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Interacting With Culture

Are giving in to our culture as traitors or fighting against it as a lover of what is right and true our only two choices? Is there no intersection in which we who know the truth can show it to our society rather than running from the assault or turning to fight?
| Oct 24, 2011 | No comments |

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about escapism, taking as the jumping off point, J. R. R. Tolkien’s line: “[critics] are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

A little further on in the “On Fairy-Stories” essay, he said, “Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance of the patriot.”

Are those our only two choices — giving in to our culture as traitors or fighting against it as a lover of what is right and true?

Is there no intersection in which we who know the truth can show it to our society rather than running from the assault or turning to fight? In other words, can’t we win the enemy rather than destroy him? Or perhaps, can’t we make the case that we’re in this together, that there are no “sides”?

The more I think about “escape,” the more I rebel at the idea.

If we were physically starving, I suspect we wouldn’t have such a great need to wile away time on light, fun entertainment that takes us away from our troubles. The only way to stave off hunger is to go about acquiring food.

Perhaps we think spiritual food is different, but I don’t think so. Our souls which are eternal need to be fed as much as do our bodies.

Perhaps we Christians believe ourselves to be well-fed spiritually. But what about all those starving children in China? Seriously. Don’t we have a responsibility to do something for those who are starving spiritually?

Some may think those who are starving don’t actually want what we have to offer. Ask atheists if they want what we who write Christian speculative fiction have to offer, and they will probably respond with a blank stare. Or worse.

They don’t know they’re starving. They don’t realize that they’ve been eating dirt to fill their stomachs so they won’t ache so much, but there is nothing of lasting value in what they’ve been ingesting that can keep them alive.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that the critics Tolkien was addressing were right in their assessment of “fairy stories.” Rather, I think what speculative fiction does is far greater than escape.

One comment to the post I mentioned earlier sheds light on this idea:

Calling fantasy the “flight of the deserter” does miss fantasy’s close connection with reality. But I think that calling fantasy the “escape of the prisoner” misses that connection just as much. The dichotomy seems to assume that the realm of fantasy has to be divorced from reality — whereas I think that the goal of Christian fantasy should be to unite them. Tolkien’s short stories, particularly Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major, exhibit an idea that fantasy that is not escape, but a plunge into a deeper reality. Smith (of Wootton Major) makes many visits to Faerie, but those visits serve to enhance the enchantment of the real world when he returns. The existence of Faerie in Tolkien’s writings (including LotR) does not devalue reality but glorifies it. That glorification, I think, is the mark of good Christian fantasy: the writer sees the wonder and goodness (the “enchantment”) already existent in reality; but he also sees that there is more enchantment, more reality, to be had. (comment by Tim, In Search of the Perilous Realmemphasis mine)

I like the idea that the writer sees the wonder and goodness existent in reality, not just the raw, gritty misery. Isn’t it part of our job to show the rest of the world what we see? That there is a better way than wallowing in the gutter, than eating dirt?

I also like the idea that the writer of good Christian fantasy sees there’s more reality to be had, which allows him to point forward to that which brings ultimate soul fulfillment.

Honestly, I’m having a harder and harder time trying to grasp why it is Christians want to escape. What do we have to escape from? We have Christ. We have His Holy Spirit. We have God’s Word. We have the hope of heaven.

I can see being tired and wanting to rest. However, I’m not successfully getting my thoughts around the idea of escape. Seems to me we should be the firefighters running toward the inferno, not away. We should be about pulling others to safety, about adding to the number who are heading to high ground.

In short, I think Christian speculative writers are best positioned to engage the culture. Engage it, not confront it.

What do you think? How is Christian speculative fiction engaging the culture? Must Christian writers leave Christian publishers and Christian bookstores in order to meet our culture where it’s at?

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Jeremy McNabb
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Jeremy McNabb

I don’t think Tolkien was suggesting that our only two options are a heroic escape or a cowardly desertion. I think he was just saying that critics often confuse one for the other. Not every flight fits into the category of one of the two options.

Additionally, I don’t think that every instance of a Christian engaging secular culture can be compared to a fight or battle. Many times, the world is facing in Christ’s direction, but having trouble finding their way around the obstacles. Those are  the unbelievers we don’t engage in battle-dress, but in the uniform of a scout or guide.

A. T. Ross
Member

Doesn’t Tolkien go on to say that the escape actually provides an escape back into reality? It was either him or Lewis. Either way, neither of them used “escape” in the same way we think of “escapism.” Rather, I think it meant a breaking free from the enchantment of materialism and the ills of our culture, not an escape or flight from all of reality in that unhealthy way we tend to associate with the term.

Galadriel
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Seeing things as they are meant to be seen–Recovery! And Lewis mentioned that one does not despise ordinary forests, because one knows some are enchanted, and that makes them all a bit enchanted.  Same goes for wardrobes and police telephone boxes.

Julius
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Julius

What exactly does “engaging the culture” mean? No one has ever explained that adequately. What culture? Mainstream culture isn’t some homogenous stream you can just connect your little estuary to. It’s made of groups, who don’t share the

What would the choice in the middle be?

Besides, who better to lead people out, under the barbed wire and out of the enclosure, through the woods to freedom then those who have gotten out? The escape is a roadmap in a thousand pieces leading the way out.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

Why do Christians need to escape? Why do any of us need to escape? From boredom, from routine, from disappointments and hardship in our lives. We can run off to a fairyland and have adventures and forget our lives for a little while. And if visiting that fairyland makes us appreciate our real lives a little more, then the trip was worth it.
 
I think if Christians just work on telling a good story, and not trying to convert every last reader, our Christianity will bleed through anyway. I’m always sniffing out ‘stealth Christian’ authors, who aren’t writing overtly Christian books, but their faith comes through anyway. It’s always encouraging and fun.
 
As opposed to a Christian writing a disgusting, sexual-tension story with a heavy dollop of God at the end, hoping to appeal to secular readers. C’mon, people. Feeding the flesh much?

Jeremy McNabb
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Jeremy McNabb

It’s like the people who say if Jesus were here today, we’d find him hanging out in the gay bars. Well, no. I suspect Jesus would do what he did in the first century — start in the house of worship and then take to the streets and the open areas where He could accommodate the crowds.

I’m not so sure that’s true. Jesus preached in the Jewish synagogue, yes, but it wasn’t exactly a paragon of holiness in the first-century. He and his disciples also hung out and dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes, and he did it with enough regularity to be called their king. He allowed whores to wash his feet. Paul preached in pagan temples, argued with secular philosophers, went before kings and princes to preach in their own court, and said that he would be all things to all men.

I’m not saying that we should limit ourselves to the gutters, whorehouses, gay bars, and adult film stores. But we shouldn’t limit ourselves to churches and Christian fellowships, either. The point isn’t to figure out where we can’t name the name of Jesus,  but to realize that the name of Jesus may be named anywhere by a person who is called to do so.