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Friday, March 30, 2007

Christian aspects of fantastic literature

Fantastic literature, let us say, is literature with settings or characters that cannot be real. Science fiction, more or less, is about events that might take place in the future, or events that could have taken place in the past, if things had been different (this type is sometimes called alternate history). Fantasy literature is about things that never could have been, at least not in this universe.

Fantastic literature is, in my opinion, no more, or no less, likely to present a Christian world-view than any other kind of fiction, except for fiction that is specifically produced for sale to Christians, mostly through Christian bookstores. (Let's call such material faith fiction.) I know little about faith fiction, even faith fiction which is fantastic literature. (Also, I know little about fiction in languages other than English.)

Prominent authors, such as John Bunyan, have chosen allegory, a type of fantasy, to make their case for Christianity. I am not dealing with such works in this post, either.

There are a number of authors of fantastic literature who have written with a Christian world-view, who have been widely read by the general public, and, therefore, made an impact on literature. The most prominent was J. R. R. Tolkien, but there have been others, including Gene Wolfe, who is still writing, George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. It is possible that J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series will turn out to have such a world-view. Some authors (see here and here) have claimed this even before the series is finished. (Other authors have vehemently rejected even the possibility of Christianity in the Potter novels, or in fantastic literature by anyone else, for that matter. I shall ignore such nonsense here.)

Here's a list, from a few years ago, of the denominational affiliations of prominent writers of fantastic fiction. The web page has some links to other pages related to this subject. At least one author has been omitted, mistakenly, in my opinion. Although I enjoyed the work of Zenna Henderson, I believe that Patricia A. McKillip's body of work is much more substantial than Henderson's, but Henderson is listed, and McKillip is not.

What makes a novel a Christian novel? This is what I think, condensed from a previous pair of posts, here and here. In these posts, I wrote that one or more of these elements, intentionally included, must be present:
1) A Christ-figure
2) Belief, by central characters, in important Christian doctrines, such as a belief in the Trinity, or the resurrection
3) Monotheistic prayer or other worship
4) Expression of a relationship with God as Lord, by a main character
5) Consciousness of supernatural guidance
6) Explicit rejection of evil, by a main character

What makes a character a Christ-figure? I would say that redemptive sacrifice is the most important aspect of this. Gandalf, in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, might be said to be a Christ-figure, in that he died in Moria so that the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring could survive. Besides that, he also did what Christ did, namely reappear in a resurrected body. (I don't think it is reasonable to expect most fictional Christ-figures to do that!)

I have some trouble with my own list, illustrated by Susan Palwick's* The Necessary Beggar. It would take some real obtuseness to overlook the obvious, namely that Palwick is writing with a Christian world-view. Yet, I am not sure that the book really qualifies as a Christian novel, if, to do so, it must meet my criteria above. Hence, I add another item to the previous list:
7) Christian world-view

This is probably another way of saying that, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography, I know Christian-oriented fantastic literature when I see it, but I really can't manufacture a good definition of it.

Juliet Marillier is an avowed pagan, but she has written some books that do include at least element 2, but not by a main character.

Claw of the Conciliator has published a good short annotated list of important writers who were/are Christians.

Mirtika has produced a longer list of what makes "speculative fiction" Christian. A helpful feature of her list is that it consists of alternatives. Here's a sample:
7. I believe it should offer hope.
8. I do not believe that it must be chipper and relentlessly optimistic in tone. Many suffer lives of endless struggle and torment, and it may not get better with time. However, there must be a sense that suffering, though normal, is not the only thing to look forward to. That there is something else, something beyond. Ecclesiastes is a dark book, a pessimistic one, that ultimately offers some hope. That might be a good guideline for those of us attracted to the darker corners of human experience.

For those with further interest in this subject, I recommend two blogs, The Lost Genre Guild, which covers authors less widely known -- faith fiction fantastic literature writers -- than those I listed in the fourth paragraph above, and occasionally includes posts by such authors, and Speculative Faith, which is more likely to look somewhat askance at faith fiction, even if it is fantastic, and may cover more theoretical aspects of fantastic literature written from a Christian worldview.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your criticism.

I expect to post soon about Christian themes in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy, and also about the question of whether fantastic literature is a specially good medium for considering Christian themes.

* * * * *

*Note added March 31, 2007. Susan Palwick, herself, has made a comment on this post, and I recommend that you read it.

April 2, 2007: Made two editorial changes. I thank my wife for reading this post.

November 22, 2007: In a shameless attempt to pick up more Google search hits, I am adding these terms: novel, book, aspects, characteristics, attributes, properties, Christian, literature.


Susan Palwick said...

Hi, Martin! First, thanks for your thoughtful comments on The Necessary Beggar. You're absolutely right about the echoes of Mt 25:31-46. That's one of my favorite Gospel passages, and it shows up fairly often in my work.

Secondly, while I definitely write with a Christian worldview, I usually do so from the viewpoints of characters who are skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, Christianity: Timbor in TNB, Cece in my story "G.I. Jesus" (reprinted in my collection The Fate of Mice), Welly in my story Cucumber Gravy, which I describe as "C.S. Lewis meets the Coen brothers in the Nevada desert." I think it's vital to acknowledge that there are very good reasons for people to be wary of Christians and Christian churches. If most of these characters wind up being less hostile to Christianity during the course of the story, that's because my own faith journey followed the same path. I call them "unexpected Christians:" people who, much to their surprise, find things of value in Christian faith that they never suspected, or who are acting in ways of which Christ would approve even though they want nothing to do with him.

Third, I don't think Gandalf's the only Christ figure in LotR. Frodo certainly falls into that category, but in various ways, so do Sam, Aragorn, and Faramir. I suspect a case (albeit a twisted one) could even be made for Gollum!

Martin LaBar said...

I am honored by your comment! Thanks for the explanation.

I think you are right about LotR and Sam, Aragorn, and probably Faramir. While we're at "twisted" cases, I guess that Boromir qualifies as much as Gollum.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your work.

cyn said...


I used your list of what makes a Christian novel Christian as a discussion point on the Lost Genre Guild mail list. Quite a lengthy discussion (oft times heated) ensued! Starting with the post "Writing as Unto the Lord" was the first of 4 blog posts at the LGG blog that week that were written as an extension to the discussion.

Although the origins of the discussion seemed to be forgotten as the posts added up, I did attribute the list to your blog (with a link) on the mail group. I have to thank you for providing meaningful fodder for our little group!


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks so much for letting me know, cyn. I am humbled and honored that anyone reads my blog, let alone uses it. To God be the glory.