My church kicked off a book and movie club in December. We kind of eased into things by watching the 1947 classic Christmas film "The Bishop's Wife," which led to a worthwhile discussion about values in Hollywood almost a half-century ago compared to today.
Needless to say, we generally agreed that it's almost impossible to envision a major movie studio today presenting a romantic comedy offering such positive views of the traditional family, prayer, the clergy, and the Christian faith, not to mention including a distinctly non-New Age angel quoting Psalm 23.
Our January gathering offered a little more spirited, though civil, exchange. It revolved around a book titled "Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue With Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings".
The timing to read this book was ideal. In December, the last installment of director Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy "The Return of the King" came out in its extended DVD version. Looking ahead in 2005, George Lucas completes his "Star Wars" saga with "Revenge of the Sith" coming to movie theaters in May. And matters promise to be very busy in the magical world of Harry Potter, as author J.K. Rowling's next book "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" hits bookstores in July and the film version of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" arrives on the silver screen in November.
There's been much debate about how Christians should view these films and books, with Harry Potter, of course, generating the most controversy. With his "Faith Journeys through Fantasy Lands," Dalton, who is the director of the Master of Arts in Religious Communication at United Theological Seminary in Ohio, helps readers and moviegoers to use aspects of these tales to reflect on the Christian faith in perhaps some different ways. Dalton notes at the outset that he "uses the image of a journey, or quest, as it is depicted in these stories to help explore several aspects of the Christian life," and "compares the way these issues are explored in the fantasy stories with the way these issues are explored in the Bible." This makes the book particularly useful for church discussion groups or Bible studies.
Dalton observes: "Throughout the ages, humankind has constructed myths and legends as a way to explore the ultimate spiritual questions of life." He goes on: "From a Christian perspective, we might say that God created these spiritual motifs in us. We all share a yearning to find purpose and meaning in our lives and to know our God; Christians find the ultimate fulfillment of the spiritual yearnings expressed in these myths in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ." Along these lines, Dalton highlights how J.R.R. Tolkein, author of "The Lord of the Rings," and Henry Victor Dyson aided C.S. Lewis in coming to the Christian faith. Lewis could not accept Jesus Christ's death and resurrection because of the parallels in many myths. Dalton notes: "Tolkein argued that the myths Lewis found so moving ultimately came from God and were God's way of expressing truths. As a matter of fact, he argued, all great stories pointed to the greatest story of all, the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. Tolkein believed that at the core of Christianity was a myth that was also a fact."
One of the many interesting chapters in "Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands" deals with the issue of sin. Dalton notes that the characters in the Harry Potter, "Star Wars," and "Lord of the Rings" tales are not cookie cutter, but "have within them the potential to do good and the potential to do evil." To prove his point, he highlights various shortfalls or challenges experienced by Harry Potter and his schoolmates, Anakin and Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars," and Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings." This leads to discussions of sin in the Bible, recognition of man's sinful nature, our efforts to do what's right, and God's mercy and forgiveness.
Dalton also notes: "The Harry Potter stories, Star Wars films, and The Lord of the Rings are all set in a moral universe that presumes the presence of good and evil. As a matter of fact, many have identified the struggle between good and evil as the primary themes of the stories." He adds: "The opposing view -- that there is no such thing as good and evil -- is put into the mouths of despicable characters," such as Voldemort, Darth Vader and Saruman. What an interesting thought given today's widespread proclivities toward relativism and nihilism. Dalton goes on to explore how the conflict between good and evil is portrayed a bit differently in each of these stories, and then how this compares to the reality of what Christianity teaches about the existence of and our struggle with evil.
The Harry Potter stories, "Star Wars" films, and "Lord of the Rings" books and movies deal with some big questions -- such as right and wrong, good vs. evil, sacrifice, and redemption -- in generally constructive and very entertaining ways. For that reason, these rank as our modern-day myths. There is no doubt in my mind that one hundred or two hundred years from now, people will still be exploring, thinking about and wrestling with these exciting tales. More importantly, let's hope and pray that they will be doing so in a similar manner as Russell Dalton does in "Faith Journeys through Fantasy Lands," that is, well-grounded in that true myth told in the Christian faith. As Dalton reminds at close of his book: "Our own journey with God is the most amazing adventure of all."
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.