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Christian Speculative Fiction And Intellectual Rigor

There is power in stories. Stories help us to see truth through someone else’s eyes rather than through our own biased view. Through stories we can get to Truth by seeing past our own version of truth.

The_Thinker,_RodinRecently I wrote an article playing off author Mike Duran’s post and follow-up responses about Christian speculative fiction. As I wrote my remarks, I realized that one phrase in particular gnawed at me: “intellectual rigor.” Christian fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular needs more intellectual rigor, according to one comment to the original post.

So what does “intellectual rigor” mean when it comes to fiction? Not the use of good hermeneutics on the way to a scintillating sermon, I’m fairly certain. That might be intellectually rigorous, but it wouldn’t be good fiction.

Are we talking about stories that only college professors will “get”? If so, then the complaint is really that all Christians aren’t college professors.

Ironic that C. S. Lewis, one of the most brilliant college professors, wrote one of the most widely read children’s fantasy series, and no one calls into question his intellectual rigor. People of all ages and all walks of life can understand the Narnia tales. They aren’t structured in a way that makes them difficult. Are they, therefore, lacking in intellectual rigor?

Some years ago I read a novel touted for its literary quality. I decided I should read it as part of my writing education. The story had two point-of-view characters–sisters, as I recall.

One told her portion of the story in chronological fashion, starting at the beginning and working her way forward. The other, alternating with the first, told her portion looking back from the conclusion of the story, detailing the events in reverse order as they wound down toward the start.

Of course, the reader is left to figure out this structure on her own. How many chapters did I flounder through, uncertain what had happened or when and to whom. The worst of it was, in the end, one sister dies. That’s it. The other sister seems unchanged by the loss. Yes, it seems like a tragedy, but to what purpose? What’s the point? I closed the book feeling as if I’d been cheated.

Was that novel intellectually rigorous because I was confused most of the way through? In the same way that a puzzle is, I suppose. But I’ve worked many a puzzle and haven’t found my worldview challenged or my questions answered.

Ah, yes. There’s the rub. Unanswered questions are supposed to be a sign of intellectual rigor in this day and age. But why?

In truth, knowledge leads to greater questions and more knowledge–just ask scientists working with DNA or those studying the God particle. Unanswered questions, on the other hand, lead to . . . I’m not sure what. A repeat of the questions, perhaps? Asking them over and over again of different sources? In what way would this process qualify as intellectual rigor?

Some say the value is in the seeking rather than in the finding.

“Seeking” with no hope of finding reminds me of someone whose car is stuck in a mud puddle or a snow bank and he stomps hard and harder on the accelerator, as if spinning the wheels in place will actually get him somewhere. I don’t find this approach to learning to be intellectual or rigorous. It seems disingenuous and foolish.

God has a lot to say about foolishness and wisdom and about knowledge. But perhaps the greatest way His Word can help in unfolding what intellectual rigor in fiction should look like is through the fiction of the Bible–the stories people in the Bible told.

David and NathanJesus related the most stories, which we refer to as parables because they have a moral or point to them. In reality all good stories have a point (which is why I was so disappointed in the oddly structured literary novel I read which was mostly pointless). David’s counselor and friend Nathan told him a very pointed story. Several of the prophets told stories, too–fantasies, actually, because they included talking trees and such.

But here’s the thing. The people who told those stories did so to communicate something toh their audience. They weren’t trying to obscure their point.

Why did they use a story then, instead of just coming right out and saying what they wanted to say? Because there is power in stories. Stories help us to see truth through someone else’s eyes rather than through our own biased view. Through stories we can get to Truth by seeing past our own version of truth.

When David heard Nathan’s story, he saw clearly how shamefully he had used his faithful military commander Uriah by stealing his wife and having him killed, and David repented. When the Pharisees heard Jesus’s story about the shameful vineyard workers who kept beating the messengers who came to collect what they owed and who finally killed the owner’s son, the Pharisees looked for ways to kill Jesus.

These stories were intellectually rigorous; they made the people who heard them think, and ultimately to act, though not always in positive ways. Stories don’t come with guarantees.

They don’t even come with guarantees that the audience will understand. More than once Jesus took His disciples aside to explain the meaning of His stories.

The SowerCertainly the words were understandable, the images were familiar, but the disciples were wrestling with the “so what” of the story. What does it mean, they asked Jesus. They weren’t asking, what does it mean when you say a sower went out to sow. They got that. They got that seed wouldn’t grow if the birds came and ate it or if it fell on rocky ground or if thorns choked out the roots. What they wrestled with was the significance of what they heard.

In all this talk of “intellectual rigor,” I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction. It seems to me, some novelists today want to tell farmers stories about computers or auto mechanics about organic feeding processes. When they aren’t interested, these writers are chastising them for not being intellectually rigorous. I wonder how intellectually rigorous those writers would appear to be if they were given a farm to run.

If these writers want to reach farmers, they ought to be writing stories about which farmers care and which hold significance for farmers rather than criticizing them for the weakness of their intellectual rigor.

This article, apart from some minor revisions, was originally published at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Paul Lee

Some say the value is in the seeking rather than in the finding.

I would say that there is value in the seeking, but seeking without intending to find is obviously not really seeking.


Thank you for this, Becky! I’m working on the very last edits for my novel, an epic set in ancient Babylon. The story is meant to be somewhat allegorical – a reflection of bride and church – and I’ve caught myself second guessing A LOT this week about the message. Is it broad enough to appeal to the general public? Should I leave things unanswered more? At what point should one of the main characters realize there is only one God?

Finally, I realized I wrote this for women to catch a glimpse of how much God loves them. He chose them while they were still enemies, committed to die for them while they were worthless, and then opened their eyes to His beauty. Portraying those truths is the purpose of this work so it would not serve anyone to try and blur the message.

The bottom line is don’t be afraid to say what God wants you to say.


Oops, that was supposed to say a reflection of the Bride and Christ. I bet you got it.


As someone who has studied literature and has a certain fondness for Kurt Vonnegut, I made a Gollum-like screech of objection. I really don’t think anti-intellectualism is the answer, and one of my biggest objections to Christian fiction as it is is the one-size-fits-all answers that feel prepackaged and disingenuous. Are we going to leave CS Lewis as the lone high water mark for Christian intellectualism? Lewis engaged with and responded to (literary) Modernism, and I’ve yet to see anyone engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.

D. M. Dutcher

If you want to stay within specfic, you could try Cordwainer Smith’s books. His short fiction first, then his novella Norstrilia are incredible works of science fiction and have Christian themes. You could also read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is about how Christianity struggles with the freedom it gives to everyone and the way it can lead to its own persecution.There’s also James Blish’s works, “A Case of Conscience” and “Black Easter,” which are more of a secular take.

If you don’t mind another, Robert Charles Wilson’s The Harvest is an intriguing take on the end times. Wilson I think is an atheist, but he seems god-haunted, and The Harvest is an intelligent book about what it would be like when a alien-created rapture exists.

There’s non-spec fic authors comparable to Vonnegut; Walker Percy is probably the closest match, and Annie Dillard, Frederic Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and quite a few others are much less cut-and-dry about faith.

Christian Spec-fic though is sort of similar to the Golden Age in SF-it’s still forming an identity, and the golden age was less cerebral SF and more pulp adventure at times. Same with CBA fic-it’s still got a ways to go.

Paul Lee

You could also read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is about how Christianity struggles with the freedom it gives to everyone and the way it can lead to its own persecution.

I’ve really got to read that one some day! It was the inspiration behind one of the best episodes of Babylon 5, which is a totally awesome show.

Christian Spec-fic though is sort of similar to the Golden Age in SF-it’s still forming an identity, and the golden age was less cerebral SF and more pulp adventure at times.

That’s a fascinating theory that I’ve never considered before. You may be on to something. My few attempts to read the old classic pulp sci-fi — maybe only one serious attempt, reading Triplanetary — were disappointing. Those old classics really are pretty shallow, using annoying stereotypes instead of real characterization, blindly projecting the flaws of their own era into the idealized future, equating physical beauty with moral uprightness.

D. M. Dutcher

I think it’s more about stories not being fluff and exploring serious issues rather than just conversion stories, narnia tales, or dystopian books. Some of the strength of SF is to look at current or future trends and extrapolate on them to make a point about humanity or God, yet it’s rare to see any Christian authors try to do so seriously.

Like one example from my files is how do Christians reconcile “male and female He created them” when a transhumanist society makes it possible to reduce gender to something like clothes; switch bodies when you want according to mood or desire. It would make you think about how bodies influence ourselves and whether or not going beyond their limitations might cause us to sin and become disordered more or not. But a lot of stories are just space opera templates instead, and they come across as lightweight. Not that it’s a bad sub-genre at all, but there’s very little idea fiction in our genre.

Austin Gunderson


Based on my own reading experience, I’d say that, contrary to your assertion above, Christian speculative fiction suffers from an overemphasis of the “what” at the expense of the “how.” Not to minimize sound doctrine, but any Christian with a rudimentary understanding of the Truth can write a story that colors inside the theological lines. If “correctness” is the primary consideration in an evaluation of a story’s thematic quality, then storytelling itself has been reduced to a formula, a math problem, a kind of “narrative catechism.” Anyone can write a story that’s moralizingly “correct.” But it requires intellectual rigor to write a story with themes which are convincing.

As Christian spec fiction writers, we cannot remain content with bumper-sticker slogans or straw-man beatdowns. While it may be true that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” it’s also true that such a statement has convinced no one, ever. While it may be technically accurate to claim that everyone’s born with a “God-sized hole in their heart,” it’s laughably improbable to portray unbelievers as ready to swallow such a monumental platitude without first engaging in cognitive battle. Intellectual honesty — let alone rigor — demands that we acknowledge and confront the best arguments put forth by the other side if we’re gonna presume to include non-Christian characters in our fiction.

One of the reasons readers love Lewis so much is that he respected them. He didn’t take Truth for granted or browbeat his audience for not already believing it. Instead, with deep thoughtfulness and perceptive humor, he innovated. He ground fresh new lenses through which we can now appreciate the same ol’ truths that theologians had been discussing for centuries before him. Even in his children’s books, his thematic through-lines are so deeply integrated across his narratives that they never come across as preachy or condescending.

You and I both despise unaddressed thematic ambiguity. We have no patience for a “literary sophistication” that proffers no answers and then sneers at anyone who does. But that’s not intellectual rigor. Intellectual rigor climbs down from the ivory tower, steps out of the Christian ghetto, and, with apologies to Teddy Roosevelt, actually enters the arena of ideas, becoming marred with dust and sweat and blood. It strives valiantly, honestly, intellectually, rigorously. It sings a compelling song.

Austin Gunderson

“I guess, then, when I referred to substance, I have two things in mind: stop worrying about whether characters not saying cuss words in Christian fiction or whether there are sex scenes (these are the only mores I think still exist in most Christian publishing houses) and start worrying about whether or not we are telling spiritual truth. These matters don’t so much demand intellectual rigor, I don’t think, as they do spiritual depth.”

Amen to most of that. I’d still argue, however, that although intellectual rigor may not be a necessary prerequisite to spiritual truth, it’s still needed if an author wants to make that truth compelling by reaching it only after cutting through a thorny thicket of falsehoods. It’s conflict that makes a story, after all.

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll slip A Cast of Stones into my reading queue.