Recently in an email group I belong to, the question came up about Christian speculative fiction not being so very Christian. A good number are set in a fantasy world or on a planet far, far away, and the “faith elements” seem more nearly aligned with mythology or the occult than with Christianity. So how is it they are Christian?
As I think about that question, C. S. Lewis’s great novel Til We Have Faces comes to mind. This story, perhaps his best, is a retelling of the Greek myth Cupid and Psyche. And yet it is one of the most spiritually truthful books I’ve ever read.
One reviewer described the book as “a compelling story of Love, and Love’s imitators (desire, dependency, etc.)” (excerpt from “Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis“).
I think that line encapsulates the point of the story.
Lewis hardly needs to make the connections for us — God is love, so this story about another place and pretend gods, is actually about Him. In other words, some of the heavy lifting should come from the reader.
In sum, one must expect that Till We Have Faces will make slightly heavier demands than Lewis’s earlier stories. It requires more alertness, more involvement in the narrative process, more willingness to become informed so that material will be meaningful. It requires, then, an adult level of reading (which, it must be added, some people reach at a very early age, and others never reach), but it will yield, therefore, adult-level understandings of Lewis, of life, and of oneself. (excerpt from Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis by Peter Schakel
Speculative fiction seems to come in three classes — that which deals with the supernatural identified in Scripture, that which portrays truth through allegory, and that which uses symbolism and suggestion to illuminate the spiritual.
All three have their danger points. How much speculation should a writer engage in when the topic is angels and demons — beings which actually exist?
How unavoidably predictable is allegory, turning deep matters of faith into boring platitudes?
And finally, what happens when an author trusts the reader to make symbolic connections, and they don’t?
My friend Sally Apokedak, in the same discussion I mentioned, pointed out that all Christian fiction has the same burden — telling the truth through story in an engaging way. In many ways a contemporary story is harder to meet all the obligations of Christian fiction.
It can be too predictable or cheesy or so oblique that the “faith elements” seem tacked on. The need for all stories is to wrap the story around the them in such an organic way that the two can’t be separated.
Speculative fiction is no different.
Is it possible someone will miss who Aslan is or who the God of the Mountain is? Or who the returning king is, in The Lord of the Rings? Yes, it is possible. That’s a risk, granted.
Is it possible that people reading The Last Battle will decide to worship a donkey instead of The Lion? Yes, that’s possible, too, just as it’s possible for someone to sit in church Sunday after Sunday and never turn to Christ.
Reading is a synergistic experience. The writer puts meaning into his story and the reader takes away from the book what matters to him. The writer has no control over what the reader will end up doing with the story in front of him.
The Christian writer needs to exercise trust. The first and most important object of trust is in God and what He will do with the work we’ve committed to Him.
The other object of trust is the reader. If the writer has done his job and we believe God can and will use what we give to Him, can we not then trust the reader to do the job of reading well?
So what makes a speculative book Christian? Truth — spiritual truth, whether it is symbolic or overt.