A few weeks ago, I shared some of my thoughts about the possibilities of Christian fiction: whether it should exist; what it might achieve. I ended on a fairly upbeat note. Stories might refresh our jaded palettes to see what’s true; stories might take us by surprise and sneak past our prejudices and certainties.
But there is one important problem that I passed over. The more stories succeed, the greater the danger that we might mistake them for the realities to which they point. We might want to live in made-up worlds rather than turn our eyes to heaven. We might want to keep reading romance rather than live a real life of love. We might be content to read about fights and adventures rather than participate in the real cosmic struggle to which we are called.
Beauty and Heartbreak
C.S. Lewis (yes, there’s going to be lots of him in this post) explains the danger with great clarity in “The Weight of Glory”:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of the tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Lewis was acutely aware of these dangers on a personal level. In Surprised by Joy he describes how his pursuit of the transcendent longing (“Joy”) that he found in the myths and fairy stories became the driving force in his reading and listening. Sometimes other books or poems would yield a fresh glimmer of it. But he also came to realise that Joy was not in those things. Attempting to focus too much on them, or linger too long in them, or even seeking a repeat, would disappoint him.
The thing—the fruit, the painting, the poem, the dawn light—must be enjoyed, remembered, and looked past. If it becomes the goal, then it fails.
Rather, as Lewis came to understand it, the thing—the fruit, the painting, the poem, the dawn light—must be enjoyed, remembered, and looked past. If it becomes the goal, then it fails. The attempt to repeat the experience will drive the seeker into more achievable goals: Joy will be reduced to mere enjoyment; stories will become delivery systems for mere excitement or egotistic self-projection (see An Experiment in Criticism); myth and magic will lead their worshipers lead into deeper thickets of sex and the occult (Again, see Surprised by Joy and Pilgrim’s Regress).
This is the reason why children “age-out” of Narnia, and why Lewis ends his cycle with the demolition of Narnia itself. That land that has captured the hearts of so many children is a danger precisely because it is so good; it tempts us to remain in the echo and in the sign. But Lewis wants his readers to look beyond it to the True Narnia—our True Home and the home of our True King. Thus we read at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.“
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s OK. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?“
“But you shall meet me, dear one, … But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
And, of course, there is a parallel moment at the end of The Last Battle:
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them … All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story.
We don’t want Aslan to turn into Jesus; we want prequels and sequels and spinoffs and reboots and new adaptations ad infinitum.
It is a great credit to Lewis that he finally honours Jesus by dismantling his own mythology. And yet few modern readers (or writers) have understood the point or its necessity. If we consider the content of our bookshops and library shelves, the TV series being bankrolled by Netflix and Amazon, the spread of Con and cosplay culture, then we see that we have become a society that is desperate to escape into stories. We want to fill our lives up with them. We don’t want Aslan to turn into Jesus; we want prequels and sequels and spinoffs and reboots and new adaptations ad infinitum.
Too Late for Christian Fantasy?
This raises difficult questions for a Christian writer—especially for someone seeking to write speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy etc). Is it adding fuel to the fire (or drugs to the addiction) to be writing such things at this moment in history? Can imaginative stories still surprise us and find a way into our hearts, or have our palettes become too jaded? Perhaps the deluge has washed away the possibility of virtue and wonder. Maybe the violence and prurience of contemporary fantasy (e.g. Game of Thrones, The Witcher) show that our culture’s mythopoieic imagination has already gone to seed.
As I try to write, I find myself haunted by these questions. I do not have a knock-down response to any of them. And I think they pose a serious challenge to the cheery optimism of many advocates of Christian fiction.
But I do have a few counter-perspectives.
The first observation is that this is a problem that applies to everything good. Any good blessing from God can be turned into an idol. Sometimes that means the thing must be removed (e.g. the bronze snake of Numbers 21 c.f. 2Kings 18). But sometimes, it just means living with the problem—Jesus’ complex response to the crowds and their preoccupation with healing and miracles is a good example.
Second, every successful communication of God’s grace is a two-edged sword. The creation which reveals God’s power and character, also occasions humanity’s retreat into darkness and folly (Rom 1:18-21). As the prophets speak God’s judgements, they make their listeners deaf (Is 6:9-10). Even Jesus comes to bring blindness as well as sight (John 9:39).
Every successful communication of God’s grace is a two-edged sword
All Christians, writers or not, should take warning and encouragement from this. If we are seeking to share the Truth, sometimes people might hear and respond; sometimes they might react with hostility; sometimes they just won’t hear. This isn’t a reason to give up communicating, though it should drive us to sober reflection and prayer.
Bread on the Waters
In the end, we just don’t know what God will do with what we write or how people will respond. We don’t understand enough about our neighbours or God’s plans to know what might succeed. But we do know that God has worked in situations that are similar to our own. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian situation in terms that sound quite familiar to observers of our escapist modern culture:
Such, then, was my position: to care for almost nothing but the gods and heroes, the garden of the Hesperides, Launcelot and the Grail, and to believe in nothing but atoms and evolution and military service. At times the strain was severe, but I think this was a wholesome severity.
The strain was wholesome in light of the final outcome—Christianity would finally unite his belief and longing. But that was by the grace of God, and he imagines that it might have gone very differently:
If there had been in the neighbourhood some elder person who dabbled in the dirt of the magical kind (such have a good nose for potential disciples) I might now be a Satanist or a maniac.
Who knows what might happen to our society? There is clearly enough mania, maybe the other will follow in a more open manner if God hands us over to our darkened imaginations.
And yet, for Lewis, the way forward came through fantasy. As he read George MacDonald’s Phantastes he encountered a “bright shadow” that he would later come to recognise as holiness. Lewis describes how the book reversed the polarity and bridged the gap:
Up till now, each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert … But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. …That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.
So perhaps there is hope for Christian fiction after all. It might still shine-out as well as spirit-away. Perhaps it might do it despite the background noise and despite all the bad reading and writing (my own included). That’s my prayer as I write, anyway.
 Lewis allegorises the situation on a few different occasions. Here is one example from Perelandra:
As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again … But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
 Greta Gerwig is going to face some interesting choices if her Netflix commission reaches as far as The Last Battle