As a Christian writer of SF and fantasy, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what makes most works of “Christian F and SF” so bad. It’s no news to anyone that most of what is called “Christian” art is very subpar by the standards of professional artists. Christian bands do not do well in the mainstream. Christian films die at the box office. Christian fiction is sold only at Christian bookstores. And yet obviously, it does not have to be this way. For centuries, art and music (and fiction) in celebration of the Christian ideal were renowned as the very pinnacle of artistic endeavor. In music, there were the works of Bach and Handel. In art, Michelangelo and Raphael. In poetry, Milton, and in prose fiction, John Bunyan and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. C.S. Lewis, arguably the last fantasy writer to be both explicitly Christian and to break out into the mainstream in a big way, pointed out in his essay “It Began With A Picture” that most writers get it wrong. Lewis reveals that perhaps his most explicitly “Christian” novel, Perelandra, began with the picture of the floating islands upon which most of the action of the novel takes place. It was only when Lewis started to think about the islands and his imagined world of Venus that the story of an averted Fall of a new species of humanity began to take shape.
I was honored last year to have my short story “This Far Gethsemane” included in the anthology Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith. (That was after it had been rejected by this very magazine, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much.) But my editor, Kristin Janz, said that one of the problems with the stories she got was that they were too afraid to be heretical. And this makes sense to me. Here’s why: a look at history will show you that when a religious culture feels threatened, they tend to respond to it by becoming more rigid, and more hostile to anything that smacks of heresy. You could see it in the Jewish faith under the Romans and Greeks. The “other gods” of the Old Testament Prophets had long since been rejected in the face of the overwhelming physical power of the pagans, and by Christ’s time, the various factions were competing to show how rigidly they could follow the law. Contrast the art and writings of Islamic Arabs at their height, when Baghdad was the library of the world, open to beautiful books from pre-Islamic times as well as classical Greek and Roman (i.e. “pagan”) and Christian philosophers, to the fundamentalist Islamism of today that obsessively destroys anything “not Muslim” enough. So it is with Christianity. Milton and Botticelli had no problem with placing pagan gods and goddesses alongside their glorifications of God. And, tellingly, so it was with C.S. Lewis, who treated his pagan gods as distorted views of greater angels. As Ms. Janz points out, even Narnia is not devoid of heresy. The Father (Emperor) and the Son (Aslan) may be there, but where is the Holy Spirit?
I have found that the very best fiction that addresses Christian themes does not shy away from heresy. Dan Simmons, perhaps the best epic science-fiction writer of the present day, plays intensely with Christian themes in his Hyperion series, in ways that do seem heretical, but also bring up questions that no theologian could afford to ignore. In my childhood, I very much enjoyed the first novels of Stephen Lawhead. His novels of the realm of Mensandor were striking in their simplicity, but were also “heretical” from a Christian point of view. The Creator-God of that realm resembled the Unitarian Jehovah or Allah far more than the Trinitarian Father-Son-Spirit.
The worst Christian fiction, by contrast, shows a terrible fear of heresy, and seems to be much more interested in cultivating the isolation of a Christian readership facing an actively hostile world. The novels of Frank Peretti, for example, or the Left Behind series show persecuted and demon-tormented Christians and their families desperately falling to their knees, and guardian angels fighting for (and beseeching for “prayer cover” from) comfortably right-wing middle-class Americans to do battle with evil secular forces of university professors, media stars, and politicians whose embrace of sexual promiscuity and cultural relativism are motivated by demons playing with their minds. It’s desperately trying to be topical, and only achieves this at the cost of portraying a God and angels who are just as frightened and confused as the protagonists of the story.
When angels appear in the Bible, it is telling that their first words to humans are, almost always, “fear not.” The impression is that angels, much less the Glory of God, are terrifying, regardless of the fact that they are good. The masters of old knew this, but we who serve God in the halls of art seem to have forgotten, preferring safety to the kingdom and the glory and the power. The readers know it, and they hate it. It has to change.