In this tumultuous political season, it’s fitting that other ideological wars are being waged. Last week, Becky Miller at Speculative Faith, in a post entitled How Do We Judge Fantasy?, linked to an emerging controversy regarding popular YA Christian Fantasy author Bryan Davis’ new book Eye of the Oracle (EotO) and some bloggers who questioned its “biblical compatibility”. The Speculative Faith site and its link to the original post have garnered oodles of interesting, sometimes heated, response.
For the points of contention and all the angles in-between, you’ll want to follow the links and spend time with the comments (and I really recommend you do). The gist of the dispute, at least at the beginning, had to do with Davis’ employment of pagan / mythological characters (like Lilith) in a Christian fantasy. Do we compromise biblical truth (and biblical history) by integrating un-historical events or non-biblical entities into our stories? Or does a Christian writer have “artistic freedom” — provided they don’t subvert biblical truth and/or history — to create speculative fictional scenarios? These were the kinds of questions being raised.
The discussion over there (as well as the rhetoric) has reminded me a lot of the Harry Potter debate. Whereas some Christians see the Potter series as harmless fantasy (even marginally thematically biblical), others view it as subtly corruptive, if not overtly evil. In the EotO debate, there’s a similar divide between those who see Davis’ book as truth-telling, powerful and life-changing, and those who see it as, at best, biblically misleading. The big difference between these controversies is that, unlike Potter, EotO is written squarely for the Christian market, with an unapologetic biblical theme.
So why the diversity of opinions among “Christian Fantasy” fans?
I have long contended that the term “Christian Fiction” is rather misleading and has created a subculture of readers who judge books, not by their literary value, but by their religious content. (For a more thorough discussion of this subject, see my series What is Christian Art?) As such, the “Christian” nature of said works are determined, not by the author and his or her intent, nor the quality of the work itself, but by a definitive biblical resonance — be it Christian characters, redemptive resolutions, moral purity or Scriptural harmony. Accordingly, fiction is only “Christian” if it passes these tests. As I wrote in that article:
I fear that we have collapsed the boundaries of Christian art so far, thereâ€™s no turning back. Unless there is â€œexplicit Christian themesâ€ and images or a â€œtightly controlled message,â€ the artist, no matter how Christian she is or how â€œfundamentally religiousâ€ her work, fall outside the pale of Christian art. Whatâ€™s wrong with this picture? I canâ€™t help but wonder how many great Christian writers, musicians and artists are not embraced by the â€œChristian subcultureâ€ simply because their work does not adhere to a predetermined template.
This border skirmish between Christian Fantasy fans is precisely over the “template” — the standard or grid — used to judge Christian Fiction.
Really, it’s inevitable that these internal feuds occur. Why? Because the very concept of “Christian Fiction” is ambiguous, if not biblically indefensible. As such, the “rule” for judging what Christian Fiction is, is totally generated by the advocates of Christian Fiction. So while Bryan Davis and the folks at SpecFaith are fighting to defend one plot of ground (artistic freedom perhaps), opponents of EotO are equally justified in defending another (biblical purity apparently). But because there is no obvious template (or biblical formula) for how we judge Christian Fiction and Fantasy, the combatants are free to craft their own based on their interpretations of Scripture and personal preferences.
Am I suggesting that Christian authors should be subject to no biblical standards? Absolutely not! General principles about truth-telling and God-honoring and commitment to excellence should apply to every Christian artist. However, this particular squabble is not over IF lines should be drawn, but WHERE. And therein lies the rub.
There simply is no clear-cut biblical litmus test for defining what Christian Fiction should be. Must it contain Christian characters? References to God? Redemptive resolutions? How overt must the themes and imagery be? Can Christian characters curse, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and moonlight as jazz guitarists at local pubs? And what freedom does the fantasy author have to re-imagine biblical events (like the Temptation in the Garden of Eden being re-staged by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra)? The answers to these questions have no chapter and verse (unless it’s in some publisher’s office). Of course, we should intuit our own answers based on study of the Scripture and using our God-given mental faculties. However, the result will always be — as it was in this debate — not IF, but WHERE the line is drawn. And that’s where we’re all free to differ.
For the record: I have not read Bryan Davis’ book but, if I understand the objections to it and correctly interpret his defenders, I would have no problem with Eye of the Oracle. My interest in this debate is not to pile on one side or the other, but to point out how the debate itself is fueled by the inherently muddled nature of the genre it defends, and the shortage of biblical imperatives to defend it. So perhaps it’s good that we Christians ask how to judge Christian Fiction? Me, I’m still asking “What is Christian Fiction”?