The last, and second, installment in this Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series, Staying off ‘the bench of bishops,’ went a little long, much more so than part 1: Building a foundational, permeating Biblical worldview.
Of the two, the first is more do, the second contains more highly suggested don’ts. Thus the second was slightly more negative in tone, because of the unfortunate influence of microwave-mindset “missionary work” in Christendom — the kind that insists we have to present overt Christianity in whatever ways we can find, using whatever Methods we can find to get that across, including stories.
Here, this third installment will be a little of both: positive and negative. That’s because for too long, many Christians, in their zeal to proclaim the message, have not only often compromised the message itself, but God-honoring creativity and originality as well.
3. Creating fantastic work that rivals the best of “secular” stories
Has anyone heard much about the Harry Potter uproar lately?
Perhaps Christian media just haven’t bee reporting the “controversy” as much, but to me it seems the objections have largely faded anyway. That may be because the series is slowly being absorbed into the culture and doesn’t seem as “dangerous” — after all, Star Wars is just as mystical and we put up with that easily enough.
But despite one’s reactions to Harry Potter, it’s quite clear that J.K. Rowling has illustrated, once again, how popular well-written fantasy can be. And some Christians, in response to that truth, took up another creed: If you can’t beat them, join them.
Thus, Christian bookstores’ youth-fiction shelves (and even some of the sections for grown-ups) now contain Potter-inspired knock-offs, featuring kids fighting Evil and things like that, with the use of decidedly non-pagan Magic. Meanwhile, at least one other series seems to mimic intentionally the Lemony Snicket books; another novel I skimmed through is a direct Christian Response to Star Wars.
A definite positive exists here, I noted while bookstore-browsing: these young readers will grow up, and continue seeking new speculative works such as these.
But in Christians’ haste not to yell at Harry Potter and the like, and instead to write books replacing him, are we not looking a little silly? In an alternate reality, for example, a mixed bookstore would contain split loyalties like a Winn-Dixie supermarket. Stacks of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would occupy one shelf, and right next door would be the Religio-Generic version of the series: If you like Harry Potter, try me! The same with Star Wars: If you liked Episode III, try me!
GQ magazine’s sarcastro-columnist Walter Kirn laughed at that sort of thing, at least in regard to Christian music, in his Sept. 2002 piece “What Would Jesus Watch?” While visiting a bookstore in Bozeman, Montana, he noted an exact if-you-like-X-try-Y chart many of you might have seen:
[A] poster above the music racks matches name-brand acts from secular radio with their closest sanctified equivalents. For the atheist teen who has suddenly been converted and wants to carry into his new life as many of his old attitudes and tastes as he can safely manage, such a chart would prove helpful, I imagine, much as a cookbook of sugar-free recipes might help a chocoholic with diabetes. For me, though, the chart confirmed a preconception that Christian rock is a cultural oxymoron — a calculated, systematic rip-off, not a genuine surge of inspired energy.
To be sure, Kirn, no Christian himself, might laugh at Christ-followers’ beliefs and products no matter what they are. And his article’s criticism does seem pathetic in some places: firstly, because not all Christian musicians are calculating “systematic rip-offs.” And later, Kirn suggests author Ted Dekker just rips off the same style of Clancy or Grisham “potboilers” with “stick-figure characterizations” and “preschool prose.” This is hardly true for Dekker — especially in Kirn’s naming of Dekker’s novel Heaven’s Wager as supposedly a prime example.
Yet Christians can’t merely incant “that’s worldly persecution” to explain these objections, and just quickly return to the same method of mining the Culture for new ideas, then recycling them as “sanctified” and treat this as true Creativity.
Firstly, the justification for this has often been “do whatever we can to proclaim the Message.” But when one understands that no, God’s Holy Spirit will convey the Message to those who will listen, sometimes in bits and pieces over years and not always all at once — well, that allows us a bit of literary leeway. Our fiction can uphold a Biblical worldview naturally and need not always be “proselytizing.” And because most of the story readers are Christians or at least Churchians already, why not include deeper, more-epic messages anyway? (More on this in part 4.)
Secondly, God Himself, as Creator, has given us the capacity to mimic that behavior, as His primary creations in His own image. From the Creation to the Tabernacle in Exodus and onward, He’s encouraged us to work with our hands, to make technology, methods, arts and crafts that glorify Him.
Thirdly, doesn’t it just seem a little silly to generate official “Bible studies” based on classic TV shows, intentional-clone music groups, anime-imitative comics with Salvation themes, and books themed after whatever’s popular at the time in the secular domain — Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.? As Kirn noted, that sort of thing may be helpful at first to new believers, but we can move on. We can show people, either Christians or secular observers like Kirn, something beyond Anything They can do, we can do just the same, only with Spirituality.
Instead our informal motto should be Anything They can do, we can do better! Or, even better than that, Anything they can do, we’ve probably already done anyway.
That especially relates to writing speculative fiction. The Bible, the most popular, best-selling, oldest, most collaborative-and-yet-consistent work of nonfiction stories in existence, is the primary example of “speculative” work. Its themes, characters, plotlines and widescreen-sized story arcs are fantastic! Its truths are our ultimate source material, and it just doesn’t get better than that.
Thus, we already own the fantasy/epic fiction genre long before others happened along to find it, even before Tolkien and Lewis wrote their classical works (guess what was their source material?). Christians are the humble inheritors of incredible legacies — the Church, of course, along with concepts like environmental stewardship (Garden of Eden), law and morality (Mt. Sinai) and science (Newton, Bacon, Boyle, Pasteur, etc.; and we also have a nice little ideological share in real-life space travel, thanks to Dr. Wernher von Braun).
So why give up these incredible inheritances in favor of digging around in the stale pop-culture stew? Christ-honoring creativity, without bothering as much about whatever’s most popular according to Neilson’s, the box office or the Billboard Top Ten, is much longer-lasting, and particularly the few works of widescreen fiction to which we can lay claim.
Ergo, let’s create more of those — not merely more devotionals based on reality TV or official study guides for popular movies. In media, as with everywhere else, the pathetically non-creative Devil plagiarizes God constantly; we shouldn’t try to plagiarize his plagiarisms.
Instead, we’re part of the Kingdom of the God of the fantastic, the Creator of the universe Himself. He was here first, and therefore, ipso facto, He’s the most original and artistic Being one can imagine. Thus, to reflect His glory even more by imagining original, fantastic and parallel worlds in stories should actually be much easier than we might think. What an incredible opportunity!