Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Christian's Defense of Fantasy (including vampires)

This post is written from a solidly Christian perspective, treating the Bible as the Word from God and its commands as effective in the world today. If that offends you, kindly go read something else. Quotes are taken from the King James Version, mainly because it's popular and copyright-free, but links go to a resource with multiple translations.

Some people hate fiction, particularly speculative fiction, saying it isn't real and puts you out of touch with reality, as if non-fiction (and, sometimes, allegories) are the only reality, the only way of conveying information, though even the Bible has all sorts of communication types in it.

But I'll get to that.

Some people are more prone to seeing the glass as half-full; and some people are more prone to seeing the glass as half-empty. Usually this is described as optimism versus pessimism.

But like any analogy, it's not strictly true. They're actually illustrations two main ways you can describe or explain something:

  1. By pointing out what it is, to describe what is not
  2. By pointing out what it is not, to describe what is

My parents sometimes call me fat in public. It's a joke—because I'm most definitely not fat—but people who overhear it tend to freak out. Some protest, "She's skinny, not fat!", putting what is before what is not. Others insist "She's not fat! She's skinny!", putting what is not before what is. Neither statement is wrong. That difference illustrates my point about the two different styles of thought.

Allegories, much (but not all) non-fiction, and some fiction use what is to speak of what is not. Analogies, speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, horror—and satire use what is not to speak of what is.

And that's where the haters of fiction and fantasy tend to harp, saying it isn't real, and why would you want to fill your head with such nonsense?

Those people are missing the entire point. Sure, there's an escapist aspect, conveying you to another world—but that very "escapism" is what lowers the defenses so it can show the author's worldview.

Even the Bible sometimes contains fiction.

Case in point: Nathan's story of the lambs in II Samuel 12, told to David so he'd listen to the story to its conclusion and acknowledge his sin.

Scripture never forbids storytelling, and indeed, the prophets and Jesus often use stories to make their points. So fiction itself is therefore authorized, though the line between fact and fiction must be kept clear, to keep from bearing false witness (Ex. 20:16, Deut. 5:20).

The Bible also sometimes speaks out of what is not, as in the realm of fantasy.

The visions received by Pharaoh and the prophets in the Bible often could be thought fantasy, such as the statue in Daniel 2. Even Jesus got fantastical when he spoke of removing a plank from your own eye before seeking to remove the speck from your brother's eye (Matt. 7, Luke 6); it's not exactly possible to walk around with a two-by-four sticking out of your eye.

The Bible even references ghosts, such as when Jesus returned from the dead and his disciples freaked out. Jesus didn't say ghosts didn't exist; He gave the reasons He couldn't be a ghost (Luke 24:39). Maybe that means ghosts are real; maybe He was gently reassuring His disciples and poking holes in their beliefs about the paranormal. I don't know enough about Jewish or Roman beliefs about ghosts at the time in order to guess.

Now, we certainly aren't Jesus. Nothing we do is perfectly holy, good, just, right, etc. That doesn't stop people like David in Scripture from doing what he could to advance God's kingdom, though he was an adulterer, a murderer, and probably not all that great a father (that last one being a strong suspicion of mine from the mess that was his family).

But our imperfection makes any non-fiction we write just as imperfect as any fantasy.

In fact, because we are imperfect and view the world with flawed eyes, I find text about what is more potentially confusing and dangerous than text about what is not. Some of that is likely because I think out of what is not, but consider:

It's easier to describe what is not than to describe what is.

Consider the satirical essay "A Modest Proposal", by Jonathan Swift, which starts with the "what is not" premise that the Irish population must be reduced by any means possible—and runs with it. The result is gross, appalling…and in being so, makes its point in a pointed, memorable way.

For a long time, Arena by Karen Hancock has bothered me, because it has a bunch of benevolent aliens acting in the roles of Christ and angels. (Otherwise, I'd highly recommend it.) I naturally see analogies rather than allegories, so I was reading the text as the aliens being analogous to Christ and angels. But I suspect the overall text was meant as an allegory. I don't comprehend symbolism well, so though I can recognize an overall allegory and the broad analogies, the specifics intended by the big picture tend to lose me. (As much as I enjoy reading Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, don't ask me to identify what's supposed to symbolize what. I tried guessing once, and checked my answers by looking it up. I flunked.)

Analogies? I'm all over those. Allegories? Not so much.

But some people are the opposite, loving allegories and being lost by analogies, getting stuck on the points wherein the analogy fails.

Analogies are supposed to fail on some level, because they start with what is not, to speak of what is.

That doesn't make analogies bad. It just gives them different limitations than allegories—and allegories have limitations that analogies don't share.

Fantasy is the selfsame way.

If text speaking out of "what is" works best for your comprehension, that's great! Go ahead and never read a fantasy novel.

But please stop assuming that "what is not" is useless for everyone because it's useless for you. Pilgrim's Progress is useless for me, and you don't see me calling it a waste of time or sinful.

Now, I know I've still left unaddressed one significant argument against "dark" fiction, horror, vampires, etc.

Philippians 4:8: Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Ergo, the argument goes, anything that contains any overt sin must be avoided. Christians must read of rainbows and cute fuzzy bunnies and not things that disturb them, because things that disturb you aren't pure and lovely. (Or, in the very least, it must explicitly and thoroughly condemn any sin that's mentioned.)

But if that's what it means, why is Judges in the Bible, or the incest of Lot's daughters (Genesis 19), or any one of a plethora of terrible and wicked things that are stated in Scripture without being explicitly condemned when they occur? If reading about relationships is wrong, why is Song of Solomon or Proverbs in the Bible? If reading about depression or hopelessness is wrong, what's up with Ecclesiastes?

Christians are to study Scripture, which includes disturbing texts like Judges—texts that don't include explicit, direct condemnation.

So defining "pure" and "lovely" as "sunshine and rainbows and warm fuzzy feelings" doesn't wash, and nor does a definition of "things that explicitly condemn every wicked thing therein".

What, then, is meant by the verse in Philippians by "whatsoever things are lovely" etc.? I'd have to learn Greek to be sure, but the semicolon before "if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise" suggests that is the definition for what has gone before.

Any story, text, or argument doesn't occur in a vacuum. To interpret it in a vacuum would be the equivalent of taking the story of the Levite's concubine out of Judges 19 and using that example to say that it's okay to take a second wife, because a Levite did it, and he's never condemned for it. (Never mind that concubine hasn't always referred to a secondary wife—it could just indicate a wife who came from a lower station than the husband or one who didn't have a dowry.) Or using that example to say that it's okay to hand your wife over to rapists to be tortured for the night, because the rapists were the bad guys of that story, not the Levite husband.

I'm not saying that everyone needs to think about the dark. Some people are more affected by negatives than others and actually can't handle it. Other people…actually find more reassurance in considering the evils in the world than they do in considering the nice things.

I read about some terrible thing that happened, and my reaction isn't "How can God let this happen?!" (which wouldn't make it very virtuous or praiseworthy to think on them). My first, instinctual reaction is along the lines of, "That poor person; yikes, we're wicked; and thank You for protecting me, God." Part of why I wrote Destiny's Kiss is that sex slavery is a problem—and more pervasive even in first world countries than we tend to think about it—and I intentionally chose a "what is not" premise, because I can't get everything right, and this way, I'm not supposed to.

And as an added bonus, the fantasy premise it lets the reader accept it as a step away from reality, so they can follow the events and connect it to the real world on their own, in their own time.

But as in the aforementioned "A Modest Proposal", life is comprised of dichotomies. (The song "Eye of the Storm" by Cr├╝xshadows actually talks about this; listen on YouTube.) If your lights are always on, how will you know dark when you see it? If you don't start with the premise that it's wrong to eat babies, you won't understand "A Modest Proposal" properly as the satire it is.

Darkness can be used to make the light all the more obvious. The light shines in the darkness, according to John 1:5, and some translations say the darkness hasn't overcome it; some say it hasn't comprehended it. Both are true, though the implications differ.

Now, I'm not saying that people who define things out of negatives need to bury themselves in that "darkness", either. We need the light, too. We need balance. We have to with the negative to define the positive, because the Christian worldview is ultimately hopeful.

One last note on vampires: Blood drinking was forbidden under the Levitical law. Acts 15:20 includes the consumption of blood on a list that's also against eating meat sacrificed to idols—and I Corinthians 8 explicitly says that eating of meat sacrificed to idols is a conscience issue, for the food laws were negated in Acts 10.

Now, it's quite possible that I'm missing a nuance in the translation, and the blood spoken of in Acts 15:20 is specifically animal blood. However, Colossians 2:16 explicitly states that we aren't to pass judgement on what others do or do not eat, drink, or celebrate.

So I'll enjoy a rare steak, but I'm not about to go drink from someone's wrist. (Ew!) I have no qualms about sucking my own papercut, though. If vampries existed in the nice non–homicidal monster sense, blood would be natural part of their diet, and I find it reasonable to conclude that their diet, though revolting, would be theologically acceptable.

Even if you disagree with me, there's enough evidence to make fantasy—including vampires—a conscience issue. As for which side of the debate holds the "weaker brother" spoken of in Romans 14, neither of us knows, and it would be presumptuous to judge definitively on something that doesn't even exist.

Maybe vampires would be damned by definition; maybe not. I prefer assuming not, because the standard lore has it possible to be changed into a vampire against your will; you might prefer the interpretation that they are. That's okay.

Writing, reading (or to refusing to read) any fantasy, or horror, or vampire stories most certainly is not a sin, any more than reading non-fiction, satire, or general fiction.

So what's your argument for or against fantasy? See any holes I missed?

—Misti

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