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Reading Is Worship 3: Cause-Idolatry

At writers’ conferences and on blogs, many of us may confront this idol: seeing ourselves as an oppressed minority and waging war for The Cause of Christian speculative stories. How might we fight this “Christianity And …” idolatry?
| Sep 6, 2012 | No comments | Series:

This year I can’t go to the American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference in Dallas, and I’m okay with that. Overall I enjoy writers’ conferences, but they can tempt me to focus overly on the wrong things: promoting my own Movement. Cause-idolatry.

Ah, but I can’t blame any conference! It’s my problem. It may also be yours, joining other idols we may worship instead of the Author as we enjoy reading stories.

(I try to define rightful worship here, and began exploring false worships, idolatry, here.)

Idol identified: fighting the Speculative Cause

From my memory, most recently at the 2010 ACFW conference in Indianapolis, here is how this idolatry sneaks in. I arrive at the hotel, get settled, and soon head down escalators and hotel halls to investigate this world and find the right sessions. Soon I realize anew: nothing has changed. This place is still full of women, mostly older women, and probably Southern Baptists, whose night stands are surely stacked with paperbacks whose covers consist of pastel colors, farmland backdrops, and forlorn-looking young Amish women with wispy blond tresses and  — bizarrely — makeup. These are likely not the sorts of folks who could discern between Star Trek and Star Wars, or more vitally, believe the truth that Christian speculative stories are not sinful, or merely adjunct to Scripture, but rooted in the Story.

Thus at the conference, in moments I have mutated again from a lover of great stories, to an aspiring novelist, to a complaining self-identified Member of An Oppressed Minority.

That subconscious attitude may result in silent rallying slogans like this:

All these women have got to go! Or rather, keep them for the sake of “evangelism” targets. And that “gospel” is this: “Christian fiction is far too cloistered.” We have put up with this legalism for much too long. Not enough realism, and not enough fantasy (all at once). What does that look like to the world? This must change. Sing together:

“Onward spec-u-la-tive sol-diers, marching as before
With the books of Tolkien, going on before!”

I doubt I’m the only one who struggles with this. That evil “Christianity And” religion that C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape loved isn’t only attached to causes such as 1940s-British spelling reform. And given the current political conventions in the U.S., “Christianity And” isn’t only a prefix to “… Our Nation’s Founding Values” or “… Looking to Government As Your Savior.” It can also be a prefix to “… Experience” or “… Fighting For The Cause.” That is idolatry.

It also defeats the whole purpose behind the cause. In theory we don’t like Amish, romance, and all that dominating Christian novel publishing because that kind of emphasis simply is not good for readers, art, and ultimately the glory of God. It’s wrongfully pragmatic, likely endorsing an idealized sinful-earthly past rather than a glorious New-Earthly future. What then if we get distracted by trying to defeat these supposed “enemies” as an end to itself? If we do, we have ourselves lost sight of the real mission: to glorify God better in stories.

Cure: Anticipating actual victory

My suggested solution to killing this idol could be much the same as the last one (“eyes on eternity”). This does, however, emphasize some sort of cause victory also in this life.

To help slay the beast of idolatrous cause-promotion for its own sake, I ask: what would happen if we Christian fantasy/sci-fi/whatever advocates won? Imagine that all those publishers are tomorrow turned over to the leadership of doctrinally solid, non-legalistic, culturally savvy pioneering Christian editors and marketers. And because this can’t happen until readers change (a point we often miss in our laments about publishers), let’s imagine almost all professing-Christian readers have switched from bonnets and buggies to knights’ helmets and starships. How would we review novels? Write blogs? Discuss great stories?

Answer: however speculative readers should act then is how we ought to act now.

Christian speculative readers’ chief end is not “to fight the cause of defeating cloistered and legalistic Christian cultures.” Our chief end is the same as all humankind’s chief end: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That counts for all that we do — including reading.

In this 2006 photo at ACFW in Dallas, future Speculative Faith co-editors Rebecca LuElla Miller and E. Stephen Burnett. (Can you find them?)

So before I return to any Christian novelists’ conference, here’s what I might do:

  1. Wish heartily that we had readers’ conferences, to prevent getting overly occupied with The Industry, even The Craft. First things first: we read as worship of God.
  2. Pray for all those women, not as enemies or “targets,” but dear sisters in Christ.
  3. Consider a table at a writers’ convention to promote Christian speculative stories to others, instead of merely spending time with like-minded others. After all, if we do that, who’s really behaving like a sequestered subculture?

If you also struggle to fight cause-idolatry, what would your application be?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also 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

Make our own dang conference for our own genre. Like PAX did, and stole the crown from E3. 🙂

Michelle R. Wood

Kessie, I’ve often thought the same thing: we should have our own get together as speculative readers/writers. A Spec Con. We could have Comic Con-style panels with the kind of things we discuss here, authors, publishers, and media people. People who couldn’t come in person could appear virtually (come on, we’re the Spec people, we should be able to do that). We could have costume competitions, fan works, and Stephen could finally get around to buying all those cups of coffee he’s always promising he’d like to give out. 🙂

Paul Lee

Almost exactly the same idea has been advocated before:

Blog site 
Forum discussion

Kessie Carroll

Hey, if enough people want it, it’ll happen.

Christopher Todd Wood
Christopher Todd Wood

I have to admit it comes off as an exclusive subculture in a way.  It’s a bit intimidating.  I’ve mostly written young-adult fantasy-thriller fiction for an Apa before I was a Christian, along with a couple of newsletters and a ton of lyrics for songs, but I feel like I wouldn’t be taken seriously by this crowd because I fail to have the decoder-ring.  As one Stephen’s friends said to me, as we were in a heated discussion, “In literary circles.. blah blah blah..”.  As if to say there is no way I could ever know such a thing.  It was pretentious at best.. Not that Stephen has ever come off like that.

I struggle with where my place is.  Being a Christian for only three and a half years and coming from the underground music and art scene that celebrates everything that is ungodly.  Not being someone raised in the Church.  I basically walked away from everything I know and into a world I felt like I didn’t belong in.  As a middle-aged man, that is a very scary thing to do.   Throwing all of your standing, reputation, history and street-cred into the wind is not easy.

For a while, I struggled with writing, as a Christian, because I felt like everything had to be a solid presentation of the gospel.  I just walked away from writing, music and art and concentrated on growing in the Lord.
I now understand that I have more of a freedom of genre and subject, but I still am trying to find my way.  I just starting writing again, and it’s coming in the form of young-adult fantasy-thriller but with a clear moral image and more defined roles of good and evil.  I also have started to write some non-fiction, but I don’t have an outlet.  Do I blog?  Like there aren’t enough Christian bloggers already?
This blog is different because it’s not just another blog.  I actually love Speculative  Faith.  I just haven’t commented before.  Anyway.  I’m at the point of babbling out-loud now.   I swear this comment seemed on-subject when I started.

Teddi Deppner

Hey, Christopher! Great to hear from you. I’m fascinated by your background. If you would, drop me a line privately (I think my name on this comment links to my website). I’d like to chat more. That “underground music and art scene that celebrates everything that is ungodly” that you mentioned is the target market I’d like to reach.
It breaks my heart to see so many brilliant, creative people who don’t know the One who created them to be the unique people they are. They think that Christianity wants to suppress or rip away from them all their creativity and the very things they have used to define themselves. Maybe Christianity does, but in my experience Jesus doesn’t. And God-willing, some day I’ll find a way to get that message to them.

Austin Gunderson

Being a lifelong Christian (and fiction-lover) who only recently discovered the existence of a Christian speculative fiction community, I’ve approached this place along a very different road.  Nevertheless, I think I can relate a little bit to your feeling of exclusion.  If the upper echelons of university English departments were at all representative of the creative writing industry, for instance, then snobbery would simply come with the territory.  In fact, I’ve probably never heard anyone use the word “literary” outside a context of smug, patronizing dismissal.  What else is the term even good for?  It certainly doesn’t help improve the actual quality or content of anyone’s writing.

But fortunately, I’ve never aspired to be “literary”: I aspire to create beautiful and effective art.  So when my 400-level creative-writing professor bluntly threatened us hapless students with stern disapproval were we to turn in any speculative work, I gleefully submitted a sci-fi written with his sense of style in mind.  While being force-fed the formless, life-sapping gospel of postmodernism, I cranked out thematically-driven stories which challenged my professors’ beliefs.  I took it for granted that I was a stranger in a strange land, that I should expect no aid or comfort from the established literati, that I had to fight to win respect sentence by sentence, phrase by careful phrase.  I was an abnormality – an amusingly contentious throwback naively distracted by the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty.

My point in all this is simply to say that, when I stumbled upon this site, I felt like I’d finally come home.  A community of Christian writers who aren’t content to simply reread Tolkien and Lewis for the rest of their natural lives?  Yes, please.  It’s deeply encouraging to me to see that there are others out there who desire to glorify God with their imaginations, and who aren’t squeamish about dissecting the assumptions commonly made by Christian writers and readers.

From my vantage point, Speculative Faith strikes me as a healthy and vibrant community.  But I know that, if that appraisal’s correct, it’ll only remain healthy as long as it remains welcoming and approachable.  We few, we subcreating few, we who stand in awe before the wildness and heroism of God and long to refract just a splinter of a ray of that light back into a dark and deprived world – we are not yet so many nor so strong that we can afford to build some kind of “-ism” around ourselves and hope to survive, let alone thrive.  I mean, let’s face it: most people don’t even know who we are or why we do what we do.  We mustn’t grow weary of explaining and promoting our calling and bearing with those who don’t “get it.”  Even more importantly, we have to work very hard to create good, true, and beautiful art that speaks for itself.  We can’t afford to start throwing around words like “literary” and thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.

Ultimately, we don’t labor for our own prestige.  And “literary sophistication” is, after all, nothing more than the esteem of the establishment postmodernists.  Though we strive in our work for every last iota of excellence, we don’t do so to aggrandize ourselves or to win the world’s favor.  We labor for God’s prestige and long for His recognition.  It’ll last longer.

Christopher Todd Wood
Christopher Todd Wood

I look forward to checking out your blog.  I appreciate your comment more than you know.

Austin Gunderson

Hey thanks!  The blog doesn’t get updated very often (mainly ’cause my posts are more like essays), but I do upload links to each completed chapter of the novel I’m trying to write.

Teddi Deppner

Stephen, I feel that way nearly every time I attend a Christian writer’s conference. I absolutely love your solution: Act like the battle is already won. Don’t be defensive. Don’t feel like I have to crusade. Just be content to do what I do and to speak of it like it’s totally natural, normal and widely accepted.
The way you said it here really helps me today, helps remind me to get over that sense of tilting at windmills. Let go of that idea that I’m special or have some sort of chip on my shoulder or something to prove. Let it go, and just be who God made me to be, doing what He made me to do. Stay focused on Him.
It also helps to do like the Apostle Paul said: act like a Roman to the Romans, like a Jew to the Jews. Looking back on my last conference, I think I found that middle ground. When people would ask me what I was writing, I would say it’s a fictional story loosely based on the life of a bible character — only my protagonist is a werewolf. It gave them a context they understood (the bible character) and yet was matter-of-fact about my genre. Many times this started a discussion and they were open and curious about what I was doing and why.