The Power and Pitfalls of Fictional Worlds
Fiction and fantasy can be great signposts to truth and forms of delight in God’s creation, but they can never substitute for reality.
I love films. I love the experience of watching movies old and new, whether in theaters or at home. I anticipate upcoming releases and dissect the newest blockbusters the same way many people follow sports teams. But something I have been thinking about lately is the heightened levels of our contemporary cultural obsession with movies and TV shows. Of course, people have always been fascinated by artistic creations and absorbed in imaginative worlds. But lately, particularly online, I’ve noticed what I might call the phenomenon of the pop culture midrash.
A midrash is a Hebrew term for rabbinic commentaries on the Torah. These ancient writings are kind of like the running commentaries in the margins of study Bibles, containing elaborations upon Scripture, noting parallel verses and overarching themes, supplying historical background, etc. Oftentimes these midrashes are considerable works in their own right, running hundreds of pages and going well beyond the explanation of Scripture, offering entire theological frameworks, historical outlines, and conjectural treatises. These midrashes deal with important theological questions and speculations on the very nature of the universe, as well as instructions how to live daily life. In short, they talk about some vital topics.
In today’s world, a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, fan sites, chat boards, and social media channels feature discussions often characterized by the same kind of intensity and detailed scrutiny as those ancient midrashes. Except instead of discussing Scripture and questions of God, humanity, and the universe, they’re about Star Wars, video games, George R.R. Martin novels, Lost, theme parks, TV shows — the list goes on.
People are passionate about these fictional worlds. And I get it. I too love the dizzying panoply of human creativity, and the sense we can get of entering into a fantastical world as we enjoy a compelling, immersive story.
Obsessed With the Imaginary
What I think is worth calling attention to here is not merely the fascination with imaginative storytelling — which is something common to all cultures. Rather, what I think is worth noting is the level of intensity. Think of the passionate heights of fervor which fan conventions (from the San Diego Comic Con to D23) can reach, and the ecstatic reactions a movie trailer can elicit on Twitter. Consider the rage and venom spewed in flame wars across social media when fans have differing opinions of a new movie or a surprise twist in a TV show. One gets the sense, at times, that some people are so invested in fictional narratives that those narratives take on a religious dimension — that something like Star Wars occupies the place of the sacred in their lives.
The intensity of focus devoted to film franchises and fictional mythologies, the amount of time devoted to online articles and discussions around a fantasy world — it all feels symptomatic of a culture that has become unmoored from a transcendent spiritual foundation. As David Foster Wallace once famously noted, we all worship something; the only thing we get to choose is what we worship. Worship is not optional.
The Limits of Fantasy
In a connected culture where the nightly news gives you the impression that the world is a runaway freight train, where tragedies and terrorist attacks and scandals assault Western notions of progress and human goodness on a daily basis, it is no wonder that immersing oneself in a fantasy world is such an appealing prospect. Yet at the end of the day, no matter how delightful a fictional universe is and no matter how connected we feel to a created story — those stories cannot ultimately sustain our lives. We cannot build our lives around a fiction, lest we end up like the man who builds his house upon sand, and we eventually watch our lives come crashing down (Matthew 7:24-27).
Fiction and fantasy can be great signposts to truth and forms of delight in God’s creation, but they can never substitute for reality. Sooner or later, we will need something real and lasting to cling to. I think of the sobering words of the influential Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when every one has to throw off his mask?” We cannot forever cocoon ourselves in unreality.
Fictional stories cannot protect us from death and pain, and they cannot grant us meaning beyond the grave. Fantasy worlds are delightful, but unless they are enjoyed in the context of a deeper story — a true story — they are mere illusions.
Imaginative worlds of wonder and delight can remind us that we look forward to a future in which the brokenness of our world will be healed.
Fiction's Beautiful Potential
For the Christian, we can delight in these stories as actually containing elements which point us to the ultimate truth of who Jesus is. We can enjoy the way these fictional worlds parallel and highlight aspects of our own world and the biblical narrative of history. And rather than become obsessed with these stories, finding our identity within them, we can praise God for the gift of creativity, and enjoy him through it.
Epic battles of good and evil and worlds of wonder and delight can remind us that we look forward to a future in which the brokenness of our world will be healed and, as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:9:
Born and raised in Southern California, Pip Craighead has been a lifelong student of film and literature. He's continually fascinated by the power of art and story as ways to experience the wonder of God and his creation—and this fascination is evident in Pip’s new children's book, Little Francis Falls Asleep.