What makes Christian science fiction and fantasy distinct from secular science fiction or fantasy? To put it another way, what is it secular science fiction or fantasy tries to accomplish, and what does Christian science fiction or fantasy do differently?
To answer the question, I turned to the author who had a great influence on me—Stephen Donaldson who wrote The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever. When his first trilogy came out thirty years ago, he addressed why the books were so popular in an article entitled Epic Fantasy in the Modern World. As a preface to his answer, he gave his definition of fantasy:
Put simply, fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events. Crudely stated, this means that in fantasy the characters meet themselves – or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies – as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story.
A somewhat oversimplified way to make the same point is by comparing fantasy to realistic, mainstream fiction. In realistic fiction, the characters are expressions of their world, whereas in fantasy the world is an expressions of the characters.
Would we Christian science fiction and fantasy writers agree with this definition? Or are we, instead, using fantasy to dramatize the spiritual world at large, rather than the spiritual world or the inner life of a particular character?
I wonder if it isn’t stories that dramatize the spiritual world at large that take on a redundant feel.
I love hearing, in real life, the account of another believer coming to Christ. I don’t get tired of it. It causes me to marvel and to rejoice. But at the same time, novels with conversion stories that should also induce a response of celebration, too often feel ho-hum. Redundant.
I have postulated in other places that I think Christian science fiction and fantasy—Christian fiction in general—needs to explore our faith more deeply instead of camping on the beginning when we made the commitment to follow Jesus. So many stories aim simply to tell the story about coming to faith: This is how life in Christ gets started.
Now I’m wondering if there isn’t a second problem: Christian science fiction or fantasy most often dramatizes the spiritual in general terms rather than in the particular. It’s like writing, What is the spiritual journey of Everyman, instead of writing, What is my spiritual journey.Could it be that we are writing with a didactic purpose—what we think others need to learn—rather than writing what we have had to learn? To make a nonfiction comparison, I think how off-putting it would be if someone preached a sermon and called it a testimony.
Preaching is awesome and has a great place in the life of the believer when a pastor opens up the truth of Scripture and shows how it applies to daily life. But a sermon is not a testimony (though it may include a testimony). If someone says, I’m going to tell you my story, and then proceeds to show how you should do this, that, or the other, the problem is not in the material but with the expectations produced in the listeners.
So with fiction.
Another thing about testimonies, they can be about all kinds of things—how God called a person to the mission field, what their experience was like as part of a team working in prisons, God’s conviction about pride, really anything at all, and most certainly not limited to, This is how I became a Christian, though that is one powerful and vital testimony to share.
So what are your thoughts? What is the distinction in your mind between Christian science fiction or fantasy and the books that aren’t specifically Christian?
The heart of this post is a reprint of one published in Spec Faith 1.0 in July 2006