Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible
Without intending to, Friday’s SpecFaith guest, James Somers has re-introduced one of the controversies surrounding Christian speculative fiction. James made the point in his article, “How Then Can It Be Christian?” that the Bible itself addresses evil in all sorts of guises, so certainly our speculative fiction can do the same.
However, he outlined parameters for our stories:
While we do have freedom to explore many avenues, we should never find ourselves compromising God’s Word or his person . . . we should never present a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word.
And therein lies the controversy. Speculative author Mike Duran, in his most recent blog post, “No Zombies Allowed! (In Christian Fiction),” took exception to James’s statement, keying in on his example of zombies as creatures presenting “a view of the world that contradicts God’s Word.”
Here’s Mike’s conclusion:
And that’s the rub with this approach. Forcing fiction to neatly fit your theology is a losing proposition… at least, if creative storytelling is your aim. (Emphasis in the original.)
I have long argued that one of the inherent problems with Christian speculative fiction is that Christian spec-fic, by its very nature, cannot be speculative enough. We impose overly strict theological expectations on our fiction. (Emphasis in the original.)
In turn, spurred by Mike’s thinking, I have long argued against both of his conclusions (which he also stated in posts such as “Can Christian Theology And Speculative Fiction Coexist?”): 1) that a Biblical framework must by definition limit our imagination (and in this stance, I’m also disagreeing with James Somer’s position regarding what specifically falls into the category of misrepresenting the way the Bible shows our world), and 2) that Christians ought not “impose overtly strict theological expectations on our fiction.”
First, a quick summary of some of the previous Spec Faith posts, such as last month’s article “In Which You Eavesdrop on a Conversation With Myself” by Yvonne Anderson, shows that Scripture itself engages in speculation about the way the rest of the Bible views the world.
In addition, I suggest that the Christian is the best person to imagine. (See, for example, “’Christian Speculative Fiction’ Is Not An Oxymoron”). God has made us in His own image–which would suggest that we are, by nature of our similitude to Him, creative beings, though we cannot create from nothing. Rather, what we create comes from something already made, and therefore, from God’s world. We simply re-fashion what exists into something of our invention. Of course this is true of all humans. Nevertheless, the Christian’s imagination has been baptized by Truth.
Speculation, then, is not the problem.
The error, I maintain, is Mike Duran’s position that theology ought not be “imposed” on fiction. In my way of thinking, that statement is like saying, realism ought not be imposed on characters.
Instead, if anything should be true in fiction, theology–or “religious beliefs and theory” about God–ought to be true. From “What Is Intellectual Rigor?”:
Our themes need to square with Scripture. This point is perhaps the most complex issue for the Christian. Some writers sacrifice theme for the sake of art. However, the most artfully told story that says something untrue is nothing more than an artful lie.
Some readers, and as a result, some writers, may become enamored with the beauty of the language, the depth of the characters, the realism of the world, or the intrigue of the plot. But a lie is still a lie. Good art will not only be beautiful but truthful.
Of course, no single work of fiction (or series) can tell the truth about everything–even if we limit “everything” to what we know from the Bible about God and His work in the world. Let’s face it: Truth is too big. One story can’t encompass it.
However, good stories will tell some aspect of truth without muddling it or bogging it down with a lot of untruth. I’ll make the comparison again with fictional characters, which writers and readers alike seem to believe should be depicted realistically.
Would a character seem realistic if at some points in the story he were assigned two legs and at other stages, four? Clearly not. Now a world could be envisioned in which a character did have four legs; one might even exist in which the number of legs characters have, fluctuates. But that this imagined world worked this way must be shown if the change is to be believable.
Otherwise, readers would assume the author had made a mistake–perhaps left out the scene in which the character gained the two extra legs or that an editorial error left the discrepancy in place. At worst, the reader would fall into complete confusion.
So too with inerrant theology. Is there an omnipotent, sovereign, good God, or does a person look within to find enlightenment? The two beliefs are not compatible. One is Truth and the other, error.
Can both positions reside in a story? Certainly. Because there are people who hold those two disparate views, there can be characters who do also. But if an author doesn’t finish a story well, a reader may be left believing that either position is equally true.
There are writing tricks available for authors so that a clear presentation of the Christian worldview can be shown as true. Readers won’t feel preached to. They may disagree, but there won’t be any confusion about what the story has shown (see for example, the Narnia stories).
On the other hand, when an author comes to her story believing that she should not show theology, there’s the clear possibility that no Truth will emerge and readers will be left to read into the story whatever they will.
My contention is that such stories fall down on both elements that define art: they don’t depict truth and, as a result, they aren’t beautiful.
And that still leaves the question which theological view we’re supposed to be identifying “reality” with. Even if we ignore my personal pinko-liberalness for the moment, there are still a load of options within the conservative framework. Calvinism? Wesleyanism? Do we eschew high-church stuff? Tolkien was a Catholic, and CS Lewis was an Anglican — both high-churchy denominations, but I know plenty of people who are leery of high-church stuff.
I’m starting to wonder if this is a no-win situation. But maybe the answer is in an objective narrative standpoint, presenting the characters’ beliefs without a narrative preference for one or the other. But then the immediate objection I sense is that people would feel that it doesn’t push the “correct” moral or conclusion enough. The other possible answer is the postmodern experience, going full-tilt into a character’s perspective, with a strong likelihood of narrative unreliability. But that also annoys people who like clear-cuttedness. Plus, both of those are pretty difficult to write. I’ve tried both, and one I made too dry, and with the other I was never sure if I was striking the right balance between enough color and not too much rambling.
Leia, I wonder if you would agree that every Christian, no matter his/her background or politics or denomination, should strive to his or her uttermost to adopt, and be changed by, the theology presented by Jesus Christ Himself. He had a theology (literally, belief about God). He shared it with us. We may mess up interpretations. But the important thing is that Jesus’s adopted sons and daughters are trying.
I think our problem in understanding each other is that you have a definite idea in your head of what that nebulous theology thing looks like, while I am aware that other people and cultures have very different, yet still very reasonable, notions of it.
Theological tangent, for frolics and giggles: I found out that Jewish and Muslim tradition doesn’t accept the concept of Original Sin. What would that mean for Christianity if we did without it? Keep in mind, folks, this is theoretical. I’m not chucking it out the window immediately.
I think it’s an idea worth entertaining because I don’t find the idea of the “fallen nature” of humanity necessarily satisfying, mostly in the quibbles around the idea of inherency, i.e., inherently good or inherently evil. And then that would impact our notions of redemption. What’s the fancy word? Soteriology? What if Christ’s crucifixion wasn’t a sacrifice to redeem us but something else? I wish I could find that blog post that dinked around with the idea.
Have I made everybody suitably uncomfortable yet?
Actually our discusion starting points aren’t nearly as shallow as “one of us realizes that people are jis’ different while the other one doesn’t.” 🙂 They result because of what, so far, I am not sure (also about others who speak similarly) if you have a sincere motivation to obey and follow the Lord Jesus Christ out of gratitude for salvation. That doesn’t overthrow the “people are different” truth (which is obvious to any thinking person). But it does put it in perspective. Jesus is kind and gracious to people who think differently, but He is also firm about His view of the Truth. And He said many people deceive themselves.
Going back to the previous discussion(s), this Truth will mean more than one thing and have various shades of importance — such as minor end-times beliefs, or the order of salvation (“Arminianism” vs. “Calvinism”) issues to which you earlier alluded. But Truth also has not-meanings. Jesus’s people must seek truth and reject the notions that Jesus said are lies. Jesus Christ said so. So must we.
Christians can agree to disagree on plenty of things so long as their mission is the same: to show love for Jesus Christ by pursuing truth. But for true Christians that is non-optional. We can plead “people are different” or “some people used this to sin (and sin horribly against me)” rationale all we like, but a) Jesus Christ was compassionate to those who have suffered under those who said “I am about truth,” such as Pharisees’ victims, but he also confronted both Pharisees and their victims with Truth; b) Jesus Christ does not allow special pleading based on “people are different.” He expressly said, in His own words and through the Apostles, that He wants to take a whole group of people from every tribe and tongue and nation and use their differences to glorify Himself. That means that such people are unified in one vision of Truth where it counts.
I’ll re-ask the question: how should Jesus Christ and what He said and did motivate further discussion about truth, theology, anything?
What say you?
I say I need to resign myself to the idea that you don’t care for the philosophy of language.
I meant to post at the bottom, not as a reply here. Sorry. 🙁
Life doesn’t seem to conform to any particular theory of Christian theology very well, though. It’s not just speculative fiction that challenges theology. For instance, the existence of “brain death” seems even more challenging to Christian ideas about the soul, death, and resurrection than the speculative concept of dead corpses getting reanimated by a virus.
If reanimated zombies were real, I could imagine that spirits of the dead are already in either heaven or hell, and that their dead bodies are simply being manipulated. (Other zombie fiction doesn’t even include reanimation at all — zombies are infected living humans.)
I don’t know what to think about the spiritual state of a person who is “brain dead” but whose physical body is being kept alive. This very real idea challenges and seemingly contradicts assumptions based on my theology more than zombies would.
It begins to sound like a “philosophy of language” matters more to you than the words of Jesus Christ. I certainly hope I’m wrong. Or that you’re simply trying to make me go away because this is the internet and not the local church — and admittedly, it’s wise people at your local church, not some internet chap, who should be the ones demonstrating your care and helping with Christian beliefs. 🙂 (In the meantime, SpecFaith will certainly be here for the fiction LOLz.)
What James Somers actually said was that “we should never find ourselves compromising God’s Word or his person”. It’s not a question of whether or not to make stories fit into a certain theological subsystem of Christianity. It’s whether to make stories faithful to what God has revealed in His Word.
Perhaps the most common way stories contradict God is in calling good what He calls evil, or in calling evil what He calls good. Another way of “compromising God’s Word and His person” is to say false things about Him.
Christianity makes certain statements about the nature of reality: God lives, there is good, there is evil, justice prevails in the end, judgment comes, Man is more than the animals. These are all truths that Christians should not deny in their stories. It’s also easy to conclude, based on the Bible, that creatures like vampires and ghosts go against God’s governing of the souls of humanity.
Christians may disagree on this point. But Mike Duran – at least as quoted here – is not arguing over whether or not God’s revealed will for Man precludes the possibility of living-dead ex-humans. He’s criticizing Somers for caring if it does. He’s complaining that theology gets in the way of speculation.
And, to some degree, it does. Theology puts an end to speculation in the same way that knowledge puts an end to guessing and facts put an end to hypothesizing. In writing, as in all parts of life, Christianity imposes boundaries. But they’re boundaries that leave us all the room to work and to play that we could ever need.
“It’s whether to make stories faithful to what God has revealed in His Word.”
That’s the point. Theological subsystems are the ways humans go about determining what God has revealed in His Word, or at least the specifics. I’m personally huge on that free-will Arminianism thing, which puts me in conflict with those staunch Calvinists who believe in predestination. I’m also not a fan of Total Depravity as a concept. If an author makes big use of that in his/her works, I’m going to question his/her sense of human nature. It has strong potential to ruin a story. But if they don’t use Total Depravity, would they come under fire from their theoretical fellow Calvinists?
The big things all Christians agree on come into stories much more naturally than the minor things we disagree about. And these are the most important things, too.
But ultimately, authors’ duty in this matter is not to readers but to God. Atheists may be upset at an emphasis on God, Baptists may be unhappy at a positive portrayal of infant baptism. But that is not the primary issue. The primary issue for a Christian author is this: What is my story bringing me to, and am I facing it not only with my imagination but with God’s truth?
All authors will be wrong sometime; even if they’re right, someone will be unhappy with them if only enough people read the book. Still, the duty remains.
Notleia, Shannon said it well. “Theology,” if Christian, has certain agreed upon truths which we know from Scripture (and may verify in a variety of ways). That God is, would lead the list.
But not all stories have to retain the shape of familiar truth. Take a look at C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, for example. Some people would have a hard time initially trying to find God.
Or how about The Great Divorce? Again, that story initially seems to leave God out.
In the end, though, there’s no doubt about what Lewis believed about God and His realm and the world to come. In no way does he suggest that reincarnation is just as viable as the Biblical view of the after life, or that the Hindu view of finding oneness in the Other is equally possible or even that all men will be saved as the universalists believe. Rather, the view of the after world presented in the book is consistent with what Scripture has to say. It is, therefore, theologically truthful.
That Lewis imagined a river and a lush meadow with rocks of gold doesn’t mean he was saying he had special revelation and knew what was “true” in the sense of concrete details. Rather, he presented Truth as abstract principles.
That’s where some people bog down. They want every concrete detail to conform to Scripture, and that sets people up to write what they understand the Bible to be saying about this moral issue or that moral issue.
I think fiction is a fine conduit for moral truth, but we’re specifically talking about theology, and the two should not be confused. Moral truth can be Biblical, certainly, but it can also be largely informed by society or church tradition. But that aside, the subject is theology–what we know and believe about God.
I maintain that no one can tell the theological truth except the Christian, and why would a Christian novelist opt for truth in every area in their story except for the one of ultimate importance?
I meant to add, as an example, Matt Mikalatos’s use of zombies in his humorous and insightful book Night of the Living Dead Christian. His story included zombies. True, his use was in part a spoof of the traditional horror archetype. But nevertheless, he wrote about zombies (and his reason for doing so was more a spoof on Christian behavior). As I understood James Somers to say in his guest article, since there is no factual walking dead, this would be inconsistent with the way the world works and therefore inconsistent with God’s word.
But Matt used the various horror creatures as representative of the way we believers act from time to time. In no way does that suggest he believes in “real zombies.”
I don’t think readers need to look at “serious” zombie stories in any different light. The writer is pretending. It’s not a statement that says, these creatures that God didn’t create are real. It’s not a statement that says, God says we all die and then comes the judgment, but I believe we can walk around as the living dead instead.
In fact, the existence of imagined creatures doesn’t make a statement about reality at all apart from what the creature represents or the actions it takes.
Bravo, bravo, bravo!!! Thank you for such a heartfelt, intelligent and eloquent discussion. Thank you also for speaking up against the “anything goes” mentality. If “anything goes” and “it cannot be speculative enough” becomes the environment of what we write, we are lost. Because we are commanded — commanded, mind you — by God Himself to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. “It cannot be speculative enough” and “no theology in our stories, please” amputates that command. What we write must flow OUT OF the scriptures, not some notion of a “theology imposed” from the top down. That’s our standard — Jesus Christ should rule what we write, as He must rule our hearts and minds — not speculations that wrest the scriptures to our own destruction and make a shipwreck of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Thank you, thank you, thank you — and, one last time — bravo, bravo, bravo!!!
Mr. Ferguson has excellent taste in online commentary. 😀
Depends on how you define “captive to Christ.” Whenever a true Christian puts themselves in a story (heart, soul, mind), then the truth of God has to be present, or that person is either 1. not a believer or 2. didn’t write according to their true self. It’s like asking an out gay person to write a story that condemns homosexuality and makes all the gay characters evil. Not gonna happen naturally, because what you believe is what you write (unless it’s some sort of predetermined hackwork for pay.)
Writing is a focused act, so thought are captive to begin with. I don’t think those of us asking for a broader box are saying “anything goes.” We’re saying, “A whole lot more goes than the legalistic enclave would prefer.”
When one starts with an idea that is narrow, everything else narrows. Jesus didn’t fit in the box some had decided was the right fit for Messiah. That messiah that told stories and didn’t explain them and left people’s heads scratching as they walked away going, “What was that he said? That made no sense.”(Except that inner circle he gave the commentary to).
That is a major lesson all around.
God is way more mysterious and terrifying and wonderful than folks can imagine. Jesus was as confounding a savior as one could configure.
And speculative fiction with a Christian heart can be as dark as humanity, as glorious as God, as mysterious as the prophecies, and as vexing as a Savior who often didn’t give a straight answer and loved hookers and extortionists and yelled names at the holy folks doing their holy things the totally wrong, constricted, bound up, self-absorbed way.
A speculatigve story…..It doesn’t even have to mention God or a God (The Book of Esther doesn’t) and it can include atrocities (The Bible does) and sensuality (Song of Songs) and protagonists who screw lovely damsels , keep a harem for those horny days, and then kill their hubbies (well, yeah, tell me a holy hero can’t do that, go on, tell me).
But it’s in the shaping of a story that the person’s worldview shows. I really don’t think a true believer can write a story and not “leak” truth. I just think that it doesn’t have to be a flood and a slap in the face–though it could be. It can just be that glow…that may make a reader wonder, and think, and…oh, best of all…seek.
For me, the speculative world MUST be allowed to be huge, startling, shocking even, although it doesn’t have to be. When I hear, “Well, it has to conform to the reality God created,” I’m thinking that person just doesn’t get speculative fiction.
I think the essential truth must be there within a speculative context that may be very out there. A truth may simply be, “love is unselfish” or “The Creator forgives freely” or “humans are broken beyond self-repair.”
I remember back in the mid-2000s bemoaning how so many CSF stories seem to just be retellings of the salvation one, without a whole lot of variation from the original story. Not because a salvation/Messiah story isn’t okay. I love them–and my fave SF novel is DUNE, which is a Messiah story. A really good one. 😀 But because it seems to lay the expectation of “well, that’s what CSF is, you gotta get the gospel there.”
The whole point to me is to create a world that DOES NOT EXIST and then make a point about the world that does. (One reason so many SF authors have used SF for social change, activism, propaganda, even, is that we might notice things we don’t when we’re taken out of our usual normal context.) What if there was a world where marrying your sister or mother or father was just fine, maybe even required. (Yes, been done.) Now, Christians will go in uproar about how sinful that is. Really? Didn’t Cain marry his sister? And didn’t, in essence, Eve marry her father? Abraham his half-sister? In a larger sense, we all marry our brother or sister, and if we’re obedient Christians, marrying within the faith, then spiritually, even, we marry “brethren.”
The point is that the “what if” has to be allowed. Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires are not new to SF, and yet we still argue in some circles about their suitability. Geesh. Again, people do not GET what SF is if this is even an issue.
And CSF merely has the Christian worldview, not meaning it has to have a trinitarian God and be as “real world realistic” as possible. It simply has to have a truth. NOt all truth. Not most truth. But in a post-modern, neo-pagan world, it has to have a luminosity of truth. In a world that says X when God says Y, a story that upholds Y will have that light. In a world that says A does not exist, and Christianity says A certainly exists, a story that shines light on the existence of A brings light.
Again, as I’ve said before, I’ve seen more amazing theological truth about 1. suffering’s mysterious value and 2. the vivid wonder of the supernatural Other and 3. the glory and power in the “now the divine acts to help us” in a story that posits a theology of 5 gods–mother, father, daughter, son, and bastard–than in any contemporary CBA CSF story I’ve read that would offer no offense.
But then, my God offers tons of offense. That’s why they killed him. The story He told when he visited didn’t fit the preconceptions of the religious elite. And yet, that weird story was true. 😀
“When one starts with an idea that is narrow, everything else narrows.” Did not our Lord say that His way IS narrow? And that the path of destruction is the opposite? When so-called “christian speculative fiction” champions “jesus” dressing up like the Norse god Thor, is this honoring to the same God who said I AM YHWH, there is no other beside Me? The same God who cursed and afflicted the false gods of Egypt? Who mocked and ridiculed the false god Baal through the mouth of the prophet Elijah? I agree, there’s wide room for subject matter in speculative fiction in a biblical worldview, perhaps even ghosts if viewed in a certain light. I myself have written an as yet unpublished ghost story! So I might not be quite as “narrow-minded” (cue canned muted laughter) as people might suppose. But the example I mention above mocks the God of all Truth, is weighed in the balance of scripture and is found most, most wanting indeed . Let’s not soften His commandments by asking questions designed to get supposedly around them. God’s Word is God’s Word. It is what it is. It says what it says. One day we all will have to deal with it. And rest assured, that’s an appointment we all will keep. Let’s be true to it and not imagine things God expressly declares He abhors.
The way to God is narrow because the way to God for salvation is Jesus and Jesus alone.
Unless the only thing you think is fit for fiction is to tell the plan of salvation over and over, I would think there is a much broader field for art than a presentation of the gospel. 🙂
There are things that are beyond what we can imagine–which tells me that life and existence are very broad indeed, even if the road that leads to eternal life has only one door.
Skipping to read the posted comments, so if someone has said this already in another way, my bad for not acknowledging it; I’ll be reading the comments later.
QUOTE: “Is there an omnipotent, sovereign, good God, or does a person look within to find enlightenment? The two beliefs are not compatible. One is Truth and the other, error.”
I completely disagree. There IS an omnipotent, sovereign, good God, and He lives within me as the Holy Spirit and therefore I am able to look within to find enlightenment.
Both are quite compatible and neither are in error.
David, I thought someone might question the incompatibility, but I didn’t think it would be by linking the “looking within” to the Holy Spirit. I don’t think the idea of “looking within” is the same as what the Christian does in communion with the Holy Spirit.
When those in the world use this term they are referring to finding strength from within ourselves–that we are stronger than we know, more capable. It’s the idea of, You can do whatever you want if you only try hard enough. That’s pretty much Satan’s line to Eve–You will become like God. It implies an independence from Him, a rejection of our need to turn to Him for help. It’s the opposite of acknowledging, When I am weak, then I am strong.
Communing with the Holy Spirit is not the same as pulling myself up by my boot straps to try harder or believe in my own capacities more.
It is the world’s understanding of the phrase which I find to be utterly incompatible with Scripture.
Becky, I’m afraid you’re wrongly framing my points and creating a straw man.
You said, “The error, I maintain, is Mike Duran’s position that theology ought not be “imposed” on fiction.” This is false. I DO NOT believe theology should not be imposed on fiction. As Christians, theology should be a lens we view everything through, especially art.
Secondly, you summarize my conclusion as “a Biblical framework must by definition limit our imagination.” This also is false. I believe that Christians should be the most imaginative of all artists on the planet! However, the Fundamentalistic approach to art incorporated by evangelicals definitely imposes far too heavy a hand on imagination, which is why there is constant wrangling about whether Christian fiction should include wizards, spells, ghosts, vampires, zombies, ad infinitum, ad naseum.
Mike, I don’t think I invented something to make a point, which is what I understand “straw man” to mean. Rather, “impose” is your word from your “No Zombies Allowed! (in Christian Fiction)” article: “We impose overly strict theological expectations on our fiction.”
If by “strict theological expectations” you mean unbiblical notions, then I agree, but I didn’t understand that from this post or from the other I linked to or the ones I looked at when writing this article. I honestly believed your position was as I stated.
That position seemed nothing more than a principle you seemed to uphold in a post on your site involving a discussion of your novel The Telling. First you quoted from a review of the book:
Then you made this comment:
Your post went on to show a Tweet in which someone called the theology in The Telling “definitely wacko.” To which you responded, “Amen.”
I will say, the rest of that post, as I re-read it, is very similar to what I’m saying in my post here and in the comments. Here’s one:
As to the second point which you feel I inaccurately ascribed to you, I made an honest effort to summarize these points from “Can Christian Theology & Speculative Fiction Coexist?”:
Clearly, I did not understand that you were tailoring your remarks to a “Fundamentalistic” approach to art. Christian and fundamentalist simply aren’t synonyms to me.
When you say, above, ” As Christians, theology should be a lens we view everything through, especially art,” I think that statement should be a challenge to all of us, readers and writers. My point in this post is precisely that. It is only in right thinking about God that stories can be truthful (and therefore beautiful, or artistic).
Yes, Mr. Duran — cry “witch” — “Fundamentalist!” — the watchword today hurled at anyone calling for biblical fidelity and above all, biblical discernment.
In fairness, I believe Mike is referring to his opposition to theology foreign to Scripture, and not Biblical theology. Few who read Mike’s blog — in which he sticks up for boilerplate “conservative” causes such as church membership, the Gospel, leaning toward creationism over theistic evolution, and even traditional husband/wife roles, for cryin’ouloud — would lump him with the postmoderns.
All that’s happening here is that opposition to cultural fundamentalism on the surface resembles opposition to Biblical fundamentalism. (They’re different.)
Anyway, I’m convinced this issue may be easier to resolve, once we make a difference between theology proper — truths about God Himself, His nature and His attributes — and other general doctrine and facts about our world. In fiction we can tweak the world all we like, but if God appears He must stay un-tweaked.
Change the World But Don’t Change Its Author.