In addition to being a writer myself, I teach writing at a university. On the first day of each new course, I talk to the students about the impact and far-reaching effects of writing. Students are considering their futures, their careers—where they will fit into the world, and how their lives will affect the people they encounter. I point out that if a person wants to change the world for the better, writing is one of the very best ways to do it. All that we know about the ancient world, we know because people wrote things down. We can feel what others have felt, see what they’ve seen, and understand something of their thoughts—all through the wondrous power of the written word to span time and geographic space.
In John 15:16, Jesus tells His disciples that He chose and appointed them to bear lasting fruit . . . not simply fruit, but fruit that remains. That passage always speaks to me as a writer, because that is precisely what writers do: we produce “fruit” that stays on the page long after we move onward. As the writer of Hebrews says about Abel, who offered his best to the Lord: “through it he, being dead, still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
In particular, I love the genre of fantasy, having grown up as an avid fan of The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I am drawn to the universality of fantasy. Because it is so often set in a time and place not our own, we focus as we read on the common ground we can find, on what we share with the characters—the emotions and the themes that are true for all people. Fantasy deals in archetypes; it is often rendered in epic, dramatic scenes that are larger than life. In following its characters through their overwhelming hardships, their struggles against all-but-unbeatable foes, we learn something of how to deal with our own lives. As a Christian, I understand how fantasy can thus be a vehicle for communicating the deepest truths.
Tolkien did this in some wonderful ways. His great story reinforces what the Bible teaches us of the value of striving, of giving the last measure of strength and devotion, of remaining true to a purpose and to the people one holds dear. Even more, The Lord of the Rings strikes dead-center with its portrayals of human weakness, of our absolute need for help from outside ourselves. An important concept for Tolkien was what he called the “eucatastrophe”: the final righting of things, the triumph of goodness despite all probability and expectation. Christian faith is based on eucatastrophe—on God’s sudden unraveling of the black night of death into the glorious light of resurrection—our Lord’s, and ours through Him.
Consider: so much secular fiction presupposes that the notions of good and evil are childish, that a happy ending is unrealistic, and that we are deluded to look for help anywhere but in our own resourcefulness. Our own life experience shows us that the non-believing world doesn’t have the full picture. There is a God in control. We see great evil in the world, but we also feel the supporting hand of a greater Good. Like buckets lowered into deep wells, fantasy stories—with their grand arcs and undiluted emotions, their underlying sense of a Plan—have the freedom to draw up life as it is on its purest levels.
Ironically, in the field of Christian fiction today, the major publishers have rigid guidelines that would prevent a story like Tolkien’s or even like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia from being accepted for publication. The reasoning is that the fiction should present no premise that is different from reality as established in the Bible. A story cannot include elves, for example, because elves are not part of the created order in Scripture. Therefore, a fantasist who is a believer must decide whether to be a “Christian fantasy” writer or a Christian writing fantasy. Either choice, of course, can be valid and God-pleasing. Personally, I choose the second path and work with secular publishers, since I feel it is ridiculous not to avail ourselves of the rich “storytelling language” of folklore and imagination we have been given. The Bible, after all, mentions sea monsters, giants, gaggles of sorcerers, a witch . . . to be sure, God clearly condemns sorcery; but I believe His Word just as clearly suggests the breadth and mystery of His creation. Even if they contain magical beings, the works of Tolkien and Lewis are among the most truly Christian fiction ever written. There is good news in that the Christian publishing field is beginning a shift toward more flexibility without sacrificing a solid grounding in Christ.
As with anything worth doing, good writing is not always easy. There are times of doubt, struggle, frustration, and rejection. But in the end, there is nothing so exciting as watching a story take shape where none existed before. There is no fulfillment like bringing one’s experience and ability to the Lord and crafting a tale that may entertain and edify readers. Tolkien called this process “subcreation”: it is God Who makes the pieces (the world we perceive, the books we read, the people around us); writers rearrange these elements with His help to tell new stories.
What a blessing it is to hear, sometimes from a stranger, that a story we’ve written has brought joy or encouragement! That’s all part of why I write. And that’s why fantasy is my favorite genre, with its infinite possibilities for conveying the wonder that is the life in Christ.
by Frederic S. Durbin