Subtle Fictional Christianity: What and Why?

Over the past few months of 2006, and in the recent cool discussion following (and including) Stuart’s Tuesday post, I’ve come across repeated calls for subtler Christian speculative fiction. As I’ve read the discussions online, I’m starting to think I’m not at all clear on what […]
on Jul 28, 2006 · No comments

Over the past few months of 2006, and in the recent cool discussion following (and including) Stuart’s Tuesday post, I’ve come across repeated calls for subtler Christian speculative fiction. As I’ve read the discussions online, I’m starting to think I’m not at all clear on what is meant.

No, really. I’m not dumb. I’m just unsure if I’m reading into it rather than getting the true gist. Multiple “gists” may apply.  If it means X certain things—I’m okay with those.  If it means this other Y thing—it makes me want to tear heads off with my furious teeth. In sisterly Christian love, naturally. Ahem.

Does the use of “subtle” as an adjective mean:

  1. Let’s include more dealings of the daily experience of the Christian (or pseudo-fantasy Christian), not just throw in a whiz-bang “come to Jesus” moment.
  2. Let’s examine some of the more difficult aspects of our doctrines, such as the paradoxes,  the mystery of grace, or the reconciling of regeneration in the new birth with continued sin in the daily life.
  3. Let’s not have preachers and church sermons and everyone sounding like a catechism. Let’s just have people living out faith normally as they do the wash and date and eat shrimp scampi or fried Zeta Rigellian sandlizards.

Or is the meaning …

4. Let’s tone down that Christian stuff , keeping it so low-key, so courteously discreet, that maybe only Christians themselves would pick up on it. And maybe not even them.

Well, the first few possibilities are laudable. The last one ticks me off like you wouldn’t believe.

I ask, “You want non-obvious Christianity, Christianity that whispers and doesn’t call attention to itself?”

All right.

Stick with the ABA SF houses and editors. The atheists and secular humanists and anti-Christians will be happy to provide readers with barely discernible to non-Christian stories.  Christian-wary editors and agents will happily take your free-of-overt-religiosity work, if it’s good and they think it will sell. Great writers populate the ABA SF. It’s a bigger arena and they’ve been producing more and better SF than CBA publishers. They let you speculate big and bold. (But even they have their limits: Try writin a novel with an anti-homosexual premise or one that glorifies Patriarchy. See how far you get.)

But I’m writing for and targetting the CBA. A rough row to hoe, I do know, and not my first choice. I’m doing that after much prayer and hesitancy about it. The deciding factor was—is—that I am writing, and want to be able to write in future, stories of OBVIOUS faith.

I’m working with characters who have to deal with the spiritual, like it or not. There’s obvoius and vigorous faith—and obvious and vigorous antipathy to faith, as well. Knowing I’m targeting CBA leaves me free to delve into deep aspects of religious experience—the process of apostasy, of repentance, the experience of conversion, the mysteries of the nature of Supreme Beingness, the riddles of prophecy—AND the subtler quotidian aspects: choosing to be hospitable out of love of God, a small act of mercy because it’s the right thing to do. Or ever the daily events of a rougher world: a hurriedly whispered prayer while nursing an insane friend, or anointing a child sick with a new plague— believing that can make a difference—or refraining from killing an enemy out of obedience to sacred text, even when every part of you wants to run them through with a blade.

I can touch on doubt, on questions of what is right and wrong in difficult scenarios, on temptation resisted or given into, on sexual matters, on all sorts of things that we struggle with daily as believers in a hostile world. I may write stuff that is unplaceable—I know this—but I do not want to write a story where I have to rub out the spiritual component, the clearly Evangelical overlay.

Cause I’m an evangelical believer.

My WIP’s character is an apostate surviving in a society hostile to a certain sect of believers. Anyone who doesn’t toe the government’s line about acceptable religions is in deep doodoo. And my persecuted believers do have community and vibrant faith and, yes, miracles, and battling against spiritual and secular evil, and yes, crises of faith. Stuart has listed these as cliché or predictable items in Christian spec-fic. I consider them typical aspects of Christian life from ancient times to the present. I’m not surprised Christians will have it in their fiction. I’m not surprised I have it in mine.

If that is obvious, so be it. I’m gonna be obvious; because I’m tired of NOT seeing who I am reflected in speculative fiction.

I am a religious being. My day includes reading ancient and sacred texts that sometimes don’t make sense, speaking to a higher being who sometimes seems not to be listening, and asking that higher being to act in my life and  in my world, even when the world seems to deserve nothing but to be blown to bits by the Creator. I make hourly decisions on what I allow my mind to dwell on and weekly decisions on how I spend my money, always with an awareness of God’s expectations of me. Everything—EVERYTHING—is about right and wrong to a Christian. Everything is about loving God. What we war. Who we marry. How we treat strangers. How much we do or do not drink. Who we allow to be a bosom pal.  What we teach our kids. How we treat our parents. How we face death. How we face taxes. For some, even the very food that goes into their mouths is a moral decision guided by love or fear of God. That’s part of my Christian daily life—constant self-examination and constant awe and constant analysis. It’s not a closet religion for me. It’s air and water.

It’s gonna show in my novel. How can it not?

I am a Christian.That is more important than being Cuban-born, than being an American citizen, than being female, than being a writer. I do not apologize for being Christian in my thoughts and speech and decisions and actions, even if I do apologize for failing my Lord  in my gluttony and lust and coveting and self-centeredness and arrogance. I will not apologize if I make characters just like me. That is my reality and my truth.

And here is my big question of the day: Why should I or my fellow Christians have to be subtle?

Joanna Russ and Sheri Tepper and Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood get heaps of praise: They aren’t subtle about their feministic ideology being overt in what they write. (Or overt religion bashing on occasion.) Samuel Delany was not subtle in infusing his work with gay sexuality like his own sexual experiences.  Other writers have not been subtle in their positions on consumerism or Darwinism or militarism or conservationsim or secular humanism or demanding space exploration. What they believe shows up on the page.

Why do Christians need to be subtle about Christianity?

Is it to not ruffle feathers? To be palatable.

This is a sore point with me. Some segments of our society vehemently want us to shut up and go pray in a closet and keep our beliefs to ourselves and out of the public square and voting booth—and even the artistic square. “Play nice. Don’t talk about sin or salvation or hell.  That’s so judgmental and so cliche.”

Christian fiction should not be quiet about what it is to be Christian.

Speculative Christian Fiction should not be ashamed to work in Christian elements freely and broadly.

I believe authors should be free to pursue subtle or overt religiosity as their creative impulses move them. I would examine it from a craft perspective: Did the faith aspects fit the milieu and tone and premise of their work and the nature of their characters? Was it entertaining and not just didactic? Was it well-written? It’s all about the story working. If religion springs organically from characters and worlds and the author’s mental and emotional fibers, and if the work’s fashioned with attention to craft and artistic vision, I believe it will work, whether overt or subtle in matters of faith.

And sometimes I wonder if what we’re critiquing is, at core, ineffective writing, but we’re calling it something else—too much religion or too preachy or too allegorical.

I will stand firm on this: I think it’s dangerously close to a form of bigotry to tell Christians to tone down their Christianity. And when Christians rally around this, I can’t help but ask, “How come?”

I know there are good answers, clear answers. I’d like to hear them.

That doesn’t change the feact that I’m sick of hearing how Narnia suffers artisticaly because it has blatant parallels to Christianity. Right, gimme a break.

Do we tell black authors to tone down their blackness? (I dare you to suggest such to Toni Morrison or  Terri MacMillan.) Go and tell Hispanic best-serllers to bring down the level of their cultural references? (Yeah, like Sandra Cisneros and  Julia Alvarez and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are gonna listen to that without snorting.) Tell gays to tone down the gay sexual perspective. (I’m ready to hear what Edmund White and Jeanette Winterson and Tony Kushner have to say to you when you do.)  And please, tell me, would you have told Isaac Bashevis Singer or Bernard Malamud to stop with the blatant Jewish stuff? Maybe Faulkner and O’Connor were just to dang Southern.

Kushner and Morrison and Singer, in their works, are blatant about and what they believe and who they are: gay, black, Jewish. And they got awards for it—Tonys, Nobel prizes, etc.

Why  should Lewis have been less Christian?

I think that’s a good question to ask, for Lewis and for our current crop of Christian speculative authors.

I’m not a subtle Christian. I wear a cross jewelry often to declare what I believe, not just to be trendy. (I own several, from a delicate and pricey gold and amethyst one, to my silver and amber one, to my silver and turquoise one, to my “goth look” three-inch long studded cross, to my Celtic one.) I wear a chunky, tough, “I mean business” cross ring on my right hand when I’m in an “in your face” mode—usually after I hear someone say something about “those right wing nutjob Christians.”  I talk God. I sing God, I read God. I’ve worn buttons that had Bible verses. I’ve stood out in the street with an ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN signs, because I believe that we insult God by permitting it. I’ve marched in religious processions down urban streets, singing hymns to all who would listen. I may put a big Celtic cross in my yard next year, if I find a really big one that I like and a hurricane won’t sweep into the Atlantic.

But—what?—I have to suddenly go all demure about what I believe when I write a novel? That bastion of self-expression and ideological exploration?

Maybe Dante should have written THE DIVINE COMEDY: A Nice Secularish Stroll Through Florentine Improvisational Comedy With No Relation To Heaven or Hell.

Maybe Milton should have written PARADISE LOST: How My Vacation in the Lake Country Went Awry And Satan Had Nothing WhatsoeverTo Do With It.

So, yeah, Lewis was better off just writing THE LION (who is not a Christ Figure) THE WITCH (who is politcally correctly good and has no connection to the devil) and THE WARDROBE (which has no offensive furs!): Aslan Lets Children Ride His Strong Back, The Witch Passes Out Turkish Delight That Does No Harm, and  Then Everyone Goes Home To Tea  Before an Obtrusive Christian Symbol can Rear Its Furry Head.

When I write Hispanic characters,  I don’t feel a need to hold back the Cuban aspects or the religious tapestry of the immigrant community I grew up in. When I write a female protagonist, I don’t feel the need to quench my femaleness as I create her, and that may mean how she acts sexually and religiously as a woman. So, why am I asked to quench what is as much a part of me as my gender and my ethnicity when I write a spiritual character and world?

I’m really hoping there is a semantic discrepancy. I’m hoping what people—Christians— really want is better craft, stronger stories, more vivid and new worlds—not less overt faith.

So. . . What do YOU mean by SUBTLE Christian elements in  Speculative Fiction? And why do you pursue it? And where am I just not getting this?

(Next week: What is Christian Speculative Fiction, anyway? Two Propositions and My Take On It.)

What do you think?