Speculative Fiction, the Church, and Hope
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.