When Fantasy Becomes the Voice of Faith: How Edgy “Christian” Fiction Is Transforming Today’s Church
By Richard and Linda Nathan
Fantasy became the voice of faith. And it made for a cracking good story."
Stories teach. Whether we read a novel just to kick back and relax or to jump into an exciting adventure, we enter another view of reality—of one or possibly more worldviews.
Since our central purpose as Christians should be to glorify God and to grow in our knowledge of Him, we should be alert to a story’s influences—even when we read for pleasure.
In recent years, fiction aimed at Christians has exploded in the marketplace with such new categories as Christian Fantasy, Christian Science Fiction, Supernatural, and Christian Futuristic Fiction (often apocalyptic). Christian novels used to be relatively wholesome and instructive, but nowadays many popular and even Christian authors are emphasizing disturbing elements common to pagan, occult, and secular novels.
Some publishers are fueling the flood by trying to repeat the phenomenal sales of Frank Peretti’s spiritual warfare novels, the Left Behind series, and the fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis with countless imitations and wannabes. (Estimates of the worldwide sales figures of The Lord of the Rings run from 150 to 200 million, according to Zaleski, 2015.) This is all part of an enormous rise in the love and promotion of fantasy and mythology. As the Zaleskis ' article about the Inklings says, “Fantasy became the voice of faith. And it made for a cracking good story.”
Nevertheless, we’ve found hardly any Evangelical Christians nowadays questioning the popularity of such mythological/fantasy thinking. Fifty or sixty years ago, this type of thinking would have been anathema to many biblical churches.
Why? Is fantasy really the voice of faith?
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:3–4 (ESV)
Contemporary Christian views vary. No less an authority than Russell Moore, the former head of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, claimed that the Harry Potter books are Christian on the Albert Mohler radio show. In a 10/18/16 Twitter post, he also said, “Harry Potter is great. No question.” Yet that series clearly teaches witchcraft.
This is a huge change from the Christian world only 15 or 20 years ago.
Supernatural Thrills with a “Holy Edge”
This new kind of “Christian” fiction frequently embraces supernatural thrills, occultism, and mysticism; cursing and eroticism may be common; and it seeks to inflate the imagination. Its heroes use special powers and follow weird visions and strange quests; and you can sometimes trek through hundreds of pages without encountering one mention of Christ or His Word.
Saint by Ted Dekker (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and Relentless (2006) by Robin Parrish (Bethany House) are good examples of this new type of fiction, which we analyzed in an online article (“Children of the Inklings: Emergent ‘Christian’ Fiction”). You won’t find the Gospel or a biblical worldview in them.
“Edgy” fiction. Some of the biggest changes in general fiction have come with what is called speculative or “edgy” fiction. It embraces the farthest-out, most fantastic writing forms: dark imagination, the occult, the weird, fantasy, and horror, science fiction, alternative histories, apocalyptic tales; utopian and dystopianviii societies; and cyberpunk fiction, a literary movement born in the 1980s that integrates high tech and pop culture.
An “edgy” or “speculative” author may have an in-your-face writing style that shows little concern for readers’ sensibilities. Best-selling authors Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti are commonly considered to have this style.
A “holy edge.” Jeff Gerke, former NAVpress editor, helped open the floodgates to publishing edgy speculative “Christian” fiction when he formed Marcher Lord Press in 2007. He wanted to fill the hole he thought existed during the years he edited fiction at traditional Christian publishers. “God willing,” he wrote, “Marcher Lord Press will be a keep on the borderlands, a base from which Christian publishing can begin to settle the untamed frontier of speculative publishing.” He continued:
By the time I had finished the [Lord of the Rings] trilogy I had realized there was real power in these stories. I had seen worlds and creatures I had never imagined, and suddenly I was no longer satisfied with stories of the mundane. If it didn't have a speculative element to it, I wasn't interested.
Become an “adept” of “true magic”? Christ as ally—not Lord?
In 2014, Gerke sold Marcher Lord Press to Christian literary agent Steve Laube, who rebranded it as Enclave Publishing and sold it to Gilead Publishing in 2016. Enclave’s website states it only wants books from an Evangelical worldview. (Dan Balow, Gilead’s publisher, was formerly head of marketing for the Left Behind series.)
Syncretistic fiction is the fiction of the Emergent Church. And it embodies that movement’s same ignorance, distortion, or rejection of Christ and the Bible—and the same fascination with paganism.
Emergent/mythological fiction emphasizes certain kinds of spirituality involving mysticism and the imagination that are enormously popular today. It’s also similar to certain movements during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance now being revived in the Ecumenical Movement. A powerful unifying theme is an enchantment with mythology and paganism, often with psychedelic-looking cover art.
Such fiction can hide in the folds of Christianity—it can appear Christian without actually being biblical. It can offer mystical experiences that sound “spiritual” and appear Christian yet really be an embrace of syncretism, a mixture of religious concepts that don't really fit together, such as Christianity and paganism.
But, you say, what’s wrong with enjoying a good story? It’s just fantasy—isn’t it? Well, mythology and occultism aren’t the same as Bugs Bunny. They don’t mix with Scripture, as the Bible’s warnings testify.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 2 Peter 1:16 ESV
Besides our own personal experience of this type of literature’s frequent connection with heresy and the occult, we’ve also seen countless young people over the years succumbing to this darkness. They’ve delved into magic and numerous dark areas, and practiced witchcraft, and many have ended up deranged. Richard knows; he’s worked in psychiatric crisis centers for the past 26 years.
As a professional freelance editor and writer for nearly 30 years, Linda tries to help Christian writers be faithful to the Bible. This can be especially difficult with the subtleties of fiction writing. Some novels she’s seen watered down Scripture with pagan philosophies, while others developed biblical characters in unbiblical ways, ascribing heretical words and actions to them. Some novels that talked churchy and acted spiritual had a foundation of mysticism. There are novels that present God as an energy or a force rather than as a divine Person in a Trinity, and novels representing the spiritual battle as white vs. black magic, whereas both are demonic; and there are novels with no Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ at all.
Fiction isn't just any entertainment; its power and danger lie in the fact that it can draw a reader into either an unbiblical worldview and away from Christ or toward Him through a biblical worldview. It can embrace and seduce the soul and inflame the imagination. It teaches. And it can appear as Christian when it isn’t and fool many.
Biblical Imaginative Fiction
Imagination is a gift of God, and it should honor Him. Our own novel, The Glittering Web (Redemption Press, 2019) attempts to deal with fantasy and imagination in a way that glorifies biblical truth even as it plunges our characters into New Age paganism and fantasy adventures. It clearly differentiates between good and evil, reveals the Holy Spirit at work, and makes the Gospel plain. It teaches about the spiritual battle.
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness;. 1 Timothy 4:7 ESV
We need not only to pray over our reading and writing but to be discerning. Discerning requires judging, measuring, and growing to maturity, using the mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit and God’s Word to test ideas and understand God’s will.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.. Genesis 6:5 ESV
These are perilous times for both Christian readers and writers. We believe the flood of ungodly imaginative literature in our land and in the Church is partially responsible for corrupting imaginations. It’s a very dangerous condition for God wiped out the Earth except for Noah because of their corrupt imaginations. As we seek for renewed minds, let us offer our imaginations to God for purification.
If you’re a fan of imaginative fiction that purports to be Christian or have an Evangelical worldview, there’s something you can do. Consider applying the following biblical guidelines as you read.
Guidelines for Discerning Imaginative Christian Literature
In many ways the expansion of Christendom has come at the expense of the purity of the gospel and true Christian order and life. The church has become infested with pagan beliefs and practices, and is syncretistic in theology . . . . Large segments have become Christo-pagan.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. 1 Peter 5:8
1. Understand the concept of worldview.
It’s important to understand the concept of worldview—an author’s thoughts or philosophy about the world—and to try to identify it when reading. A worldview provides a basis by which to judge what is true and false, good and evil. It’s foundational, and the Bible says maturing involves growing in that discernment. Christian thinking may incorporate a variety of unbiblical worldviews. For instance, some Christians may believe they are saved (or justified) through faith in Jesus Christ yet rely upon psychological methods for sanctification and medieval and/or Eastern religious techniques for spiritual disciplines. Becoming familiar with different worldviews can help us grow in discernment and renew our minds.
Types of Worldviews
2. Ask yourself: What worldview does this novel promote through its words, imagery, plot, and other elements?
3. How does the story deal with the following basic questions?
* The nature of reality
* The problem of evil
* The nature of good and evil
* The solution to evil
* The nature of Jesus Christ
* The way and meaning of salvation
4. Does the story teach a Christian to rely upon self, the world, Jesus Christ, or magic?
A popular trend nowadays has characters relying upon magic or special powers to fight another form of magic. What problems do you see for Christian having such a magical worldview? (2 Corinthians 6:14–17)
5. What virtues and/or evils do the characters model? Which are more persuasive?
6. Is any character elevated to a divine level?--or imagination to the level of revelation?
7. Is there a clear demarcation between the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit and the power and methods of magic?
8. Who is your hero or heroine?
9. How does the story present the nature and person of Jesus Christ?
10. Is the true Gospel clear? Are there deletions or additions?
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