Add fantasy, fiction writing to the list of gifts the Church can and should learn to appreciate
INTERVIEWER // Jason Link
“Reading things like ‘Lord of the Rings’ helps me read scripture so that I have a more developed imagination. I have a greater sense of the beauty of the narrative.”-Professor Joel Green, Fuller Theological Seminary
I’m a fiction writer, more specifically, a writer of epic fantasy. And since I’m a pastor and a student of the Bible, I’m always looking to find ways in which fantasy writing and faith can come together. So, I was thrilled when I discovered that the Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Dr. Joel Green, is an avid “Lord of the Rings” fan. I sat down with this renowned biblical scholar to see if his appreciation for Tolkien had anything to do with his faith. I was greatly pleased with his response. So, read along as Dr. Green shares how “Lord of the Rings” helped shape the way he reads Scripture, and how fantasy writers can serve their church communities through their talents.
Jason: So, Joel, you are quite the accomplished biblical scholar. You have written [what seems] like half of the books in the library here at Fuller. And I don’t think a Fuller student can graduate without reading one of your books. I think it’s required somewhere—unspoken law—that you have to read a Joel Green book before you graduate (laughing).
But I’m coming to you more because I know you are a “Lord of the Rings” fan. I remember when I was sitting in your class, and you had your desktop up on the projector screen and there on your desktop was a scene of Rivendell. I thought, I want to get to know more about this guy. So, what I want to know more specifically is, how have your studies of Scripture affected the way you read fiction literature (ie: “Lord of the Rings”)?
Joel: I want to turn that question around: Rather than asking how my study of Scripture shapes my reading of fiction or literature, I actually think it’s the opposite. It’s my reading of fiction that helps me read Scripture. I came into reading the kind of thing we are talking about at the end of high school to the first years of college, primarily through C.S. Lewis and the “Chronicles of Narnia.” And then, that led me to the next step which is “Lord of the Rings” and J.R.R. Tolkien, and so on.
In the way I was raised and the way that a lot of biblical scholars are formed, there is a relative lack of imagination within the evangelical church. Sometimes we think in terms of propositions and syllogisms—all very logical. Reading these guys, these narratives, these stories, actually opens up another part of your brain and lets your imagination run a little bit from logic, propositions, and so on. [It] leads to the place where you read not only to get something but to enjoy and to appreciate and to be marveled—to have emotional responses, and leads you in a direction you hadn’t thought about before.
Reading things like “Lord of the Rings” helps me read Scripture so that I have a more developed imagination. I have a greater sense of the beauty of the narrative and a greater sense of involvement within the story, rather than holding it at arm’s length, and as one of my students likes to say, dissecting it, as if it were a dead thing.
“Tolkien, Lewis, and so on, [have] helped me read Scripture more than my [formal] study of Scripture has helped me read them.”
Jason: Can you give me a specific example of how reading these fiction writings have helped you read biblical text? Is there a specific story you can think of?
Joel: I think it’s more a set of sensibilities than a particular illustration. One of the things that happens with good literature is that—without you even knowing about it, even thinking about it, even planning on it—you find yourself either in the story or identifying with certain characters within the story. You find yourself involved in the story, rather than just reading it in a way that objectifies it. I also find that when I’m reading fantasy or when I hear people talking about fantasy, I’m interested in the degree to which people see different things. There is not one single way to read, and there’s even the possibility to read against what the author thought he/she [was] doing. And so, the text itself, in a sense, becomes alive—it becomes personal. You get involved in it, sort of live in it, make a home in it. That’s what I think fantasy has allowed me to do.
I started taking this kind of approach more seriously years ago when I was first asked to write a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. It’s easy on the one hand to get lost in—and quite rightly—issues of the meaning of words, the development of syntax, those kinds of things as you’re working through the Greek text of Luke. But there’s also this sense in which you see Zacchaeus differently, you see yourself in the story of Zacchaeus differently. People might respond this way or that way to the story, depending on their imagination, depending on what they expect to find, and so on. I think that that’s more the ledge, so to speak, that I stand on when I look at these things—less a particular example and more a posture before the text.
When I read the book of Revelation, I especially hear in the background, scenes from the “Lord of the Rings.” Not because I think Tolkien had the book of Revelation in his head, but because of this huge, epic drama of the struggle of good and evil. Even some of the characters can be plugged in here and there. I suppose reading “Lord of the Rings” prepares one better to read Revelation.
Jason: From your perspective as a biblical scholar, what would you like to see more of in fictional literature? What challenge would you give fiction writers?
Joel: The fantasy fiction I read does a pretty good job of this already, [but] I get kind of tired of simple stories and simple one-dimensional portrayals of characters that suggests they’re either good or bad—that they’re always good or they’re always bad. I’m interested in something that you begin to see in Scripture, which is some of the complexity—not of characters, because characters in Scripture can often be relatively one dimensional (there are some obvious counter examples of course)—but the way Scripture portrays the human situation is hardly one dimensional or simplistic.
“The line between good and evil passes through every person’s heart.”
And so, when I read fiction, I’m interested in those kinds of real struggles—real struggles that don’t always lead to redemption, but sometimes do and sometimes in remarkable ways–and sometimes in simple ways.
If you think of the hobbits in “Lord of the Rings,” there is a kind of simplicity about them—a complex simplicity—if that makes any sense. Gandolf is willing to put faith in them in extraordinary ways I think because of their simplicity. Hobbits will do what hobbits do—they can’t do what they aren’t. And what they are is, in the end, enough. And I like that kind of portrayal where it isn’t that kind of stereotypical Christian literature, but it is deep theological literature that portrays life as it really is—the depth of struggle that really is there, and the pulls in various directions, forces that work in people’s lives that lead them to this way or that way.
Jason: What can fiction writers add to the Church?
Joel: That’s an interesting question. One of the things that attracted me early on to Lewis and [Tolkien and] company is not simply what they wrote, but this gathering they had, when they gathered. They were their own little small group so to speak, their own little community. What fiction writers might bring or add to the church is: meeting together, forming a community, arguing with each other in friendly ways about what [they’re] working on, pushing each other to [their] best. Part of me thinks [about] that notion of a circle—in the Old Testament, a circle of prophets; in the New Testament, an apostolic circle. In our case, a writing circle, a little writing community.
One of the things I struggle with in the church these days is how much we are focused on one hour a week or two hours a week, and how little notion of parish there is. Church doesn’t actually take up much of our lives. But if you involve yourself in communities like those guys did, then obviously it’s not the institutional church we’re talking about, but it is nonetheless a little ecclesial community that can shape what the church looks like. So, that’s one thing.
What can fiction writers add to the church? For me, the biggest thing is a stronger sense of imagination and beauty and drama. I struggle—I mean I get it—I get the idea of putting sermons on power points and the idea of what some pastors do when they pass out an outline of a sermon. But where is the grand scheme, the grand scope of what God is doing in the world? Where’s the reshaping of people’s [lives] that allows them to see themselves living in a narrative, living a story that’s bigger than they are? I worry that what we do in the church too often—focusing on six ways to do this or 10 principles for that or two keys for that—there is no grand conversion that takes place with the theological imagination. We don’t get the sense that God is a big God and that we are part of something that’s really earth shattering.
“The kind of teaching and preaching that we sometimes hear reduces God to something small and reduces faithful discipleship to five things that we can do to put on our agenda or our calendar. The sense of mystery, the depth that fiction writers bring—I would love to see more of that taking place.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a church where the pastor is not only a good storyteller but a good teller of stories. That is, there is not only a good story to tell but he/she also has a bit of a thespian in them, so that there is a performance taking place. A good teller of stories involves the listener in the telling. And when that happens, then suddenly, we feel ourselves transported into a drama bigger than ourselves—a drama that puts our mundane lives into a larger perspective. That’s what I think fiction writers could do for us.
Jason Link is a pastor by day and a fantasy writer by night. He lives with his family in La Grande, Oregon. You can check out his work at epicjason.com.