My post Christian Spec-Fic: At a Crossroads or a Cul-de-Sac generated some great discussion, some of which is still going on. One phrase that got lifted from the conversation seemed to strike a nerve with a lot of folks and was addressed frequently in follow-up comments on that post and on THIS FB thread.
Monday, fantasy novelist Becky Miller addressed the “offending” phrase again in Christian Speculative Fiction and Intellectual Rigor. She opens,
…one phrase in particular gnawed at me: “intellectual rigor.” Christian fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular needs more intellectual rigor, according to one comment to the original post.
So what does “intellectual rigor” mean when it comes to fiction?
That phrase — “intellectual rigor” — was mine and occurred in response to Tony in the comments. Here it is:
I want to see Christian spec-fic succeed! I want to see Realm Makers grow! If I am able, I would definitely plan on attending. I just happen to think we’re going to need more intellectual rigor and less costumes to get somewhere. (bold, mine)
I think that comment ended up receiving as much response as the post itself. The cosplay crowd chimed in and vigorously defended their turf. Huzzah! But apparently it was my mention of “intellectual rigor,” or the lack thereof, that bugged not a few. Some responded suggesting I wasn’t at Realm Makers so I couldn’t say how intellectually rigorous it was. Others wrote to assure me that it wasn’t all fun and games at the conference.
I wanted to take a minute to delve into Becky’s question: “So what does ‘intellectual rigor’ mean when it comes to fiction?” However, a more accurate question would be, “What did MIKE mean when he suggested Christian writers need more intellectual rigor?” First, let’s take a look at what Becky thought I meant. She opens with this illustration:
Some years ago I read a novel touted for its literary quality. I decided I should read it as part of my writing education. The story had two point-of-view characters–sisters, as I recall.
One told her portion of the story in chronological fashion, starting at the beginning and working her way forward. The other, alternating with the first, told her portion looking back from the conclusion of the story, detailing the events in reverse order as they wound down toward the start.
Of course, the reader is left to figure out this structure on her own. How many chapters did I flounder through, uncertain what had happened or when and to whom. The worst of it was, in the end, one sister dies. That’s it. The other sister seems unchanged by the loss. Yes, it seems like a tragedy, but to what purpose? What’s the point? I closed the book feeling as if I’d been cheated.
Was that novel intellectually rigorous because I was confused most of the way through? In the same way that a puzzle is, I suppose. But I’ve worked many a puzzle and haven’t found my worldview challenged or my questions answered.
Ah, yes. There’s the rub. Unanswered questions are supposed to be a sign of intellectual rigor in this day and age. (emphasis in original)
While I do believe that ambiguity can be a powerful story-telling device (as Becky affirms in her later illustrations about parabolic teaching), let me be clear, this is not what I meant by Christian speculative fiction needing more “intellectual rigor.”
By “intellectual rigor” I’m not referring to the type of stories being published but the theological justifications for such stories.
One commenter on Becky’s post captures more of the gist of my thinking. From notleia:
As someone who has studied literature and has a certain fondness for Kurt Vonnegut, I made a Gollum-like screech of objection. I really don’t think anti-intellectualism is the answer, and one of my biggest objections to Christian fiction as it is is the one-size-fits-all answers that feel prepackaged and disingenuous. Are we going to leave CS Lewis as the lone high water mark for Christian intellectualism? Lewis engaged with and responded to (literary) Modernism, and I’ve yet to see anyone engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.
I disagree with the commenter in that, as far as I can tell, Becky is not condoning “anti-intellectualism.” What I am in full agreement with, however, is the suggestion that the Christian fiction community has yet to “engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.”
This intellectual “engagement” is much of what I see as lacking in our industry.
I agree with Becky that C.S. Lewis is a good example of intellectual rigor… just not for the same reasons she notes. Lewis’ essays on science fiction and art criticism reveals a scaffold of thought and body of theology that informed his writing. Among Lewis’ essays on literature, reading, theology, and genre, are
- Christianity and Literature
- On Three Ways of Writing for Children
- Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said
- On Science Fiction
- Christianity and Culture
And there’s many more. Point is Lewis spent time thinking through and articulating the theology behind fiction, fairy tales, myths, and science fiction. Sure, the guy was a scholar and literary critic. Nevertheless, this is the type of “rigor” that many of the greats — like Chesterton, Tolkien, O’Connor, Sayers, and Lewis — brought to their craft.
Take Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor wrote often about her writing and the theology which informed it. Furthermore, O’Connor often took on the conventions of then-contemporary religious novelists. For instance, in Mystery and Manners (p. 163) O’Connor writes:
Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.
Not only was O’Connor not afraid to challenge the status quo of the “religious novel,” she does so having thought through the “particular theology” that produces one or the other. As a Christian author, Flannery O’Connor put significant thought into the intersection of her theology, craft, and culture.
This is the type of “intellectual rigor,” I believe, that today’s Christian fiction community needs again.
But let me return to Becky’s criticism. Using the parabolic teachings of Christ, which involved powerful lessons to a simple agrarian culture, Becky concludes:
In all this talk of “intellectual rigor,” I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction. It seems to me, some novelists today want to tell farmers stories about computers or auto mechanics about organic feeding processes. When they aren’t interested, these writers are chastising them for not being intellectually rigorous. I wonder how intellectually rigorous those writers would appear to be if they were given a farm to run.
If these writers want to reach farmers, they ought to be writing stories about which farmers care and which hold significance for farmers rather than criticizing them for the weakness of their intellectual rigor.
Ouch! I’ll try to ignore Becky’s not-so-veiled jabs at “those writers” who are preoccupied with “chastising [other novelists] for not being intellectually rigorous.”
Again, Becky proceeds on the wrong assumption that by “intellectual rigor” I mean content. I don’t. Indeed, speaking to farmers or children may require more intellectual rigor than less. Once again, my concern has to do with the “particular theology” that has given rise to and sustained the Christian fiction subculture.
As I responded in the aforementioned FB thread:
I see the Christian spec-fic genre as requiring a fairly serious break from the “bad theology” that has shaped much of mainstream Christian fic and a revisiting of a theology of the arts.
Them are my cards and they’re all on the table — “bad theology” has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.
My guess — no, my fear — is that many advocates of Christian speculative fiction are importing the same faulty theology and worldview into their approach of the Christian speculative fiction genre.
Other than genre, how is Christian speculative fiction different from mainstream Christian fiction?
That’s the question I wish to ask my fellow Christian spec-fic writers.
As I concluded in my original post: “…if Realm Makers is about simply reproducing CBA-style fiction for speculative readers, I believe we’ve failed. We’re still in the ghetto. The only real ‘crossroads’ Christian speculative fiction is at is whether or not it will remain simply an appendage to the existing Christian fiction industry or will blaze a trail, capture a new audience, and do more than just provide the ‘Christian alternative’ to Neil Gaiman.”
So let me issue a proposal…
If any group of writers are capable of bringing a significant change to the industry and expanding the poles of Christian story-telling, it would be Christian spec writers. Please don’t take this as a slam against other genre writers. There’s plenty of smart people and great writers writing something other than speculative fiction. However, from my perspective, the Christian spec-fic writer has two advantages:
- Speculative fiction has sustained huge ongoing cultural popularity (see the proliferation of spec titles in film, TV, and general market lit); it resonates with our culture and the human experience
- Christian spec-fic authors have a storied history (see Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Sayers, L’Engel, etc.), not just in producing tales that became cultural landmarks, but in theological engagement with their craft and culture
The discussions that have followed the Realm Makers conference have been fantastic! Many of the subsequent commenters, like those on Morgan Busse’s post at Spec Faith, have suggested a broader reach. Whether it’s through inclusion or incorporation of comics and graphic artists, Christian filmmakers, a bigger platform for other genres (like horror), or simply reaching an audience that’s yet to be reached. The scope of this “new” genre, in my opinion, will be dependent not just upon organizational strategies, but upon the depth of the philosophy we can articulate and choose to embrace.
Is our “theology of speculative fiction” one that will move us forward and allow us to see more challenging, genre-bending stories that reach outside the mainstream of the Christian market? Not just a theology that disentangles itself from the mainstream, but one that allows us to “engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.”
Just as Lewis, Tolkein, and Chesterton wrote essays on theology, literature, and genre, and O’Connor took to task the “religious novel” and its “particular theology,” might I suggest we need similar essayists and apologists to step forward in the Christian spec-fic community. I think E. Stephen Burnett and his team at Speculative Faith have been a great start. My suggestion is that we now take aim, be more specific, perhaps even forge an “association,” to carry on a great legacy began by others.
But to do this, requires “intellectual rigor,” a humble, collective articulation of and thinking through the theology and beliefs that have thus far shaped the “Christian art” culture.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!