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The State Of Christian Fantastical Fiction 2: We Need The Church

Why is Christian fantastical story-promotion struggling? Here’s a crucial hiding-in-plain-sight reason.
They need fantastical stories. Even if they don’t know it.

They need fantastical stories. Even if they don’t know it.

If you’re a Christian who loves fantastical stories, including by Christians, and want more of them, and take time saying this on the web, chances are you’ve recently felt disillusioned.

This discouragement may be because advocates offer flawed (and even reactionary and sentimental) reasons to support, rather than naturally enjoy, fantastical stories by Christian artists. It may also be because authors and publishers were originally gung-ho about blogs and e-reading and self-publishing, but reality has weakened some of those promises.

But for Christians who believe the Bible and want to show their love for Jesus by obeying and following him, there may be a third crucial, deeper, even hiding-in-plain-sight spiritual reason why the fantastical stories we love are not finding wider audiences.

3. We’ve been focusing too much on individual fans/authors and individual readers.

In all our internet advocacy, blogs, comments, emails, fandom circles, social network pages, and writing groups, do we talk too much about authors and readers as single individuals?

Individuals who merely have a preference for this one thing, rather than individuals who are part of, say, a single entity on earth that Jesus Christ himself founded in order to call people to repent of their sin, receive his salvation and join a Cause to promote his worship?

I could provide examples. But I am not picking on any one person. As Mike Duran suggests:

[L]iterary agent Amanda Luedeke recently said, “I honestly feel we have more people writing Christian spec fic than we have people reading it.”

This is the huge fundamental hurdle Christian spec groups and authors must admit and overcome. If we are going to broaden the reach of Christian spec-fic we simply have to learn how to stop talking to ourselves. Face it, the majority of us have the same circle of friends. We interpret vigorous chatter within our circle as evidence of growth or advance. It’s not. It’s an echo chamber. Not saying that is totally wrong. There’s many great writers and enthusiastic readers in our circles. What I’m saying is that they all exist within a relatively small pool. Until we are willing and able to connect with readers outside our “safe” circles, the number of Christian spec-fic titles will remain paltry.

We emphasize what individuals want, and what “the world” needs (or supposedly needs). But we have left out one excruciatingly crucial step — that is, crucial if you are a biblical Christian who want to love and obey Jesus Christ and share his Gospel in ways he favors:

We cannot take great, God-exalting beauties and truths (including stories) straight from individual Christians to the world by skipping over his organized Church.

I am guilty of this oversight. Even here on SpecFaith I often write of individuals’ worship, individuals’ joys, individuals’ this and that. Yes, in the back of my mind I know the fact that individual Christians are part of the body of Christ, not only the invisible collective global Church but local organized groups of believers. And I have mentioned this on SpecFaith.

But not nearly enough.

I think it’s time to get serious about this. To grow up. To go beyond the blogs. To go beyond even our own individual wants to get more awesome and more fantastical stories out there.

Christian fantastical fans need the Church

One resource about how Christ changes the world through his Church.

One resource about how Christ changes the world through his Church.

It’s time to start asking the capital-C Church of Christ’s people how we can best help them.

This must start by asking, directly, in person, what people in your own lowercase-C local church1 need — that is, what they need from you as a fantastical fan or as an author.

Notice I didn’t say “want.” I said “need.”

Because this will involve efforts that may feel a lot like “pragmatism” or even like “selling out” or even like compromise with those conservatives who don’t Get It. You and your fandom or author friends may love that one fantastically geeky story (by a Christian or otherwise). I definitely join you on that. But what about those “regular people,” the non-geeks and non-fans, at your local church? What do they need for themselves? Their children?

Yes, our local church brothers and sisters need practical stuff that God has commanded, such as training in Gospel-based sin-fighting and biblical-truth-learning so we can start worshiping our Savior forever.2

But they also need great stories, including fantastical stories. They need to understand how God’s people must enjoy yet also discern the world of popular culture in which they can’t help but live. And they need to understand that — for reasons we can discuss or elaborate — God’s people are called to fight sin and fight for joy in Christ alone not only in “family friendly” ways. We’re also called to be church-friendly. And we’re called to be world-friendly, not in the way James 4:4 condemns but in the ways Jesus Christ calls us to shine his light.

Challenges and objections instantly arise, first in my own head as I write, and next in yours. Next week I hope to address some of those, yet return specific challenges to ourselves.

For now, what do you think? Have Christian fantastical fans been ignoring the Church?

  1. For more on what the local church is or ought to be, see this article from 9Marks Ministries.
  2. References for these are also available upon request.
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Lela Markham
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Lela Markham

I don’t know that I have ignored my church on the subject so much as my Christian friends have sent mixed messages. They generally don’t read Christian speculative fiction. Maybe they’ve read some Lawhead or tried to stomach the Left Behind series, but generally, their public shelves (in the living room) have unread (you can tell by the bindings) bonnet fiction and English-language classics (often also not read). If you have access to their private places (bedroom, master bathroom), you’ll find speculative fiction by secular authors — Martin and Sanderson being the most popular right now. Those are well-read, with worn bindings and dog-eared pages.

So the message I get is that they want to read spec fic (and apparently don’t object to the pornographic details of Martin’s work), but they don’t want anyone to know that they read it and/or they haven’t found a Christian author they like well enough to read. Not being made of money, I am slowly (as I can afford it) giving my paperback to Christian reader friends and gauging their reaction. So far good reviews, but how to overcome their reticence to buy Christian spec fic … I don’t know.

You do make a good point that Christian authors might need to be having an actual conversation with their fellow church members about what they read and why. It might be instructive to ask them why the Mitford series is unread in the living room and Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice is well-loved in the bedroom.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

So the message I get is that they want to read spec fic (and apparently don’t object to the pornographic details of Martin’s work), but they don’t want anyone to know that they read it and/or they haven’t found a Christian author they like well enough to read.

This seems to be a far more prevalent-attitude than the stereotypical “most evangelicals don’t see the point of fantasy” or “most evangelicals think fantasy is evil” attitudes. Frankly, this is a possible symptom of — let’s just come out and say this — worldliness. I do not of course mean that all Christians ought to dump Sanderson (or even Martin) because they are worldly. What I mean is that whatever we are reading ought not to be “guilty pleasures” but enjoyments we can pursue and share with help from other members of the local (and broader) body of Christ.

Julie D
Guest

Looking over my family’s shelves (as a college graduate living at home) , I see a bunch of parenting/apologetic books and not much fiction at all. In my room? Well, the books in my headboard and therefore closest to hand are Tolkien (not just LOTR, but some Children of Hurin, Lost Tales, etc,), L’Engle’s Time Quarter, The Auralia Thread,  The Princess Bride, and quite a bit of Neil Gaiman.  If ebooks and library checkouts are taken into account, it’s rather the same, though I have a whole shelf of Lewis/Chesterton.

Honestly, do Christians read any fiction? Perhaps that’s a whole separate discussion, but neither of my parents top 5 fiction books a year, and my brothers’ numbers are only  higher because they’re in school yet.

As for conversations…I feel that churches and church formats don’t really lend themselves to any in-depth conversations. You have maybe fifteen minutes before Sunday school and after church, and if there is a fellowship time it is generally held in the gym , with terrible acoustics for anything in depth.

Even in one-on-one conversations, there can be ‘guilt’ about discussing certain topics and a concern about how others perceive your interests.  Last summer, I knew my youth pastor had been watching Agents of Shield, but I felt the need to preface some statements with “I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, but…”

Lauren
Guest

“Do Christians read any fiction?” Interesting question, Julie. Are they reading non-fiction and getting their speculative fiction fix from TV and movies?They’re popular enough on TV. I agree that many of my Christian friends and family are closet-reading secular fiction (minus the guilt, though). Maybe they’re only reading things that aren’t on TV (or are there Amish romances there too??). I haven’t bought cable in years. My guilty pleasure is Netflix and Hulu, but it’s my Amazon bill that nearly breaks the bank 😉

Fred Warren
Member

“We cannot take great, God-exalting beauties and truths (including stories) straight from individual Christians to the world by skipping over his organized Church…This must start by asking, directly, in person, what people in your own lowercase-C local church need — that is, what they need from you as a fantastical fan or as an author.”

I imagine most responses would go something like this: “Well, I liked Star Wars. Can you do something like that, but more Christian?”

I’m not trying to be snarky. In my experience, people have great difficulty articulating what they need. They have a bit more success identifying what they want. On a good day, we might elicit a basic laundry list of what they *like,* leaving us to don our deerstalker hats and houndstooth cloaks and attempt to deduce wants and needs from that list. An inexact science, at best. I also don’t think people routinely think of literature as a way to address their needs, though I agree they should. Poetry, perhaps, if they’re hard up for a romantic couplet to spring on their significant other.

I think you make an important observation here, and it’s certainly not a foolish endeavor or wasted time to talk with folks in a church setting, but if your goal is to excite the Church about the power and beauty of speculative fiction, and spec-fic from a Christian perspective in particular, I’m not sure taking a straw poll and writing a story to, er, *spec* is the best way to proceed.

This is a sort of “inreach.” Share what *you* like. Talk about it. Lend a few books. Start a readers’ circle at your church that isn’t focused on theology or self-help books. Contribute a book review column to your church’s website. Engage with your pastor about the merits of the stories you’d like to share and enlist their aid to help make the connection with our Christian faith and walk. There’s probably plenty of sermon support material in your favorite stories that might make a nice change from the latest viral movie clip.

From Michelle Wood’s comment to the previous article in this series:

“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….We need a lot more bottom up fandom and a lot less top down classification.”

WriterOfMinds
Guest

I can think of many cases when a work of spec fic fulfilled a need for me, but it wasn’t a need that I was even aware of, let alone a need that I expected fiction to help me satisfy.  We often have false perceptions about our own needs (which is exactly why not all prayer requests get answered with a “yes”).  So maybe you can learn some things by talking to people, but there’s also a lot to be said for trying to analyze what they need objectively, instead of taking their word for it.

That probably sounds arrogant, but keep in mind I’m saying this about myself as well … *I* have philosophical blinders that keep me from knowing what I need.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

This is a sort of “inreach.” Share what *you* like. Talk about it. Lend a few books. Start a readers’ circle at your church that isn’t focused on theology or self-help books. Contribute a book review column to your church’s website. Engage with your pastor about the merits of the stories you’d like to share and enlist their aid to help make the connection with our Christian faith and walk. There’s probably plenty of sermon support material in your favorite stories that might make a nice change from the latest viral movie clip.

Spoilers …

I’m not sure taking a straw poll and writing a story to, er, *spec* is the best way to proceed.

I agreed 100 percent. Which is why I’m talking first to fans of stories, not would-be writers of stories — as is my perennial wont. #BewareWriticism

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Followup: I loved Michelle‘s comment. We do need more geeking out and less of this “guilty pleasure” mindset. That’s another sort of spiritual problem, which I would diagnose as the “you’re no fun at parties” sin. Sure, we should not be partying all the time. But Scripture does commend and even command celebration, going back even to the Old Testament.

So more of this:

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….We need a lot more bottom up fandom and a lot less top down classification.

And less of this:

Even in one-on-one conversations, there can be ‘guilt’ about discussing certain topics and a concern about how others perceive your interests.  Last summer, I knew my youth pastor had been watching Agents of Shield, but I felt the need to preface some statements with “I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, but…”   So the message I get is that they want to read spec fic (and apparently don’t object to the pornographic details of Martin’s work), but they don’t want anyone to know that they read it

 

they want to read spec fic (and apparently don’t object to the pornographic details of Martin’s work), but they don’t want anyone to know that they read it

Christians: Other than enjoying sex or going to the bathroom, if you can’t talk about the enjoyment aloud in church with God’s people, it’s likely a sin.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Well, I was going to basically write the same comment again, but you guys beat me to the punch. Cool. 🙂

Seriously, though, I think what everyone’s really saying is: more fandom. At Realm Makers this past year there was a lot of fun cosplay at the Costume Ball but (and please, someone correct me if I’m wrong), I believe I was the only person who dressed as a character from a Christian spec work. Now, part of that is because it’s always easier to dress as people from movies and TV than books, but part of it is because we’re seriously not showing love for the things we’re supposed to convince other people to enjoy. Of course, that’s where my role as a theatre/film person falls into play, so I’ll go ahead and take responsibility there for not getting anything out yet in a visual medium.

Still, I’d like to see this place be more like Tor.com and less like “Why doesn’t anybody like us?” Because there’s nothing less appealing than someone who wants to constantly talk about being unliked.

Fred Warren
Member

<q>I believe I was the only person who dressed as a character from a Christian spec work.</q>

And then you’ve got to explain it, and the questions just keep coming… 🙂

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Hence why I had a copy of the book on hand to recommend. 😉

D. M. Dutcher
Member

It’s complex. Tor.com works because they already had a robust spec fic culture in place. The site is backed by one of the genre’s biggest publishers, and covers multimedia formats.

It’s harder to do with Christian spec fic. I think there’s a strong case that the genre really needs some kind of centralizing force; someone to start snapping up all the little publishers and best of the self-pubs, and reach a critical mass to hit Tor-level. Or maybe a superfan like Forest Ackerman needs to exist.

I really would like some idea though how to build the fan side of the culture. I like many of the Christian books I have read, but I’m wary of coming across as a shill or a booster if I speak too much about them.

Fred Warren
Member

“…I’m talking first to fans of stories, not would-be writers of stories.”

Ah, but you addressed them simultaneously in the article. As someone else noted, in this community, there’s considerable overlap between writers and fans, and we move back and forth between the roles. Writers aren’t superior, but they’re content creators, while fans are typically content consumers. A writer would create something new to address an unmet need, while a fan would direct someone to an existing work. We need both, of course.

The opening question is a bit more awkward for a fan: “How can I address your unmet need in my capacity as a Christian Speculative Fiction Fan?” Or, “I sense you have an unmet need. Have you considered trying Christian Speculative Fiction? I happen to have read a great book last week that I guarantee will expand your universe.” 🙂

Michelle R. Wood
Member

Hence the need for Spec Christian Fic fanfiction! 🙂

Julie D
Guest

Christians: Other than enjoying sex or going to the bathroom, if you can’t talk about the enjoyment aloud in church with God’s people, it’s likely a sin.

Something about that sentence… just, in theory sure,  in practice…there are so many things we don’t talk about.  For example, the part of AoS that I was referring to was one character attacking another in revenge because the second character was a traitor.  And I think that’s something that should be discussed–what should we see as the proper punishment for betrayal? How should we deal with the difference between justice and grace?–but good luck getting through the first sentence to explain the rest of it!

 

Paul Lee
Member

Your true friends are the people you can talk to when you can’t stop thinking, “Why live? Why? Why? Why live?” For me, these are not church people. I’ve had better luck talking about my faith problems with both believers and unbelievers at my secular state university. (Our campus Christian club has been a great blessing — we host open discussions about God, religion, and philosophy where anyone can talk about their convictions or problems. Our club is not affiliated with any outside ministry like InterVarsity — I think we only have very loose and informal relationships to one or more area churches and pastors. I have never experienced anything like this in any church-sanctioned setting.)

There are several problems with having real discussions about important matters at church, and I think Julie’s example of not being comfortable talking about AoS plays into that. It’s more than just the show, it’s about the depth of the themes and the personal reaction to the content. I just don’t see deep conversations happening at church very often, because it either turns into a shallow theological exercise or someone gets upset. And when someone gets upset, you withdraw and don’t go deep with church people again for a long time, because you tried and it went badly.

Julie D
Guest

Not that this feeling is exclusive to Christian geeks, or Tumblr wouldn’t be half so populated as it is.  There are so few topics that are considered “safe” to mention to anyone: sports and weather, basically. But there are some factors that compound the problem at church.

C.S. Lewis remarked in his Reflections on the Psalms that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless fear of offending someone gets in the way.  But while secular society can and does belittle people’s opinions,   fellow believers can lay doubt to one another’s judgment and relationship with Jesus. I’m equally uncomfortably telling someone my opinion that local churches tend to overemphasize youth ministry as my taste for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman–there are so many  hedges and ‘yes, but” that any point one wishes to make is lost, whether it’s strictly church topics or other areas.

I’ve had very good discussions about scifi with fellow believers, but those were at college or online. Not in person.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Well, you can’t have deep conversations without corresponding deep friendship in real life, with only a few exceptions. Before you could really talk about those things at church, you have to cultivate a mutual friendship with churchgoers. That can be hard to do in a place you only visit once a week and who has a spectrum of humanity not always in alignment with your personal views. Can’t be too intimate too soon offline; the easy form of camaderie the net gives us sadly doesn’t work there.

Kind of gets back to how church doesn’t always serve a lot of people’s needs. I get what your saying. I don’t even have a campus ministry or anything to talk about big things. Just here and my blog.

Lauren
Guest

I’m a city girl living in my first Bible belt, rural environment. I already feel like I left an antenna or tentacle exposed when I attend church here. I love the idea of local church input or readership, but I’m afraid I may need to relocate first! (Actually, we’re church shopping in the city now and I’ve considered working with youth–my target audience, so it’s interesting that you approached this topic…) I’m interested. Has anyone out there tried this?

Michelle R. Wood
Member

See, I hope you can find a good community, because I’m proudly born and raised in rural Bible belt America and honestly came to Spec Fic from my ministerial family, and met my first fellow Star Wars fan through the bus trip to church camp and in Sunday School. I didn’t even know there was this great divide between Spec and the Church until I was an adult. We Southernerns aren’t as ignored as we’re often depicted, just socially and culturally different (as are all people). 😉

As for ways to integrate things into the church, I’ve always found in any organization that work talks louder than talk. Be integrated into the church through ministry: offer to teach, offer to serve, offer in whatever way you can. Trust me, there is not a church on this planet (or nonprofit for that matter) that will turn away a dedicated volunteer. People are far more willing to listen and work with you when you’ve shown you’re willing to listen and work with them.

And you may be surprised what you find once you peel back the surface and really start talking to people, including the fact that they’re already fans to begin with.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

At our last church — which we had to leave only because we moved across the country — my wife and I hosted Story Groups. We had three groups: one for reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one for The Hobbit, and one for viewing several fantastical films such as Star Wars and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Some of those study materials remain here on SpecFaith.

Jill
Guest

Writers are supposed to teach others what they want to read, not the other way around.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t know about this.

I mean, it presupposes a church that would actually allow you to have a book club and would actually show up to one. The one time I brought up SF in my old church to a fellow layman as a kid, I got harangued pretty hard just for liking it. I’m not sure how many pastors even have the sophistication to understand a “these stories help people glorify God” approach, let alone laypeople. I don’t think I can sell the Hobbit to Sister Marie who dances in the aisle during praise and worship.

I also really don’t have the time or energy to write and “evangelize” Christian spec fiction as a genre to other Christians. This is actually what publishers are supposed to do: do market research, do advertising and promotions, gauge interest, and deal with the readership on a large scale. Although technically this isn’t evangelizing. But why do we have to, anyways? Is there literally no audience that thinks Christian spec fic is okay?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I mean, it presupposes a church that would actually allow you to have a book club and would actually show up to one. The one time I brought up SF in my old church to a fellow layman as a kid, I got harangued pretty hard just for liking it.

Honestly I think this illustrates severe spiritual immaturity. That alone might not require leaving the church, but it’s probably the fruit of worse reasons that should make a biblical Christian consider finding a more-biblical church.

At my previous church I wanted to start a reading group for fantasy and/or fiction in general. First it look a lot of cajoling, persuasion, and responses to criticisms that it wouldn’t work. And then when I won the argument with myself in my own brain, I actually pitched it to some friends at church.

Several liked the idea and joined in quickly and stuck with it the whole way. Our audience included one large family with a variety of ages, the teaching pastor’s kids, collegians, and older folks who appreciate fantastical stories.

We began with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, yet with some emphasis on the story’s subversive elements that some Christians miss. From there we moved to The Hobbit, with similar emphases (and timed well to coincide with the releaseof the first film). Then we moved to films by non-Christian filmmakers, such as Star Wars (original trilogy only) and The Spiderwick Chronicles as I mentioned. And then the only reason we stopped doing the story groups is because of our move to Central Texas.

Anyway, I’m not sure if that would work at all in the situation you described. It sounds like even in situations like that there may be some people who enjoy fantastical stories for good reasons and keep their heads down, or those who enjoy them with less discernment and more as a “guilty pleasure” in which case they’re kinda failing to share with the class.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t think you can stretch “someone who doesn’t like spec fiction” to a doctrinal point.  The church wasn’t bad overall, but back in the late eighties the church in general wasn’t all that comfortable with science fiction or fantasy. The whole “it’s okay to be a Christian geek” is a relatively new thing; when I grew up, Dungeons and Dragons was of the devil and at best the church simply didn’t understand geekery or geek culture.

There’s also an issue where certain brothers are roundly against such because they feel that being a geek like they used to be is harmful in their spiritual walk. I think this brother had some history with new age beliefs, and reacted in part because it was too dangerous for him to like it; it was part of the things he felt led to nail to the cross. Kind of like beer-some Christians can drink it, some are violently opposed to it because they had to give up all drinking to Christ to survive.

Really depends on your local church. The culture of churches vary a lot by denomination and state.

Tim Frankovich
Guest
Tim Frankovich

Great article.

Maybe I’m spoiled living near NASA. I well remember being at a church Christmas party when the subject of Star Wars came up among a group of men I was standing around with. One of the guys launched into what he thought was hilarious about his neighbor who was such a Star Wars geek that he had a Boba Fett costume in his garage! The entire rest of the group including me, about seven or eight guys, all looked at him without laughing. Three of us (me, an astronaut, and a software engineer) all simultaneously responded with “And… what’s your point?”

That doesn’t make it easy to get people interested in Christian spec fiction, necessary, but there’s nothing embarrassing about it, at least. I work in the student ministry and have discussions every week with teens and college students about SHIELD, Arrow, Flash, etc.