The Good, the Bad, and the Pagan
“He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round. . . .
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.”
–A. E. Houseman
“Test everything; retain what is good.”
(1 Thessalonians, 5:21)
Over the years I’ve witnessed many arguments about the morality of magic in fantasy, and I’ve noticed that most of them take place in the context of whether or not parents should allow their children to read a certain book. This is understandable and in fact laudable: the formation of a child’s mind is one of the most important tasks a person can undertake. However, because of this concern most people conflate two very different questions: whether a book is moral, and whether it is wholesome. The result is confusion. To truly understand a book and judge it, you must know what you are judging it for.
Definitions are very important here. Sadly, the term “moral” is irreducibly ambiguous to Christians. It can be defined narrowly in the sense of “that which does not portray immoral acts as good,” or it can be defined broadly in the sense of “that which is consistent with a Christian worldview” (thus including the former definition as well). The difficulty is that for Christians, the two categories are joined at the hip, separate but not separable. Some moral tenets–those that might be categorized as “natural law”–are general, both in that they are held and can be discovered by non-Christians. For instance, the injunction against murder is universal; a novel which condoned killing inconvenient people would violate both Christian moral teaching and the natural law. It might, therefore, be called both “non-Christian” and “immoral.” However, worshipping Zeus instead of the Judeo-Christian God is a sin only if Christianity is true. Thus, a book wherein the characters were devout pagans would be definitely non-Christian; but if it also had praiseworthy lessons about pride and humility, it could be classed both as moral (in that it promoted the virtue of humility) and immoral (in that it promoted idolatry). Sadly, there is no way to complete untangle the two categories; so long as unbelievers persist in being not utterly depraved, this tension will continue to exist in their works.
(Note that when I call a book “non-Christian,” I mean that it has a worldview or cosmology that is not Christian. I am not referring to the many fantasy novels which do not make any explicit references to religion. In such cases, the worldview and moral content would be expressed in the story itself and the attitudes of the characters, and it is these that must be examined.)
However, whether or not a book is moral is at least an objective question. All you have to do is read it and ask yourself: Does this book deny Christianity, affirm it, or leave the question open? Does it promote the virtues? Does it portray immoral acts as virtuous or innocuous? There will obviously be tremendous gray areas, and many books can be difficult to judge; but there is an objective standard.
But to decide whether you want your children to read a book, you must also judge whether it is wholesome: by which I mean that for a particular person it would be healthy, or at least harmless. Obviously this question is subjective, because the character and situation of every person are unique. One person, on reading the Iliad, might find himself tempted to sin. Another person might read it and feel no effects. Yet another might find its portrayal of a pagan worldview moved him to a greater appreciation of his own Christian beliefs. You simply cannot tell without knowing the individual in question.
Some people attempt to equate morality with wholesomeness by saying, “Of course, occasionally a moral work will be an occasion of sin to someone; but an immoral work will never be a positive influence, so ‘wholesome’ is for all practical purposes synonymous with ‘moral.'” This position makes a good deal of sense, but I believe that it is ultimately wrong.
Books, like the people who make them, are very seldom completely good or evil. Some books, such as Lord of the Rings, are Good. They are beautiful, they are majestic, they will teach you wonderful things. There is nothing objectionable in them. On the other hands, some books–works of pornography, for instance–are so unredeemably Bad that there is simply nothing good about them except correct punctuation. (Sometimes not even that.) But the vast majority of books fall between these extremes. This is where the occasional distinction between “moral” and “Christian” comes into play.
For example, take Ursula Le Guin’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, which is written from a very non-Christian point of view. Le Guin’s world is based on the idea of balance; the denouement involves an acceptance of the shadow as a part of oneself, thereby controlling/balancing it. Obviously this is not a Christian book. However, it still importantly right on some moral issues: specifically, those of choices, consequences, and morality.
Choices are fantastically important in Earthsea, because every choice has consequences that cannot be fudged or cheated. Most fantasy stories, at one point or another, have someone inform the hero that “with great power comes great responsibility”; but Le Guin actually believes, and shows, that her hero Ged cannot act without considering all consequences. To do so leads to disaster. The result is a highly moral universe, where Ged must do the right thing because it is the right thing. Earthsea may not be Christian, but it is an excellent counterpoint to certain action-adventure fantasies, where the heroes are allowed to give free rein to their impulses and recklessly exercise their powers without any thought for consequences.
“But,” says the reader, “even if such a book has traces of good in it, doesn’t it have traces of evil as well? And will not the reader, lulled by the good parts, be deceived into accepting the bad as well?”
This is, of course, a valid concern. Values such as friendship, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and fighting the Dark Lord are extolled in almost every fantasy novel. Yet many of these novels champion values and beliefs which are completely unacceptable to a Christian. Obviously they cannot all be moral or wholesome.
Balance is the key to this issue. If a book features only a generic morality while also being violently anti-Christian or pro-genocide or whatever, then the good obviously does not outweigh the bad. If, on the other hand, the book contains real insights into moral issues and the human condition, then it may be quite worthwhile despite a number of flaws. Again, look at Homer: the Iliad is blatantly non-Christian, yet its artistry is stunning and its insights are timeless.
There is another side to the issue, however. Even if a book does have non-Christian elements, it might not corrupt your child. In a backwards sort of way, it might actually improve him.
Allow me to explain by example. Between the ages of eight and eleven, I was obsessed with Greek mythology. I loved it; I read every book I could lay my hands on, until I knew all the stories backwards and forwards. In high school, though I was no longer infatuated, I eagerly devoured Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. But my love for mythology never made me consider becoming a pagan. It certainly gave me sympathy for paganism, for the stories were truly wonderful. But because of my parents’ teaching, I knew quite definitely that the stories were not true; and really, I didn’t want them to be. Why worry about propitiating Zeus when you could have the love of Christ?
Not only did I take no harm from my reading, I believe it actually helped me. From a very young age, I had a mental category for stories which were awfully good but still not true. I learned to read them with a certain distance, so that I could enjoy and love them without actually accepting them. When I began encountering novels which weren’t entirely Christian, I was already prepared to deal with them.
Now, there is a deeper level of involvement in a novel than in the brief recounting of a myth. The reader identifies far more deeply with the characters, and is therefore far more likely to unconsciously absorb the attitudes of the author. While somewhat cliched, it is true that “garbage in, garbage out.” But I believe that the basic principle still holds. For someone with a strong faith, non-Christian works will not necessarily corrupt; they can bring understanding and strength of mind. While it’s true that greater care needs to be taken in what you allow your child to read, it’s also true that the world is full of good and highly intelligent people who are not Christian. Your child must learn to deal with them somehow; and reading their stories is not a bad way.
(I would like to throw in a direct challenge to the homeschoolers in the audience. Most Christian homeschoolers are driven by an admirable desire for both a strong religious environment and academic excellence, often through classical education. Praiseworthy goals. But when they become overprotective while using a classical curriculum, the result is a serious inconsistency. Classical means Greek and Roman which means pagan. There is no point to being paranoid about fantasy when you’re telling your child to read pagan literature. Some consistency is called for.)
To return to the beginning of this essay: moral is not the same as wholesome. If thine eye offends thee, by all means pluck it out. But if it doesn’t, keep it. Who knows? You might learn to look through someone else’s eyes; and understanding is the first step towards both compassion and wisdom.