Happy “the holiday weekend is a distant memory in this cubicle” Day! I genuinely hope you all enjoyed the Labor Day weekend. Maybe you did some hiking, camping, or just sat around the house enjoying not having to be anywhere. Good stuff.
Alas, fall is on the horizon and school has started up again. The academic year is here once again and in honor of school, I will be spending the month of September sharing a series related to my favorite high school subject: English! Genre fiction to be more precise! And why Christians should want to write it. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring what makes genre fiction (specifically fantasy, science fiction, and horror) so intriguing, and why Christian writers and readers should engage with these intentionally, passionately, and creatively.
As a qualifier, I’d like to emphasize that there is so much that can be said about each of these genres. Thousands and thousands of words could be devoted to the specifics of each. However, as a blogger, brevity is my ever-lasting frenemy. I hope to keep my discussions concise and in the ball park of 600-700 words. Your time is precious (and attention spans online wane. No judgement). This means that despite my desire for concision, I will be speaking in some generalities and I will be leaving the nuances of sub-genre out of the conversation, if only for this series. Fun times ahead!
Let us jump right in, shall we?
I do love genre fiction. Genre fiction is largely defined by a story’s plot-driven style that roots itself within a particular genre of literature. A genre carries certain themes, settings, and tropes (mysteries have detectives, westerns have bandits, fantasy involves a quest, etc). When you open a novel or begin a movie, you can usually determine rather quickly what genre it identifies with. And by and large we as a society soak genre fiction up. We can’t get enough of it. Even when academia scoffs at genre fiction (I’ve included a video below of Patrick Rothfuss responding to such scoffing), Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead are still cultural phenomenas as pervasive as the image of Mickey Mouse.
Why then do Christians not seem to write more genre fiction? Isn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition rooted in the act of story telling? Don’t the gospels describe Jesus teaching in figurative language and narrating parables? The vast majority of the biblical text is written as narrative (or poetry, which is often carrying a narrative). The closest Scripture has to theological treatises are the New Testament epistles which are largely circumstantial in their origin. The apostles are engaging a narrative.
The early church told many stories. Prior to the fourth century, stories of those martyred in the gladiatorial games grew in legend and renown. The tradition was largely oral for decades prior to the writings of Paul. Preaching was story telling.
So when did Christians give up telling stories in favor of theological essays and philosophical apologetics? I suspect that we can first thank the incorporation of Greek philosophy for that. And once the Enlightenment occurred, the Church swallowed the idol of empirical evidence hook, line, and sinker. I could write more to unpack that lineage within church history, but suffice it to say the Church became more concerned with explaining theology rather than illustrating theology.
“But Dan, what about C.S. Lewis?”
Have you read much of Lewis’ fiction? I think the Space Trilogy is brilliant, but the vast majority of those books is dialogue and speeches outlining Lewis’ apologetics and theology. He more or less writes essays and then has characters read them aloud to other characters. Not awesome story telling.
Certainly we can name decent Christian authors, but they’re few and far between. Fiction illustrates. Narrative invites the reader or hearer to experience the story, to find his or herself as a character in that story. It requires someone to use his or her imagination and engage with abstract possibilities. Much of apologetics and theological essays are preoccupied with asserting a definitive truth (often a very specific truth that the Tradition has argued over for centuries), and is hell-bent on the reader’s agreement and adherence.
Rarely does the polemical and apologetic writing of the last century or so evoke any need for imagination. Why need the imagination? Because it is only with the imagination that one can begin to see the world differently, to begin to see the potential or possibilities beyond the present. The imagination allows human beings to approach that which is beyond their comprehension.
Without imagination, God remains too big for us to wrap our minds around.
Even with it, we do not “understand” theD in its entirety. But imagination plays with the “What if…?” questions. An imagination poorly used leads to anxiety, but an imagination excited about possibilities is exhilarating. Maybe the fundamentalist church in America would be far less anxious (bordering on paralyzing fear) if it embraced the art of fiction again. Maybe the progressive liberal church in America would not succumb to pretentious elitism when faced with moments in the biblical text which seem impossible or supernatural. Maybe we’d all be okay with mystery if we gave our imagination permission to play and explore all the Divine has to offer.
Let’s see what bubbles to the proverbial surface this month.
Thanks for reading.
Enjoy my favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss.
[If you’d like to read up on some of the authors and materials I’ll be referencing, here’s an overview: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos, the biblical texts of Job, Revelation, and others]