Fantasy Among the People of the Book

Darth Vader
And then there are those who say, "What's the diff?

An interesting article which may help explain for my more geeky readers the difference in the Christian and Jewish worldview:

It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers). . .

[F]for Jewish writers working after the Holocaust, classical fantasy must have made redemption seem too easy. Certainly, the notion of magic and wizards existing in our own world—as in, for example, the Harry Potter books—becomes all but impossible. (Or at least must raise the question of why Hogwarts, like the FDR administration, never tried to bomb the railroad tracks.) . . .

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.

I find the line about classical fantasy making redemption too easy telling. In Christianity, it often is too easy: Just say a little prayer, get a little wet, and you have a clean slate. True repentance, including striving to undo the sins of the past (and knowing that you may never be able to) is all too often glossed over in the rush to get people to the altar call. In Judaism, while the Ba’al Teshuva (Master of Repentance), a person who fell away from their faith and then came back, has an honored place–according to some rabbis, the highest place of honor–the lack of a focal point of redemption leaves a hole in our theology of atonement. While the answer given by R. Yochanan ben Zakkai was that acts of loving kindness provided atonement (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:21) has long been the accepted answer for the Jewish community (I believe a misunderstood answer, but that’s a subject for another post), and while it is a given in Judaism that all Israel has a place in the world to come (m.Sanh. 10:1), many Jews have nevertheless been left wondering just how truly evil deeds can be forgiven. As a matter of fact, in Judaism, some evils can never be forgiven on earth: A murderer, for example, can never receive the forgiveness of his victim, and no one else under Heaven is entitled to grant it.

Maybe he worked off his karma by being played by Hayden Christensen

While Tolkien and Lewis both had a strong sense of the entangling nature of the sins of the past (and the sins of the fathers, as we see in Aragorn’ quest to undo Isildur’s sin), most modern fantasy writers fall into a pop-Christian easy grace where all that is necessary to be forgiven is a last-minute change of allegiance to the side of the protagonists. One moment of sacrifice to save his son from the Emperor was all Darth Vader needed to be forgiven the murder of the Jedi children, the destruction of a whole planet of sentient beings, and whatever other evils he committed in his twenty years on the Dark Side. While few would accuse George Lucas of being a Christian, the prevalent Christianity of his home culture did, I believe, shape the finale of his narrative, since Buddhism would require Anakin Skywalker to reincarnate to work off his karma rather than be seen at peace in the final scene.

At this point, I’m supposed to come up wth an insightful paragraph that ties everything together. Unfortunately, this has all been very stream-of-consciousness, and I don’t really have a conclusion to aim for. If anything, I’d like to remind potential Christian fantasy writers not to succumb to the unsubtle Deus Ex Machina that all too often defines the genre and to remind my Jewish brethren that even in Judaism, there is wonder and redemption and an ‘Olam Haba.



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