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Strangers on the Border Between Two Strange Lands

by Donna Farley

Christian fans of SF and fantasy are a peculiar minority group, frequently hit with a double whammy of prejudice and misunderstanding.

In fandom, they are often looked upon as uncool, narrow-minded, anti-science devotees of an outmoded belief that a truly enlightened civilization (like the one in Star Trek, The Next Generation) should have left behind by now. In the literature of the field, authors like James Morrow and Phillip Pullman can take broadsides at traditional Christianity with impunity, setting up straw men (and straw gods) to attack, perpetuating stereotypes in works that, if aimed at any other identifiable group, might almost be called hate literature.

In their own faith communities, Christians who like that sci-fi stuff are likely to be regarded with puzzlement or even downright suspicion of dabbling in amusements that are atheistic, immoral, or occultic. Whole congregations have been known to involve themselves in the burning of the wildly popular Harry Potter books; when some Christians refuse to jump on the anti-fantasy bandwagon, their own fellow-believers may throw vicious accusations of apostasy in their faces.

These are the extremes, of course; but even without active persecution from different directions, Christian SF fans live in an odd and decidedly not neutral zone on the border between the two worlds of SF and Christendom. And those of us who are actually trying to write and publish fantasy and science fiction informed by our faith are perhaps even more acutely aware of our unique and strange position. To either side of us we find secularists and Christians alike wondering: Isn't there a fundamental incompatibility between Christianity and speculative fiction?

Before I begin to address that question, I first want to talk about the upsurge of interest in SF and fantasy among Christian readers and writers. This is something I have observed in the online community over the past few years.

It is well known that the F & SF field is "the original home of the talented amateur", as Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder put it in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction. Scratch an SF reader, they say, and you will find an SF writer. For some reason, readers of this genre are disproportionately interested in also becoming writers of their favorite kind of fiction.

But suddenly, there are numerous Christians interested in writing this stuff, and writing it with their own particular slant. Hardly a week goes by on the 600+ member Christian Writers Group at Yahoo without some newbie posting a question such as "Are there any markets for Christian SF?" "How do I write an apocalyptic novel without contradicting the Bible?" or (oh horrors!) "What does the group think of Harry Potter?"

There has been a small press print zine, Dreams and Visions, from Skysong Press, publishing F & SF from a Christian viewpoint since 1989; in recent years they have been joined by at least a couple more specialist publications, the hard-SF web/print zine Gateway and the fantasy/SF webzine DKA (Dragons, Knights and Angels.)

So the net is obviously a factor in this apparently new phenomenon of Christian SF. Suddenly people who thought they were the only ones interested in Christian F & SF (or the only Christians interested in F & SF) are finding that they can make contact with other people who have the same interests; some of them have gone to the effort of starting zines.

But how new is the Christian interest in F & SF itself? I like this comment by a list member: "I don't think the question is why there is suddenly an interest in Christian fantasy, as the most influential fantasy book of all time was written by a Christian. I think the question is, when did it stop?"

If you are a fantasy fan, Christian or not, you probably know this writer is referring to The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but maybe not. The Tolkien biography on the extended DVD of Fellowship of the Ring never breathed a word about the fact that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic (who, contrary to stereotypes today, somehow was never molested by the priest who raised him after his mother's death) and that he considered LOTR "a deeply Christian and Catholic work, unconsciously at first but consciously so in the revision." [I haven't got the reference for this, perhaps someone on the list will know the exact quotation and its source.]

The Inklings and Christian Fantasy

Tolkien was one of a mid-Twentieth century group of Oxford writers known as the Inklings, dominated by Christian apologist and fantasist C.S. Lewis.

Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series of children's books and his Space Trilogy of theological science fantasy remain the benchmark for what many Christian fans think of as "Christian SF and Fantasy"; the Narnia books, in particular, sell to a much wider audience than just those who share Lewis's core beliefs. The FOTR DVD bio also neglected to mention that Lewis was the virtual "midwife" for The Lord of the Rings, encouraging Tolkien to seek publication for a book that appeared at that time to have no market prospects whatever. Not all the Inklings were fantasists, and not all were Christians, but Charles Williams was one of them who also made a name for himself with his uniquely strange theological fantasies.

The seminal contribution of Christian writers to modern fantasy, including Lewis and Tolkien (and their predecessor George MacDonald), is placed beautifully in context in a secular history of the field, Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds. Though Carter is not shy of expressing any of his own literary opinions in this book, he has no ideological axe to grind, and treats the Christian fantasists as even-handedly as he does other writers of imaginative literature.

Brian Aldiss' history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, likewise sets Lewis and Tolkien in the context of 20th century science fiction. Aldiss notes in particular Lewis's ambivalent attitude to H.G. Wells, quoting Lewis's preface to That Hideous Strength: "I admire his invention [though not his philosophy] so much that I feel no shame to borrow." Contrary to some modern Christian attitudes, Lewis had no fear of ambivalence; champion apologist for the faith though he was, he did not attempt to demonize opponents, and when it came to fantastic literature, he was always willing to give credit where it was due, and happily share what he had in common with fellow lovers of the non-mundane.

There is a transcript of a fascinating conversation between Lewis, Aldiss and Kingsley Amis entitled "Unreal Estates" in the Walter Hooper-edited Lewis collection Of This and Other Worlds. A brief excerpt:

Amis: Have you seen James Blish's novel A Case of Conscience? Would you agree that to write a religious novel that isn't concerned with details of ecclesiastical practice and the numbing minutiae of history and so on, science fiction would be the natural outlet for this?
Lewis: If you have a religion it must be cosmic; therefore it seems to me odd that this genre was so late in arriving.
Aldiss: It's been around without attracting critical attention for a long time.

Lewis and Tolkien each have a great deal to say about Christianity and fantasy, Lewis in pieces like "Sometimes Fairy Tales May Say Best What's to be Said" and "On Stories" (in the collection Of This and Other Worlds) and Tolkien in his address to the Andrew Lang Society, "On Fairy Stories" (in The Tolkien Reader) and his poem "Mythopoeia."

The History of Christianity and Fantasy

There isn't room here to get into great detail, but I do want to mention that the history of Christianity and fantasy goes back at least as far as Beowulf (about which Tolkien wrote a landmark essay, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics") and to the medieval Arthurian literature, in which the old Celtic myths and legends were transformed into Christian adventures. The Medieval and Renaissance periods also saw the flowering of allegories with Christian and fantastic elements, including works such as Dante's Divine Comedy, Spenser's Faerie Queene, Langland's Piers Plowman and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. George MacDonald, literary godfather of the Inklings, is usually cited as the chief Victorian Christian fantasist, but there is another more famous and more widely influential than he: Willhelm Grimm, who re-worked traditional Germanic folk tales and Classical myths to give them a Christian spin (as demonstrated recently by Ronald Murphy in The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove.) Completing the gap between the Victorians and the Inklings, we must mention G.K. Chesterton, who, though better known as a journalist, Christian apologist and mystery writer, also produced some fantastic poetry and fiction.

So when did Christians stop reading and writing SF and fantasy? I don't think they did, or not all of them. Lewis and Tolkien were British, university professors, and members of liturgical churches, living and writing in a world that predated the "God is Dead" theologians, the sexual revolution and hippies. The Inklings' work appeared in a still nominally Christian culture, as part of the ongoing cultural dialogue. If there seems to have been a gap since their day in Christian activity in the field of imaginative fiction, it is perhaps partly a matter of perception by people in both of the strange worlds known to the Christian SF fan.

Secular Ignorance

On the one side, secular critics and media in an increasingly post-Christian culture tend to ignore the significance of an author's religious convictions in works such as The Lord of the Rings, where the Christianity is not explicit but only implicit. (Works that are more explicit, the critics ignore completely or actually mock.) Indeed, secular critics are often surprisingly ignorant about the part played by the Bible and Christianity in western history and in the development of literature. Strangely enough, this was already the case in the Inklings' own day; when Lewis's Perelandra was published, it received numerous reviews but, to Lewis's astonishment, hardly any made even a mention of the theological underpinnings of the story. (Did they really not notice the Christian content, I wonder, or were they only embarrassed by it?) [the above is another fact I'm uncertain of the details and source]

If there was ignorance about the basic history of western civilization then, there is even more now. In an article on this subject from the Vancouver Sun some years ago, SF writer and educator Crawford Kilian said of the Biblical ignorance of first-year Literature students, "I am tempted to say we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, but who would understand the allusion?" (And if it happens you don't, no shame to you for the lacks in our educational system. You can find the story Kilian's referring to in Genesis 25:29-34. While you're at it, you may be interested to note that the title of the present essay alludes to a Robert Heinlein novel, which in turn alludes to Exodus 2:22.)

So sometimes secular readers don't recognize Christian imagery when they see it, and discount its significance when they do.

Evangelical Insularity

On the other side, in the days post-Tolkien and Lewis, modern American evangelicals from the early to mid-Twentieth century inclined toward an insularity within their own cultural ghetto. These people can trace their theological roots to the experiential holiness movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were self-labelled as "Christian" – excluding from that definition Catholics and other Christians of the older, Reformation-based confessional churches. This new expression of Christianity gave birth to the publishers which later became known collectively as the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA.)

What these publishers had in common was an emphasis on Jesus Christ as personal Savior of the individual believer, and an evangelistic bent. In a church culture which focused on preaching and largely eliminated the drama and symbolism of liturgy, fiction was tolerated at best (ironic, when you realize that Jesus taught mostly by telling stories.) When CBA fiction was published at all, it was expected to avoid portraying taboo behaviour (though the Bible itself doesn't) and conclude with an "altar call." SF and fantasy were both too unconventional to find much of an audience20there.

Today the evangelical movement is much more sophisticated, broad-minded, and tolerant of other Christians than it used to be, though the Christians you will hear discussing SF and fantasy in the media are usually the extremists. When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out, MSNBC's Buchanan and Press approached Christianity Today (the largest and most influential magazine for American evangelicals) for a reaction. "Certainly. We like Harry Potter," said CT. The MSNBC caller said that wouldn't do. They wanted some Christians who didn't like Harry Potter. It seems the strange land of Christendom may not be so anti-SF as it has appeared in the past. ("Most Evangelicals Like Harry Potter. Really.")

In the decades post-Inklings, American movements like the Jesus People and the Vineyard have revived an appreciation for the arts amongst evangelicals, including fiction. The time is more than ripe, it seems, for a foray out from the evangelical ghetto mentality bemoaned by Christian writers and readers of fantasy and science fiction for years.

Christian Writers in the Secular F & SF Field

As Brian Aldiss noted in his conversation with Lewis, practicing Christians have been writing SF and fantasy with overtly or covertly religious content for the big SF publishers all along, if you know how to find it. One example: Harlan Ellison's landmark anthology Dangerous Visions includes a story from R.A. Lafferty which, the author comments, is essentially a parable on the Christian's state of pilgrimage in this world. Catholic Lafferty is a unique and inimitable writer of speculative fiction, highly regarded in the field. More contemporary authors of Christian faith include well-known names such as Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, Timothy Zahn and Connie Willis, and newer writers like Louise Marley, Lars Walker and Brenda Clough (the last, author of How Like a God, from secular publisher Tor had a science fiction story about cloning ("Times Fifty") commissioned by Christianity Today, an unheard-of event for the magazine, which almost never publishes fiction of any kind.

There isn't room here for an exhaustive list of Christian authors and their works, but a visit to Adherents.com will clue you onto the religious inclinations of a number of SF and fantasy writers, past and present.

F & SF in the CBA Market

Even before most of the abovementioned writers made their debuts, American evangelical Steven Lawhead trekked across the pond to the home of the Inklings, where he has been writing fantasy for lo these many years. His historical fantasies are currently published by CBA publisher Zondervan, but you can find them on the bookshelves of your local secular chain bookstore. Lawhead has been a runaway success, crossing over from the CBA market to the general one, thus returning, in fact, to Tolkien and Lewis territory. Then there is the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers which have become a category to themselves on the ABA bestseller lists. Millennium fever apparently gave them a boost, and they have continued strongly ever since.

Besides the two exceptions of Lawhead and Left Behind, the crossover phenomenon has not spread too far yet. CBA Publishers still have an inclination to "preach to the choir", aiming their wares squarely at an evangelical audience, though the writers themselves have rebelled against preachiness and namby-pamby stereotypes to produce increasingly better fiction. SF and fantasy have been a hard sell with CBA publishers because the audience for SF and fantasy that sticks to the CBA strictures has been demonstrably tiny. Nevertheless, thanks to demands from a few devoted readers and the work of a few enthusiastic editors, recent years have seen CBA publishers putting out a space opera trilogy from former ABA Star Wars author Kathy Tyers and hard SF from Randall Ingermanson, to name only two; and more are in the works.

The Christy Awards for CBA fiction now include "Futuristic" and "Allegory" categories. The category titles say something about the kind of works that are preferred by the evangelical audience, but they are undeniably sub-categories of SF and fantasy.

Why Would Christians Like SF and Fantasy Anyway?

As for the apparent upsurge of Christian writers and readers interested in SF and fantasy, why would they like this kind of fiction at all? While they have superficial similarities, fantasy and science fiction have some very fundamental differences. But both have a special appeal to Christians – ironic, perhaps, in light of the historical snubbing of the genres by "Christian" (CBA evangelical) publishers.

Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy Stories" mentions "escape" and "consolation" as two reasons for the appeal of traditional fantasy. Also the impulse we have to be "sub-creators." In his poem "Mythopoeia" he says "we make still in the image in which we're
made." We like inventing whole new worlds and exploring them because that is the nature God gave us. The "happy ending" of the traditional fairy tale and its literary descendants is a shadowy reflection of Christian cosmology. I also think that Christians have a natural affinity for the more romantic genres – our values resonate with the chivalry and heroism portrayed in epic fantasy, as in many varieties of popular fiction – adventurous SF, suspense thrillers, even some types of crime and horror fiction. We find ourselves at odds with the modern literary establishment, which is saturated with political correctness, nihilism, and intellectual posturing. We Christian readers – like most of SF fandom – know the value of a story with conflict, character growth, and resolution.

In other words, we like a good story – and whatever else current fantasy fiction or space opera is, it is almost always a good story, more perhaps than any of the other popular fiction genres.

The more social/political variety of science fiction has a quite different appeal, and yet it is also because of our values and worldview that this genre has a unique attraction for Christian writers and readers. It affords us an opportunity unlike any other for social and moral criticism. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, arguably the first science fiction novel, started the venerable tradition followed by 1984, Brave New World, many of Kurt Vonnegut's works, Lois Lowry's dystopic young adult novel The Giver, and movies like Gattaca, The Matrix, and The Truman Show.

We who are in this world but not of it understand the importance of the question, "Since we can do something – technologically or socially – does that mean we should do it?" All too often, of course, the answer is No, but people are doing it anyway – as technology mushrooms around us, science-fictional themes hit the headlines almost daily. They cry out for prophetic criticism.

In my story "Thanksgiving Day at the Temple", I portray a world in which religious people are relegated to living on reservations, their practices outlawed elsewhere in society. Into this world comes a bewildered little alien from a planet where life is more integrated; quite naturally, he is flummoxed at the great divide between the spiritual and material in our world – so much so that it takes him the better part of the story to understand that the hospital he is in is not a temple – the two ought to be one, in his mind. Alien eyes can look at things that we don't see because they are right under our noses.

I could write an essay on how traditional Christians are being edged out of public life in Canada today – how it is becoming more and more difficult for people of conscience to work in a medical system that has little room for those who won't take part in abortions, for instance – but who wants to listen? But a futuristic story can blindside the reader with something he may have avoided thinking about in daily life. To plant a seed of doubt...

So Why Are Some Christians so Negative about SF and Fantasy, and some SF fans and writers so negative about Christianity?

As a genre, science fiction has a somewhat different history than fantasy. Many of the founders and biggest stars of SF literature have a materialist worldview and a strong reaction to traditional Judeo-Christian organized religion; evolutionary dogma holds an unquestioned place for more of these writers than in other fictional fields. Lewis's space trilogy – now half a century old – is unusual in the field, and really though it uses other planets as settings could arguably be classified as fantasy. The third book, That Hideous Strength, has more in common with books like Brave New World and 1984 (books not published as "SF", but as general literature, you can tell because the powers that be put them on high school English courses ;-) than with Heinleinian space adventures.

Christian fantasy, as I have pointed out above, does have a long pedigree, often neglected by both Christians and non-Christians. But the New Age movement has risen in parallel with the fantasy publishing boom, and many of the fans and writers of contemporary fantasy are in fact practising members of New Age religions.

Both these anti-Christian currents, the materialist and the New Age, are much in evidence at any SF convention-- in fact they are visible on most any episode of Star Trek:The Next Generation. Recently, I heard that the Toronto Trek Convention has had a long-standing refusal to allow any religious (read Christian) programming, but last year permitted a Wiccan celebration.

These two very different anti-Christian currents which ebb and flow in different areas of the literature and of fandom may be one reason both Christians and non-Christians get the idea that fantasy and science fiction are simply "Not for Christians."

It would require another whole essay in itself to discuss questions connected with the portrayal of magic in works of Christian fantasy, which is the sticking point for many Christian readers. Others have dealt with that elsewhere. Here I will only say that it is tied up with the question of whether any kind of fiction at all is legitimate for the Christian. Obviously for myself I have answered "yes."

I have lived in the strange zone between Christendom and SF since I was a kid growing up in an agnostic home reading the Narnia books, which ploughed the ground in preparation for the Gideon New Testament they still allowed the schools to hand out to students in those days. I'm living proof of what a dangerous document it is. I have passed through evangelical country where I was moved to throw away all my Heinlein and Silverberg, only to come back around to a place of traditional Christian faith that does not fear culture but seeks to baptise it. As a writer I have rejected the path of preaching to the choir; one of my biggest thrills ever was the sale of an explicitly Christian story to a secular anthology edited by none other than Robert Silverberg, a professed agnostic and brilliant and gentlemanly editor.

We are living in a science-fictional world. And, believe it or not, it is God's world. If we Christian SF writers and readers think we are not having enough impact on the readership we could have either in Christendom or in the SF field, maybe we aren't looking hard enough at the good examples that are already there.

It is time we took back our birthright in Wilhelm Grimm, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien and the rest.

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