What Makes Christian Speculative Fiction “Christian”, Anyway?
I like lists. I will attempt to answer the question posed in the title by offering several lists, two from a couple of smart folks and the rest by me. (Whether you think I’m smart, I’ll leave to the reader.)
I will not define fiction, as I think that insults your intelligence.
Speculative refers to works of science fiction, fantasy, allegory, horror, magical realism, and other newfangled terms I tend not to keep track of. In general, it refers to that which is not “realistic” fiction. The world is not as we know it and the characters may not be human, or on earth. You may be used to some of the familiar tropes (elements, motifs, symbols) of the genre:
1. Fantasy tropes: elves, swords, sorcery, quests, castles, fairies, gnomes, goblins, talking trees, witches, wizards, mermaids, magic doorways to another world, magic books, etc.
2. Science Fiction tropes: spaceships, hyperdrives, parallel universes, alien invasions, warring colonies of earth, plagues, dangerous new planets, suspended animation for long journeys, translating devices, etc.
3. Horror tropes: haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, zombies, ghosts, demon possession, pyschic powers, etc.
In other words, “You’re not in Kansas, anymore.” Or rather, you are in Kansas, but it’s 2399 and they train space engineers at the university there; or it’s a Kansas with a wizard as governor; or it’s a Kansas where the scarecrows in the fields are all coming to life and killing off the farmers en masse.
Now to the Christian part, which is more controversial than any definition that’s come before: What makes speculative fiction CHRISTIAN?
I’ll start with two lists of what makes a novel CHRISTIAN:
Martin LaBar of Sun and Shield blog makes this list in his post called “What Must Be Christian About A Christian Novel” of elements one might expect to find (not all must be present):
- A Christ figure
- solid Christian doctrine
- monotheistic prayer/worship to and of a divine Being
- expressing a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord
- consciousness of supernatural guidance, of providence
- explicit rejection of evil personified or evil actions (even realization of evil in oneself that needs to battled)
(Please read the comments section and Mr. LaBar’s excellent post for clarification of these points. I’ve added one of the elements I’d originally mistakenly left out)
Angela Hunt, prolific Christian author, has her own list in her post, “What Does Evangelical Fiction Require?”:
- story should illustrate some aspect of the Christian faith
- Should avoid obscenity and profanity
- Should offer hope
- should have good craft elements
(Again, pleaes read Ms. Hunt’s post for clarification of her position.)
Now, my longer list of what Mirtika’s parameters are for a novel to be termed CHRISTIAN SPECULATIVE FICTION:
- I do not believe it requires a Christ figure to conquer all evil in the story.
- I do believe it requires a consciousness of sin/wickedness in beings and the need for a savior, whether or not the savior appears in the actual tale. This need not be the main premise or plot drive, but it should be there.
- I do not believe that people should be goody-goody.
- I do believe there must be an awareness of “a good” that one judges by/strives to attain.
- I do not believe all the good or most of the likable characters need to display habits of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, worship, study of sacred teachings, etc.
- I do believe one or more important characters should exhibit some form of recognizable spiritual disciplines that derive from their faith, even if morphed to fit the constructed SF world.
- I believe it should offer hope.
- I do not believe that it must be chipper and relentlessly optimistic in tone. Many suffer lives of endless struggle and torment, and it may not get better with time. However, there must be a sense that suffering, though normal, is not the only thing to look forward to. That there is something else, something beyond. Ecclesiastes is a dark book, a pessimistic one, that ultimately offers some hope. That might be a good guideline for those of us attracted to the darker corners of human experience.
- There does not need to be a Yahweh/Jesus/Trinity/Holy Spirit by name.
- There does need to be a Supreme Being of some recognizable Judeo-Christian sort that one or more key characters honor and/or wrestle with, and there needs to be an indication that the Being is active with the individual, even if invisible, or especially if tangible.
- I do not believe you have to have the irredeemably Satanic Big Bad (although I love Big Bads.)
- I do believe there has to be an idea of a power of evil, however morphed, and that the evil is not a friend to the believing characters. Believer characters should seek to avoid evil, and should seek to repent of it when they fall into it, even if reluctantly and after much struggle and/or debate.
- I do not believe a conversion is a necesasry focal story element.
- I do believe that a conversion (of a major or secondary character) is valid element and a powerful one, if done properly, and should not be dismissed as overdone. A Christian worldview is really big on “salvation,” after all.
- I do not believe that the presence obscenity of profanity make a work non-Christian, anymore than the presence of an act of theft or murder or rape makes a work non-Christian. It may merely make the work more realistic, as humans routinely do and say obscene and profane things—just as they murder and rape.
- I do believe that a writer should try to adjust to the guidelines of the publishing house they target (if they target specific houses), and tone down obscenity and profanity if that is all that impedes the work from publication. One should not be slaves to a prudish element in the audience, but one should not dismiss the sensitive readers out of hand. Make sure the objectionable elements are absolutely necessary for your vision of the work. Christians are accountable to one another in a way non-believers are not.
- I do believe that use of specific Christian doctrine is valid.
- I do not believe that one must have one-to-one correlations of doctrine. Whatever Christian doctrines are highlighted, however, must fit the world or the time (future or past) and the milieu of the novel. Terms used should not be anachronistic or hokey or trite. If you make up fresh worlds, then you need to make up fresh religious phrases that ring honest and true for that world.
- I do not believe that Christian Speculative Fiction must be the duller, less innovative stepchild of General Speculative Fiction.
- I do believe Christian speculative fiction writers should strive for writing no less good and ideally much, much better than that in non-Christian fiction—to the best of our might, as unto the Lord—and should be creating novel structures and language and build dazzling worlds that aren’t regurgitations of Tolkien or Lewis, however genius those men were. This means we all have to work harder, incuding editors, to not put what is just “okay” out there cause it’s got Christian imagery that CBA readers may like. We have to be better than okay.
So, there you have it. I believe that if a novel is to be termed fiction that is Christian—speculative or otherwise—then, yes, it must reflect Christian “truth.” It must deal with some aspect of the Christian faith: sin and repentance, regeneration, faith in acts of daily devotional living, spiritual warfare, conversion, religious community, overcoming besetting sins, spiritual disciplines, apostasy, the problem of evil, divine judgment, divine intervention, life-after-death, etc.
If it’s a novel about family conflict in a mutated tribe on a far-flung colony, and ideas relative to the spiritual aspects of mutation and of honoring parents don’t enter into it, it’s just speculative fiction—science-fiction. It’s not Christian speculative fiction. If it’s a novel about a thieving, gluttonous Starbucks employee who is abducted to a co-existing alternate society inside the espresso machine, a world replete with Arabica Wizards and Foam Fairies; yet it doesn’t deal with the sins of theft and gluttony as SINS, it’s not Christian fiction. If it doesn’t include, perhaps, seeking divine strength in fighting the evil Lord Latte who’s eating up all the Foam Fairies and planning to take over the souls of the cappuccino drinkers on earth, then it’s likely just fantasy—it’s not Christian fantasy.
There are differing levels of overtness within that circle I’ve drawn, and I’ve been so specific that it may seem narrower than intended, but there it is.
I would add that I appreciate what I call “Christian-friendly” Speculative Fiction. This is spec-fic that has Christian echoes and moral fiber and understands good and evil. It might be written by a Christian or a non-Christian, but it’s not devoid of a tone or theme or of characterizations that we’d recognize as compatible with Christianity’s worldview.
Stuart defines CSF as spec-fic with a Christian worldview. Perhaps my list is a way on expanding on “Christian worldview.”
Do let me know if you think the list is off or on target. And if you disagree, tell me specifically what makes a work of speculative fiction CHRISTIAN, in your opinion.
ADDENDUM: Straight science fiction stories that are based in a real-world/extrapolated-future would, logically, allow for natural, traditional Christian terms and language and doctrine, although one would need to make changes and allowances in slang/idiom/catch-phrases for a future society.
NEXT FRIDAY: A look at a couple of excellent ABA SF stories, and how they fit the above criteria—or not—and how they can teach CBA-targeting SF writers a thing or two
I like your list best. Although I’m not a big fan of swearing, I think that it can fit into a book where we are writing about a fallen world/universe in need of a savior.
Thanks for writing this article. I’m going to pin it to keep on the back burner for those days when I need a kick in the pants reminder/encouragement for writing Christian speculative fiction.
[…] at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec […]
[…] by a founding contributor, Mirtika Schultz, illustrates the point. The post is entitled “What Makes Christian Speculative Fiction “Christian”, Anyway?” (For other examples, see Stephen’s “How To Fix Christian Fiction: More […]