A few reactions to a recent article of mine voiced surprise and disapproval that I would list fictional characters as inspirations alongside biblical ones, or that I would be inspired by fictional characters at all. I would love to discuss this further with you lovely readers, because fiction — especially science fiction and fantasy — is near to my heart, and telling stories is a part of what it means to be a human in God’s image.
Telling stories is what humans do naturally; we often experience the world around us narratively, looking for beginnings and endings, climaxes and finales. We also love creating stories that are not based on fact — hence our amassed collections of scrolls, books, comics, movies, and television shows. Stories are entertaining (and that’s often good enough for me), but they can also be so much more. They encourage us to see from someone else’s perspective, inform us, and challenge our assumptions.
Jesus was a master storyteller. He taught in parables for a reason. Instead of saying to the people, “Listen, you need to understand God’s purpose for you. It’s really important,” He told the farmers a parable about sowing seeds. Why? So they would understand His message better; so they would remember. “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand,” He says in Matthew 13:13. Jesus understood the impact of story.
J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture in 1939 that was adapted into an essay titled “On Fairy-Stories,” in which he highlights the significance of fairy tales and myth.
“Fantasy is a natural human activity,” he writes. “It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”
Tolkien was obviously a huge believer in storytelling because he poured so much of his life into the creation of The Lord of the Rings. Through story, he relayed a masterpiece of good triumphing over evil that I think Christ would be proud of. In fact, I’m certain Christ would use many familiar stories from pop culture to illustrate His purpose if He was on earth now, because that’s exactly what He did back then. Story impacts us in a way that fact does not because it makes us feel and understand a concept we might otherwise not grasp. Though we shouldn’t rely on feelings to understand truths, they do help us remember.
On the potential dangers of fantasy, Tolkien says this:
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
Tolkien was aware that anything can become a false god, but that doesn’t make it automatically so.
Inspired by Fiction
I have many fictional heroes, and I will talk your ear off about them if you ask me to. I love Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars because she stands up for what she believes is right. I admire Yang from RWBY for facing challenges headfirst with bravery. I learned from Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings) that you don’t give up on your friends even if they tell you to.
I see powerful stories not only affecting me but the people around me. My best friend hated his father for many years because of a drinking problem. He adored the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card, though, and after reading Speaker for the Dead, which features a drunk and abusive character, his perspective changed. The character’s actions were never excused, but by showing his perspective he was made into a little more man and a little less monster. Because of this, my friend was able to see his father in a similar light and, though he didn’t condone the bad decisions made, he could finally forgive and set that emotional weight on Jesus’ shoulders instead of carrying it around with him.
That story changed my friend’s life. So much so that he named his son Ender and is able to raise a family without holding on to bitterness.
Just because something is a story doesn’t mean it is false. Fiction contains powerful truths that we might not comprehend through another means. It is in our nature to tell stories and it is in Christ’s nature to speak to us through them.