The Magical Imagination, pt. 2

As mentioned in my last blog, parents must be discerning about what their kids read, now more than ever. My approach? I try to be 1) as cautious as necessary for wisdom’s sake, and 2) as liberal as possible for imagination’s sake. Each mom and dad must be led by the Holy Spirit. The seductions of this age are both too great and subtle to blindly follow popular fiction simply because it is thrilling, fun, helps your child get over his/her reading hangups, etc.

Yet we must not timidly retreat, either. The potential for redeeming and expanding your child’s imagination is too powerful to ignore. A great fantasy novel can imbue in your child’s/teenager’s spirit a breathless sense of magic and wonder that actually enhances dynamic discipleship. Yep, you read that right. Then why do so many Christians remain troubled and fearful? I think, to them, the word “magic” feels like a land mine, and therefore magical books feel like dangerous mine fields. How do you weigh the risks? First, a paradigm shift might be in order. In The Book of Names, Sorge the monk says to Ewan:

“Magic is a word, like pleasure or fun or pain or knowledge. There can be pleasure in evil and selfishness and lust, but surely not all pleasure is evil? Likewise discipline can be painful, yet it heals the soul. The source from which a thing comes, and the end to which it is put, make it good or bad. Grace and kindness and the power of decency are quite magical when they touch you. Do you see? Magic is everywhere, but it must be perceived. If the word magic doesn’t suit you, pick another. But now we’re talking merely about the best way to describe something, not whether the thing is right or wrong.”

Personally, I believe Sorge is right (of course, I wrote his little speech). But Sorge’s counsel doesn’t mean we abandon all sense of caution. The imagination can be defiled as much as it can be redeemed, and the risk of the former is nearly as great as the value of the latter.

But defilement is tricky. It can come through fear (evidenced by excessive avoidance) or fascination (i.e. preoccupation). In The Lord of the Rings, through the voice of Elrond, Tolkien warned , “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.”

Inadvertently, perhaps, the preacher Bill Johnson said much the same thing (though not in specific reference to this topic). Bill said, “If I live in reaction to the powers of darkness, then the devil has a role in my agenda. I don’t want his fingerprints on my thinking. He is not worthy of setting my agenda.”

So how do we judge the difference? First of all, I would say, does the story evoke the right longings? That’s a highly subjective, important variable. I remember reading Madeline L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time in the 4th or 5th grade. I had no idea she was a committed Christian, and there was nothing overtly Christian about the story. In fact, it had isolated elements that could have been argued to be otherwise. But even in the 4th grade, something gripped me. I came away thinking, “I can’t put my finger on it, but I think she’s a Christian.” Years later in college, I discovered the truth: She was. Something of her own walk with the Lord inevitably informed the soul of her story, and I caught a whiff of it. That’s beautiful! L’Engle gave my soul wings, crafted of vague, imprecise longings, by which I yearned for something mysterious. I became a seeker and a knower, all at once.

A good follow-up question would be: Does the world present a clear moral framework that accurately represents Truth? Actually, that definition is a bit clinical for my taste, but the black-and-whiteness of it might help some. I prefer a more nuanced rendering: Does the world help me glimpse something eternally real? No, this doesn’t mean preaching. No, it doesn’t mean that ugliness and evil are somehow made more tame. No, cliches should not overtake the plot. No, bad authors don’t get a free pass simply because their heart is in the right place. No, it doesn’t mean that complexity gets reduced, or that the mythological structure of that world must essentially duplicate our own. No, no, no! It simple means that every good and true story somehow lives and breaths in the shadow of Christ—as does all creation—whose story Tolkien interestingly positioned as a fairy tale that literally became true, “entered History and…has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Fantasy should have the inner consistency of reality. Yes, that’s it. Rooted in something true, then given wings to fly.

Every parent considering mine or any other author’s stories (fantasy or otherwise), must look for solid roots and soaring wings. Who knows? The space between these two might just offer a path to redemption for your son or daughter. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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