This project compares the way fantasy fiction is employed and adapted to create rhetorically powerful visions of religious identity in three very different, yet very successful contemporary series: Harry Potter by JK Rowling, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (a British atheist) and Left Behind by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins (American fundamentalist authors and activists). These stories are naturally associated with iconic options of religious identification in contemporary society: “hard-line” belief, “hard-line” skepticism and ambivalent (or nominal) belief.
This study argues that all three stories should be read as fantasy fiction, and examines the way they portray the “transfiguration” of an ambiguous, extra-systemic transcendence (Luhmann) into meaningful forms that allow an authentic sense of selfhood vis-à-vis of the Other (Ricoeur). What kinds of selves are thereby envisioned – and how are they contrasted to selves entangled in perversions and banalizations of transcendence? What religious rhetoric of fantasy fiction do the texts develop to present their readers with positive and negative senses of religious identity – and what critical insights can be derived from a “coductive” engagement with their narrative character (Booth)?
The project examines these questions within the context of the three fantasy “worlds” – each understood at once as a rhetorically charged “secondary creation” (Tolkien), a horizon of human meaning (phenomenological and hermeneutical traditions) and a sphere of fallenness and hope (Christian tradition). Both transcendence and personhood are understood in relation to being a self-in-a-world, and the fantasy construction of each world allows each narrative to highlight different possibilities and problems of religious identity. An examination of this dynamic is deepened by a more detailed examination of the way the three series re-create time, ethics, community and the holy.
While a comparative reading does not deny the clearly contradictory character of the stories’ religious visions, it also presents many mirror-image congruencies, which, I argue, derive from a shared struggle to bring transcendence into language and free it from perversions. The project highlights both the theological productivity of fantasy fiction and some common challenges inherent to the construction of religious identity in a contemporary context.