Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why I Dislike Christian SF and April Blog Tour Final Day

Final day of the blog tour, so get over to the bookstore and get your Karen Hancock on this thing.

Return of the Guardian King is this month's feature novel.

Hancock's official website is here. Her blog is here.

But now get over to From the Shattered Drum where Keith Strohm has up an excellent essay on what’s wrong with Christian sf and fantasy. He has obviously thought hard on the issue, and his post is well worth reading and mulling over. This post is similar (it’s a conspiracy, see?), but his thoughts are better developed on the matter. My own thought parallel his, but also diverge at certain points.

First of all, Keith speaks of “enclaving.” That is, producing secular things for an explicitly Christian audience and ignoring the rest of the world.

In the U.S., at least among Protestants, this kind of enclaving began in the 50s and continued through the 70s. Dispensationalist Evangelicals, who are among the biggest movers and shakers of American Christianity thanks largely to C. I. Scofield, went underground in response to the 60s counterculture, doing their own thing and praying for the Rapture. They came back with a vengeance in the 80s with the birth of the neo-con movement, thereby reawakening the sleeping leviathan of liberal Protestantism, sparking the so-called New Quest of the Historical Jesus, and more-or-less giving us the religious landscape Americans enjoy today.

The 1980s also saw what I call the Mini Witch Hunt. This involved a sort of paranoia about what is usually dubbed the Occult, a term with which I’m uncomfortable because it implies a monolith whereas this “Occult” actually contains an assorted mishmash of real history, phony history, folklore, parlor games, new religious movements, and so forth. Under the umbrella of this sinister-sounding catchall term were such things as fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons.

Though I can’t claim to have traced the far-reaching effects of enclavism, neo-conservatism, and the Mini Witch Hunt, I propose as a hypothesis that the unreasonable animosity against Harry Potter and, when Rowling’s detractors can name any, other works of fantasy, is a continuation of the attitude of the 80s. I confess Catholics haven’t been immune to it.

I am guessing this generally suspicious attitude toward fantasy, combined with a still-present enclavism, is responsible for the rise of that peculiar genre known as Christian sf and fantasy. This branch of literature seemed to be having a mini-Renaissance about ten years ago when a number of Evangelical leaders suddenly became novelists. The renaissance climaxed with Left Behind, a groaningly awful, endless set of apocalyptic books that I assumed would kill the genre in spite of its sales numbers.

I was wrong. The genre seems to be doing quite well.

Keith’s biggest complaint against the Christian sf/f community is one of enclaving; he sees Christian sf/f as being incapable of changing the world at large. In other words, the writers of this kind of fiction write only for committed Christians when they should be writing for everybody. They are, to coin a phrase, preaching to the choir.

I cannot object to explicitly Christian writing. I cannot, as Keith does, object to Christian allegory. I cannot because to do so would be to deny some of the greatest works in our literature, especially Paradise Lost. What I will object to are ham-fisted allegories and bad Christian writing. Bad writing only gets worse when a religious message is crammed into it.

It’s evident from the success of Left Behind that popularity of explicitly Christian novels outside the Christian community is possible. It’s even possible when the writing is bad and the theology eccentric. Frank Peretti, who I regard as a highly talented writer, also had a crossover success many years ago with This Present Darkness. In that case, the writing was quite good. Only the theology was eccentric.

Besides these successes, I see writing with heavy Christian themes outside the Christian sf/f genre. One of my favorite comics is Kingdom Come, which makes heavy and positive use of Christian imagery. Elliot has recently pointed me to Eifelheim, which I haven’t read yet, but which sounds like a positive Christian-themed work. Connie Willis regularly has heavy religious themes in her writing. Not all of them are positive, but she’s not a Christian-basher, either. The 2005 volume of Year's Best SF contains a positive Christian story by Ken MacLeod. What I’m getting at is, there are many views on religion in the sf and fantasy field because the field is diverse.

The question is, then, is the ghetto into which Christian sf/f authors have placed themselves one of their own creation? Or is the ghetto necessary, as the sf ghetto once was, because secular publishers will not accept work with Christian themes? Dedicated Christians may indeed have a harder time publishing. I won’t deny that. But through religious publishing houses, too many Christian writers have published bad books they never should have been able to publish in the first place. The result is a genre generally characterized by bad writing, a genre most non-Christians won’t bother with. From the looks of things, that situation may be changing and the writing quality may be getting higher, but that won’t bring down the walls of the ghetto; it will only make the ghetto’s contents less painful to look at.

Keith takes a harder line on the issue than I can take. Publishing explicitly Christian novels for an explicitly Christian audience is not bad, but it is not as good as publishing them for a wider audience. So what should Christians interested in writing sf or fantasy do? They should be willing to compete in the market with non-Christian books--in other words, they should leave the ghetto--and then they should obey the following:

First, they must read widely. There is no excuse for an author who does not read. You must go the source material. That means reading things that, if you’re of a Fundamentalist branch, are considered part of “the Occult.” You must read pagan mythology. You must read folklore. You must read history. You must read the great poets. You must also read some Catholics. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, The Pilgrim's Progress, and the Bible are a good start, but they are not a foundation for a writing career. This holds true whether you intend to write fantasy or something else.

Second, they must not preach. This is a hard temptation to resist. I have on my floor a 600-page unpublishable manuscript chock full of magic, action scenes, and sermons. I can’t hardly stand to look at it any more. I might be able to sell it to Tyndale, but I’m going to resist that temptation. Though I love a good sermon, it belongs at the lectern. I have said it before and I will say it again: We get everything backwards today; we write sermons in our novels and tell stories from our pulpits. If you feel the urge to convey a message in your novel through a sermon, what you want to say either doesn’t need to be said or else you haven’t done enough world and character development.

Third, Christians must overcome newly developed literary hang-ups. Most people interested in writing sf probably don’t suffer from this, but I will say it anyway. A certain prudishness has developed among Christians of late. I attribute it to enclavism, general illiteracy, and a well-meant but poorly aimed gut reaction to Harry Potter. Many Christians fear or dislike such things as tragedy or imaginative fiction. Some even dislike any kind of fiction. Some dislike any kind of literature except the Bible. All of this is a bad starting point if you want to write good literature or produce any kind of quality art.

Fourth, bibliolatry in fiction looks stupid. I apologize for the term here, but bibliophilism was too broad. If your characters find the Bible holds the magic answer to all their problems, your novel is dumb. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. Show your characters some respect and let them have more complicated lives than that. The best way to use the Bible in fiction is to soak in it and let what you pick up flow out naturally through your pen in mythic archetypes, in symbols, or even in turns of phrase. And please, please, please don’t write a book where nothing religious happens until the very end when the characters pick up a Bible, get saved, and die. That’s right up there with the it was all just a dream ending. Besides, I hate to break it to you, but a person who’s never heard of Christianity and picks up a Bible and reads it straight through might not come away with your theology anyway. If you’re Protestant, nobody came away from the Bible with your theology until the sixteenth century.

Fifth, avoid the Perfect Pastor. He shows up in a lot of Christian sf. He is the pastor of some church, has no faults whatsoever, and acts as the mouthpiece of the author, frequently spouting theology and sometimes conspiracy theory that is bizarre by any sane standard (I first learned from Christian sf that the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, and the Satanists are part of a global conspiracy out to get us). I think Perfect Pastor often backfires not only because his sermons disrupt the story but because he typically comes across as self-righteous rather than righteous, especially if his theology is very eccentric and his monologues very preachy.

Sixth, you need a solid Christian background. Most of the Christian sf books on the shelf are Protestant Evangelical. I suppose Evangelicals have as much right to write fiction as anybody, but when fiction is focused on religion, it needs solid, well-developed religion on which to focus. The kind of Evangelicalism practiced by many of these authors is too shallow to have real impact. They treat the name Jesus like a password to Heaven. This looks ridiculous in fiction, which indicates something is probably wrong with it in real life. I have commented on occasion that Frank Peretti is a good author but would be a great author if he only became Catholic. I say this because his good plots, tight action, and excellent prose style are offset by some remarkably shallow religious thinking (though he’s best when criticizing Pentecostals). Take a look at C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra for a good Protestant sf novel. Lewis was a high Anglican and a literary scholar. Had he been a pop Christianity American Evangelical, he never could have written such a book: it combines Christian apologetics, thorough world development, highly symbolic commentaries on Paradise Lost and the The Divine Comedy, and some nail-biting action. But it’s never preachy.

Seventh, your book is not a vehicle for your religious weirdness. Sometimes the theology of a Christian sf novel is so bizarre, it...well, it’s bizarre. Left Behind is a pretty good example of this. I wouldn’t so much mind the idea of all the Christians suddenly disappearing if LaHaye didn’t take it seriously. But to be fair, I’m going to use a Catholic novel as an example of weirdness. The novel I have in mind is Bud MacFarlane, Jr.'s Pierced By A Sword. The first two thirds of the novel is a repetitive set of character bios, and after that, most of the action is told through the narrative of a history book written after the fact. The hideous organization isn't all, though: He hauls out the so-called "Three Days of Darkness," a sort of Traditionalist Catholic Rapture (not recognized by the Church, by the by), and burns all the non-Catholics off the face of the Earth. So Jesus can return? No, oddly, Jesus never shows up. It's so the Middle Ages, or MacFarlane's fictional, romanticized version of them, can return. Then the Catholics can live in a nice, happy world where there are no non-Catholics to worry about and nobody criticizes the Catholics for writing bad sf. It's a reprehensible book all around, the final moral of which seems to be, "Don't you wish we could all just be spiritually lazy?" A priest once asked me for my opinion on the novel and I told him if I had not read Piers Anthony's Total Recall, it would be the worst book I'd ever read.

So, this is the advice column. For the clearly laid out opinion column, go read Keith Strohm’s post.

The rest of the tour:

Nissa Annakindt
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
April Erwin
Kameron M. Franklin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Christopher Hopper
Heather R. Hunt
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Shannon McNear
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Tsaba House Authors
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Daniel I. Weaver
Dawn King
Rebecca Grabill
Jill Hart
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