The Role of Imagination/Fiction in Christian Living

With the advent of the Christian movie industry, especially “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and “The Lord of the Rings,” more and more Christians are getting into fiction and fantasy. This has some people worried. Tales with magic, imaginary creatures, and unreal environments often bring the temptation of fundamentalism close to many of our doors… “It isn’t of God, don’t get into it!”

But is this necessarily the case?

Let’s momentarily put aside the fact that there are good reasons for Christians not to get into movies at all–they can be a waste of time, feed celebrity worship, and pollute our moral senses with profanity and immorality. Sometimes they ruin a story for us. I personally have no problem with some people’s stance that all TV and movies should be restricted… as long as the reason is to devote oneself more appropriately (and non-self righteously) to holiness.

But some avoid Christian fiction because they are afraid of fiction. They believe that the elements in it–especially the make-believe ones–are blasphemy. Obviously CS Lewis, Tokien, and others didn’t think so, and perhaps we are willing to make an exception for Christian classics like those (or not), but the whole idea of imagination and fiction generally has a lot of orthodox believers on edge… wisely, but unnecessarily, if you think about it.

God, in His Word, condones the use of fiction, narrative, and imagination. He uses it himself. He uses parables, allegories, dreams, visions, symbols, and poetry to get His point across. While the OT narratives are historical, they are, to us modern readers, stories. And prophecies, filled with strange imagery, prompt people of every age to wise interpretation. The fact is that God assumes we will use, and depends on our imaginative capacities (which He gave us) to inspire us to high ideals, radical moves, hope in His return, and the faith-walk of our sanctification towards the “image” of Christ. He impresses upon us things we can’t see (i.e. heaven), sometimes in elements we can’t understand (i.e. the four living creatures around the throne), in words we can imagine (i.e. His voice like the waters), to help us take that great leap between what we experience as tiny, finite, material existence in his creation to the greatest, widest, most eternal truths of His existence in the spirit.

Thank goodness for imagination.

Now some argue that using our imagination to inspire us towards goals and character is not the same as inventing new fantasy or fiction stories, which are more dangerous because they are not real things or events to be actualized. To use our creative capacities to imagine starting a business is not the same as imagining what “The Passion” was like. And creating “The Passion” movie is not the same as creating “The Lord of the Rings” because the latter is not historical or sensical. And while I submit this article with the BIG caveat to not let worldly fantasy in the back door (especially about the spirit realm), I would argue that fiction can (and should be) sanctified.

When we create art: dance, song, painting, etc., we are invoking a sense of fiction. We are imagining something that is not, and making it so. Literature is an even more potent media because of the amount of language and imagery combined. Movie-making perhaps tops the potency list because putting pictures to the written word has an extremely powerful effect. When we read about Pilgrim, in John Bunyan’s allegorical novel, it is powerful because he crystallizes the characters and events so we catch the moral meaning and application of the story. Many novels, including Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s, do the same thing. They are masterful in dealing with character traits and historical events (although mixing the historical and fictitious) so that we can see the moral messages they are trying to convey in new, living color–messages that perhaps we would miss if we only had the diary entries of our own jumbled lives to examine.

Fantasy stories are capable of doing the same thing. By creating a fictitious world (with at least enough symbols and icons we understand), the artist is able to crystallize aspects of a story for moral application that perhaps he or she would not be able to convey with real props. Indeed, much of the Book of Revelation does this. Bumping the imagination up a notch from Tolstoy and Dostoyevksy, fiction by L’Engle, Lewis, or other writers can be extremely powerful because of the black-and-white terms everything is put in: the audience gets to see exactly how good and evil work, what the consequences of decisions are, and parallels life’s events has to the gospel message. I am not arguing that people should be L’Engle or Lewis fans, or that they should pursue the Christian fiction genre against their conscience, but rather that if we are honest, we do not have any biblical warrant for fearing fiction-making in itself. When it is submitted to God, imagination and fantasy can be a very powerful teaching tool. It makes use of the emotions to impress real-life facts upon us in ways that the rational mind (receiving plain teaching or non-fiction statements) cannot always do. It penetrates to the depths of man, and the emotive aspects of his heart. It allows the individual to perceive the outcomes of decisions not actually made. And it echoes the creative voice of God himself, in Scripture, who again creates fantastical events, images, and characters–some in history and some just in thought–for our learning throughout His Word.

The reality is that nothing God has given us is evil. God created us good. He wants us to use all our faculties for His glory, imagination or fiction-making included. God gave us this capacity–it is something distinctly human, which mirrors His creative faculties and sets us apart from all other living forms on earth. The greatest art, literature, and creative works came from pictures or songs or scenes that God inspired in the hearts (and minds) of humanity. We should not think more highly of ourselves than is appropriate, but to shun our creative-making devices is to fear God actually gives us bad gifts when we ask for good… not Scriptural.

So enjoy (and create) Christian fiction if that is your thing. The real question is not whether Christian fiction should exist but about the standards and specifics it should uphold. What are the shapes and limits of sanctified imagination? How can we judge whether something is godly or fleshly? Once we get over our fears, we can start penetrating this arena with more insight and confidence.

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