On my tenth birthday, I received a gift that made me nervous. It was a seven-book set called The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Their strange covers bothered me a lot. So did the first book’s title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
I thought, Whoa, that title has the word “witch.” Those are bad. Should I even read this?
Eventually, I read Lewis’s first Narnia chronicle multiple times, and have long since realized the titular witch was not the story’s heroine. I grew to love Lewis’s “simple” stories, which honored both biblical truth and fantastical imagination.
But what about other fantastical stories that seem new, strange, or harmful to kids?
Five simple questions to ask about popular culture
Every child has unique temptations, fears, and sensitivities. Parents should certainly mind their children’s needs and practice protective caution whenever appropriate. For example, when I was a child, even the Bible-anime series Superbook had “scary parts” that were not sinful, but for me they provoked nightmares and other fears.
As your kids grow, however, they will likely want to take some risks with the stories they enjoy. Imagination is God’s gift that reflects his common grace yet also the idols of human hearts. So we must prepare to join our kids’ popular culture explorations, helping them discern these works and always bringing in the gospel. To explore fantastical worlds, Christians need a biblical world map.
For this vital kingdom work, I’ve found these five questions very helpful. Parents can first ask these on their own as they engage popular culture works. Then, depending on your child’s age and ability, you can work these questions into conversations:
- What is the story?
- What is the moral and imaginary world?
- What is good, true, and beautiful in this world (common grace)?
- What is false and idolatrous in this world?
- How is Jesus the true answer to this story’s hopes?
Fantastical stories pose unique challenges for these conversations. This is especially true if parents are less familiar with dragons, spaceships, or creepy creatures, or have special concerns about this genre’s spiritual nature.
These three tips can also help your family explore fantasy, sci-fi, and beyond.
1. Ask: Let’s think about the heroes. How are they like or unlike Jesus?
Not all fantastical stories have easily identifiable heroes, but most do. As you explore, ask your children: Whom does the story present as heroes? How do these heroes fight, fail, and win? Who are the “unsung” heroes?
Finally, ask: How are these heroes like or unlike the true hero, Jesus Christ?
For example, in superhero tales, Superman’s origin story and adaptations often reflect Jesus. The 2013 film Man of Steel embraces these parallels. It even showed our hero preparing to surrender to his enemy, while sitting before a stained-glass window that portrayed Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe portrays C. S. Lewis’s Christ-figure, Aslan the lion.
Still, if we only compare popular heroes to Jesus, we may stop too soon. We may miss a story’s other ideas (or idols!). Or we may give kids the notion that any story with a Jesus-like hero is a simple “Christian” tool for teaching morality.
That’s why we must keep fictional heroes in perspective. In a culture with so much Judeo-Christian heritage, of course non-Christian creators will borrow from the gospel to improve their own stories. But these fictional heroes have many flaws. In their own universes, they struggle to fit in. And they can’t save us in reality!
2. See the story’s heroes, villains, and others in light of real people.
The best stories do not go wild making characters as “other-worldly” as they can. Instead, they present imaginary people—or other creatures—so that we can follow their journeys and think, “That imaginary person is like me, or someone I know.”
Heroes and good guys
In these characters, we may see reflections of Jesus, but first we may recognize reflections of us. In Jesus, we fight our old natures, yet are sainted “Christ-figures.” After all, followers of Jesus are Christ-ians. We are the original true-life “Christ-figures.” This means we are one degree removed from our Hero, and our fantasy heroes are one degree further. So we needn’t only see heroes such as Superman and Harry Potter as Christ-figures. We can also consider them as Christian-figures.
What about villains?
In fantasy’s mirrors, we spy exaggerated reflections of real-world evils. For example, Disney’s Tangled (2010) imagines Rapunzel’s evil guardian, Mother Gothel, as a narcissistic “parent” who repeats slogans borrowed from real-world manipulators. Meanwhile, George Lucas wanted viewers of his Star Wars prequels (1999–2005) to compare the future emperor, Senator Palpatine, to then-modern political leaders.
Parents can ask children if stories accurately reflect these evils, or if real-world people are really as evil as a story may wants to suggest they are.
What about characters who are morally mixed-up?
Like many real people, these characters reflect mixes of grace and idolatry. These fantastical figures often appear as bounty hunters, mercenaries, “good witches,” antiheroes, or criminals with hearts of gold. Joss Whedon’s famously cancelled space-frontier series Firefly has a ship-full of such mixed-up folks. So does the manga/anime series One Piece, whose pirate crew includes Sanji, a high-kicking chef who openly lusts for women, yet also protects them with chivalry and honor.
In real life, we often meet similar people whose motives and actions confuse us. Our discernment is limited to what they do and say. Only God knows their hearts.
These “gray areas” call for tough conversations, especially with older children. So let’s carefully explore with children such morally mixed characters. Let us especially challenge older children to practice wisdom about every character and motive.
3. Behold fantastical worlds in light of future and present realities.
Finally, we come to one of the best reasons to explore fantastical stories: these tales remind us of possible realities in God’s promised world to come. Could Jesus someday fulfill our longings for strange planets, fantastic worlds, and epic journeys in reality? Author Randy Alcorn believes Jesus could:
It’s hard for me to believe God made countless cosmic wonders intending that no human eye would ever behold them and that no human should ever sit foot on them. The biblical accounts link mankind so closely with the physical universe and link God’s celestial heavens so closely with the manifestation of his glory that I believe he intends us to explore the new universe. . . . The worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and E.T. are fictional, as are the worlds portrayed throughout the long history of mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. . . . Should it surprise us that God creates the substance of which science fiction, fantasy, and mythology are but shadows?
When we get excited reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s not our sinfulness that arouses that excitement. It’s our God-given hunger for adventure, for new realms and new beings, for new beauties and new knowledge. God has given us a longing for new worlds.Randy Alcorn in his book, Heaven
(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 431–432.
Imagine your family explores a science-fiction story with adventure, new planets, and spaceships. Could these ideas help you share anticipation for similar joys in New Earth, maybe even with these same wonders (except the battles with aliens)? Similarly, could a beloved fantasy tale help us anticipate the miracles and epic quests that await future redeemed kings and queens in God’s new creation?
Until that future, God’s redeemed heroes have a mission in this world: to worship our true epic Hero, Jesus Christ, who slays evil dragons and rescues his people.
Other popular cultural stories and songs may reflect portions of Christ’s story. Fantastical tales, however, often reflect the whole good-versus-evil gospel. So in a surprising plot twist, fantastical stories can uniquely serve as Christian parents’ natural allies, to help children engage the world God has called us to serve.
Let’s not ignore or dismiss fantastical stories, but explore them with discernment and biblical thanksgiving to our Author, and teach our children to do the same.
THE POP CULTURE PARENT: HELPING KIDS ENGAGE THEIR WORLD FOR CHRIST
Popular culture doesn’t have to be a burden. The Pop Culture Parent equips mothers, fathers, and guardians to build relationships with their children by entering into their popular culture–informed worlds, understanding them biblically, and passing on wisdom.
I have greatly enjoyed sharing fantasy with my children and grandchildren but feel there is a real need for discernment when doing so. I love C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and science fiction trilogy and I love Tolkien. In all of these works there was a clear distinction between good and evil. When my children were in late elementary school the Harry Potter series came out and I felt it was significantly different in perspective, as the entire story was set across the line in the world of sorcery, so, although I read or watched much of it myself, I did not share it with my children. Hence, I was somewhat taken aback at your saying: “So we needn’t only see heroes such as Superman and Harry Potter as Christ-figures. We can also consider them as Christian-figures.” Just one mention of Harry Potter but clearly saying he is a Christian figure…I have my sincere doubts of where this leads. The first Potter book came out in 1997 and movie in 2001. It was in 2007, with the release of Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman’s The Golden Compass. that I clearly saw where it was leading. In that latter movie, good was clearly portrayed as evil and evil as good. Fortunately the movie did not last long or get good ratings and it has mostly faded into the background.
I would like some additional comments on your thinking about Harry Potter as a Christian figure, especially in light of certain Biblical passages which, I admit, I tend to take somewhat literally:
Galatians 5:19-21 ESV
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
2 Chronicles 33:6 ESV
And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.
Thank you as a fellow truth seeker.
Andrea, thanks for engaging! This is just the sort of comment and conversation I much enjoy.
We definitely agree about the need for discernment. This applies to any parent, any child. Discernment, of course, will likely look different based on the age, development, personality, and unique needs/strengths/weaknesses of the child.
For example, I wouldn’t expect an eight-year-old child to read a fantasy series with blurred boundaries between good and evil. However, I would hope that a Christian teenager, who has been trained to discern, would be able to read such a series and bring this worldview into the story, even if the story does not itself present this worldview. That’s the point of discernment: that we don’t expect the story to do all the “teaching.” Instead, we do the teaching as parents and in churches, and beyond, so our children can grow to maturity.
For the Harry Potter series, this view of discernment would apply even if the series did present ungodly views of sorcery, or blurred views of good and evil. For the purposes of this discussion, we could assume that. (And this is likely very true of other books, such as Phillip Pullman’s intentional anti-Narnia works.) However, the Harry Potter series actually shows very clear limits between good and evil. Characters struggle, and find plenty of gray areas. (Unlike in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s world, Rowling’s morality is based in Judeo-Christian reflections, not a divine Lawgiver somewhere in the background.) But in the end, clear good triumphs over clear evil, and it’s through Harry’s final act of Christian-figure sacrifice.
Now to be sure, that doesn’t mean everyone should read the series. Christians have for decades been concerned about the role of magic in Rowling’s world. Regarding this, I would ask questions like these:
(1) Is this made-up magical universe based strongly on folklore magic and tradition?
(2) If so, is that fictional magic the same as the occult activity God condemns?
(3) Does the reader want to enjoy the series in order to commit or dwell upon prideful acts of idolatry, that is, the root of occult evils that God warns about in texts like Deuteronomy 18? That is, does the reader have in himself a sinful motivation to abuse the creative work?
(4) If the reader has shown growth in gospel holiness and discernment, and is not tempted by the series (at least, not any more than usual!), then can she enjoy it for God’s glory?
For my part, I’ve been a Harry Potter fan for quite some time. I believe I’ve done the homework needed to separate the series’s reflection of made-up, fictional magic from the occult practices the Bible condemns. Those practices include divination, sorcery, and other attempts to control the world and predict the future to assure us of “safety” apart from God’s revealed will. Fictional magic may share terms with things the Bible condemns (such as the word “witch”). But the fictional magic idea, and the motive behind it, may be very different from the ideas and the motives behind texts like Deuteronomy 18 and Galatians 5:19-21.
By seeming coincidence, on my podcast we just finished a two-part series about fictional magic and occult magic. In part 1 we focused a lot of the reasons why God condemns occult practices, and the differences between these and fictional magic. It may prove helpful:
To sum up: a mature Christian reader should, in theory, be able to read fiction or nonfiction about actual sinful beliefs or actions without being tempted to sin. (I can do this when it comes to bad worldviews, or descriptions of actual pagan motives and actions.) This would apply if the Harry Potter series was this way. However, that series arguably offers made-up, fictional magic, rather than the occult magic that God condemns. One needn’t accept this, of course, or recommend that every Christian read it! It’s a great conversation-starter, though.