Christian Speculative Fiction And Intellectual Rigor
Recently I wrote an article playing off author Mike Duran’s post and follow-up responses about Christian speculative fiction. As I wrote my remarks, I realized that one phrase in particular gnawed at me: “intellectual rigor.” Christian fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular needs more intellectual rigor, according to one comment to the original post.
So what does “intellectual rigor” mean when it comes to fiction? Not the use of good hermeneutics on the way to a scintillating sermon, I’m fairly certain. That might be intellectually rigorous, but it wouldn’t be good fiction.
Are we talking about stories that only college professors will “get”? If so, then the complaint is really that all Christians aren’t college professors.
Ironic that C. S. Lewis, one of the most brilliant college professors, wrote one of the most widely read children’s fantasy series, and no one calls into question his intellectual rigor. People of all ages and all walks of life can understand the Narnia tales. They aren’t structured in a way that makes them difficult. Are they, therefore, lacking in intellectual rigor?
Some years ago I read a novel touted for its literary quality. I decided I should read it as part of my writing education. The story had two point-of-view characters–sisters, as I recall.
One told her portion of the story in chronological fashion, starting at the beginning and working her way forward. The other, alternating with the first, told her portion looking back from the conclusion of the story, detailing the events in reverse order as they wound down toward the start.
Of course, the reader is left to figure out this structure on her own. How many chapters did I flounder through, uncertain what had happened or when and to whom. The worst of it was, in the end, one sister dies. That’s it. The other sister seems unchanged by the loss. Yes, it seems like a tragedy, but to what purpose? What’s the point? I closed the book feeling as if I’d been cheated.
Was that novel intellectually rigorous because I was confused most of the way through? In the same way that a puzzle is, I suppose. But I’ve worked many a puzzle and haven’t found my worldview challenged or my questions answered.
Ah, yes. There’s the rub. Unanswered questions are supposed to be a sign of intellectual rigor in this day and age. But why?
In truth, knowledge leads to greater questions and more knowledge–just ask scientists working with DNA or those studying the God particle. Unanswered questions, on the other hand, lead to . . . I’m not sure what. A repeat of the questions, perhaps? Asking them over and over again of different sources? In what way would this process qualify as intellectual rigor?
Some say the value is in the seeking rather than in the finding.
“Seeking” with no hope of finding reminds me of someone whose car is stuck in a mud puddle or a snow bank and he stomps hard and harder on the accelerator, as if spinning the wheels in place will actually get him somewhere. I don’t find this approach to learning to be intellectual or rigorous. It seems disingenuous and foolish.
God has a lot to say about foolishness and wisdom and about knowledge. But perhaps the greatest way His Word can help in unfolding what intellectual rigor in fiction should look like is through the fiction of the Bible–the stories people in the Bible told.
Jesus related the most stories, which we refer to as parables because they have a moral or point to them. In reality all good stories have a point (which is why I was so disappointed in the oddly structured literary novel I read which was mostly pointless). David’s counselor and friend Nathan told him a very pointed story. Several of the prophets told stories, too–fantasies, actually, because they included talking trees and such.
But here’s the thing. The people who told those stories did so to communicate something toh their audience. They weren’t trying to obscure their point.
Why did they use a story then, instead of just coming right out and saying what they wanted to say? Because there is power in stories. Stories help us to see truth through someone else’s eyes rather than through our own biased view. Through stories we can get to Truth by seeing past our own version of truth.
When David heard Nathan’s story, he saw clearly how shamefully he had used his faithful military commander Uriah by stealing his wife and having him killed, and David repented. When the Pharisees heard Jesus’s story about the shameful vineyard workers who kept beating the messengers who came to collect what they owed and who finally killed the owner’s son, the Pharisees looked for ways to kill Jesus.
These stories were intellectually rigorous; they made the people who heard them think, and ultimately to act, though not always in positive ways. Stories don’t come with guarantees.
They don’t even come with guarantees that the audience will understand. More than once Jesus took His disciples aside to explain the meaning of His stories.
Certainly the words were understandable, the images were familiar, but the disciples were wrestling with the “so what” of the story. What does it mean, they asked Jesus. They weren’t asking, what does it mean when you say a sower went out to sow. They got that. They got that seed wouldn’t grow if the birds came and ate it or if it fell on rocky ground or if thorns choked out the roots. What they wrestled with was the significance of what they heard.
In all this talk of “intellectual rigor,” I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction. It seems to me, some novelists today want to tell farmers stories about computers or auto mechanics about organic feeding processes. When they aren’t interested, these writers are chastising them for not being intellectually rigorous. I wonder how intellectually rigorous those writers would appear to be if they were given a farm to run.
If these writers want to reach farmers, they ought to be writing stories about which farmers care and which hold significance for farmers rather than criticizing them for the weakness of their intellectual rigor.
This article, apart from some minor revisions, was originally published at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.
I would say that there is value in the seeking, but seeking without intending to find is obviously not really seeking.
Bainespal, that’s a significant difference. Thanks for clarifying that!
Thank you for this, Becky! I’m working on the very last edits for my novel, an epic set in ancient Babylon. The story is meant to be somewhat allegorical – a reflection of bride and church – and I’ve caught myself second guessing A LOT this week about the message. Is it broad enough to appeal to the general public? Should I leave things unanswered more? At what point should one of the main characters realize there is only one God?
Finally, I realized I wrote this for women to catch a glimpse of how much God loves them. He chose them while they were still enemies, committed to die for them while they were worthless, and then opened their eyes to His beauty. Portraying those truths is the purpose of this work so it would not serve anyone to try and blur the message.
The bottom line is don’t be afraid to say what God wants you to say.
Oops, that was supposed to say a reflection of the Bride and Christ. I bet you got it.
Sarah, I’m glad this proved to a timely article for you. I appreciate you sharing it at Facebook, too. Obviously I feel strongly about this, which is why I re-posted it here. I don’t want to see Christians splinter further along stylistic differences. I think we should support each other instead.
If that means some authors discover a good many readers don’t “get it,” that’s fine. They should write for those who do, but not turn around and rail against those who weren’t their audience.
But specifically to your situation, I agree that we need to write the story God’s given us to write, they way we envision it. I think it’s key that you know what you’re aiming to communicate through story, and to whom you want to say it. That puts you way ahead of the game, I think. 😀
As someone who has studied literature and has a certain fondness for Kurt Vonnegut, I made a Gollum-like screech of objection. I really don’t think anti-intellectualism is the answer, and one of my biggest objections to Christian fiction as it is is the one-size-fits-all answers that feel prepackaged and disingenuous. Are we going to leave CS Lewis as the lone high water mark for Christian intellectualism? Lewis engaged with and responded to (literary) Modernism, and I’ve yet to see anyone engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.
If you want to stay within specfic, you could try Cordwainer Smith’s books. His short fiction first, then his novella Norstrilia are incredible works of science fiction and have Christian themes. You could also read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is about how Christianity struggles with the freedom it gives to everyone and the way it can lead to its own persecution.There’s also James Blish’s works, “A Case of Conscience” and “Black Easter,” which are more of a secular take.
If you don’t mind another, Robert Charles Wilson’s The Harvest is an intriguing take on the end times. Wilson I think is an atheist, but he seems god-haunted, and The Harvest is an intelligent book about what it would be like when a alien-created rapture exists.
There’s non-spec fic authors comparable to Vonnegut; Walker Percy is probably the closest match, and Annie Dillard, Frederic Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and quite a few others are much less cut-and-dry about faith.
Christian Spec-fic though is sort of similar to the Golden Age in SF-it’s still forming an identity, and the golden age was less cerebral SF and more pulp adventure at times. Same with CBA fic-it’s still got a ways to go.
I’ve really got to read that one some day! It was the inspiration behind one of the best episodes of Babylon 5, which is a totally awesome show.
That’s a fascinating theory that I’ve never considered before. You may be on to something. My few attempts to read the old classic pulp sci-fi — maybe only one serious attempt, reading Triplanetary — were disappointing. Those old classics really are pretty shallow, using annoying stereotypes instead of real characterization, blindly projecting the flaws of their own era into the idealized future, equating physical beauty with moral uprightness.
I think it’s more about stories not being fluff and exploring serious issues rather than just conversion stories, narnia tales, or dystopian books. Some of the strength of SF is to look at current or future trends and extrapolate on them to make a point about humanity or God, yet it’s rare to see any Christian authors try to do so seriously.
Like one example from my files is how do Christians reconcile “male and female He created them” when a transhumanist society makes it possible to reduce gender to something like clothes; switch bodies when you want according to mood or desire. It would make you think about how bodies influence ourselves and whether or not going beyond their limitations might cause us to sin and become disordered more or not. But a lot of stories are just space opera templates instead, and they come across as lightweight. Not that it’s a bad sub-genre at all, but there’s very little idea fiction in our genre.
notleia, I have to admit, your post made me sit up for several reasons. First, I’m a little surprised that you reference Kurt Vonnegut to make the case for intellectualism. Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed skeptic who didn’t believe in the supernatural. He could hardly have gotten further from the Truth than that. Is it intellectual to be confused and off-base in your thinking about the biggest issues of life?
But I was also surprised that you thought my post promoted anti-intellectualism. No. What I meant to say was that good stories will address life’s big issues without hiding them amidst a writer’s cleverness. Maybe I fell foul of my own premise. I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear.
The true “intellectual” aspect of writing, in my view, has to do with WHAT a writer says and less with HOW he says it. I used C. S. Lewis as an example, not as a gold standard. He happens to be known for his thinking. He held a prestigious chair at a well-known and highly touted university, yet he wrote easy to understand fiction that has deep significance and universal appeal.
Why should novelists today want something less–stories that appeal only to those who are willing to wade through convoluted plot structures and abstractions?
I bring up Vonnegut because he’s what immediately comes to mind when talking about postmodernism and its nonchronology and ambiguity. I wasn’t meaning to cite him as an intellectual, but I think it’s more honest, intellectually or otherwise, to admit you don’t know rather than to have a neatly boxed answer for everything.
And there are times when I’m wanting something more from my reading than milk-toothed morals and buck-basic theology I’ve already heard a million times (then again, it’s less likely to get you in a denominational fight). I often wonder if Christian culture as a whole is catering to the newbies at the expense of the people looking for meatier things.
notleia, you said “I think it’s more honest, intellectually or otherwise, to admit you don’t know rather than to have a neatly boxed answer for everything.” I’d suggest those aren’t the only two choices. I’d suggest that intellectually honest people can still believe there is an absolute truth and that it is knowable because God has made it known.
I’ll ask you a similar question I asked Austin: do you think I’m suggesting Christians write “milk-toothed morals and buck-basic theology”??? What in this post makes you think I am advocating such?
If, on the other hand, this is your take on Christian speculative fiction, I suggest you haven’t read much lately, or perhaps you have received book suggestions from someone who needs a wider scope.
I often hear the “can’t put God in a box” assertion, which assumes two things:
1. We’re the ones putting God in a box, rather than God lovingly defining Himself for us. (For instance, God says, “I am love” in Scripture, which very annoyingly restricts Him to those narrow confines outside of “I am hate.”)
2. The statement itself is not “putting God in a box” by insisting that He doesn’t have a right to define Himself to people, for His own holy and loving reasons.
Sure, there’s a possibility Christians abuse knowledge of God for evil ends. Yet it’s a culturally fundamentalist impulse — the same impulse that the wrong sorts of fundies use to blame music or movies for human sin — that blames truth about God for the sins humans abuse it for, rather than the humans who abuse.
D. M., this is where I think current Christian science fiction and fantasy gets a bad rap.
First of all, including dystopian along with some of the common types of speculative stories is an odd idea since there is little Christian dystopian now or in the past. Perhaps you’re thinking about apocalyptic fiction, but that’s not really the same as dystopian. In fact, I’d argue that those writing Christian dystopian are on the tail end of the general market trend–an improvement from past instances in which the Christian publishers were a good five years behind the times.
But I’m not a fan of trend chasing. I don’t like Christians copying whatever the current fad is in the general market, as if that makes us relevant. I’d much rather see us work to be trend setters, not trend followers. The Truth makes us relevant. We simply have to write compelling stories that house Truth.
I like the idea you mentioned that you have in your files, but the thing is, there are authors writing “cutting edge” science fiction. Jill Williamson’s Replication comes to mind and so does Austin Boyd’s Mars Hills Classified series and Karen Hancock’s Enclave.
I agree with you that Christian fiction does get a bad rap, but this specific issue does hurt acceptance of the genre.
I wasn’t meaning apocalyptic or end-times books, although I guess you could fold them in too. I was thinking mostly YA dystopia, which is a hot genre even still. It is trendy, but YA dystopia is one of the go-to genres of YA fiction even before the success of the Hunger Games.
Out of the three books you mention I’ve only read Replication, and it really isn’t cutting edge SF. I admit there’s a bit of “I know it when I see it” when saying what it or isn’t cutting edge, but there really wasn’t as much focus on the idea of cloning as opposed to a fish out of water/conversion story towards the end. It depends whether or not the book puts its idea and the implications of it first, or whether the idea is just used primarily as a catalyst for a standard adventure or character story. It’s also how high-concept the idea is and what the ramifications for society as well as the characters are. Replication was a decent YA/medical SF thriller, but not really that.
Based on my own reading experience, I’d say that, contrary to your assertion above, Christian speculative fiction suffers from an overemphasis of the “what” at the expense of the “how.” Not to minimize sound doctrine, but any Christian with a rudimentary understanding of the Truth can write a story that colors inside the theological lines. If “correctness” is the primary consideration in an evaluation of a story’s thematic quality, then storytelling itself has been reduced to a formula, a math problem, a kind of “narrative catechism.” Anyone can write a story that’s moralizingly “correct.” But it requires intellectual rigor to write a story with themes which are convincing.
As Christian spec fiction writers, we cannot remain content with bumper-sticker slogans or straw-man beatdowns. While it may be true that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” it’s also true that such a statement has convinced no one, ever. While it may be technically accurate to claim that everyone’s born with a “God-sized hole in their heart,” it’s laughably improbable to portray unbelievers as ready to swallow such a monumental platitude without first engaging in cognitive battle. Intellectual honesty — let alone rigor — demands that we acknowledge and confront the best arguments put forth by the other side if we’re gonna presume to include non-Christian characters in our fiction.
One of the reasons readers love Lewis so much is that he respected them. He didn’t take Truth for granted or browbeat his audience for not already believing it. Instead, with deep thoughtfulness and perceptive humor, he innovated. He ground fresh new lenses through which we can now appreciate the same ol’ truths that theologians had been discussing for centuries before him. Even in his children’s books, his thematic through-lines are so deeply integrated across his narratives that they never come across as preachy or condescending.
You and I both despise unaddressed thematic ambiguity. We have no patience for a “literary sophistication” that proffers no answers and then sneers at anyone who does. But that’s not intellectual rigor. Intellectual rigor climbs down from the ivory tower, steps out of the Christian ghetto, and, with apologies to Teddy Roosevelt, actually enters the arena of ideas, becoming marred with dust and sweat and blood. It strives valiantly, honestly, intellectually, rigorously. It sings a compelling song.
Austin, I just don’t understand why you are saying all this, as if in rebuttal to what I wrote. You think I’m advocating “narrative catechism,” stories that are” moralizingly ‘correct,’ ” “content with bumper-sticker slogans or straw-man beatdowns”? What did I say that made you think this is what I believe???
Everything you said about Lewis illustrates the point I am making. Intellectual rigor is not a matter of writing stories with artsy prose or complex structure. It’s about substance. Did I not say that?
When we start talking about substance instead of style, then we’ll be moving forward. But again, I challenge those who criticize Christian speculative fiction to actually read some of the latest. There are writers dealing with substantive themes–in no way the kind of thing you seem to believe Christian speculative fiction represents.
First off, I never intended to imply that you’re an advocate of shallow didacticism. I know that you want to see a proliferation of real substance in our subgenre, just like I do. My point in describing “straw-man beatdowns” and “narrative catechisms” was that such travesties are the inevitable result of an underemphasis of thematic craft.
You wrote in your post that, “in all this talk of ‘intellectual rigor,’ I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction.” But that’s a self-contradictory statement based upon a mischaracterization of the phrase “intellectual rigor.” As I asserted in my earlier comment, that phrase isn’t a description of some postmodern aesthetic of self-indulgent ambiguity. Instead, it represents the opposite inclination. Rigor implies hard work, not apathetic relativity. It’s “the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate” (New Oxford American Dictionary). To be substantive, intellect must first be rigorous. That, I think, is what critics of Christian spec fiction mean when they talk about “intellectual rigor” in the first place. Substance is the end, rigor the means. And it would seem the difference between us on this issue is that you believe our subgenre already exhibits sufficient substance, while I believe no such thing.
In response to notleia’s comment above, you wrote that “the true ‘intellectual’ aspect of writing, in my view, has to do with WHAT a writer says and less with HOW he says it.” But a story can deliver all the “right” messages and still remain a lump of blasé, half-baked clichés. It can nail the “what” while ignoring the “how.” And the “how” is what distinguishes quality from mediocrity. Just like in math, it’s possible for a writer to arrive at the “correct answer” without having a clue how he got there. Unless he “shows us his work,” unless he confronts deep questions and seriously examines at least some of the alternatives available to the pat Christian answers to said questions, I’d never think to label a writer’s work as thematically substantive. That’s what I mean when I say we need to write stories that are convincing as well as merely true. And if such stories are ever gonna become the norm in Christian spec fiction, our community will have to start emphasizing the importance of the journey of thematic storytelling (the “how”), not just its destination (the “what”).
I haven’t read much Christian speculative fiction that wastes its time wrestling with irrelevant themes. Most of the messages I get from this subgenre are worthy and valuable, based as they tend to be on the redemptive themes of God’s larger story. It’s their delivery that sucks. It’s the fact that they tend to rely on soundbites and truisms while propping up weak, emotional counterarguments for the God-following characters to knock down with ease. Unless I’m completely blind, there’s not a lot of Christian spec fiction out there that dares confront the most effective postmodernist assaults on the God of Scripture (i.e. “since evil exists, it’s impossible for God to be simultaneously perfect and omnipotent” or “if God is sovereign, then He’s unjust for judging those over whose sin He presides,” or “if human beings have free will, then God is either weak or disinterested in their affairs”). Those are the kinds of challenges raised by conscientious unbelievers in this day and age, and Sunday School answers are of no use against them. To confront such questions, Christian writers of thematic speculative fiction have gotta go real deep real fast without taking a single one of their presuppositions for granted, and without making it easy on themselves by writing pushover non-Christian characters. That’s not something I see very often. But perhaps I simply don’t get out enough. Perhaps you can recommend some Christian spec-fic titles which exhibit that level of substance.
DM, I was confused about your use of dystopian because you said in one line that Christians should get with trends, then in the other that dystopian was one thing Christian speculative does too much. At least that’s how I understood your remarks. I saw this as a contradiction. So I’m wondering now which you think–should Christians trend or not trend?
I’ve already said I think we should aim to lead. I’m just not a bandwagon person. But I understand trends–when it’s hot, sales are up. I happen to think trends beat a good thing to death, though, and few people writing to a trend are really writing for more than the hope of selling well. But I could be wrong.
I’m going to disagree with you about Replication. It’s not hard science fiction, certainly, but it is cutting-edge. It’s dealing with the ethics of cloning, particularly the spiritual aspect. It’s not my favorite of Jill’s books. The ending felt rushed and not entirely satisfying. I’m still hoping she can write the sequel because I think that could tackle the subject in more depth. But it is a YA novel, so “depth” is relative. However, it’s the youth that are most likely the ones who need to address the ethics of cloning, and I’m glad for books that make us think about life beyond the physical body, and about the ethics of keeping captive humans, no matter what their origin.
Austin, I appreciate what you’re saying, and understand that what I wrote about intellectual rigor and substance might seem like a contradiction. I had in mind the history of criticism of Christian fiction about which Mike Duran has posted from time to time.
In another one of his comments he suggested that the Christian speculative fiction conference, Realm Makers distance “themselves from the existing industry and its strictures.” I took these strictures to mean one of two things: either conservative mores or “good theology.” I made a case in my comments to the post I linked to above that as long as we are defining art as beauty and truth (which he did in that article), then truth needs to include spiritual truth.
I guess, then, when I referred to substance, I have two things in mind: stop worrying about whether characters not saying cuss words in Christian fiction or whether there are sex scenes (these are the only mores I think still exist in most Christian publishing houses) and start worrying about whether or not we are telling spiritual truth. These matters don’t so much demand intellectual rigor, I don’t think, as they do spiritual depth. Yes, some stories are little more than holding up a John 3:16 sign behind the goal posts, but a growing number are doing a lot more.
Read Patrick Carr’s A Cast of Stones and <The Hero's Lot. Among other things he explores what it looks like when the church forgets the Holy Spirit. It’s fantasy, so no, he doesn’t directly reference the Holy Spirit, but the implications for a Christian are clear. For a non-Christian? Harder for me to say because I didn’t read the books (The Hero’s Lot is the next in the series) with that mindset.
“I guess, then, when I referred to substance, I have two things in mind: stop worrying about whether characters not saying cuss words in Christian fiction or whether there are sex scenes (these are the only mores I think still exist in most Christian publishing houses) and start worrying about whether or not we are telling spiritual truth. These matters don’t so much demand intellectual rigor, I don’t think, as they do spiritual depth.”
Amen to most of that. I’d still argue, however, that although intellectual rigor may not be a necessary prerequisite to spiritual truth, it’s still needed if an author wants to make that truth compelling by reaching it only after cutting through a thorny thicket of falsehoods. It’s conflict that makes a story, after all.
Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll slip A Cast of Stones into my reading queue.