Is it OK for a Christian to write fantasy stories? The bible is pretty clear that people should not use magic. Why would it be OK to write about magic? And isn’t the whole idea of writing fantasy stories frivolous anyway? Wouldn’t our time be better spent serving the poor and telling people about Jesus, or even reading the bible? I would argue that not only is it OK, but if you are a Christian with the inclination to write fantasy stories, it’s helpful if you do.
Why is this even a question?
If you’re not a Christian, you may be wondering what the fuss is about. It’s not like writing a fantasy story hurts anybody. Writing stories is a personal thing. Where does religion come into it? Why would a good and wise creator take issue with a writer spinning a tale about a made-up world? It seems quite strange from the outside. Especially when Christians sometimes get rather worked up about this stuff. To understand why though you have to understand some the basic assumptions Christians make.
Stories are important—for everyone, not just Christians. They light up our brains like a christmas tree. Dr Pamela B. Rutledge puts it well when she says:
Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values.
Stories are how we make sense of the world. We understand the world we live in, and our place in it, through the lens of stories. We each place ourselves as the central character of our own story. Most of the time we’re the hero. Sometimes we’re misunderstood. Sometimes we’re valiant and brave. Sometimes we make (understandable) mistakes. But the stories we’ve encountered in the past shape the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. And that is what forms our identity and drives our behaviour. For this reason, stories matter.
On top of this, Christians in particular care about stories because the bible is a story. This is something that even many Christians misunderstand. Many people assume that the majority of the bible is a bunch of commands and instructions. It might have a few illustrative stories sprinkled through, but the bulk of it is rules and laws. But the reality is quite different. The bible is at its core a story. It does have a few commands and instructions thrown in to help clarify things. But taken as a whole, the bible has a consistent narrative thread running all the way through.
We Christians believe that in the bible is the greatest story of all time. A great, grand, sweeping story that explains the purpose of our existence. The story of a creator who became one of the created. The story of a man who died for his true love. A story of estranged families reunited. A story encompassing the whole of history. This story makes sense of who we are, why we are here, and why everything is broken in spite of our capacity for great good.
The main character of this story is God. At the centre of the tale is an all-knowing, all-seeing person. A person who cares about the creatures He’s created. Now, you may or may not believe that this story is true. But assuming it is true for a moment, it follows that this God is smarter than we are. He knows a lot more about how the world (and all reality) works than we do. And he would also know a lot better what leads to human flourishing than we do. Even if sometimes his ideas seem counter-intuitive to us.
So then, if God is smarter than we are, and He says that magic is a bad idea, then it’s wise to think this through. Christians worry about this topic because the bible has explicit instructions about magic. But this raises an important question: What does the bible say about magic? It’s much better to look at the actual text than argue about what people assume it says.
What does the bible say about magic?
If you search the bible for the term ‘magic’, it doesn’t come up that often. In the HCSB translation, the word only appears five times in the whole bible. And two of those instances are figurative. For example:
A bribe seems like a magic stone to its owner, wherever he turns, he succeeds.
But we can broaden our search a little and find that the bible does make some explicit commandments against
divination and sorcery. A representative example is Deuteronomy 18:10:
No one among you is to make his son or daughter pass through the fire, practice divination, tell fortunes, interpret omens, practice sorcery, cast spells, consult a medium or a familiar spirit, or inquire of the dead.
Note that the bible lumps a whole bunch of things here into the same basket. If we look at the other commands on the topic too, we find that the bible repeats this pattern. It groups things like telling fortunes, talking to the dead, and burning babies alive. They all appear to be different facets of the same core idea.
Translating into modern-day English, we tend to use the term ‘occult’ for these practices. The bible seems more concerned about the occult than the type of magic found in fantasy stories. But that doesn’t mean fantasy stories are automatically OK. These laws are there for a reason. It’s important to understand why they’re in the bible. Otherwise we end up like the Pharisees. They followed truck-loads of laws but missed the point along the way.
With a little thought, it’s not hard to see why God is against occult practices. They generally involve summoning or otherwise invoking supernatural beings. The summoner’s aim might be find out about the future or to manipulate people, but the power source is the same. If we start with the assumption that God is powerful and cares about us, then dabbling in the occult is a bit of a kick in the teeth. It’s saying to God: “You’re not giving me what I want, so I’m going to find it somewhere else. I don’t trust you and don’t believe you care about my wellbeing. I’m going to find some other supernatural being that will do my bidding.” Using magic in this sense is a rejection of God. So, when it comes to writing, we want to avoid anything that might encourage people down this path.
So, is it OK to write about magic?
I think it is possible to write about magic without encouraging people to practice magic. If we’re writing fantasy stories, we just have to be careful about the worlds we build. You wouldn’t write a story that shows greed as the way to get rich and be happy. In a similar way, we don’t want to write a story that shows magic as the key to success. How do we do that? I find two questions helpful in thinking this through:
- Where is the power coming from? and
- What are we implying about the use of magic in a moral sense?
These questions give us a guide for thinking about how to write stories involving magic. There are endless possibilities, but I can think of three main directions one could take:
Invent a world where magic has nothing to do with invoking supernatural beings. With this approach magic becomes more like electricity or hydraulics or aeronautical engineering. Our world is full of things that appear magical to me when I think about it for a moment. Modern cities are crammed with glowing orbs, flying machines, and flattened-out crystal balls. But these devices operate according to well-defined rules. Rules based on the fundamental mechanics of how this world works, not invoking spirits. This doesn’t mean you have to explain all the mechanics in great detail. We don’t spend time explaining the source of electrical power in modern stories. It just needs to be clear that this is a different kind of ‘magic’ to the divination and sorcery the bible prohibits.
Only show ‘bad guys’ using magic. With this approach, the world itself might be magical, but practicing magic is something ‘good’ people avoid. There are a lot of different ways to approach this. In the Chronicles of Narnia, for example, it is usually bad people who actually cast spells. The protagonists might use magical objects but rarely work magic themselves. There is more to magic than casting spells. And a fantasy world does not need spell-casters to be magical. You can populate a world with fantastic creatures, magical objects and magical places. Some of the best fantasy stories are like this. The story explores the fantastic world and is full of beautiful, magical things. But the protagonists don’t need to use magic for the story to be magical.
Assume the same rules as our world and show magic as evil. This type of story assumes magic equals meddling with the occult. Horror and suspense stories often make this assumption. Authors like Frank Peretti or Stephen King use it to great effect. But it can work for more typical fantasy stories too. In the world you create, you assume that magic exists, but its power source is always evil. That places magic off-limits for the ‘good guys’. They might be tricked, or deceived, or give in to temptation and end up using magic. But the implication is clear that this type of magic is evil.
I think any of these approaches (or some combination of them) can lead to a great story. And these are not the only options. They’re just a starting point. They show it is possible to write great fantasy stories without promoting the occult. But just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should. What about the charge that writing fantasy stories is a frivolous, waste of time? After all, aren’t stories just entertainment? To some people, the idea of inventing make-believe worlds is frivolous. Is it self-indulgent to write fantasy?
Is it just a waste of time?
The bible is pretty clear about things God thinks are important for Christians to be doing. There’s clear instructions on things like love and prayer and caring for the poor. Writing fantasy stories though, is not listed as something Christians should do. So, if you were to say caring for the poor is more important than writing fantasy stories, I would agree with you. But it does not follow that writing fantasy stories is thus a waste of time.
So, yes, caring for the poor is more important than writing fantasy stories. But that is like saying that breathing and eating are more important than sleeping. It is a true statement, but it does not mean that sleeping is a waste of time. Yes, it’s possible to spend too much time sleeping, but that does not mean I should never sleep. Writing fantasy stories is not an excuse for neglecting other duties. But I do believe stories (including fantasy stories) have their own inherent value.
Stories allow us to communicate truth in a way that other mediums cannot. A key feature of stories is that they move us emotionally. The more moving the story, the more we enjoy it (usually). It may move us in any number of emotional directions, from sadness to excitement to laughter to fear…. Sometimes all the above. But we like stories because they evoke feelings. This is a good thing. In the bible we are often commanded to feel a certain way. We are to rejoice in the Lord; hate evil; delight in His word; and so on. These commands are sometimes hardest to obey because we can’t manufacture feelings on demand. But stories can help us. As C. S. Lewis writes:
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, could one make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Stories can help strip away our personal issues with a topic and see it through another person’s eyes. Perhaps with a better perspective. They can move us to feel as we ought about something. This, I think, is the real purpose of stories and art in general. They move us to feel as we ought about Jesus (and as a consequence, everything else too). We need more stories written by people with a deep understanding of the gospel. We need stories that help us feel the emotional impact of the truth. And we need stories like this in every genre, including fantasy. For this reason, if you are a Christian with the inclination to write fantasy stories, please do.
Writing fiction to the glory of God
I have some opinions on what leads to a good story that glorifies God and communicates truth well. They come from my own reflections on the nature of stories and the things God said when he first created people. But they are still just opinions, so take them with a grain of salt. With that said, I think there are two key parts to writing stories well as a Christian:
- Be a Christian; and
- Write good stories that people want to read.
At first glance, these may seem like stating the obvious, but bear with me as I explain.
Be a Christian
If you’ve bothered to read this far, it’s likely that you are already a Christian. But let me clarify. Your story will most glorify God when you are so soaked in the truth of the gospel that it seeps into everything you do. Understanding the gospel impacts everything about our lives. It changes how we do work, how we relate to other people, what we hope for, how we spend our money, even how we watch movies. This includes how and what you write. But the relationship with Jesus has to come first, not the writing. As you mature, your faith becomes part of your identity. And that identity shapes your actions—habitually and unconsciously. Then when it comes time to write a story you won’t need to make it a Christian story. It will be, simply because you wrote it.
This does not mean that you can never think about biblical themes you might want to work into your story. But do practice reading the bible, praying, and discussing life with other Christians. If you do this outside of your writing, then the stories will be better, and the themes more nuanced. There will be more depth to your writing. The Christianity won’t be ‘slapped on’ like a bad coat of paint.
Write good stories that people want to read
This might also seem like stating the obvious but I have to say it. Just because a Christian writes a story, that doesn’t automatically make it a good story. Nobody wants to read a thinly-veiled rant shoved into a story format. Nobody wants to read second-rate writing, whether a Christian wrote it or not. Writing a bad story is not loving the reader, it’s disresepectful. So learn how to craft stories to the best of your ability.
Please do not hear me saying that if you are not ‘talented,’ you should not write. No, if your stories are not great, then please write more. The only way to get better is to practice. A lot. Have the humility to seek out criticism and feedback. Feedback will sting sometimes, but it’s the fastest way to improve. It’s not about my talent or your talent, it’s about giving readers the best possible story we can.
If we can do these things, then if people don’t like the story it will be for the right reasons. I don’t want anyone to reject Jesus because I was half-hearted about the quality of my writing. If people don’t like the story, I want it to be for one of two reasons:
- Either it smells too much like the real Jesus and they don’t like it, or
- It’s just not the kind of story they want to read.
Some people aren’t into fantasy stories, and that’s OK. But lots of people are. Fantasy stories can be a powerful vehicle for communicating truth. Truth that impacts at both the intellectual and emotional level. And in a format that can reach many more people than would ever read an essay or listen to a sermon. A good fantasy story can present the gospel in a way that benefits both Christians and people who don’t believe. So if you can write, please do.
Pamela B. Rutledge, 2011, ‘The Psychological Power of Storytelling,’ Psychology Today, 16 January 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/positively-media/201101/the-psychological-power-storytelling ↩
Proverbs 17:8 ↩
For example, Leviticus 19:26. ↩
See, for example, 2 Kings 17:17, 2 Kings 21:6, 2 Chronicles 33:6 ↩
By ‘flattened-out crystal balls’ I mean things like television screens and smart-phones with video calls, in case it wasn’t obvious. ↩
Though that could be fun. There is a reason some people love hard science fiction—where the mechanics of future technology are spelled out in great detail. Why not write ‘hard’ fantasy? ↩
C. S. Lewis, 1956, ‘Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said’, reprinted in C. S. Lewis Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy, and Short Stories, Harper Collins, London, pp. 119–120. ↩
See Genesis 1:26—2:3, for example. ↩