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Speculative Christmas, Episode I: A New Hope

Even an imperfect story can help begin a conversation about the Real Story.
| Nov 29, 2011 | No comments |

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the first week of Advent, the season when Christians traditionally meditate on the events leading up to the birth of Christ and look forward to His return. It’s our Festival of Lights–the story of how God pierced the darkness of our world and illuminated it with His glory.

This is a powerful story, arguably the most powerful story ever, so it’s no wonder we see it echoed over and over again in human legend and popular culture, including…you guessed it…speculative fiction. Frequently, it takes the form of a “messiah story,” in which a character is born in obscurity, either in a supernatural manner or gifted with supernatural powers, and rises to free his or her benighted, oppressed people.

Of course, it’s an imperfect image, but rather than fuss about how these secular stories don’t get the real Messiah Story right, or whether they’re obscuring truth or confusing people about it, I think it’s important to recognize this phenomenon as evidence that God is working in the hearts of mankind, that we’re drawn so strongly to the story of Christmas because it promises to satisfy a longing in our inmost being that we can’t fully articulate. We know we’re in darkness, and we reach toward the light, even if we can’t yet comprehend it.

Even an imperfect story can help begin a conversation about the Real Story.

A New Hope

The first week of Advent is all about hope. We light the candle of Prophecy and read scripture that foretells the coming of Jesus. Similarly, spec-fic stories that center on a messiah usually send them into a society desperately in need of hope, with people clinging to ancient prophecies of a leader who will beat back the darkness and lead them into a golden age.

The Chosen One

"Stupid shadow."

In Episode 1 of the Star Wars saga, Anakin Skywalker is born into slavery on a desert planet under miraculous circumstances–a science-fiction version of the Virgin Birth. Jedi prophets have long foretold the coming of the Chosen One, who will restore balance to a badly discombobulated Force, bringing peace and justice to a galaxy marred by destructive evil. Anakin eventually fulfills that promise, but not in the way anyone expects, and only after a long, tortured descent into darkness.

The Shortening of the Way

"I'm the...what?"

In Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic saga of destiny and power politics in a far-future human society (and do read the book–David Lynch’s art-deco acid trip of a movie doesn’t begin to convey the depth and complexity of this tale, as pretty as it looks), we find people trying to create their own messiah. The Bene Gesserit, a shadowy all-female cabal, works to produce a super-being via selective breeding, someone who will be able to see into the future and permanently unite the warring factions of humanity–under their control, of course.  The program comes with its own set of cunningly-crafted prophecies seeded throughout every human community, intended to pave the way for his arrival. However, the best-laid plans of mice, men, and sororities often go astray, and the messiah is born at an unforeseen place and time, throwing the entire plot askew. As it turns out, this is a good thing.

The Once and Future King

"We are all Britons, and I am your king!"

Fantasy has its own messiah figures, most notably King Arthur, who, through a combination of destiny, magic, and heroic vision, unites the bickering tribes of Britain and establishes Camelot–a realm of justice, chivalry, and courtly grace. Unfortunately, Arthur has very human flaws, which lead inexorably to his undoing, though his body is magically preserved and hidden in anticipation of a future resurrection when he will once again ascend to the throne and restore the glories of Camelot.

Yeah, I'd follow him.

Tolkien’s Ring trilogy gives us Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, who spends his early life hiding from his heritage, his father’s broken sword strapped to his hip, bearing an obscure prophecy that it will be reforged and restored. With the unlikely help of a handful of little, insignificant hobbits, Aragorn vanquishes the armies of evil arrayed against him and reclaims his birthright.

There are many more examples, which I’m sure our readers will provide. What do these stories have in common? Here are three themes I think are significant in light of the Advent season:

1. People need a Savior. All these stories depict a society in deep trouble, full of evil, injustice, and misery, and it’s incapable of fixing itself. It needs help beyond simple human agency, and that help is someone, not something.

2. The Savior’s coming is promised, and that promise is fulfilled. Human beings are living in suffering and despair, but they’re not left without hope. Larger forces are at work to right what’s gone wrong, and the promised deliverer arrives, at just the right place and time.

3. The Savior’s arrival is unexpected. The characters in the story might not recognize this as God’s work, but I think a Christian observer will note as significant the fact that the messiah never appears in the manner anyone expects, nor is the messiah recognized as such. The deliverer emerges from obscurity, seemingly out of nowhere, when nobody’s looking for them. In the Dune example, even though the Bene Gesserit have engineered their messiah down to the prophecies that predict his coming, they are confounded by the arrival of a different, better messiah who is born when one of their members deviates from the plan for the sake of love.

Better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the darkness.

I’ll continue with Episode II next week. In the meantime, find a couple of spec-fic-loving friends in need of the true Messiah and ask them why all their favorite stories are beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.

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Galadriel
Guest

I love it.  Isn’t it great how even poorly told verisions of the story can point towards truth?

Kessie Carroll
Member

Oh, this will be a good series, I can already tell. *pours cup of hot chocolate*

Patrick J. Moore
Guest

“In the meantime, find a couple of spec-fic-loving friends in need of the true Messiah and ask them why all their favorite stories are beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”- Fred

To which I know a few who would respond that this phenomenon in stories predates Jesus (as if predating the Creator of the universe were possible), and the Christmas story is just another fictional story just like all the others.

Andrea
Guest

To which I know a few who would respond that this phenomenon in stories predates Jesus
Heh. Those always makes me want to make snarky comments that bring in the Old Testament. Isaiah? Daniel? Genesis?  (It’s one thing I like about God: as a storyteller, he’s really good at foreshadowing.)
It’s a good thing we aren’t saved by logic and reasoning, isn’t it?  We’d be sunk.

Kathrine Roid
Guest

Anyone who is able to look at arguments critically will respond that way, actually. I felt insulted at the suggestion I use that “evangelistic” “argument.”

The argument:
There is a recurring theme throughout fiction. It would seem this shows a psychological need. I have a story I say is true and you say is fiction that has this recurring theme. Therefore this story must be true.

I hope you’re kidding. Pointing out a foundational belief of ours has the marks of a common fictional trope is pointless at best and damaging at worst.

Kaci Hill
Member

Well, the problem with that argument (the ‘other stories predate Christianity’) is that it’s a half-truth.  A person using said argument doesn’t believe Jesus is God or that he in fact predates everything, and if you’re looking strictly at human founders, then Christianity, at its origins (blast, my ‘i’ key is not cooperating) an offshoot of Judaism ( a cult) that believes the Jewish Messiah already came.  If Jesus is not preexisting, and if he is not the foretold Jewish Messiah meant for the whole world, then, yes, other stories predate that one.  
 
Unless you see the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Bible as one piece, and unless you  believe that the God of Israel is in fact a universal God (meaning, he is the God of gods  and every nation owes their allegiance to him) and not just a local deity who planned from the start to do reconcile the whole of humanity, that the Messiah was always meant for everyone, and that this heritage is not just meant for Jews or Christians, but for all of us, then, yeah, Christianity really is pitiful as far as religions go.
 
Or, to simplify that, because I fear I’m rambling:  Those who follow the God of gods have always existed. We just didn’t call them Christians until the church moved home base to Antioch, Syria.  (Before you freak  on me, Stephen, allow me this saying: “They looked forward to the Cross in anticipation; we look back at the Cross and remember.”)
 
It’s also neglecting that Jesus wasn’t a resurrected god or human; he was both in entirety (not a human-god hybrid).
 
It’s not that I think a ten-minute world history lesson is going to lead to conversions, but I think questions like that misunderstand Christianity as a whole.
 
And while we might not be saved via Logic, God did plead with Israel, “Come, let us reason together.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Kathrine: I’m not kidding, but “evangelistic argument” isn’t where I was going with this, either. As I noted in my response to Patrick, this is a conversation starter.

I think that if we’re confident in the Holy Spirit’s work to change someone’s heart, and not so intent on a specific Evangelism Program that involves asking questions by use of cheat-sheet three-by-five cards hidden under the table, we can enjoy with any friends a conversation about stories imitating Scripture.

The point is not to finish up with John 3:16, or an altar call. There’s a time for that. Peter, for example, knowing his audience, preached that way at Pentecost (Acts 2). But Paul, in Acts 17, started a conversation, showing how even Greek poetry could, in a sense, echo a truth about the world (though he also showed how truth contradicted their cultural beliefs, and followed up with the curious).

If God uses common-grace truth in nature, even making clear His existence in a fallen world (Romans 1), then we can do the same. The point is not to skip to the happy-end part of the Gospel, the specific revelation of Jesus and our need to repent. The point (subtly) would be to repeat a “law” of sorts, which the Spirit can then use — if He chooses, blowing “randomly” to and fro (John 3) — to bring about conviction. That’s His job, not ours. What a challenge, yet also a relief!

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E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

From Kaci:

If Jesus is not preexisting, and if he is not the foretold Jewish Messiah meant for the whole world, then, yes, other stories predate that one.
 
Unless you see the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Bible as one piece, and unless you  believe that the God of Israel is in fact a universal God (meaning, he is the God of gods  and every nation owes their allegiance to him) and not just a local deity who planned from the start to do reconcile the whole of humanity, that the Messiah was always meant for everyone, and that this heritage is not just meant for Jews or Christians, but for all of us, then, yeah, Christianity really is pitiful as far as religions go.

Amen.

And unless one sees, even as a non-Christian, the entire Bible — whose stories do clearly and certainly predate Christ’s coming — as pointing to Christ, foreshadowing that Story. In fact, I seem to recall a recent reference to “the reminder of our deep, deep roots that go back as far as the Garden where God promised a woman her son would destroy her family’s greatest and oldest foe.” Christ may not be the first “messianic” style hero ever recounted around campfires or in cultures. But the same Author wrote of forerunners.

Or, to simplify that, because I fear I’m rambling:  Those who follow the God of gods have always existed. We just didn’t call them Christians until the church moved home base to Antioch, Syria.  (Before you freak  on me, Stephen, allow me this saying: “They looked forward to the Cross in anticipation; we look back at the Cross and remember.”)

Wait, what was I supposed to freak about? I want to make sure I fulfill this prophecy. 😉

It’s also neglecting that Jesus wasn’t a resurrected god or human; he was both in entirety (not a human-god hybrid).

Amen again (and this is even more poignant, thanks to my recent J-Witness reading.)

Also, He’s the only “story” — that is, true account — Hero I know of who doesn’t only save the suffering, the victims, the oppressed. He saves His enemies. The rebels. Us.
 
Like other heroes, in other stories, He does sacrifice Himself to save suffering victims, His friends — but unlike other stories, He sacrifices Himself to save the villains, who themselves inflicted (in a human sense) suffering on Him. That originality, that vast difference between His story and other hero narratives, should tell us something.

Kaci Hill
Member

Wait, what was I supposed to freak about? I want to make sure I fulfill this prophecy.

Occasionally I’m not sure if a particular phrasing  is going to get misunderstood, as I used the word ‘universal.’ 😉 Don’t worry; I didn’t want you to.
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Hey, I’m the guy who has to be careful when I question popular assumptions that God has no interest, according to Scripture, of saving the actual physical world. 😀 Too much wondering gets around about what, then, is God’s use for the physical world — resulting in some well-meaning souls getting caught up in universalism. How I do wish folks like them would just find their own language and not confusedly use “ours” …

But that would make things far too easy, I suppose.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

By the way, Fred, a frivolous question if your time permit: by referring to this as Episode I: A New Hope, are you thereby disowning the actual Star Wars Episode I film, and by proxy all the prequels, and thus also the revised numbering system that includes Episode IV: A New Hope?

Kaci Hill
Member

The other three don’t count.