Theology and Science Fiction

Theolgians don’t read enough science fiction.
I’m serious. Really I am.

Properly though, I shouldn’t say *science* fiction, because I mean fantasy too, and both are subcategories of a larger genre called “speculative” fiction, which is the art of telling stories about things that *ain’t real*.

Ok. Now that I’ve (hopefully) offended the realists and literalists among us, let me explain. (No, explianing takes too much time; let me sum up.) Theology (presumably) is something we take seriously because it describes something real. As opposed to certain philosophers like PJ O’Rourke who have apparently gotten PHDs and gotten rich and famous by propounding things they don’t take seriously because they aren’t real (“Truth is whatever my colleagues let me get away with”?). But if we take it seriously ad we think it’s real, why am I suggesting that a good preparation for proper theology is a background in speculative fiction? I mean, it sould lose on two counts – first, it’s speculative, and second, it’s fiction. So why…?

Well, for starters, a little review of speculation might teach certain people to know the difference. Then, on the other hand, the “speculative” and the “fiction” might just cancel each other out and prove an antidote.

But in all earnestness, my reason is that theologians are entirely too esoteric. Properly, the only purpose for the work of theology is for the building up of the church, but many theologians spend oodles of time talking about things that have only the vaguest possible application for the church. They compound this by generally paying scant attention to rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the art of making sure that, when you say something, you say it well. One of the basic asperations of rhetoric is to take the effort at the very least, to be interesting. If the content of your argument cannot in itself be compelling reading, you ought to, at least, be entertaining. If this is too high, aim for amusing, but for heaven’s sake (literally), don’t expect your dry disconnected discussion to pull your reader along in dogged determination due to the urgency of the topic at hand.

Even more fundamental is basic simple clarity. Don’t lose the reader! I’m currently slogging through Anthony Hoekema’s book on escatology, *The Bible and the Future.* Generally, it’s been a quick read (much easier, in fact, than Calvin’s *Institutes*), but every once in a while he veers onto the shoulder, which seems to have been prepared with those lovely little pavement-grooves that sound so charming when driven over at 60 miles an hour. We’re talking about that “intermediate state” between death and resurrection which Christians believe all people will endure, either as a sleep without awareness or perhaps a temporary state of either glory or suffering. The question at hand is “what exactly, if anything, does scripture actually say about this state?” A key text for this question is II Corinthians 5, where Paul talks about the dilemma of living in our earthly bodies while longing for a heavenly body. He uses all sorts of great metaphors, like “tents” vs. “permanent buildings”, and being clothed and unclothed with our bodies. Hoekema spends four pages on this text without ever quoting a complete sentence. Frequently I found myself scanning up half a page just to find enough of a scanty quote for me to discover what on Earth (or perhaps, in heaven) he was talking about.

Now that’s not necessary is it? I mean, you’re writing a textbook. Your publisher is obviously unafraid of the book becoming too long. What’s wrong with quoting the sentence in question from time to time, perhaps with the introduction of each point? Surely there’s no harm in a little overlap. Surely there’s no fear that the reader will become too familiar with the text!

I had the same problem with Marva Dawn’s 1999 book on worship, *A Royal “Waste” of Time*. (I mention the date because frequently Marva Dawn is very… contemporary. I include the parenthetical remark because the great delight in reading Marva Dawn is her frequent – and *very* parenthetical – footnotes.) She included in the text several sample sermons to give example of how various topics might be taught from the pulpit. Frequently these sermons hinged entirely on the scripture reading for the day, which she referenced *but did not quote*, obliging me to read with one book in each hand. I confess frequently I was willing to sacrifice comprehension for convenience

Of course, the gauntlet thrown down is in the words themselves. Theologians are by nature theorists, and theorists *love* to fiddle with the language. They make up words; they take conventional words and use them in specialized ways; they do violence to normal grammar structures. Now, in another life, I fancied myself a poet, so I have a personal fondness for fiddling myself. One of my favorite axioms is that the only reason you ought to learn the rules [of grammar] is so that you can learn to break them properly. But that implies that I think there is a way to break them *properly*. Theorists (of every shape and size) break the rules *im*properly. They make up words when there’s already an apt term in the dictionary. They make up specialized forms of wordswhen there’s already a different version of the word with the required connotation already in general use. The obfuscate the grammar for no apparent reason!

The worstest example of this (or should I say, most egregious?) was in my Christian Education class last fall, in which every text written in the last century discussed the importance of “nurture” as a teaching tool, or perhaps as part of the actual content to be taught. Now properly, “nurture” is a verb, but there are established ways of modifying a verb into a noun, depending on what aspect of the verb you wish to emphasize. You can turn it into a gerund by adding an –ing to emphasize the current application of it (“We have good nurturing practices at this day care center”). You can make it an infinitive to emphasize its boundless extent (“To nurture is a mother’s highest calling”). Or you can add a noun ending (either –ment or –tion) to emphasize the effect on its recipient: nutriment or perhaps nutrition (“You can never overemphasize the benefits of nutriment, uh, nutrition). The one thing you should never do is leave the word as it is – a verb (“The most important task we have at hand is nurture”). That’s nothing but a large vehicle stalled in the fast lane of communication. What good does that do for the reader? What does that communicate? “We is educators” apparently.

So what do esoteric theologians have to do with science fiction? SF begins with the primary skill of acting as if something imagined were true. The writing begins as the working out of implications. If *x* is true, what corollary factors must also be true? How do people live in this brave new world? (In *Brave New World* by Aldous Huxley, they gets with the program, or they commits suicide.) This means that SF writers are in the habit of doing all the things with ideas that Theologians are supposed to do: Analyze concepts for consistency and for their practical implications, balance key factors that *must* be considered true against corollaries that only *might* be true, and create the terminology to describe things.

But SF writers have one advantage over theologians when it comes to communicating their treasured information: readers. SF writers are primarily writers of fiction, not merely writers of idle speculation, and their responsibility is – their very livelihood comes – in telling stories. Nobody kids themselves that the ideas they are discussing hold within them life and death. No one feels compelled by outside forces to read them. So SF writers have learned the art of kindness to their readers, because they know that simple strangeness doesn’t sell.

It’s the kindness that I’m missing from a lot of my theology books. I don’t mean the gentleness of saying harsh things nicely, but the simple courtesy of communicating clearly, of not merely insisting that their positions *must be believed*, but actually taking the steps to *make them believable*. If you want to send your characters on a journey to the center of the Earth, fine, but do me the courtesy of providing at least one character who fully expects the trip to be a failure. Another of my books this semester, *Redemption Accomplished and Applied* by John Murray, takes a very firm Reformed approach to soteriology. When he comes to the question of Calling, Murray says,

Calling is an act of God and God alone…. If calling is the initial step in our becoming actual partakers of salvation, the fact that God is its author forcefully reminds us that the pure sovereignty of God’s work of salvation is not suspended at the point of application any more than at the point of design and objective accomplishment. We may not like this doctrine. But if so, it is because we are adverse to the grace of God and wish to arrogate to ourselves the prerogative that belongs to God. And we know where that disposition had its origin.

I haven’t decided yet whether the position is true and already I’ve learned that I must be opposed to it because God’s grace has not yet overwhelmed all my faculties. What help am I supposed to obtain from this in order to come around to a fuller knowledge of the truth? None whatsoever. The center of the earth may be hollow, but there is no one I can find on the journey with me who will admit at least that it is sometimes difficult to believe.

You may think that I’m just asking too much of a textbook, but I don’t know that I am. I don’t expect academic work to be intellectually insipid, nor do I expect it to resemble entertainment. But please, let the difficulties come from the actual issues at hand, not from the roadblocks of poor writing and discourtesy to the reader. Even God, before he sent forth his Messiah, sent first a prophet saying, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

2 thoughts on “Theology and Science Fiction”

  1. You know… as much as I generally despise the typical “great post!” comments, here the phrase sums up my thoughts exactly. Just think how much better Challies’ site would be if he (a) read science fiction and (b) included pictures in his posts! 😉


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