Is “Christian Speculative Fiction” an Oxymoron?
By Mike Duran
Believers who enjoy speculative fiction often bemoan the lack of such titles in Christian outlets. While Borders and Barnes and Noble contain aisles of horror, science fiction, graphic novels, and fantasy, spec titles comprise a relatively minuscule portion of the religious fiction market. Why is this?
I have several going theories. The one I’d like to float to the Spec Faith crowd is this: To many believers, speculation, especially when it involves theology, is potentially un-Christian.
In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ opened to protests, boycotts and denunciations. It’s based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial book, the central thesis of which is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face. Along the way, the author explores what it might have been like for Jesus to undergo the temptations of the flesh. Despite the fact that Scripture tells us Christ was “in all points tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15), the subject matter proved too offensive for many Christians. Note, this is not necessarily an endorsement of either the book or the film. Nevertheless, I think The Last Temptation of Christ controversy illustrates the inherent problems Christians face in approaching speculative titles.
At the heart of the Christian religion is a well-defined set of articles, a non-negotiable series of doctrines. To question these things is to undermine one’s own faith (see: heretic). On the other hand, “questioning things” is at the heart of the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is best when it “speculates” — when it tweaks reality, reinvents the rules, rewrites histories, and tinkers with the facts. In this way, speculative fiction, by its very nature, grates against the core of Christianity, which states that some things are beyond the pale of speculation.
Because of this, it is not uncommon to see Christian reviewers questioning the theology of a work of Christian fiction. Why? Because theology is at the heart of what defines Christian fiction.
I recently read the following on the website of an aspiring Christian novelist. The author described / defended their story thus:
Although based on a true Biblical account, this is a fictional story. I have attempted to carefully craft the plot and shape my speculation without contradicting the Bible anywhere. If you find any such contradiction, or are offended in any way by the artistic liberties I have taken, I gladly defer to the account given in the book of Genesis [emphasis mine].
This author, perhaps unintentionally, reveals the rub. We must “shape [our] speculation without contradicting the Bible anywhere.” In other words, there’s a line between “artistic liberty” and “biblical truth.” Problem is, does anyone know where that line is? Did Nikos Kazantzakis cross that line? Did Paul Young cross that line in The Shack? Did C.S. Lewis cross that line in The Great Divorce?
The tension between Christian theology and speculative fiction is always on the believer’s end. Atheists and postmodernists are not tethered to dogma in the way that we are. This is not to suggest that they are unrestricted by their own worldview, but that the boundaries of their worldview are a lot more expansive than ours. To the relativist, history is free to be re-written, and morality is up for grabs. Conversely, we walk a “narrow road.” And, whether good or bad, it shows in our fiction.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe we should be caretakers for the “ancient boundaries.” Perhaps there are subjects and worlds and beliefs that should be off-limits to the Christian author. The question I’m posing is whether or not this is why Christian speculative fiction lags. Is there an inherent incongruence between Christian theology and speculative fiction? Do we allow our theology to stifle our speculation or fuel it? Does our theology make the world a bigger place, or a smaller one? Does our theology create more possible worlds, or less?
Anyway, that’s one of my going theories. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.
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Mike Duran has lived in Southern California his entire life. He and his wife Lisa were married in 1980, and have raised four children, all of whom live in SoCal. He has chronicled his conversion to Christianity in a series of blog posts entitled “The Hard Road Home” at his blog, Decompose.
A former pastor, Mike now works in construction and is a freelance writer whose short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Relevant Online, Novel Journey, Rue Morgue magazine, and other print and digital outlets.
His debut novel, The Resurrection (Charisma House), releases this month.