Fantasy and Science Fiction for the Christian Reader:

Reactionism and Reductionism

Written by Jeri Massi

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THE PROBLEM: Some Christians insist that the writings of C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and older fairy tales (such as Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, etc.) are demonic or satanic or pagan because they contain images and symbols drawn from so-called "pagan" literature. The fear seems to be that reading this material (no matter what its message or intent) is to somehow strengthen or be on the side of demonic/satanic/witchcraft forces. Another aspect of this fear is the idea that a symbol in and of itself can be satanic/pagan/wiccan, no matter what its context or its message.


We know that by the time that Paul was writing his epistles, the religion of the Greeks had fallen into considerable disrepute. Ovid, who gave us the classical _Metamorphosis_, did not himself believe in the gods at all (as he indicates at the end of that work).

By Paul's day, most educated Hellenic people recognized that the Greek myths were just stories. After all, many of the myths are ridiculous and amount to no more than the Soap Opera of the gods. The temples still existed and furnished brothel services, a place to feast on holidays, medical care, staging for plays and other amusements, and forums for discussion. To have a financial hand in the marketplace, the temples sold some of the meat that had been offered up as part of the traditions that they maintained.

Greek Christians, most of whom had never bothered to believe in the legends of the gods in the first place, continued their practice of buying this meat and eating it. Jewish Christians, of course, found the practice to be an abomination, since they were schooled in the Old Testament mandates to never eat anything that had been sacrificed to an idol. Their argument against the Greek Christians was that the meat was unholy. The argument back from the Greek Christians was that buying and eating the meat did not amount to worship, especially since they had never believed in the gods in the first place.

Similarly, we find a problem of Christian people, who read (past tense) fables, folktales, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien etc., all their lives and never believed in magic, or other gods, or that witchcraft had any real power, (even before they were saved) continue to read these works with no problems of conscience now that they are Christians. Their consciences are not troubled, for Paul's words about meat still apply: "We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one." Paul also comments in Romans 14:14 that "there is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean." So the Christian, who never as either a Christian or a non-believer believed in fairy godmothers, talking trees, niads and driads etc., is given permission to make use of these elements of literature.

Just as meat (according to Paul) cannot of itself become unholy, neither can a symbol (in and of itself) become unholy. A godless person may write a story and use a symbol to symbolize all kinds of perversions; a Christian person may use the exact same symbol to symbolize some truth or some virtue or some person from the Scripture. Like meat, the symbol cannot make itself be sin. Remember, the cross itself, the symbol that we cherish, has also been used as a phallic symbol and as symbol of race hatred and violence. A symbol has meaning only in its context, not in and of itself. Sin is committed when somebody who believes that to eat, or to read, or to enjoy would be sin, does so anyway.

Paul's only admonition is that those who are strong and can eat such meat with a clear conscience, ought not to use it as a tool to judge, berate, or coerce the brethren. Similarly, those who can read with a clear conscience ought not to judge, or berate, or coerce the brethren. And discretion is advised in I Corinthians 8:10. To sit in the temple of the idol itself and partake of a feast would be overbearing to other brethren, and so Paul urges discretion.

The urge, then, to coerce the brethren either way is to submit to what I call reactionism. We've all seen reactionism before; in the 60's many Christian men abruptly shaved off beards and mustaches because these had become symbols of the hippy movement. When Henry Kissinger was a figure of power in the Nixon government, anti-christ seekers reacted to the sudden prominence of a Jewish man in international matters and suddenly pointed fingers at him and announced that he was the anti-christ. In the 80's rumors flew around that Social Security was going to start assigning us numbers for us to cash checks at banks and withdraw money from savings accounts. Never mind the fact that the Lord Jesus wore a beard, or that the anti-christ's nationality is never revealed in scripture, or that God remains in complete sovereign control over His people and this world no matter what circumstances are. It's so much easier to react to circumstances than to rest in truth.

I believe that this incredible fear of highly inventive fiction, of Mother Goose and Narnia and fairy godmothers is just another form of reactionism. I certainly concede that witchcraft and satanism are very wicked things but Reactionism always whips up our fears of something that is legitimately bad. It's the actions that we are urged to take in response that are either non sequitars or downright inappropriate.

I would like to point out that reactionism has no place in the camp of the brave. Christian literature has (or should have) at its heart the person and work of Christ. Therefore our meaning will _always_ be different from the literature of this world. We are safe, then, from having to be reactionary. We can write biographies, adventures, fantasies, science fiction, comedy, dramas, commentaries, histories, epics and the rest. It doesn't matter how the world uses all these genres, or how the world perverts all of them (and it has perverted all of them, not just fantasy).

To be reactionary is to always be on the run, and a civilization that is that nomadic can never develop its own culture. Maybe this is why "Christian" culture is just a mishmash of borrowings. Christians keep running away--reacting to whatever new perversion the world comes up with. Our orders are to occupy. Occupying means cultivating our way into this land that formerly belonged to the enemy. Instead, many Christians keep reacting to what the enemy has done or continues to try to do.

We must _make_ the literature and the music and the communication that tells of the glory of Christ. Our images should be the most bold, the most striking, the most inventive. When we picture the plight of man, it must be as heart breaking as it truly is, and we must show how vast his redemption is. If we continue to beg, borrow, and use those items from the world that we somehow construe as being acceptable, we will continue to feed our children's minds with the table scraps of morality when we could be giving them the banquet halls of grace. I'm not saying that stories that are merely moral are not good; I am saying that if we don't house them in a larger framework of literature that focuses on grace then we have not carried out the command to occupy. We are still just borrowing and begging.

FInally, I want to say that reactionism seldom works--even in avoiding or destroying what it sets out to destroy or avoid. The full scale destruction of the good with the bad--of CS Lewis (good) along with Dungeons and Dragons (bad!) is not going to deter the influences of this world for very long. And it will deprive children of the shaping of a world view that recognizes that this creation is greater, broader, vaster, more mysterious and more glorious than any man can know, and it was created by our Good God; it is not under the rule of this dark spirit or that dark spirit. If we deprive children of this shaping of their view of life and the creation, then we have given in to a reductionist view of the creation, and the first person who shows them that there _is_ mystery and glory all around us will automatically get more credence than we do on the subject--we who never told them. So in the end, we could be handing our children's minds right over to the enemy side.


Another problem that relates to literary interpretation is the problem of what I call "reductionism." It's not a problem exclusive to Christianity, but it hurts our efforts to be truly educated as Christians.

Reductionism is my name for an attitude that rests on an assumption that somehow we Christians are responsible to know everything. This idea, of course, rests on another assumption that everything can be known.

Examples of reductionism include the movement that calls the book of Revelation "pre-written history" and tries to reduce it to a series of dates and events that we can follow on a timeline, rather than recognizing it as the revelation of Jesus Christ to His church. Another example would be Scofield's remarkable (I say remarkable because I'm amazed at his audacity) attempt to reduce leviathon in Job to crocodile, and behemoth to hippopotamus (I may have those switched. But he replaced the names of these fantastic creatures with animals somewhat more, uh, mundane.) And then there is also the effort of Finney to reduce genuine revival in the church to "decisions," replacing the work of the Holy Spirit with emotional enthusiasm and commitments of service.

Reductionism includes the independent Baptist churches that tried to reduce Christian practice to "soul winning," and Christian holiness to a series of restrictions on dress and carriage (ie, no trousers on women, no beards on men and so forth). For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm making reference to Curtis Hudson, Jack Hyles, and the former _Sword of the Lord_ newsletter/magazine publishers and writers.

It's easier to give examples of reductionism than it is to define, but as a first pass at defining, I would say that reductionism is an attempt to make Christianity easily definable and controllable, to remove those things from it that are difficult (or impossible) to explain or understand.

At its mildest, reductionism is just silly, and at its worst, it borders on or goes into a denial of the faith while maintaining an outward show of Christianity. In Christian education, reductionism forbids or dismisses an exploration of the matters that Christian brethren have not been able to agree on over the course of the centuries. I heard one pastor label all trichotomists (body, soul and spirit make up man) as unbiblical, while maintaining that the dichotomist (body and soul make up man) view of man is the only biblical view possible. Of course, as a trichotomist I had some problems with his conclusions, but I also recognized that his explanation was too glib, his assertions too self assured.

These are trademarks of reductionism: a logic that admits no disagreement, that rests on a cursory overview of certain points while being blind to others, perhaps in extreme cases a mindset that reads Scripture in order to prove a preconceived point. I'm not talking about leaving ALL points open to disagreement. The Bible is a remarkably unified text, and the major doctrines are clear to an honest reader. But there are points of controversy (such as dichotomy vs trichotomy) that godly men have disagreed on over the history of the Christian church.

A reductionist view will try to set certain books or certain subjects as off limits to readers. I'm not talking about setting pornography off limits, or gratuitous violence as off limits. I mean banning those points that infringe on our comfortable intellectual territory. Reductionism would not want books that discuss Christian parents who divorce, or Christian kids who are disobedient, or Christian churches that split. These are uncomfortable issues to those who want to maintain that Christianity lives up to all the ideals that it sets up as worthy to live by. A reductionist view of literature does not want to address the mystery that surrounds all of us; it wants to present Christianity as uniform and neat.

Reductionism misses the point that God is sovereignly in control of His people and of all events. After all, it is easier to present manageable events and an ideal lifestyle than it is to present this incredible God of ours Who uses the evil deeds of men to serve His holy purposes and Who is sanctifying us in spite of our wayward hearts. It is also easier to present a creation that we are sure of, that can be perfectly explained, measured, and controlled. So reductionists turn leviathon into an alligator, and _Revelation_ into a time line of the future. And reductionism would shy away from that which is highly inventive in literature. The more stark and vivd the image, the more it will be offensive to the reductionist, who may essentially view literature and art as things that must be policed rather than learned. (I agree that it is necessary to police literature to a certain extent, at least as far as what we take into ourselves, but--oddly enough--the more learned a person is in literature, the less policing he will have to do. That which is gratuitous or graphic will offend a trained sensibility that expects meaningfulness in literature.)

Mere Morality: The Problem of "Wholesome" Christian Fiction
Reactionism and Reductionism in Christian Thought
The Use of "Pagan" Symbols in Fiction
The Broadly Educated Christian
The Bible and Fiction

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