It’s something that often comes up when I’m preparing couples for marriage. We get a lot of weddings at our church. It’s large and picturesque, with a lovely churchyard just perfect for those wedding photos. So once I’ve asked the nervous couple what they both do, inevitably the law of conversation means that they ask what my husband does. “He writes science fiction,” I reply. They laugh. “Isn’t that kind of difficult? I mean… science fiction and…”
It’s a common conception: science fiction and religion don’t mix. The thing is, they do. At least in my case. I’ve been a lover of science fiction since before I even knew what science fiction was. All I knew was I liked the books with the space ships on the covers. At school, I was a loner in many respects and was more often to be found with my nose in a book than mixing with my fellow pupils. The idea that there might be other people who liked books with space ships in them as much as I did, and that we might get on and spend time together enjoying our common ground wasn’t something that occurred to me. It was entirely by chance that when I hit sixteen and was in sixth form, I discovered another girl who was a Babylon5 fan. I adored B5. We talked. We bonded. We went to a convention together, my very first. And that was that. Now I knew fandom existed, and I liked it. At University, for a while at least, I was president of the Oxford University Doctor Who and Cult Television Society. We got together and watched Doctor Who episodes, usually followed by a chaser of Blake’s 7 or The Avengers or Sapphire and Steel or anything along those lines. I met my husband at the birthday party of a Doctor Who New Adventures author. What I’m trying to say is: I’m a geek. A card–carrying geek. Which I have to explain to every wedding couple I sit down with.
At the same time, I’m a Church of England priest. I’ve not been ordained for long, just two years in fact, but I’ve been a church–going Christian ever since I was old enough to take myself to church on my own on a Sunday, and I have felt called to be a priest since I was 16. My Christian faith, as I’m sure you can imagine, is a massive part of my life. This faith co–exists with my geekdom, but to a lot of people out there, it seems as if that happy co–existence shouldn’t be possible. Why?
Clash of cultures
The first level I think is about a perceived culture clash. SF fans are often regarded, and often openly identify themselves, as outsiders. We’re the ones who didn’t quite fit in at school. The ones who preferred reading to chatting, who found their above–average intelligence attracted censure rather than praise, and who turned away into their own worlds as a result. SF fandom has thus traditionally been a place that welcomes the lonely, the weird, the outcast. It has been a place of belonging and comfort for people who have never belonged or felt comfortable anywhere before.
On the other hand, Christianity is often regarded, (frequently by Christians themselves) as an immovable part of mainstream life. The Church (be it Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist…) is an institution. Belonging to it is like belonging to the Conservative Association (if you’re in the UK) or the Rotary Club. I’m not sure what a US parallel would be. The Republican Party, maybe? It’s seen as a place that underlines and reinforces the status quo.
Clash of attitudes
Secondly, there’s the fact of a perceived clash of attitudes. SF itself often centres upon notions of questioning, analysing and exploring. The world building of science fiction and fantasy means that the big questions of the world can be brought into the open and explored in settings that take invisible things and make them visible. Concepts can be drawn out to their furthest ends, or questions about faith made concrete and investigated. Now that’s not the case with all SF, to be sure. Plenty of work in our genre retreads old ground. It works rather like comfort food –– giving us the same old stuff which we know we love. But the stuff on the edge takes us to new places, asks us new questions, carries us into the unknown. Similarly, fans who enjoy SF tend to enjoy that questioning, analysing attitude and share it. They want to look at things from new angles, to discover new things about themselves and about the world.
Christianity, meanwhile, can often come across as the exact opposite. In many places, the Christian church has manifested itself as a place where questioning is unwelcome. The world is presented as being a certain way, with the corollary that there is no other acceptable point of view. Operating within this worldview there is no discovering new things. It is about protecting the way things have always been.
The sketches I’ve drawn above are all too often the genuine impressions that people outside these two cultures have of them both, and that geekdom and Christianity have of each other. It’s a case of the weird vs. the normal, the questioners vs the unquestionable. The truth is so much richer, more complex and rewarding. As I began moving deeper into the world of fandom, I was a little afraid that my faith would make me stand out. That I would be the only Christian, and I would be shunned as a result.
I needn’t have worried. It’s true that there are fewer Christians in fandom in the UK (or it could be that they’re just quieter, which is always possible –– UK culture encourages the keeping–private of personal truths), but fandom has plenty of Christian presence. Actually, it has plenty of believers of all stripes –– Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan, you name it. Because the idea that fandom and believers should be at each others’ throats is premised on a very limited idea of what it is to be a believer, and to some extent, of what it is to be a fan of SF and fantasy.
Christians: Defenders of the status quo?
It’s true, sadly, that there are places, and there are churches, where those unflattering pictures of Christianity I drew are fully accurate. I think there are fewer of them than people might think, particularly if you’re unlucky enough to live in a place where the church is like that, but they do exist.
That face of Christianity is a long way from where it should be, to my mind, and certainly from where it began. These days, Christianity can be seen as the very model of the status quo, and that was even more true a hundred years ago or so, but when it first came on the scene, to follow Christ was to be a consummate outsider. The original Christians fitted in absolutely nowhere, and faced a great deal of trouble as a result. Jesus wasn’t interested in being part of the status quo. He asked the hard questions, attacked the assumptions of the people in power, called for the social structure to be up–ended. The powers that be had no liking for him or those who followed him. No wonder he was executed. No wonder so many of his followers faced the same fate. Now it can feel like the places have been reversed. That now Christians are the powers that be and have little time for those who question the way things are.
That’s not my kind of Christianity. I doubt if it’s the faith of any of my fellow geek–believers. We know that, originally, Christianity was a place of acceptance and belonging for the outcast, the lonely and the weird. And we’re involved in a fandom that, at its best, is also a place for the outcast to belong, serves to make that knowledge so much the sharper. We know what it is to feel on the edge of mainstream culture. So our Christianity can’t be about fitting in with the mainstream, because we know how shallow and damaging that mainstream can be.
A Christianity that doesn’t belong to the mainstream is, as you might expect, not a popular thing. In its ideal form, it challenges the powerful and upholds the voiceless. But that’s the ideal. If we’re able to uphold this kind of Christianity on the edge, we make ourselves unwelcome. It involves paying what Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship”. It makes faith something we choose at some cost, and follow despite the best efforts of the status quo. It’s not about being comfortable, or about being like everyone else. With this kind of Christian faith, being a Christian and being a geek can be extraordinarily similar experiences.
The ‘unquestioning nature’ of Christianity
The second clash, the clash of attitudes, can also be true. I know plenty of Christians, some close to home, who hate the idea of questioning. In their minds they know the truth, and questioning the way they know things to be is at best a distraction, and at worse a destructive act.
Again, this isn’t a faith I know nor want to claim. For me, and for many, believing in Christ isn’t something that shuts off questions––it’s something that prompts them. There’s a bit in the Gospels, in which someone asks Jesus what the “first commandment” is. Jesus answers that it is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” What does it mean to love God with your mind? I think doing that involves thinking: asking and entertaining all the hard questions about life and the world and reality that you can imagine. It means taking seriously the differences between what science and scripture say, and working out how they can come together with integrity. If I were to stop asking questions, or worse, to stop others asking questions, I would be doing the exact opposite of loving God with all my mind. I would have stopped using my mind altogether.
When SF and faith come together
So, for me, science fiction and fantasy offer a wonderful opportunity. They are the perfect places to ask those questions about reality, about life and faith and power, and to see them explored and expanded. They open up our horizons, and make it possible to explore any question we can imagine.
The big questions: Some stories go head on at the big questions. One of my favourite authors in any medium is Ursula K. Le Guin, and one of her short stories is a perfect example of this kind of frontal assault. It’s called “The Field of Vision,” and was published in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. It’s a polemical piece, angry and terse, and it tells the story of what happens when humans are enabled to experience reality, and thus to experience God. The only problem is: these particular humans were enabled without their knowledge or consent. The story confronts what it is to be human, and to want to retain that humanity in the face of too much reality. Le Guin asks the big question, “What would we see or hear or experience if we could experience the Truth?” I love this story because it’s a question I so often ask in the context of my faith. How much of reality do we miss because our perceptions are so limited? What would humanity look like set against the revelation of the vast size and complexity of the Universe?
The round–about approach — tackling religious themes: Other stories seek to illustrate concepts. As well as my SF and fantasy fandoms, I’m an anime fan. Anime, being a medium rather than a genre, offers a massive and varied selection of different story types. A fairly large number of anime series display an interest in religions, sometimes purely on the level of enjoying the imagery, sometimes seeking to engage in a deeper examination of religious themes. One of my favourite series — Haibane Renmei — offers a gentle, thought–provoking exploration of the theme of forgiveness.
Within the story, religious imagery is kept to a minimum and explanations are few and far between. All we know is that haibane (literally meaning ‘grey feathers’) appear in the world of the story, a walled city, in cocoons, from which they are born not as babies, but as people at various stages of growth. They all dreamed while they were in the cocoon, and are named after the nature of their dream. A day or so after being ‘born’, they grow wings and are given circular haloes that hover over their heads. After a few years of life in the walled city, they have their “day of flight”, which nobody can witness, and after which they have vanished from the world. Instead of answering the obvious questions begged by this set up (Are the haibane really angels? Have they died? Is it Limbo?), the story sets off to look at what it means to be forgiven, to forgive oneself, and then be able to offer that forgiveness to somebody else.
In its direct exploration of the theme of redemption, Haibane Renmei seems to me to be an immensely Christian story. I’ve used it as a gateway for non–anime–literate Christians before, to illustrate just how insightful and wonderful anime can be. I’m writing a nurture course at the moment (a course through which Christians take a closer look at their faith and get to ask some deeper questions about belief and worship and those kinds of things) and I’m tempted to make watching Haibane Renmei part of it. I’ve not seen a more perfect example of redemption in narrative before.
Exploring the social realities of religion: My final example of how SF and fantasy get to grips with the questions of faith is when stories engage with the social reality of religions and religious belief. On several occasions I’ve seen this done particularly well in fantasy settings, and one of my favourite examples is in the wonderful Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. In this story, McMaster Bujold has a magnificently drawn religious system and society. Religion isn’t presented as inherently good or bad, but it is true, and has a direct impact on the world, its societies, and the story’s protagonists. I really enjoy this approach, because the story takes religion seriously. Religious belief shapes people and societies, and it is very welcome when a story appreciates and shows that concrete impact, be it good or bad.
My own Doctor Who audio story, “Doctor Who and the Council of Nicaea” took this approach. It’s a pure historical story, in which the Doctor travels to the year 325CE and the great Early Church council held in the city of Nicaea. He and his companions meet the major players at the council, and find themselves involved in the religious conflict that was such a massive force in the lives of the people of that time. In the story, the religious belief of the protagonists was presented as neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but simply as a fact of life. I’m happy to say that it was generally well received, and my aim, to show the complex reality that lies behind seemingly dry questions of religious doctrine, was recognised and appreciated.
Fandom as a questioning space
So SF and fantasy are wonderfully unafraid to question and analyse. And by extension, this is true of fandom, too. Geeks, like the stories they enjoy, aren’t afraid to ask questions.
None of which makes for a particularly easy or comfortable ride. When I identify myself as a Christian, or even more, when I identify myself as a priest, I can expect that questioning to be directed at me. I can expect people who are coming from positions of curiosity, or from stronger positions of dislike, distrust or disbelief, to try to poke holes in my worldview. I can expect my beliefs to be examined and debated. This can be a negative exercise but, thus far, I’ve found out–and–out animosity to be a rare thing. More often, debate is a friendly exercise in exploration. My conversation partners want to know what I think and why, and want me to be rigorous in justifying my position.
It’s not comfortable, but it’s good. More than anything else, it keeps me honest. If I were ever tempted into trite answers or unexamined faith, conversations with fellow fans would stop that in its tracks. In this company, I’m not allowed to have a lazy worldview. Which is as it should be. If I can’t explain what I believe and why, if I can’t field probing questions, then I haven’t thought deeply enough.
Fandom makes me think. The material makes me think. The people make me think.
And thank God for that.
Caroline Symcox is both a priest in the Church of England and a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Books, audio dramas, TV and films are all equally prone to attracting her fannish attention. She has written two Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish, Seasons of Fear (co–written with Paul Cornell) and The Council of Nicaea. Other published work includes a short story in the anthology Bernice Summerfield: The Dead Men Diaries and essays in Whedonistas and Chicks Unravel Time. Thanks to the arrival of her firstborn son, her time is currently divided between Baby Work, Church Work, Writing Work and Sleep, in that order.