Friday, March 24, 2017

Christianity and High Fantasy (Hannah)

I’m sorry about the short post today, but this is a topic that has been on my mind ever since I began writing my current manuscript. See, I am a Christian, and it is my desire to glorify God in everything I do. That most certainly includes my writing.

Unfortunately for me, I write high fantasy. High fantasy is a particular sub-genre of fantasy that is set in a world that has no connection whatsoever to earth as we know it. The fantasy content is “high” as opposed to low fantasy, which includes worlds that are essentially earth with magical or fantasy elements added in.

Christianity in high fantasy is tricky. J.R.R. Tolkien, the renowned author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as many other works in Middle Earth, was a devoted Christian, but he never explicitly showed these elements in his work. His stories showed the Christian belief in good’s ultimate triumph over evil, but this does not in itself make Lord of the Rings or any of the others “Christian” books.

Pilgrim’s Progress comes closer, in that it is a clear allegory for the Christian life. Because it has no relation to earth and is filled with fantastic elements, it could be considered high fantasy. The Kingdom series by Chuck Black also follows the pattern of Pilgrim’s Progress in that it retells Bible stories in a new setting.

The “Dragon” Books, by Bryan Davis, are a combination of low and portal fantasy. Portal fantasy stories have settings such that earth is connected to another fantasy realm via a portal of some sort. Obviously, with a heavy emphasis on earth and a good deal of time spent there, it is easy to fit the Gospel into the narrative.

But what about high fantasy? I am not writing allegory, and neither am I writing low or portal fantasy. High fantasy is tricky in that we must treat the figure of Jesus especially carefully. In an alternate world, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that the same God is the Creator. However, it is really right to say that Jesus came to the alternate world as well as earth? If He did, did He live essentially the same life as the one He led on earth? What about the Bible? That book in particular is inextricably tied to history. What does the other world have for God’s Word? These are all difficult questions that face a Christian high fantasy writer. I asked the question many times: how can I get a Christian message into my book? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have several Christian high fantasy books on my shelves to serve as inspiration.

Swords of the Six, by Scott Appleton, solves this problem by having God but not Jesus. In the book, there are a couple of prophets who are in communication with the Creator and whose job it is to do the Creator’s will and lead others to do the same. The God in this book is clearly recognizable as the Christian God, but there is no mention of salvation or Jesus. Instead, the characters serve the Creator wholeheartedly because they love Him. This is a viable option, given that it can share truths about God and the proper response to Him. The main drawback is that it does not present the Gospel explicitly. This may not be too much of a problem, depending on what story you are telling.

The Map Across Time, by C.S. Lakin, takes a different option. The author chose a few key Bible verses as her theme, and presented the verses in-story as wise sayings that the characters learn to accept and live by. In this way, she is able to infuse her story with Biblical themes even though she did not create a world with God or Jesus or the Bible explicitly mentioned. The downside of course is that if I had not found the book in a Christian bookstore, I may never have realized it was supposed to be an obviously Christian book.

Another two of Bryan Davis’ series, Dragons of Starlight and Tales of Starlight, are also high fantasy. Here he omits any mention of God and Jesus but his strong Christian themes shine through his characters, who live by a clearly Christian system of morality that is regulated by the Code. This book receives little explanation, but the characters treat it as if it were the Word of God for them. It is, of course, perfectly consistent with the Bible.  This focus on the morality of the Christian life without getting into the specifics of exactly how God, Jesus, and the Bible relate to an alternate world is the most simple method to use and use well, but can have difficulty because without God, there can be no morality.

There are pros and cons to each approach, and there is no clear way to go about writing high fantasy that is explicitly Christian but not blasphemous in any way. Ultimately, I believe that as long as the author seeks to honor God with her writing and trains her ear and heart to listen for His words, she will produce a book that is pleasing and glorifying to Him.

I wrestled with the question of how to infuse my work with Christian themes when I first started writing, and it took me about a year to settle into a decision. Since then, I have continued to question whether it was the right one. At this point, I will not rewrite my story to support a sweeping change, so I am stuck with my original decision. My story follows Tolkien’s example, with Christian virtues and values underlying the storytelling, but with no explicit references to anything resembling God, Jesus, the Bible, or other recognizable elements of Christianity on earth.

In the future, maybe I will find a better option. For now, I will do the best I can to honor God with my writing, no matter what it is.

Have you had trouble showing Christian themes or elements in your writing? Do you have any suggestions for high fantasy writers in the future? Which example do you like best of the ones I listed above?


  1. Interesting post, Hannah! This is something I struggled with in my story as well, since it takes place in a fantasy world. At first I tried to incorporate a few references to Christianity specifically, but they just didn't make a lot of sense. So I ended up going a similar route as Scott Appleton, where my fantasy world has God (just using a different name) but there aren't any references to Jesus. I like the fact that there are so many different ways to approach it, because that allows the messages to reach different audiences that might not read it if the Christianity were more explicit. But it can be a challenge to figure out how to make it work for your specific story!

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    1. Great post, Hannah. I've had the same struggle. How to combine a Christian faith and a world with magic? How to share truth without being preachy? Simply having characters live with a Christian worldview, struggling to make and follow right decisions, is valuable, especially in a world that so often portrays and glorifies characters behaving in wrong and harmful ways. But what are good works without Christ? What's right living without knowing how to be saved? It's a frustrating dilemma. Is the goal, is it enough, to show people living righteously, and thus encouraging readers to do the same? Or should we tell, somehow, how to be righteous in God's eyes?

      I guess it kinda depends on who your audience is and what fits the story. A conversion scene doesn't fit every story. :)

  3. Thanks, Hannah! The best help I have found for this is in Madeleine L'Engle's book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. She writes very thoughtfully about being a Christian artist in the world. . .
    Personally, I believe if you are being careful to pursue your walk with Christ, your writing will reflect His heart and His intent for your work. . . there need to be books that explicitly talk about God and Jesus, but there also have to be books that we can give to our non-Christian students and friends that they will actually read and not write off because of their faith content. . . God has a plan for each work and for each author, and I believe he will use both types of writing! Thanks for bringing this up! Erin

  4. Considering that many young adults "graduate" from high school and leave their faith behind, I think fantasy books are a good venue for speaking perhaps more indirectly to remind readers of their need for Christ in their lives. I agree that your heart and your intent to bring a Christian message to your readers will shine through your work...and personally, I prefer a more subtle approach because your intended message may reach a broader audience. So...don't change a thing!


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