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Potting Soil

Posted By on August 29, 2011

by Teri Ong

I am teaching a literature course this semester entitled “Four Christian Fantasists.” It happens to be about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Charles Williams. There are others who would fit into this category beside these four, but these four are particularly eminent in the field. One could go so far as to say these men’s works are the measuring stick for those who have come after them.

Now there is fantasy and there is fantasy. You all know what I mean. Just as there is the “blood-and-thunder” genre and the “cloak-and-dagger” genre, Mr. Fritz Leiber coined the term “sword-and-sorcery” for the vast majority of what passes for “fantasy” nowdays. Much of it could rightfully be described as “magic-and-mayhem” or “sorcery-and-seduction” tales. But if I gave an appellation to the kind of books we are studying in my class, I would describe them as “cross-and-crown” tales, that deal righteously with themes of depravity, sacrifice, redemption and honor.

Some people resist the whole idea of imaginative literature. “It’s not true,” some object. But if we reject all made-up stories because they did not really happen, we must reject many of the parables of Jesus. Jesus frequently used “made-up” stories to reach people’s hearts with the truth.

Some people draw the line at talking animals. If we draw our line here we will need to eliminate the record of Balaam’s donkey. Ironically, the donkey spoke more truth than Balaam did.

Some may draw the line at talking objects. At least creatures have a mind and a natural ability to communicate, if only with their own kind. But talking objects! That is too far out! Then we must eliminate from the Bible the story Jotham told about the trees who wanted to appoint for themselves a king. (Judges 9) And remember Jesus said that if people did not praise him, the very stones would cry out for Him.

God has given us the creative capacity to imagine whole worlds in our minds and to bring them into existence with our words. This is as close as we can come to creating ex nihilo as God did, only we must use the mind stuff He has already given us to create our new worlds.

Just to keep our feet solidly on terra firma in the matter of literary imagination, Miles Van Pelt, has a few reminders for us in his wonderful article “Dirt, Books, and the Breath of God.” In a chapel message to some younger students, Dr. Van Pelt asked his audience to tell him the difference between a bag full of dirt that he had brought with him and a young man in the audience. The Bible tell us that we were created from dirt and when we die, we return to that dirty state. The difference is that human beings are animated by the very breath of God (Gen. 2:7) and the bag of dirt is not.

He then goes on to point out that the difference between every book ever written by humans and the Bible is that the Bible is “living and active” because it is God-breathed. Apart from the Bible, all of the books we enjoy and admire are just dirt. But they can have the same purpose as the plain old dirty dirt out in our gardens– God uses fertile soil to grow good nourishing stuff.

Across the history of literature, many of mankind’s stories are not just dirt– they are filth. As far as I know (not being much of a gardener myself), raw sewage is not a good medium for growing healthy produce. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called “The Season of the Supernatural” about the spate of books about robots, aliens, magicians, dragons, ghosts, demons, werewolves, vampires, zombies and witches. The vast majority of these would not qualify as fertile soil for God’s truth, but do illustrate the longing in the human heart to believe in something bigger and more mysterious than a mechanistic, material universe deterministically governed by DNA.

When it comes to growing good stuff, I think it is probably better to go out where things are already growing, and turn up a spade-ful of good, honest, black dirt and put it into your pots. I have always been a little suspicious about the stuff in a plastic bag that is one part sterilized dirt, three parts styrofoam, and two parts “Miracle Grow.” This last approach reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s response to people who wrote stories by asking, “What do modern children want?” or even “What do modern children need?” He wrote:

…I feel sure that the question ‘What do modern children need?’ will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask ‘What moral do I need?’ for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures [images in your own mind] tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life… The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.” (OOW, p. 33)

The “Four Christian Fantasists” we are considering this semester had deep roots and the compost of their good produce makes for rich soil indeed. I always get a good harvest from them when I put in the seed of God’s truth and sprinkle generously with living water. I pray that I in turn will make some good potting soil.

Meanwhile, thanks to Dr. Van Pelt, the next time I am in a book shop I will be tempted to ask as Mary Lennox did in The Secret Garden, “Sir, may I have a bit of earth?”


Van Pelt, Miles V. “Dirt, Books, and the Breath of God,” Ministry & Leadership (Reformed Theological Seminary, Fall 2010), pp. 4-5.

Alter, Alexandra. “The Season of the Supernatural,” Wall Street Journal, Friday, May 27, 2011, pp. D1-D2.

Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” San Diego: Harvest Book, 1994, p. 33. 


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