Was Tolkien A Racist?

How could Tolkien be accused of being a racist when his races were, well, made up? No, there are no hobbits in the world. No, there are no elves. No, there are no goblins or orcs made be the magic of an evil wizard.
| May 20, 2019 | 22 comments |

Don’t laugh. In the secular world of books, fantasy is under attack, and the father of fantasy has not escaped the accusations. Granted, contemporary writers face the accusation of being racist more than those of the classics, but not entirely. Some have claimed that Tolkien’s orcs in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy are “racialised.” (See “Writers blocked: Even fantasy fiction is now offensive; Persecution is endemic in the vicious world of Young Adult publishing” by Karen Yossman, The Spectator).

Yes, really. Of course author Phillip Pullman, years ago, accused C. S. Lewis of being “‘blatantly racist’ and misogynistic,” so an accusation against Tolkien should not be unexpected. But is there any truth to these charges?

A look at what’s behind the allegations first, will be helpful.

Primarily the condemnation of stories that once were considered classics, comes from other authors, particularly those in the secular young adult community. Fueled by Twitter attacks and chatter from liberal writers with an agenda, fantasy readers are being schooled to read—and review—stories through the lens of identity politics.

As a result some authors have experienced the vitriol turned against them, to the point that they have withdrawn books from publication, even turned the ones in print into pulp. (See Yossman’s article).

In some ways you might say Tolkien is getting off light.

But how could he be accused of being a racist when his races were, well, made up? No, there are no hobbits in the world. No, there are no elves. No, there are no goblins or orcs made be the magic of an evil wizard.

But apparently the suggestion of slavery—not any real, actual mention of it—is enough to bring about the charge that Tolkien is a racist.

I find this trend in the way the secular book world is going, to be rather chilling.

Beyond the issue of gender politics is the idea that ideas must be those that are approved or removed. In other words, a story that presents a different slant, from a different perspective, is not allowed. Concerning slavery, apparently the accepted position is that this is an American issue, suffered by African-Americans, who are then the only ones qualified to write about any type of slavery.

My agent and friend experienced this attitude first hand. Sally Apokedak, before self-publishing her award-winning novel The Button Girl (2018 Realm Award–Debut), submitted it to a number of secular publishers. Some of the remarks she received in return expressed this same idea that her story line about slavery and her attitudes toward male/female relationships made the book both racist and misogynist.

Apparently the two accusations come hand-in-hand because C. S. Lewis was accused of both as well.

The point is simple: from now on, even in fantasy, readers won’t find books from traditional secular publishers that elevate a traditional man-woman relationship or that shows a race of people that is in any way reminiscent of an oppressed people group. No Native Americans, then. No Africans. No Middle Easterners. And no made up races that remind these social justice warriors of any of these groups. Unless the author is from one of those groups. Then and only then can the writer create a story that involves another people group—unless it is a group, not the author’s own.

I suspect Christian authors and readers of Christian fiction will be affected less than others. After all, small press novels, ones self-published, or those published by a traditional Christian imprint, may not feel the same pressure as these authors in the general market have. But I wonder if that fact isn’t necessarily a good thing. Doesn’t it indicate that we Christian writers and readers are operating in our own safe bubble, immune from the slings and arrows of racism? Until we aren’t.

Why should we think we will remain immune to accusations of being racist or misogynist? I mean, if Tolkien was open to such a charge, can we think that the Christian addressing slavery to sin will not also face this same kind of vitriol, at some point? Even, perhaps, at the point that such ideas are deemed unlawful.

Am I being too much of a doomsayer? Ten years ago, I would have thought so. But when I read about the hate that is directed at people for their “hateful attitude toward people of another race,” it makes me wonder what has happened to the marketplace of ideas. Can we no longer hear each other? Can we no longer understand another’s perspective through an exchange of ideas? Is an exchange of ideas something that will no longer be tolerated?

I’m hoping that the Church universal—that stands on the sure word of God—will be a beacon to the rest of our culture as the counterpoint to the world’s rejection of free speech. Of course, free speech means we take the good with the bad.

But isn’t Christianity all about the freedom to admit our sin, to tell God about our struggles, to receive forgiveness, and in return to offer it? Isn’t it about our common need for Christ? Not just Americans need the Lordship of Jesus. And not just white Americans. Every tribe and tongue and nation will be represented at the great feast of the Lamb.

Think what this refusal to exchange ideas would have done to the spread of Christianity. Actually the early disciples struggled with the issue: was The Way only for Jews? Or could Gentiles also follow Christ. I, for one, am happy that Gentiles weren’t shut out from the kingdom of heaven! So may the Church continue to be the Church, even in our stories, even in the face of a secular world determined to permit only accepted ideas.

How Science Fiction Portrays the Future of Christianity

Science fiction tends to write Christianity out of its view of the future. How can Christian sci fi writers respond?
| May 16, 2019 | 84 comments |

The title of this post unintentionally portrays science fiction as a unified front on the subject of what it has to say about Christianity in the future. Science fiction isn’t unified in reality–sci fi isn’t even always about the future, though more often than not it is. There have been a wide variety of ways in which Christianity has been shown in the future in so-called “mainstream” science fiction. Yet there are certain approaches that I’ve found to be more common than others. This post looks at what I see as the basic issue of how sci fi has seen the future of Christianity and also looks at how a number of Christian authors have responded to this challenge.

Star Trek exemplifies what I consider to be the most common approach science fiction takes to Christianity set in the future–Christianity, along with all other human religions, simply has ceased to exist at some point prior to the story setting, with very little commentary on how or why that happened. While some Star Trek has made certain references to Biblical ideas like heaven/hell, God/Satan, Genesis, original sin, paradise, and a few others, in spite of these references, not a single character, either major or minor, is openly stated to be a Christian in Star Trek (nor Jewish, nor Muslim, nor Hindu, nor any other human religion). Humanity has landed in a strictly secular future and religion is a thing of the past for our species. Other intelligent species, Klingons and Bajorans among them, have overt religious beliefs and practices. But humans do not.

Other stories, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, portray a future of humanity in which humans remain as religious as we are now. Yet the religion(s) are no longer recognizable as stemming from faiths that exist today. Religion has changed, transformed, into something entirely new, even if human beings are still recognizably human. (The tribespeople of Hawaii worshiping Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas may be an even clearer example of this phenomenon.)

Some science fiction has vilified future religion (classic example: Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100) and some have portrayed a small minority of Christian believers living in the future in a neutral or even positive way (classic example: Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama series). Among the classic sci fi novelists I know, only Jerry Pournelle (himself a practicing Catholic) portrayed futuristic space exploration in which Christianity retained an important cultural role in humanity’s future (as seen in the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel, The Mote in God’s Eye).

In spite of many variations, including ones I haven’t named, science fiction usually portrays the future of Christianity in the following ways: 1) along with all other human religion, it doesn’t exist at all in the future, 2) religion exists, but Christianity doesn’t. 3) Christianity exists, but it’s the faith of a tiny minority and essentially insignificant.

While science fiction writers who in various ways erase Christianity from existence in the future don’t mean to be producing propaganda (as a general rule), I think such stories can have a propaganda effect, whether intentional or not. One of the things propaganda tries to do is shape the understanding of the future for those who hear it. The Nazis spoke of a thousand-year Reich. They tried to convince the German people of the inevitability of their (Nazi) destiny–in essence “Conform now, because the future is with us.”

I see a rather similar effect stemming from much of science fiction, even though sci fi stories are not produced by deliberate propagandists (with certain exceptions). Science fiction preaches future secularism to a large degree. Should we be surprised that in our time, the era of the rise of the popularity of largely-secular science fiction, has also seen a rise in people holding to non-religious (or non-Christian) worldviews?

Of course I’m not claiming that science fiction by itself is responsible for a general cultural turning away from all religion and Christianity in particular–but it seems reasonable to me to conclude science fiction has contributed to this effect.

In fact, the sense that science fiction engages in what is in effect propaganda is part of the reason why I write science fiction from a deliberately Christian point of view. Like Jerry Pournelle, I’m creating alternate views of the future other than what is commonly portrayed in sci fi. Some form of Secular Reich is not inevitable.

My approach has been to imagine that the future is even more Christian in important ways that in our present–i.e. I’ve imagined that the pendulum is swinging away from Christian faith now, but it will swing back again in the future. (Medieval Mars and Victorian Venus both conceive of a future more devoutly Christian than our present.) Lelia Rose Foreman has also written stories in which Christianity undergoes cultural changes in the future as human cultures change, but still remains Christian (in her Statterworld Trilogy), even though she has not imagined Christianity becoming important for the entire human race, just for a select group of future colonists.

Yet not all of our peers have taken this approach. While Kerry Nietz has written a Christian culture into the future with Amish Vampires in Space (and sequels) I would say his more distinctive series set in the future is the Dark Trench Shadow series (starting with Frayed), which portrays Islam as the religion of Earth’s future. No, that’s not a good thing in that story universe–Kerry’s method both runs counter to any assumption of a secular future and at the same time allows a direct comparison between Christian culture and its likely alternative, powerful even though the stories feature little direct commentary on religion.

Steve Rzasa in For Us Humans likewise sees a future decline in Christianity, but in his story, the act of meeting aliens in the near future is what damages religious belief for many Christians, shaking the sense that God has a special story of redemption for Planet Earth. Many humans, but definitely not all, turn away from religion–while in fact, the main alien character proves to be more interested in Christianity than most humans are. In short, in spite of a general decline, Christianity survives in unexpected ways in Steve’s tale.

In contrast to Mr. Rzasa, Joshua A. Johnston in his Chronicles of Sarco series (starting with Edge of Oblivion) takes an entirely different approach to the effect aliens would have on human religious belief. He imagines a future in which human beings have indeed abandoned Christianity to the point of essentially forgetting Christianity ever existed–only to travel to the stars to meet alien species who have religions with obvious parallels to the Christian faith. So humans come to know God primarily through aliens.

A Walker Scott takes a similar approach to Johnston’s in No Road Among the Stars. No, humanity has not entirely forgotten its religious past in Scott’s story, but in the view of the many alien races this novel portrays in interesting and varied ways, humanity is stuck in an “adolescent rebellion stage” when it comes to how humans feel about God. A stage all the other races grew out of, discovering their own versions of faith over again, so humans are the least religious of all intelligent species. With the consequence of the human protagonist learning about faith from his alien friends.

There are of course many other approaches Christian authors could take to offer alternative views of the future. We could, for example, imagine aliens converting to Christianity en masse and sending missionaries back to a mostly unbelieving human race. Or we could imagine a future that really is wholly secular, while at the same time revealing what such a society would actually be like (it wouldn’t be a utopia a-la-Star-Trek).

Have you as a reader of this post given much thought to how sci fi shows the future of Christianity? Do you agree with my assessment and if not, why not?

And have you seen other means Christian authors have used to respond to how the future of Christianity is normally portrayed in sci fi? Which method do you think is best, if any?

The Power of Christ Compels Us

If you’ve ever walked into a grand cathedral, ask yourself: was your first thought “Wow, God is so wonderful!” or was it “Wow, these architects and craftsman were incredible!”
| May 15, 2019 | 3 comments |

I recently returned from a week-long trip to Rome, Italy. It was an incredible experience and I saw places that I’d been dreaming of since I was just a boy (after my “Native Americans” and “dinosaurs” phases, I went through an “Ancient Rome and Egypt” phase). Walking in the Roman forum and standing beneath the arches of the Colosseum and craning my neck to view the ceiling of the Pantheon felt surreal but also gave me a deeper sense of reality of these historic places. These weren’t just vivid images in travel books or documentaries; I was there, looking at these stone marvels with my own eyes. My wife, children, and mother also joined me so it was especially wonderful to share these memories as a family.

Of all the wondrous places we visited, the highlight was the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Basilica in particular. The Vatican was incredibly crowded and it was impossible to fully appreciate the majesty of its miles of galleries and the glorious Sistine Chapel. But even a few minutes with those masterpieces stamped an indelible impression on my giddy imagination. And then we entered St. Peter’s. I’ve been a big fan of medieval and Renaissance architecture, especially churches and cathedrals, for a long time and I’ve seen a few spectacular buildings in my travels, but St. Peter’s left me speechless. Its dimensions were mind-boggling, and the incredible paintings on the ceiling and dome weren’t paintings, but mosaics composed of tiny colored tiles. Our tour guide informed us that the sanctuary ceiling bore more than six thousand pounds of gold, carved into delicate and intricate designs. If I had to sum up St. Peter’s Basilica in one word, it would be “sublime.” It truly felt like heaven on Earth, which was its creators’ intention.

Yet despite the opulence and majesty surrounding me, I also felt disquiet in my heart. It was very obvious that this church was an idol, and while it was claimed to have been built for the glory of God, it inspired feelings of awe for man instead, and for the Holy Roman Church. Imagine how a poor peasant from the countryside would feel stepping into the rapturous sanctuary. It would be simply overwhelming, and their spinning head would be subject to the whims of the church, which valued money over prayers and sound doctrine. St. Peter’s Basilica is a grand propaganda tool, a display of the might of the church and a testament to the power of the Pope, supposedly God’s voice on Earth.

The Bible admonishes Christians on multiple occasions that the Spirit-filled walk will be marked with persecution and trials. Never are we exhorted to seek out political or military power or to set up “Christian” empires. That’s not to say that worldly power is bad, and when Christians find themselves with that power, they are expected to use it for God’s glory and the good of the church. Yet it is a constant temptation to seek power, because let’s face it: no one likes persecution.

In nations with a strong Catholic tradition, the power of the church is more overt. In the USA, with our Protestant roots, we bristle at the thought of a massively powerful corporate religious entity, but we seek the same power in different ways. We try to keep our government as “Christian” as possible through our votes. We brainstorm ways to infiltrate secular strongholds like entertainment and media. We try to cultivate Christian “soft power” to counter the poisonous culture in which we live. All of these are noble pursuits but we need to first ask if we are doing so to increase our witness or simply to make our earthly lives more comfortable and/or profitable. The rallying cry of “We need more Christians in ______” isn’t automatically God’s will. It may very well be, but we need to remember whose glory is the most important. If you’ve ever walked into a grand cathedral, ask yourself: was your first thought “Wow, God is so wonderful!” or was it “Wow, these architects and craftsman were incredible!” The cathedrals we build today, whether real or virtual, should be subject to the same scrutiny.

The Fellowship of ‘Tolkien’

Like most biopics, “Tolkien” deviates from true events, but accurately shows J. R. R. Tolkien as a man of true love and fellowship.
Marian Jacobs | May 14, 2019 | 6 comments |

Many reviews and ranting blogs backed up my newsfeeds in the weeks leading up to the release of Tolkien. Never have I read more fretting, contradictory articles. Yet despite the variety of opinions on the interwebs, one thing is certain: J.R.R. Tolkien is well loved.

From Christian fans, to purist Middle Earth super-geeks, to indifferent LOTR movie goers—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult) has captured the attention of us all. So it wouldn’t seem too much to ask that a biopic film of his early life would do the man justice.

But did it?

I walked into the theater with exceedingly low expectations for the depiction of Tolkien (after hearing through the review grapeview that they’d left out his Christian faith), but with high expectations for film quality. Thankfully, the first expectation was at least partially untrue and the latter quite accurate.

Rumors are misleading in the best of times. The Tolkien-purists had me believing that Catholicism was never even mentioned in the film—and especially not in connection to Tolkien himself. That is not the case at all. Although never explicitly stated, it is clearly implied multiple times that Tolkien is Catholic.

The real issue that should be addressed is that he came across as merely a nominal Catholic instead of devout and faithful. This is still a big blow to Christian fans who feel that separating Tolkien from his faith is akin to removing a heart from its body.

Admittedly, I still enjoyed the film—although I am no purist. Of course it’s too bad they didn’t delve deeper into the importance of Tolkien’s faith. But since the filmmakers themselves are not Christians, this outcome is the best we can hope for. In fact, the Tolkien they placed on the screen was a far cry from a modern, progressive man in his dreams, decisions, and friendships.

In recent years, the entertainment industry has struggled more and more to create more serious works of art in which the male heroes are virtuous rather than slapstick comedians. There’s always a time and place for such comedies, but I have often wondered if it is at the expense of genuine, serious characters.

(Thor’s shift in character after Thor: The Dark World is a prime example. His Ragnarok persona wasn’t necessary had they portrayed his serious side correctly to begin with. That change was a relief to many fans, but I mourned the loss of the original hero.)

Although the filmmakers seemed to miss the root cause of Tolkien’s relationships as faith, they certainly didn’t miss its symptoms: love. Yes, a good portion of the film focused on romantic love, but it also explicitly and beautifully displayed the love he had for his friends. In fact I would go so far as to say that love—for his mother, his wife, his friends—was the theme of this film. Even his interest in language and imagination was secondary.

And it is that non-romantic love between a group of men that is so rarely seen in entertainment today. It’s the kind of camaraderie that says, “I am devoted to you,” without a hint of ego-driven bashfulness and shame.

I won’t try to convince you that Tolkien is everything fans could ask for. It, like most biopics, occasionally deviates from true events. Some will likely hate it while others refuse to see it at all. But I think it gives us one important piece of who he really was—a man of unapologetic love and fellowship so rarely seen in modern storytelling.

Tolkien had many goals throughout his life, but his primary objective in this film was to “change the world” alongside his friends. And thank God he did.

Great Art And Story

Because fiction is first a form of communication, I think stories should pay attention to what Scripture says about our correspondence with one another.
| May 13, 2019 | 1 comment |

Years ago Cap Steward did a guest post for Spec Faith, not discussing art per se, entitled “Actually, Fantastic Films Don’t Require Sex and Nudity.”

At one point he said

It’s at least a possible sign of danger when we approach a controversial topic with appeals to a Higher Power that is not God. In this case [what is acceptable in fiction regarding sex and nudity], the needs of the story are trotted out in an effort to eliminate any objections, as if the discussion is over once the story has spoken.

Add to this the oft repeated accusation that Christians no longer produce art but “tracts,” and I begin to wonder, what’s so great, so necessary about producing art?

The thing is, “art” is a word with transient meaning. The definition of art in the Oxford American Dictionary is helpful, I think, in making this point clear:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power

“Beauty” we say, is in the eye of the beholder (though that may or may not be true), and certainly what moves one person to tears may or may not affect another person in the same way, so if art is human creativity appreciated for its beauty or emotional power, then it seems apparent that what one generation or culture reveres as art may not be revered universally.

Once, pictures of plump cherubs fluttering over figures with halos was considered great art. Hundreds of years later, paintings of common objects such as soup cans became cutting edge art—a sort of rebellion against the art of abstraction that focused on shape and shade with little thought of beauty or emotional power.

And yet from Picasso to Monet to Warhol, from the Renaissance painters and the Greeks that inspired them to the Modern artists who rebelled against them, from the statue of David to Andres Serrano’s profane picture of his own urine, works of questionable beauty or emotional power have made their way into museums of art.

Now the cry goes up—where’s the great Christian art of today? Most people asking the question are referring to more than visual art.

In connection to stories, the implication is that “great art” must meet some acceptable standard which includes a degree of realism. I find this odd in the day of animation and computer-generated images. Why would Christians want their artists to revert to a former artistic style?

But greater than this question is the one that Cap Steward raised: should the demands of Story rise above the demands God places on His people?

Yes, demands. God’s grace is free. He recognizes we cannot earn salvation. We are incapable of what it takes—a pure life. Consequently He offers the pure life of His Son in our place, a substitution reminiscent of the various substitutions pictured in the Old Testament (such as God taking the Levites as His in place of the first born of all the people of Israel—see Numbers 8).

But once we come to God, He doesn’t turn us loose to do whatever we want. Rather, He lays out for us the path of discipleship. We are to follow Him in obedience.

So do the demands of Story ever conflict with the demands of obedience? I don’t doubt that some people would say, No—Story is about showing this world as it is, so there is no conflict because there is no question of obedience. A novelist, in essence, is simply holding up the camera and clicking.

Other people would argue, of course there is a conflict because the novelist can determine where to aim the camera—if toward sex, nudity, graphic violence, then obedience is very much in question.

The “where is Christian art” crowd claims that to make great art, the Christian must show the world as it is. Anything less is dishonest and a form of Kincaid-ism—painting with words only that which is beautiful, nostalgic, and evocative of warmth and security.

But that brings me back to the question: what’s so necessary about the Christian producing art? After all, the Great Commission is for Christ’s disciples to go and make more disciples, not great art.

Often people with a perspective like mine are chided for requiring a utilitarian function to what we create. We should do good art because God is glorified in good art, the thinking goes, and our purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

As it happens, Scripture doesn’t spell out this “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” purpose, though it certainly can be assumed from various passages. However, I’ve been taught that “the plain thing is the main thing” and that we aren’t to re-interpret clear Scripture based on more ambiguous passages.

It is clear that followers of Jesus are instructed to go and make disciples. It is also clear we are to walk in a manner worthy of God, of our calling, of the Lord (1 Thess. 2:12, Eph. 4:1, Col. 1:10). It is clear we are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), that we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24), that we are to love God above all else, then love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). But make great art?

I understand, many will say, when we make a beautiful thing, we glorify God because He is the Creator who endowed us with the ability and our doing what He has gifted us to do proclaims His greatness, His glory, in the same way that the heavens proclaim who He is.

I don’t think I buy that explanation. God made the heavens. He didn’t make my story. He made me with the ability to make a story, and my ability to do so is a glory to His name, but that still doesn’t mean my story glorifies Him. Not my story, or any story.

Quite frankly, art is too ephemeral to be a great means of glorifying God. Today someone may praise a work as great art and tomorrow others will cast it into the remains bin or deleted from their iPad.

What’s more, God Himself seems to put more store in our relationship with Him and in how we treat others.

Lampstand_Book_of_Exodus_Chapter_26-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)True, as many point out, God did go to great lengths to give Moses detailed blue prints for the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and even the priestly garments. He said more than once that these objects were created for beauty (e.g. Ex. 28:2). However, none was exclusively for that purpose. The lamp, the incense altar, the table for the bread of presence, the ark, the priestly garments, all had a function in the worship process.

But back to fiction. If all this “great art” talk is missing the mark when it comes to what God tasks Christians to do, should we care about the quality of stories, or are we making artificial judgments that don’t need to be made and are better left alone?

I’m of the mindset that God cares about all we do, so we certainly ought to care. I think we should grasp the truth of Exodus and make our stories both functional and beautiful. To do that, we must also grapple with the demands of our culture when it comes to realism in Story and the greater demands of Scripture to obey God in all we do and say.

In the end, because fiction is first a form of communication, I think stories should pay attention to what Scripture says about our correspondence with one another. A good start might be this:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:14-16, emphasis added)

Above all, stories show, so in the Christian novelist’s “speaking” he is to show truth and to do so in love—love for his reader.

If novelists all wrote stories from that perspective, would they all look alike? Not at all. Would they be whitewashed? I don’t think so, though I think Christian stories would be distinct.

At the same time, if readers came to stories with that same perspective, I think they’d be a lot less concerned with what words offend them and more concerned about what truth the novelist is showing.

This article is a re-post of one that appeared her in September, 2014.

Avengers Endgame: Ending White Patriarchy (Mostly) Gracefully

Did Avengers Endgame have an anti-patriarchy agenda? Did it deliberately remove white male figures from the story universe? Maybe, but it did so mostly with grace.
| May 9, 2019 | 30 comments |

Yes, I really am going to say something that could be perceived as critical of the world’s currently most popular movie, Avengers Endgame. Yes, I saw it and yes, I for the most part very much enjoyed it. (No, I’m not insane to raise this topic–well, I may be insane, mind you, but this particular post isn’t a result of any potential insanity of mine 🙂 . )  Yes, as my title implies, I think part of the plot of Endgame really does strike me as if it were driven by the concept of Social Justice as understood in the modern sense, with the movie in fact removing power from white male figures (i.e. the white patriarchy). Though in all cases but one, the story does this gracefully.

SPOILERS by the way. No, I’m not going to spoil the whole movie from start to finish, but enough, including its ending.

First, I must say that pretty much all of you probably had a nicer cinema experience than I did. The showing was 3D but I got handed glasses that were not wrapped in plastic–they’d just been thrown in a box from the last person to use them. Mine were noticeably greasy and I never quite managed to get them clean. The theater in the Central American country where I currently am is one where if anybody opens the door into the theater from the lighted hall behind the entrance, light gets cast onto the screen in front. Not so much that you can’t see the movie anymore, but enough that you know the door is open. And yes, the door wound up opening many times during the 3 hour film…distracting (and I’m not even talking about the seats or anything else).

Now that I’ve written enough text to let someone who doesn’t want to see spoilers pull away without seeing anything of substance, let me say my original dissatisfaction based on the movie itself (and not just its viewing conditions) centered around the character of Thor. By the way, I’ve publicly objected to Pagan deities as characters in films that I want to watch, since real-live people actually worship these deities to this day, including Thor (and the Thor-worshipers I’ve known were not offended in the slightest that their god was portrayed as type of space alien–Neo-Pagans are not usually dogmatic about any type of doctrine). But putting that objection aside, let’s look at what happened to Thor as a character. Thor, driven by a sense of failure to kill Thanos before he could eliminate half the universe, was eager for revenge, eager to undo his failure. He even kills in cold blood a rather defenseless Thanos (who technically should be put on trial or something), yet this brings him no sense of relief. Fast forward to five years in the future in New Asgard, and the story reveals that Thor spends all his time drinking beer, eating junk food, and playing video games. He develops an obvious beer gut.

Actually if the point of this turn of events was to show that Thor went through some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was overwhelmed by a sense of loss and failure and turned to eating, alcohol, and video games as a result his PTSD, the story would simply be showing one possible results of PTSD. Yet in fact, the story plays Thor’s fall from self-control for laughs, another character commenting at one point that cheese whiz runs through the Asgardean’s veins. At one point Rocket the Raccoon slapped him in the face to get him “to snap out of it.” The Marvel movies have dealt with Tony Stark’s PTSD with insight and grace, yet by making Thor a joke, Endgame undid a lot of the sensitivity Marvel movies had shown previously on this topic.

Yet as I thought about what was going on in the story more deeply, I realized that something important seemed be happening other than playing something serious for jokes (or “fat shaming” for that matter). I couldn’t help noticing a pattern in the movie involving the main body of white, male superheroes, who were among the most popular of Marvel’s characters. Four “white patriarchy” characters in effect get either removed from a position of power or get eliminated from the story in Avengers Endgame. Those characters are Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, and yes, Thor.

Image Copyright: Disney

Tony Stark dies with no obvious replacement, though his wife Pepper or daughter may fill that role. Bruce Banner seems to have been injured by gamma ray exposure and goes into what may be retirement with no clear replacement. Steve Rodgers literally retires via time travel and hands his shield over to Falcon (who happens not to be white). Thor is not eliminated as a character for future stories, but he is greatly humbled and gives up his kingship to Valkyrie, who is a woman (and not white).

And as these white male characters were cleared out of their formerly dominant roles by the story, note the inclusion of a number of prominent non-white or non-male characters in recent Marvel films. Most notably Captain Marvel. Is it just a coincidence that so many characters a SJW might consider emblematic of patriarchy (and white patriarchy no less) were eliminated from the story universe? That they seem to be getting replaced by a more diverse cast?

Someone might correctly point out that there are still plenty of white male characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and yes, that’s true. Yes, but there aren’t as many anymore, are there? And the ones that are left are nowhere near as strong, nowhere as near emblematic of “patriarchy” as many modern people see it.

Yes, it does seem to me (my personal opinion) that a number of the plot elements in Avengers Endgame were driven by social justice considerations. But let’s give credit for good storytelling where it’s due. Three of the white males retired from their positions of power in the MCU were given good sendoffs. Hulk and Iron Man make heroic sacrifices. Steve Rodgers went after his heart, seeking the love of his life. Only with Thor did the movement of the plot seem crass and forced.

That’s my take on this one element of Avengers Endgame. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Art Under Negotiation

The early Christians made their own negotiations with art in a pre-Christian culture.
| May 8, 2019 | 3 comments |

One of the purposes of this site is to explore the meeting of Christianity with culture broadly, and with art particularly, whether that meeting is synthesis, negotiation, or conflict. That exploration grows more and more relevant as our society transforms into a post-Christian culture. Still, the meeting of Christianity and art is as old as the Church Universal. It is interesting to consider how the early Christians made their own negotiations in a pre-Christian culture.

Ancient Christian art, some of it dating from the second century, is preserved in the Catacombs.1 The Catacombs, as you know, is the collective name given to a web of underground Christian cemeteries excavated around Rome when the emperors were still pagan. Christianity was, in those days, an infant religion in an old civilization. The Greeks and the Romans had brought to a high state the arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture. These arts served causes of which the Christians could not have approved: the glorification of pagan emperors and pagan gods, an endless proliferation of images and temples. Yet Christians brought those arts, as they were able, down into the Catacombs, in frescoes and paintings and sarcophagi.

It’s not surprising. Humans must have art. Humans must especially have art in their sacred places. What is more notable is that the early Christians borrowed not only Rome’s art forms but, to a limited extent, its pagan imagery. The classic image of Orpheus taming the wild animals frequently appears in the Catacombs, doubtless as a type of Christ.2 Other pagan representations include Ulysses and Mercury, curiously placed in the scene of Elijah’s ascension into heaven.3 There is some evidence, however, of pagan images being hidden or destroyed, indicating that not all Christians of that early time were sanguine about this artistic syncretism.4

Symbols were very common in the Catacombs, etched onto countless graves. Some, such as the fish or the Christogram, were exclusively Christian in their significance. Others, like the ship, the crown, and the palm branch, were shared with the dominant pagan culture of Rome. As Withrow comments in his book, however, the common pagan symbols of serpent and dog are largely rejected, with the former appearing only in depictions of Eve’s temptation and the latter used only as an accessory in hunting scenes.5 It is easy to understand why the serpent was rejected, and perhaps Withrow is right in his speculation that early Christians shared the Jewish conception of dogs as unclean. Whatever the reason, the pertinent fact is that Christian art did not include all Roman motifs.

The symbols of the Catacombs encapsulate the early Christian use of the art that, created by pagans, surrounded them. They added much that was new, and infused much that was old with new meaning (the laurel wreath did not mean quite the same thing to Roman pagans as it did to Roman Christians). They retained cultural symbols and even nakedly pagan imagery. And some elements of pagan art they excised entirely. (Withrow also notices the far greater modesty of human figures portrayed in the Christian Catacombs than in pagan art.6)

Art is not Christian. Art is not pagan. Art is human. Like all things human, Christianity puts it in negotiation with the divine to find its expression and meaning. As illuminated in the Catacombs, Christians have from the beginning attempted the synthesis of faith with culture: the addition, the retention, the rejection.

And if the defaced pagan images are any clue, we have always been disagreeing about it, too.

  1. In the 1800s, when the serious scientific study of the Catacombs began, the oldest artwork was dated to the first century AD. But modern estimates place it a century later.
  2. W.H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888), 266.
  3. Withrow, 267-68. In the Early Church, Ulysses was taken as an allegory for the soul’s journey home. There is no allegorical explanation for Mercury.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Withrow, 298. Dogs were symbolic of fidelity in Roman culture.
  6. Withrow, 264.

The Bible And Myth

Has speculative literature undermined our belief in God’s word?
| May 6, 2019 | 5 comments |

If visitors here at Spec Faith have read our Statement of Faith, to which we all agree if we write regular columns, they know that we believe the Bible. Part of that document reads as follows:

We believe the Bible is the only inspired, infallible, and authoritative Word of God, and our only sure source for knowing Who God is, what the Gospel is, and what we must do in response.

Unfortunately that belief in the Bible is not as widespread as it once was in western culture. In fact, more and more people who identify as Christian will say that they can’t accept things like “Jonah and the Whale” or “Noah and the Ark.” In other words, the supernatural things God did in the Old and New Testaments that seem impossible to us today.

Of course, supernatural events are not possible naturally. That’s how we know they are supernatural.

But in this day and age when myth is popular and superheroes are in TV programs, movies, and games, let alone, in books, I wonder if the skepticism we need to enjoy the mythological might not affect our understanding of the Bible. I mean, look at the amazing feats accomplished by the Mutant X, a group of “new mutants who possess extraordinary powers as a result of genetic engineering,” portrayed in a TV program some fifteen years ago.

Such characters in speculative stories do “the impossible,” but we have an understanding that, no, what we are seeing on the screen are not real people doing real things. We see it with our own eyes, but we understand it’s not true.

I realize that I’ve taken that same skepticism into the way I look at photos. There are pictures with colors so vibrant, I question if they are real or if the photographer/artist/creator has enhanced them to make them pop, to “improve” on the nature which they supposedly represent.

Then there is fake news and the stories that we must view with a questioning eye because, who knows what context has been omitted or what person has been cropped from the picture or what slant has been taken to further support or undermine the actor/politician/athlete/teacher/policeman/religious figure, or whoever.

In other words, we can hear with our ears and see with our eyes, and still we have no idea if what’s been reported is accurate and true.

How does all this affect our understanding of the Bible? Has speculative literature undermined our belief in God’s word? Has the post-truth culture in which we live, undermined our belief in the Bible?

My own conviction since I started writing is that fantasy, in particular—which is filled with magic and dragons and faeries and orcs and Gollum and worlds that exist inside wardrobes—is a vehicle to illuminate the truth of Scripture, not confuse readers about its veracity.

J. R. R. Tolkien certainly made a case for readers, even children, understanding the difference between the real and the pretend. He would be one of those scoffing at the idea that Harry Potter readers would think that witches and wizards could do all the imaginary things depicted in J. K. Rowling’s wonderful series. He had no doubt that we have the ability to discern what is real and what is imagined. Some years ago, in a series of posts here at Spec Faith, we looked at what the “Father of Fantasy” believed about myth and imagination and “wonder.”

But the world is a different place from the one in which Tolkien lived. Art is different. Stories are different. And the way our culture looks at the Bible is different.

So what does separate fantasy and myth from the miraculous? How does a reader make the distinction between the pretend of a talking donkey in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle and a talking donkey in the Old Testament?

Atheists so often point to Scripture as filled with the unbelievable, no different from Greek myths or stories about Roman gods.

I fear that this same attitude has filtered into the Church. Which causes two opposing results.

First, a group of people denigrate the Bible. It’s all made up by people, filled with stories that are certainly not history. They are legend, passed down orally and exaggerated by each retelling. The danger there, of course, is that Jesus rising from the dead is categorized with all those other “myths.” In essence, then, we do not have a risen Savior. We have only a nice story.

The other result of this trend of looking at the Bible as nothing different from speculative fiction, is a denigration of fantasy and science fiction. The creative imaginings worked out in story become the evil Bible-believing Christians want to stamp out. The stories are the culprits leading people astray.

The truth is far from either position, and it’s up to us Christians who love speculative stories to state the facts clearly, I think. Yes, imaginative stories are imaginative. As a class, they are not leading children or adults into false beliefs. And yes, the Bible is true. It is not make-believe, pretend, intended for symbolic representation of a greater truth. It contains parables and poetry and picturesque language, but the events stated as historical, actually happened, to real people, even if they contained the miraculous.

The distinction needs to be clear in our minds first so we can make it clear to others who want to tear down either the Bible or speculative fiction.

As I see it, there is one major factor we must communicate: God is all powerful and can do the impossible. If we grasp this truth, then any miracle or “impossible” event recorded in the Bible has a clear and logical source. There should be no uncertainty, no skeptical denial. Since God can do the impossible, the Red Sea could part and God’s people cross on dry land. Since God can do the impossible, Daniel can survive a night in the midst of a den of lions. Since God can do the impossible, Peter can follow an angel and escape prison undetected. Basically the question should be, What couldn’t an all powerful God do?

In speculative fiction, Christians have the opportunity of creating worlds in which amazing things happen, peopled with amazing beings. Even if these speculative events make it to a screen and special effects put them before the public as if they really happened, there is no carry over to our world. People here still can’t make broomsticks fly. There are no dragons. No space ships taking us across galaxies to other worlds populated by alien cultures.

The world of imagination does not give us an excuse to dismiss the God of the impossible as if He is not real. And the record of His work in the world is not a reason to fear speculative stories, as if they must, because of their nature, lead us away from the reality of Scripture.

Does the ‘Captain Marvel’ Film Promote Feminism?

Marvel’s cosmic warrior should inspire Christians to approach fantasy and real-life gender roles with biblical balance.
| May 3, 2019 | 9 comments |

After I saw Captain Marvel, I read two contradictory Christian reviews—both from writers I follow and respect.

The first was the opposition from Greg Morse at Desiring God. Next came some very high praise from K. B. Hoyle at Christ and Pop Culture.

Morse at Desiring God argued the movie could show a stronger-than-all woman swooping in to save the failing men, when all hope is lost in the battle with Thanos. He suggested this could encourage men in our society to remain weak, passive, and cowardly in their God-given role as a protector.

(Beware Avengers: Endgame spoiler here: I’m glad that Captain Marvel didn’t end up being the savior in Avengers: Endgame, although I would agree that, before the film released, many fans expected she would be.)

By contrast, Hoyle at Christ and Pop Culture felt female superheroes are necessary to encourage women to have agency, and to drive back the culture of misogyny still much alive in America.

I bring only these two opinions to front because they likely represent how the Church is responding to this film. Both of these writers contributed wisdom to this ongoing discussion on feminism within our society, and, more specifically, Christianity. Yet there are a few important things to note about both of these perspectives when deciding where to land.

1. They’re addressing different audiences.

We all see feminism in different ways, depending on our own connection or experience with feminism. But we often attack weaknesses within our own subculture without regard to others in different parts of the country (or world).

Morse is speaking to the wider, secular culture living under extreme forms of feminism. For example, see the kind of feminism that advocates for killing babies. Meanwhile, Hoyle is addressing the culture living among misogyny, such as alt-right areas and fundamentalist Christianity (which, admittedly, are far more pervasive beliefs than we previously thought).

Which side should be addressed? Both, because they are both wrong and contrary to the gospel.

2. They’re overstating their point.

In only addressing one side of a problem, we tend to place blinders on and fail to moderate ourselves when necessary.

As Hoyle points out well, Morse is (perhaps unintentionally) giving the impression that women should sit on the sidelines and wait for a man to come along and protect her. Not only is that not biblical, it’s not even practical. What if she happens to be alone, an unmarried woman, or even a single mom? What should she do? Meanwhile, Hoyle implies a rather low view (again, unintentionally?) of the roles of a male protector and a female helper within complementarian theology (which I can’t tell if she believes or not).

3. They are not nuanced enough.

Whether we like it or not, this is an ethical discussion, and ethics requires nuance.

For example, we can say God hates divorce but we can’t pass judgement on a divorced person without knowing the exact details of their situation. Is Captain Marvel someone to emulate? This is not a yes or no answer. We must be able to dissect the film and character and admit that Danvers is only an appropriate role model in some ways.

The same is true of any other superhero. Secular films, while attempting to address important cultural issues, will only be able to accomplish that in part (often with a great, big helping of secular propaganda).

In making a stand for the importance of pop culture and fiction, we must be careful not to imply that they are wholly good. They can’t be. Apart from Christ, humans will only ever be able to produce a shadow of the truth. It isn’t our job as culture aficionados simply to get people to watch geeky movies and read geeky books, but to get them to both appreciate and think critically about these things. When we feel compelled due to recent cultural shifts to make blanket statements without proper nuance (i.e. “This movie is good and/or bad because feminism.”), we cut off at the knee our ability to think critically.

So where is the biblical balance about women in battle?

Let’s take a look at Deborah and Jael as an example of biblical, feminist icons. You may have heard female superheroes described as Deborah-types, but how true is that? Judges 4 describes the ultra-godly and wise Deborah judging Israel. Barak goes to her, and she calls him out about not going into the battle God ordered him to. Then Barak tells her he’ll go, but only if she goes with him. Deborah answers, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

The woman she’s referring to is Jael (verse 17), who tricks Sisera, commander of the Canaan army, into her tent. Sisera, thinking he was safely hidden, falls asleep and Jael hammers a tent peg through his temple.

Judges can be difficult to interpret, since it is written in mere descriptive, factual accounts without moral commentary. What we don’t actually see is Deborah fighting. She went with him, but whether or not she was swinging a blade on the front lines of war, we can’t know for sure—although I doubt it. What we do know is that she is condemning Barak’s request. This likely means she knows Barak is being cowardly by asking her to go, and that he is using her as a good luck charm to win the battle. Because of these errors, cunning Jael will be remembered for defeating Sisera, not Barak.

Is this passage encouraging women to fight in war? That’s a stretch. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Deborah points out Barak’s cowardice in not having enough faith to go into battle without her by saying the glory will not go to him. When we compare this with Jael’s strength, depicted here as crafty and intelligent, we hardly see Scripture advocating women being included in combat units.

Instead it seems to be giving a beautiful image of what a true female helper looks like. The word helper in Genesis 2:18 often gives us visions of piles of clean laundry and dirty dishes. That is nowhere near accurate. In fact, the same word is used more often in the Bible to describe God himself. Women as helpers is not a subordinate role, but an equal, essential one. And in the case of the battle in Judges 4, it meant life or death.

So does the Bible imply a prohibition to female superheroes? Not at all. Like K. B. Hoyle said so well, “They must know they can be agents of change—that their voices are as loud and as true, their strength and dedication just as valued and valuable, as their male counterparts.” Amen!

My father, a black belt in kung fu, drilled women’s self-defense into me as a child knowing the world we live in is not safe and that he wouldn’t always be there to protect me. We absolutely can have strong, female superheroes in our stories who embody real femininity and complement their male counterparts.

But should those heroes be on the front lines of war? Believe it not, that is an entirely different question and one of the biggest reasons we need more nuance in order to have this conversation. From what I’m seeing in scripture, not in most cases. (Although there may be extenuating circumstances in which this may not be avoidable depending on the demands of the story.)

Since women fighting in war, and possibly even being drafted into combat units, is a reality of our often extreme feminist society, I would have to agree with Morse that this is not something to be encouraged. His concern that this could lead to weaker and more passive men is not unfounded. Barak’s cowardice is as old as Adam’s sin in the garden, and we still see it today.

Last but not least, Hoyle brings up another crucial aspect of this discussion at the very end of her article: that this is fantasy. Superpowers are a type of magic system, and therefore, throw a bit of a wrench into our applying these things to ourselves. Because Captain Marvel is actually stronger and not weaker than her male counterparts, doesn’t it follow that she should be fighting on the front lines?

This is a big question that creates many more. Just remember that most of the time when reading or writing about fictional magic, we’re using unreality to shed light on reality (whether we know it or not). Is Captain Marvel’s extreme physical strength a mere metaphor for her intelligence? Some viewers may have seen it that way. But to the woman who, like Eve before her, is looking to usurp the role given to the passive man standing next to her, that is not what Captain Marvel meant.

Let us not make blanket statements for one another, but see a thing for what it is, both the good mixed with the bad. We all have different origin stories that color our view of films and books. Although we shouldn’t espouse moral relativism, we need enough intellectual humility to listen to the perspectives of others and understand how things might not be as they first appear.

What Does it Mean for a Story to be “Christian”?

There are at lease nine different ways to define a story’s relationship or lack thereof to Christianity (we’re counting 🙂 ). And that’s not all.
| May 2, 2019 | 11 comments |

Back early in 2017 I wrote a post for my personal blog that attempted to define what a makes a story Christian or not Christian. I made a chart and numbered categories that wound up being awkward and not necessarily helpful in terms of format. Yet I think I was on to something–something that’s worth simplifying and repeating here.

Note that Johne Cook, a Christian writer friend of mine years ago said something on the topic of Christian stories that I objected to at the time. I think what Johne said didn’t originate with him, but he’s the first person I heard ask the question, “Does a Christian bricklayer lay Christian bricks?” He applied that question specifically to the idea whether or not a story can be considered Christian.

The question of course points out that only a person can actually be Christian or not Christian–that no physical object has the power to believe or not believe, to have a religious life or not have a religious life. In this analogy a story is likened to what makes it up, the pixels on a screen, the printed ink on the pages of a novel, the sum total of all the letters, numbers, and punctuation marks in a tale. My objection at the time was that, “No, this isn’t fair. Stories are built out of ideas and ideas can very much either be Christian or not be Christian.”

For me, at the time, it seemed a very simple question to which I offered a clear and simple response. Yet Johne’s point has grown on me somewhat over the years. While it is true that the the words and letters in a story combine to constitute ideas, those ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. The reader brings to the story her or his preconceived notions and steers them in a highly personal way. Sometimes a reader is inspired to believe something that’s the complete opposite of what a writer intends in a story. A story about doubt may inspire belief while a tale full of references to faith can stir up religious skepticism.

One can make the point that since only the writer can be Christian (or not), Christian writers should follow the inspiration they receive and attempt to craft the best stories possible in terms of being entertaining and thought-provoking, without worrying whether or not their content is Christian. I actually see a point to this, to writers of personal faith following where inspiration leads them, focusing on the quality of the storytelling and letting whatever religious elements enter the tale to do so naturally (in fact, these are the kinds of speculative fiction stories from Christian authors I sought to collect in the Mythic Orbits 2016 and Mythic Orbits Vol. 2 anthologies I’ve published).

Yet from the reader’s point of view, I find this unsatisfying. We can in fact identify what kinds of ideas are the “bricks” of a story and say in a general sort of way if the story is Christian–that is, if a story’s ideas line up with notions in harmony with Christian thought. We can also say in general if the ideas that line up with Christian thought are portrayed in a positive or a negative light. It’s perhaps clearer to reference stories that are hostile to Christianity as a means to define a type of tale than it is to identify we might think of as “friendly,” so I’ll give examples of both.

I broke up stories into a number of different categories I considered Christian, which I’m going to list below (abandoning the numbering system and chart I created before that was more confusing than helpful). With each positive example, I will also list a negative example:

Top Ten Christian Fantasy Books according to theartistlibrarian.blogspot.com

  1. Christianity or Christian ideas overtly referenced in the story and the reference is central to the tale (as in without the religious reference, the story would disappear). Tosca Lee’s Demon, a Memoir would fall into this category. Scriptural demons are referenced and are the subject of the story in a way that reinforces what the Bible says about demons. The Da Vinci Code would be a negative example of this type–Christian ideas are central to the story, but the story goes out of its way to refute or marginalize those ideas.
  2. Christianity of Christian ideas are overtly referenced in the story but the references are not central to the story (as in, you could edit out the references to faith and still have a story left–which doesn’t necessarily make the references unimportant). Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle qualify. A negative example, in which Christianity is overtly referenced but could be edited out (changed to a form of non-religious statism perhaps) would be Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Note that Handmaid’s Tale gives a great example of what I mean by the ideas of a story not occurring in a vacuum. I may see in the story an attack on all of Christianity based on the implication that all Christianity is inherently oppressive to women and naturally would lead to the type of dictatorship seen in the story–yet others might only see an attack on a false version of Christianity and find nothing to be concerned about with Handmaid’s Tale. (Note also someone might reasonably disagree with me on how central to the story the Christian references are in Handmaid’s Tale).

    Polar Bears: Baddies in Narnia, Good guys in The Golden Compass. Image source: Patheos.com

  3. Christianity or Christian ideas are referenced in a story indirectly, but are clear, in a way central to the tale. The first and most important example of this would be The Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. A negative example stems from Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.
  4. Christianity/Christian ideas are referenced indirectly, but are clear, in a way not central to the story. This probably happens more often than I think, but I find this to be a bit of a rare bird among the stories I read. Richard New’s short story “Escapee” has an indirect but-easy-to-deduce reference to Christianity that is not central to his plot (this story was published in Mythic Orbits 2016). Frank Herbert’s Dune novels make reference to religious institutions that are not Christian-but-are-like-Christian that could probably be removed from the story and which mostly reference those institutions negatively. Though Hebert also referenced Christian ideas of a messiah-figure in ways that are central to his story and they reveal that sometimes it’s difficult to say if a reference is positive or negative–but Hebert definitely was not interested in promoting traditional Christian ideas of the Messiah.
  5. Christianity/Christian ideas are referenced in a way that’s debatable, in a way central to the story. By “debatable” I mean that no effort is required to remove any Christian content when a book gets made into a movie (as L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time had all its Christianity edited out). When made into a movie, the content is simply ignored or re-interpreted in a way other than Christian. I would say The Lord of the Rings is an example of this. Christian notions of good and evil and how the ring represents evil, the example of Frodo as a sort of suffering Messiah, Aragorn as a returning-Christ figure, Gandalf as a resurrected-Christ figure, are all central to the story, yet are routinely ignored by most people who view the screen version of Tolkien’s work. The best negative example I could come up for this is Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, in which a fundamentalist government takes over the United States (and is defeated by the “good guys” in the tale). What makes this debatable is Heinlein created a new, futuristic religion that runs his dictatorship that isn’t directly related to Christianity–so his shot at the Christian faith isn’t as overt as Margaret Atwood’s.  Yet maybe this novel would be better listed with my #3 type of story above–while it’s possible to create a tale that criticizes Christianity in a way so indirect as to be debatable, most people writing anti-Christian allegories aren’t too subtle.

    The religious cult leader in Conan the Barbarian–a shot at Christians? Eh, maybe…maybe not…Image source: Tumblr.com

  6. Christianity/Christian ideas are referenced in a way that’s debatable, in a way not central to the story. We could argue Tolkien’s The Hobbit contains Christian symbolism, though I’m not quite sure what that would be. Clearly story does not hinge around such symbolism. Negative examples might be found in Dune or other science fiction that portray quasi-similar to Christian figures not central to the story in a negative light. Perhaps though the James Earl Jones religious leader in the original Conan the Barbarian movie might qualify as a peripheral covert negative reference to Christian leadership. Maybe. 🙂
  7. Moral Message. A story without any clear references to Christianity, whether overt or allegorical. Even if someone tries to insert Christian references, they don’t quite fit. Yet the story shows a world of conflict between recognizable good and evil, in which we cheer for the good and fear the evil. The original Star Wars (i.e. Star Wars, A New Hope) was like this. The way to subvert a moral message is to have a story that promotes something as good in the tale that actually isn’t moral. Without giving a specific example, I think Christians would in general object to stories that promote a sexually immoral lifestyle as a good thing.
  8. Amoral Message. Sometimes a story is just a story and even when you look at it from all angles, not much in terms of moral content can be found. An event or series of events happen without any real discernible commentary on good or evil, right or wrong. When I made my original chart for this, I listed Kat Heckenbach’s short story “Clay’s Fire” as an example of this (from Mythic Orbits 2016). Yet as I discuss this topic, I find it’s rather hard to enjoy a story in which there is no morality at all. Sure, “Clay’s Fire” and a number of other stories that focus on events, in particular on survival, can be interesting without an sense of right or wrong appearing in the tale. But most stories have some form of morality, right? A truly moral-neutral story is a rarity. Though it’s true that a negative version of an amoral message would be to present characters in which everyone is totally a shade of gray to such a degree that the story questions if good and evil aren’t merely matters of opinion and are not in fact based on this people do.
  9. Immoral Message. The story flips the standards of right and wrong as Christians understand them. Killing enemies is good and enjoyable (as in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) because our species needs to propagate. Or taking pride in oneself is good (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) even if at the expense of others. Satan is a good guy, angels are boring, witches are cool, Christians are sinister (all of us), etc, etc. Not too many Christians write this kind of tale. Though I suppose we could as a satire.

So anyway, I’ve shown it’s possible to look at the ideas in a story and pass it through some kind of a matrix. Note that it’s also possible to pass a story through a search for dirty words and sex scenes and have it come up clean but in other ways be anti-Christian. For example, I’ve only read part of the Da Vinci Code, but I don’t remember it cussing or being racy. Yet it clearly is intended to imply Christianity is false (a product of an ancient conspiracy) and always has been.

Which of course means on the other side a story could have foul language and suggestive themes but still have ideas that support Christianity. That’s not me suggesting I want to read stories with foul language (I don’t because I don’t want to say those words in my mind as I read) or that I want to read erotic scenes (I don’t because that will cause me to visualize the scene in a way not good for me), but that the question of what does it mean for a story to be “Christian” is more complex than a simple check for things people often find offensive. And it’s more complex than the categories I made.

Yet I hope my list of categories helps readers think about the kind of work worth their time to read–and the kind of stories authors want to craft. Gray, morally neutral stories do exist, but in fact, most stories are morality tales in one sense or the other. So as we lay our “Christian bricks” into stories, we should be aware of our moral content. Yes, we should follow what interests as readers and what inspires us as writers–yet we really should think about stories in terms of “Is this good? Is this right?”

What are your thoughts on story types? On what it means for a story to be Christian? Please share in the comments below: