What is Christian Fantasy? — A Definition and a Challenge

This is an article I wrote for the Holy Worlds website, and I thought I should finally post it here, updated a bit.

Keep in mind that although I directly speak about fantasy novels—being a published author of a fantasy series—what I say applies equally to other genres of fiction and to other art forms.

So here it is:

What is Christian Fantasy?
A Definition and a Challenge

From the pen of Robert Treskillard

As I endeavor to define what is meant by the term “Christian fantasy”, the task reminds me of angling for catfish. When I was a kid in Minnesota, my brother caught a catfish, and I was amazed at its foot long, very thick girth. But that did not prepare me for catfish Missouri style. In Missouri, they don’t fish for catfish, they noodle for catfish.

Now noodling is, to say it mildly, a very personal way to catch a fish. What you do is this. You find yourself a stream, climb down into the water, find a hole in the bank, and stick your bare arm in it up to the shoulder. Now, mind, you’ve no idea what’s in the hole. Down here, it could be a poisonous snake or a snapping turtle!

What you are hoping for is that the hole is actually the mouth of a catfish. If so, you grab the inside of the fish, and pull the fish out. And we’re not talking little, teensy, tap-dancing, foot long catfish here. They can be 100 pound, four foot monsters that can actually eat your arm. Well, at least you’ve got it by the, you know, gills and guts, so I guess you win. Anyway, I’ve seen pictures of these fish and, needless to say, I’ve never been tempted to go noodling.

So that’s my first impression of trying to define Christian Fantasy: it’s far bigger than I can imagine, and I’m going to have to wrestle it out of its hole to get it into the light of day.

Defining “Christian”

To start with, let’s break the phrase down. I think we all know what fantasy means. If not, you’re probably on the wrong web page and need to go read The Hobbit for the most fitting introduction to the genre.

So what does it mean to call it “Christian”? How can a fantasy story be Christian?

Technically, it cannot … only people can be Christian. The term Christian was first used in Antioch in the 1st century to describe a person who was a follower of Christ. So for the sake of simplicity and being Biblical, I want to stick to that useful definition.

Therefore, since a story cannot be a follower of Christ, a fantasy cannot be “Christian”, and thence the term is all wrong. But not so fast. At some past point, people began calling things “Christian”. And when they did so, they did not mean that the thing was a follower of Christ, rather that the thing was meant for followers of Christ.

Thus we get Christian Churches. Christian Music. Christian Concerts. Christian Bookstores. Christian Books. Christian Fiction. Christian Fantasy. Christian Trinkets.

Okay, skip that last one.

So calling a thing “Christian” is a short-hand code we have adopted, I would say foolishly, to mean that the thing is meant for Christians. Hence we in the modern church have turned the word “Christian” into a marketing term, and that is the root of it.

When we speak of Christian Fantasy, we’re really speaking about whom the book is targeting. And this is something to consider: if a book is to be given or sold to an audience, you will do well to know who that audience is. No use showing up at a French Cooking School and trying to sell them a book on Catfish Noodling. Okay, so maybe the French would go for noodling, but that’s beside the point.

A Challenge

I want to offer you authors a challenge. Throw down the ole gauntlet. Stick my arm in the river bank and see whether you’ve got any guts.

I want you to raise the standard. To stop thinking of “Christian” in terms of marketing, but instead think of it in terms of Christ’s glory. I would like us to think of “Christian fantasy” to mean “Christ glorifying fantasy”.

In other words, maybe we need to start intentionally, authentically, boldly, and delightedly glorifying Christ … and therefore God … through our fantasy novels.

If you are already doing these things, and I know many are, then may God’s blessing be on your writing. If you haven’t thought deeply about them, then may God’s blessing be yours as you consider my points below.

Intentionally Glorifying Christ

How does one intentionally glorify Christ? First of all by planning ahead. Whether you are a seat-of-the-pants writer, or a microscopic plotter, we can all plan ahead of time that our goal is not just to write a book that conforms to the current CBA (“Christian” book industry) rules so it can be marketed to Christians, but rather to glorify Christ through our writing.

Secondly, we can make careful choices. This means we choose our characters and what they do with Christ’s glory in mind. Yes they can take on a “life of their own”, per se, but we need to choose characters who will, in some fashion or other, model the truths presented in the Bible.

And I’m not talking “goody two shoes” here. Even a villain can model Biblical truth about sin … but sin will either come with judgment or repentance and therefore grace. Keep in mind that I’m not saying we need a picture perfect conversion in every book … but we do need to model truth, and take that seriously, intentionally.

Third, we can pray. Pray over our writing. Pray … pouring out our hearts for the souls of our readers. By God’s grace it is my hope that places like Amazon are causing our Christ-glorifying books to be read by more and more non-believers. May those who would never willingly leave molecular fragments of their car tires in the parking lot of a “Christian” bookstore find our books online!

Fourth, we can learn the craft of writing, and learn it well. Really now, poor writing can only fool so many readers. If we’re serious about glorifying Christ through our writing, then we will become master story-tellers, master chapter-writers, master scene-crafters, master paragraph-creators, master dialogue-shapers, and master character-builders… all the way down to master grammarians, punctuationists, and spellers. Granted, this is a journey that never ends, but we must at least be on the road.

Authentically Glorifying Christ

Here we speak a bit about craft. It is not enough to just intentionally model Biblical truth. We must also be honest about the world we live in, for the two are connected. It was Christ who touched the lepers. It was Christ who fed the five-thousand. It was Christ who confronted sin in the religious fads of his day.

We must not be afraid to paint the world as it is, but we also must not paint the world as it wants to be painted. It would like nothing more than for everyone to ignore the schizophrenia of its “morality” and the innocent blood that it sheds. It wants everyone to leave it alone.

It’s our job not to. Rather it is our job to shine the light and call the prisoners out from the darkness. To shine forth the truth of the gospel that brings healing and freedom.

In this, we glorify Christ … that is what he would do.

Boldly Glorifying Christ

To be bold when we glorify Christ is to take the gospel seriously. The gospel is good news for us, but it is also good news for the world, and this can be forgotten when we try to define “Christian fantasy” by the small box of the “Christian” book industry.

I would argue that the fantasy author can reach certain portions of the reading public more easily than the author of contemporary fiction. We can slip truth in the back door … while the non-believing reader is thinking about another world. We can confront the madness of this world … while the reader is thinking about the plagues of another world.

That is why this definition of “Christ glorifying fantasy” is superior to “fantasy for Christians“… it is broader, bigger, and brasher. Keep your pen in the hand of God, and you don’t need to … although you could … cater to Christians. Your book could even be published in the secular market (like the Chronicles of Narnia in its time) and still bring glory to Christ by communicating Biblical truth.

Keep in mind that your book does not need to convey all Biblical truth at once by making your fantasy world some exact copy of our world. Even if it only contains a single core Biblical truth that you grand-slam out of the ballpark …then you’ve done it! God can use it, and He will be glorified.

Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread is a perfect example of this. While published by a “Christian” publisher, the book does not (yet) have an obvious God-figure. As such, it could easily have been published for the secular market. Yet it still clearly communicates many Biblical truths about sin and the power of created beauty to witness for God.

No, I am not calling for the “watering down” of Christian fantasy. Rather, I am calling for the broadening of the definition so we stop back-biting each other. I am calling some authors to be willing to step out, breathe the Spirit of God, and create great literature that will lance open the hidden and pus-filled scabs of the world … and so bring glory to Christ.

But don’t take me wrong. Broadening the definition does not mean leaving behind the core calling of creating fantasy for Christians. I personally feel called to this task … to create excellently crafted “safe” fantasies that Christian families can read without worry, and that are clear enough in their Christian content that they could be published by a “Christian” publisher. However, the era I’m writing about was Christian, so weaving in the content is natural and it would be odd to not include it.

Yet I can also pray that non-Christians would read my books. And I won’t sneer at those whose calling is different, at those who are trying to glorify Christ in a different way. Remember … the church is called to be noodlers of men. And when you’ve got your arm in the belly of the world trying to pull out a few souls, you don’t need someone jabbing you in the back with a two-bit pocket-knife.

Delightedly Glorifying Christ

Here, finally, is the heart of my message. And I don’t mean a paper heart that flops to the floor from that useless refrigerator magnet.

I mean the kind of heart that pumps life-giving, oxygen-rich blood to every cell in your body. The kind that sucks the dead garbage out so your body, and soul, can throw it away. The kind of heart you can hear beating in its love for God.

None of the three points above will possibly glorify God, I would argue, unless you as an author and as a person find your uttermost delight in God. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, it doesn’t matter how authentic you are, and it doesn’t matter how bold you are … if you do not find your deepest delight in God.

As John Piper says,

God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

If you are satisfied in God, then it will spill out upon your pages. Your delight will so affect your writing that readers … whether Christian or non-Christian … will be drawn to the Biblical truths that flow naturally, even unbidden, from your pen. And thus they will be drawn to Christ.

If your soul has found its true treasure in heaven, then even through the dark abyss your fictional characters will persevere to the end and triumph, and your readers will be inspired to “do again the bold deeds of old” for the sake of Christ.

In Conclusion

So what is this thing called Christian Fantasy? No doubt your definition will vary from mine as one catfish is different from another.

But we can at least agree, as followers of Christ, that preaching to the choir and congregation should not be the only job of the pastor… or the author. Yes it is part of the job, and necessary at that. But standing on the street and sharing the love of Christ amidst the dirt and squalor is also needed.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, ESV)

No … neither Christian Fantasy, nor Science-Fiction, nor Supernatural-Fiction, nor any other fiction can fulfill the Great Commission. But I believe when there is a world-wide phenomenon such as fantasy literature, then followers of Christ can, and must, step in and use the medium to bring glory to Christ.

“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:8-10 ESV)

Thus fantasy literature can and will be subject to Christ. And I, and you, as Christ-glorifying fantasy authors can be part of the Great Commission by writing novels that bring many sons and daughters to glory, as well as disciple them.

If only I could get this catfish off my arm.

Merlin's Blade, published by ZondervanRobert Treskillard is the author of MERLIN’S BLADE, book 1 of The Merlin Spiral, which will be released internationally by Zondervan in February 2013.

6 thoughts on “What is Christian Fantasy? — A Definition and a Challenge

  1. Excellent, excellent article — and the best I’ve read on the topic. All sorts of writerly folks are struggling over the definition of “Christian fiction”, and all they really need to do is write for the glory of God.

    Several years ago, a writer who is also a believer became impatient that her work was not being given the proper attention by publishers, so she took a quicker and more lucrative route to publication: erotica. She wrote under a pen name in order to avoid embarrassment at church.

    In the same circle of friends is an atheist who is afraid my fantasy novels will preach to people, but he will not help me avoid that preachiness by reading them and giving feedback. Does he fear he might actually be converted?

    Other writers have declared the works too violent, others too “out there”, and still others declare I can never publish a fantasy novel in which God is a character. But all I can do is write my story, placing it in God’s hands, knowing He can place it with the right publisher so it can reach the right readers. It all depends on how I view God. If I don’t trust Him with my work, I might be tempted to take the erotica writer’s route, and sell myself short. (She no longer tells the stories she started out writing; the vortex has taken her in.) Besides, if the work is for Him, then my ego and other considerations must step aside.

    I got a laugh out of your “noodling for men” comment. Good stuff.

  2. Great post. Truly, we can glorify God in many ways in our stories. Some stories for Christians, some for non-Christians.

    I know personally, God is the cornerstone for why I write (and what I write)

  3. I’ll concur, great comments. The only thing I would add is to glorify God, we also need to work on producing our best for Him, which means not shortcutting learning how to tell a good story in a clear and eye-catching way.

    If we fail that, two things happen. One, God is associated with second-rate work compared to what can be found in the secular markets, and two, many will not be interested in reading our stories, and so the effort to glorify God in them gets short-changed by lack of attention.

    Ultimately, we must tell the stories God lays on our hearts, and trust God for the outcome, but we also shouldn’t allow that to be an excuse to not do the work so that our literature is every bit as high quality as a bestselling secular author.

    But good thoughts, and a good way to look at it.

  4. Rick,

    Absolutely! That is an area that I definitely neglected in my post.

    In fact, I think about the issue of craft quite a lot and was surprised in a re-reading that I hadn’t covered it properly. Thanks for your help amending that defect!

    -Robert &124;-|

  5. Robert–
    Well stated. As God knows the intent of our hearts, there is no excuse for not laying out the best for His glory. For that he will be faithful and enrich us. Perhaps not in dollars, but rich and wealthy are different, no?


  6. Robert,

    Great thoughts on the definition of Christian fantasy. You and I have much in common on this subject. Granted, the term ‘Christian’ is typically taken to mean for whom the novel is written. But my concern, as is yours, is that the term defines the content and purpose of the writing. Understood that way, a fantasy is not distinctively Christian unless it is explicitly gospel oriented; the gospel is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. I have summarized what I believe is the gospel in my article which you commented on (http://networkedblogs.com/a29F5), and the truths that are delineated there are the truths that make our fantasy a Christian fantasy.

    I would like to see this concept of Christian fantasy (explicitly gospel oriented) become the standard. As you point out, a fantasy does not have to include all of the great truths of the gospel (it would then become an epic tale that would take the lifetime of the author to complete), but it does have to contain some core truths: sin, atonement, redemption. Too many so-called Christian fantasies today do not have these truths, or they are so glossed they easily pass unnoticed. They are entertaining (well, some are; many are so horribly written that what entertainment value they might have is destroyed). To write solely for entertainment is not wrong, but I think if one can entertain as well as be explicitly, unmistakably gospel-oriented, that is better.

    If a fantasy is gospel-oriented in this way (explicitly and unmistakably), what does it look like? Does it have to be filled with scripture quotes, a reference to a facet of the gospel on every page? Certainly not. But actions, behavior, events, and, for fantasy, imagery alone are not sufficient in themselves. In varying degrees, they run the danger of misinterpretation that necessitates verbal explication through narrative or dialogue; the truth has to be stated so there is no misunderstanding. Such explication, I think, will enhance the significance of the actions, behavior, events, imagery. In fact, that is the pattern of God’s self-disclosure: predictive word – event – interpretive word. Christ’s first advent is the example par excellence and not to oversimplify may be expressed as the predictive word of the OT, the event as reported in the gospels, and the interpretive word of the rest of the NT. This is a pertinent model for our fantasy to follow, though if done thoroughly would lead one into epic fantasy.

    Thanks for pointing Christian writers of fantasy in a truly ‘Christian’ direction.

    Thomas C. Booher

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