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Speculative Fiction, the Church, and Hope

2011 August 12

So NPR just released the results of their survey for the Top 100 Science-fiction and Fantasy Books. It’s a great list with some of my all-time favorite books on it (although I disagree with their decision not to include young adult books on the list, but that’s just me). Some 5,000 books were nominated for the list, but the ones that made the top 100 were mostly ones that were more than just entertaining stories; they are the stories that mean something. Stories that through their imaginings of alternative worlds tap into the power of the prophetic to deliver the message that our world too is not absolute, but imagined and therefore capable of change.

Now while I have complained in the past about why imaginative challenges to oppressive orders in our world only seem to happen in speculative fictions, the genre still remains my favorite – often for that very reason. As this recent comparison of women of sci-fi vs. women of prime time shows, there are just so many more substantial ways of being in the world than the status quo generally allows for. Speculative fictions not only present the possibility that the dreams we struggle for now could someday actually be realities, they are also the prophetic voice calling us into that world.

In many ways these fictions take up the task that the church has nearly completely abdicated. Churches don’t use their collective voice and energy to challenge the existence of a world where God’s ways are not allowed to reign. Oh, churches fight for their rights, but rarely are the ones helping build a better world for all. Churches instead help people feel fulfilled, spiritually connected, and generally as comfortable as they can. The church is often nothing more than a support group or vendor of experiences to help us feel like we belong. God is tacked-on to make our experiences feel meaningful, but not to challenge us to subvert the constraints to the sovereignty of the Kingdom of God. So we go to church to feel connected to a tradition, we go to get an “I’m okay, you’re okay” affirmation, we go to hear why we are right and everyone else is wrong, we go to feel safe and secure amidst likeminded people – but rarely do we go to imagine how everything could be different. Dreaming of better world is apparently only for those sci-fi/fantasy geeks.

But it was the role of the biblical prophet to imagine alternative ways of living in this world that reflected the ways of God. As Walter Brueggemann wrote about the prophetic, it is “an assault on public imagination, aimed at showing that the present presumed world is not absolute, but that a thinkable alternative can be imagined, characterized, and lived in. … Thus, the prophetic is an alternative to a positivism that is incapable of alternative, uneasy with critique, and so inclined to conformity.”
Churches are inclined to comfort and emotional well-being, and so therefore to conformity (read a fantastic article about that here). Prophetic voices are dismissed as too political, too extreme, or just a quirk of personality. Heck, in many churches even science-fiction and fantasy are banned because they are too subversive. Churches don’t bother imagining a better world where God’s ways of compassion and justice reign because we are too comfortable with the world we have now. We don’t want a prophet to challenge our comfort, or force us to look outside ourselves, or (heaven-forbid) start caring about the things God cares about.

The church has shut the door on imagination.

Which is why so many of us are desperate for the hopeful imaginings offered in speculative fictions.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. August 13, 2011

    It is indeed a sad state of affairs concerning the church, where truly visionary ideas are shut down. How much of it is because we are in bed with the enemy, our adultery wrapped around with the blanket of nationalism…never wanting to get up lest we wake our lover.

  2. Lamont Goodling permalink
    August 16, 2011

    Julie–

    What particular stories do think involve the imaginative challenges to oppresive regimes (or other imaginative challenges) that the church is currently without?

    Lamont

    • August 19, 2011

      Books that examine what it does to people to live in oppressive regimes. From classics like 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World, to more modern tales like Ender’s Game, or The Giver, or Jennifer Government, or The Hunger Games – the human cost of corporate or political oppression is shown in imaginative ways. What I discover all too often in the church though is the call to support and not question systems of oppression. We have wed Christianity in America to politics and economics – assuming that to be a good Christian we must support the reigning powers that be. Stories are where questions are allowed to be asked that often are not permitted in the church.

      • Lamont Goodling permalink
        August 19, 2011

        Ender’s Game is superb, I absolutely agree. Have you read the short story “The ones who walk away from Omelas,” by Ursula Leguin?

  3. Shots of whiskey permalink
    August 21, 2011

    “The church has shut the door on imagination.”

    From my point of view it has done the completely opposite! I think the church is built up from one imagination and then filling the church seats up with people who are like you are saying looking for the same things and finding it in this social group.

    I am a disbeliever in god which is why i can write things that might come as a shock to you.
    You say : “The church is often nothing more than a support group or vendor of experiences to help us feel like we belong.”

    Actually i could highlight many of the things you say in your article which i all think are a negative way of looking at your church witch is suppose to be your alter for praying etc..

    I get the feeling that most religious people find this comfort in their belief because it is as you say a safe haven.
    A social security.
    A stamp of approval.

    I am not attacking the church for being social -its more an attack because they use emotional things to claim that they can prove that god really is.
    That is what i don`t like.
    Being caring and thinking about others is something we can do without a god present.
    In some ways the god phrase is like a pair of extra wheels on a children`s bike.
    Because god tells us to do it then its ok….
    I cannot turn away from my feeling when i read your article….i feel as if you are tired of your religion…and that you are expecting so much more!?
    What!? No white lights? No holy ghost? No call?

    Your guilty conscience might make up something so that you can rest assure in the nest that you have spent so many years building up.

    It would be scary to break away from it-which is why many people stay in their false belief.

    Have you ever read that book about the emperors invisible clothes?

  4. July 22, 2014

    Everybody, in a sense, is either investing or wasting, all the time, every
    day. Prayers are said in conjunction with its
    presence on one’s person. There is a wonderful science fiction story ‘ a John Collier
    story ‘ that brings this idea home.

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