Question: Is there anything wrong with a Christian liking dragons in fantasy? Would Biblical symbolism morally prevent Christians from liking dragons as a concept?
Answer: Let me say that I appreciate the broad scope of your question, because there seems to be plenty of discussion about whether or not a Christian should participate in RPGs (role playing games) like Dungeons and Dragons … and this is a valid question. But you are looking for a more universal truth about the limits of biblical symbolism, so let’s explore that.
But first, let me give you my stand on this issue right up front because what I see as the main problem will take a while to explain and my stand might not immediately be clear: So (and with the standard Christian disclaimers in place like keeping God first, deferring to the weaker brother, not looking like the world, etc.), I see no language-technical or logical reasons for not enjoying dragon imagery.
Please note, however, that church leaders do indeed have the right to set the tone in their individual congregations by emphasizing or de-emphasizing secondary issues. Unfortunately, some of these leaders see a world crisis where none exists… but this is America; you may choose where you fellowship. So, I’ll share my findings, but this also reflects my church’s tone… and that’s the first issue. Affirming that Jesus is God-come-in-the-flesh — the Messiah and Savior of humankind…. that’s important. But whether or not a Christian should play RPGs or enjoy a biblical image extra-biblically?… not so much. So, I’ll enjoy discussing the issue no matter what. But if it is too much of a “problem” in real life at your fellowship, that becomes a different topic.
Let’s begin by discussing human ontology: what is our essence? What makes us tick? The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26)… and what that means fully is an open question. But I believe strongly that our way-more-than-necessary propensity for communicating differentiates our species, and God pulled out all the stops when he gave us language, logic and the communicative impetus. When I look at these embedded characteristics I must assume that God wants all humankind to perceive what he has revealed — and just look at how he arranged things:
God revealed his deity and power to us in the physical creation (Rom. 1:18-25); he set his own goodness in our hearts as evidenced by the morality embedded within us (Rom.2:14); he put it all in writing (Lk. 24:44-45)… and he wrote it all in blood by revealing himself in his Son (Heb. 1). And when we respond in faith to God’s various revelations (Heb. 11:6), he sends his Holy Spirit to dwell within us (Gal 4:6).
These five cover the communications gamut: We use logic and observation to make sense of the empirical; we use our language-intelligence to study God’s written record, to verify its veracity and to share our findings; we respond to the introspection required of moral beings by doing good (or feeling guilty), and we are optimized for spiritual discovery via the indwelling Spirit. This is a fivefold communicative redundancy… which by modern “system” standards is failure-proof (not to mention extravagant!)
What does this mean for humankind? The excuse, “God never revealed himself to me!” is moot. But we’re talking about biblical symbolism specifically, so let’s narrow our discussion to the oral and written methodologies (which in this age we should understand to mean all media).
As a person who processes a lot of nonacademic writing, I am amazed at the number of people who are functional communicators — but who do not understand many concepts that are properly basic to language… and the big offenders have more to do with understanding the proper limits of a communication than with its proper syntax. You see, it is incumbent upon the reader to discern the author’s intent. Any understanding beyond that is the near equivalent to a reader creating an entirely new work in his head.
Although this is a properly basic understanding for language and communication, it’s quite a bold statement in the postmodern world. You see, certain philosophers have decreed that history (therefore the Bible) is natively unreliable. Furthermore, many people believe that there are no absolute truths. Under these assumptions, an author’s intentions are moot. But the notion that the author’s intent is of relatively little importance is what it feels to be — nonsense! It is counter-communicative, illogical, self-refuting… and I’ll give it no more comment. We will continue under the properly basic notion that an author targets an audience with a purpose — and that the audience has the job of engaging with the author on those terms.
Here’s how this works: An author defines the limits of his communication through its context, genre and audience. A reader should understand any author’s creation as purposeful and synergistic — with all the parts working together to communicate the main story. But a purposeful communication is also encapsulated. Words and phrases are context-critical; they have no meaning without context, and they have no right to wander.
Think of the contextual word-unit as a biological cell: the main job of the cell’s wall is to contain things. Now, it is also designed to let specific things pass through under specific conditions, but it is much more so a container — a delimiter.
Now, this is the key to valid a communication: the author determines what is to be contained in the cell and what can legitimately reach outside. So, if we find that an element has an author-intended connection to an external idea — that is a purposed (legitimate) connection. But if the same element is connected to an external idea by the reader’s observation only and not by the author’s intent, that is an incidental connection — and this has no right-to-power. So, you may say of an incidental connection that it has changed your life… but you may not say of it that the author intended that change.
Revelation’s Dragon has no purposeful connection to your fantasy dragons, and the assertion that Satan’s evil spills over unbidden into the cell of your fantasy has no merit. Now, this is one of the ways we connect to art… and we may bask in its aesthetic and subjective sunshine all day long! But this is not the way we do exegesis; interpreting the Bible requires objective analysis and purposeful connections… and not every connection has the right-to-power when interpreting Bible text. As such, I see no reason for you to shun your dragons.
Let me wind this down with an example of what’s at play here. I highly recommend the movie A Beautiful Mind. This is the story of mathematician John Nash who won the Nobel Prize in economics (1994)… but who also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The fusion of his brilliance and his disease caused his “beautiful mind” to see connections that no one else could see.
In one of his delusions Nash understood himself to be a code-breaker working for the US government. He was tasked with finding coded Soviet communications suspected to be embedded in our newspapers and magazines. In one dramatic scene we see Nash’s work area where he had mounted those newspapers and magazines all over the wall… but with connections marked out between them. So here’s the point: those connections did indeed exist… I mean, Nash saw them! But (and this is a huge but)… they were not author-intended. Neither the Soviets nor the editors embedded any secret codes. Nash’s genius (and his illness) created pseudo-meaning out of the incidentally related words.
This illustrates a great human truth: God created us all with “beautiful minds”… and like John Nash we see connections everywhere… including those that are merely incidental — the ones that might have some kind of pattern — but have no authored-purpose behind them. You see, God did not give us just enough intelligence and sensitivity to get the job done (as would Darwinism); he gave it to us abundantly… but this has a side-effect: we see non-purposed connections as an artifact of our thinking processes. But such artifacts are illusory; they have no right-to-power and no legitimate potential to inform.
So what about those “hidden Bible codes” that are featured in books and on TV? First of all, books and TV are primarily commercial entities, not truth entities. They use snippets of truth as hooks… so don’t be a sucker. Second, look at the target audience for that theme — conspiracy buffs. These secrecy-enthusiasts assume that there is a body of knowledge that only insiders (like themselves) know about, and they fuel these delusions by connecting incidental data as if it were purposed. God doesn’t communicate that way — and I repudiate the idea that such codes are part of God’s purposed output (… which is different than saying that patterns do not exist).
With art, however, every connection is subjectively legitimate — and this is true whether or not it is artist intended. But the world at large (and far too many “exegetes”) insists that there are objective connections in the Bible where only subjective connections exist. Now, it is okay to engage every element with subjective connectedness — that’s the fun part of being human! But it is not okay to assert that an author purposefully connected to an external element without adequate cause. So, although it is true that the Bible uses the dragon as an image of Satan, it does not follow that dragon imagery is thereby not discrete — or that it is spoiled for positive purposes.
In defense of those who will disagree, a more collective reasoning might better apply to this issue — and I will grant that a hearing. But it violates the common uses of language to say that, since God used an evil image in the book of Revelation that it is a sin to bring it into common use. Logically, that is the tail wagging the dog. Language serves its object, not the other way around. Such notions reflect linguistic slavery, and a restriction like this is beyond the properly basic use of language.
My grandson has a stuffed-toy alligator. It’s about 2 feet long, very huggable… and he loves it! Now, an actual alligator is anything but huggable, but note what the designer did: he saved the essence of the reptile but created a toy full of comfort and love. Should I be angry at the toy’s designer for giving my grandson the idea that this creature (which could surely eat him!) was not actually dangerous? That’s silly. In fact, his stuffed alligator had quite the opposite effect. My grandson is always pointing-out pictures of real alligators in books and on TV and talking about how dangerous they are. Yet at bedtime he snuggles-up to that alligator and falls right asleep. So I must ask, is society somehow betrayed by the designer’s creativity and by my grandson’s engagement with the fantasy? Hardly. Besides, there are real monsters about; let’s worry about those.
The same principle applies to the image of the dragon in the Bible. Revelation’s Dragon is Satan himself — the destroyer… the one who devours little boys of all ages (1 Pet. 5:8)… and I think the average Christian “gets” that. So, what is the complaint from the people who speak against using the dragon in fantasy? Do they think that we do not understand the danger of Satan? If anything this type of usage opens up a dialogue… and in my opinion, bringing Satan into the light compromises his effectiveness.
Do you see what we have then? On one hand some people fear that using the dragon’s image extra-biblically (and kindly) softens his threat, giving Satan the advantage of stealth. On the other hand I say that doing so brightens the entire room… and this gives a thinking-person the advantage.
Now, worshiping the Dragon as the Satan’s surrogate would be plain old evil… but is that what detractors think that extra-biblical creative use of dragon imagery does? Because that kind of thinking evokes the Salem witch trials — and objections like those are just puritanism looking for a home; they do nothing to (or for) the biblically astute Christian.
I hope that all this helped more than it hurt. Let me close with a few recommendations to round-out our discussion. God bless you… and Go Dragons!
Dragons in Our Midst by Bryan Davis.