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i09: Why Won’t Christian Publishers Take on Science Fiction?

The science fiction website i09, recently included an article titled “Christian readers demand more science fiction. Why won’t Christian publishers listen?”. With this post I’d like to suggest some answers.

This article, by Charlie Jane Anders, introduces the subject matter with reference to three separate articles, the first by StephanieP, a Catholic, who argues in keeping with the title of her article that “Science fiction goes with the Christian life.” But if this is the case then why can’t more science fiction titles be found in Christian bookstores? Two other articles attempt to answer this question, both by Mike Duran, including his thoughts at Novel Journey as well as his personal blog.

In my supplement to their thoughts and this ongoing discussion we must first consider that science fiction is indeed “under represented” if not largely absent in the Christian subculture. This was driven home most dramatically for me in an article by James Herrick in Christianity Today magazine, arguable the flagship periodical for Protestant evangelicalism. The article was titled “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” which is largely a summary of Herrick’s book Scientific Mythologies (InterVarsity Press, 2008). The article, like the book, rightly recognizes the mythic significance of science fiction in Western culture today, but takes an unfortunately defensive posture for Christianity in response. As a result, Herrick misses the opportunity to have a deeper appreciation of the significance of myth and science fiction (as well as the related genres of fantasy and horror).

But why this reaction against science fiction? Several possibilities are possible. In 2007 Publishers Weekly commented on this subject stating:

“While mainstream fantasy and science fiction fill shelves in general-interest bookstores, the genre has yet to really take off in the Christian market industry…Suspicion of the books as too dark or occult, combined with a primary demographic that isn’t drawn to the edgy—white, evangelical American women of childbearing-to-empty-nest ages—make the books less than attractive to many Christian publishers and booksellers…”

I think PW recognizes the dynamics at work. At heart is a fear of foreign worldviews that are incompatible with Christianity, an emphasis of Herrick in his CT article mentioned above. But perhaps of more concern for many evangelicals is the alleged influence of “the occult” or Western esotericism. Fear of this element is even more blatant in evangelical concerns over fantasy and horror in popular culture. If we recall the flap over alleged Witchcraft in the Harry Potter books and films, and the current concern in some evangelical quarters over the alleged “Darkness of Twilight,” then we get a feel for the almost palpable evil and fear of spiritual contamination that evangelicals have for the fantastic in popular culture. These fears prevalent in the subculture account for the lack of science fiction in Christian circles to satisfy the small number of sci-fi enthusiasts, surely an aberrational comunity in the evangelical movement.

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I find such views troubling. In my opinion they result not only out of fear, but also as a result of a stunted theological imagination all too frequently found among evangelicals in regards to speculative fiction in literature, television, and film. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are evangelical heroes of science fiction and fantasy, but few are willing to go where they went in drawing upon aspects of “pagan” cultures in order to tell tales that capture the imagination and provide windows into transcendence. Surely this negative stance toward the fantastic will not inspire the next generation of Inklings to engage the West in its current journey toward re-enchantment.

Comment Pages

There are 8 Comments to "i09: Why Won’t Christian Publishers Take on Science Fiction?"

  • Mike Duran says:

    John, I appreciate the mention here and for your approach to this subject. I totally agree with your final comments about evangelicals possessing “a stunted theological imagination.” Part of this is due, I think, to a genuine fear of straying from the Truth. At the heart of the Christian religion is a well-defined set of articles, a non-negotiable series of dogmas, an unbending theological level. To question these things is to undermine one’s own faith. On the other hand, “questioning things” is at the heart of the speculative genre. Thus, Spec-fic is best when it “speculates” — when it tweaks reality, reinvents the rules, rewrites histories, and tinkers with the facts. Which leads me wonder whether Christian spec-fic, by its very nature, cannot be speculative enough. Great post, John!

  • Cory Gross says:

    In response to the io9 article, I mainly troubled myself to clarify that the Christian bookstore market caters to Evangelicals as distinct from mainline Protestants and Catholics. Nowhere is that more clearly reflected than in the following observation: “At the heart of the Christian religion is a well-defined set of articles, a non-negotiable series of dogmas, an unbending theological level.”

    That statement puts a knot in my Lutheran stomach. Yes we certainly do have credal articles and catechetical dogmas and deep theological studies, but from my vantage point that is not the heart of Christian religion. Those are descriptions, affirmations and investigations of the heart. The heart of Christian religion is the person of Christ and everything He was in God’s loving and gracious relationship towards us. Maybe for Evangelicalism the heart is the unyeilding, unquestionable set of doctrines, and maybe that marks the difference in terms of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror.

    As I’ve said before in the comment sections here, it is not entirely accurate to say that Evangelicalism has an innate fear of Horror, Fantasy and any occultic connotations therein. Left Behind is one of Evangelicalism’s great franchises and it is pure occultic Horror-Fantasy… Actually, if I were saucy, I might even argue that it’s little more than torture porn. At least the theology behind it is one of brutality and a desire to punish anybody who is not a conservative American Evangelical. Then there is Peretti and, combined, this general sense that Horror is okay so long as it is horror of and to The Other.

    I don’t know how statistically accurate this is, but my sense of it is that where mainline Christian faith is centred more around a relationship than a set of dogmas, it permits a certain freedom to simply live and write and explore ideas and images. A non-Evangelical author like a Tolkien or a Verne can just do their thing, writing about elves and submarines and whatever else they feel like without worrying about whether it has the “right” theology or ticks off boxes on a chart of dogmas that make it approving to an Evangelical market.

    I would like to see someone take up the challenge of figuring out if there is an actual dearth of Christian Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy writers, or just a dearth of Evangelical ones.

  • Tim Ward says:

    John, I’m glad to have found your website. I am also in search of boosting the interest and prodcut of Christian spec-fic. I’m not sure if it is fear as much as lack of quality products that is keeping this market from growing. I think the interest is out there in Evangelical circles, but the advertising is not strong enough to reach out to them. If you go solely by what you see on the shelves of Christian book stores, you just won’t find anything in this genre. I hope that the growth of social media will lead to better marketing, which if that leads to a higher demand should quell the fears of bookstores and publishers from selling this product.

    Many of my friends in seminary read sci-fi and fantasy, but when I asked around, none of them knew of any Christian authors in that field. We’ve also got parents in our churches dealing with their children wanting to read Harry Potter. Both of these demographics are not being reached with adequate marketing in my opinion.

    Thus, our job, and you seem to be doing your part, is to research, read and promote the Christian spec-fic authors so that those who are published can get high enough sales to stick around for the next generation.

    One of my struggles to write Christian spec-fic was that, with few quality authors readily available, I didn’t know how. I think that Mike has a good point about the fear of straying from dogma. I do not consider myself religious, but I do feel an obligation to promote truth as found in the Bible. Because of this I have struggled in brainstorming Christian spec-fic because, if I tried to write a story based in our world, I felt constrained to predictability in terms of the end times or restrictions from writing alternate histories. There are ways around this. It is difficult, but not impossible.

    This goes back to where it is our job to promote those who have done this successfully, learn from what they did and produce our own. I am so encouraged to find authors in this field and will dedicate part of my upcoming website to their promotion. This can be done.

    Lastly, I think Cory makes a could point asking if the dearth is in Evangelical Christian Spec-fic. This may be splitting hairs, but would the difference be that Evangelical Csf promote a Savior, while “plain old” Christian sp-fic include aspects of Christianity without banging people over the head with it?

    This has been a personal hangup of mine – trying to create worlds parallel to ours in theology without making the endgame salvation and the return or first coming of the Messiah. If I don’t mention the Gospel, do I fall into the “plain old” category? Lately, I’ve been questioning whether I would make more progress reaching the lost if I center my character arcs around Christian values and spiritual battles instead of their salvation.

  • Cory Gross says:

    “This may be splitting hairs, but would the difference be that Evangelical Csf promote a Savior, while “plain old” Christian sp-fic include aspects of Christianity without banging people over the head with it?”

    I like what Bono said in an old Beliefnet interview about U2 being a Christian band: “We really f–ked that up, though. We really f–ked up our corner of the Christian market. I think carrying moral baggage is very dangerous for an artist. If you have a duty, it’s to be true and not cover up the cracks. I love hymns and gospel music, but the idea of turning your music into a tool for evangelism is missing the point. Music is the language of the spirit anyway. Its first function is praise to creation–praise to the beauty of the woman lying next to you, or the woman you would like to lie next to you. It is a natural effusive energy that you shouldn’t put to work.”

    That’s one of the criticisms I always hear about Evangelical media being “the Christian version of” rather than legitimate art in itself… It’s art cynically used, cynically put to work, as a carrier for dogma. I also know people who are put off by both C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman because “okay, I get it, the lion is Jesus and this other guy doesn’t like Catholicism”. I think just BEING Christian and trying to write the best Sci-Fi novel you can write AS a Christian, without worrying about satisfying a checklist of allegories, would suffice.

  • I appreciate everyone’s comments and back and forth on this. I am in sympathy with Cory’s comments in that my approach to this blog is to do the best job of probing the fantastic in pop culture through the insights of culture and religion. It just happens that I am a Christian, which surely informs my analysis, but this is not to be construed as a Christian blog on the fantastic. I think we kill the art, and make it less accessible for everyone, when we try to Christianize things.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien are evangelical heroes of science fiction and fantasy…

    C.S.Lewis was Anglican.
    J.R.R.Tolkien was Catholic.
    Both from Western-rite Liturgical churches.
    NOT Evangelical ones.
    Neither could get published by an Official Christian (TM) publisher today.
    Unlike Left Behind: Volumes 1-22.

  • admin says:

    I found the following paragraph in an interesting article in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture titled “The Postmodern Sacred” by Em McAvan that is relevant to this topic, and which I believe confirms my thoughts expressed in the post:

    “But whilst its textual appropriations do not preclude the possibilities of the postmodern sacred functioning as a complement to traditional forms of institutional religion, the postmodern sacred arguably functions as supplemental in the sense that Derrida (1976, 144-145) describes it in Of Grammatology, an addition and a replacement. Although the pop culture texts I have referred to have been praised in some religious quarters, it should be noted that evangelicals, for instance, largely loathe these texts, for a number of reasons. The critical stance on religious institutions in such paradigmatically postmodern sacred shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer understandably alienates religious conservatives, as does an often ironic take on traditional religion. The practice of witchcraft in many texts has enraged evangelicals most, making that time-honoured move of confusing Wicca or Merlinesque magic with Satan worship. A recent example of this is the ludicrous banning of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in a number of school libraries in the United States. The outright fear and hostility towards Harry Potter is not by any means isolated; a fear of certain kinds of texts that involve the unreal or supernatural has long propelled evangelical disdain for the fantastic. Co-extensive with this, however, is the popularity of the luridly supernatural Left Behind series amongst some Christian fundamentalists. The acceptability of Left Behind, a creatively embroidered take on Rapture theology with clear fantastic elements, suggests that the unreal is acceptable only if given a gloss of the “real.”4 The point is, then, if pop-culture spirituality functions as a supplement to traditional religious practice, it is, in some quarters at least, a monstrous supplement.”

    McAvan’s article can be read in its entirety at http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art22(1)-PostmodernSacred.html.

  • Jane Wells says:

    I am wresting with these topics on two fronts. One is Glitter in the Sun, my soon-to-be released Bible study that uses Twilight illustrations to launch each chapter topic, and the other is my current WIP, a steampunk retelling of the story of David, from the point of view of his first wife Michal (names, of course, have been changed – as has almost everything else).
    With Glitter I was attacked from inside my own church for promoting witchcraft and vampirism. It will be fun to see what the general reaction will be when it hits Amazon…
    For the WIP, I’ve decided to go more with Tim’s final point. My protaganists have to figure out how to work out their story lines within a greater, eternal truth.
    Perhaps by focusing on an Old Testament story I’ve saved myself a whole lot of headache, since I don’t know if I’m creative enough to imagine a Savior who isn’t obviously Jesus or a lion.

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