Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cultural Belief Systems and Christian Speculative Fiction

My friend, Mirriam, over at "Thoughts of a Shieldmaiden", just recently published a post about what she believes is the problem with Christian Fiction these days.  Before you read this post, I highly suggest that you skip on over to her blog and read what she has to say on the matter.  It's quite blood-rousing.

My post is an add-on to hers... some thoughts I had on why Christian Fiction is often less "fun" to read than secular fiction is. For one thing, I've noticed that good stories are sacrificed for the sake of a sermon-on-a-soapbox. I can’t stand reading that kind of stuff myself, and I pray to God that my writing doesn’t turn out like that either.

But I think that a lot of the reason Christian Fiction turns out this way is because of what I like to call "The Limited Christian Outlook".

Now, I'm 100% a born again christian and believe whole heartedly that the only way to God is through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross to cleanse a forsaken and fallen world from their sin.  But the truth of the matter is that Christians are very good at putting things into mental boxes.  We try it with God all the time, and COME ON!!!  We should seriously know by now that God CANNOT be put into a box!

That never stops us from trying, though. It never has, and it probably never will.

What does this have to do with Christian Fiction writing?  The answer is quite simple... at least in my mind.  Christians are some of the best sort of people for ignoring things that they don't like in the real world.  For instance, has anyone ever noticed how so many Christian fiction books have only one religious belief system?  How about how so many of them have only two sides to choose from, the side that is supposedly "right" and the side that is supposedly "wrong"?  Some people might say that this has a lot to do with the allegorical nature that most Christian Fiction books should take after, but quite honestly, I don't believe this outlook is helping our books in the slightest.

Why don't I believe this?

Because the world is not made up of people who all believe the same as everybody else.  Sure, almost everybody believes in right and wrong, but we all have different points of views as to what those rights and wrongs are.  The Muslims believe that Mohamed is the ultimate prophet of God, and that Christianity is an abomination.  The Mormons believe that the Bible isn't the only holy text and follow both the Bible and the Book of Mormon; they share some Christian beliefs, but also believe in plural marriage and other things that most modern Christians don't agree with.  The Scientologists believe that the world was actually populated by aliens millions and millions of years ago; the Darwinists believe that Humans were first derived from fish who apparently came onto land and become monkeys, who eventually evolved into the human race (or some other such nonsense); and the Atheists believe that there is no God or "Greater Power" at all, and never was.

And then there are the Christians.

You see the problem here, right?  In a world where so many people believe in so many different versions of their own personal "right" and "wrong -- where all of these different people try to make everyone else see their version of "right" as the ultimate right, and their version of "wrong" as the ultimate wrong -- HOW can Christian Writers create truly believable story worlds by only using one version of right and wrong?  The "Christian Version" that is?

Quite honestly, friends, I don't think it can be done.  Humanity is too colorful for that.  As much as Christians wish they could only see in black and white, the world has proven that there is simply too much grey, and to not at least show this grey in some shape or form in our books is to push aside the element of believability.

Now, some of you are probably looking at me cross-eyed right now.  And you are probably thinking, "How on earth can that girl think she is Christian and yet speak so liberally about such matters as these?"

Well let me tell you, I make no exceptions for my belief system.  I believe in the One True God, and in the Holy Trinity.  I believe 100% that Christ is my savior, my Wonderful Lord, the ultimate Lover of my Soul.

But I can also see that most of the world doesn't believe like this.  In fact, in THIS world... in THIS reality... Black and White is only visible to the person who sees it that way, how they perceive those colors to be.  One person might see White, while another person sees that White as Black and vise-versa.  It is the simple truth of Human Nature... a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Now, one thing I've noticed about a lot of secular fiction - especially fantasy - is the presence of multiple cultures with multiple beliefs.  This, I believe, is part of what makes those books so fun and interesting to read.

It is the principal of culture.  The real world is NOT made up of multiple cultures that all believe in the truths of Christianity, or the falsities of what's left.  Rather, the real world is made up of multiple cultures and histories that have developed their own belief systems, their own versions of right and wrong.  In fact, that's why so many cultures have myths and legends, and why so many of them have fallen away, disintegrating into history.  Take the Greek mythologies, for instance; I need hardly say more.

It is my belief that a believable story world should be based on the truths perceived in this world, since this word's history is supposedly known as a reality.  So many successful writers deal out the advice, "Write what you know" - the problem with this advice comes with how it is perceived; how are you supposed to write about what you know when you are writing fantasy fiction?  However, what a person knows can depend on the context.  Even a school-kid can research the cultural follies of history and myth.  That doesn't necessarily show that history or mythology is truth, but everything in human nature is based on some truth... Zeus, for instance, was a false god of the Greeks, BUT he was the High god over all of the others in Greek Mythology.  We, as Christians, can trace the truth of a One High God, back to the God of creation, Jehova, in the Bible.

In a lot of secular fiction books, there are multiple cultures with multiple beliefs and religions, and that, in my personal opinion, helps to make the story world itself believable - after all, that's how this world is.  Our world is one multifaceted gem reflecting the One Truth in a pattern of contorted images and belief systems based off of the One Truth, but ultimately contorting it to fit into the box of our choice.

To apply what I'm speaking of to the subject of writing Christian Fiction, please someone explain WHY Christians believe that their books can only have one outlook on right and wrong?  I'm not by any means saying that Christians should experiment with what they KNOW through God's word to be right and wrong, but I AM saying that I'm tired of Fantasy worlds where there are multiple cultures and races, but only one true belief system; all the characters believe in One God, and in one evil entity, and all the good characters are trying to work together to overcome the bad ones.  There may even be some neutral characters, who don't really take a side, but they still know that the sides are there to take.

Our world is full of multiple belief systems.  Our world, as the reality that it is, is obviously a believable one.  Therefore, I would think that a truly believable fiction world would be based off of a believable reality.

I have read many, many secular books that follow this line of thought, but I have read very few Christian books that even acknowledge this outlook.  My question then, to Christian Speculative Writers, is why not show some aspects of truly different cultures and belief systems in your writing?  Your main character can have (or perhaps will eventually gain) a "Christian Perspective", but part of the wonder of True Salvation is the fact that there are so many other belief systems in the world a person could pursue, and yet it is the Truth behind Christianity that draws people in to seek God's face and find True Love and Salvation in Him.

And in considering that, maybe we've been looking at the genre of the Allegory all wrong; perahps the truth to be found in Allegory is not so much the retelling of a tale in a different way, but the retelling of a truth in a way that reflects the truth for what it truly is.

Think about it.


Laura Elizabeth said...

Yes, I quite agree with you :) I have quite a few cultures; one has multiple gods, a lot of which have to do with war. People swear by 'Rinard's sword' and things like that.
Another culture worships winged horses (or at least reveres them greatly).
I try to go really lightly on the preachy side. Even though my mine character is what you'd call a Christian, she doesn't quote Bible verses or preach. But the whole story IS permeated by my faith, and I try to subtly drop things in there, such as 'Thank Enderel!' (Enderel is the name for God in my world.) Preachiness truly is awkward in any kind of fiction, but perhaps nowhere is it so embarrassing and awkward as in fantasy. And while it almost seems sacrilegious to say that, it's true.

Galadriel said...

My work-in-progress has two cultures, but you might have just inspired me to add a few heretical sub-cultures...kind of hard to get too far off base with the Holy Spirit present in physical form. Maybe there's a few skeptics, but they have the sense to keep it to themselves.

Philip Nelson said...

Nichole, I disagree! :) Well, sort of.

First off, there aren't moral shades of grey. Anyone who thinks that hasn't seen Good (or has refused to). (See how Job repented when he saw God, for instance, or what happened when Daniel came face to face with the glory of God.)

What makes it complicated is that Evil is the counterfeit of Good. That's the original sin: Lucifer thinking in his heart that he could make himself like God.

But God is incorruptible, and outside God things wear out. So, one way to tell whether something is good or evil is durability: in the long run, evil always wears out; good never does.

Either something is incorruptible, or it's not; there aren't any shades of grey between perpetual motion and entropy. (This is one of the major themes of Scripture: see, for example, what the famous voice in the wilderness was instructed to cry in Isaiah 40:6-8.)

So, the liberal philosophy of multiculturalism is a counterfeit. Fundamentally, it's the attempt to use corruptible human power to counterfeit the infinite diversity of the Incorruptible. Because evil wears out, however, everything given to evil corrupts into uniformity.

People who receive God, on the other hand, are given diversity that never wears out.

So, in a practical sense, any culture that has received something of God (regardless of what name that something has) will have something unique that will last forever. Everything else will wear out and be gone.

The fantasy worlds I like have multiple cultures, to each of which was once entrusted something unique of God. Perhaps it was lost and given up, or perverted into a counterfeit, but the real culture as God sees it still has that something unique of Him, and will be redeemed one day.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis depicts that well when the three children get to Aslan's country, and see not only the true Narnia, but also the true Tashbaan.

I think our world is like that, too.

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Jake said...

Mmm. Well, I disagree. If you are not for Christ, you are against Him. Therefore there are no moral grey grounds.

Right and wrong are not relative. The truths of God are inherently revealed in nature; a culture might think one thing is right and the other wrong, but measured against God, they know right and wrong for what they really are.

I agree, there is little diversity in Christian fiction. But - but - I disagree with your explanation of that diversity and the fixing of the problem. Quite honestly, I think one of the problems in lack of depth in the writing is lack of depth in the author - and a commitment to do the best job they can. (Inexperience is another explanation.) If you don't truly know your faith, then your explanation of that faith will come across as shallow. Thus, the way to solve lack of depth is to dig into the Bible and ask God to help you in your writing journey.

Jake said...

Interestingly enough, though, I recently wrote a post that is somewhat counter to this one. You can see it here:

Nathan R. Petrie said...

I think a lot of the kind of fantasy you're talking about is not meant to present the physical world, it is meant to present the spiritual world, such as to help readers understand the one truth--allegorical writing or not.

There are no gray areas, and I don't think you believe there are. I think you may have wordered much of this post poorly because you and I both know that if I said that Darth Vader was Luke and Han's father that even though some of that statement is true, the whole statement is false. That's not a gray area, that is very black and white. That statement is NOT true.

Morality has no gray spots. Either it is right, or it is wrong. And honestly, most everyone on the planet has similar views about moral rights and moral wrongs--at least when you zoom out a bit. You might say we disagree on abortion, but we don't. Pro-Lifers believe abortion is murder, Prochoicers believe the child is not a child yet and therefore not murder. So you see, we both agree that murder is wrong, we just scientifically disagree on whether or not the thing being aborted is alive or not.

So what a lot of Christian Spec. Fic. tries to do, is present this in the clearest way possible: black and white. Because the world actually IS black and white, even if it's hard to see sometimes. There is only one right way to salvation and one right and one wrong. As for faiths, Christ is right, and everything else is wrong. That is a two option choice--Christ, or something else. Therefore, a lot of Spec. Fic merely simplifies the choice to show the ridiculousness of believing anything else.

"Black and White is only visible to the person who sees it that way, how they perceive those colors to be"
My point is that those colors do actually exist regardless of what we think they are. I don't care if you see white as blue--it's still white.

"WHY Christians believe that their books can only have one outlook on right and wrong?"
Because in the real world, there is only one right and one wrong. And actually most books do show more than one outlook (Main character, you could do this or this, says the temptress.) if a story only had one outlook, there could not be a conflict.

Now am I saying we should not ever write a story with multiple belief systems? No. That obviously adds another level to a certain type of story. But what I'm saying is, not every book needs to be this way, and not every book should be this way. Allegory is a good example.

Take my book. There aren't any belief systems....none, at all. Because that's not the point. Christianity is not a product of believing in some invisible, noneffective thing. It's about believing in something that actually happened and affected you. So in my young world where the course of our history happens in a hundred some years, there doesn't need to be another belief system--they all know what happened.

Secular books have multiple cultures because the point of their books is the celebration of diversity. Christian books often do not because diversity is not the ultimate goal of anything. Being different for differences' sake is useless. This is why some christian books have diversity and some do not. The point is to present truth, and truth is not diverse.

Star-Dreamer said...

I see I started some sort of debate. :) That's good!

Philip: "First off, there aren't moral shades of grey. Anyone who thinks that hasn't seen Good (or has refused to). (See how Job repented when he saw God, for instance, or what happened when Daniel came face to face with the glory of God.)"

THAT IS EXACTLY THE POINT! :D The world isn't made up of black and white, or at least it doesn't "think" it is. A lot of people think that a little bad with a little good won't hurt anything... Now, of course, the Christians know that this isn't true at all -- to Christian's who have been saved by the blood of Christ the perception between white and black is made clear, but not everyone in the world is a Christian. AS Christians, this would be our ultimate goal... to lead the entire world to Christ, but we know from Revelations that this is not going to happen before the End Days.

Of course, that is not to say that we won't try. But the truth of the matter is that People are easily corrupted... it would seem that in seeking the real Truth which is in Christ, we often find that which is a lie, and without being able to strip ourselves of our false thinking (and not wanting to condemn ourselves or admit that we are wrong) it is the lie that takes root. Because in Christ we must be stripped entirely of our old selves in order to be made new, but if we are unwilling to do that then we cannot be made new.

BUT you see the problem? How many humans have turned to the lie? SO MANY! This is made evident to those who have accepted the truth of Christ, but to those who are in the lie the world may seem grey. That's what I'm asking that we show... not that we compromise ourselves or the Truth in writing, but that we show how the grey is actually a lie... it may not seem like it at first, but it IS.

I'm not saying here that you should compromise your belief in your writing, but that you should be realistic in considering how you write. This world of ours has never had a black and white belief system... There ARE two sides to take -- the side of God or the side of Satan -- but of the wrong side there are so many many different beliefs and each thinks they are right. And then what do you do if your character is not a christian to start with? He can't see the black and white from the Truth's point of view... first he has to find the truth, and before he can do that he must see the falsities in the other beliefs. Once he recognizes the real Truth and the falsities of the other beliefs, THAT is when he is open to truth salvation.

In Christ there can be no compromise between sin and the truth... there is only forgiveness and cleansing.

Not all beliefs think like that, it's true, and they are wrong. However, they don't believe that they are wrong... they believe in a grey area... There is no grey area, of course, but that's not to say that these poor souls who were lead astray don't believe that there is.

So then, why are we writing worlds where these two sides are the only sides to be looked at? They may be the full truth of the matter, but will our characters who are not Christians see them like that??? If they do not believe in the Truth at first, they won't understand that there is only Black and White... they will see grey until they are brought to the truth.

Star-Dreamer said...

Still answering Philip's post:

"What makes it complicated is that Evil is the counterfeit of Good. That's the original sin: Lucifer thinking in his heart that he could make himself like God.

But God is incorruptible, and outside God things wear out. So, one way to tell whether something is good or evil is durability: in the long run, evil always wears out; good never does."

Again, this is exactly what I was trying to show. Thus the example of Greek Mythology. :D Though I'm starting to think that perhaps I should do a follow-up post to clarify my meanings... :P :)

But yes, with evil being the counterfeit of good... There are many aspects of evil, but there is only ONE truth. Yet it seems that those who believe in evil, believe that they are believing in Truth... or at least they do at first. This is what makes up the many cultural beliefs in today's world. :)

I'm not saying (or at least not trying to say) that there are shades of grey, but that people perceive that there are. And it is my belief that that perception should be shown in writing to make it believable... Not that the grey should be exalted, but at least shown... and when that grey is shown against the white of truth, people will see that it isn't really grey at all, but actually black. ;)

Make sense?

I too have read many fantasies with multiple cultures in them (most of them secular books as it seems), and have understood that each of these cultures had something unique in them that allured to the One Truth and the One God... the author didn't even realize that he had written something like that into the book. Upon reading these books, however, with these supposed religions, and understanding the One Truth for myself, I am able to understand how these beliefs are wrong... It's very interesting. I'm not sure I'm making myself entirely clear, but I'm trying. ;D

Star-Dreamer said...

Jake: "Mmm. Well, I disagree. If you are not for Christ, you are against Him. Therefore there are no moral grey grounds.

Right and wrong are not relative. The truths of God are inherently revealed in nature; a culture might think one thing is right and the other wrong, but measured against God, they know right and wrong for what they really are."

Yes. Very true. If you are not for Christ then you are against him... but not everyone understand this, and not everyone is for christ. How then do they measure right and wrong, black and white?

Sure, measured against the truth of God, there is no grey... there is only what is wrong (black) and what is right (white -- God). However, first a person must come to understand that they must measure themselves and their understanding of things with the understanding of God, and before that, they must come to accept the fact that there is a God, AND in order to do that, they must admit that they were wrong to begin with.

Problem... not everyone does or will do this. To a christian, the black and white is evident, but to one who has not found christ, black and white appears grey until the truth is made clear. That's my point...

Don't Compromise the faith, whatever you do! But I'm saying that human nature is so varied, that trying to write a book 100% with your characters ALL believing as a Christian is a bit presumptuousness... not all humans believe as Christians. They are wrong, but the fact is that they don't understand it like that. What, then, DO they understand??? Why?? How???

These questions need to be addressed in Christian Fiction, and then the truth needs to be revealed and the questions that are in many unbelievers' minds turned grey, will be made understood to be Black against the White of Christ.

I'm definitely going to write a follow up post now. :) Perhaps I will be able to explain it better there.

Philip Nelson said...


I think I mostly agree. :) Certainly from others' perspectives, the world is a shifting mass of grey hue. (And as long as no one brings up Ayn Rand, we'll be all right. :P )

But I don't completely agree with this statement:

"There are many aspects of evil, but there is only ONE truth"

The truth is one, yes, but it is also diverse. Evil, however, seems to be diverse, but it's really uniform. Evil is corruption, and corruption breaks everything down into its pieces: by separating things, it returns things to dust, and makes them uniform.

The paradox is that true unity requires diversity, whereas uniformity is division.

This answers to this whole discussion are in I Corinthians 12, and having directed you to the chapter, I'll just summarize part of it.

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit of Truth: there is one God, but much diversity from Him.

And with that diversity, the body of Christ can be one. If the body were uniform, all the same thing everywhere, there couldn't be a body; everyone would be divided. But because every member of the body of Christ is diverse, having been given that diversity by God, the body can be unified.

That diversity of gifts shows up in cultures around the world, like gems gleaming through the sand, and those are the real cultures, not the counterfeits the world worships.

And the things that make the real cultures in God's eyes will survive the trial of fire at the end of this age, and be preserved for eternity.

Nathan R. Petrie said...

No comment back to me? :P haha

Star-Dreamer said...

Lol Nathan! ^_^ Just hadn't gotten to it yet. Hehe! :)

Actually, I've written up a new post called "Cultural Belief Systems and Christian Speculative Fiction, Take 2" that I was getting ready to post. I hope that that might help answer some of the questions and clarify what I meant to get across in this one. ;)

Star-Dreamer said...

Philip: still agree with most of what you say. :) I agree that the truth is One but that it is diverse. I also agree that the diversity of evil ultimately leads to corruption.

That is what I was trying to get at with the multicultural thing... the many different cultures and belief systems eventually lead to Evil and corruption... Evil.

There is only one path to truth, and in that truth there is freedom... freedom = diversity. Totally get it. :)

That was initially what I was trying to express. I don't think I did it very well though. lol!

Like I said to Nathan, I've written another blog post on the subject. ^_^ It's quite a bit longer than this one, but I tried to really dig in and explain my view on the matter this time... not just throw it out there and let it shift where it would. ;)