Recently I wrote about three distinctly Christian spec-fiction tropes and why they don’t, generally speaking, work for me. It would seem logical, on the face of things, to think that stories inspired by Christian tradition would appeal to Christians. Deeper in, things are more complicated. The dynamic of offering people fiction that entangles with their convictions is two-fold. An interest, and sometimes attraction, is inherent. You may well draw them to your story. But they will come with the burden of belief.
People usually come to stories, and especially science fiction and fantasy, without belief. It’s the ideal way to come. You’re prepared to take the ride and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. Look at all the enthusiasm (and money!) people have thrown to the idea that the Egyptian gods were actually parasitic alien overlords, or that the Norse gods are still with us as magic space Vikings. But then, there are no votaries of either the Egyptian or Norse gods left. There is no belief to come into conflict with the story. Try a similar tack with a living religion and watch how fast things get ugly.
Belief does not happily bear heresy or mockery. Beyond these, the burden of belief applies more subtle pressures. Belief brings with it (usually, ideally, we hope) greater knowledge – always a challenge to the writer. It’s not safe to smudge even small details; writers have been judged and readers have been lost over a misnumbered major highway or a flower blooming in the wrong month. People run what you say against what they know. Fumble the facts of their religion or politics and they will notice just as surely as when you fumble any other facts – and probably care more.
Belief fosters the peculiar sensitivity of kinship. Earlier I alluded to the sensitivity that defends and perhaps attacks on behalf of its own, but there is another sensitivity, one that doubles back against its own. Shared belief is a kind of kinship. If your audience recognizes that kinship, they may be endeared, or intrigued, or roused to full critical alertness. People are more forgiving of their own. Often they are more exacting, too. We’ve all known that with our families; we have all been unable to stand something in a family member – a foolish opinion, a bad decision – that we would barely have noticed in a stranger. Invoke the kinship of belief and you may invoke the sensitivity of kinship: the keenness to notice flaws and the impatience with them.
All belief – religious, political, even cultural – brings with it the burden of its earnestness. That is why people don’t necessarily like art any better for involving their religion. They will not be indifferent to the usage of their religion, but there are two ways to go from indifference. Not everyone goes soft. Some people go sharp. They care more, so they judge more strictly. I have seen Christians who are lenient in their criticism of Christian art, and more who are unsparing, and all of them have the same reason.
Because the burden of belief is that it belongs to you, and in one way or another, you care.