In essence, when I wrote “Christian Speculative Fiction And Intellectual Rigor,” my Spec Faith post last week, I addressed what I believe intellectual rigor is not. It is not writing in such an obtuse way that only brainiacs can understand. It is not utilizing a story structure–and by implication, I intended to say, any other artistic device, even realism–that confounds meaning. It is not valuing how a story is told over what a story means.
Only at the end of my article did I touch upon what I believe intellectual rigor, when it comes to fiction, actually entails: significance. In saying this, however, I need to qualify this point as I did in my last post. We are still talking about stories, not essays or sermons or non-fiction books. I believe a piece of fiction will not be significant unless it is a good piece of fiction.
Consequently, all parts of a story need to be given due attention. Characters need to be crafted in such a way that they are believable and realistic. They should be properly motivated and should develop in natural ways as a result of the circumstances of the plot. The events themselves should unfold in organic ways, one thing causing another in an understandable and logical manner. The setting also should be textured and fully developed.
But ultimately, the first three key story elements do not exist for themselves. They exist for the sake of the fourth, less conspicuous element: theme. All good stories say something. They have a point. After all, writing is a form of communication. Fiction writers, therefore, are making a statement, but they do so by showing rather than by telling.
It is this statement, this theme, I believe Christian writers must pay closer attention to, without diminishing our efforts in regard to characters, plot, or worldbuilding.
First, 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.
On the other hand, some writers, and perhaps readers, confuse other elements of a story with theme. For example, I recently read one believer’s opinion that anything not squaring with the way God created the world, should not be in our fiction. Consequently, elves and hobbits and aliens and talking animals should be outside the realm of permissible Christian fiction.
Certainly I believe the Bible, and I believe a Christian’s fiction should square with the Bible. Does that mean every story must show truth in every aspect throughout? I suggest it does not. Stories in the Bible itself can best demonstrate this point.
In one of Jesus’s parables about prayer, He equates God with an unjust judge. Was He in fact teaching that God is unjust? Certainly not. That concept clearly contradicts any number of other passages of Scripture. The point of Jesus’s parable, however, was true.
In a story told by an Old Testament figure, trees were looking for a king, asking first one, then another to reign. The idea that trees talk and can organize a government contradicts what we know as reality: trees aren’t sentient. The point of the story, however, was accurate, even prophetic.
First and foremost, intellectually rigorous Christian fiction should deliver a Biblically true theme.
In addition, our themes need to be important to our audience. In this regard I agree with the intent of the commenter who criticized my post last week by saying, “Lewis engaged with and responded to (literary) Modernism, and I’ve yet to see anyone engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.”
The Christian understands that nothing matters in life as much as our relationship to God. Consequently, the MOST important theme, on the surface, is the one that presents Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer.
The problem, however, is that in our postmodern culture, many people believe Humankind is born good, or at worst, a blank slate. There is no need for a Savior, in this way of thinking, because there is no sin from which to be saved.
People influenced by postmodernism also believe in relativism and are apt to oppose authoritarianism. The idea of God as a judge condemning people to an eternal destiny in hell or as an all-powerful sovereign who allows suffering, grates against their moral understanding.
The Christian writer who offers Jesus as the answer in a “come to Jesus” type story is actually offering gold to a thirsty man. The giver of gold will appear to be foolish, even though he knows what he is offering will provide Everlasting Water and is precisely what the thirsty need. The thirsty man, however, will curse him for his insensitivity and look elsewhere for something to drink.
Intellectual rigor in fiction, I believe, means bridging the gap between what our culture perceives to be their needs and what Scripture says each of us actually needs. Sometimes that requires stories that don’t present Christ, at least not overtly and not even allegorically.
Instead, stories may need to challenge the postmodern assumption that there are many ways rather than one true way. They may need to challenge the assumption that seeking without expecting to find is wisdom, that God is mystery and therefore unknowable apart from whatever each individual perceives him to be. They may need to challenge the belief that now is all that truly matters, that pleasure is always better than pain, and that an individual has the answers within himself if he’ll only look.
Those stories would not contain the gospel, but they would challenge the presuppositions of readers influenced by postmodernism–presuppositions that can cloud the thinking of people in contemporary culture so that they do not understand what the gospel is all about.
Thus, when it comes to fiction, I’m all for the kind of “intellectual rigor” that makes stories eternally significant. Those stories may include an overt communication of the gospel, or not.