J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis “believed that at some stage in their lives most human hearts are filled with an ‘inconsolable longing’ for some indefinable and transcendent beauty and reality behind or beyond the Universe, which may communicate itself through art, literature, and music, but is not identical with them, or with any other object of ordinary human experience.”
The longing, as expressed through written arts, often depicts facets of the “transcendent beauty” embodied by Christ, intentionally or otherwise. Frequently, this figure is the story’s hero, but are such representations biblical? Is it a sin to enjoy them?
Biblical Truth Vs. Fictional Reflections
The Bible is true, and every fictional representation of Jesus is merely a shadow. Even an overt Christ figure is the bland light of a candle compared to the real Messiah whom Revelation describes as brighter than the sun or the moon (Revelation 21:23).
Yet, fiction is often an accessible gateway to truth. Reading a story allows one to take vicarious risks and explore alternative personal narratives. There is even biblical precedent for using stories to describe Jesus and his gospel. His parables brought the Kingdom of God to life.
K.B. Hoyle, in her article, Don’t Disparage Fiction, wrote, “Whether they’re good or bad or just okay, [stories] matter because we are narrative people driven to both create and find truth in fiction. Stories, particularly fictitious ones, help to form us into whole beings.”
We learn from and live through stories. They invite us to question what we value. Why do we sometimes love the anti-hero? Or, what if we are frightened by the good guy? We find ourselves in these stories, acting out potential scenarios: The “what ifs” of our own lives.
One does not escape reality in fiction — elements of real-life are amplified here, but exploration and honesty are safe; private. No one except Jesus knows how we respond to him — the questions we ask.
Fictional confidantes invite candor, and since they don’t always answer our questions, or sometimes raise more questions, the reader must go to the source for answers. Sometimes, the seeker finds truth — Jesus — in fiction.
Some of the Heroes
Twentieth and Twenty-first-century Christ figures have included Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings series, Harry Potter, and Corporal Carrot of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Sidney Carton is an earlier Christ figure from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This list represents only some of the memorable Jesus-type protagonists found in English literature.
One more phenomenon this list reveals is that echoes of the Messiah might not be intended by the author, yet the ultimate Author intends otherwise. The gospel sometimes finds its way into art in spite of the human artist, an example of how God uses our imaginations for his purposes.
Are they biblical if the writer did not intend them to be, or if his methods appear to defy God’s laws about topics such as magic?
Christ-Like, but Christian?
For example, J.K. Rowling is quoted as saying, “I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn't trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it’s perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God.”
Faith has influenced her life, but faith in Christ did not consciously inspire her creation of Harry Potter. Moreover, the magical backdrop to this bestseller offends many Christians because God calls sorcery “an abomination” (Deuteronomy 18:12).
As Rowling’s comment indicates, C.S. Lewis did intend to share the gospel when he wrote his Narnia series. When Susan asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe, her animal friend replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Lewis’s lion, like Christ, inspires awe, fear, and love. Yet, Lewis also incorporates magic into his epic fantasy.
Charles Dickens “left instructions to his children ‘to guide themselves by the teachings of the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of its letter here or there.’” He was no fan of “dogma” or church and appears to have felt conflicted about Scripture.
Yet, Dickens wrote to his critics, “All my strongest illustrations are derived from the New Testament. All my social abuses are shown as departures from its Spirit. All my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, forgiving, over and over again. I claim them in expressed words as disciples of the Founder of our religion.”
Do we avoid the collected works of this Victorian genius because of his disrespect for biblical canon, even though he advocated for social justice, a subject close to his Savior’s heart, and frequently discussed in the Bible?
Terry Pratchett’s Corporal Carrot “thinks that everyone’s really decent underneath and would get along just fine if only they made the effort.” “No one wants to disappoint him. It’d be like kicking the biggest puppy in the universe. It’s a kind of magic.”
Jesus, who did not “come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32), was no “puppy.” He expected us to sin. Jesus’ goodness is not magic; he is one with God. But Pratchett never intended for Carrot to resemble the Christian Messiah, even though we discover in Men at Arms that Carrot, heir to the throne of Ankh Morpork, lives modestly in a room at the City Watch.
We recall how Christ — our King — came humbly to earth and ate with sinners. Carrot’s charisma and moral leadership inspire some of the City’s hard-living and dangerous characters to follow him. Jesus was uniquely irresistible to prostitutes and tax collectors.
Against Pratchett’s express intentions, one of the most popular secular fantasy series of all time invites fellowship between readers via discussion of the unbiblical Carrot as a Christ figure. This way, the Discworld helps us fulfill our biblical purpose: To find common bonds with non-believers that enable us to share the good news.
Interpretation Vs. Intention
Every written work will be interpreted how the reader wishes to interpret it, no matter what the author says. Many non-Christians read The Lord of the Rings for example without recognizing Gandalf’s Christ-like sacrifice and resurrection.
In Tolkien’s words, The Lord of the Rings is a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” which is why “I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion.’” To the author’s mind, “the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
Likewise, numerous Christian readers recognize biblical imagery in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Deuteronomy 18:10-12 states that anyone who “a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium [...] is an abomination to the Lord.” Christians are often afraid that fantasy stories are blasphemous, but sometimes they disguise the sacred in profane clothing.
Jesus will take some readers by surprise because the fiction we read is not meant to be the Bible. Negative portrayals of Christ are another matter, but any positive picture of Christ shows him doing what the real biblical Christ did — grapple with the issues of being human, except each fictional example, only does so imperfectly. Nothing we produce by our own imaginations can ever be perfect. In this sense, they are never biblical.
In Part, Not the Whole
For any author to describe Christ intentionally, fully, and factually, he or she would have to compose the Bible, which is the only complete story of Jesus, and we already have the Bible. It is finished. To know Christ, one needs to read Scripture frequently. Believers who read God’s Word and spend time with Jesus can spot a forgery.
God said, “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isaiah 43:10). Know God, and you recognize Jesus for who he is. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
Know God, and you are in no danger of accidentally being wooed into a false gospel or deceiving yourself that Christ is actually a magician. If anything, stories are entryways for sharing the good news, which is commanded of us.
In other words, reading and talking about Christ figures and stories, which explore biblical themes is biblical, even if the stories are not intentionally Christian. Taking a legalistic attitude towards these books denies readers an important opportunity to engage with the secular world. Christ pursues relentlessly. Jesus interrupts the fantasies of an as-yet-unjustified imagination.
A Gospel-Themed Epilogue
The reader who thinks a work is “religious” is more likely to steer clear if he or she is resistant to religion, expecting that story to be more of a sermon than an adventure. The missional reader, full of the Holy Spirit, will use secular fiction as a way to share the good news truthfully.
But if a book pretends to offer a new gospel rather than a new way of seeing the truth, it is worse than non-biblical — it is evil. “Many deceivers have gone out into the world” from “the Antichrist” (2 John 1:7). Christians must consciously and obediently read fiction through a gospel-filtered lens.
When we set our focus on Jesus, he is present in everything, whether the author intended to put him there or not. The biblical reality is this: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). That goes for the imaginations of every writer and all of his or her fictional creations too.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rihard_wolfram
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.