“I just saw the story my son wrote for your creative writing class. It’s about a dragon. I read the story, and I’m angry, but what upsets me the most are the comments you wrote on the paper. Let me read them to you: ‘Excellent story, John! This is exactly what I hoped you would do!’ What were you thinking?”
“It was a really great story,” I replied, “probably the best thing he’s written all year. He got an A.”
“I don’t care about the grade. What I care about is that you encouraged my child to write fantasy, which I do not allow in my house.”
“Did you actually read the story?” I asked. “John came to see me several times because he couldn’t think of anything to write about. I encouraged him to express his feelings in the way that made the most sense to him. While his main character is definitely a dragon, that’s not what the story is really about. It’s about how John thinks of himself in relation to his parents and his friends. My comments referred to this: In the story I saw John telling the world, probably for the first time, who he really is.”
“Dragons are evil.”
“Dragons are in the Bible,” I countered.
“Only in Daniel and Revelation, and even there, they refer to the devil. I’m very disappointed that you allowed and encouraged a Christian boy to write fantasy. I don’t allow any of that in my house. If he’s going to write anymore, he needs to find a different way of expressing himself that conforms to our beliefs. Christians don’t write things like that.”
For many Christians, the creative universe is limited to writing only about actual events and situations that could happen in real life. Anything else (especially fantasy) is sinful. But I think this attack against the fantasy genre is misplaced because conservative Christians have already created their own fantasy world that’s alive and well in church publications, worship services, personal testimonies, and the stories we tell other people and ourselves.
In case you haven’t noticed it, let me explain what this Christian fantasy universe looks like:
- Every family has a mom and dad who are happily married.
- If a family only has one parent, it’s because the other died before the story began. In this case, the perfect replacement mother or father figure will miraculously appear by the end of the story, thereby restoring domestic bliss.
- The family has worship together every night. Each child, regardless of age, hangs on every word from the Bible as the father reads it aloud. Every verse read is immediately applicable to a life situation plus-or-minus twenty-four hours from said reading. The family engages in long, spiritual discussions which wrap up with everyone agreeing on all the issues and praying together.
- The family recognizes how “different” they are from the rest of society and praises God for all the persecution they suffer because of their beliefs. They have superior knowledge to the rest of the world and regard those who don’t have this knowledge with pity.
- Whenever someone has a question, someone else has the answer and the perfect Bible verse to guide that person to the correct response.
- If something bad happens in the story, the spiritual reason is apparent, usually immediately. For example, if someone dies, it’s because God allowed him or her to die knowing the person would “stray” if allowed to live. If someone loses a job, it’s because God has a better one coming. If someone is sick, it’s so that person can draw closer to Jesus or grieving family members can finally be converted.
- “Bad” things are only done by the obviously evil, heathen characters. The good characters are blameless.
- Anyone suffering from illness, disability, or other chronic health problems is portrayed, regardless of age, as Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol who is always cheerful and never complains. Mental illness is not mentioned because it doesn’t exist.
- Gender roles for men and women are clear and always follow the same path. Any Christian male, regardless of personality, will become a great spiritual leader. Any woman (regardless of spunk, leadership ability, or intelligence) eventually becomes meek, submissive, and married—or meek, submissive, and a missionary spinster.
- Prayers are answered in obvious ways. God speaks clearly to our heroes when they most need to hear Him and He says exactly what they want to hear.
- Any black sheep of the family eventually find Jesus and assimilates back into the perfect family model, usually to become a missionary or evangelist.
- Everyone lives in a G-rated environment. All characters live in worlds where nothing frightening, disturbing, drug- or addiction-related, sexual, violent, or adult-in-nature happens. It’s a safe place where everyone feels comfortable.
I could go on. While not all these elements show up in every Christian fantasy, I’ve read plenty of Christian books and seen plenty of Christian movies that live squarely in this universe. But this construct is just as much a fantasy world as the one inhabited by elves, wizards, and dragons that many Christians condemn.
In the real world, families have problems—lots of problems. Racial and gender prejudices exist in homes, neighborhoods, and churches. The people we love don’t always love Jesus. We all have questions but rarely have answers. Bad things happen—in our homes and in our churches—and the explanations people offer us make no sense. Sometimes we long to hear God’s voice, but we can’t. The real, adult world is often an R-rated environment with language, situations, and violence that aren’t suited for any audience.
The Bible does nothing to support this fantasy world. In fact, it debunks it in the first four chapters. Adam and Eve start having marital problems the moment they eat the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:7-13). Their first son Cain killed their second son Abel (Genesis 4:8). Think about that—one brother murders the other while the Garden of Eden and the angel guarding it are still visible (Genesis 3:24). And you think your family has problems!
Jesus wasn’t born into this fantasy Christian family either. As a baby he narrowly escaped being a victim of mass infanticide. His older** brothers disagreed with him and called him out in public (Matthew 12:46-50). His cousin was executed by the state (Matthew 14:1-12). The prominent religious leaders of the church he attended publicly challenged him on a regular basis, plotted how to have him killed (Mark 14:1-2), and eventually had him executed as well.
Yet, publishers keep spitting out book after book that supports this Christian fantasy world because we keep buying into it. We want it to be true. We want life to work that way.
What’s more dangerous: Writing about a dragon to symbolically express real-life struggles or pretending we live perfect lives in an insulated, fictional Christian world? Reading Harry Potter or focusing all our efforts on looking like a Christian despite what’s in our hearts?
I think about my student John sometimes and wonder what happened to him. I know from what he shared with me that his family life was challenging. I know he felt constrained by the life he was supposed to project to the world versus the way he felt inside. I know he felt like his parents didn’t understand. I also know he was a talented, creative individual who enriched my life and taught me about how much God values every individual.
I hope John is still writing or creating in some way. I even hope he’s writing about dragons because using that symbol may be the only way he can break out of the fantasy world many of us think we should be living in and start living in the real world where God is still speaking and working.
I think about John’s father too. I don’t care if he ever approves of dragons. But I do hope that before he condemns anyone else’s fantastical creative efforts that he checks to see if he’s hiding in a fantasy world of his own.
*Names and details have been changed to protect identities, but the conversation really happened.
**Thanks to the readers who have questioned this. While we know from the Bible that Jesus did have brothers (one of whom was named James [see Galatians 1:18]), I based my use of the word "older" on Biblical commentators I have read. However, since this is debatable and cannot be proven with a Bible verse, I should have left the word "older" out.