Bible Belt Christians have struggled long with literature and film espousing a view of reality that confronts the values of our Christian life.
In general, if a book or movie challenges what generally are perceived as Christian values or morals (for example; the existence of God, sexual propriety, general human dignity or a gratuitous emphasis on the supernatural), then we tend to be wary of it.
Christians tend to value literature and films in two different ways. On the one hand, Christians long have enjoyed and promoted the imaginative literature and films produced by openly professing believers such as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and even Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
On the other hand, books and films such as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter installments or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which raise serious theological questions, force Christians to take a harder look at the fantasy genre and the role it plays in Christian spiritual formation.
When we investigate the role of fantasy and its effect on our discipleship, we must be aware of the powerful influence it has on our imaginations. The imagination is a powerful part of the human mind.
As one of the three primary mental faculties, the imagination creates our functional reality by focusing what our senses perceive through the filter of reason and memory. In this sense, we literally live through our imaginations.
As a secondary function, the imagination can daydream or fantasize. In other words, when allowed to “idle,” our imaginations can use our memories or experiences to envision a different version of reality than the one playing out before us.
When the Bible speaks of imagination, it is usually in a negative fashion. For example, the Old Testament writers located the imagination in the heart. As the seat of the affections, the heart was subject to corruption. Indeed, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel affirmed the need for God's people to have “new hearts” in order to see, hear and obey as God's people and given only at God's initiative.
The New Testament does not directly reference the imagination as such, but several passages help us to understand its role in the life of faith. When Paul, in Ephesians 1:18 references “the eyes of your heart” or when in Hebrews 11, we are asked to understand how in faith we can envision the unseen, or throughout the gospels, where Jesus speaks in parables, we begin to understand how critical the imagination is to the life lived in faith.
Ultimately, we affirm that the gospel itself — with the life, death and resurrection of Christ at its center — is the reality for which the imagination was created to grasp.
Our imaginations enable us to learn, to perform, to solve and to envision. In a child with few cumulative memories, the imagination is especially impressionable.
Though the fantasy genre is appealing to people of all ages, it is especially so to children, for it allows their imaginations unlimited “room to run.” This is the effect attained in The Chronicles of Narnia as well as in The Lord of the Rings, for when we find ourselves walking the woods of Narnia or the roads of Hobbiton in the Shire, we find ourselves imagining a new, different and hopefully better world.
Indeed, the imagination helps us to draw correlations from these tales with “the greatest story ever told” — the gospel.
Yet, it is this “world-inhabiting ability” of the imagination that also makes the fantasy genre problematic. Caught up in their fantastic nature, we tend to disregard the fact that ideologies — both positive and negative — are embedded in every story.
For parents, this means that there is a responsibility to either monitor what their children are reading/viewing or to help their children understand what they are experiencing according to their belief.
As adults, we have an opportunity to continue to grow in Christ as we experience different worldviews through the various perspectives of the fantasy genre. The key is Christ, who must be Lord of the imagination, if he is to be Lord at all. As C.S. Lewis suggested, if Christ is Lord in our life, then we posses a “baptized imagination.”
Consequently, fantasy can have a role to play in our lives and should not be outright rejected, especially if our imaginations are first lashed firmly to the cross.
Jay Smith is assistant professor in the School of Christian Studies at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.