Speculative fiction is sometimes defined as a fanciful story based upon a what-if scenario. What if there was intelligent life on other planets? What if mankind could travel through time? What if dragons were real? Of course all fiction involves a certain element of speculation (what if a body were found in the Louvre along with a secret message?), but the genres that stroll beneath the Speculative umbrella usually step a little farther past the borders of mundane than others.
Fans of Christian speculative fiction like to point at some of the fantastic stories in the Bible as examples—and sometimes as justification, if a fellow-Christian condemns these literary flights of fancy. It’s true, the Bible does deal in supernatural happenings. But the difference between the talking animals of Narnia and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22:28-30 is obvious: Reepicheep is purely imaginary, whereas that donkey really did speak, just as Moses truly did part the sea, Elijah actually called down fire from heaven to ignite a soaking-wet sacrifice, and Jonah was, in fact, swallowed by a monstrous sea creature and vomited up three days later. Not everyone believes it, but this stuff’s not fiction. Even the wild scenes in the New Testament record of John’s Revelation are actual events, but indescribable ones, imperfectly explained as best John could.
It surprised me, then, to run across an example of genuine speculative fiction in the New Testament. I’d read the passage many times, and I expect you all have too, but I never thought of it in terms of fiction before. It’s found in Mark 12:18-27 (with a parallel in Luke 20:27-38).
A number of Sadducees (an ultra-conservative group that, among other things, rejected the concept of an eternal soul and the afterlife) came to Jesus with a speculative story and asked him to supply a logical ending for it based on his understanding of spiritual realities. Mark 12:18 and Luke 20:27 suggest that they intended to demonstrate the ridiculousness of any sort of resurrection of the soul. The scenario they spun was, to their minds, a fairy tale. Imagine their surprise when Jesus took it seriously.
He explained that, though it wouldn’t happen the way they told it, the resurrection was no fantasy. Moreover, he said the reason their story didn’t hold water was because they didn’t know the scriptures.
These guys were priests – lifelong students of the Law. They’d memorized massive portions of it, for crying out loud. How dare Jesus say they didn’t know the scriptures? He explained his reasoning at the end of Mark 12:24: they didn’t know the scriptures because they didn’t know the power of God.
Whoa, what was that again? Take careful note: They knew the words of scripture, but they didn’t know the scriptures—that is, recognize the truth behind the familiar words—because they didn’t know the power of God.
Many modern scholars make the same mistake. They try to interpret the Bible according to human understanding, forgetting that it’s God’s word, the record of God’s working in the world. Take the power of God from the Bible, and you’re left with a collection of fables. Such stories might be entertaining, but they’re irrelevant. If you accept the Bible for what it is, though, its truth can change lives, as the early church in Thessalonica demonstrated (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
I get the impression from this Q & A session between the Sadducees and Jesus that God isn’t fond of imaginings that fail to take his truth and his power into account. When we speculate about things that contradict the scriptures (say, for instance, ancient gods and goddesses joining forces with Jehovah, or people performing miracles through powers of their own), we betray our ignorance of God’s truth and invite his censure. Christian fiction should illustrate and glorify the truth, not draw our minds away from it.
Eve ran into trouble when she listened to the serpent’s question: Did God really say if you eat of that fruit, you’ll die? She allowed her mind to speculate: Did God really say that? Yes, he said it; but what did he mean? What might really happen if I taste it? Eve may have known the letter of God’s word, but she didn’t know the power of it. She didn’t acknowledge the authority of it.
I don’t mean to suggest that reading fictional scenarios that don’t jive with the Bible is quite on a par with eating forbidden fruit. I do think, though, that it might not be the wisest use of our time (Ephesians 5:15-17). Our imaginations are God-given, and I imagine God expects us to use them. But whatever we do, whether eating or drinking or reading or writing, we should do it with an eye toward God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). And he isn’t glorified when his truth is sidestepped, distorted, or ignored.
(Staring vacantly at nothing, then looks up and realizes there’s an audience.) Oh! Don’t mind me—I’m just talking to myself here.