Why do some Christian novels treat church involvement like going to the bathroom?
Yes, characters “go to the bathroom,” even if we rarely hear of them doing it. But let us face the fact: say, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Elves would have had to add a little less beauty to the woods, and Dwarves had to bury something in the earth.
Why don’t we hear of these moments? Not just from the mild “ew” factor, but because most of the time they serve no purpose in the story.
Ever the efficient storyteller, Scripture, apart from prophetic mentions of bodily waste —records only one “bathroom” incident: in 1 Sam. 24 when King Saul enters a cave to “relieve himself” (verse 3). The story needs this, for David not only spares Saul’s life but avoids assassination at what would have been an awkward moment for the Lord’s anointed.
But based on the contents of some Christian speculative novels — most often, the novels that touch on the real world — authors seem to assume two ways of viewing the Church:
1. “We don’t need to show people going to church or being part of denominations.”
E.g.: Church bodies are “ew.” Instead let’s show rogue Christians (sort of) all by themselves.
This notion was latent in the contemporary/speculative novel I read that inspired this Fiction Christians From Another Planet(!) series. That novel included Christian characters, more or less, of the child-people, blind-faith, living-the-voices-driven-life sort. But Biblically speaking, they were separate from the body; if they had church, it must have been church in a bathroom. Throughout the whole story, which covered weeks, no one mentioned going to church, visiting friends from church, meeting at church, inviting folks to church. Nothing.
In all those phrases I don’t mean mere duty-driven devotion, “religious” in the wrong way. I mean organic desires to organize for Christ — the same way He’s mandated, and the same way fans of anyone or anything else want to find other fans and join a Vast Movement.
Elsewhere in this blog series I noted novels’ issues with megachurchianity. Even that would not be so bad if novels included actual physical megachurches or people being involved in them. Instead such stories only repeat notions culled from megachurch memes. The actual churches are only out there on a spiritual plane, or stuck in a bathroom somewhere.
2. “If we do show church involvement, it’s of an absurdly hyper-idealized variety.”
In this view, evidently the church Body has already been resurrected and doesn’t have any sickness or suffering or even human waste products. (By the way, that last may actually not be true of resurrected bodies; after all, before sin, did Adam and Eve “go to the bathroom”?)
We’ve all seen these in non-speculative Christian fiction that shows the general Church and particular local churches as pretty much utopian, where everyone floats about and smiles and lives in harmony and cares for others — and certainly has nothing to hide whenever the new Federation delegation beams down. But speculative storytellers aren’t immune to this wrong kind of “fantasy” either, especially if their stories touch the real world. Here I’m thinking of the Left Behind series, soon to start a new micro-series on SF, which include no other denominations or different end-times views, only a clear division: good guys (some readers assume dispensational pre-millers) raptured, bad guys (liberals, etc.) left behind.
3. A praise: high fantasy novels may include better Church parallels.
We read of no First Temples of Aslan or hobbit-hole fellowships (ha!) intended to study the truth myths of Ilúvatar. But any time a fantasy novel explores a good kingdom, a questing fellowship, or any group of people bound by a common purpose beyond themselves, that is like the Church — the Church that C.S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape described as “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”
Quite a spectacle, founded by Christ Himself: a capital-C “invisible” Church of lowercase-C visible churches, “organized” around the Savior, teaching, fellowship, and His sacraments.
So why do some stories fear showing local churches? Here are a few possibilities.
1. Local churches are scary.
Screwtape described the Church as “terrible,” an entity that “makes our boldest tempters uneasy.” Yet Lewis as the demon’s author might have similarly quivered. At least for a while he was no fan of his local church, and many Christians now feel the same way about theirs.
Rebuttal: Having real grievances about churches’ abuses or other sins is different from the evangelical cottage criticize-church industry. For example, George Barna found a house-church advocate named Frank Viola and together they (re-)published a book about how almost everything in your local church-that-meets-in-a-building is wrong. Meanwhile Brian McLaren and other liberal “evangelicals” attack the broader Church from other angles.1
2. Local churches are messy.
If Christian post-dystopian action-heroine Jane Jubilee is on the run from atheist assassins, life is messy enough without also worrying about her underground Baptist church’s latest squabble over possibly switching to sprinkling instead of immersion. So authors cut the fat.
Rebuttal: Real Christians go to church. It’s what we do. Even this heroine could be shown missing her church friends and teaching while dodging evil atheists’ attacks. And certainly realistic local-church issues could come into play even in such a setting. How may the same baptism debate go when almost all the world’s waterways are polluted? Or how would this Christian group debate carrying weapons in light of Jesus’s warning to Peter in Matt. 26:52?
3. Novels focus on non-Christians anyway (or their fantasy equivalents)
This I partly covered in part 1: too many novels forego the challenge of following a strong Christian character, who would surely want to be a church member, in favor of following yet another (likely megachurch-clichéd or straw-man) nonbeliever. This gets boring.
Rebuttal: Strong Christians are very interesting people with fantastic stories. It’s a tragic cheat that many novels, including speculative ones, prefer exploring pre-converted pagans.
Solutions and series conclusion
Much of this could be avoided if people would, as a social-network friend simply suggested, just read the Bible, people. Scripture — especially the books authored by the Apostle Paul — loves the Church and churches yet also reflects and criticizes them honestly. So should our stories. That’s why I as a reader will seek and enjoy and positively review Christian novels endorse the beauty, presently flawed but future-perfect, of Christ’s Bride. And we can only do this in cooperation with other local-church members, as we enjoy stories together.
Which leads to a brief response to one series commentator: That’s why I wrote this series. It’s not to rant about or spank fiction authors. It’s to exhort readers to identify fiction aliens like this, perhaps by this series’s whimsical retro-sci-fi-esque names. As more readers point these out and gently criticize, gradually more authors will respond to reader desires. And the imagination, realism, and writing quality of Christian speculative novels may improve.
THE END (?)
- For a sensitive and yet more-Scriptural view of the Church and its member local churches, I highly recommend Rev. Kevin DeYoung’s and (Speculative Faith contributor) Ted Kluck’s nonfiction book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. ↩