When Speculation Is … Confusing

Blog | | Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like telling writers what they “can” or “can’t” do. But I’d be interested in your opinions about what they DO do. This week I’ve had the pleasure of reading two recent […]

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like telling writers what they “can” or “can’t” do. But I’d be interested in your opinions about what they DO do.

This week I’ve had the pleasure of reading two recent releases in the Christian spec-fic world, both of them sent to me by their generous authors: Konig’s Fire by Marc Schooley and The Resurrection by Mike Duran.

Konig's FireBoth of these books deal with the clash between good and evil (what stories don’t?) and both are set in this world, not in some fantasy realm or far-off planet: The Resurrection takes place in a vividly depicted coastal town in California; Konig’s Fire takes place in a Nazi torture camp deep in the forests of Romania.

Now, I’m somewhat ambivalent about speculative fiction that takes place in this world (I articulated my thoughts most clearly in a review, posted some time ago, of Tom Pawlik’s Vanish). I mean, when we’re making up an entire world from scratch, then I think we’ve got fair license to make it work however we want. But if we set a story in this world, don’t we have some responsibility to play by the rules of this world? If we don’t–if we blur the lines between reality and fantasy–do we risk causing confusion to our readers, especially as pertains to spiritual realities?

Here, Schooley and Duran differ. In Konig’s Fire, any semblance of realism quickly vanishes. The stuff going on in the Nachthaus (“Night House,” the death camp) is WEIRD, no resemblance to anything that has likely happened to any of us. It is very obvious that we are not dealing with a “this could really happen” story. The book is ultimately allegorical, a thought-provoking, chilling look at sin’s presence and affect on the world. It’s using this world as its trappings and ultimately making a point about it, but it’s not a real-world story. No confusion.

The Resurrection, on the other hand, includes miracles and spiritual warfare, but it’s firmly anchored here. It could happen in your town. Except that it couldn’t–I don’t think. Mike speculates freely about spiritual warfare and the various spiritual denizens that inhabit our world, and while that speculation is at times chilling and at other times just plain fun, I came away a little confused on a few points, and feeling that it wouldn’t be too hard to interpret God as just another deity vying for control of the planet, rather than as the King of Kings thundering His authority over every inch of it. This is reality, but it’s not; the lines are blurry.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. These books differ in style, but both are riveting, intelligent, edifying reads. If you don’t get confused.

What are your thoughts? How much license can a fiction writer take when writing about THIS WORLD without crossing the line? Or is there a line at all? Is speculation really what fiction is all about?

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Rachel Starr Thomson is an author, editor, indie publisher, and writing coach whose writing runs the gamut from walking with God to fantasy fiction to articles on nature and writing. In her other life she’s a poet/storyteller/narrator/singer for Soli Deo Gloria Ballet, a Christian ballet group she co-directs. Browse her books and articles at RachelStarrThomson.com, or check out her Free Stuff page for downloads and lots of online reading.

16 responses

  1. [W]e’re making up an entire world from scratch, then I think we’ve got fair license to make it work however we want. But if we set a story in this world, don’t we have some responsibility to play by the rules of this world? If we don’t–if we blur the lines between reality and fantasy–do we risk causing confusion to our readers, especially as pertains to spiritual realities?

    This difference, I believe, is the key. And I believe the main issue is how an author portrays God in either a fully-imagined world, or this world with speculative elements.

    It would be better to leave Him out entirely then to go all The Shack on readers and, based on a supposed need to Correct Wrong Ideas about God, overcorrect into opposite wrongs. Even in a fully-imagined world, its God-Equivalent should behave as close to the real One as we can manage. That means we should know Him as best we can. That means we should yearn to know what we’re told about Him, in His Word.

    Scripture doesn’t tell us that God hasn’t created other-worlds, to work in them in ways similar to how He works here. But we can safely surmise, based on what God has chosen to tell us, that if He did do this, He would be the same there as He is here.

    Thus I think the cardinal rule for any kind of story is this: the world may be very different, with varying Rules, but God Himself must stay the same.

    Maybe that’s why, say, Konig’s Fire didn’t result in my reading experience being stifled by representations, supposedly in the real world, of nature coming “alive” with the many horrors described at the prison-camp mine. That was the “lie” that pointed to the greater Truth: that God is sovereign and perfect and loving, even in the worst evils. Even while the world was shown differently, allegorically, God was there. And I recognized Him for the real God, as best we can understand Him from this vantage point, and was drawn toward Him further, even among the different world-rules.

    More from Rachel above:

    I came away a little confused on a few points, and feeling that it wouldn’t be too hard to interpret God as just another deity vying for control of the planet, rather than as the King of Kings thundering His authority over every inch of it. This is reality, but it’s not; the lines are blurry.

    Without commenting specifically on The Resurrection, I have certainly seen this in some novels. Many authors commit this error, either in the name of speculating, or with careless regard for Who God is. (By that I mean dismissing proactive truths about God and placing higher value on Fixing Certain Wrong Ideas about Him, real or perceived, as most infamously and recently committed by The Shack’s author).

    Even in novels with a story-world whose “rules” mostly adhere to those of the real world, if God Himself, with His nature as revealed in Scripture, isn’t portrayed as close to Who He is as possible, the story is not realistic.

    And yes, it is confusing. But worse, such a story doesn’t glorify God as much as it could, by showing old truths about Him, and about us, in new ways.

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    • Steve Taylor says:

      Quote: “Scripture doesn’t tell us that God hasn’t created other-worlds, to work in them in ways similar to how He works here. But we can safely surmise, based on what God has chosen to tell us, that if He did do this, He would be the same there as He is here.”

      Good reply (and article) but I must comment on this statement. We, as Christians, must be very careful about adding to Scripture what has been left out. I’m not a legalist but I’m think we need to tread lightly or we could get ourselves in trouble. I believe there can be life on other planets but not life created in the image of God. If there was those people would have to be sinless. Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus died once and for all – so if there were others, and they were not perfect, how they they be forgiven? The Bible is not just a book but God’s Word. It would have to be the same there, correct?   … just my thoughts.

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      • Steve: We, as Christians, must be very careful about adding to Scripture what has been left out.

         
        Well, if we want to be entirely picky…..
         

        1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
        2For by it the elders obtained a good report.
        3Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
        ~Hebrews 11.1-3, KJV

         
        Just saying.  Now, granted, he’s likely just referring to other planets. Who was it who said, “Scripture isn’t exhaustive, but it is complete”? God hasn’t said much about the number of planets, solar systems, and galaxies, but it’s quite clear that they exist. If life exists on other planets, evidently he considers it either irrelevant to us or simply something for us to discover on our own.

         
        I’m not a legalist but I’m think we need to tread lightly or we could get ourselves in trouble.

         
        I’m not sure anyone’s suggested otherwise here.
         

        I believe there can be life on other planets but not life created in the image of God. If there was those people would have to be sinless. Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus died once and for all – so if there were others, and they were not perfect, how they they be forgiven? The Bible is not just a book but God’s Word. It would have to be the same there, correct?   … just my thoughts.

        I know I’ve heard this argument before, and I really hadn’t put too much thought into it, other than I really am a generic skeptic when it comes to aliens (I’m the sort who thinks most ‘sightings’ are demonic activities and finds most  movie depictions ridiculous).  But I think in the same way I discredit evolution due to my thinking  the idea that some of our ancestors weren’t human because their skeletons look a bit different than ours is a bit prejudiced, so I think if life exists on other planets it’d be equally wrong not to think of them as also made imago dei. People are people. Anything less is an animal.

        At any rate, I’m pretty sure if people exist on other planets, they too are in need of a Savior and the same Savior who redeemed us is equally capable of redeeming them.  I don’t think it requires them to be perfect, because:

        –Anything not God is not perfect.

        –By your own exact definition, “all have sinned” means “all have sinned.”

        –Moreover, if God hasn’t left us the exhaustive Jehovah’s Guide to the Cosmos, and if he’s told us what we need to know (who he is, who we are, and our relationship to him), then I’m not convinced he’d detail out his salvation plans for Mars. I think he’d save that for the Martians. Know?

        At any rate, I’m really not trying to pick a fight. Just saying.

        And you know, another, less consoling answer would be that because God is not obligated to save us, he didn’t save the hypothetical Martians. Now that might give me reason to pause.  Most people certainly don’t believe he has any intention of redeeming demons, and I think we’d all agree that anyone in need of forgiveness is at the mercy of the offended.

        Edit: STEPHEN – The bullet point feature didn’t work for me. That’s bizarre.

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      • Addendum: On my “Jehovah’s Guide to the Cosmos,” I should probably clarify I meant that in more of a field or travel guide or world almanac versus what it actually is. It doesn’t say much about gravity, for instance, or black holes, or meteors.

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  2. We can always count on you for a well thought-out response, Stephen!

    It would be better to leave Him out entirely then to go all The Shack on readers and, based on a supposed need to Correct Wrong Ideas about God, overcorrect into opposite wrongs. Even in a fully-imagined world, its God-Equivalent should behave as close to the real One as we can manage. That means we should know Him as best we can. That means we should yearn to know what we’re told about Him, in His Word.”

    Yes, exactly. I think I agree with your overall assessment: we can play with the rules of our world as long as we don’t play with the nature and character of God.
    I don’t actually want to accuse Mike Duran of doing that–I should reiterate that I quite enjoyed <em>The Resurrection.</em> Some of the confusion may have come from the confusion of the characters themselves, and I don’t have a problem with that. But still. I found the lines blurry, especially as concerns the afterlife and what power God does or does not exercise when it comes to the departed spirits of His children.
    If nothing else, it’s certainly provoked some good questions in my own head :).

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  3. Rachel – What are your thoughts? How much license can a fiction writer take when writing about THIS WORLD without crossing the line? Or is there a line at all? Is speculation really what fiction is all about?

    I haven’t read either book, but I think a lot of it’s the execution.  For me,  in the real world there’s things that are standard, known, and unalterable. But I also see a ton of room for legitimate exploration.
    Fiction can do many things, so, no, it’s not limited to speculation.  There’s a line, and as  a writer I know when I’ve crossed it most of the time. Does that answer?

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  4. Replying to Kaci‘s comment up there

    3Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
    ~Hebrews 11.1-3, KJV

    Just saying.  Now, granted, he’s likely just referring to other planets.

    Could be, though other translations (such as the ESV and NIV) translate the worlds as universe. I’d have to do an amateur Original-Greek-style word study to delve deeper, though, which always scares me (and it probably shouldn’t).

    God hasn’t said much about the number of planets, solar systems, and galaxies, but it’s quite clear that they exist. If life exists on other planets, evidently he considers it either irrelevant to us or simply something for us to discover on our own.

    That’s the direction I lean, and said more about that in reply to Randy Ingermanson’s summary/lament of humankind’s lack of Mars ambitions last Friday. All those planets are out there, reminding us of the Creator’s magnificence, yet also taunting us. But it would seem that given today’s trajectory (read: nothing) of space exploration, we may need to wait until the New Heavens and New Earth (which by definition will contain new heavens, i.e. outer space and worlds beyond Earth) to go there and discover.

    At any rate, I’m pretty sure if people exist on other planets, they too are in need of a Savior and the same Savior who redeemed us is equally capable of redeeming them.

    This topic just keeps coming up on the site. Not that I’m complaining …

    When it comes up, I usually toss this Spec-Faith 1.0-era column, Are extraterrestrials and extra-fast travels alien to Christianity?, at it, then move on. But let me offer more.

    Personally, I don’t think I could write about a derivative version of this universe, from a Christian and God-honoring perspective, that included sentient alien life (SAL) on another planet. It flies against the logic that does seem Biblically based: that God’s plan of salvation is limited to humans, who are the focus of His doings in this universe.

    However, that doesn’t mean I think it’s heresy or sinful to imagine this, changing this world’s “rules” in that regard, so long as God Himself matches as closely as possible the God Whom His people know from what He has told about Himself in His Word.

    After all, anytime we’re writing for this universe, we’re “claiming” that certain people exist and have a part in God’s plan, when of course no one of the sort is actually here. In essence, then, we’re not really writing about this world, but a version that looks almost like this world, with God large and in charge and everything, yet that has one minor difference: our story takes place in this world, perhaps changing it forever.

    So: in real life, I don’t believe SAL can exist. Scripture does seem not only to say null on the topic, but to rule out SAL implicitly by saying that 1) Adam’s sin affected the whole universe, 2) Christ came as the “Last Adam” to redeem many of Adam’s descendents, 3) Humans and the redemption of Earth are central in God’s plan (though certainly we are not ever-so-valuable by ourselves, but because God gives Himself, the All-Satisfying Object of love, to them out of His own love, for His own glory).

    However, I don’t think it’s wrong for a Christian to imagine a universe in which the “rules” are changed in secondary areas, so long as God Himself remains, well, Himself, as best we can portray Him in a story given what we know of Him from Scripture.

    End my thoughts on that, for now. Great conversation. It’s been in my mind for a while, thanks to my own recent attempted mind-stretching, world-blending plot conceptions.

    E. Stephen Burnett’s recent blog: Keller’s compromise brings equally un-Biblical critiquesMy Profile

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    • Could be, though other translations (such as the ESV and NIV) translate the worlds as universe. I’d have to do an amateur Original-Greek-style word study to delve deeper, though, which always scares me (and it probably shouldn’t).

       
      Neither ‘worlds’ nor ‘universe’ changes the meaning, though. I can say either ‘countries’ or ‘planet’ and it’s the same thing, so why not ‘universe’ and ‘worlds’? Like I said, it’s one reference in the entire Bible that’s making a completely different point, so it’s rather picky, but it is there.

      When it comes up, I usually toss this Spec-Faith 1.0-era column, Are extraterrestrials and extra-fast travels alien to Christianity?, at it, then move on. But let me offer more.

      I’ll read it in a bit. First the rest of this comment.
       

      Personally, I don’t think I could write about a derivative version of this universe, from a Christian and God-honoring perspective, that included sentient alien life (SAL) on another planet. It flies against the logic that does seem Biblically based: that God’s plan of salvation is limited to humans, who are the focus of His doings in this universe.
      However, that doesn’t mean I think it’s heresy or sinful to imagine this, changing this world’s “rules” in that regard, so long as God Himself matches as closely as possible the God Whom His people know from what He has told about Himself in His Word.

       
      Oddly,  I had a harder time with the idea of non-human people. But then I went through my sci-fi phase and had humans and humanoids going on.   Either way, I didn’t say whether I agreed or not that God’s salvation is limited to humans. I just disagreed with the immediate idea that a human on another planet would require God to ‘change the rules.’ Maybe we aren’t thinking about this the same way; I can’t tell.  I’m hypothesizing that if God doesn’t change, and if humans exist on Planet X without our knowledge, it in no way negates Scripture. That’s really all.

      After all, anytime we’re writing for this universe, we’re “claiming” that certain people exist and have a part in God’s plan, when of course no one of the sort is actually here. In essence, then, we’re not really writing about this world, but a version that looks almost like this world, with God large and in charge and everything, yet that has one minor difference: our story takes place in this world, perhaps changing it forever.

      Can you rephrase that?

      So: in real life, I don’t believe SAL can exist. Scripture does seem not only to say null on the topic, but to rule out SAL implicitly by saying that 1) Adam’s sin affected the whole universe, 2) Christ came as the “Last Adam” to redeem many of Adam’s descendents, 3) Humans and the redemption of Earth are central in God’s plan (though certainly we are not ever-so-valuable by ourselves, but because God gives Himself, the All-Satisfying Object of love, to them out of His own love, for His own glory).

      Scripture also says that God’s judgment metes out to the third and fourth generation and his blessings forever (Exodus 32), but also states that “each man dies for his own sins” (Ezekiel 18, and I think there’s on in Jeremiah  – maybe).  A review of the books of Kings and Chronicles illustrates this in the succession of the northern and southern dynasties.  So it wouldn’t be too much a stretch to say that while the curse may be on the entire universe, each is still responsible for his own sin. (And that takes us into dicey territory, I’m aware. I’m also of the mind to think anything not God is susceptible to sin, and it becomes inevitable at some point.)
       
      (Miscellaneous sidenote: I’m having this debate strictly for the fun of it, just so everyone knows.)
       

      However, I don’t think it’s wrong for a Christian to imagine a universe in which the “rules” are changed in secondary areas, so long as God Himself remains, well, Himself, as best we can portray Him in a story given what we know of Him from Scripture.

       
      But in those alternate universes, how then do you handle the subject of each world having begun separately with its own Adam and Eve? If both Adams fell, then which Adam brought the curse? Or if the Planet A Adam fell, but the Planet B Adam hadn’t yet, would Planet B suffer the curse before its time?
       
       
       
       

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  5. I’m with Kaci on this one: I personally don’t believe that intelligent, sentient life on another world would “break the bank” in terms of Scripture. By the way, Stephen, I read your post on exterrestrials and Christianity, but your link is coming up as “Page Not Found” (see here instead, everyone). I think you made some good points, and I’m not particularly a fan of current “alien abduction” mythology, which I think is mostly a bunch of bull at the best (and possibly pure evil, of whatever kind you like, at the worst).
     
    If I may, though, (and at the risk of hijacking this thread) there is Scripture that may shed some light on this subject (and which I even heard an older radio minister, of all people, use in this very context!) In John chapter 10, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
     
    Now, I know the obvious meaning of these verses is that the “other sheep” are the Gentiles. I have heard some theorize that the “other sheep” are Native Americans or Africans or far Eastern Asians. Let’s examine that idea one moment: if we truly believe that salvation alone comes from Christ, and if we accept what many archeologists say about Native Americans coming into North America via landbridges in ancient times, than the very same points we’re making about extraterrestrial life can be made about these more earthly “aliens.” These people were part of the Fall of sin but had no way of hearing about salvation until centuries later (unless you accept the Mormon idea that Jesus preached in North America at some point). In fact, there were some at the first points of contact between European and American cultures that believed these people inhuman and incapable of salvation. Yet now I believe most mainstream Christians would say yes, Native Americans are certainly people, and yes, Christ died for them too.
     
    If we are ever priveleged while Christ tarries to meet more of God’s creation, I believe there will be both reactions: there will be those who discount them as people (believers and nonbelievers both) and some who embrace them (again, regardless of religion or lack thereof). And I don’t believe it would be long before you’d see ministries being set up to reach these people (of both the genuine and the charlatan kind, as there are in reaching our fellow humans here on earth). In short, I’m not sure what would really change.
     
    Besides the fact that it would make the best mission trip ever.

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  6. By the way, Stephen, I read your post on exterrestrials and Christianity, but your link is coming up as “Page Not Found” (see here instead, everyone).

    Thanks for that, Michelle. Just fixed it myself also. It was trying to link to the title. :P

    I’ll offer more later, especially rewriting the paragraph that wasn’t just confusing to Kaci, but confusing altogether (the term story was especially confusing). But I think I can offer this: Christ’s “other sheep” remark in John 10 is clearly about Gentiles, given the context of Christ’s monologue, others’ reaction to it, and His overall mission.

    Dug this up from the ESV Study Bible commentary (the preferred study Bible of doctri-nerds and next-generation Church Brats everywhere, currently):

    John 10:16 The other sheep that are not of this fold (cf. v. 1) are Gentiles (cf. Isa. 56:8). The phrase one flock, one shepherd alludes to Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; but here Jesus applies it more broadly, as Jews and Gentiles will be united in one messianic community (cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Eph. 2:11–22).

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    • Finally hunting down that other post. You have comments now. Go read it.
       
      That said….

      But I think I can offer this: Christ’s “other sheep” remark in John 10 is clearly about Gentiles, given the context of Christ’s monologue, others’ reaction to it, and His overall mission.

      Yes, it does mean Gentiles. And a Gentile means “anyone not Jewish.” I’d think extraterrestrials would qualify as Gentiles, so that doesn’t make the argument.

      And if we really wanted to be picky, angels and demons are extraterrestrial. Just saying. Those descriptions are incomprehensible to our brains that can only think in three dimensions.
       
       

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  7. Side note–because SAL is an awkward phrase, I remind people that C.S. Lewis’ word hnau fills that gap in our English vocabularly quite nicely–a good word for not-human peoples, both in sci-fi and fantasy

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  8. Galadriel, I think I’ll use that term accordingly in sentences either until it catches on or people get annoyed. ;) But I’ll need to make sure I pronounce it correctly — if I remember right it is roughly like hnow, with the h sound almost silent.

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  9. [...] Faith, novelist and editor Rachel Starr Thompson revisited this subject in an entry entitled When Speculation is… Confusing. She compares two recent books she’s read, one of them being my first novel The Resurrection. [...]

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  10. [...] Faith, novelist and editor Rachel Starr Thompson addressed this subject in an entry entitled When Speculation is… Confusing. She compared two recent books she’d read, one of them being The Resurrection. Rachel [...]

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