Christianity in IF - an IFDB Pollby Bainespal
Sam Kabo Ashwell's statement in his recent review of Cana According to Micah that "the best works dealing prominently with Christian themes are written by non-Christians" made me curious. Perhaps a list of games with serious Christian themes could help illuminate that statement.
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That statement, of course, is ridiculous. It's like saying, "the best skiiers are those who never ski." Riiight.
I would say that Christians would be better equipped to write about the Christian experience (which is different from say, interpreting scripture). As an American who has lived in close proximity to American evangelicals, I'm comfortable generalizing and saying that most of them know dick-all about the Bible and don't really read it apart from select passages they're led by the nose toward, while I (a non-Christian) have read the Bible multiple times in multiple translations (as well as various supplementary works, etc). So, I'd be better equipped to write about scripture than many of them, but they'd unquestionably be better equipped to write about the experience of being Christian (or at least, about being American evangelicals). Meanwhile, neither I nor an American evangelical would be specifically equipped to write about the Christian experience in, say, 19th Century France, or even modern Christianity outside the evangelical hell-bubble. The word "Christian" (or the phrase "with serious Christian themes") when describing a work, isn't very specific, really.
Being a skiier requires at least a basic knowledge of how to move in skis, while being a Christian requires no specific knowledge whatsoever. A Christian can be (and demonstrably, often is) 100% ignorant of the religion's history, writings, traditions and even beliefs, beyond a vague "there once was this Jesus guy and we like him."
You're right, Ghalev. I've been relying on presuppositions about the meanings of "Christian" and "serious Christian themes," taking for granted that others' presuppositions would be close enough to my own. Let me try to be specific.
First, I'm an American evangelical and was raised one. Your generalization has some truth. Most evangelicals I know read the Bible every day and aspire to systematically read through all of it at least once, but we too often follow our devotionals and our reading plans and miss an authentic experience of the text. I do not agree with everything that I have been growing up as an evangelical; some of my disagreements (or more like uncertainties) are about the Bible. That's neither here nor there; I'll just say that I believe some have made an idol out of the Bible by forcing an artificial literalness based on their own understanding.
My belief that human understanding is an inadequate in any area forms part of my assumption about what "Christian themes" are. We don't make truth and can't discover it; we need it to be revealed to us. Not really through the Bible, although Scripture is important; as the Hero who came to lead us to transcendent truth, Christ is the Word of God more fully than the Bible (IMO). So, a manifestation of an unknowable reality is a theme that I would call Christian, especially if that manifestation can take us (who or whatever "us" is in context) to that unknowable reality by denying this incomplete reality. The idea that life can defeat, especially by refusing to fight it -- the idea that love can be restored and perfected through sacrifice -- I would call those Christian themes.
Thanks for the comment. I'm really glad for some discussion of this. :)
I believe Sam was only making a claim about the existing corpus of IF -- where it might be true, I don't know. I doubt anyone would want to defend the claim as a necessary truth, or as pertaining to all of culture. After all, Dante was most definitely a Christian.
(And while you can't be a skiier without skiing, but you can certainly write a work about Christianity without being a Christian.)
The sentence would be served better yet as "the best stories (or, what the hey, the best interactive fiction) about skiing is written by those who never ski," which would be an extremely difficult proposition to defend. Or we could stop using limited analogies.
One might argue that the best non-fictional treatises about Christianity or any other topic are written by people outside the field--a dubious proposition (no one is free of bias, and I'm highly skeptical of anyone who claims to know more about something than the people who are actually a part of it), but defensible.
But fiction, especially first- and second-person fiction, is experiential. A non-Christian, or anyone outside any demographic, is at a severe disadvantage in conveying what it's like, regardless of how much factual knowledge s/he has. One should also never underestimate the sheer amount of factual knowledge one absorbs by being a part of something, details which are almost impossible to research but stand out as glaring errors to anyone in the demographic. (Ex-Christians complicate things somewhat.)
Again, a participant who writes about something is likely writing about how it's cool and they like it and they want you to like it too. Non-participants with that goal are probably rare; those writing about how they actively dislike it are much more common, and I don't know why those who don't care one way or another would bother writing anything. A story inspired by avidly liking something is much more appealing than a story inspired by vehement dislike.
In practice, the abysmal state of contemporary Christian fiction is caused by a complex net of cultural issues which may or may not bleed over into IF. However, a priori, I think a Christian has several major advantages when writing fiction about Christianity, just as anyone does when writing about a demographic to which he or she belongs.
A brilliant and balanced comment. Thank you!
I think the artistic power of Christianity lies in the interpretation of everything in terms of redemption. Thus, even mundane things like the cycle of the seasons can take on epic meaning. Ugliness and evil are seen against the background of a state of pure transcendence, creating the possibility for both drama and horror.
Can a non-Christian use the theme of redemption like that? I don't know. I am a Christian, and all I know is that non-Christians' use of Christian themes, while sometimes interesting and informed, always seem inadequate and unsatisfying in their use of redemption themes.
I'm glad that the problems in contemporary Christian fiction haven't crossed over into IF yet, but I doubt they ever will. There's not a separate Christian demographic among IF players that may or may not play secular works. Also, I think the contemporary Christian fiction scene is improving as a whole. Even though the major Christian publishers aren't doing well, more and more Christian novelists are self-publishing or seeking publication from small POD publishers (or mainstream secular ones), increasing the number of speculative fiction and thriller novels written from a Christian worldview.
While I agree that it would be possible for non-Christians to make great Christianity-inspired works, it seems that the best of these were actually written by people who were definitely Christian. What works are at the top? Things like the Divine Comedy, the St Matthew's Passion, Paradise Lost, Fear and Trembling, the City of God. Nobody, I think, will dispute than Dante, Bach, Milton, Kierkegaard and Augustine were Christians, though some of them were rather idiosyncratic Christians (notably Dante, Milton and Kierkegaard).
What is the greatest Christianity-inspired work by a non-Christian? The first thing that comes into my mind are the passages on Jesus and morality in Oscar Wilde's De Profundis. Very fine, but not of the eminence of the works I mentioned above. Do you have other suggestions?