Every so often, I find myself engaging with someone who regards imaginative fiction as, if not spiritually dangerous, at least superfluous to spiritual life. I have encountered this more often among Orthodox Christians than other kinds. The argument usually goes that we have everything we need in the Church, so why would we look outside of it?
And since non-Orthodox sources might well have some elements mixed into them that are against the faith or at least unhelpful, isn’t it just safer to stick to sources like the Bible, Church Fathers, liturgy, saints’ lives, etc.? Don’t they have everything we could possibly ever need?
This question comes up more often for me now that I am hosting an Ancient Faith Radio podcast examining the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. And we’re even going to be hosting a Tolkien and Orthodoxy conference this September at my parish in Emmaus, PA (come on out!). Has Fr. Andrew gone off the deep end? What’s with all the Tolkien stuff all of a sudden?
I am actually a lifelong Tolkien fan, but now that I have a Tolkien podcast, I’ve found more time to explore how my love for Tolkien fits into my spiritual life as an Orthodox Christian. And it turns out that there is actually a specifically Orthodox Christian reason to love Tolkien and other works of imaginative fiction. That’s what this essay is about.
I will mostly set aside here the question of whether it is actually “dangerous” to read imaginative fiction, as that has been treated many times elsewhere, but I will at least say that in all my years of life and pastoral work, I have never once seen someone reading imaginative literature who is led thereby away from Christ (though I’m not saying it never happens).
On the contrary, I have many, many times seen the opposite, that someone is led from their experiences with good (and it’s got to be good) imaginative fiction to an encounter with Christ. And indeed, there is an extensive literature exploring how children’s spiritual imaginations in particular are well-shaped with good fiction reading.
Even aside from the clear benefits of reading fiction informed by Christian themes (and there is practically a whole cottage industry dedicated to exploring Christianity in Tolkien’s works in particular), here is the reason why I believe that Orthodox Christians have good warrant to seek for Christ even in imaginative fiction: The Church Fathers taught that we should.
St. Basil’s Bee
The classic work on this question is a text from St. Basil the Great usually titled “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.” And we should be up-front here and say that “Greek literature” means pagan mythology. So Basil is not addressing works by Christians (heterodox or no) but rather the classics of the pagan religions with which Christianity in Basil’s fourth century was still locked in spiritual battle.
The whole text is worth reading, but this part in particular is probably the most famous:
To begin with the poets, since their writings are of all degrees of excellence, you should not study all of their poems without omitting a single word. When they recount the words and deeds of good men, you should both love and imitate them, earnestly emulating such conduct. But when they portray base conduct, you must flee from them and stop up your ears, as Odysseus is said to have fled past the song of the sirens, for familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds. Therefore the soul must be guarded with great care, lest through our love for letters it receive some contamination unawares, as men drink in poison with honey. We shall not praise the poets when they scoff and rail, when they represent fornicators and winebibbers, when they define blissfulness by groaning tables and wanton songs. Least of all shall we listen to them when they tell us of their gods, and especially when they represent them as being many, and not at one among themselves. For, among these gods, at one time brother is at variance with brother, or the father with his children; at another, the children engage in truceless war against their parents. The adulteries of the gods and their amours, and especially those of the one whom they call Zeus, chief of all and most high, things of which one cannot speak, even in connection with brutes, without blushing, we shall leave to the stage. I have the same words for the historians, and especially when they make up stories for the amusement of their hearers. And certainly we shall not follow the example of the rhetoricians in the art of lying. For neither in the courts of justice nor in other business affairs will falsehood be of any help to us Christians, who, having chosen the straight and true path of life, are forbidden by the gospel to go to law. But on the other hand we shall receive gladly those passages in which they praise virtue or condemn vice. For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls. Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious. So, from the very beginning, we must examine each of their teachings, to harmonize it with our ultimate purpose, according to the Doric proverb, ‘testing each stone by the measuring-line.’ (St. Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, IV, emphasis added)
In this famous passage Basil is here giving advice on how such works ought to be read, and he uses the image of the honeybee to provide us with an image to help us remember. So if we are to follow the advice of this great Church Father of the fourth century, we not only ought not to shun the reading of such literature (to say nothing of denying it to others), but we ought to read it critically, pointing out what things are good and worthy of imitation and what things are without virtue and lead to spiritual ruin.
In imaginative fiction written by Christians, this discrimination is usually written right into the story, as when evil characters fall into ruin and virtuous ones are redeemed and vindicated. So the job is actually almost always even easier than sifting through pagan literature, in which the internal lesson is often not remotely Christian.
But Basil actually goes even further than this in passages prior to the famous honeybee passage. He actually goes so far as to say that young men (his audience) ought to learn pagan Greek literature before reading the Scriptures:
Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice, for they acquire skill in gymnastics and in dancing, and then in battle reap the reward of their training. We must needs believe that the greatest of all battles lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power. Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation. Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye, be it purple or any other color, so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself. (Ibid., II, emphasis added)
Shocking as it may seem, Basil actually says that we need a good training “with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation” prior to delving into the Scriptures. And while he does not mention other Christian sources here (e.g., liturgical texts, saints’ lives, etc.), it is clear that he is talking specifically about texts that are certainly outside any kind of canonical “safeness.” Again, he is speaking about pagan mythology.
Now, in case you might want to argue that Basil’s approach was fine for the fourth century but a later Christian culture had no need for reading and interpreting pagan literature, you should know that even in the later Byzantine period (11th – 15th c.), Christian writers were, for instance, publishing commentaries on and paraphrases of Homer’s The Iliad. It seems they had an interest in pagan texts even long after there weren’t any pagans around and there was also a fully established Christian ecclesiastical literature.
Now, I would not dare myself to make the argument that he is making — that pagan literature should be mastered before the Bible — if only because I know that it would be almost unthinkable to most Christians now. (We may, however, recall how Fr. Seraphim Rose — no libertine, he! — recommended his spiritual children read Dickens before he would let them read the Philokalia.)
That said, we can at least take from this that Basil sees zero contradiction between reading works that are not in any sense “safely Christian” alongside what might normally be regarded as the Church’s literature. He goes further than I, though, and says that it needs to happen first. I will leave it to you as to whether you want to try that.
I do, however, have a further argument to make from the Fathers.
The Seed Logos of St. Justin Martyr
Another famous patristic comment on this question comes from the second-century martyr Justin the Philosopher, usually called St. Justin Martyr:
For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writers. And whatever both philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things. And hence there seem to be seeds of truth (spermatikos logos) among all men; but they are charged with not accurately understanding [the truth] when they assert contradictories. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 44, emphasis added)
So, again, we have an Orthodox saint and Church Father asserting that we do not simply receive all things without discernment, but he also is not saying “play it safe with only official Church texts.” He himself was well-versed in the writings of philosophers and poets, and his approach to them was not to reject them but rather to recognize whatever was true in them. In them he saw “seeds of the truth.” And Who is the truth? The truth is Jesus Christ.
And still further (and this is the critical piece of my argument here), he says that whatever these authors get right “they have received such suggestions from the prophets.” Now, you may not agree with his historical idea that Plato was reading Moses (which is basically what he says right before the quoted text), but we can see that he regards the truth wherever it’s found as coming through the prophets. And we may reasonably extend that to the apostles and the rest of the saints.
So from this I will say that I regard everything that is true as already belonging to the Church. Yes, the Church is sufficient for our salvation, but if we see the truth in some context that is not part of the Church’s canon, we are not going “outside” the Church. Rather, we are seeing the Church’s Christ wherever He may be found.
Does it therefore make sense to say that we ought to turn away from Christ if He is seen in some place other than the Scriptures, etc.? It is true that He may be hard to see in such places sometimes (remember that Basil even recommends pagan texts!), but He is also hard to discern in the Scriptures sometimes, too. What is easiest is not always what is best or right.
This leads us to my final argument, which is that creativity is actually intrinsic to Church tradition.
The Church Does Creativity
Imaginative fiction is written into the Church’s traditional sources. Imaginative fiction has even made its way into saints’ lives, at least one of which is a full piece of fiction made up for a saint whose name is the only historical data about him. I was somewhat startled to learn this in a conversation I had with Dcn. Nicholas Kotar (a deacon of the ROCOR and an epic fantasy novelist). We discussed not only legendary-style “enhancements” to saints’ lives but even the life of one St. Averkios, whose official hagiography is pure fiction (largely derived from other hagiography), and, because it is actually a liturgical text, appointed to be read in church and at monastic meal tables.
I am also reminded of Joseph and Aseneth, a pre-Christian source from which the Church draws many of its ideas about the ancient patriarch Joseph and his wife but which is extra-Biblical and almost certainly has a lot of fiction in it. It is basically a kind of romance novel, in fact.
Even outside the question of fiction, consider the writings of Lorenzo Scupoli (a sixteenth century Roman Catholic), whose Unseen Warfare works were edited by St. Nicodemus the Athonite in the eighteenth century and further edited in the nineteenth by St. Theophan the Recluse because they thought they would be helpful for Orthodox Christians. These two saints saw the value in a spiritual text produced by a heterodox Christian, and they altered it to make it appropriate for the Orthodox. They were not only acting like St. Basil’s bee but were even trimming the flower itself, so to speak!
And how can we forget when the Apostle Paul appropriated the image of the altar “to the unknown god” at the Areopagus (Acts 17:23) or quoted pagan poets (Acts 17:28) in support of his points?
Or (and this is perhaps the most salient example) what about Jesus’ creation and use of parables to get His point across? Why did he not just quote the Old Testament? The same Son and Word of God Who creatively made the cosmos, this earth and everything in it used His divine creativity to tell stories, and now these stories are solemnly read in our divine services and even became our sacred scripture.
The Scripture has a canon, and we do not add to that or change it. But we also have conciliar canons, liturgical texts, saints’ lives, theological treatises, etc., which are all the result of creative work by various saints and other authors. The Church’s traditional consciousness is expansive and always being expressed anew, and it has no problem creating new texts or selecting from, adapting and even appropriating non-Orthodox or non-Christian sources in order to accomplish her mission of salvation. There is nothing that cannot belong to Christ.
So What, Then?
I am by no means saying that one should read the works of Tolkien and his ilk and not more “churchy” sources. Nor am I saying that everyone must read Tolkien or read him first (though Basil might be willing to go there).
What I am saying is that we cannot simply reject such reading for all Christians, because the Holy Fathers themselves did not. Indeed, they encouraged and even expected it. And if there is anything that should mark a good Orthodox Christian, it is that he is guided by and appropriately imitates the Fathers.
Not all imaginative fiction is created equal. Some literary works, such as from Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Fyodor Dostoevsky (though in different ways), are tried and true in terms of their value for Christians. But others probably have little or no value. I would not dismiss anything out of hand, however, for Christ was willing to invade even Hades itself, the darkest, most Godforsaken place, and fill it with Himself.
All truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found. This is explicated well by both St. Basil (as mentioned above) and also by St. Justin Martyr in his doctrine of the spermatikos logos. Why do we need to limit our search for God only to “official” Church sources? He is everywhere. That does not mean that we accept everything we read uncritically, but like the bee (as per St. Basil) we take whatever is good from each flower.
The point is not that there is something incomplete or lacking in saints’ lives, patristic writings, etc., but rather that the presence and truth of Christ truly pervades all things and opens up our participation for endless creativity, in imitation of our Creator.
Christ Himself is a storyteller. The saints follow His example. I’m saying nothing other than what St. Basil did. And he was talking about outright pagan literature filled with deeply problematic underlying philosophy and religion. And I am reiterating what St. Justin did, and he was also talking about pagans!
We don’t have to live according to fear. Christ invaded even the darkness of Hades itself, so there is no place we cannot bring Him. And literature that already shows the beauty of God and His creation is an even more appropriate place for us to seek Him.
The Church’s mission is to bring the whole world into herself. That means that we should be actively seeking Christ Who is everywhere rather than fearing what feels unsafe. If something is true, then that already belongs to the Church — it is not an add-on or extra or replacement. And far from taking the place of any official churchly text, good imaginative fiction rightly understood is already itself the work of the Church and therefore of Christ. No one can speak the truth without the help of God.
Want to hear more? I cannot recommend more highly two conversations that I had the blessing of being part of which explicitly touch upon all these questions. Both are episodes of the Amon Sûl Podcast:
- The Fellowship of the Steve (or, The Eagles Are Coming!): Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick launches his new podcast with guest co-host Steven Christoforou, sharing their mutual love for the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, and discussing how journeying through Middle-earth helps us on the journey through our modern secular world.
- The Bridge of Kotar-dûm: Epic fantasy author and Russian Orthodox deacon Nicholas Kotar joins Fr. Andrew to discuss Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” storytelling, Christian hagiography and culture, and their benefit to spiritual life. They wrap up with a strange journey into the wild world of Russian Tolkien fandom.