Folk theology. Why over-honored? That’s the note I wrote after dialogue in a Christian contemporary/speculative novel I read last year. Now it occurs to me that “folk theology,” simplistic beliefs inherited by tradition and not Biblical study, is behind many alien beliefs common to fiction Christians from another planet(!).
Lame theology also leads to lame non-Christian characters. They don’t behave like real people of the human persuasion. As proof, witness this actual unedited exchange from an actual popular Christian author’s fantasy novel published, perhaps, in dimension 14-B:
Sir Terrance wanted to laugh. “You believe in the White Knight? Whom you’ve never seen?”
“Of course I do,” said Sir Rigelian. “And do you believe that a million gilded d’narr exist?”
“Even though you’ve not seen them?” Sir Rigelian asked.
“That’s —” Sir Terrance sputtered. “That’s ridiculous. I still don’t believe in the Knight.”
“How do you know he doesn’t believe in you?”
Sir Terrance wanted to change the subject. “That’s impossible.”
“But here we are, going on the famed Quest for the Silver Sandals, against impossible odds.”
Though he had been a skeptic of the White Knight ever since the horrific death of his father, mother, cousins, and five siblings in that bathhouse fire that had left Sir Terrance alone and d’narrless, Sir Terrance had to admit that Sir Rigelian’s profound arguments, which he had never ever even once heard before during all his 47 sun-cycles in the kingdom, puzzled him.
— Original dialogue, based on that of a Christian contemporary/speculative novel
- Sir Terrance is an idiot.
- Sir Terrance is cousin to another group: a fiction non-Christian from another planet.
- Sir Terrance may have come off the set of a visually derivative, cashing-in-on-name-recognition-for-a-public-domain-story Wizard of Oz prequel: he’s made of straw.
Like most straw men, this one is easy to dismantle. So I need not do that here. But if it’s this easy for Christian readers to recognize non-Christian caricatures — along with the corny Disney-Santa-Clause-movie-style “apologetics” used against them — how do you think actual nonbelievers think? Do they recognize people who resemble themselves? Will they like this kind of story? Do they feel respected even by Christian authors who show disagreement?
Yes, many non-Christians hate Christian novels for ridiculous reasons, claiming the novels are “preachy” (but secular media such as fornication-celebration songs, the New-Age-ish movie Avatar, and the president of the United States get a pass for preachiness), or because the novels “simulate” in story any beliefs pagans see as “intolerant” and thus can’t tolerate.
But here is a valid reason for pagans not to enjoy Christian novels: they see no characters whose depth, reasons for faith-rejection, or life stories in any way resembles their own.
That’s the problem. What potential diagnoses can we make?
1. Novelists mainly rely on authoritative “nonfiction” for data on nonbelievers.
Thanks in part to popular materials from invading megachurchians about being “seeker-friendly” and things like that, many Christians simply haven’t been trained to be familiar with more than one type of pagan personality at a time. Instead we’re hyper-specialized. For instance, megachurchian manuals and George Barna statistics about the “un-churched” claim most of them are Hurt by Traditional Religion and simply need to be Cared For and to Have Their Felt Needs Met. But even in the less-fluffy sides of faith, Christians may “train” themselves only to deal with certain specific types of non-Christians: the atheist internet troll, the struggling single mom, the Mormon, the postmodern college student, or the Poor.
Often Christians are less adept at thinking on their feet and practicing Biblical wisdom in how they form relationships with non-Christians regardless of which “group” they inhabit.
2. Publishers limit popular novelists to those with Ministry Platforms.
Recently Left Behind mastermind Jerry B. Jenkins woke up and realized that “traditional publishers have tightened their belts, and they keep demanding bigger platforms” — that is, as he earlier said, “a platform on the scale of a megachurch pastor.” (His solution is what one blogger found questionable: a new-author’s publication course for $10,000. Must credit Grace Bridges at Splashdown Books for this link.) Well, fancy that, Super J! But the fact that publishers’ requirements of Ministry Platforms limits newcomer authors is just one of the problems. Perhaps worse, by limiting authors to Ministry People, publishers make popular only novels by writers who’ve learned to see the world only in church-ministry categories.
Thus readers find not Christ-loving storytellers writing from imagination fueled by Biblical truth and their own broader experiences, but what C. S. Lewis derisively termed “the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.”
3. Having Christians admonish non-Christians with slogans such as “God believes in you even if you don’t believe in Him” seems ever so spiritual.
Here I’m afraid I must sound mean: if you have a Christian character repeat this slogan, I’m not sure you’re familiar with how human beings think and interact — or how God tends to argue for Himself and His truth in His own Story. It sounds spiritual. But it isn’t of the Spirit.
- Get to know actual pagans.
- Reject other-parts-of-the-body-denying (1 Cor. 12: 12-20) “platform” expectations.
- Be more “spiritual” according to God’s definitions, not ours.
Yet in some sense, authors and publishers only give Christian readers what they’ve “said” they want. How else may we as readers help change this?