Thursday, January 19, 2012

Writing Fantasy, Tim Tebow and the Cult of Winning

Someone asked me again recently why I write fantasy. Wasn’t that a genre for children? Why didn’t I write something more serious? Perhaps something for grown ups. Although it’s a question I’ve fielded a number of times in the past two years, it always throws me a little, and I usually end up stammering a different response every time. When it’s done well, fantasy writing provides everything I’m looking for in narrative. A great story. A big story. A new world. An escape. Incisive commentary on our culture. Theological and philosophical reflection. But upon reflection, the greatest aspect of fantasy, and why I chose to work in this genre, is that it emphasizes the journey of life. And in a culture married to winning and success, fantasy novels remind us of that old sports axiom: it isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

Consider Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS. The tale of Frodo and his friends is essentially an internal journey manifested externally in the form of elves and Mordor and new kingdoms. Tolkien was creating myth, and all myths, all great tales, provide guidance for our interaction with a shifting and often tragic existence. The world makes no sense, and help is needed to navigate the journey. There’s a reason that many people, especially young people, who read fantasy or science fiction are categorized as “geeks.” They are outsiders in school or in their homes. They feel shunned. Different. For whatever reason, they do not fit with the people around them. For them, fantasy provides a bridge to navigating this world while looking through the lens of another.

These days, the stigma of fantasy as something for “geeks” has been erased. (Thank you, Ms. Rowling) And it has slipped into the mainstream as our world has continued to get faster, spinning with lightning speed, pushing us to change more quickly, acquire more, and just move Move MOVE! And above all, just win. Whatever the cost, even if it’s the only fifteen minutes you’ll get, push yourself to the top.

We are a culture obsessed with winners. Fantasy is a genre obsessed with participants. We are a culture that teaches success at all costs. Fantasy reminds us that success is not found in the ending, but in the story itself.

I wrote a piece just last week about Tim Tebow, the popular Denver Broncos quarterback who became the story of the year in the NFL. On Saturday, Tebow’s Broncos were annihilated by the New England Patriots, and seemingly overnight his name disappeared from the news. It won’t matter how many disabled children he meets before games or how much he gives to the poor if he starts losing next year. There are a lot of good people out there. But we want winners.

What about you? Who are the winners in your field? In your life? If you’re a pastor, someone will inevitably ask you how many people are in your church. If you’re in finance or investments, you will measured by your earnings. Parent? Tell us how successful your children are. And if you’re a writer, we want to know how many books you’ve sold.

We aren’t the first culture to be obsessed with winning or the first to quantify it in power or material gain. But in a world of over seven billion people, where the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, the emphasis on getting to the top of the mountain has become paramount. Instead of focusing on the path itself, on the relationships we build and the content of our character, we turn our gaze to the top and forget the richness of the journey. We forget that we weren’t created to win or even compete, but to simply participate.

It’s easy to get lost in the cultural maelstrom, and sometimes it’s impossible to escape that narrative in our jobs or personal lives. I write fantasy for the same reason I read it. It reminds me that the journey is the story. That I’m the only one who can decide what it means to win.

Whatever the culture says, whatever you read or see on television, that decision belongs to you. And if you decide to go a bit slower, decide that you don’t need to be famous or popular or rich, that joy comes from giving, not having, I think you’ll discover what it truly means to win. But that decision isn’t up to me. It’s your path, my friends. Your journey. Are you winning?