As a reader and writer of the fantasy genre, I often find myself faced with questions of religion. As a reader, you are often presented with alternate pantheons and belief systems, and to be honest, it’s rare that that sort of thing bothers me; I normally just accept that those gods or beliefs are a part of the world that the author has created. The more intriguing questions, in my opinion, arise as a Christian writer of fantasy. How much, and in what ways, can I write about magic? Should the religion of my fantasy world resemble monotheistic Christianity? Is it better just to steer clear of issues of religion in Christianity altogether?
One approach to this is Tolkien’s approach. In the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit he steered clear of overt allusions to the religion of Middle Earth and as readers, we are not especially encouraged to consider it. However, in his ambitious work, the Silmarillion, he does include a spiritual background for Middle Earth, and it is a background that seems to be a nod to the Biblical narrative of a supreme God and the fall of Satan. Of course, Tolkien adapted these concepts to make room in his world for elves, dwarves and orcs, but the core of the religious ideas of Middle Earth seem to be Christian. I believe that he made a wise decision in not allowing LOTR to get bogged down in these spiritual ideas, because to include them would be a large distraction from the main plot. As a side note on magic, it should be noted that in LOTR, magic looks very different to that forbidden in the Bible. It is not sorcery or spells, it is spiritual power invested in a certain few, like the most powerful of the immortal elves, and the 5 Istari (wizards), who are themselves a Tolkienian equivalent to angels, rather than human beings.
Another approach is the C. S. Lewis approach. Although he apparently denied any extended Christian metaphors in his work, they are plainly there for all to see, particularly in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In his fantasy world of Narnia, there is no religion as such (not in the sense that we would recognise it) but the parallels between Aslan and Jesus are pretty much thrown in your face as the wise lion sacrifices himself to save a sinful child, before being resurrected shortly afterwards, setting free those trapped by the evil witch, and finally, killing the witch herself. The short of metaphors/analogies employed by Lewis in his most famous books are an inspiration for me, because it shows the power of fantasy writing to recast the most powerful Christian truths, to keep them relevant and to explore them in a new way.
I’ve used the two most famous examples of Christian fantasy authors, but they are a good pair to use because the way they incorporated their religion into their work was very different. As for me, I’ve tried a variety of approaches, from writing fantasy without mentioning any religion at all, to inventing a new pantheon for my fantasy world, to writing about a religion that is almost identical to the Christianity of our world.
The latter is what I’m currently attempting to do in my most serious creative project. The fantasy world is presided over by one God – Athanai – who sent his son to die for our sins and rise again. However, although that core is the same, there are still differences to our reality that distinguish this world from ours. Probably the most major is that demons have the potential to be visibly, physically active in the physical realm, fighting and killing human beings. I also have a system in place whereby some of the demons set themselves up as false gods (based on ancient pagan gods of our own world) and attract followers and worshipers, leading to a mass desertion of the true Athanaic religion. I enjoy writing like this, because it gives me the freedom to be creative with the spiritual side of the world, whilst not changing anything about the character of God, or the fundamental truths that I believe in.
All that said, I don’t believe that Christian authors have to create a religion that resembles Christianity, or indeed, any religion at all. I would argue that the most important thing for Christian authors to do is demonstrate their values, to do something that marks them out as different. In the world of fantasy, that could take a variety of forms. I, personally, will never write sex scenes, bad language or over the top violence in my books, because you can have incredible fantasy stories without those things and because I don’t want to encourage people to think about them. There are other ways to make a difference as well: emphasising themes of altruism, sacrifice, humility and honesty are all possible ways to create fantasy with Christian values.
What I’m trying to say, is that I don’t feel that have to stick a C. S. Lewis-esque Jesus metaphor in the middle of my work, but I do want my work to glorify God, however that may look. Before I finish, I’ll just mention the reading side of things again. Personally, I have no problem with reading about things like magic, or some of the more over the top areas of some fantasy books. This is partly because I try to read books written by people with different worldviews from me, allowing me to engage better with the ideas and philosophies of non-Christians, but it’s mostly because a large number of non-Christian authors right awesome stories. I feel that if I refused to engage with non-Christian fantasy, I would a) miss out on the vast majority of the fantasy that’s actually worth reading, and b) have a very narrow view of the world in which I live. Fantasy is fantastic for opening up the mind and allowing you a glimpse into different worlds, and I don’t want to miss out on that.
In conclusion, when reading fantasy, I’m open to reading most things. I enjoy fantasy and I want to read books written by people who see the world differently to me. However, I think that it’s important that when I write fantasy, I am conscious of the fact that I am doing so first and foremost to glorify God, and that I have a platform to make my values clear and to give people an insight into what I think is important. This has turned out longer than I anticipated, but religion in fantasy is an interesting topic to chew over, so if I’ve given you anything to think about, then this post was worth writing.