Thursday, July 16, 2015

Guest Post: Janet Ursel on Christian Fantasy

I hope you guys are having a great Summer! I can't believe it's half over already. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I'm currently reading a book called Disenchanted by Janet Ursel. My review might be a little later than I had originally planned. Not being an ebook person myself, I bought a print copy and am waiting for that to arrive in order to continue the book. But while we're waiting, Janet has agreed to write a guest post for me about the genre in which her book is written: Christian Fantasy! Enjoy!

"Christian fantasy. The term almost seems contradictory, doesn’t it? How does a religion that is all about truth reconcile itself with something that is all about non-truth, about what isn’t? It makes for an interesting dance sometimes. This is a little ironic, seeing that fantasy as a genre was virtually invented by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both committed Christians, and one of their prime literary influences was George Macdonald, yet another committed Christian. Their goal was to take eternal truths and wrap them in different packaging, in order that people who would reject the normal package would find them more acceptable. Controversy has raged ever since in Christian circles about whether that was effective or even advisable.

"So Christian fantasy as a genre has existed in a weird twilight zone, too Christian for the secular market and too far from truth for many Christians. And yet writers of Christian fantasy persist, most of them writing for teenagers, which has proven to be the surest of markets. There are very few publishers of any description who are willing to take on Christian fantasy for the adult market.

"Those few writing to the adult market have often taken the same road as Tolkien and placed their stories in worlds that are entirely fictitious, with the spiritual aspects hidden beneath layers of metaphor, so that they go largely unperceived by most readers. There aren’t very many people who think of The Lord of the Rings as Christian literature, for example, and even devoted fans are often surprised to find out about Tolkien’s religious convictions. And that is why the debate about effectiveness rages. If you’ve wrapped those truths up so tight they’re no longer recognizable, in what sense is the work really Christian? Add to that the fact that Christians are often uncomfortable with magic being given positive connotations, and argue that the elements taken from pagan mythology more or less overwhelm the Christian content.

"Other writers take an approach closer to Lewis’s and connect their fantasy world in some way to the real world. There is still a layer of metaphor, but absolutely no one is surprised that Aslan is Jesus. This has to be handled with a lot of dexterity by the writer, or it could easily come across as too preachy. I personally think that Lewis pushed it pretty well to the limits of the acceptable, and some people think he went too far. I remember one of my English professors complaining about that, even as she read the Narnia books to her children. They were entirely too obvious and too Christian to her liking. I can’t think of anyone else who has succeeded in the general market with such openly Christian content. But then again, there aren’t many people who can write like Lewis.

"And then there are a few others, like myself, who abandon metaphor altogether. Christianity enters the stories on its own terms for entirely what it is and the characters have to struggle with it on those terms. This frequently takes place in a dystopic future, which is perhaps better categorized as science fiction. Again, there are some Christians who are uncomfortable with that, arguing that they are inconsistent with Christian eschatology. Such writers have to find innovative ways to connect the fantasy element to the real world, through some form of urban fantasy or portal stories.

"Writers like me, who take a different road than Tolkien, run the risk of being entirely rejected by the secular market. There are those, like Jeffrey Overstreet, who say that our main problem as Christians has been inferior quality, and that if we wrote to higher standards, the wider market would be prepared to embrace us. I’ve taken that as a bit of a personal challenge. I did my best to write at a level that can compete favorably in any market, and to examine faith experientially as part of a story, not as a glorified sermon. Faith, after all, is part of the human experience, and it seems to me that one of the great failings of the secular market is usually leaving it out altogether, which strikes me as being fundamentally dishonest, as dishonest as so many Christian books that leave out or sanitize aspects of life they find uncomfortable.

"So I am curious to see if DISENCHANTED will find an audience beyond the explicitly Christian market. I know there are many people who will reject it purely because of the Christian content. It’s difficult for me to see that as anything but bigotry. I personally have yet to refuse to read a novel because it was atheistic, or Muslim, or whatever, so I am not inclined to be charitable toward that kind of attitude. One of the great things about fiction is its ability to increase our empathy, to help us understand other points of view. I am hoping that DISENCHANTED will be good enough to delight those who are willing to look through an unfamiliar window. (I will confess, I tried to make Christians look through an unfamiliar window or two also. I’m ornery that way.)"

Janet Ursel

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  1. Thank you so much, Ms. Ursel -- I agree wholeheartedly with so many of your points. Too much Christian fiction seems written with the idea that if you just jam enough Jesus into the story, it doesn't matter if the story is well-written or not. Which is why for many years, I avoided Christian fiction. There seems to be more well-written stuff around these days, thank the Lord! I'm eager to read your book :-)

    1. Thank you, Hamlette. To tell the truth, I avoided it for years too. But I've been introduced to some better authors in recent years, so I am slowly and cautiously coming back. But I am admittedly picky.