The Dangers of Fantasy

[Unpublished; Spring 1998]

“The more I think about it, the more it bothers me,” my husband said. He had spent the morning with our teenaged son playing paintball, a first-time experience for both of them. This sophisticated version of “capture the flag” pits two teams against each other, each armed with modified guns that shoot a non-staining liquid. Anyone “killed” must retire from the game. My husband’s concern was that the game was too realistic. It’s the closest thing imaginable to actually killing people, he said.

“I support the military, and I understand their need to prepare,” he went on. “There’s a reason for soldiers to play war games. But I’m not sure its right for civilians to do it, just as a form of entertainment. You shoot someone, see liquid explode on his body—it’s not the sort of thing a Christian should enjoy.”

Christians should be asking such questions, not only about paintball, but about the myriad ways we allow our imaginations to be exercised. The most familiar arena in which this question is raised is of course television and movies, where the categories are usually sex and violence. We recognize that these are two powerful tendencies within the human heart, each easily led astray. Brooding over forbidden encounters, sexual or violent, damages us.

But, at the risk of sounding un-American, I’d like to carry the thought further. I think that it’s not wise to spend much time in any sort of fantasy, even benign ones, if they carry us away from reality. Reality is where God lives. When we depart from there to dwell in our imaginations, we refuse his good gift in preference for a parallel universe of our own concocting.

Thus, it doesn’t matter if your Christian True Romance novel is immorality-free, if it’s causing you to feel dissatisfied with your husband’s more humble version of being romantic. It doesn’t matter if the videos you rent are wholesome, if they’re also so vibrant and exciting that your daily life begins to feel dull and irksome in comparison. Fantasy, even positive fantasy, can undermine the discipline of the soul.

This isn’t a popular theme. From earliest childhood we’re taught to think of imagination as a blessing. Children are encouraged to daydream and to dwell on fantasies of glory, picturing themselves as Superman or Barbie, a sports hero or an actress. “Follow your dreams,” they’re told. Adults find this early-formed habit hard to break, though the fantasies can grow more dangerous: revenge, greed, adultery. Popular entertainment can feed these fantasies—but so can fiction, photo magazines, or plain old daydreaming. The core problem is preferring unreality to the reality God made.

Here are six reasons to limit indulgence in fantasy:

1. Fantasy stirs up artificial emotions. You can become terrified, or angry, or amorous over situations that don’t exist in real life. This is a waste of the time God gave you, time that is not yours to waste. It also confuses and agitates the emotions, so that they become less acute and discerning.

2. Life is hard enough. Careful attention to what’s really happening is the first condition to living honorably, and even then it can be tough. Caressing imaginary images and then attempting to deal with real flesh-and-blood humans is the equivalent of drinking a pint of scotch before climbing into the driver’s seat.

3. A voluptuous imaginary life makes real life seem inadequate. If you brood over the glamorous celebrities who seem to have all the riches and admiration you deserve, you will grow sour and treat those around you spitefully.

4. Real life is the only place you can change things. There is much in this life, and perhaps in your personal life, that needs changing. Dwelling in “if-onlys” just leaves you frustrated and bitter, and blunts the possibility of actual change. People who prefer daydreaming to actually tackling problems may comfort themselves with imaginary vindication, but they have actually chosen a passive role of ineffectiveness. Only real screwdrivers can drive screws; the ones in fantasy may look shiny, but they’re inevitably made of rubber.

5. Most of your secular friends and neighbors are drunk on unreality. You will have a tremendous advantage if you stay clear-headed. Somebody has to be designated driver.

6. Lastly, as I said, reality is God’s home address. If the purpose of our lives is to draw nearer him, every minute we spend wallowing in unreality is a minute exiled from his presence. We don’t have that kind of time to waste.

Some confusion about this is caused by the idea that a person should “have a dream” that impels them. I think it’s helpful to clarify this by asking: Is this “dream” a calling from God, or is it a self-promoting fantasy? The higher the ego quotient, the lower the value of dwelling in it. If, on the other hand, it is a genuine calling, then all the acuteness you can muster will be necessary to bring it to fruition.

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This is partly a question: what do you treasure? Are you savoring images of yourself victorious, or sexually desired, or vindicated, or slaughtering an enemy? Are these images fed by a diet of TV, movies, fiction, and other fantasy?

We know from Scripture the value of fasting. It might not occur to us to implement a fast from fantasy. This is not merely the old familiar “bad television” message, but something broader, a call to live in reality, rather than luxuriating in the myriad ways imagination offers to avoid it. These alternatives can be purchased in forms of entertainment, or cooked up in your own steamy brain. Try weaning yourself from them. Reality needs both hands on the wheel.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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