Recently Brett McCracken, through a review at The Gospel Coalition, revived a discussion about Christian theology and art, one that we’ve featured from time to time here at Spec Faith (see such articles as this by guest Mike Duran, and this, this by guest Jill Richardson, and this in rebuttal). McCracken’s discussion centers around A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts, a recent publication by theologian Jeremy Begbie.
McCracken concludes his article with these thoughts:
This is a worthy challenge indeed. The arts can lead us astray when untethered from theological orthodoxy and the “normative texts of the faith.” For too many bored or otherwise restless and relevance-seeking evangelicals, fidelity to the arts has overtaken fidelity to Scripture, with the latter deployed as theological cover when convenient, but often not at all. We can do better.
A fierce devotion to Scripture and a groundedness in the “peculiar orthodoxy” of trinitarian Christian faith should be the starting place in our art-making and art-appreciating, not a dubious add-on to justify any and every TV show, movie, or musical work we love. This proper orientation will not stifle or simplify our experience of art. It will enhance it, placing it within the glorious, illuminating frame of the ultimate referent for beauty: the triune God.
I think “relevance-seeking” is an apt description of many Christians today, as if it’s up to us to make God and His word somehow germane or applicable or pertinent to society today. In truth, God’s word is already apropos to our lives and it doesn’t need our dressing it up or our covering it up so that “seekers” will feel more comfortable with our stories.
The arts do their own kind of work in their own kind of way, articulating depths of the Word of the gospel and our experience of it that are otherwise unheard or unfelt, while nonetheless being responsible and faithful to the normative texts of the faith. A major research agenda opens up here, as well as a major practical challenge to all who care about the arts in the church. (207–8)
Specifically McCracken, in agreement with Begbie, stands against several tendencies among Christians. One is the legalism that makes no room for the arts—and certainly for speculative fiction, I might add.
Second are the works that “over sentimentalize” Christianity—that make “a premature grasp for Easter morning,” ignoring the cross and the days in the tomb that preceded the resurrection. In other words, our stories are filed with triumph without much struggle, without much acknowledgement that sin costs, that it has consequences, that it hurts.
Third is a fairly new type of writing, in some ways a counteraction to the sentimentality that was so prevalent in early Christian fiction. McCracken identifies this as a ” ‘wallow-in-Good-Friday’ disposition that fetishizes brokenness and suffering, as if Easter didn’t exist.” Consequently, too many stories seem to glory in sin and the evil that seems to be winning in a broken world.
This approach fit the many general market dystopian novels that were so popular not long ago—Divergent and Hunger Games and City of Ember—and less so, Christian works such as the Safe Lands or Out of Time series, Swipe and a host of others.
I understand the need to be truthful to our experience, which means we need to acknowledge sin—in the world and in the hearts of each one of us. Consequently we do read and write about broken characters with great needs.
What McCracken seems to say, in agreement with Begbie, is that we need to walk the line between the fallen world and the reconciliation believers find in Jesus Christ. We cannot deny the fact that we were once dead in our transgressions. But at the same time, we ought not make our redemption, our new life in Christ, a mere footnote to the story.
There’s more in McCracken’s thoughtful review, and much that I think can also apply to speculative fiction as well. For instance, Christians can at times seem uncritical in our acceptance of any work of art from a Christian. The same seems to me to be true of speculative fans—we’ve gone too long having Christian speculative fiction rejected by Christian publishers, we may have become overly accepting of all things speculative.
Consequently, I’d like to see more Christian fiction, including more Christian speculative fiction, that is “more Christian.” And also more noteworthy for its artistic qualities.