatry to you, give yourself an “A” for discernment.

To a medieval man, an ordinary flashlight would have seemed like magic: he would have either feared it or coveted it, or both. But we know a flashlight isn’t magic. It’s just a rational application of discoverable, understandable elements and principles built into the universe by God when He created it.

“Magic” in fantasy usually involves a supernatural application of power. Magic circumvents the laws of nature and allows the mortal human being who uses it to function as a god. This is why some Christian thinkers have always been averse to fantasy.

“When men forsake God, fantasy replaces reality,” R. J. Rushdoony writes. “Imagination here includes rational thought which is apostate and hence guilty of fantasy because it begins with man rather than God … whereby man acts on the belief that sin can succeed and that God can be mocked. It included also the dangerous realm of fantasizing and reshaping the world after our imagination, which is what all sin attempts to do.”8

Rushdoony is not suggesting that we should never use our imaginations. He isn’t even saying we shouldn’t write or read fiction. The real danger here is magic as a replacement for God and magical thinking that makes man his own god.

Worlds without God 3. There is no God active in the fantasy world.

As much as Harry Potter fans may argue that J. K. Rowling’s viewpoint is “basically Christian,” nowhere in these books does the author or any of her characters give God the glory or acknowledge that their magical power comes from Him.

A fantasy writer might have depicted it as a great feat of “magic” when Moses struck the rock with his staff and out poured a cascade of clean, fresh, badly needed water. When he did so, Moses said, “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10).

But of course it was God, not Moses, who produced the water; and Moses sinned by speaking as if he were a magician. God punished him for it by not allowing him to cross over into the Promised Land.

His Dark Materials is unusual in being a three-volume rant against God. The usual practice is simply to ignore God. In this, fantasy novels resemble virtually everything else in our culture that falls into the category of “entertainment.” And in this, “entertainment” resembles much of our business, our politics, our interpersonal transactions. A secularized society produces not only un-Christian fantasy novels, but un-Christian thought and action in every sphere of life.

4. There is no immutable moral law in the fantasy world: the characters determine good and evil for themselves.

If there is no God, there simply can’t be an immutable and transcendent moral law. The presence of such laws implies the existence of God, for such laws can only proceed from Him.

Philip Pullman comes closest to taking this to its logical conclusion. His protagonists are free to lie, cheat, or steal whenever they think it necessary. Harry Potter and his sidekicks are a little better behaved—although the last time I read a Harry Potter book, the only way I could tell which characters were supposed to be the good guys and which were supposed to be the villains was by the author’s identifying them as such.

Where, in the fantasy world, do good and evil come from, if not from God? In Lois Lowry’s Gossamer, for instance, they come from magical entities who determine the content of sleeping humans’ dreams:

“Finally, Littlest One and Thin Elderly infuse John’s and the woman’s dreams with enough peace, love, and positive energy to enrich their souls and ward off negative thoughts, and the result is pure magic.”9

Christians think you get those benefits from prayer, study of the Scriptures, sound and godly preaching, and communion with the Holy Spirit. But in most fantasy worlds, there’s no God to pray to.

There’s one more problem with all this fantasy, analyzed ably by Greg Clarke in The Theologian:

It seems to me that a real evil in all this is found outside the books themselves. The merchandising these days surrounding any children’s entertainment is overwhelming … [I]t is in this area that harm may be done. Some of the games and toys push the magical dimension of Harry Potter beyond the story and into the everyday activities of children … They bring activities such as spell-casting and alchemy into the realm of play in a manner that might encourage some children to look further into such activities … It might be introducing some strange ideas about how the world operates that may be hard to shake in later life.10 Linda Harvey, of Mission America, takes the criticism farther than that. Her newly published book, Not My Child, blames the proliferation of occult-laden fantasy (among other causes) for an “explosion of radical pagan practices … among American children.”11

So we are talking about books—and their spin-offs in the form of movies, video games, toys, etc.—that offer young readers a worldview minus God and with parental authority removed from the equation, and a vision of children, who often feel (and, with good reason, are) powerless, wielding awesome magical powers.

Is this really what we want Christian children to be reading?

Christian Fantasy Theodore Beale has written a Christian fantasy trilogy featuring “Eternal Warriors” participating in “The War in Heaven.” In an interview with WorldNetDaily, Beale tried to define Christian fantasy:

“Christian fantasy is fantasy fiction written from a worldview constructed around the idea that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of humanity, and is built from the premise that the universe generally operates as it is described in the Bible. Christianity is the starting point, and it lays the basic guidelines for the setting, but it does not dictate the direction in which the tale is told.”12

C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, seven books written from 1950–1956, are still the most famous and widely read “Christian fantasy” for young readers. It must be pointed out that even in these, some Christians may find problems. For instance:

“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato, bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”13

Many of us do not want to get all that close to Plato, a pagan philosopher with a pagan point of view. Nevertheless, we will use some examples from Narnia, and from J. R. R. Tolkien’s works, too, to show how Christian fantasy ought to differ from un-Christian fantasy.

1. Families should be at least normal, if not conspicuously loving and wholesome.

It will still be necessary for the Christian fantasy writer to put the young protagonists into situations in which they must act—but not as autonomous agents.

In the Narnia books, the children are separated from their parents by circumstances beyond their control; and when they arrive in the fantasy world of Narnia, they are anything but autonomous.

Instead, they are assigned missions by the Great Lion, Aslan—whom Lewis quite clearly identifies with Christ Himself. Those who deny this are being deliberately obtuse. The children have been removed from their parents’ jurisdiction, but they remain under Christ’s.

2. There should either be no “magic” at all in a Christian fantasy (in the usual sense of the word); or else whatever “magic” we find in the story is exercised by God Himself or by a deputy to whom He expressly delegates the power.

We come back to Moses, who “did” many things that looked like magic (especially to the pagan Egyptians). In reality, all Moses did was to proclaim the power of God. It was God who put the plagues on Egypt, parted the Red Sea, sent manna down from heaven, and all the rest.

There are two kinds of “magic” in Narnia. There is the “deep magic,” which God has built into creation itself, and which Aslan as the Son of God has authority to use. And there is a lower kind, an evil kind of magic, which can be used by the White Witch and her avatars (which are not human) for evil purposes. Aslan can undo the Witch’s magic, but she can’t undo his. And on those rare occasions when mortal human beings attempt to use magic independently (see the example of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew), they can’t control it and they inevitably come to grief.

3. Even if God is not expressly mentioned in the story (and it’s probably better that He should be), His existence and His lordship are implicit in the story.

This is how Tolkien is identified as a Christian writer. He never mentions God in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings (he does in The Silmarillion), but God is seen as implicit in the story.

The good wizard, Gandalf, safely wields very powerful “magic.” He can because he is a servant of God, who has given him the power. But the one-time greater wizard, Saruman, rebels against God and tries to set himself up as an independent power in the world. Saruman’s humanistic use of magic turns out to be a poor, weak thing, totally unable to support his ambitions.

In Tolkien’s tales the weak overthrow the strong, the foolish confound the wise, and even “base things of the world, and things which are despised” (1 Cor. 1:28)—like the wretched Gollum—become powerful weapons in God’s service. One might very easily see in The Lord of the Rings a novelistic presentation of the first chapter of First Corinthians.

4. In any Christian fantasy, there must be immutable moral law, which the characters only break at their peril.

In Lewis’ stories, Aslan must always be obeyed; promises must be kept; lying, cheating, stealing, and murder are never options open to the protagonists; and the obligations of kinship and friendship must be honored. So, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children have to help their cousin Eustace when he’s turned into a dragon, even though he’s an obnoxious little twerp who’s no use to anybody; and it’s a good thing they do, because after he repents, Aslan heals him and he’s able to take his place beside the others.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo cheats—to save his life—in a riddle contest with the evil Gollum. The toxic moral effects of this cheating come back to haunt the protagonist and continue to ripple outward in The Lord of the Rings. In the latter, the hero Boromir surrenders to the temptation to do evil in a good cause, and almost brings that good cause to total ruin. By contrast, Philip Pullman’s young protagonists get ahead in life by lying and cheating: his ethic is purely situational.

Conclusion Is it possible to write fantasy in which God the Father (or Christ the Son) is the sovereign Lord who must be obeyed? In which the family is a source of strength for the characters, and not a source of shame or weakness? In which “magic” is dispensed with altogether, or else revealed as just another aspect of God’s power? In which blessings fall on those who keep God’s law, and curses on those who don’t?

Lewis, Tolkien, and a few others have already made strides in that direction. As long as there is a demand for young readers’ fantasy (“It’s good because it makes children want to read” has always been a Harry Potter selling point), it would seem that there is a need for Christian writers to provide fantasy that is God-honoring, Christ-centered, and profitable to the development of the young reader’s Christian worldview.

1. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004), 221. Originally published in 1911, this classic children’s fantasy shows that “magic” has long been included in the picture.

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

3. http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/9780439871778.asp. “Teenreads” provides reviews, descriptions, and synopses of dozens of new releases: an excellent resource.

4. http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/9780385734165.asp

5. http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/9781599902012.asp

6. See Chalcedon’s review of this trilogy, http://chalcedon.edu/articles/article.php?ArticleID=2811.

7. Theodore Beale, http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33951.

8. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 2 (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1982; 2001 edition), 546–547.

9. http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/9780385734165.asp

10. http://www.theologian.org.uk/pastoralia/potter.html

11. Linda Harvey, Not My Child (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2008), 7.

12. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33951

13. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 edition), 759.

18 comments on “What’s Wrong with Un-Christian Fantasy for Young Readers?

  1. Indeed… because sheltering our children from the world is the best way to equip them to do Christ’s work in it. Because something can only be good if it’s written by a Christian or has some kind of “Christ-centered” theme. What total rubbish. I imagine you are a strong supporter of homeschooling because children could hear the word “evolution” at public school (gasp!).

    A sad, ignorant and bigoted article. But nice try.

    1. I’m leaving this comment here for a while as an exhibition piece. It’s a wonderful example of what we’re up against.
      Note the writer’s sense of entitlement. He comes onto what is obviously a Christian blog and feels perfectly free to insult Christians in general and homeschooling Christians in particular, and finish up by calling me names. Nice manners, eh? I’m afraid if I were to invite him into my living room, he’d pee on the carpet.
      He’s so anxious to defend “evolution” that the point of my article went right over his head: but it never occurs to him that he might have missed something. No one, myself included, has said “something can only be good if it’s written by a Christian,” etc. This person is simply unable to understand what he is reading.
      The combination of ignorance, close-mindedness, and mere bad manners is so typical of secularists as to make one wonder if they aren’t all the same person just using a lot of different names on the Internet.

    2. I agree. In addition, one should never criticize another for something you suppose them to be.
      I imagine you are a strong supporter of homeschooling because children could hear the word “evolution” at public school (gasp!).

    3. Hi, Benaiah, welcome to my blog–your raft of comments is welcome, too. I won’t have time to reply to all of them tonight, but I did want to get started. So…
      As it turns out, I am indeed a strong supporter of homeschooling, and have been for years. If I had school-age children, they would go to public school over my dead body. Not just to protect them from the pseudoscience of evolution, but mainly to avoid plunging them into an environment of radical godlessness–and when I talk about schools, believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I was a teacher, and I’ve seen it all. People literally will not believe the things that the teachers’ unions are cooking up for America’s children–they just refuse to believe it, even when presented with the facts and the statements out of the educators’ own mouths. Because if they did believe it, they couldn’t possibly justify leaving their kids in those schools.

    4. I am sure you are a proponent of homeschooling – I am a homeschooled student myself. My point was rather that he should not have criticized you for something he did not know – he clearly did not actually know that you were a proponent of homeschooling, just “imagined” it.

    5. No, golgothelion. We prefer homeschools to the schools that turn out people with the same unprincipled fantasies as yours. Your comment proves that evolution does not exist because you yourself have not evolved! So, troll along little doggy. Your bark does not penetrate those of us with ears that hear.

  2. “There are still plenty of more or less “realistic” novels, mainly dealing with sexual issues and assorted teenage angst</strong<; but it certainly looks like fantasy is king in this market."
    Sadly enough, much, if not most, of fantasy has the same theme as the realistic novels.

    “His Dark Materials is unusual in being a three-volume rant against God. The usual practice is simply to ignore God.”
    You may be interested in listening to the song “Dear God” by XTC. The rebellion comes through both in the lyrics and, interestingly, in the music itself. You can find a YouTube version with lyrics here.

  3. Actually, I am neither a secularist nor close-minded. I am a Christian, though I am not of the ignorant fundamentalist breed you are used to.

    I am also a teacher. I’ve taught in both public and private christian schools for twenty years, and you outlook on the godlessness of public schools is laughably paranoid. I realize, however, that some one of your age and mindset is unlikely to change their opinion about anything, especially on his own blog in front of his own fanclub, and so I will refrain from visiting this landfill of a blog again. Thank you, though, for this most riveting exchange…

    1. You have lost all semblance of belief and of being believed with your statement that “..the godlessness of public schools is laughably paranoid.” God was taken OUT of public schools, in which apparently you weren’t teaching, failed to notice or just don’t care. How does a self-proclaimed “Christian” not know that? Because you are not!

  4. I’m 17 years old and I’m a home schooled Christian. I went to public school for some time and I agree with you that it is not a healthy environment for a young person. It was one of the reasons I stopped going. My mother now teaches me and my 4 siblings here at home. The real reason I got onto this sight was to see your opinion on magic in fantasy books. I like reading Christian fantasy but it’s getting harder to find any without magic in them. Do you have any Christian fantasy books you recommend?

    1. Well, yes, Elly, as a matter of fact, I do–mine. In the world of my Bell Mountain books, I allow only what the Bible allows. If you explore this site farther, and read the articles on my books and on fantasy in general, you’ll get a feel for how I’ve been able to accomplish this. No one in the Bible is shown actually practicing magic (although there are characters who falsely claim to be able to do it), and that’s the pattern I have followed in my own books.

      One of the visitors to this site, Laura Andrews, is just a little older than you and has her own blog. You ought to get in touch with her: she knows the current fantasy market better than I do, and I’ll bet she can direct you to some books you’ll like.

  5. My main problem with public school is that, even though I’ve never gone, I’d be picked on something awful. I’m just that weirdo kind of person, you know? The one who knits, carries around large threatening knitting needles, eats noodles without cooking them because ‘I think they taste good’, watches black and white TV shows, is a hardcore Trekkie/Potterhead carries books around everywhere, watched documentaries on quantum physics for fun in the seventh grade, and enjoys my status as different immensely. Even in the Christian schools I’ve gone to, the minimal amount of bullying that goes on is usually directed at me.
    In the above paragraph, I did mention that I am a fan of Harry Potter. Though I do feel that most concerns about the series are quite legitimate, I am of the opinion that, in most cases, the issue of whether or not to read it may not be as obvious to some people as it is to others–in other words, it’s up to people to discern what would damage their own spiritual life. Obviously, some things are definitely not for Christians (NC-17, etc.), but there are some things that are generally controversial and up for personal judgment.
    I’m not sure that I share your opinion that a Christ-like figure be obvious in the book. When something like that happens, I, as a teenager, feel a bit like I’m getting preached to. (that’s partly why I don’t read chick tracts). I’m sure that will change in time, but generally, teenagers just don’t like that: I am no different.
    I do agree that it is important to, when writing remember that there is a higher power in the universe which I’m describing–remembering that intelligent design was a big part. This can be a bit harder, as I tend to want to write sci-fi, which of course involves alien cultures.
    I tend to be a bit more of a ‘liberal Christian’, per se, and I’ve read a lot of the fantasy out there. It’s quite correct to say that a minimal amount praise God, but also that a minimal amount actively bash God. I mean, there is usually one or two characters who just don’t acknowledge higher powers, but that doesn’t always mean that it’s the attitude of the whole book.
    To be honest, my biggest problem with everything is sex. Violence and disobedient children aren’t really something I pay a lot of attention to, but I really dislike sex scenes: it’s why I don’t read a lot of thrillers.
    Thanks for the interesting article!

    1. I am sure I never said a fantasy ought to include a “Christ-like figure.” Most of the time that wouldn’t work at all.

      I promise you there are no sex scenes in any of my Bell Mountain books.

  6. I wonder what you would make of the Oz books — not just the original one, which was adapted for the movie, but all of L. Frank Baum’s series. There’s no reference to God, but there’s definitely a distinction between good and evil, including good and evil uses of magic. Families are generally strong ones, and often a villain is converted to goodness instead of merely being punished. I still re-read all the books — but not the later sequels by other authors, which never quite captured either the charm or the essential ideas of Baum’s Oz — and I still find them morally positive. But I must admit that after I became a Christian, I couldn’t help wondering where God was in all of this, and I’m sometimes uneasy about the occasional reference to seemingly quasi-pagan forces on the side of good.

    Any ideas on the subject?

    1. Phoebe, I haven’t read those books since I was, oh, 12 years old at the most. At the time I enjoyed them very much. I’d like to revisit them and see what I make of them now.

  7. Fantasy is a product of imagination, and imagination is important. As I child I flew airplanes, operated bulldozers, drove semis, and played guitar like Chet Atkins. Every one of these things carried forward into my adult life in one way or another, at least as influences or interests. Imagination is important.

    We have to remember the context of all this as well, we live in a fallen world. Battles of good vs. evil can only occur while mankind is alienated from God. Most fantasies revolve around good overcoming evil, frequently against great odds. It would be possible to write fantasies about exploration or other enormous undertakings, which do not require antagonists but the time tested formula of good vs. evil, protagonist vs. antagonist has a long track record of success.

    I thing that it’s key for any fantasy desiring to be Christian to remain oriented as regards good and evil. In our world, people protest all sorts of perceived sources of evil, but in the realm of Christianity there is one source of evil and one source of goodness, period. If something supernatural happens it should be very clear just what the source of the evil is. Frankly, I don’t think that magic (not illusions or trickery) has a place in Christian literature. If it exposes trickery for what it is, all the better. If the forces of evil employ magic, it needs to be shown up. Remember the ten plagues and Pharaoh’s priests not being able to match Moses.

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