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Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Need for Mythic Storytelling
There is a reason that stories like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent are popular. Of all the sub genres of speculative fiction, the ones of science fiction (sci-fi) and fantasy hold a power that few others do. They pull us into realities that extend beyond the mundane limits of our world. They beckon us to explore the supernatural and transcendent concepts of life, and to reflect on real-life issues in creative ways.
Most importantly, though, sci-fi/fantasy portray humanity in ways that other genres cannot. When humans are placed in a setting that is anything but familiar, the story has a way of revealing truths about humanity that otherwise go unnoticed. For instance, when a group of humans must survive on an alien planet, we get a potent glimpse of what makes humanity unique, with all its weaknesses and strengths. There’s something about pushing humanity out of its familiar setting, and forcing it to interact with non-humans, that brings out its depth in vivid ways.
I want to see more Christian sci-fi and fantasy novels, films and sagas. There are some, yes, but when I browse the selection of “Christian/Inspirational Fiction” at the bookstore, it seems the predominant genre is historical fiction (or at least genres that pertain to “ordinary life”). Thanks to some pioneers, such as Jeff Gerke, who has opened a publishing house solely for Christian sci-fi and fantasy novels, there does seem to be a growing market for this niche.
Then there are authors like Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker, who specialize in paranormal Christian fiction thrillers (not considered sci-fi or fantasy). A film has even been made from their coauthored book, House; this is a very welcome step towards closing the ever-frustrating gap between secular and Christian arts, especially with the genres of sci-fi/fantasy.
The problem is not that nothing is being done, but that it’s being done so slow that it’s essentially nonexistent. But what is the real issue? What’s thwarting Christian sci-fi/fantasy novels and films from gaining popular interest and attention? I know that “we are not of this world” (John 17:16), but that doesn’t mean our stories can’t resonate with mainstream audiences.
Melanie C. Duncan says part of the problem is due to the dwindling fan base in the Christian community for such genres, which thus discourages more Christian writers from pursuing them. After all, why write stories for a dwindling fan base?
Then, there are the examples of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. These two authors are prime examples of those who have bridged the gap between the Church and pop culture with their storytelling. Yet why is it that their novels seem to be the only works of sci-fi/fantasy that the Christian community feels safe to recognize and enjoy?
Why aren’t there more recognizable examples?
As Christian writers, I think it’s easy to target the Christian community because we know what our community wants to see in stories. We know about grace, redemption, miracles, angels and demons, and we know these elements meet Christian sensibilities. Once we desire to cross over to the mainstream markets, though, we freeze up. We find it hard to include elements into our stories that don’t directly relate to Christian theology or concepts. We want our writing to illustrate what we believe. In other words, we want our worldview to be obvious. We don’t want to leave things ambiguous or open to interpretation because we fear the possibility of misinterpretation. Lewis and Tolkien never mention “God” in their popular stories, obviously leaving their stories ambiguous, yet they can clearly be deemed “Christian” (Tolkien's works include Christian elements that are slightly more subtle and nuanced, but they are still present).
The Apostle Paul’s words are pertinent to this issue:
“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22b-23)
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (1 Cor. 10:31-33)
The purpose of our life as Christians is to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), and fiction authors are not excluded. If we “preach to the choir” and only target the Christian community with our works, what’s the point? Like Paul, we must proclaim the Gospel in such a way that translates it for the everyone, not just for the Church. Not every sci-fi/fantasy fan will want to read a book that is endowed with blatant Christian elements; they want something that resonates with their humanity. Christian authors must not shy away from accommodating such sensibilities because, as Paul says, we must be all things to all people.
It’s time to dig deeper and discover what makes good stories stay popular for generations, such as what Lewis and Tolkien have done. I refuse to believe these authors’ popularity is due to their historical-cultural context; I believe it’s due to their reliance on a form of storytelling that has been forgotten: mythic storytelling.
John Montgomery says: “In [the 20th Century] when most secularists and theologians are busily stripping away alleged ‘myths’ from Christianity, [Lewis, Tolkien and others] find in myth the objectifying literary apologetic for Christian truth.”
What does “mythic storytelling” mean? It’s the type of storytelling that is just cryptic enough to make people ask the deep questions, but not cryptic enough to lead people down the wrong path. It’s a method that invites people to think through what they believe. It’s the perfect method that allows writers to incorporate their worldview into the story without coming across as proselytizers.
The methods of conventional evangelism (which I am not condemning, by any means) has let many Christians forget what Lewis and Tolkien offered to Christian apologetics and evangelism. When it comes to Christian stories today, I’m not seeing the type of stories that are mythic, even parabolic, in nature--the stories that tantalize people with a thirst for God.
Myths provide the perfect medium for such a task because, by their nature, they invite us into the transcendent values that human crave. We listen to a well-told mythic story because they’re told in the language of the heart, and transmitted through the medium of the mind’s imagination. Myths provoke the soul to desire and feel. With such desire awakened, people remember who they are and who they were made to be. I want to see more mythic stories produced by the “Christian storytelling industry,” the writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, etc. Only then will the Church see more presence in mainstream storytelling, and thus serve Christ in the Great Commission.
So what must we do? Start digging into ourselves, into the Bible, and into the great stories of our day to see what makes humans move to tears, laughter and anger. What makes us turn pages? What compels us to go to the movie theater and see a movie twice? What makes us want to be in the stories we love? What makes us want to do something with our lives? The answers to these questions is what Christian storytellers must have if we are to invite people to explore the things of God. These are the questions asked by mythic stories, and that is why we need more Christians creating them.
- Duncan, Melanie C. “Genre Spotlight | Christian Fiction: A Born-Again Genre.” Library Journal: Reviews. http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2012/02/collection-development/genre-spotlight-christian-fiction-a-born-again-genre/ (accessed December 6th, 2014).
- Montgomery, John W. “Introduction: The Apologists of Eucatastrophe.” In Myth, Allegory and Gospel, 11-31. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 29-30