Part 6 of the series “What Christians Have to Learn…
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 20, 2013
Genesis 6:1-4; Philippians 4:8-9; Revelation 12:18-13:4

We have some fantastical elements in our tradition.  The passage from Genesis talks about giants who lived on earth—the nephilim—born of divine beings and human women.  The ancient heroes of the epic tales.  Here in the middle of the primordial history of Genesis—in the middle of a story that includes talking snakes, world-destroying floods, and towers that can reach heaven—is the hint that there was a time of epic stories and heroes of renown. An age of legend. A time of giants and heroes. But it is a legacy mentioned in passing.  It gets a grand total of one verse in scripture.  This age of legend is not used for moral instruction and it occupies no part of the Salvation History.  A curiosity perhaps left over from the pre-literate legends floating around the ancient Near East.

And there are dragons in the Bible as well.  Though they are portrayed in a decidedly negative light.  Two verses in Isaiah equating the dragon with the great sea serpent destroyed by God.  And then there’s the Book of Revelation:

Then another sign appeared in heaven: it was a great fiery red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven royal crowns on his heads. His tail swept down a third of heaven’s stars and threw them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that when she gave birth, he might devour her child.

Revelation 12:3–4 CEB

And then:

So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:9 CEB

The only dragons we encounter are illustrations of chaos or demonic evil.  The dragon is Satan.  Not simply the treasure hoarding Smaug. Not Balerion, Meraxes, and Vhagar, the dragons of the Targaryens as they conquered Westeros. And definitely not Saphira or Draco the loyal dragons of Eragon and Dragonheart.  No, Biblical dragons are the epitome of evil.

And then we get some pretty specific passages that speak directly against the stuff of fantasy stories:

Don’t allow a female sorcerer to live.

Exodus 22:18

(Sorry, Hermione.)

There must not be anyone among you who passes his son or daughter through fire; who practices divination, is a sign reader, fortune-teller, sorcerer, or spell caster; who converses with ghosts or spirits or communicates with the dead.

Deut. 18:10-11

(Sorry, Harry. Sorry, Gandalf.)

And then there is the strange story in 1 Samuel 28 (verse 7) where King Saul is desperate to hear a word from God and decides to consult a medium who will raise the ghost of Samuel from the dead so that Saul can ask him a few questions. The medium is in some translations referred to as the “witch of Endor”.  Yes. Endor. [1]  This episode is part of a longer cycle that explains why God has taken the kingdom away from Saul and given it to David.

And so, the Biblical witness seems to be disapproving of things like wizards, mediums, and dragons.  The things that are the staples of most works of fantasy.


And indeed, a number of Christians have concluded that fantasy literature is itself demonic and anti-Christian.  “J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is a witch and in league with Lucifer himself. She is a lunatic and freak straight out of the pits of Hell, and should be in prison for crimes against the innocent and child abuse!” screams one website. [2] Another claims that the Harry Potter books “undermine Christian theology by glamorizing occult practices” and continues by claiming that the negative portrayals of the muggles in general and Harry’s family in particular, demonstrates anti-Christian bias because it paints so unfavorably those who “object to magic.” [3] (Let’s leave aside for now the implicit assumption of the article that magic is real.) But implicit in this attitude is the notion that Wicca and pagan religions are a real threat to Christian faith and that fantasy that promotes (or at least accepts) witchcraft and wizardry aids and abets one of the enemies of Christian faith.

Other commentators note that J.K. Rowling makes the use of magic appealing, both in clear violation of scripture, but also in ways that cause young people to make themselves vulnerable in the midst of spiritual warfare against evil.  One Christian bookstore manager was quoted as saying, “‘I don’t think people fully realize what they’re dealing with, and I think anyone who knows anything about spiritual warfare knows [Harry Potter] books can open the door to spiritual bondage.” [4]

And beyond discussions of Harry Potter, there are those Christian thinkers who talk about the perils of exploring too much of the realm of evil, and that fantasy may be a perilous endeavor for that reason as well. [5] A sentiment that J.R.R. Tolkein himself may have shared, given the statement of one of his characters that “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.” [6]  And there are even some who argue that much of The Lord of the Rings itself is occultist and anti-Christian. [7]

And let’s not imagine that somehow because it lacks wizards and magic that science fiction gets off the hook.  Some Christians are equally (maybe even moreso) suspicious of science fiction.  They note that God is frequently absent in science fiction or at best a nebulous power like The Force. [8]  There are also criticisms of moral or philosophical relativism, the endorsement of pagan practices, necromancy, and the idea that machines (like android Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation) have souls. [9] (Let’s leave aside for the moment that many of these critics have trouble understanding the idea that an author need not believe in the thing they write about.). In addition, these universes often are rooted in secular humanism (particularly Star Trek) and affirm the process of human species and societal evolution. And some present religion in troublesome ways.  A lot of Christian critics dislike Firefly, because Joss Whedon is an atheist (even though it has a strong Christian character).

And so we see that in neither scripture nor the tradition is there much overlap with science fiction and fantasy in terms of the material.  Wizards, witches, magic, and dragons are all the stuff of either the pagan tradition or represent the powers of evil. Faster than light traveling spaceships may be cool and monoliths that arise from the ground at moments of human evolution are thought-provoking, but they are not the stuff of Christian piety. And frequently the messages of fantasy and science fiction are presented as not compatible with the clear teachings of Christian faith.


In light of all this, it has been interesting to see that there is something of a cottage industry of “Gospel According to…” books, often looking to various works of popular culture and mining them for Christian insight.

A.   Harry Potter

Harry Potter has received a fair amount of this treatment. Perhaps because of the presence of so much criticism, there was a surge of material defending the Christian bona fides of the Harry Potter books as a source of moral example and insight.  Particularly in aspects of self-sacrifice and redemption in victory over evil.

B.    Middle Earth

And with the popularity of the Lord of the Rings movies in the past decade, a whole host of material has emerged detailing J.R.R. Tolkein’s deep and abiding Catholic faith and the subtle use of Christian themes and motifs, especially regarding the hand of Providence, in his epic.  Some years ago, we partnered with Chi Alpha to sponsor a talk by a Tolkein expert on this very question.  The event was very well attended.

C.   Narnia

And, of course, there are the Chronicles of Narnia, which are practically Christian allegory, especially with the Lion King Aslan sacrificing himself for the salvation of others. C.S. Lewis was a well-known Christian apologist and much of his apologetics can be glimpsed in his work and Narnia is no exception, right up until its final apocalyptic battle in the final book.

D.   The Matrix

The Matrix is one science fiction story that was the darling of Christians for a while.  It had prophecy, a Chosen One, who dies and comes back to life to free the people from their bondage. Lots of Christian themes.  A character named Trinity. (Until you get to the second and third movies when much of what everyone had assumed about the series gets turned on its head.)

In short, there has been no shortage of effort both to condemn science fiction and fantasy as unworthy of Christians and to defend it as embodying certain Christian values.


But my purpose here is not to try to convince you either that science fiction and fantasy are the works of the Enemy nor that they are chosen vessels of Christian faith.  They are what they are.  My purpose here is to try to convince you that they have something to teach us as they are.

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by a strange sensation.  Every time the fellowship of hereos encountered some place, you got the sense that that place had a real history.  Whether it was the ruined watchtower on Weathertop or the Inn of the Prancing Pony or Rivendell, you felt that these places were places of substance.  That is, Tolkein hadn’t just written about them on the fly.  He had engaged in a long process of worldcraft.  He had built an entire world, complete with backstory, legend, myth, cultural differences, lineages, and songs.  A lot of songs.  Tolkein hadn’t just written an interesting story; he had created a world and told a story that took place there.

Hunter and I are fans of a science fiction series known as the Safehold saga by David Weber.  And Weber has accomplished the same thing.  The planet Safehold is a complex and rich world full of nation-states and kingdoms with their own histories, cultures, and particulars.  Given the number of characters in this saga, it is as if Weber has written the story of every single individual to inhabit this planet in his story of a planet attempting to reclaim the ancient space-faring heritage of the human race.

Illustration by Rachel Ternes

Those who are devotees of the TV show Game of Thrones or the book series A Song of Ice and Fire upon which it is based have experienced the same phenomenon: the sensation that there is really a long and rich history of the great houses of Westeros and a variety of cultures of the East in which our characters live and move. There is an 8,000 year legacy of the Night’s Watch, manning the Wall and safeguarding the realms of Men. The encounter with these stories is the encounter with a world.

And in the same way, when we encounter the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars saga, or the Empire and Foundation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga, or the universe spanning Empire of Dune, or the Federation of the Star Trek universe, we encounter worlds.  In the last case, we encounter a world that so many have found inspiring: a world free of poverty and hatred, free of international conflict, and united in enjoying the fruits of our common labor and in exploration of “strange new worlds,” seeking out “new life, new civilizations.”

We Christians often become comfortable living in the shadow of the Cross. We become used to the brokenness of the world.  We come to church to hide from the world and all its problems.

What science fiction and fantasy have to teach us is how to reclaim our imagination.  How to reclaim a vision of a world that is different from this one.  The prophets Isaiah and Micah spoke of a world in which swords were beaten into plows and spears into pruning hooks.  Isaiah spoke of a world in which the wolf would lie down with the lamb and the lion would eat straw like the ox.  But we have often allowed our vision of the ideal world to become fairly mundane.  It usually involves the enactment of some piece of legislation or other.  Whether liberal or conservative this is usually the best we can do. Science fiction and fantasy prompt us to do better.


In the book of the prophet Joel, the prophet writes:

“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

Joel 2:28 NRSV

This same passage is quoted in the Book of Acts when the Spirit comes upon the Church at Pentecost.  Vision and dreams are an essential part of faith.  Seeing the world not simply as it is, but as it can be.

Jesus’ message proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.  In order to help convey that message, Jesus told stories: a man with two sons, a woman finding a pearl, a man helped by a stranger, a king throwing a wedding.  These stories helped to illustrate the reality bursting into the world.  And they fire up the imagination of what the world could be.

We, too, are called to dream of a world. Science fiction and fantasy are genres where the imagining of possibilities and the conceiving of entire worlds are staples of those genres.  Imagining possibilities and conceiving of new worlds should be a staple of our genre, too, as we lift up a vision for the world that could be. As we imagine a world that will inspire us to take action. That will sharpen our witness.  That will encourage others to follow us toward that goal, into uncharted possibilities and new hopes for humanity, boldly going where no one has gone before.



[1] For those of you not familiar with either work, “Endor” is the Elvish name of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings and is also the name of the forest moon in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi where the rebels attack the Death Star’s shield generator with the help of the Ewoks.

[2] http://www.godhatesgoths.com/godhatesharrypotter.html

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[8] Yes, I am aware that for purists, Star Wars is not science fiction but science fantasy.  But as the objections to Star Wars frequently fall in the critiques of science fiction, I’m leaving it here.

The Texts

Genesis 6:1–4

When the number of people started to increase throughout the fertile land, daughters were born to them. The divine beings saw how beautiful these human women were, so they married the ones they chose. The LORD said, “My breath will not remain in humans forever, because they are flesh. They will live one hundred twenty years.” In those days, giants lived on the earth and also afterward, when divine beings and human daughters had sexual relations and gave birth to children. These were the ancient heroes, famous men.

Philippians 4:8–9

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Revelation 12:18–13:4

Then the dragon stood on the seashore, and I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *