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The State Of Christian Fantastical Fiction 1: Disillusioned

Maybe you have felt the Christian-fantastical bandwagon slowing down. Why might that be?
| Jan 1, 2015 | 34 comments | Series:

gastankemptyDo you ever get that sense when you are in a conversation, telling a joke, engaging in an argument, or even fighting for a cause or a job … and you realize: This isn’t working, is it?

It’s a rather sick feeling. And I don’t think we get ambition points for denying it.

This is a feeling I’ve frequently sensed among fans, aspiring/published authors, publishers, and anyone who has done any internet advocacy for Christian1 fantastical fiction.

Let’s be honest. This economy is slumping; the vehicle is running on fumes.

How do we know?

I know this because I see fans’ laments, such as: “This whole ‘we need more fantastical fiction by Christian authors’ thing isn’t working because …” and out come many theories.

I have also seen storytellers’ laments. Many authors wonder aloud why their books aren’t finding more readers. They voice disappointment with all the methods they try to share their stories with others, only to find lackluster responses. Or else (this is at once both painful and encouraging) they do find help from only a very few dedicated readers who share reviews, promote books, and do whatever they can to get the story recognized.

I’ve also seen independent publishers’ laments. Of course, because I’m not an independent publisher myself, I can only write what things look like to me. But from here it looks like those promises have also fallen short. Some publishers are barely putting anything out there. Others, such as Marcher Lord Press, found an audience but an apparently limited one — and one year ago today, Marcher Lord was sold and later renamed Enclave Publishing.

What could have possibly gone wrong (so far)?

This seems all very dire. Spoiler alert: I’m convinced this is that kind of darkness just before sudden victory (Tolkien’s eucatastrophe) that repeats frequently in great fantastical stories. But before that turn of great despair to greater good, we must try to identify our villains:

1. Shallow reasons to support Christian fantastical fiction.

Even casual readers of SpecFaith know that our articles often explore not just the what or the whether of fantastical fiction, but the whys. Naturally we’re concerned with shallow reasons. Our tagline says, “[We’re] exploring epic [fantastical] stories for God’s glory.” We make this our goal because this is not what we by default desire. We have other reasons for exploring (or loving, or making) fantastical stories — good reasons, but smaller reasons.

  1. “Better stories should challenge individuals’ un-biblical beliefs.” 

    That’s a good reason for stories. But it’s too small. It also confuses the biblical goals of stories and human culture with the biblical purposes of didactic sermons and teaching.

  2. “Better stories should explode the Church’s sheltered approach to culture.” 

    That’s also a good reason. But it’s merely a spinoff of the above “conservative” attempt to use art first as a Tool rather than first as a joy and thus a means to worship God.

  3. “Better stories should reach out beyond our evangelical niche groups into the world around us.” 

    Another fine goal. But it risks assuming an equally sheltered view of the world: that Christians only need to make better Art and then the world will love us.

Ultimately, all of these reasons are themselves tied to evangelical-niche assumptions. They do not naturally lead to Christians enjoying stories “for their own sake.”2 Instead they lend themselves to a mindset closer to that of obligatory donations, fund-raising, and that ever-present S-word present in evangelical activism: Support.

2. Flawed promises in a changing story-world.

I’ve already alluded to some of these. I can still recall images of an e-book revolution that would return publishing power to all those who try it. And yet only a few hit it big, just as in traditional publishing. I can also recall the promises of blogs and social-network marketing. But individual bloggers are overwhelmed by decreasing time and increasing competition, and social networks such as Facebook are putting the kibosh on posts about products that rsemb advertisements (because they kinda are).

Am I right? If so, what can change?

However, I promise one more reason why Christian fantastical fiction may have (so far) not met with the success its fans and makers expected. Lord willing, I will share that next week.

Read The State of Christian Fantastical Fiction 2: We Need the Church.

  1. Note that when I say “Christian,” I am sidestepping the “evangelical niche fiction versus general-market fiction” discussion. I am only referring to stories written by biblical Christians.
  2. Please note that when I say this, I do not mean that “art,” stories, or culture are “good” by themselves. Instead I am thinking of 1 Tim. 4:1–5, in which the apostle Paul encourages the body of Christ to receive God’s good gifts with thanksgiving, yet also through the word (i.e. the written Scriptures) and through prayer, in order to make the gift holy for our joy.
E. Stephen Burnett 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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D. M. Dutcher
Member

The problem though with “exploring epic stories for their own sake” is that increasingly the stories themselves don’t need to be Christian to do so. You’re hinting this with your first footnote, and increasingly Christian fan criticism seems to be edging towards interpreting secular works in a Christian manner.  There’s a weird dissonance between fan and writer culture. A really good example was in a past comment by Julie D on R.L.’s Copple’s post:

Honestly, I could live without ‘Christian movies,’ without a moment of hesitation. Without Marvel movies….not quite so much.

Fans at heart don’t seem to want a specifically Christian spec-fic culture. Well, the majority, I mean. Until they do, Christian fantasy is going to be a moot point. Why should anyone bother writing it if Christian fans seem perfectly fine with baptizing J.K. Rowling and Doctor Who into the church and leaving it at that?

Julie d
Guest

First, I didn’t mean to dislike the comment- I was on my kindle and hit the wrong area. But thinking about what I originally said…. Christians aren’t going to challenge marvel or Rowling any time soon. They can slowly develop a fanbase and improve their skills, and I am all for that, but at the same time, I want other Christians to acknowledge common grace. I want people who aren’t sci-fi fans to see that there can be good things in secular speculative fiction and not flip out at the first swear word.

For example, my mom (who is not a speculative fan ) watched part of guardians of the galaxy with us. Every time someone swore , she said ” don’t use that language/ that’s not okay to say.”  It’s like speculative fiction is automatically suspicious until proven clean, but sports and chick flicks and 50s sitcoms are safe. Nothing is ‘safe’, and I’m sick of double standards.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I get this desire. My mom had a habit of physically throwing out anything she thought was spiritually harmful. But this doesn’t explain why it’s so freaking hard to get Christians to even look at any spec fic that’s Christian. There are fans which are okay with secular stuff, and they stay with secular stuff and even make it pseudo-Christian. It’s beyond marketing to your mother, but the reason why I quoted you is because I think a lot of Christians really wouldn’t mind if the idea of Christian spec fic disappeared entirely. They don’t care.

Julie D
Guest

Really, it has three components: First, the idea that “Christian” is a genre of its own comes, in practice, to mean, bonnet books, low-budget contemporary movies and Thomas Kinkade paintings.  I don’t see Buddhist or Hindu or atheist fiction. It doesn’t work in practice.

Second, Christians are generally suspicious of secular work, which means they can’t really understand what makes good speculative fiction in secular communities.

Third,  there’s still personal taste involved.  There are some Christian authors I really like, like Jeffrey Overstreet and Anne Elisabeth Stengl, but it’s because their stories are good.  No amount of worldview can make up for a story that isn’t good, and I just find a higher proportion of good stories in secular press than Christian. I take what I like where I find it.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I don’t know about the others, Julie, but there is Buddhist fiction. I’ve seen it in a “religion” section in a book store. Also have a cousin who works with Buddhist writing. I think she’s an editor, but maybe freelance. I’m not sure. Anyway, I just wanted to clarify—Christians aren’t doing something that others with strong religious worldviews are not.

Becky

Julie D
Guest

Fair enough, but Buddhist or Islamic fiction isn’t the BIG THING that Christian is.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Good point.

Steve C.
Guest

Great stories. That’s what it is all about.

Personally, I don’t care what the writer’s worldview is if the story is well crafted and well told.

Hemingway is just about the most downer storyteller I know of, he was a complete nihilist (consider how he ended), but he wrote a darn good story.

By contrast, Les Miserables is one of the more Christian stories ever written, and it still resonates on a massive level over 100 years later.

Labeling anything as “Christian” is the kiss of death. By doing so you have ensured that it will be judged too Christian (i.e., preachy) by most, and so will go unseen. Or it will be hailed as genius even if it stinks by the minority. (Ever see “Facing The Giants”? Egads.) …Whatever it is, you boxed it in, and killed it before it could fly.

Look… just write your story. Let it speak for itself. Let the story be told for the joy of the telling, and let people be taken by surprise.

The hunger for great storytelling never goes away. Just tell it.

Thems my two cents.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

I’m going to go slightly contrarian here and say my problem is that most books aren’t Christian enough, and by that I mean there’s a lack of deep meaty theology in a lot of stories.

The best science fiction and fantasy, horror and comics, are concerned with matters of philosophy. Some of my favorite discoveries this year were A Canticle For Leibowitz and the Angel Eyes series, which were incredibly explicit in their themes. Postmodernists aren’t pulling any punches when it comes to what they believe in their works: why should Christians? I don’t mean just “God loves you,” (important as that message is) but delvings into real theological issues. I want discussions about free will versus determinism, characters wrestling with their mission and purpose in life, the agony of service without apparent reward and in the face of loss. I’m not asking for lots of grimdark; I’m asking for depth, which is equally as possible in comedy as it is in tragedy.

I enjoy the short stories of Fred Warren because they’re well written, have solid characters, and no matter the genre or theme each contain a kernel of Truth, a reflection on some aspect of life that provides meaning and context for our own experiences. That’s what good fiction that sticks with you does.

I think I said it before here, but what we need is a lot less hand wringing and problem analysis, and a lot more geeking out about the stories we like. In all honesty, people don’t actually subscribe to “genres” in the sense that they approve of everything under a specific label. They fall in love with characters and stories that build up to a genre, with various levels of tolerance for different forms. We need a lot more bottom up fandom and a lot less top down classification.

Julie D
Guest

I can see your point too, though.  Christian spec tends to rely on retellings of the Gospel, but it doesn’t realize that Christ wouldn’t reveal himself the same way in different worlds.

Lela Markham
Guest
Lela Markham

I think it really comes down to the sad fact that most Christian writers are trying to proselytize through their fiction rather than writing the best story they can write and letting their Christian worldview shine through without being forced. It makes for schlock and that turns me off as much as it turns off non-Christians. I grew up outside the churches, reading good books by a wide swath of authors rather than by a narrowly defined “safe” genre. I love it when I encounter a great story that has Christian elements, but usually, I find a Christian story that is mediocre instead.

I suspect many Christians who love speculative fiction get the same queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach that I do when they read the words “Christian speculative fiction.” They think it will be heavy on the Christian, light on the speculative and not really very entertaining fiction.

seth
Guest
seth

In response to dmdutcher’s comments about Lewis and Tolkien I completely disagree. Tolkien’s work is completely steeped in Christian Catholic imagery. The views of monotheism and polytheism, theodicy, the attractiveness and corrupting influence of sin, providence and free will all get addressed in his books with Christian responses. One of my favorite themes is that all things were created to be good and that evil is just a corruption and perversion of the good. The goblins were once beautiful elves tortured by evil, Sauron and Saruman were both angels of light; Gandalf himself was an angel of light who took on the trappings of human flesh to aid mankind. Despite all of this going over people’s heads Tolkien was embarrassed that his stories were too blatantly on the nose Christian.
Lewis had little problem with being on the nose but I’m amazed how much of his philosophical arguments are in his stories and no one seems to notice. He has his Christian view of drinking and drunkeness, persecution, the pros and cons of fraternity, the negative implications of popular philosophies of his day such as materialism and how many atheists of his day were treating the ramifications of evolution, his views on pagan virtues and how he felt would be God’s response.
And both deal with making superficial judgements.
These stories are far meatier on theology and philosophy than you’re giving them credit for.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I have to ask whether or not these things are due to reading the book, or your own ideas/other people explaining him to you. Because in the trilogy, there isn’t even a God or god figure-that comes later I think, in the Silmarrion and apocryphal works. I don’t think Gandalf is ever described as an “angel of light,” and he definitely didn’t incarnate in the books. Most of them involve a rather motley collection of heroes trying to destroy a one ring with such staggering power that only hobbits can actually carry it without being corrupted.

The thing is, there’s a cottage industry of people trying to interpret Tolkien in the most christian-friendly way possible. I’m not saying he’s not, but he’s not someone who really puts deep or explicit theology in his books. If you read his other stories, Leaf By Niggle is as close as he gets to such.

I should qualify my statement on Lewis some. I think the Narnia books aren’t all that theologically deep. You can make more of a case for his sf trilogy, but people tend to read that less.

I also have to admit I am a bit opposed to L&T because they are the two giants any Christian writer needs to slay just to write. They pop into every conversation and every writer gets compared to them.

Paul Lee
Member

I have to ask whether or not these things are due to reading the book, or your own ideas/other people explaining him to you. Because in the trilogy, there isn’t even a God or god figure-that comes later I think, in the Silmarrion and apocryphal works.

Tolkien’s depiction of God is a core part of his mythos. Whether that makes his mythos let alone The Lord of the Rings — theologically deep is an open question.

I think it may be careless for evangelicals to appropriate Tolkien as a Christian writer in the same sense as Peretti, but I also think it’s careless to dismiss the subtle expression of the Divine that exists in LotR because Tolkien imagined his world thoroughly all the way back from its creation by God.

[edit]Evangelicals complain that Tolkien’s view of God as presented in The Silmarillion is too Catholic, but it is definitely deeply theist, and it is not apocryphal.

seth
Guest
seth

They’re certainly things I noticed on my own but if I needed my hand held I’ve read many of Tolkien’s letters and comments of his own work so I don’t need anyone else to explain his work but for the man himself. I think, however, you’re confusing ‘lack of theology’ with being subtle about it. And Tolkien was constantly lamenting that his work wasn’t subtle enough. Personally, I don’t like having things spelled out to me like I’m an idiot. Subtlety seems to be a dying art form in this day and age.
Also, how do you know what ideas came later? Tolkien started writing the Silmarillion before anything else and continued writing it throughout his life. He died before finishing it.
While Iluvatar’s name is never mentioned divine providence is obvious throughout the trilogy. But if that is too subtle for you Gandalf discusses the idea with Frodo in Fellowship (it’s been awhile since I’ve read them).
No, I chose the phrase ‘angel of light’ purposefully to relate the Maiar to the Bible (seeing as we *are* talking about theology in fiction) but given their discription in the series could you ask for a better analogy?
While we don’t see the incarnation of any of the wizards the fact that Gandalf isn’t human is strongly hinted at in all three books (and I think The Hobbit as well) and since he looks human but is something more is the incarnation regardless if we don’t “see” the incarnating process itself in the books.
You really can’t see the connection between the seduction and corruption of sin and the One ring? Weird. According to Tolkien, himself, this (along with redemption) was the major point that he was continuously trying to convey.
I can’t speak for the industry. All I can say is that there are certainly examples in the secular realm of success in these genres. If people are complaining that LOTR and Narnia set the bar too high (or whatever) perhaps the problem lies in how they perceive the quality of their own work.

DD
Guest

I can still recall images of an e-book revolution that would return publishing power to all those who try it. And yet only a few hit it big…

Not sure who was promising success to “all those who try it,” but the e-book revolution did give indie authors a chance. It has also forced change – slow as it has been – in traditional markets. There’s a difference between being successful and hitting it big. True, many people think writing is the fast track to riches. It isn’t. Like any profession, a small percentage are the Tom Clancys of the world.

Many indie writers are happy to make a living at it. That’s what they define as successful. Sure, everyone’s “success level” (or hitting it big) is defined a little different, but here’s the point: E-books matured self-publishing into indie publishing and gave all authors a chance to be the primary beneficiary of the work, rather than being last on the list.

I write all this to preface the next questions, which are, “Why not more successful indie writers, including in the ChristSpecFic supragenre?”

I think many thought if they put out an e-book, a website and a tweet or two, there would be instant success. It’s not that easy as an indie or in traditional publishing. Authors must engage in an active business plan promoting their book, all the while writing the next one. Look at all the competition out there. How are readers going to find your book? Even if one is traditionally published, don’t expect billboards, tv spots and ads in USA Today. Even though e-books give a book longer life, publishers quickly move on to the next project to keep money flowing.  Small presses are not so different other than they have even less money to spend on you.

With ChristSpecFic emerging at the same time as these changes in the business, perhaps many haven’t really learned the system. It has changed rapidly. Authors and small presses need to engage in the business end of publishing. That can only help the growth of ChristSpecFic.

 

Walter Cantrell
Guest
Walter Cantrell

I’d like to echo that the problem with Christian Fiction in general is that it isn’t Christian enough.  It seems that Christian writing has taken on the same mindset as the seeker-sensitive ministries and churches.  Meaning, we first have to prove how cool, hip, and relevant we are, and then we work in that we’re actually Christian too.  But of course, we follow that up with abundant assurances that we aren’t TOO Christian.

I remember when Contemporary Christian Music was coming along in the 80’s.  It was painful to watch so many Christian groups trying to prove they could rock-out with the best of them.  Petra even went so far as to take the same music in KISS’s “Heavens on Fire” and put in their own lyrics.  I told people back then that if I wanted to listen to rock then I’d listen to real rockers and not Christian knock-off versions.

Thank God Contemporary Christian Music eventually evolved and found its own voice.  Can Christian Fiction and in particular Christian Sci/Fi, Speculative, Action-Adventure; do the same?