Tag Archives: Christian fantasy


Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.

The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore (The Earthsea Cycle, #3)The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Earthsea books are old. The Farthest Shore, third in the trilogy, was published in 1972. But they’re old like a healthy tree is old, like a house with character. You can tell their age in their strength, in the slow, steady pace of the language, in the deep rootedness of the characters. Le Guin writes in an age that harkens more to Tolkien and Lewis, maybe even Peake, than to Jordan or the guy who writes the Game of Thrones books. The pacing is slow, the action is sparse, and the world-building is one of scattered lands and horizons as opposed to complex politics or equally complex magical systems. They take a while to get into.

I found this to be true for all three of these novels. They don’t grab you in the first or even the second or the third chapter. You move into them, charmed by the language but perhaps a bit—not quite bored, but certainly not enthralled. But you’ve heard them spoken of before in the same sentence with Lewis and Tolkien, and you want to find out why. Le Guin sets the stage slowly, introduces the characters, paints a world that always smells strongly of the sea and feels of the vague presence of dragon wings beating just over the horizon. And then by about halfway through you’re hooked and the remainder of the book feels like a painting, like a journey, like the things that solid fantasy is supposed to feel like—not an action movie, not a soap opera. But a tale.

Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, is once again at the center of this third tale. (I assumed the last of Earthsea, as these books were presented as a trilogy. Checking Wikipedia, however, I see that apart from a collection of short stories set in Earthsea there are an additional two novels.) I’ve written on the previous two volumes before, where I stated the volume one, A Wizard of Earthsea, could be generalized as being about wisdom, about finding maturity and true friendship. Ged grows up. Volume two, The Tombs of Atuan, is about redemption and mercy. Ged saves a slave from a life of darkness and servitude. This last volume is about despair and faith.

I think I’ve also said this in writing about the first two volumes: these books are great books because they touch the springs of truth, of something deep and real and beautiful. The best fantasy, I think, tells us something about the real world. In this novel, Ged and a young servant set off to find the source of lifelessness and despair leaking into the land of Earthsea. They travel to islands where joy and art are forgotten, where the wizards no longer know the words of magic that give them their power. (Magic, for Le Guin in Earthsea, is knowing the true names of things.) They find a wizard whose lust for life unending has upset the balance between life and death and has dragged along others who follow out of fear of death.

And Le Guin uses this stage of magic and journeying to pose what may be one of the central questions in our own art and theology and philosophy: is life the source of meaning or is it all an illusion, simply words that we give to things because we cannot stand the idea that they may have no meaning at all? Ged’s servant faces this in the course of their journeying, and he lets the despair overwhelm him. The questions he ask are ones that we all face—if we’re truly awake—at some point in our lives:

“ . . . he knew in his heart that reality was empty; without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning. There were no heights or depths. All this lovely play of form and light and color on the sea and in the eyes of men, was no more than that: a playing of illusions on the shallow void.
They passed, and there remained the shapelessness and the cold. Nothing else.”

Again this despair and this craving for safety and assurance, for life without end and without danger, the character of Ged is a voice of hope and faith. But this is not a pat, safe, Sunday-school answer. This is a realization that life cannot exist outside of the reality of death, that the two are opposite sides of the same coin, and that we cannot understand either apart from the context of the other. Ged’s answer to his servant’s fear is poignant and true:

“There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

But the word is spoken, and the dance is danced nonetheless. I’m reminded of Narnia again, of the incredulous question of whether you hoped to find a safe, tame reality in a Lion’s mane. Phillip Pullman wrote his Dark Materials trilogy as in some respects a secular answer to the Narnia books. But to me the Earthsea novels read as a classical Christian answer to contemporary Christian fantasy that would represent God as the ultimate safety net, as the overwhelming force for good that will erase or correct all badness and emptiness without danger and without cost.

These are good, old books. They read like old stories. You’re not going to find sharp, sparking dialogue. You’re not going to find a riveting plot in the first three pages. But you’re going to go places and you’re going to see things that shape you. You’re going to meet people you want to be like. You’re going to—if you stay the course—see at last the wings of dragons over the Isles of the West.


PhantastesPhantastes by George MacDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lots of thoughts on this book. It’s not great fantasy. The plot meanders, leaves things unfulfilled and under-explained or simply unfinished. A man wanders into the land of Faerie and then wanders out again. The language at times is eye-rollingly bad. But it’s also easy to see the gems, the bits of wonder and humility, that so effected C. S. Lewis. Consider what MacDonald writes near the end, as an analogy of love for Christ:

“This . . . is a true man. I will serve him, and give him all worship, seeing in him the embodiment of what I would fain become. If I cannot be noble myself, I will yet be servant to his nobleness.”

Or later, about love:

“I knew now, that it is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another . . . All true love will, one day, behold its own image in the eyes of the beloved, and be humbly glad.”

Here the bits that  “baptized” the imagination of Lewis, as well as the universalism that apparently got MacDonald in trouble as a minister. The conclusion of the narrator’s wanderings in Faerie, the moral for him, is given at the end:

“May the world be brighter for me, at least in those portions of it, where my darkness falls not. Thus I, who set out to find my Ideal, came back rejoicing that I had lost my Shadow.”

And the final farewell, reminiscent of Wolfe’s “good fishing” line at the end of the Short Sun books:

“A great good is coming– is coming– is coming to thee, Anodos . . . Yet I know that good is coming to me– that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.”