The Burden of Belief
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.
I guess that is the counterpoint of the suspension of disbelief. If you’re gonna have an unbelievable premise in your plot, it better not be too dumb to outweigh the entertainment value for the majority of your target audience.
For me that’s most conflicts in a romance story. Not enough entertainment value to tolerate the forced conflicts caused by too many people not being able to Use Their Words like adults.
This post makes an admirable attempt to diagnose why stories by Christians are often worse than stories by non-Christians. But I’m afraid the attempt, while it hits on one partially true thing, is unfortunately very close to completely off the mark.
The thing I would say that is actually true is that Christians feel we have a set of beliefs that make a difference in the world–that believing like us can make the difference to whether someone literally goes to heaven or goes to hell. So Christians writing fiction have often felt a strong compulsion to push their beliefs on others, to make every story all about getting the message across. In that sense we carry a burden of belief.
Let me note as a tangent off the paragraph I just wrote that wanting to get the message of the Gospel across isn’t actually a bad thing. It’s entirely natural to want to influence other people for good, that is, for people who believe in good and evil. Yet by overdoing it, by getting caught up in the message more than such things such as the art of making a story and editing and other professional requirement for a well-polished tale, Christian writers have often stumbled in the past and made stories that are hardly worth reading.
To get off my tangent and return to the point, it is certainly nowhere close to being true that most readers have no beliefs. Everyone has beliefs, most people very strongly-held beliefs, and almost everyone approaches what they read and write through the lens of their beliefs.
Speculative fiction is often all about beliefs and pushes a worldview. Sometimes it pushes the worldview very hard, sometimes more subtly. Examples:
-War of the Worlds is against colonialism, H.G. Wells delivering a “imagine if more advanced people invaded YOU” message.
-Star Trek as an overall franchise has an optimistic view of humanity’s ability to solve our own problems. The human race can, according to Star Trek, end racism, poverty, war, and hunger, if we simply apply ourselves in the right way. Seen in a massive number of episodes.
-2001: A Space Odyssey asked the question if aliens could have influenced (and could still be influencing) human development. That part is speculative, but reflects as rock-solid belief in the evolution of humanity and that evolution surely has produced aliens more advanced than us.
Even speculative fiction stories that aren’t underpinned with a strong message to deliver to the audience, say a story mostly about adventure like Tarzan, come with embedded beliefs from the author. For example, the Tarzan books say some astoundingly racist things about Africans while affirming at the same time that being of “noble (European) blood” was sufficient for Tarzan to teach himself to read with no other human beings around (which is sheer nonsense, but conveys something the author believed about race and nobility).
Another example: many modern stories adopt a view of evil that contrasts with the Bible. That is, the Bible as interpreted by Christians sees evil as an inherent part of human nature, sin nature, that doesn’t need much explanation. It simply is there–though people being good requires explanation, because we need a Savior to make us whole. But modern stories tend to contain a belief in what we could call a psychological pathology view of evil–that most people are good and something bad or unusual has to happen to someone to twist them into a bad person. So many stories go out of their way to show the villain going bad–e.g. the recent Joker film.
I’m just giving a few examples here out of an ocean of available ones, but it is pretty much impossible to tell a story without some kind of belief being expressed in it or readers carrying a belief with them as they engage in it.
The difference between Christian and non-Christian ISN’T that we have beliefs and most people don’t. But rather we think our beliefs are very important and as a result are tempted to over-do things when getting our message across.