Friday, September 30, 2016

GUEST EDITORIAL: Why is Christian Science Fiction Generally Such Rubbish?

Why is Christian Science Fiction Generally Such Rubbish?, by Randall Schanze. Originally published on November 9, 2011 on a now defunct host.

Why is Christian SF such junk? Seriously? Ask anybody if they can even think of any Christian SF, and they'll probably only be able to come up with the Left Behind books and maybe CS Lewis' Space Trilogy. But then again, they may not. It's actually comparatively obscure among my fellow Christians. Many of my friends at church have never heard of it, and brother, they love the Chronicles of Narnia.

Understand that I, myself, am a Christian, so I'm not asking this question to be insulting or hurt anyone. I just legitimately want to explore the question of why everyone else in the world does it better than us. I ask some of my fellow Christians this, and I frequently get the reply, "Well, SF is just an atheist thing, anyway."

I bristle at that. I'm a Christian. I write SF (though I don't write Christian Science Fiction. Subtle distinction.) Ergo: it's not exclusively the other team's purview. So how did it get that reputation?

It's such a big genre, you know? Hard to quantify, especially since the level of secularism tends to go back and forth over time. In the 30s it was rigidly secular, but refrained from discussing religion generally in deference to the social norms. In the 50s/60s it suddenly became acceptable to discuss religion, but generally it was avoided except among the trippier authors. Hard SF tended to ignore it, or oppose it. In the 70s/80s, it became pretty anti-Theistic. In the 90s/now, it's mellowed down again.

Just the same, there's not much Christian SF, and what is is generally either pretty old or pretty dreadful. There was a good deal from the 40s/50s that I used to read as a kid, but I haven't seen any of that stuff in decades, and I wouldn't even know where to look for it. From what I recall, it was all geared towards the Hardy Boys level reader. Current Christian SF is by and large just flat-out embarrassingly awful.

I think it's based around fear.

You get these *EXTREMELY* fundamentalist groups (I'm a fundamentalist myself, but these guys are waaaaaaaaaaaaay to the right of me) who get all obsessed with things being "Lawful." For instance, there was this "Christian Science Fiction Writer's Symposium" in Texas about 4 or 5 years back where they gave instructions to aspiring Christian SF writers, and made it clear in no uncertain terms that if you varied from their suggestions in the slightest, you were just basically encouraging evil.

Their rules:
  1. No aliens. Because they don't exist.
  2. No distant-future stories. Because Jesus is coming really soon, and there won't be a distant future.
  3. No space colonization stories. Because then all the nations wouldn't be able to be gathered on earth for the final judgement. (what?! You're saying God can't arrange for people to have a convention? You're saying having a bus ticket is going to confound God? Wow.)
  4. No time travel. Because it's impossible.
  5. No stories about genetic engineering, unless it's portrayed as an evil.
  6. No stories about artificial intelligence, unless it's portrayed as an evil.
  7. No stories about other religions, unless they're portrayed as bad.
  8. No stories about fake made up science fiction religions, as that'll put bad thoughts into people's heads
  9. No stories about irradiated foods, or genetically engineered foods, unless it's portrayed as evil. No, really.
  10. No alternate histories. Because the future is ordained, so how could there be a different past? (That's a little too Calvinistic for me, but, whatever)
  11. No steampunk, because it's trendy, and we don't know what it is.
Well what the heck is left after all that stuff is ruled out? I'm going on memory here, I may have erred on a point or two, but that's the gist.

Attendees were told that they should limit themselves - "Limit" themselves! - to stories about near-future dystopias where Christians are persecuted by an emerging Satanic world government. Now, were this just a boldfaced attempt to knockoff the success of the Left Behind books, well, I don't respect that, but I can at least understand it. Cash is nice. But, no, the speaker seemed pretty clear to me that this was all SF should be allowed to do, and anything else was "Unlawful," and hence evil.

Add to this the standard Christian publishing bans on naturalistic writing, and on principle characters who are or were divorced, drug addicts, promiscuous, believe in evolution, have a seamy past, or are otherwise not ideal, frequently even if they end up getting redeemed as part of the story.

Basically you put all this together, and what you end up with is not fiction, it's propaganda. I'm not interested in that, and I'm going to assume that most of you reading this aren't interested in it either. Presumably this is why, even among Christians, Christian SF remains a very small niche. If you're gonna' preach, don't preach to the choir. It's boring.

My own SF deals with religion quite a lot, but I hesitate to call it "Christian" or "Religious" simply because I find it unseemly to treat God like a fictional character in my stories. It seems disrespectful to me. Despite my restraint, I'm regularly told that my stories are borderline-blasphemous. I don't think they are. I've never said anything bad about God or Jesus or Christianity in any of them. Yeah, I've taken a few potshots at the Pope and Baptist Ministers, but I've also taken potshots at the Dali Lama and Gene Roddenberry. I'm not a huge respecter of institutions or offices or pop culture icons. I'm an equal-opportunity offender there. It's not blasphemous, I'm just kind of a jerk.

Take for instance, one story I wrote where the Rapture happened, and nobody noticed. Turns out there really were only a half dozen or so "Real" Christians, so nobody missed 'em, and the Tribulation - which seemed so awful to John 2000 years ago - was pretty much just a normal day in the life for us. The purpose of the story was basically just an expansion of Jesus' repeated warnings for us to be vigilant. So how is this borderline-blasphemous? Clearly it isn't. So why is it interpreted thus? (See Footnote)

Well, it could be that I wrote it badly, and they didn't get the joke. (Possible. I'm not that good a writer), or more likely it could be that I expressed a fairly common idea in uncommon terms. I made it personal, less arcane, which makes it threatening, and therefore some people assumed I must have been saying something bad. Fear.

I'm not a real science fiction writer, I'm just a hack giving it away for free, but I'm friends with a couple real SF writers, and I'm cordial with several more. I've asked them the question "Why no Christian SF?" They all say the same thing: SF is about exploring what might be, about making allegories, about asking questions, about admitting you don't know everything, and maybe trying to learn a bit. How can you write that for/by people who insist they already know everything worth knowing?

They're right. The "Lawful" movement seems to me to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what "Fiction" is in the first place. There's a real "suspension of disbelief" problem here. I find that very disturbing. Is Gilligan's Island inherently sinful because it had a brain-transfer episode? Why should I be concerned about an episode of Star Trek that has a brain transfer if I'm not concerned about Gilligan's Island? I mean, they're both fictional, right? They're both equally terrible episodes, though one of them has Vito Scoti in it, which makes it slightly better in my estimation. Isn't it a little silly to be worried about one untrue story and not be worried about another identical untrue story in a different venue?

I think this whole "Lawful" thing misses the point on two levels. Firstly: In Galatians 5:1, Paul says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." The New Testament actually gives us very few hard-and-fast rules ("Don't drink blood"). Most of it is more along the lines of guiding principles ("Be nice to people, do more than you have to, show mercy, take care of people who need it, etc.") From where I sit, this is deliberate: Christians aren't supposed to operate from legalism, we're supposed to operate from the concept of justice and love and grace that laws are based on. We run on the base code of law, but not Law itself. Thus this whole "Lawful" obsession is an attempt to do just what Paul warned us against. That seems fundamentally misguided to me. (To be fair, Paul is specifically talking about Jewish law here, so what he says may not be applicable equally to my goofy opinions on the whole "Lawful" Christian Science Fiction industry. But I honestly believe it is.)

Secondly: I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what SF is all about. It has ALWAYS been about speculating about what might be. It has only rarely been about attempting to prognosticate the future in any accurate sense. It is a means for playing out allegories, asking "What if?" or "If this goes on..." or "If we stop this, then what happens?" "War of the Worlds" was not a serious attempt to warn people about an alien invasion that was going to happen in 1897, it was an allegory about British colonialism. It was basically saying "How would you like it if someone did to you what you're doing to Asia?"

Science Fiction is about developing a better sense of who we are, where we come from, where we're going. It's about entertainment. It's about questions. It is, above all, first and foremost, about developing a sense of wonder about God's creation (whether or not one is an Atheist or Christian or a Buddhist writer here is immaterial, it's the wonder that matters), and about engendering a child-like sense of gee-gosh-wow! It's about showing us cool stuff simply because it's cool, and that's justification enough. It's about inspiring us to dare mighty things and learn, and maybe fail, but come back a bit wiser. It's about killing sacred cows, but it's also about discovering which cows really are sacred, and shouldn't be messed with. It is, ultimately, about the greatest of God's creations, the human mind, and how we try to use it to better appreciate all that God has wrought.

Fear shuts all that out, and you just get boring propagandist crap that, frankly, hurts us in the public eye. People who genuinely like SF point at us and laugh, and they're right to do it: We're mostly writing crap. If, however, we wrote good stuff and just trusted our audience to understand the difference between reality and fiction, if we wrote with less of an agenda, we may make inroads with nonbelievers. And even if we don't, we'll end up with some cool art. Which is better than the crap we've got now.

The Bible tells us, however, that the love of Christ, Perfect love, however, drives out all fear.

So: Choose love or fear? For me, my faith in Christ is such that I know I have nothing to fear from imaginary things. I, therefore, choose love.

How 'bout it? You wanna' hide in the cave, jumping at shadows, or you wanna' come out and play with my cool friends and me?

(Footnote - If you'd like to check out my Rapture story and decide for yourself if it's evil or not, you can find it here.)

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3 comments:

  1. Wow! I'd actually kinda forgotten I'd written this. It's very awesome of Craig to rescue it from the late, unlamented Republibot website. Thank you very much!

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  2. Haha! I remember reading this once before. :D I still get a huge kick out of number 11. No steampunk, because it's trendy, and we don't know what it is. :D Mostly because that seems to describe ANYTHING trendy as a NO! If it's popular, it's EVIL!!

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  3. I would have to say this seem to applies more to Protestant than to Catholics, especially after reading both Infinite Space, Infinite God books. Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaffer made the same point. He points out the same problem That some how a christian is not using their talents for God unless they are illustrating a Chick Tact. The problem mediocrity is not confine to literature but 'christian " music and cinema.
    Oh by the way the "Lawful" rules came straight out of the mundane Science Fiction movement.

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