2/05/2008

The Conundrum Of The Christian Author


In writing science fiction and/or fantasy from a Christian perspective or world view, there's a built-in conundrum.

On the one hand, reading such work requires (on the part of readers) a suspension of reality: a willingness to abandon the frame of reference of their everyday lives and insert themselves into the fictional, imaginary, made-up world of the author. They are willing to make this mental shift of perspective in the hope of being entertained.

On the other hand, the author seeks to insert into his or her imaginary world a sense or perspective of faith that is the foundation of our perception of reality. As believers we choose to base our lives on the perceived reality of our religious beliefs. To us they aren't an imaginary construct (even though to non-believers it may seem that way) but a concrete foundation for all other elements of our lives.

Thus the conundrum. The reader is required to enter an imaginary reality; but the author wants the reader to understand the concrete reality of religious faith underpinning the imaginary world of which he or she writes. On the one hand belief inspires, informs and guides the author of the work; on the other, the reader suspends belief in order to participate in it.

I can already hear some objecting that the 'belief' suspended by the reader isn't religious belief, but the evidence of his or her senses, education and world view. However, isn't it precisely those things that give rise to our religious understanding? Can we expect to understand a fictional work's religious allegory when we've already suspended our expectations of reality in terms of its plot, characters and development?

The conflict of understanding that this conundrum can produce is perhaps most clearly illustrated by that greatest of fantastic Christian allegories, The Lord Of The Rings. Upon publication of the first volume a reviewer, Edwin Muir, wrote in the Observer that Tolkien:

" . . . describes a tremendous conflict between good and evil, on which hangs the future of life on earth. But his good people are consistently good, his evil figures immutably evil; and he has no room in his world for a Satan both evil and tragic."

Clearly Mr. Muir overlooked both Saruman and Gollum, the one dragged down from the pinnacle of good by evil, the other overwhelmed by evil but very nearly redeemed from its clutches - and perhaps, in the end, truly redeemed? We are left to speculate.

Another reviewer, J. W. Lambert, declared in the Sunday Times that the book had "no religious spirit of any kind". Today, however, any objective reader will affirm the solid underlying Christianity of The Lord Of The Rings - indeed, it's impossible to fully understand the book and the author's intention without this perspective.

This, in turn, highlights our quandary as authors. Are we to write in such a way that our faith is clear in our work, immediately perceptible to and accessible by our readers? If so, we risk alienating many who have no particular faith. On the other hand, if we write to attract the latter in the hope that they will 'get the message' and come to a deeper understanding of faith, we must necessarily conceal our true motives behind so many disguises, circumlocutions and artifices that we risk not only failure to convey the message of faith, but also alienating those who do believe and who seek evidence of our belief in our work.

I don't think there's an easy answer to this. I look forward to readers' comments in response to this post. Perhaps I should close by quoting the Master himself. Amused by the controversy over The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien wrote:

The Lord Of The Rings
is one of those things:
if you like it, you do:
if you don't, then you boo!

Peter

8 comments:

cathikin said...

It is a conundrum, and thus the debate "goes ever on and on."

I hadn't seen the quote from Tolkien at the bottom before. Funny!

Andrea Graham said...

My advice is to chuck the whole quandary. Pray and write the story God gives you, as He gives it to you (then rewrite and rewrite some more to get rid of your own errors) and let Him do with it what He will. Let the Lord lead, and you can't go wrong.

If they'll listen to Him, they'll listen to you. If they won't listen to Him, they won't listen to you. Let the Father worry about the drawing people to Jesus (John 14:6). You speak, er, write, the word He gives you and don't worry so much about it offending people. He knows who the story's for. It's one thing if the offense is due to delivery(ie wanton cruelty); it's another if it's at the message He's given you.

This holds no matter what your genre, style, or any other human classification. We serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Find what He's called you to do/write and do/write it!

mspote said...

"the author seeks to insert into his or her imaginary world a sense or perspective of faith that is the foundation of our perception of reality"

Ah, but Tolkien manifestly did *not* "seek to insert" anything into LotR. Rather, his faith so shaped, so "baptized" (Lewis' phrase) his imagination that the perspective of faith was naturally embedded into Middle-earth, woven into the fabric of that secondary world as surely as Wisdom/Logos has been woven into ours.

Andrea is on to it: write, pray, and leave the rest to the Spirit.

Sue Dent said...

I don't think it's a matter of writing a story God gives us as much as it's about writing a story within the boundries of what we know to be right and wrong. If we're a Christian writing because that's what we have a knack for(a God given knack) then every story we write is God given. We're not one of the selected disciples God desired to write the gospels! We're writing fiction and fantasy and we're dropping little pieces of God into it. I'd be hard-pressed to say God gave Tolkien his story. I'd be even more hard-pressed to say, that doesn't make Tolkien a non-Christian. I think God was quite happy with the results of Tolkien's work, his God-inspired work.

Did any of that make sense? I rather doubt it. LOL

Andrea Graham said...

Go back and read what I actually wrote, Sue. I'm not talking about adding to a closed cannon. I'm talking about living a life in submission to Him. Staying plugged into him, getting your power, etc. from him. It's the Christian walk we're all called to, Sue. Plain and simple. What you're describing is the same trap I fall into.

In and of ourselves, we can't drop God into anything. God has to drop Himself in, and that requires a submitted vessel. We're like MP3 players. Apart from Him, we can do nothing, remember?

Let go of the wheel already! Let Jesus drive. You won't be sorry.

Sue Dent said...

First I have to figure out how to make him stop driving. But then, why would I want to do that! ;) He always has been and always will be in charge of what I do.

That's okay, I don't like driving anyway. And I apologize if it looked like I was responding to something you wrote specifically.
My point was supposed to be that I'm a Christian and I'm a writer but it would be quite a different thing for me to say God inspired me to write anything.

Of course he inspires me to write everything and he's right here with me so that pretty much sums it up. Or maybe no. My work is a Chritian World View based on what I know a Christian World View to be.

kc said...

Nice post, Peter. I enjoyed your take on spirituality in our writing.
Karri

Andrea Graham said...

Well, I certainly don't recommend putting that in a query letter, anyway!

But to put my perspective in perspective, I'm saying we should write "inspired" technical manuals or "inspired" news reports if that's where He's put us! Not divine transcription--who does that, anyway? Or would publicly admit to it if they did?