In a recent post, fellow author Mike Duran proposed that writers of Christian speculative fiction have a “God problem:” that is, we have a problem where it concerns how far we can speculate about God where it concerns writing fiction. How much speculation is too much? And what should our standard be, if any?
These are questions that every writer of Christian speculative fiction must ask themselves.
Why CBA/ECLA Standards Aren’t the Answer
I’ve noticed that there are two main camps of Christian speculative fiction authors out there:
- Those who adhere to standards most commonly associated with CBA/ECPA affiliated publishers
- Those who don’t.
I personally don’t hold to those standards, but before I tell you why, let’s loosely define the sort of standards I’m talking about. Christian fiction of the CBA/ECPA stripe may be defined fiction that has the three following three criteria:
- The author avoids the use of graphic sex/violence and foul language.
- The story is based on Biblical teachings or relays the author’s Christian beliefs/worldview.
- The author is a Christian.
The reason I reject the CBA/ECPA standards is because of that first criterion. Keep in mind that these standards are well-intentioned; they were born of a desire to provide a safe alternative to non-Christian fiction. This might sound like as odd thing to say, but as a preacher, that sends up a red flag. Hebrews 5:11-14 says:
“Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
The basic idea is that we mature as Christians by exercising discernment. We’re supposed to walk instead of crawl at some point. We’re supposed to leave our tricycles and big wheels behind for bicycles when the time is right. The training wheels are supposed to come off at some point. You get the idea. The CBA/ECPA standards are meant to eliminate the need for discernment. I would much prefer to see a progressive rating system come out akin to film ratings rather than this current atmosphere of cutting out all need for discernment in Christian fare.
That first criterion is usually extended to prohibit all potentially objectionable things like ghosts, vampires, zombies, extraterrestrials, superpowers, magic, et cetera ad nauseam. Of course, this means that very little traditional speculative fiction gets published by those adhering to CBA/ECLA related standards, right? You see, the entire purpose of that criterion is to assure Christian readers that these Christian books are safe, so there’s a bit of overkill at play, to say the least.
Which leads me to my other, more visceral reason for rejecting those arbitrary standards: that white gloved first criteria can also be used to condemn portions of the Bible that contain graphic violence, sex, etc. Any literary standard which, if applied consistently and non-arbitrarily, could condemn the content of Biblical revelation should be eschewed.
Now then, of those speculative Christian authors who reject CBA/ECLA standards, there are two sub-categories. In general, we have:
- Speculative fiction authors who are Christians.
- Authors who write Christian speculative fiction
Let the fecal hurricane of protests ensue. I’ll be in my bunker…
How Then Should We Write Speculative Christian Fiction?
OK, that was heavy-handed, so let me walk you through it.
Mike Duran’s article took issue with my post on depicting God in Christian fiction in which I noted that:
“A Christian spec-fic author must needs write the truth about God. In other words, God isn’t a What If. He’s the I AM. The God of the Bible has revealed Himself and changes not. …Our first obligation as Christian spec-fic authors is not simply to ask “What If?” about anything and everything. Our first obligation is to glorify God through great storytelling – and we cannot do that if our storytelling contradicts the Bible’s revelation!”
After noting that I object to God being portrayed as female in Christian speculative fiction because the Bible reveals that God is male, Mike Duran opines that this approach is “representative of the problem of demanding a “biblical” portrayal of God in our fiction. And as speculative fiction involves, um, speculation, the idea of any parameters can become rather sticky.”
I don’t think Mike is preaching license here; he just wants to know exactly where the line in the sand is:
“I don’t think the question for the Christian author is, Should any biblical parameters inform our fiction? But rather, How exacting, extensive should the enforcement of those biblical parameters be?“ [emphasis in original]
We agree on the question, just as we agree that the CBA/ECLA type standards should be tossed in the rubbish heap. We both agree that in the absence of the CBA/ECLA standards, a line must be drawn.
Prima speculativa v. Prima Scriptura
The trouble is that there are two very different schools of thought where writing Christian speculative fiction is concerned. One school believes that creativity/craft/speculation must be our primary concern as Christian authors. Call it Scriptura sub speculativa (“Scripture under speculation”) or Prima speculativa. It’s the belief that we honor God through doing what we do (i.e., speculative fiction) to the best of our abilities. It’s the speculative fiction equivalent of Eric Liddle’s comment that “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Prima speculativa writes fiction as if they had approached John the Baptist on how a Christian ought to write (compare Luke 3:12-14) and he simply answered, “Write well.”
I believe that the Bible’s teaching/doctrines/theology should take precedent over speculation. Call it Speculativa sub Scriptura or Prima Scriptura. I think of the Bible as a fence that God has provided to keep us from falling off the cliff on the other side. The Prima speculativa camp believes the fence is too restricting to their creative freedom because a horse is meant to run, amen, and you can’t run as far as you could in that direction if you had the inclination because of that fence!
For example, Mike Duran is fond of quoting himself as saying,
“Forcing fiction to neatly fit your theology is a losing proposition… at least, if creative storytelling is your aim”
However, as I noted in another post , what is suggested in Mike Duran’s quote is that “our primary objective should be good storytelling – and that would be true if we were merely authors – BUT as Christians our primary goal is to glorify God through good storytelling… and we cannot do that if we do not chain ourselves to the Word of truth. Twice in his first epistle to the Corinthian church, Paul says that all things are lawful (permissible) to me, but not all things are expedient. [I Cor 6:12; 10:23]. Underline that truth. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. God, by definition, is the I AM. To put it another way, He is The Way, The TRUTH, and The Life. God is NOT a What If? We do not get to play god with God’s identity and attributes without also creating a non-Christian god… and how could that be considered Christian fiction in any sense?”
Now, before I continue, I must caution my readers that I am not demonizing Mike Duran. He is not really the object of this post; he just happens to be very articulate and very quotable. As a fellow ordained minister, he too wrestles with the question of where we draw the line. Christians who find a talent in writing obviously want to use their abilities to honor God; serious Christian authors also want to write well. Some feel compelled to evangelize in their fiction. Others feel its their calling to be culture warriors or worldview warriors. Others focus on offering a safe alternative to their favorite genre. And of course some like to think they’re just creating great stories, but every story has a message and the Christian aspect of being a Christian speculative author simply will not let us ignore that fact for long.
The especial dilemma of the speculative Christian author is that we must decide how far we are allowed to speculate before it becomes error, false doctrine, heresy or blasphemy [and, yes, those are all separate categories] that we are passing along to others in written form. How a Christian spec-fic author approaches the “God problem” that Mike Duran identifies is instructive in this light. It is in the Bible that we find the solution to this particular problem.
The Biblical Answer to the God Problem
The Bible gives us a pattern for solving the God problem in our fiction. The characters (even the non-believers) and books of the Bible reveal parts of God’s attributes, but almost never the whole. Still, none of them contradict the whole revelation. Likewise, we do not have to reveal all of God or all of doctrine in our writings, but what we write must not contradict what His Word has revealed, I meant just that. It must be consistent with revealed truth.
It’s important to note here that we’re not talking of false deities or our character’s understanding of God. Deities that are revealed to be false in the novel are irrelevant to the point; the problem arises when we don’t identify them as false gods somehow. No one’s demanding that an author’s characters embrace and articulate his orthodoxy; that’s a rather wooden way of looking at my position and its a bit of a straw man. Obviously, different characters will obviously have different views about God, but any author worth their salt, Christian or otherwise, generally finds a way to let the reader know which view is correct. My protagonist in Dreadknights (which is free in ebook formats, by the way) thinks that the question of the Biblical God’s existence is moot because we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life in my Otherworld series. It is through a conversation with another character that I make it clear that the existence of extraterrestrial life would not be the death knell of Christianity. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
I can’t help wonder if Prima speculativa isn’t a knee-jerk baby-with-the-bathwater reaction against the unrealistic restraint of CBA/ECLA standards that makes Christian speculative authors wary of being held to ANY standards. CBA/ECLA standards can be likened to the man-made prohibitions of the most caricatured stripe of fundamentalism. We note how, not only were their rules Pharisaical, their children had this tendency to run as far and as fast as they could once they turned 18! Sadly, the anecdotal evidence suggests that a great many of them ended up like me (or worse in cases where prodigals did not eventually come home!) and went way too far in the other direction. Yet we must ask ourselves, if we cannot submit to a minimal standard wherein we accurately portray God when we are describing the One true God in our fiction, what else are we but rebellious children posturing as edgy?
Paul warned Timothy to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.” [1 Timothy 1:3-4] The principle we can glean from this verse is that speculation is never meant to take precedent over doctrine.
Having said that, what we are talking about here is portraying a deity in your fiction as if they represented the Biblical God but who differs from what the Bible reveals about Him in a meaningful way. For example, if your book’s elven deity Primus is clearly the true God of your story and you decide Primus is female, the takeaway for the reader is that feminist revisions of the Bible are acceptable. In this case, you’ve crossed the line from asking “What If?” to “Did God really say?” (a question more generally associated with the most devastating moment in human history) because you’re not just telling a story that gender flips the I Am, you’re doing so in defiance of the Bible’s repeated revelation that God is masculine… for the sake of a story, for the sake of the speculative aspect of our craft.
I feel the need to point out the practical consideration that this sort of unfetter speculation actually feeds the fears of those who would bar the door on all fiction that does not hold to the safety of CBA/ECLA standards.
We aren’t called to speculate without bounds. 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us that we are to be:
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
All things are permissible; not all things are expedient. All things are permissible; but not everything edifies [1 Cor 10:23]. Let’s not pretend our fiction honors God when we’re painting funny glasses over His portrait.
Until we reach The Last Door,