Tuesday, December 18, 2007

December Christian Science Fiction/Fantasy Blog Tour Day 2

This month, we're featuring the e-zine, Wayfarer's Journal. Today, I'm criticizing an essay in the journal, Tom Hohstadt's "Are You Ready for Science Fiction Clergy?"

Upon seeing the title of his essay, I hoped Hohstadt would discuss gun-toting cyborg priests. Alas, nothing so intellectual is on his mind. What he calls "science fiction clergy" appears to be a version of the Emerging Church Movement. Personally, The Sci Fi Catholic is offended to see the venerable term "science fiction" applied to something as half baked as the Emerging Church.

Hohstadt gets off to a good start by telling us that "new realities are emerging." Well, that's news to me; I suppose if new realities are emerging, we really will need science fiction clergy to cope. I don't know about Hohstadt, but I'm in the same reality I was in last year. If he's really skipping from one parallel universe to another, I suggest he see a doctor.

Be wary of any writer, especially a religious one, who tells you reality is changing. Reality is not changing. The situations you face are merely variations on situations others have faced already. Certainly, as Christians, we are obligated to confess that the moral reality and the absolute reality have not changed. If we do not confess this, we cannot have ethics, because ethics, in order to be ethics, are dependent on certain absolutes, such as the absolute value of human life, for example. As soon as we decide that ethics or dogma can change according to the situation, we no longer have them; we have only spur-of-the-moment whims.

Hohstadt continues the essay with some gibberish:

No wonder. There's no way we can talk about tomorrow's spiritual leaders out of today's context. In the first place, the Lord of History seems to be shattering our man-made illusions about "church." So tomorrow's church leaders are almost "unthinkable"--they're not easily defined by either past or present concepts.

Yet, many continue mistaking church "systems" for church "sacraments." Many continue pursuing "in-control" myths for "in-control" success. And, many continue applying "one-size-fits-all" fantasies for "one-size-fits-all" certainties.

I am seriously considering offering a cash prize to anyone who can satisfactorily explain those two paragraphs.

Hohstadt follows this by giving a disparaging list of "Pastors of the Past," consisting of categories he has apparently invented himself, including "milquetoast pastors," "ministry police," and so forth. I won't rehash his list here; it isn't worth my time, so it certainly isn't worth yours.

Halfway through the essay, I suddenly discover why I am halfway through the essay and still can't tell what Hohstadt is talking about. Here's one of the attributes of Hohstadt's futuristic clergy:

This man of God always speaks an "other" language, an intentionally ambiguous and obscure parlance. His delivery is almost a "sign language"--closer, perhaps, to "doubletalk" or "doublespeak" than logical discourse. To modern minds, of course, such "language" is nonsense.

No wonder. This new leader has changed from charted logic to uncharted "logic"--from a literal world to a metaphorical world--from facts to phenomena. He has changed from dead metaphors to live metaphors--from proofs to paradox--from consistent patterns to juxtapositions. And, he has changed from exaggerated control to "controlled exaggeration"--from rhetorical flair to transcendent revelation--from a "real" world to a virtual reality world.

He has changed from clear thought to murky thought. He has changed from good sentence structure to bad sentence structure. He has changed from logic to nonsense. And he pats himself on the back for it! It is disgusting to me to find in a journal supposedly dedicated to literature an essay encouraging unclear thought, speech, and writing. It is more disgusting, even scandalous, to find it in a Christian journal.

If the world is in the chaos Hohstadt indicates it is in, the answer will not come from murky koans and obtuse sayings. It will not come from "virtual reality" (whatever he means by that) or from "controlled exaggeration" (whatever he means by that). It will come from people who can see clearly enough to understand the "consistent patterns" of the world and think clearly enough to lay out logical solutions. Chaos is not improved by further chaos. A sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal only add noise; a clear thinker actually contributes. When Hohstadt encourages future clergymen to give up logic, he is only encouraging them to be lazy. He is encouraging them to give up consistency, and when we give up consistency in matters doctrinal and moral, the results are detrimental: we end up altering our beliefs to fit the Zeitgeist because we have nothing else on which to base them.

Moral precepts can only challenge us if they contradict what we would be inclined to do without them. Morals that match fashion can only make us fashionable; they have no capacity to make us better. If they are to improve us, they must be uncomfortable to us. They must be stodgy, even dusty--indeed, they should be dusty, for they should be rooted in something older and surer than the whims of the age. A truly moral person does not have to be hip or cool; he would rather be moral. Hohstadt's "science fiction clergy" are so bent on being postmodern, they cannot even make good sense, and therefore cannot stand like a rock in a storm.

In the next section, we find the source of both Hohstadt's errors and his incoherence. The root, it appears, is a distaste for theology. He disparages the "dry theologian" and says his new, hip clergyman will instead be "an artist":

In a life of endless role changes, he has shifted from a dry theologian to an inspired artist--from a manager to a poet--from piety to prophecy. For he's totally convinced he was created in the image of a Creative God.

For whatever reason, this science fiction clergyman is not "totally convinced" (Hohstadt's longhand, I assume, for "convinced") that he is created in the image of a prophetic God or in the image of a God who gives his servant a spirit of the fear of the Lord, that is, piety. But all this is neither here nor there; I don't know what it means to move from piety to prophecy and I'm not convinced Hohstadt knows, either.

Theology, of course, simply means the careful and systematic study of that with which religion is concerned. The religious person who knows theology is one who knows what he's about and knows what his religion is about. If his theology is clear, his religious thinking is clear. If his theology is a self-contradictory mishmash of slangy gibberish, he will write essays like Hohstadt's.

The world today is lacking in clear philosophy and clear theology. As a result, people are confused: their consciences are stunted; they cannot evaluate their circumstances and make clear ethical choices. For example, some years ago I encountered a conservative Evangelical who said that if confronted with an election in which one candidate wanted to raise taxes and the other wanted to stop abortions, she would have a hard time deciding which to vote for. Because of poor catechesis and a lack of good theology, she was unable to evaluate between moral goods and harms and make ethical choices. The solution to this problem is more theology, not less.

But it is here that I may at last be able to understand Hohstadt and perhaps, if for an instance, see eye-to-eye with him. When he speaks of "dry" theology, I assume (I must assume, for he does not explain himself), that he means the sort of bookish, arcane theology that is comfortable in the ivory tower but uncomfortable most everywhere else. The classic example of such theology is the debate, if it really took place, over how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. The scholastics who had this hypothetical debate were of course no more concerned with pinheads than physicists, when they debate about encyclopedias in black holes, are really concerned with encyclopedias. The question was, do spiritual beings occupy physical space? The answer to the question is that we don't have an answer to the question because we have too little information. That does not mean the question is unimportant; it merely means we cannot answer it.

I would agree with Hohstadt that we don't need talk of angels on pinheads. What we do need is to ensure that our theologians, after writing their dissertations, distill and disseminate the important parts for us layman so that we, too, may know theology and ethics and make good choices. In fact, our teachers in the faith are doing this. The tools to solve the crisis are already in our hands if we are willing to use them.

In other words, we don't need science fiction clergy. We don't need a new paradigm. The Church of Christ is here already and has been standing for two millennia. She has already withstood massive social upheaval, radical cultural transformations, and troubling times. She will withstand them again. No "new reality" is coming. The same old reality is coming, and the Church will meet it as before.

Blog tour with your bad self:

Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Grace Bridges
Amy Browning
Jackie Castle
Carol Bruce Collett
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Michael Heald
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Rachel Marks
Melissa Meeks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Mirtika or Mir's Here
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Steve Rice
Cheryl Russel
Ashley Rutherford
Hanna Sandvig
James Somers
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Jason Waguespac
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise
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