It seems to me that many in the world of Christian fantasy are writing and reading books that aren’t actually Christian. I know that may seem like an outrageous claim, but it seems to be true. I’ll labor to make my case.
First, we must determine what makes Christianity different from all other religions and all other worldviews and forms of thought on life. After we have determined what makes Christianity unique, what the basis of our faith is that separates it from all other faiths, then we must simply center the message of our writing on this.
Sadly, I think many in Christendom, including pastors and theologians, have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten the message of the cross. In other words, we have forgotten the true gospel. Given that the Church so often fails to even preach the gospel correctly in church to the congregation and share the gospel rightly to the lost and dying world, is it any wonder that the gospel has been lost in our writing as well?
I think our loss of the gospel in all its glory, combined with pressure to make money and sell copies to unbelievers, has contributed to Christian authors writing fantasy novels and calling them “Christian” when they really aren’t. I would not consider myself a huge reader of fantasy, but that’s probably in large part due to the lack of both good Christian fantasy writing and also fantasy writing that is actually, in any meaningful sense, Christian. I will not bother to read a book which writing is mediocre at best and is altogether lacking of anything that is distinctly Christian.
What I see in many Christian fantasy novels today is morality, or being kind, generous, forgiving, loving, gracious, merciful, faithful, heroic, loyal, etc. But my friends, when are we going to wake up and realize that none of these things exclusively belongs to Christianity? Don’t get me wrong, it is true that Christianity has rights to all of these things, but there is a reason why we have rights to these virtues- they all come from Christ and the cross. In short forgiveness, love, justice, grace, wrath, bravery, sacrifice, humility, all of these things that we like to write about are defined and understood and have their true and clearest meaning in the gospel, in the cross of Christ. The secular world has hijacked these terms, redefined them, and made them their own. So when Christian authors extract the gospel from the virtues and values that the gospel reveals (which is every virtue and value) then we have just defined these virtues and values the same way that the secular world does, which is apart from Christ, outside of Christ. And that changes everything.
Many Christian fantasy books will talk about being faithful to some kind of higher power, but rarely do we see the need to pray and trust and draw strength from the higher power in order to remain faithful to it. And when we remove this aspect from our writing, we remove the gospel, and thusly Christianity from our writing. The only unique thing that Christianity has that nobody else has is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our life as Christians is in Christ. We have our being, our meaning, our purpose, in Christ, in His death and resurrection. Therefore, any writing that does not reflect this does not reflect Christianity. Many religions, and many non-religious people, see worth and decency in being kind to others and exhibiting sacrificial love and justice and faithfulness and bravery and so on, but they do not see its worth rightly, because they try to define these terms apart from Christ and His cross.
As Christians we know that in us nothing good exists. That the only good is God, and that we live and obey Him by the power of the Spirit of Christ, and we receive the Spirit of Christ at salvation when we trust in the gospel of Christ to save us from our sins. We know that before we were saved, we were enslaved to sin, incapable of doing good because of our own sinfulness. But those who are Christ’s have been set free from the slavery to sin by His blood, by His death and resurrection. So when we write “Christian” fantasy and we alter this truth, we lose the gospel and thus the book is no longer Christian. If we just say that we must be faithful to a higher power in our writing, and that we do this by our own power and we do not need to be saved from our own sinfulness, then our book is not only not Christian, it is anti-Christian. Yet there does seem to be Christian books out there that lean in this direction- that we simply must be faithful to god, and if we are faithful he will bless us, love us, and reward us in some way. But that’s what the other religions believe. That is what makes other religions at the heart all the same. But the gospel is what makes Christianity different. Christ died not just to forgive but also to save His people from slavery to sin, and life as a Christian is growth in sanctification, defeating our sinful flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit and continually looking and praying to God for strength to overcome.
Now, I see two basic ways in which you could write a gospel centered, and therefore Christian, fantasy story. One way is to write in such a manner that it is targeted to unbelievers. The other way would be to write a book for believers, to help them better understand the riches of God and to grow in sanctification. If you are writing with an unbelieving audience in mind, the story would likely have to start with, or at least heavily involve, someone who is an unbeliever, but then becomes a believer in the true God through the true gospel. If the fantasy begins or has in mind the real world and not a fictitious world, then it would be reasonable to use the same names for God and Jesus and so on. If you are writing a high fantasy, I see no problem with, in this alternate universe, changing the name for God and the name for Jesus, but what you cannot change is the message of the gospel and therefore the sinfulness and total depravity of man.
So in some way, even in high fantasy, the story, if it is to be Christian, must involve characters either rejecting God and the gospel, receiving God and the gospel and getting saved, or it must involve learning about and discovering the true gospel. Now if it is a book written for Christians I would argue that in order for the book to truly be Christian the story would have to at least be concerned with living in light of the gospel, which would still lead to gospel-centered writing.
I think Christian authors want to cater to both believers and unbelievers, so they attempt to do this by removing Christ and the gospel from the center of the story to appease unbelievers and the secular readers yet re-cast God into a sort of supporting role or supporting cast to the story in some subtle way to try and appease the Christian readership. Unfortunately, to an extent this has worked and produced sells, but I would say much to the shame of us Christians. We have naively believed that writing in which the gospel is removed and replaced with whatever else is still somehow Christian just because the characters believe in a higher power, pray to this higher power, attempt to serve this higher power, and believe in some good morals and virtues like love, forgiveness, justice, etc.
Christian authors say they want their writing to glorify God and advance His cause. The problem is either they think they can do this by removing the gospel, or they are getting the gospel wrong and consequently are not glorifying God in their writing. Either way, the only way we can glorify God in our writing is by gospel-centered writing, either directly about how the gospel itself affects people by either accepting or rejecting it, or how those who have accepted or rejected the gospel live in light of their acceptance or rejection of it. Until we get back to gospel-centered writing, we cannot claim to be writing Christian fantasy.