I’ve recently come across several comments on a recent essay that tries to define fantasy as a distinctly Christian genre. Both J.L. Bell and Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith have brought it up, and my immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea as ridiculous. That’s still the case, but having thought about it a little more, I’ve decided that I can make a post out of the topic. Obviously I don’t think it’s true, but I’m inclined to regard a significant part of the problem as a Eurocentric view in general. When you enter the fantasy section at a bookstore, you’re likely to find mostly material produced by Western culture, which of course is predominantly Christian. It’s not that non-Christian fantasy doesn’t exist, and exist in spades at that, but that the authors of it didn’t specifically intend to work in that genre. The thing is, if you look at the famous works of fantasy, INCLUDING the blatantly Christian ones like the Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll notice that they pretty much all incorporate classical mythology. Now, there’s a difference between mythology and religion, even though much of mythology comes from religious tradition.
Just because someone writes about centaurs doesn’t mean they’re advocating the worship of Zeus, but it DOES mean they’re going outside the sphere of Christianity for inspiration. Really, Christianity as a religion is fairly light on the mythology, and what is there is largely borrowed. The impression I get is that the earliest worshippers of Jesus regarded him as the Messiah, a distinctly Jewish figure destined to restore Israel to its former glory. Later, as the religion spread to the gentiles, it incorporated more Greek mythological elements. From what I’ve gathered, when a Jewish figure was referred to as “Son of God,” it wasn’t meant literally. The way the story of Jesus developed, however, he not only became a biological child of God, but God impregnating a virgin came to be an integral part of the tale. In other words, Jesus’ origin became that of a demigod hero like Perseus. To claim fantasy for Christianity seems to me to be ignoring how little of Christianity was original. People may claim that fantasy isn’t part of Judaism, but many of the more fantastic elements of Christianity are taken wholesale from Judaism. I don’t know that Jewish mysticism is all that popular these days, but it was huge in the time of Jesus. The incorporation of the spirit world and other such ideas into messianic lore didn’t come from a vacuum, after all. It is also relevant to point out that Christianity does not have a monopoly on most of what we might consider Christian themes.
I do kind of wonder, however, if fantasy is largely steeped in the idea of the Higher Power, even if not a specifically Christian one. After all, the fairy tale structure is all about the protagonist receiving supernatural assistance, right? The framework for many fairy tales can be found in the myth of Perseus, who received magical gifts from the gods to help him in slaying Medusa. In later tales, it doesn’t always have to be a god helping out, but it’s quite often someone who has powers beyond those of humans, be it a fairy, a wizard, or a guardian animal. This could also explain why science fiction often seems to be more secular territory, because I think at its heart the science fiction genre is largely about what we as humans can accomplish WITHOUT the help of gods or fairies. That said, though, the lines are pretty blurry, and I get the impression that what the general public thinks of when they hear “science fiction” is “spaceships.” And it’s certainly not unheard of for modern fantasy to incorporate space travel. Just look, for instance, at Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, both firmly fantastic AND quite Christian in their themes, but also involving other planets and certain scientific concepts.
Star Wars is often classified as sci-fi, but it’s really based on a fairy tale model and doesn’t include that much science. For that matter, it also involves a higher power, albeit not a particularly Christian one, even if there is a virgin birth. The idea of a controlling force (conveniently called “The Force”) instead of a personal deity being in charge of the universe is based more on Oriental philosophy.
And what about Star Trek? From what I’ve read, Gene Roddenberry was one of the most humanistic writers around, yet the series he created went on to include plots based on near-omnipotent beings manipulating events. 2001: A Space Odyssey also comes to mind, as it’s science fiction with a central tenet being that extraterrestrial intelligences have influenced the development of humanity.
So maybe there really isn’t much to this thought at all.
Overall, I guess I would say that claiming fantasy for Christianity is based on a narrow look at the genre, but it’s not like I’m familiar with a majority of fantasy literature either. Still, I’ve read enough to know that it’s not all Christian. After all, we all know how much I love the Oz books, and those are really quite secular most of the time.