People try to control God by earning his favor
I wrote this letter to my artist-friend Heidi Rhodes, the only person I know who loves weirdness as much as I do.
You enjoy fantasy—elves, dragons, myths, and lore. You understand how fantasy gives us the freedom to say true things about the invisible world without entirely compromising our credibility. For example, it’s much easier for us to acknowledge once-powerless Frodo’s growing attraction to power when we see how the ring has taken hold of his imagination. Once we see the maddening effects of power-hunger in Frodo, it’s much easier to acknowledge them in our lives.
But can you imagine trying to explain to an aspiring politician that her quest for power may reveal a deeper powerlessness borne out of inadequacy? She wouldn’t listen. But if she read The Lord of the Rings, she might see it for herself.
The old stories have power. They let us see ourselves with enough imaginative distance that we are not afraid of our flaws. They give us the courage to tackle our weaknesses, all the while reminding us our worst enemies are not typically material. The old stories teach us that the unseen world is full of danger.
“The night is dark and full of terrors.”
As I began to study City Theology, I realized ancient cities were constructed around temples. Each city was a temple, a locus dedicated to a particular deity, and each city had a temple, an actual physical property set aside for the cult. Inside each temple was an idol, and the basic relationship between an ancient city and her idol was magic.
Magic refers to the manipulation of supernatural power. Sometimes magic involves the aid of the elements, sometimes the assistance of supernatural creatures, and sometimes the invocation of cosmic laws and universal powers.
In the ancient world, people flocked to the city-temples in hopes of controlling divine power and persuading divine assistance. The gods offered protection in exchange for praise.
Both Eden and Revelation expose pagan city-theology as a poor imitation of divine-human relationships. “Canaan’ came to be the cipher for the hierarchical urban polities along the fertile coastal plain. Each of these Canaanite urban centers was dominated by a local god like Baal or Astarte or El, embodied in a local king.”
In Eden, God lived with humanity in paradise. Our ancestors didn’t need to go to a temple to stare at an image of God. We are God’s shadows. We are his idols. If we want to see God, we only need look at one another and recognize his image within us. But, in Eden, we didn’t even need to look at one another since God himself walked among us and with us, before us and behind us. His presence saturated the garden and we knew him without requirement of any intermediary. His presence gave us protection without petition, and his authority spurred us to expand the borders of Eden and spread his glory over the earth.
But we’re not in Eden anymore, and it’s easy to see why our ancestors built cities to imitate the perfection they had lost.
Their imitations confused crucial details, however. That’s why, in Revelation, John goes to great lengths to show us there is no temple in heaven. Heaven, when it comes to earth, is a temple. God’s presence once more saturates Creation. But, instead of being centralized in a garden, his presence now spreads over the whole earth. And the image of God within us that was once corrupted is not only restored but glorified. We become new people with God’s presence radiating inside us and altering us entirely.
We don’t have good ways to talk about these things with natural or material metaphors. That’s why I think your love of fantasy is such a gift. It gives you a bank of images and terms to describe the indescribable.
But it’s also a reason for caution. We must not let our love for mystery in general distract us from the adoration of a specific Christ. We have to tailor and discipline our imaginations so our hearts worship God instead of worshipping the mental creations we’ve constructed to teach us about God.
There are many dangers in magic, but none so hostile to the magician as herself.
 Melisandre, Game of Thrones.
 Sometimes more than one, though there was always a “chief” deity.
 Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is a good example, wherein the elements can be woven together in spell-casting to varied effect.
 Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials does this, as does Pokemon (though in the cartoon, the pocket monsters are portrayed as entirely material).
 Gareth Nix’s Abhorsen books do a fabulous job of demonstrating that there are laws higher even than the highest supernatural powers.
Jim Perkinson, “Theology and the City: Learning to Cry, Struggling to See.” Cross Currents, vol. 51, no. 1 (Spring 2001). Accessed December 17, 2008. http://www.crosscurrents.org.
 Genesis 1.27.
 Genesis 3.8.
 Genesis 1.28-30.
 Revelation 21.22.
 Revelation 21.23.
 Colossians 3.10.