Casting Stones and Stumbling Blocks
“A prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother…”
- Flannery O’Connor
Been on the perimeter of yet another round of Believers Brick-Tag, i.e. the “Spec-fiction is a stumbling block/supernatural and,or worldly elements are a grievous offense” discussion, and I feel the need to stake out what seems incredibly obvious yet damnably elusive.
First off, let’s reiterate the distinction between theology and speculative fiction. One is the systematic study of God and religious belief, the other is – by definition – made up stories.
Now I know atheists would say this is true of the Bible itself, but that’s a different discussion. To repeat my mantra: a novel is not a sermon. It’s one of those ‘apples and orangutans’ things, people. Similar raw material (words and ideas) but different modes, different purposes, different content.
You don’t get into an elevator for the music. You shouldn’t look for theology in a dystopian YA novel or an urban fantasy series. I know they make truth-claims and worldview statements either overtly or obliquely. EVERYTHING DOES. You must have heard the phrase ‘spit out the bones’. It’s time to exercise discernment – the same level one employs when selecting kitchen utensils to say, scramble eggs. “Put away the corkscrew and tenderizing mallet.”
If you want Christian theology, read the Bible, church history, and apologetics. Don’t get it from a Wachowski movie or a K-pop hit or a Marvel comic book or a “Left Behind” novel. That’s akin to making life-choices based on fortune cookies. Which would be bad. That some people do in fact cobble belief systems from Star Trek and Pink Floyd, then Quick-Pick their Happy Panda Lucky Numbers constitutes a severe failure in their judgment. (I suspect LSD and alcohol is a factor in such cases)
Second, let’s remember the distinctions between the artist, their art, and their audience. Souls are saved, art is not. Art is a product of a remarkable, mysterious synergy, but it is a construct nonetheless. Painting a night sky means you’ll have to break out a tube of black paint. It doesn’t mean you’re a ‘dark’ individual. Just don’t expect to sell it to folks who are partial to sunrises.
While the call to genuine character, sound thinking, and the fundamentals of Christian doctrine apply to every believer, the vocation of an artist – in this case, writer – is not that of the preacher or theologian. One employs drama, metaphor, allegory, and myth, while the other expounds on biblical spiritual truth and (hopefully) delivers an inspired rhema for a particular time, place, and congregation.
Both engage with the transcendent. Each borrows from the others toolbox. I’m not elevating one over the other- I’m simply noting they approach it from vastly different angles. See the C.S Lewis quote on Reason and Imagination. (Incidentally, doctrine is how we engage with the transcendent – not beat it into submission; directions to the doctor are not the doctor. Dreams about the doctor aren’t either.)
I happen to be a Christian who writes spec-fiction for a non-Christian audience. Part of my obligation before God is to recognize the conventions of the genre and the expectations of my readers. I have to be faithful to those dynamics too, then do the work to the best of my ability. And to echo Dorothy Sayers, work must be good work before it can be God’s work because pious trash is still trash.
Last, let’s distinguish between Realistic and Gratuitous, between being Sensitive and Pandering.
Let’s face it: “Christian gritty” is pretty tame. Many Christian fiction writers try to genuinely honor the conventions of their genres as well as strive for credibility, consistency, and realism, but we don’t come close to reality. Not really.
Not that our gold standard is Triple X Snuff Porn with a dash of Corporate Avarice and Ethnic Cleansing, but it’s worth remembering ‘worldly’ content is taken from the real world – a real world that is definitely not PG-13, that God still loves, hasn’t abandoned, and meets precisely at its shameful, broken, ugly point of need. That’s what the Cross was and Salvation is.
When writing fiction, I’m certainly not for inserting cruel, coarse, or lascivious content for shock or titillation. But realistic themes where and when they’re organic to the characters and story line? Absolutely. It’s mandatory, in fact. Anything less cheapens the work, and strikes me as inherently duplicitous and dishonoring to God.
Now that kind of content may well make some readers uncomfortable. Shock them even, to the point where the alarmist ‘stumbling block’ phrase gets volleyed about loudly and frequently.
Look, I’m all for being sensitive to someone’s weakness or struggles. I’ll refrain if I know someone has a problem. That’s basic human compassion and consideration. But I’m all done pandering to the ‘professional weaker brother’, those tedious brethren who make a habit, a career, a ministry of taking offense, then running around telling everyone. It’s deliberate immaturity, demanding everyone bend down because they refuse to grow up. We’re walking on eggshells while they stomp all over personal convictions, choices, and liberty. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to second guess myself into paralysis, mediocrity, and anemia.
Over thirty years as a believer, a majority of them in full or part time ministry of some kind, it’s my experience too many in the church prefer tidy affirmations to hard-edged hope. Christians in any walk of life or vocation have to reject the notion that the call to be ‘in the world but not of it’ translates into a license to be ignorant or insular. The root meaning of “holiness” is not sterile separation but the notion of being set apart for a particular use. We cannot hide from ugly realities or contradictory philosophies (or worse, ridicule, reduce and sanitize them) then think we can be effective in addressing them with any meaningful offer of God’s redemption.
I’ll end with this thought from Harry Dreyfuss, actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son. (Good find, K.C.)
“If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.” – Harry Dreyfuss
Have a good day, and in the words of Chuck Wendig, “Go forth and art hard.”