Two Ways of Writing Christian Fantasy

You might think we’re living in an age remarkable for its low level of culture and thought. People on all sides of every ideological coin focus on the negative. Doom and gloom prophecies (of vastly different styles) sound loudly on every digital crossroads. And yet, if you tune out the noise, you’ll see a lot of interesting things happening.

One of them is a robust conversation about the role of the Christian artist in an increasingly un-Christian society. This conversation, by the way, is one that concerns everyone, not just the Christian author and reader.

The Christian Artist in an un-Christian Society

I’ve written before about what the bookstore owners call “Christian fantasy”. If you already don’t know, I go into detail in my writer’s manifesto. Though I risk generalization here, I will say that I tend to stay away from Christian fantasy, in spite of the fact that I’m a Christian. I tend to gravitate less toward writers who use their faith as a battle-cry, more toward those who let it infuse their worldview in subtle ways. Yes, I prefer Tolkien to Lewis for that reason.

I also really enjoy the criticism of people like Stephen Greydanus (film), Alissa Wilkinson (culture in general), and Jeffrey Overstreet, himself a published fantasy author. These Christian men and women of letters are sensitive to what is often called “faith-based” culture, which exists in its own ideological bubble, unaware of the real world. They often take Christian artists to task for not engaging in the culture in interesting and fruitful ways.

For such writers (myself included) there is, however, a subtle temptation to hide or downplay our own Christianity. Or at least as far as it concerns our art. The reasons are not that simple, either. Too often there’s a perception of Christianity as a system of prohibitions, not a way of life. And too often Christians themselves are guilty of perpetuating this false reality. Add to that the second-rate quality of much Christian fiction and film (God is Not Dead, anyone?).

Further complicating all this is the reality that no Christian can avoid. Our lives are, whether we like it or not, evangelical. We can’t just be writers and not Christians. We can’t in good conscience “cut out” our Christianity from our art, because Christianity is a worldview, a way of life, not an ideology. People judge everything we do and create through that prism, whether it’s fair or not.

But if there’s even a whiff of preachiness about your life or your fiction, then everyone tunes out. Or gets angry.
You see the dilemma, don’t you?

A light so lovely…

Madeleine L’Engle, herself a Christian who avoided the label “Christian writer,” put it very well in one of my favorite quotes of all time:

We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” (Walking on Water)

This is easily said, not so easily done. First of all, many people, especially nowadays, may wonder why it’s so necessary for Christians to draw people to Christ in the first place. Why can’t we just live and let live? And this is an important question for any Christian to consider. Too often we have an almost predatory attitude toward non-Christians, as though if only we were to convert them, we’d get some extra-special present.

There’s a degree of fear and insecurity in that sort of evangelization. Not surprisingly, it turns people off, and rightly so.

Plus, and this is the real kicker, many Christians don’t actually know this “light that is so lovely.” We haven’t experienced it. We may not even be looking for it. And how, then, can we ever dream of showing it to other people without any expectation on our part, simply as a gift to those we love?

Two Paths

So yes, being a Christian writer is an ethical choice that should involve constant self-improvement in the service of one’s art. Because who wouldn’t want to share a light so lovely that all people want, with all their hearts, to know the source of it? The how of this process is complicated and requires its own post (or book, or lifetime of study, or…)
For now, I’ll limit myself in considering two Christian fantasy authors who have both attempted this, but in different ways.

The Song of Albion

The first way is exemplified by Stephen R. Lawhead in his “Christian fantasy” series The Song of Albion. Without being warned of it in advance, you might never think this was a Christian fantasy at all. It’s set in what seems like a pre-Christian pagan version of the British Isles. But what it turns out to be is the realm of the fair folk, the Perilous Realm. And everything about it is infused with a Christian worldview. It has a palpable sense of divine grace running through the plot. The songs could almost be hymns. The wages of sin and the seeking (and cost) of virtue are central themes.

But it’s not really a Christian fantasy at all. It’s a gritty, beautiful, lyrical work of prose that everyone can enjoy (if you can stomach some pretty brutal violence, that is). It’s an honest look at human nature in all its glory and darkness, and it’s ultimately hopeful in its assessment of man. Finally, it has moments of sublime beauty that really do give the reader an inkling of a transcendent light behind the curtain. I’ve only read the first two of the series so far, but I would not hesitate to recommend it as good semi-historical fantasy fiction that competes with the best.

The second approach

C. J. Brightley, another talented author of fantasy, chose a different way. She wrote a surprisingly beautiful urban fantasy novel titled Things Unseen. Now, I don’t read urban fantasy. I don’t like it. I never would have even picked it up if I hadn’t read a snipped of chapter 1 at the end of another book entirely. But what I read captivated me.

The setting is dystopian in a creeping, dreadful way. There are hints of horrors that happen offstage. The main character is searching for some meaning in a world denuded of it. And she finds it in a very unexpected way–in the world of the Fae.
These Fair Folk are different from anything you’ve read. They’re more similar to vampires (which, it turns out, is not an accident). Still, they have a fascination to them that’s more earthy than sparkly. Though they live in a faded world, their song can recall the wonders of lost things like trees and waterfalls and the sea.

The book ends abruptly, and there’s a hint of a Christian connection, but it’s never more than a hint. And in a dystopian setting, it makes sense in terms of plot and character.

Book 2 continued the wonderful style and story. But right in the beginning (chapter 2, I think), the author suddenly launches into a full-on Protestant catechism. By this point, the reader is engaged with the story and characters, and the catechism is an important part of the plot. Still, it’s a gamble on the part of the author, one that works for some people and doesn’t for others, judging by the reviews on Amazon.

Which is better?

While Lawhead’s approach is specifically geared at a wide audience, its lack of a clear Christian “message” may, in fact, deter some Christians from picking it up. As for Brightley’s approach, she seems to be writing more specifically for a Christian audience with the hope that the popularity of urban fantasy and dystopia in general might lead to some cross-over with the general market.

And who am I to say which way is better? Maybe Christians should focus on writing for Christians, and some curious folks might read our work and find it beautiful. But for myself, I’m inclined to prefer the Lawhead approach. My own books, with their demi-gods and Slavic-inspired mythical creatures and semi-pagan milieu, are firmly in the Lawhead camp.
What do you think? Which is the better approach? Or are they both worthwhile?

11 comments:

  1. I am divided about this. On the one hand, I remember reading the Narnia books when I was 7 or 8, taking them at face value as adventure stories, and then one day having realised with astonishment that the mighty Lion Aslan is Jesus, a person whom (as a non-Christian child) I had previously thought to be a sort of tiresome namby-pamby. This was perhaps the first tiny step on the long road to my conversion. Tolkien, on the other hand, much as I loved and still love his writings, merely reinforced my Manichaean tendencies (except perhaps for the decision to destroy rather than utilise the Ring).

    On the other hand, as a child I also loved the fantasy novels of Sheila Moon, who was a Jungian depth-psychologist. Although I have since learnt that she was (surprisingly) a Christian of some sort, there was no overt hint of this in her fiction, which drew on Navajo mythology. However, unlike Tolkien’s, her monsters were capable of being redeemed, and her heroes’ adventures were rescue missions to save the villains as well as their victims. This made an enormous moral impression on me.

  2. I think as long as the art is authentic– an expression of the true-self, devoted to honoring the unique Image of God within, committed to ruthless honesty about the self and the human condition– it all works. The world of literature is as infinitely varied as the people who play with the medium, and different stories have such completely different resonances for different people. I think if we write because we have to write, because that is how God made us to be, then we do the right thing. What effects we have on others is not ours to control– that’s God’s work.

    Love that L’Engle book, by the way! Actually, I just love Madeleine herself and cannot wait to meet her in the life to come.

    1. Yes, though I think taking “being authentic” too far is dangerous too. It’s a catchphrase of post-modernism at its worst, because “being authentic” can ultimately be whatever you want it to be. Then it becomes solipsism, which is deadly.

  3. I read your “About” introduction above. Ah, Deacon Nicholas, you wish you could have lived in 19th century Saint Petersburg. When I was Anglican, I longed for my mythical “merrie olde England”. After I became Orthodox I wished for medieval Byzantium. Likewise some want to restore America as they wish it once was, but it wasn’t. Now I’m not so sure about any of our romantic historical attachments. Each age has its virtues and faults and challenges, and in any event here we are. I’ve concluded we should try to long only for the Kingdom of Heaven. To proceed to your columns, I think there is considerable virtue in C.S. Lewis’ rather simplistic “Chronicles of Narnia” and his deeper “Till We Have Faces”, which I think is a wonder. (His Space Trilogy leaves a lot to be desired.) Likewise for the deeper, less “obvious” mythology of Tolkien, Except for the Trilogy I read them all every few years, But I wonder if Tolkien’s absolute good vs. absolute evil” dichotomy has helped head us into our modern “black vs. white” approach towards almost everything…? In this respect I think your above column on patriotism is right to the point. Finally, thank you for putting me onto Lawhead. I’m just about to go on vacation and have been wondering what in the world to read. Now I know.

    1. Fr. Bill, of course you’re right. I will try to temper my nostalgia for the past and cast my gaze fully to the Kingdom to come. And yes, Tolkien and Lewis are the obvious examples, about whom I’m sure I’ll write far too much in the future of this blog 🙂 Interestingly, I’m a bigger fan of the Space Trilogy than Till We Have Faces. I think Perelandra is one of the greatest books ever written. But I’m a sucker for that kind of philosophical fiction. I hope you enjoy Lawhead!

  4. Hello,
    I didn’t know Christian Fantasy was a thing. I’m a bit confused in regards to how the Word says to stay away from fables and mythological creatures. How is this different? I understand I may be paraphrasing/remembering/interpreting scripture incorrectly since I don’t have my Bible next to me. However, I’m curious and love to ask questions.

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

    Also, I’m sharing Madeleine L’Engle’s photo. It’s so beautiful.

    -Emily

        1. I think the passage in question is 1 Timothy 4:7 –
          “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.”
          A verse all on its own is a dangerous thing, though, two millennia removed and half a world away. I’d love to hear more about that verse in this context of fantasy from a Christian worldview, however, as you’ve got me quite inspired to do some writing of my own, brother!

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