The Search for Meaning

Christian Fantasy

A number of people have addressed perceived issues in the Christian fantasy genre over the years, many of them raising valid problems. A few days ago, I stumbled across a new concern raised by fellow fantasy writer Lindsey Franklin.

While reviewing Swords of the Six, a novel by Scott Appleton, Lindsey stated that “the inherent problem with Christian fantasy is that the reader never knows where to look for deeper spiritual meaning. Is this character a depiction of Christ? Is that character meant to represent the fall of humanity? Is that guy God? The reader is left either missing messages the author meant to convey or, more often, searching for messages that aren’t really there.”

Whenever you have interpretation and exploration of concepts in the form of story, there’s room for misinterpretation, which means this potential for misperception isn’t limited to the genre of Christian fantasy, just as the sense of message and deeper meaning isn’t unique to Christian fantasy. Every author holds a worldview and their worldview, whatever it may be, will bleed into their stories, influencing theme and meaning. Many writers from various religious perspectives have no hesitation in proclaiming the moral underpinnings of their works, and thoughtful readers will attempt to explore and consider the meanings conveyed.

So misinterpretation of meaning can occur with readers of all sorts of fiction. But do readers of Christian fantasy in particular struggle with the search for spiritual meaning in the novels they read? Perhaps some do. Trouble can certainly arise if readers expect direct allegory in every story, even those that rely on symbolism or supposal to convey meaning. However, in my experience, confusion over spiritual meaning isn’t an inherent problem faced by readers of Christian fantasy. I’ve engaged in thoughtful dialogue with numerous readers of the genre–in person and in a number of online venues–and their well-reasoned perspectives strongly suggests otherwise.

However, just because I haven’t encountered many people in a dither of confusion over spiritual meaning and where to find it in Christian fantasy, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m curious regarding what others have experienced. Is this a problem you’ve come across? And how do you respond?

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  • Patrick J. Moore
    October 31, 2011 - 5:07 pm · Reply

    I haven’t had that sort of confusion in my reading. It seems that problem is most likely to occur if one assumes that all “Christian Fiction” = Allegory. Not sure where such an idea comes from, but I’ve read several posts on a few different Christian fiction blogs discussing this very issue. I’m not well read in Christian fiction, so maybe allegory is common to that genre and I just don’t realize it? As far as I know, the only allegories I’ve read were not Christian, but secular psycho-education (self-help) kinds of stories.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 2, 2011 - 8:11 pm · Reply

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Patrick. I do think that’s where issues most often arise, though like you I’m not completely sure how that view took hold.

      I wouldn’t consider allegories common in the Christian market. Only two true Christian allegories come to mind–Pilgrim’s Progress and Pilgrim’s Regress. Among people who rarely read Christian fantasy, there seems to be a misconception that all fantasy must be allegory…or a view that Christians are the only ones to use allegory, when in fact many authors wishing to convey a variety of moral notions write allegories or incorporate allegorical devices into their tales.

  • Lindsay A. Franklin
    November 1, 2011 - 4:15 pm · Reply

    Hi Sarah! Thanks for the pingback. 🙂

    My original statement is based upon many reviews I’ve read of various Christian fantasy authors, most of which come from people who are not especially familiar with the genre to begin with. Because the symbolism in Christian fantasy ranges from outright allegory (like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan character) to very subtle, Christian influence (see Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread), the reader often seems to be left wondering what they’re meant to gather from the story. At least as far as a “Christian perspective” is concerned.

    For an example of the confusion I’m talking about, check out the various reviews of Overstreet’s Auralia Thread on Amazon, starting at the beginning with Auralia’s Colors and going up through The Ale Boy’s Feast. Readers were clearly looking for more allegory than was there and had taken a particular character as God, only to find later in the series that this isn’t what the author had intended at all. Of course my aim is not to bash Christian fantasy or its readers in any way, since I am both an author and a reader of these stories! 🙂 It just seems to be an issue at times.

    On another note, I agree that worldview seeps in no matter what a particular author professes as their faith, or lack thereof. But the Bible gives us such a set of clear, recognizable themes, people, imagery, etc., I think Christian fantasy authors are held to a different standard as far as what their symbols are supposed to mean…or not mean. Just food for thought.

    • Patrick J. Moore
      November 1, 2011 - 10:34 pm · Reply

      The way I understand Narnia, I don’t believe Aslan is an allegorical representation of God any more so than Jesus is. Aslan is the physical manifestation of God to that particular world, not a symbolic creature to represent an abstract god idea.

      • Sarah Sawyer
        November 2, 2011 - 8:16 pm · Reply

        Yes, despite the way his books are often branded, Lewis was quite adamant about Narnia not being allegory, but supposal. There is a significant difference between the two, as you just pointed out, and one worth keeping in mind.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 2, 2011 - 8:14 pm · Reply

      Lindsey, I appreciate you chiming in and elaborating on your experiences. By no means did I intend to imply that you were bashing Christian fantasy–I could tell from your website that you support the genre. I think it’s important to address issues or potential issues in Christian fantasy or any other genre, and in these sorts of discussion, I always learn something. 🙂

      One of the reasons the line from your post stuck with me was that I’ve encountered several blog posts lately suggesting readers can’t appreciate deeper meanings and want their stories packaged with neat, easily understood message (which isn’t at all what you were saying, I know). So when your post mentioned readers of fantasy, it stirred some of the general thoughts I’ve had lately about readers being more astute than writers give them credit for. So many I know like to dig deep and like a story that prompts thought and consideration.

      All that being said, I tend to interact a great deal with avid readers of speculative fiction, so that might explain why I haven’t encountered the level of confusion you’ve come across. As I mentioned to Patrick, I have noticed those unfamiliar with the genre tend to think of all Christian fantasy as allegory, which is clearly not the case. Of course, if they then choose to pick up a Christian fantasy novel, that perspective can lead to misinterpretation or confusion, as in the reviews you highlighted. Perhaps there’s a need for educating wider groups of readers about the growing variety in the world of Christian speculative fiction?

      Interesting point about Christian fantasy writers being held to a different standard than others. On the specific topic of expectations regarding symbolism, I think I agree…and that does create an added layer of complication. Now that would be an interesting topic for future discussion!

      I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into the matter, and I hope we have opportunity to dialogue more in the future.

  • Kessie
    November 2, 2011 - 12:09 am · Reply

    What I run into with Christian fantasy is that there’s no gray areas. It’s always nakedly Christian and the Christianness is rammed down your throat with no bothering about subtlety. Of course, I haven’t read much in recent years because of being tired of being spoon-fed a Church-Safe Story(TM), so I don’t know if that’s gotten better.

    I don’t really go in for reading deep meanings into books, like people who wanted to see a whole Jesus-crucifixion metaphor in the end of the Lich King expansion in World of Warcraft, with the one paladin calling on the Light to shatter the sword of the king of the undead. Yeah, I suppose you could read that into it. But at face value, it was also just a great story. Why do Christians have to Christianize everything?

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 2, 2011 - 8:21 pm · Reply

      Very interesting thoughts, Kessie. Certain subgeneres of fantasy tend toward black and white with little grey in between (I’m think of epic fantasy and the clash between good and evil, though others could certainly fit). Christian fantasy does often follow this pattern, but I think a broader spectrum is starting to emerge.

      Jeffrey Overstreet writes Christian fantasy with a more subtle touch, though as Lindsey pointed out in her comment, some people interpreted allegory early on where it didn’t exist. ND Wilson, Jennifer Trafton, and DM Cornish are also all Christian writers of fantasy that don’t go in for overt, heavy-handed symbolism. At least that’s my take. I’d be curious to hear your take, if you’ve read any of their works.

      I’ll admit that I like to consider the themes and meanings of a book, but there must be a good story first and foremost, otherwise there’s nothing of substance to consider. 🙂

      When I did a series on faith in fantasy, I posted part of an exchange between CS Lewis and two other writers on his Space Trilogy. In it, he talks about constructing a tale for a didactic purpose as compared to incorporating a spiritual element that springs forth as a natural part of the process of story-crafting. It was interesting to learn a bit more about his perspective, and it furthered the point that there must be an excellent story foremost.

      And yes, I do think there are times when people read in Christian (or other social/political/moral) elements where they don’t exist. Sometimes a writer just used a convenient story device, without intending more.

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