Great fantasy stories and faith both require you to suspend disbelief and fully immerse yourself in the story that is being told. In church, as well as fantasy, we are invited to enter into the stories of the Bible. In a typical worship service, you are likely to hear references to the resurrection of the dead, the fact that a Palestinian Jew is the cosmic ruler of the universe, or that a piece of bread is Jesus’ body. No one bats an eye at any of this because everyone is fully immersed in the church’s story. Except, it seems, when women and queer people emerge as main characters. For some worshippers of a certain risen Lord, that is a bridge too far.
I gained some insight into Christian opposition to women and queer people taking center stage after watching the first season of Disney’s new original series, Willow. The TV show follows the adventures of the titular wizard from the 1988 movie of the same name.
Willow has all the themes you’d expect from a fantasy adventure: The party is assembled, there’s a quest, and they go on a rescue mission. The party has a rogue (Amar Chadha-Patel as Boorman), a wizard (Warwick Davis reprising his role as Willow), a bard (Tony Revolori as Graydon ), a paladin knight (Erin Kellyman as Jade), a princess (Ruby Cruz as Kit), and a chosen one (Ellie Bamber as Elora). Notably missing from the 1988 cast is Val Kilmer as Madmartigan (Kilmer is recovering from throat cancer.) The enemies are mainly the Crone, who live in the immemorial city, as well as an unseen quasi-deity that lives below ground — simply titled “the Wyrm.” As with any good fantasy, it’s less concerned about the plot than it is about showing the characters interact, grow, and change, along with a decent amount of throwbacks to the original movie.
Overall, I found the series to be both warmly nostalgic as well as daring and innovative. To my surprise, not everyone agreed. In fact, plenty of the reviews I read seemed to downright hate it, with one even expressing concern for the way that a character disrespects her husband-to-be. Some of the reviews I saw were less concerned with examining content and more concerned with policing the actions of the women and queer people at the center of the story.
Another refreshing storyline is the romance between Kit and Jade — two characters who have known each other from childhood but come to see each other in a different light once the quest begins. That romance is established by the first episode, and there is absolutely no “queerbaiting” in Willow. In fact, queer romance is never sidelined in the show; it is kept front and center as the two characters who fall in love are also two of the most talented warriors in the party.
Willow gets time to showcase his wizardry, but he often appears as a frustrated mentor, who doubts his own abilities and wonders whether he actually is the “great sorcerer” that everyone expects him to be. The other male protagonists function as side characters, although they receive enough attention to be more than one-dimensional.
It’s the fact of women being main characters and in leadership roles, with two of them having no romantic interest in men, that seems to have riled up many viewers of Willow. Any attempt to focus on characters who are not men is framed as an attack by some reviewers, who even worry that “Willow himself has been weirdly neutered” by the show's focus on characters (women) who aren’t “likeable.”
Something similar happens in churches the second someone other than a straight man steps into the pulpit. For both, the complaint is that it violates the rules of the genre. For some Christians, the “rules” opposing women and LGBTQ people’s leadership are found in the Bible. But I think those people are creating their own fantasy instead of living in God’s world of abundant love and inclusion. We don’t have to look hard within scripture to find women and queer people leading. Take for instance, the prophet Miriam named in the Bible alongside Moses and Aaron as being “sent” to the people of Israel (Micah 6:4). In the New Testament, the Ethiopian eunuch has long been a symbol of gender nonconforming leadership, and some consider him to be the first gentile in scripture to convert to Christianity. After the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism in Acts 8:26-40, tradition holds that he went and preached the gospel in his native Ethiopia.
Both fantasy stories and the Bible are at their best when we take the traditional narratives and queer them, making adjustments so that it can speak to new, fresh contexts. Thankfully, this is something that Willow has always done. The most powerful characters in the 1988 original movie were all women — sorcerers, queens, and princesses — with each possessing martial and magical capabilities. The wicked queen Bavmorda was the central enemy of the film, and it was only the combined magical might of Chalindrea and Fin Razel that could counter her designs.
There is one scene in the last episode of the series that has direct import for how I’m thinking about church. Boorman, the strongest and most experienced fighter in the party, has been on a decades-long quest to acquire a piece of magical equipment called “the Kymerian Cuirass.” The problem is that it won’t work for him, even after he has gone through all the effort to acquire it. He has to turn it over to Kit for it to work, and as he does, he comes to a realization: “I finally figured it out. This isn’t my story. It's yours.” In Boorman’s realization is a truth that churches can learn from when thinking about how women and LGBTQ people are taking the lead on social issues like reproductive rights and gun violence: Women and LGBTQ people are showing us a way forward, it’s our responsibility to follow their lead.
Willow is a delightful series and if viewers can get over their desire for straight male protagonists, they’ll likely agree. But the stakes are much higher for the church. If we can’t move beyond straight male pastors, then we risk shutting another generation out of leadership. We can’t afford to do this. Now, more than ever, we desperately need new voices to figure out what the future of the church looks like.
Both viewers of Willow and churchgoers can affirm the central theme offered by the show as articulated by Elora and Kit: “Love is the most powerful force in the universe.” There’s a temptation for us to get bogged down in what we believe and whether its “biblical” or not, but that was never what Christianity was meant to be about in the first place. Christianity is about broadening our imagination, not stifling it; the heart of Jesus’ message was never about the finer points of our creeds, or whose sermon was best, or what exactly the Trinity means. When you get down to it, it’s all about love. The only question worth asking is whether our faith is widening the boundaries of that love or closing them.
Theologian Herbert McCabe once defined theology as “not concerned with trying to say what God is but in trying to stop us talking nonsense.” It’s time to stop talking nonsense by denying the leadership gifts of women and the queer community. It’s time for people like me to take Boorman’s lead and realize the story isn’t about me while also taking steps to open my pulpit to the voices of women and queer people, making sure the resources produced by those communities are centered in the life of the church. After all, it’s not my story, and it never was — thanks be to God.