Sacred Imagination: Part 5 – Fantasy

So far, these reflections on the possibilities of a sanctified imagination have stayed within the bounds of traditional practices and ways of experiencing God. Today I want to push out a bit further and explore the fuller possibilities of our active imaginations, and even full-fledged fantasy to draw us closer to God.

Fantasy means many things, but two of the first that come to my mind for me are the literary genre we call ‘fantasy’ and sexual or romantic fantasy. These are extreme cases, but if the extremes can work as allies in our life of faith, then the less extreme versions — fiction, storytelling, daydreaming — surely can too. So, I’d like to think through both of these paradigms of fantasy to see what we might learn from them.

The first of these has a long history of use by Christians. Long before the genre we recognize (with its plucky heroes, magical quests, and strange creatures) came into being, Christians wrote fantastical stories to explore the ideas of their faith, ranging from flat-out allegory like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to the (slightly) more thematically subtle Divine Comedy by Dante. In the last century, Christian writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both wrote in (and to some extent helped to create) the contemporary fantasy genre. Fantasy in this sense is about telling exciting stories designed to exhort and edify the reader as much as to entertain them. The genre has traditionally explored common themes such as everyday heroism, sacrifice, finding hope when all seems lost, and coming through against the odds. In this way fantasy writing is reminiscent of how apocalyptic functioned in the ancient world, planting seeds of resistance, resilience, and hope in its readers. This is true even of more recent fantasy literature, which tends to subvert some of the old tropes and work within a more complicated — and therefore richer, and more realistic — moral framework than much of the traditional fare.

Because fantasy stories are set in alternative worlds, they can explore these moral and philosophical themes in a more universal way than they could if they were connected directly to our own history, which is often hard to separate from our national baggage and propaganda. For example, there was a tendency in the culture of my youth to set the rise of Nazism is Germany apart as a uniquely evil phenomenon, to which nothing in our own experience could be compared. While this attitude is understandable and certainly prevents unfair and facile comparisons, it also stifles reflection on warning signs and how to prevent similar processes of radicalization in the future. In contrast, a generation raised on The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter story cycle is hyper-aware of the the corrupting lure of power, and the dangers of denial in the face of evil. And so, far from being hindered by engaging with ‘what is not’, as the traditional Christian discomfort of imagination and fantasy would worry, this is actually a big part of what allows fantasy to be such a good ally.

For many of us, sexual or romantic fantasy is likely far more challenging to think about as contributing to a life of faith. Indeed, sexual fantasy is more likely to be seen as a kind of opposite of faithfulness, as engaging with the ‘worst’ or most ‘depraved’ parts of ourselves. But this is only one side of the equation, and assumes a pretty negative view of sexuality. Sure, our libidos can steer us down paths we’d rather not go down; but they don’t always do so, and it’s not as though we are powerless about which paths we follow them down. What if rather than being swept away by the less sanctified aspects of our appetites, we were to use our romantic, and yes, ‘even’ (or especially) our sexual fantasies to engage with our best selves, and to bring into being better ways of connecting with one another?

This was the premise of Vanessa Zoltan‘s Hot and Bothered podcast project, which was released in 2019. Zoltan makes a surprising but compelling argument: In a world where over a third of women (and one sixth of men) report having experienced some form of sexualized violence; in which the #metoo movement has demonstrated just how pervasive workplace sexual harassment still is; where women and (increasingly) men are objectified and held to impossible standards of beauty and fitness; where dating culture is mostly about convenience, distraction, and entertainment; and in which fear of commitment extends not just to marriage and family life but even to “Drinks on Thursday” — in this sort of world, affirming the possibility of good relationships, satisfying sexuality, and happy endings, and writing them into being is an act of radical hope, faith, and resistance.

As I heard her argument, I could definitely relate. As the years of my own single life pass by (I am now of the age where romance novels involving people my age have such condescending titles as It’s Never Too Late and Late Bloomers), it definitely becomes more and more difficult to imagine positive outcomes. After thousands of conversations and hundreds of first dates, and after being rejected not just for my faults but just as often for my strengths, imagining the kind of relationship I not only want but feel called to live out often feels pointless. And I’ve definitely felt that whole imaginative realm of possibility, potential, and excitement begin to fade away and be replaced with a kind of learned helplessness that borders far too much on jaded cynicism. And so, since hearing Vanessa Zoltan’s manifesto, I’ve been more intentional about reading romance novels and engaging in my own imaginative life about relationships as an act of faith and hope.

Romance stories are often criticized for creating unrealistic expectations. And, certainly if we were to use them as a blueprint for real relationships, we’d be in trouble. That is why I’m happy to classify them with fantasy: I’m about as likely to battle an orc or receive my (very late) invitation to Hogwart’s as I am to have a rom-com style ‘meet-cute.’ But that isn’t the point. Just as fantasy stories are about the hero’s journey and not ultimately about the magic or the quests, so too are romance stories far more than the sum of the genre’s forms and tropes. The forms and tropes provide a structure which, at the genre’s best, allows it to explore difficult themes in a safe way — like having a difficult conversation while cuddling on the couch rather than under the glaring light of an interrogation room. I have read romance novels which deal with themes such as grief, shame, loneliness, vulnerability and self-reliance, trauma, and illness in far richer ways than I’ve encountered in any piece of “literary fiction.” And even the tropes themselves are ways of exploring big themes: What is “From enemies to lovers” if not a story about overcoming difference and prejudice? What is “From friends to lovers” if not a way of exploring how we can miss what is right in front of us? What does “Love at first sight” do if not show us how quickly our lives can be upended? And so on.

What makes both romance and fantasy satisfying is not the happy ending, but the often difficult journey the heroines and heroes have to undertake to get there: overcoming their assumptions, their pasts, the narratives their culture has taught them, and their limitations, and making the needed changes that make that happy ending possible. Both genres are ultimately about transformed lives for the sake of transformed relationships and a transformed world. In other words, they are in their own ways “spiritual.” And the same can be said for how we use our own imaginations.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, that I think stories are important. And I don’t think they’re value-neutral. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories we ingest from the world around us change us whether we are aware of it or not. And so, I think it’s important to take ownership of these stories and tell good stories (especially if we’re just telling them to ourselves), the kinds of stories that create better worlds, stronger relationships, and more healed and whole people.

And in this way, our imaginations — even including our wildest fantasies — can be a great ally.

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