10/16/2006

Beyond What If

by Andrea J. Graham

The boiled down definition of speculative fiction is this is the genre that asks, “What if?” That’s the question that draws me to this genre, as I ask it far often than most would deem necessary; Discover Your Strengths labels this tendency that drives my loved ones up the wall Strategy.

Still, many have wondered how, “What if…” fits with the Christian faith. After all, what’s the point in asking, “What if Jesus was born in the year 3000 AD?” He wasn’t, after all, right? Or, Heaven forbid, “What if Jesus was really fathered by Joseph?”

The latter is the sort of question I hope no Christian author would even think of asking in their work. Speculation that departs from scripture, especially such a fundamental doctrine, would be irresponsible at best. Likewise, as ambassadors of Christ, we have a responsibility before God to represent His character as accurately as possible in all we do, including our fiction. That is why we must always seek a fuller understanding of Who He is, as revealed in scripture, since our understanding will be taught in our fiction whether we intend to do so or not.

Here on Earth, we might get away with misrepresenting Him, but we will have to answer to God. As such, biblical speculative fiction does not ask questions of this sort.

For the other type of question, the point actually isn’t, what if Jesus was born a thousand years from now? Of course he wasn’t. The point would be to copy-cat Eli, in order to present the gospel to a different audience, in a form they can more easily relate to.

On that same token, one could just as easily keep Jesus born when he was, and have an alien prophet like unto John the Baptist born in an alien star system, to point to Christ by modeling for his (or her) people what Christ did for all those created in the image of God. One need not actually believe that, as the bible doesn’t specifically cover the possibility of aliens and it’s difficult to argue from silence that something doesn’t exist. Regardless, such a tact would still portray the ministry of Christ in a sci-fi setting without changing history, although, alternative history can be a valid tact as well.

To go back to the whether aliens exist question, that very doubt is why I would wish to write such a story. “What if…” is fine and grand, it provides many wonderful questions, but for many of us, the question often takes a different form: “Has God created other races on other planets in His Image? If so, to what degree are they human? Do they suffer from our fall, or did they fall themselves? Is it possible an unfallen race exists somewhere? Is that the reason for the space rubbish nay-sayers claim make intergalactic travel at the speeds necessary to reach them in one lifetime impossible? What would happen if man found a way around that problem? If they are also fallen, would Christ’s sacrifice on earth atone for their sins, or would God find some other way to save them? If so, what? If the former, how would He choose to reveal the gospel?

Granted, some of these questions do have a what if behind them. After all, the subject is aliens, which may or may not exist. But less so are questions about our own future, especially when we extrapolate out based on God’s character. As fascinating the what ifs on things like aliens are, just as often, this is the realm the questions I ask in my fiction often fall into. For instance, in a short story currently under consideration for inclusion in Light at the Edge of Darkness, “Frozen Generation,” I began by asking myself, “If the humanity of unborn children, and subsequently their rights, are wholly dependant upon the mother’s choice, and we had the technology to bring them to term artificially, why wouldn’t society treat these ‘non-persons’ as property, use them for spare parts, or any other evil man can dream of?”

That is the real power of our genre. In any other genre, the theme would become overbearing and I would find myself merely preaching to the choir. Not necessarily a bad thing; in general, my focus is discipleship, not evangelism. Still, by asking questions rather than simply giving answers, I allow readers the freedom to answer the questions however they choose.

This approach has certain risks, namely how a reader interprets a story, or, what they draw out of it, will depend on how they answer the questions presented. In “Frozen Generation,” for instance, one might answer my question with, “because that would be greedy and unethical” and simply see a story where technology is abused in a world ruled by Mammon. Others might focus on the question of what ethical standard would prohibit this in a secular society and ignore what current issues such practices might have evolved out of.

Still others will read “Frozen Generation” purely for their pleasure and ignore such questions altogether, but the seed nevertheless will have been planted. That is the true power of the what-if genre. Such a person would not have even picked up the story if I had taken the direct approach, but rather feel like I had wielded a bible like a hammer. This also makes the what-if treatment quite biblical. Did not Jesus follow the rabbinical tradition of answering questions with questions? Is this not more likely to get readers of various persuasions thinking on the issues presented and regardless provide a wider window for God to use to draw people to Himself?

11 comments:

Dan Edelen said...

The problem with all spec fic is that it will--by its very nature of being speculative--deviate from God's reality.

For the Christian, this presents massive issues. If I as a novelist suppose the existence of an alien race that God did not in fact create, then I am toying with revealed truth and possibly running afoul of Scripture. Any "What if...?" question will, therefore, violate some portion of God's revelation of Himself and His sovereign control of all history.

What few Christian spec fic authors are willing to ask is how much is too much. Or is any deviation at all acceptable?

Kathy Tyers did a great trilogy of spec fic books placing Jesus' first advent in the age of intergalactic space travel. Too much? Well, Bethany House published the trilogy, so obviously they didn't think so. That does not, however, give us the correct answer.

If I write an alternative history that has the Nazis winning WWII, I'm questioning God's sovereignty in history. Same goes for any futuristic writings.

Does a redemptive storyline trump the problem of "unreality"? We seem to think so. But Jesus' parables (the source we go back to whenever we want to talk about the power of story) never dealt with speculative issues. All His stories were rooted in real life. And for those few that seemed speculative, they weren't for no other reason than the fact that Christ wasn't speculating. However, we are. Even if we stick to storylines that feature nothing more than angels and devils, we're still making them say things they might not. Not all fiction suffers this problem, though, since fictional characters--although not real persons--still operate within a universe governed by the laws and history God set in place. Spec fic does not, most of the time.

It's almost impossible to get away from this problem for those of us who want to write spec fic.

Elliot said...

The question of the 'alternate history' and the life of Christ was discussed by myself and a few other bloggers several months back. My post is here: http://clawoftheconciliator.blogspot.com/2006/05/alternate-christs.html - it links to the other blog posts.

kc said...

You know, a year or two ago, we had this whole aliens and other worlds discussion on the Ted Dekker discussion board. It proved very interesting--we batted around every question you postulated here and came to some unified and not so unified conclusions.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
God bless,
Karri

Andrea Graham said...

Dan, we don't know the future, and the advent of Christ proved prophecy only makes sense after the fact, so I would disagree that futuristic writing has anything at all to do with questioning God's Sovereignty. Indeed, "God is Sovereign" could actually be the theme of a futuristic piece.

The question you have to boil it down to in approaching spec fic is, "what does this story say about God?" If the story accurately depicts God's character, the gospel, the five fundamentals, and so forth, it's biblical. Areas the bible has spoken on, specifically, are off-limits if you want your spec fic to be biblical. That still leaves areas, such as aliens, where the bible is silent--as long as the worlds we create make sense in light of what we know of God's Character.

I agree, though, spec fic writers that consider themselves Christians (I'll leave sorting the wheat from the chaff to God) are often sloppy in their application of theology. Too often, they don't give a whit, and it really shows.

BTW, audience has zero impact on the need for correct theology. Whether you're writing pre-evangelical, evangelical, or post, your first audience is God and He expects our work to be theologically sound, at the least to the best of the author's knowledge (which we ought to be growing in all the time, but that's another topic)

This doesn't mean sinners shouldn't sin in our stories, of course they will. But the wages of sin had better be death, if you know what I mean. It comes down to, does the depiction encourage or discourage the behavior?

Dan Edelen said...

Andrea,

A lot of spec fic doesn't deal in the future. What do we say then to stories that manipulate the past (steampunk comes to mind here)? Are we changing God's revealed history?

***

Must a story say something about God in order to be Christian? Could God not be mentioned (as in the Book of Esther) and a novel still be considered Christian?

***

As to making worlds conform to what we know of God's character, I would suspect a better way to write is to depict worlds wholly at odds with God's character. In truth, our own world is wholly at odds with God's character. That's what makes our stories compelling.

***

Can you give concrete examples of sloppy theology in published Christian spec fic? That would go a long way to helping us understand the problem.

***

It's not true the audience has zero impact on the need for correct theology. Since no two denominations seem to agree on their theology, a spec fic book written with the idea that the charismata still exist today will naturally bother a cessationist. That cessationist may even complain to the bookstore she purchased the rogue novel from. That happens all the time. This is one reason that so much Christian fiction is lowest common denominator.

***

As to the wages of sin, the Bible also has the Psalmist asking, "Lord, why do the wicked prosper?" Since we rarely deal with afterlife issues in Christian fiction, we will not necessarily see the wicked punished in the afterlife. Truth is, they don't always get punished in this life to our satisfaction. (Think of some of the most egregious examples of dictators who killed millions, yet lived high on the hog before their deaths.) Again, we do our readers a disservice if every "bad" character gets his just desserts this side of eternity.

Andrea Graham said...

alt-history is irrelevant in my view, as I don't write alt-history and don't entirely disagree on that point. And God's character comes into play in all stories, not just those where he appears on stage. When we're world building, we're walking in our creator's footsteps, and we need to ask that question. As the Heavens declare His Majesty, so should our worlds reflect who He is on some level. Besides, all stories say something about God, intentionally or not. It's nigh impossible to escape that. Nothing may be said specifically, yes, like in Ruth or Esther, but the worldview is still evident and the light, or lack there of, shines through.

Of course there are disagreements in the christian world, the cessasionist should write a story that reflects God as they understand Him, just as the pentecostal or charismatic should write a story that reflects God as they understand Him. On nonessentials especially, we are only responsible for what we know.

He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. the dictators that stand out in my mind all ended up dying at the edge of their own sword. Sin does have consequences and it's irresponsible at best to indicate otherwise. Whether they appear to "get away with it" or not, sin is wrong and any book that portrays otherwise, and god forbid, glorifies sin, isn't Christian, period.

cyn said...

Andrea and Dan,

I don't think anyone would disagree with Andrea's statement about the need for writers to ensure their work is theologically-sound. However, as a publisher I have seen firsthand the situation Dan mentions: no two denominations agree on everything, e.g./ the spec-fic anthology we are currently promoting. Several of the stories (or elements of the stories) created a real controversy among the authors! As editor I made the decision that (in regards to theology) if the story conformed to the "essentials" it was going to be considered for inclusion.

We have a group of good writers with a flair for Biblical Spec-fic. However, we have folks who hold different eschatological beliefs/ thoughts--despite this, included in the book is a story that essentially challenges premillennialism.

Another example is a story that will challenge many people's beliefs about which sins are/ are not covered by Christ's blood.

And further, two of our authors, have penned riveting thrillers (read: horror) that scared the pants off me! These stories definitely have a specific audience--they aren't made for pre-evangelical/ evangelical purposes! And, there are certain to be people who challenge aspects of the theology contained in these stories.

Augustine's rubric comes in handy in this sticky situation:
"In Essentials, Unity. In Non-Essentials, Liberty. In all Things, Clarity."

Daniel I Weaver said...

You guys have really kept a great discussion going here. Good work. Dan (or should I call you "The other Dan?")did a great job pointing out a lot of the controversy surrounding the very concept of Christian Spec Fic. Andrea, great challenges and points made as well.

To thrown my own two cents into this (as one of those two authors that scared off Cynthia's pants), I'm right in the thick of the "debate" as a "horror" writer. I've always classified my work as Supernatural Thrillers simply because I don't write just for the sake of scaring anyone, but more to show a "supernatural" twist on things and impart my Christian worldview. In horror, you get right into the thick of things. Do ghosts exist? How much interaction do demons really have in our lives? What exactly are the Biblical restrictions on using Angels? Etc.

Frank coined the LGG introduction and said "we own the rights on fallen angels", but I would argue that Christian writers should own the rights on all angels. After all, we're the only ones that have any Biblical support to write anything about them. And fallen or not, angels are angels, right? And so on, so on...

Anyway, the point is, the controversy won't go away. In some ways, I personally consider that one of the saddest points. I've never written an alternate past story, but I can off-hand imagine a few ways to do it that wouldn't actually challenge God's sovereignty. Is it really fair to say that anything we write outside the realm of accepted reality isn't Godly? Whether or not it is, some people will think so no matter what success we see. Peretti and Dekker certainly step outside the realm of what spec-fic nay-sayers might tote as "acceptable," but they move more books (and consequentially touch more lives) than a lot of other authors out there. How many Spec Fic writers mention Peretti's Darkness books in their list of "most influential reads"?

As Christians, no matter what we write or say, there will be those that speak negatively or those that don't agree with some aspect of what we do. And to Andrea's point, the relevant thing is to make sure that we're always focusing on our primary audience. It's so much easier to please One than to please the world. He is the only one that matters. And if your greatest story since sliced bread never sees a bookstore's shelves, you'll know that you did your best for Him.

Dan Edelen said...

Daniel,

Thanks for the response.

If we use Lewis's and Tolkien's mythopoiea as the standard, then just about anything is possible. So long as we keep questionable practices and theology out of the hands of the humans in the storyline, we get a pass. Non-humans are free to do nearly anything, good or evil.

I've been uneasy with the mythopoiea standard, though. I've used its concepts in my own spec fic, but I always get the feeling I'm stepping over a boundary I shouldn't. I'm hard on myself and other authors, perhaps for no other reason than I think we've let too much slide by. Let's be honest, many of the people who call themselves pagans today were weaned on Tolkien. What that says about Middle Earth's mythopoiea should make us think long and hard.

We can't say that because Peretti and Dekker sell a lot of books, they get a free pass, either. That's backwards of what the truth should be. Lives can be touched for both good and ill. Christian spec fic authors should never allow the latter.

Before the argument erupts, we all recognize that even the Bible is twisted by people. Still, we must be exceedingly careful that our fiction doesn't fuel the wrong kind of fire.

Andrea Graham said...

To clarify, and I think I said this before, we are primarily responsible for our work lining up with our own theology/doctrines and what we know of God's character, what we understand to be pleasing to him. Of course, on a personal level, we should all be striving to come to a fuller and more complete understanding of who He is. We should exercize some caution, though, in that we will be held accountable before God for any false doctrines we spread in our work.

Becky said...

Interesting discussion, but I don't agree with Dan's opening point: The problem with all spec fic is that it will--by its very nature of being speculative--deviate from God's reality.
For the Christian, this presents massive issues.


I think we are forgetting the concept of "pretend." Spec fic does not deviate from God's reality because it does not purport to be REAL. It is make-believe, and we as fiction writers must not lose sight of that point.

This is why I am not whole-heartedly in agreement with Andrea about the idea that what the Bible calls evil we must also call evil.

To be honest with you, I have no plans to write about witches at all, let alone good witches. But did the author of The Wizard of Oz cross some forbidden line by writing in a good witch?

And is depicting witches as good, helpful, positive only wrong when we name them witches? (See the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie or Mary Poppins or Cinderella and her Fairy Godmothers).

In other words, I think when the code word which has become synonymous in some people's minds for "evil" is included, then there is the automatic stamp of disapproval. But if only character portrayal is present, readers/viewers (and most critics) seem to have no problem regarding the character as pretend.

It is the truth couched within the pretend that we need to be alert to, and in fact teach our children to recognize.

Becky