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Taking Every Thought Captive

Speculative stories are the brunt of criticism from those who believe fantastical elements don’t belong. At the same time, however, the hammer comes down, claiming theology has no place, that it’s too restrictive, too confining, too box-like.

Yesterday during an NFL game, a quarterback dropped back to pass and was belted from both sides, violently sandwiched between two onrushing linemen. The two-team collision reminds me of Christian speculative fiction.

As various contributors here at Speculative Faith have pointed out from time to time, speculative stories are the brunt of criticism from those who believe fantastical elements don’t belong. At the same time, however, the hammer comes down, claiming theology has no place, that it’s too restrictive, too confining, too box-like.

Like so much else in the Christian life, I believe writers following Jesus Christ must walk in balance, in this case between those two extremes. We have God-given imagination and we have God-given revelation. One ought not exclude the other.

The logical approach seems to me to anchor ourselves, and therefore our writing and our responses to what we read, in that which is fixed. From that point and within its parameters, speculative stories have infinite latitude. The “anchor,” I submit, is truth, especially God’s self-revealed truth.

The Apostle Paul addressed false teaching from time to time in his letters to various churches. He was concerned that those spouting wise-sounding words might delude believers into abandoning the gospel. Repeatedly he called believers to govern or protect their minds. To the Corinthian church he wrote

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5)

Some people might be tempted to put a period after speculations or possibly after every lofty thing. But the verse clearly states that the speculations and lofty things Paul was standing against had a specific purpose: they were raised up against the knowledge of God.

A logical deduction, then, would seem to be that speculations and lofty things aimed at revealing a true knowledge of God would receive Paul’s approval. The key seems to be in the last part of the verse: we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Think of our thoughts as beautiful stallions, sleek and strong. They can either run wild or they can be tamed and trained. Are those tamed and trained stallions inferior to the wild ones? That question, I think, expresses the fears of some writers. If we submit our thoughts to “theological correctness” somehow we will be giving up something vital and necessary for good storytelling. Somehow the captive thoughts, the tamed ones won’t express the messiness of the human soul.

I don’t believe that to be true, for one main reason: Christ was a man. Well, OK, two reasons: God created Man. My point is, no one knows the messiness of the human soul more than He Who created it and Who lived it (“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” — Heb. 4:15). In other words, our greatest source for understanding the way the world works — that in the heavens or on earth, the visible or the invisible — is God’s revelation.

Apart from that anchor, however, we can wander into all kinds of false ideas, and our stories will no longer be true. Paul again, this time to the church in Colossae:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

The key here, I believe, is that our thoughts will be taken captive, one way or another. The wild stallion may be a romantic notion, but in truth, horses on their own are prone to hunger and disease and may become prey to any number of predators. Their “freedom” leads them into lives of skittishness and fear and danger, whereas those that are tamed and trained know safety and satisfaction.

Our thoughts are not so different.

But what does “safety and satisfaction” do to storytelling? I mean, conflict is the key and that messiness of the soul is what we’re concerned about. What does “tamed and trained” have to do with that?

My contention is that Christians see with more clarity, not less. Yes, the glass through which we peer is still dark, but we’re no longer blind. We do see, however imperfectly. Yet some who profess Christ act as if our Christianity handicaps us from writing what the rest of the world sees. Just the opposite is true. We not only can write what the rest of the world sees, but we can write what they are incapable of seeing, and that, my friends, means Christians should be the best speculative writers of all.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Galadriel
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Amen! I think it was Chesterton who used the image of children playing high atop a island with walls. But when the walls fell, they ceased to play and huddled together in fear. We need those safe limits to be truly free.

Kaci Hill
Member

Just for fun….
 

At the same time, however, the hammer comes down, claiming theology has no place, that it’s too restrictive, too confining, too box-like.

I don’t think theology is confining, but I still maintain that the speculative genre should be the safest place in the literary world to explore theology–both good and bad.

speculations and lofty things aimed at revealing a true knowledge of God would receive Paul’s approval. The key seems to be in the last part of the verse: we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

 
I’m going to go completely church brat on you and ask how this plays out practically as writers.

Think of our thoughts as beautiful stallions, sleek and strong. They can either run wild or they can be tamed and trained. Are those tamed and trained stallions inferior to the wild ones? That question, I think, expresses the fears of some writers. If we submit our thoughts to “theological correctness” somehow we will be giving up something vital and necessary for good storytelling. Somehow the captive thoughts, the tamed ones won’t express the messiness of the human soul.

 
Just to be evil, I’m going to remind you that tamed animals, or even wild animals that have been raised by humans from birth (an orphaned or wounded animal) or simply kept in temporary captivity due to injury have to be slowly prepared for release into the wild to ensure the animal’s survival upon said release. Just saying, tamed or temporarily held, an animal in long-term care of humans is vulnerable to the outside world.

Moreover, I think on some level the worry isn’t so much that theology hinders as much as there are so many flavors within  the Christian world to behold.  It’s very easy to get frustrated and decide you no longer care who gets offended.

Personally, I go about as back-and-forth on this as I do the whole Philippians 4 bit. On the one hand, of course I don’t want to be writing heresy. On the other, my characters are not me, nor do they necessarily express my beliefs(and I can name more that don’t than do).  On the one hand, I’m going to write what the scene calls for. On the other hand, I want an even-handed treatment of whatever subject I’m using.   On the one hand, I don’t care to write grotesque. On the other, I sometimes have to eat literary poison to get across what I need to (and then under go an imperative purging phase).
 
 
 

Fred Warren
Member

Moreover, I think on some level the worry isn’t so much that theology hinders as much as there are so many flavors within  the Christian world to behold.  It’s very easy to get frustrated and decide you no longer care who gets offended.

And with so many different flavors, no matter what you do, you’re bound to offend someone. Awareness is important, but setting inoffensiveness as a criterion will result in blandness at best and paralysis at worst.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

From Kaci:

The speculative genre should be the safest place in the literary world to explore theology–both good and bad.

About this I would tend to agree, with some qualification. It’s the pulpit, or specific Kingdom leadership positions (such as elders and missionaries), that requires very clear boundaries between right and wrong teaching. But in the “reality” simulated by a story-world, the boundaries should be fuzzy. The Devil shines as an angel of light, and a wolf is not so easily seen under that woolly costume — at least at first.

By a good story’s end, though, we should know something about who was right and wrong, to an extent (and this itself is fuzzy) that a reader confused about which is which bears the fault entirely on his own for not paying sufficient attention.

I’m going to go completely church brat on you and ask how this [taking every thought captive in Christ] plays out practically as writers.

Easy/difficult answer: the same way it plays out in any other Christian’s life. We’re only secondly writers, or family members, or friends; first and foremost, we are God’s creations. “That relation is older and dearer,” as one of “non-evangelical” C.S. Lewis’s characters reminded his self-centered adult sister in The Great Divorce.

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

The only problem is Christian writers clearly are not the best on the market, especially if by Christian one means “born again evangelical”. Sure, there’s some great Catholic writers: Gene Wolfe and Walter Miller especially (although I think Miller renounced his faith shortly before he died); and there’s C.S. Lewis, who always WRONGLY gets labeled an evangelical; but among evangelicals there’s no one approaching the talent of a Dan Simmons, a Maria Doria Russel, an Orson Scott Card, Frank Herbert, etc. The closest we got is Stephen Lawhead, and as admittedly decent a writer he is, he is simply not in that league. There are structural problems in current Christian writing that need to be solved before Christians can reach the next summit of writing ability. We’ve gone a long way down since Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
 
 

Christian
Guest
Christian

I’ll admit Orson Scott Card is an excellent writer, but Frank Herbert? No, no, no! His writing is rather poor. It’s his world-building and the ideas he molded together that continue to fascinate. As for Stephen Lawhead, what have you got against him? Try Steven James if you want to read a brilliant speculative fiction author. He writes suspense/thrillers. What of Dean Koontz? He’s amazing.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

From Becky:

I haven’t read Orson Scott Card (not a Sci Fi fan — just can’t make myself do it)

An editor once told me I had to read Ender’s Game. A modern classic, with all kinds of exploration about the human condition, psychology, and relationships.

Mainly I remember a lot of sweating and peepee references.

But you know, I’m sure, that I’ll disagree with you about the “especially Evangelicals” part.

And of course, I join Becky. I’d note again that while some Christian fiction writers are certainly at fault for both boring man-centered and moralistic-religious themes and dull craftsmanship, others are wrongly faulted for this simply because they dare to “simulate” Christianity directly. These therefore irk readers who claim they want “non-religious” fiction — that is, fiction that’s subtly based on man-centered religious worldviews that they find preferable. 🙂 So we need to exercise customize discernment in who’s fairly faulting the Christian, and who’s just being a troll.

From John:

We’ve gone a long way down since Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Not to be a troll myself (which is impossible on a site that I help lead anyway). But if evangelicals can’t claim C.S. Lewis, how could we claim Charlotte Brontë? Stowe, maybe, from what I recall, yet to this day the name of the titular character of Uncle Tom’s Cabin gets bandied about as a mocking reference to people who supposedly kowtow to racism. It’s based on what Stowe had intended to be a “noble slave” behavior toward abusive white masters, to illustrate a nonviolent and Christian reaction leading to martyrdom, but can come across as absurd, cheesy, and unjust.

Maybe you had in mind something else, John. If so, after you’re done sharing with Becky how you think we can write better stories, maybe you’d help me out.

By the way, absolutely, evangelicals should quit lionizing (ha ha!) Lewis as One of Our Own. Lewis, however, who was still closer to Biblically faithful evangelicaldom than, say, many modern professing evangelicals, such as Brian McLean or Rob Bell.

There are structural problems in current Christian writing that need to be solved before Christians can reach the next summit of writing ability

I agree, and suggest that getting the Gospel right, and a more Biblical and God-centered perspective on all things, would be most helpful, primarily for Christians as people, of course, only secondarily as writers.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

I’m very glad you addressed this, Becky, because I’ve also seen some unhelpful pushback in both directions: the (mostly rightful) complaints that Christian fiction is too restrictive, but then in response, advocacy for, say, “edginess” for its own sake.

The original complaints should not be “it’s too restrictive,” and leave it at that. Rather, rightful criticism of any Christian art comes when it’s not Biblically restrictive.

The same is true with claims that we must be “edgy.” Biblically “edgy,” we should mean.

You offered a similar statement in a previous column, to which I just commented, and so as a good caretaker of the virtual environment, I’ll do some recycling. This also relates especially to the idea of a tamed or wild animal, and what “freedom” means:

Whenever we talk about exploring, going beyond, pushing the boundaries, etc., this is — or should be — based on the freedom God has already given us in His revealed Word. To go outside that isn’t just some kind of freedom we’re not supposed to have. It’s a false “freedom.” A non-freedom. An impossible-universe “freedom.” And it does seem that, as Becky wrote on Monday, some defenses of even speculative Christian stories seem to overdo the whole “hey we’re free” rhetoric. Yes, Christ gives us freedom, but freedom for a purpose: to be a “slave” to Him, in perfect joy and truth.

Any Christian story, or music, or art, should reflect that. It’s only this that gives that naturally occurring emotional response, both in head and heart, and keeps us joyful in Him in the present, yet also yearning — “groaning,” as Paul said in Rom. 8 — for the glorious future, the redeemed universe of the New Heavens and New Earth.