I assume most of us recognize the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. The stuff of fiction stories hasn’t actually occurred in “real life”; the stuff of non-fiction stories has. Less obvious, perhaps, is the distinction between fantasy fiction and non-fantasy fiction (which, as stated here, is my own brainchild, so it’s a good time to trigger critical filters): non-fantasy fiction could occur in our world as we know it (though, in fact, it hasn’t); fantasy fiction is stuff that couldn’t occur in our world, though it might in a different one. In fantasy fiction, the rules of that world are different from those in play in our own.
Whither this? Well, I’m in a running dialogue with a friend about the value of fiction stories. Is there any real value in stories that have never actually happened; and mustn’t we ask the question even more seriously about stories that couldn’t possibly occur in the “real world” at all?
I wouldn’t have thought 2 Samuel 22 a likely source of answers to these questions, but preaching through the text, it has been impossible to ignore some truly fantastic elements in David’s song. We find him sinking in the “waves of death,” in “torrents of destruction,” entangled in “the cords of Sheol” (vv. 5–6). He cries out to Yahweh, and the next thing we know the earth is reeling and rocking – the very foundations of heaven tremble at the erupting wrath of the Most High (v. 8). Yahweh mounts a cherub (v. 11); He bows the heavens and descends upon the earth, veiled in canopies of watery darkness (vv. 10, 12). He roars from heaven (v. 14), scattering the enemies of His servant with lightning shafts (v. 15); at the fiery blast from His nostrils, the channels of the sea are laid bare, and the foundations of the world uncovered (v. 16). It’s a scene of fearful glory and stunning power. Now here’s the question: When did this “really” occur? In fact, we must ask whether this scene even could occur in the “real world” – does Yahweh have nostrils? could He possibly ride on a cherub? Well, not exactly, but such questions badly miss the point of the text. This isn’t about what actually happened, or what actually could happen, in the world as we know it: it’s intended to open our eyes to a whole other sphere of reality that intersects with our world in the most ordinary things (the death of a king on Mount Gilboa, for one), and in which lies our hope of deliverance from all the evils we suffer in this world.
One of the uglier bits of fallout that has attended the Enlightenment’s disenchantment (or, as we might prefer to say, demythologizing) of the world is the erection of a firm barrier between what is “real” in the “real world” and what is . . . uh, myth. What I think may not be so obvious to us is that in erecting this firm barrier, we have also erected very high and firm partitions between the actual (non-fiction), the possible (fiction), and the impossible (fantasy). Never mind where we got these partitions: they are up, and not going anywhere. Certain things are real, actual, and therefore believable. Other things are possible, given the rules of the world as we know it; but it is also quite clear that other things lie beyond the borders even of possibility – out there are the myths, the objects of unreasoned faith (UFOs, gods, fairies, dragons, trolls, and so on).
I’m not going to offer a critique of the Enlightenment at this point, but I find it interesting that the Bible regularly takes us into the realm not only of fiction (parables, for instance), but even of fantasy (especially in its poetry and prophecies). Why? I think at least part of the reason must be that we need constant reminders that our God is not simply the God of the actual; He is also the God of the possible, and indeed of the impossible. We need, for example, to know that God will move heaven and earth to save those who trust in Him: not because we’ve ever actually seen this happen in the world as we think we know it, but because it happens all the time in the sphere of reality where nothing is impossible, and which we have apprehended by faith. And to take this a step further, I think extra-biblical fiction stories and fantasies may serve a similar function in our lives: they may remind us that “what is” is not all there is, not all there need be, and not all there will be. They may gesture at that sphere of reality without boundaries: the sphere of the working of God. They may awaken hope in us; they may open our eyes again to transcendent things.
My daughter once asked me if the wind was God’s shaking the acorns out of the trees. If we are going to take 2 Samuel 22 seriously, I believe the answer must, at some level, be yes. And that’s also why I’m glad she loves a good fantasy story. Who knows, her God may use it to shake some Enlightenment silliness out of her head one day.