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Fiction Christians From Another Planet! VII: Attack Of The Spiritoids

From the misquote “you are a soul, you have a body,” to spiritual-warfare “only unseen realities matter” assumptions, to end-times evacuation-from-Earth tropes, Gnostic spiritoids infect some Christian fiction.
| Feb 21, 2013 | No comments | Series:

“This world is not my home”; “When he dies he’ll go home”; “That body isn’t him, it’s just the shell”; “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul, you have a body” — if you’ve heard any of these lines, or read them in a Christian novel, you’ve just been attacked by a spiritoid.

I define “spiritoid” as that amorphous existence most Christians suspect will be our eternal final form in Heaven, as opposed to living on New Earth (Rev. 21) in resurrected bodies like Christ’s (Phil. 3:20-21). Like most spiritoids, this notion is hard to catch. Yet it’s one of the worst alien beliefs found among multiple species of Fiction Christians From Another Planet(!). In one novel I read, it took the form of a paraphrase of this “quote”:

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

Of course C. S. Lewis said that.

Of course C. S. Lewis said that.

Yes, C.S. Lewis absolutely said that, if you’re referencing The Book C.S. Lewis Didn’t Write, or the C.S. Lewis from the Mirror Universe who sports a goatee as scholar-in-residence at the First University of the Terran Empire. But! seriously, Lewis never wrote that line, and it’s perplexing why so many assume he did, because it doesn’t even make a lot of sense.

What do so many people find comforting about that phrase? Why else would they repeat it?

Maybe for the same reason many other FCFAP(!) tropes spread: they sound so spiritual.

Unlike other alien notions in Christian fiction and broad Christian-speculative genres, the spiritoid beliefs seem prevalent in particular genres. Here I will break my own series rules and, instead of vague allusions or parody fiction, refer to specific novels by name for these reasons: a) I enjoy these novels and heartily recommend them; b) these authors often include resurrection-body truths alongside spiritoid notions, proving that these beliefs are usually “caught” and not taught because they’ve long been default among us.

1. Spiritual-warfare fiction.

Frank Peretti is boss. This can’t be denied. Still, his pioneer spiritual-warfare-thriller novels from the 1980s also pioneered other notions, since established in spiritual-warfare genres:

  1. We must open our eyes to the Unseen Reality all around us.
  2. It turns out the Real Battle is not really what we see, but in the spiritual dimensions.

cover_thispresentdarknessAbsolutely there’s truth in that — after all, from where did Peretti get his most famous novel title but Ephesians 6:12? Yet in one sense the truth that “the real battle is unseen” can easily become a much more questionable notion, that “only unseen realities matter.”

Ah, but what are all those muscular fiery angelic warriors and goblin-like sulfur-spewing demons fighting over? The physical world. Who controls it. Who “possesses” it. (The Devil has previously claimed he owns the planet, as in Matt. 4:9, but “the Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” as in Psalm 24:1, also quoted amidst applications in 1 Cor. 10:26.)

Earth and our bodies, not only “spiritual” realms, are the battleground. Spiritual-warfare fiction should explore this tension. Otherwise we miss exploring how people’s physical conditions interface with their spiritual states. For example, is that person easily diagnosed as “demon possessed” or mentally ill? I suggest fiction can’t give the answers, but it can explore them — explore beyond “that’s easy, this character is under demonic influence.”

2. End-times fiction.

This one featured such trendy news events as a meteor striking Earth, and a disabled cruise ship, both in one episode.

This one featured such trendy news events as a meteor striking Earth, and a disabled cruise ship, both in one episode.

This is fresher in my mind, thanks to my recent resumption of unapologetic Left Behind series fandom. Actually I’ve been re-listening to the fantastic dramatized audio series, and while I remain a fan — who recognizes how God worked in my life through this overall well-written pop thriller series — I also see some of the Gnostic, spiritoid impulses therein:

  1. Biblically, the Resurrection comes simultaneous with Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4:3-18). Splitting the two apart, separated by a seven-year Tribulation and perhaps even a 1,000-year kingdom on Earth before the New Earth, now seems odd.
  2. Left Behind could imply, likely counter to its own creators’ views, that the present-day Church and its work on Earth won’t really matter all that much. Rather, the real action begins when Jesus evacuates the Church in time for a seven-year Tribulation, during which it’s the Jews, not the Church, that do all the significant work, aided by Gentile “Tribulation saints” who are like Church II: The Much Improved Sequel.
  3. In the final prequel/“simulquel,” The Rapture, the narrative actually follows several characters on the way up at the titular apocryphal event. In Heaven, which is always hard to describe in fiction, characters are able to see the literal mansions where they will live forever. I’m not sure what to make of this, for it seems to reinforce the idea that Christians’ final eternal home is anywhere-else-but-a-resurrected-planet-Earth. Maybe the authors meant this as an advance vision? I do recall New Earth making a cameo appearance at the end of the otherwise plodding and plotless Kingdom Come.

God used Left Behind to change my life. I likely would not love speculative stories so much if not for that series. (Soon I’ll also begin a new blog series based on listening to Left Behind.) Yet I now wonder if even “pre-trib” end-times fiction could emphasize the Resurrection instead of evacuation-of-souls-from-an-inevitably-doomed-to-be-nuked-from-orbit-Earth.

Spiritoid solutions

serieslogo_fictionchristiansfromanotherplanetOne can’t go wrong in studying more in Scripture about Christ’s own resurrection and ours, starting with the above-referenced passages, along with Isaiah 60, Romans 8, and Rev. 21.

Stories that emphasize the goodness of the physical world do exist. In fact, that’s the default view of great fantasy novels, which spend much of their time not only referring to spiritual realities, but taking characters on long journeys through wild lands where by day they find plants and animals, and by night campfires gaze up to the sky in wonder. As we’re learning more to anticipate our resurrected life after the afterlife, let’s find such stories, delight in them for God’s glory, recommend them to friends, and perhaps even write more ourselves.

What other ways might we swat away attacking spiritoids in Christian speculative stories?

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Kessie Carroll
Member

Examine the scriptures daily to see whether these things be so?

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman)
Guest

I am fascinated that Left Behind changed your life. My husband read one of the books and said it was like a comic book, hence okay. Another friend who read the whole series agreed about the comic bookishness of the series and loved it. I opened one book at random, read a few sentences, and gagged. The writing was wretched and the theology appalling. I was unwilling to slog through anymore of the book to see if what I thought about the series could be corrected. I am looking forward to reading what you have to say about the series. Maybe I’m just a snob?
And the funny thing is I like comic books. I don’t like novels that are like comic books.

Paul Lee
Member

Stories that emphasize the goodness of the physical world do exist. In fact, that’s the default view of great fantasy novels, which spend much of their time not only referring to spiritual realities, but taking characters on long journeys through wild lands where by day they find plants and animals, and by night campfires gaze up to the sky in wonder.

That’s a great point.  In fantasy, I think the physical and the natural is shown to be parallel to the spiritual and the supernatural.  The physical world itself reflects the spiritual state, weeping in anguish because of the Darkness, rejoicing with the Light.  I think this is related to the intriguing discussion about magic from Christopher Miller’s column on Tuesday.

Krisi Keley
Guest

Whether or not the quote, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body,” is C.S. Lewis’, and there still seems to be quite a bit of debate over that (see:  http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/you-dont-have-a-soul-cs-lewis-never-said-it/ where the comments are as vital as the article), there are those who would argue, myself included, that the idea expressed with the quote is as far from gnosticism or “spiritoid” as one could get. Instead, I’d suggest, as one commentor on the Mere Orthodoxy article did a bit more obscurely, that the idea the words are conveying is simply, “the body is the incarnation of the soul,” and that such an idea is not only the exact opposite of a gnostic consideration of the spirit as more important or real, it also isn’t dualistic at all. Dualism, in varying forms, pits the body against the soul, something rather difficult to do if it is believed that one is the material manifestation of the other. Nor does the idea of the soul as the form of the body (St. Thomas Aquinas) discount or even downplay the physical world and the body. Quite the opposite: it suggests they are intrinsically united. There are also many Scriptural passages – Gn. 2:7, where the translated “being” is literally “soul,” Jer. 1:5, the story of the road to Emmaus and of the Transfiguration, etc. – where this concept can be considered supported. And then there is the Incarnation itself: if God is spirit and became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, isn’t the very flesh of Jesus the incarnation of the soul of God?
The difficulty, as always, is in recognizing there can be a difference between the meaning in what someone says and how we understand it. Whether or not the “you are a soul” quote is Lewis’, and whether or not it truly is a reference to the theological concept of the body as the incarnation of the soul, it’s not fair to assume it has any foundation in gnostic or dualistic ideas and conveys a “spiritoid” mentality, but that it might only be considered an attempt to prevent too much leaning in the opposite direction – that is, the idea that being human is completely dependent on having a physical body, something equally problematic for any idea of resurrection, Christ’s or our own, as well as problematic for other Christian theological ideas.

Lex Keating
Guest

You know, there once was a theologian who loved music. He began composing lyrics that communicated faith, and became a well-known figure in different denominations. In due course, a young woman wrote to thank him for the impact he was having on her faith and her church. They began a correspondence, which led to a deep meeting of the minds. They confessed their mutual interest in a permanent union, and met for the first time well after they were engaged. The lady took one look at the man, and withdrew her pledge for matrimony, saying she could not believe God would be so cruel as to put a great soul in such a wasted vessel. The hymn writer was Isaac Watts. Neither of them were spec fic readers.
 
The notion of the body as a vessel for the soul is not a new one. (II Cor 4:7, for example, would indicate that the concept was around in Paul’s time.) It would not be unreasonable to argue that this concept is welcome in both Christian and pagan camps, making it a much more approachable subject for writers on either side of the fence to lure unsuspecting foes–er, converts. In real life, I’ve known a fair number of people who reject God specifically because a soul-to-physical-container match is incomprehensible to them (a sister with cerebral palsy, a wife with aggressive cancer, etc.). Blowing off this argument would also seem to spit in the eye of those who find peace in the concept of a new or “whole” body once they enter heaven.
 
Maybe you’re doing that with this post, maybe you’re not.
 
But to suggest that a novelist intent on communicating Christ would be better served with deeper descriptive passages than a comprehensive theology? I sure hope that’s not what you meant.
 
Does the inclusion of a “spiritoid” prove that a writer fully grasps his faith? Of course not. It shows that the writer recognizes the innate and difficult to shake belief in the immortality of the soul. It can be used as a shortcut, to keep from having to resolve or expose some tricksy theological issues. If the soul lives on after a physical death, logically the soul must go somewhere, be housed in some other vessel. Exploring these avenues is a valid function of fiction, as you mentioned.
 
I’ve come across a lot of writers, especially in the spec fic subcategory, who write vivid and beautiful narratives. They’ve imagined a whole world, and made it as realistic and gripping on the page as possible. Which is quite good. Why aren’t they published? Partly because they have ragged, gaping tears in their theology. And rather than address these gaps (either by assessing what it is they do believe or by facing down the spiritual strongholds represented by these holes), these authors attack “the market” or putter over improving their craft. Neither response heals those tears, which seem to dig deeper into the writers’ wounds.
 
Don’t get me wrong. Writing craft is important. Be a good writer, by all means. But a significant factor in becoming a good writer is knowing what you mean to say and communicating that clearly. Not to skip over the hard parts of theology, or to get mystical when the going gets rough. So many would-be writers focus on fiction, because that’s what we want to write. But to graduate from wannabes, we should be able to articulate our point. Non-fiction, or essays, won’t get you published, generally, but writing them will force you to consider your point from an outsiders point-of-view and hone that point into a finely crafted instrument. Instead of a clumsy swing at empty air. Writing the story of your heart, I firmly believe, is not merely a matter of saying what you want to say. It’s also stating a truth that someone needs to hear.
 
Say it well enough to be heard.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t think it’s entirely spiritoid. I do believe in a physical resurrection as you said, but most Christians believe that before that, the soul survives death until then and is present with the Lord. The glorified body at the end will be changed too, with no marriage, so it’s not entirely a one-to-one comparison. You could also speculate on this some more; with eternal physical bodies, eating is for one example is going to change. 

The spiritual warfare and end-times stuff is a theological minefield to me. I’m wary of it because those two subjects have some serious potential for abuse. Casting demons of overeating or rebellion out of people, or too specific prophecies of the end creating sects that hold dangerous ideas are two examples of abuse. While I’d probably be okay with using visual ideas from it, making detailed theological statements over them worry me more than say speculating on whether or not an uplifted dog would have a soul and come to worship Christ. 

Galadriel
Guest

One of the books that come to my mind is the bit in The Great Divorce where Lewis says (paraphrased) that the Bright People’s clothing–crowns and robes and such–was every bit as much a feature as eyebrows and hands…quite a contrast to the idea of  a non-physical afterlife.