2019/04/05

Hard Theology

Out of the silent Planet

Science fiction grand master John C. Wright poses a long overdue question in his recent post on hard science fiction.
Heinlein never penned a sequel where the bastard children of Mike the Martian, six-fingered giants educated in Martian psionic arts by the ghost of their dead patriarch, overthrow and trample all other religions, shatter the corrupt federation with kinetic bombardments from the moon, to erect a worldwide theocratic state under the Church of Nine Worlds devoted to the worship of The Beast. But that would have been more theologically accurate than his “Thou art God” houey.
A book where humans evolve into angels is not just not Hard SF, it is not Hard Theology. As in science fiction, we can divide the genre of angels stories into “hard” and “soft.” Where angels follow heretic ideas or popular misconceptions (such as Clarance in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is “soft”. Where they are portrayed accurately as Thomas Aquinas described (the Eldil in CS Lewis’ Planetary Trilogy), is “hard.”
Now, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of my favorite films. I would not change it for the world. I mean no disrespect by calling it “soft” any more than I would offer disrespect to A. Merritt or HP Lovecraft or Robert E Howard or Jack Vance by calling them writers of weird fiction.
This leaves a question unanswered: are there any books that treat with angels and other divine things in a theologically well-researched fashion? Did anyone write “Hard Theo” aside from Charles Williams and CS Lewis? Does Dante count?
The chief occupation of fiction authors, much like stage magicians, is to deceive the audience enough to enable suspension of disbelief. The boy at the birthday party must believe, if only for a moment, that he had a coin hidden behind his ear. The science fiction reader must not question the possibility of warp drive while the story lasts.

Like a good carnival huckster, a science fiction author must be a jack of all trades. He must know just enough about his story's technological trappings to make the illusion hold up at a respectable distance.

This literary sleight of hand, mainly intended to satisfy the layman, often runs afoul of the STEM set. The astronomer shakes his head at faster-than-light travel. The biologist winces at atomic energy growing a spider to gargantuan size. Even your company's IT guy reacts to Computers are Magic! movies like Hackers and Swordfish with facepalms.

Recently I was brainstorming a custom mech with a cherished reader who backed the sequel to my mecha Mil-SF novel Combat Frame XSeed.

My reader's friend, who happens to be a physicist, overheard our boyish gushing over giant robots. She graciously took the time to explain why certain conceits of our secondary world tech violated the current understanding of basic physical laws. She was quite professional, but I could hear the eye rolling over the phone.

That's to be expected. Combat Frame XSeed falls within the Real Robot genre, a cultural product of the inscrutable East. While the genre label hints at an affinity with hard SF, Real Robot also features tropes such as space psychics capable of stopping asteroid drops with magic sparkles as they fade into the Force. It defies easy mapping to any Western genre.

Nonetheless, I can sympathize with the rocket scientists, engineers, and network admins who groan at authorial violations of physical laws. That's because I contend that the single most hamhandedly misrepresented and abused science in all of fiction is mine, the queen and mistress of all sciences, theology.

Now, hard SF usually provides a respite from the relentless drumbeat of theological illiteracy pervading the rest of pop culture, if only because hard SF tends to studiously ignore theological questions. The worst you get is a Big Men with Screwdrivers Meet Scooby-Doo story like Star Trek V.

When any other genre deals with theology or a related discipline like ecclesiology, soteriology, pneumatology, etc., it subjects your local theologian to a trial of Christian patience.

The worst offenders are fantasy games and films wherein the goal is to, "kill the gods!" A close second is stories in which the deities are said to be reliant on mortals in some way. I'm looking at you, Clash of the Titans remake and American Gods.

To give a physics analogy, that's not producing a clever bit of handwavium to break the light speed limit. That's proposing a universe where the acceleration formula has been changed from a=dv/dt to a=purple/leaf blower.

Gross theological error is a perennial fixture of what I like to call Death Metal Narration Tales. They tend to be Smrt stories, though it's often due to laziness rather than malice. Named for the spoken word segments between tracks on certain metal albums, such stories can be from any genre. What they have in common is severe theological indifference.

They authors of DMN stories can't really be blamed. Clown World gives them good cause to claim invincible ignorance. Like Clown World itself, the problem goes back to the Enlightenment, when theology was maliciously dethroned from its chief place at the Western universities which owe their existence to it. The Queen of Sciences has languished in the liberal arts department ever since.

What a rank injustice. Unlike so-called "hard sciences" whose body of knowledge undergoes constant and often drastic revisions, only theology brings men knowledge of absolute, immutable truth with certainty. It's more technically correct to say that theology is the ONLY science.

But, we can't entertain serious scholarly claims that one religion is true while the others are false or that there's an objective moral reality. That might hurt someone's feelings.

To address Mr. Wright's excellent question, do any modern authors write "hard theology"? Other than Lewis, I can't name any who even tried. And no, Dante doesn't count. He's a superlative poet, but his scholarly rigor leaves something to be desired.

Let's put it this way. I'm a trained theologian, and even I didn't shoot for high theological accuracy in my Dante-inspired Soul Cycle. On the contrary, I purposefully imagined a secondary world with radically divergent cosmological and theological principles so I could meet readers awash in DMN stories halfway.

Is writing hard theology stories even possible today? I'm skeptical. Lewis could do it in the 30s, back when the zeitgeist still retained a strong vestige of Christian culture. My vampire yarn "Izcacus" is my best stab at a theologically correct story. Give it a read, and see if you can spot the departures from how a DMN author would've handled the material.

The main obstacle to authors doing hard theology is that precious few theologians do hard theology these days.

26 comments:

  1. Chesterton had a way with words that both argued for Christ and kept the focus on the story at the same time. The Flying Inn, Manalive, and The Man Who Was Thursday are all ripping and funny action yarns with more than enough to leave the mind spinning. But I can't think of anyone like him recently. They would easily be contained to the Christian Fiction ghetto today.

    The sort of RPG you bring up reminds me of Xenogears and Lunar, both of which end up weakening their core story due to this obsession with subversion. I found the below post once while looking up old games. It perfectly describes much of the "gut feeling" of revulsion one gets from these sort of stories. And this is from an obvious agnostic. On a deeper level we know they are silly.

    http://hg101.proboards.com/thread/14578/lunar-silver-storys-bothers-spoilers

    But I'm not innocent of this. When I was a younger and more naive agnostic I came up with a whole smrt story of the usual Gnostic type where evil isn't really evil and such. I never wrote it because deep down I knew it wasn't honest and it made me ill to think about putting pen to paper for it.

    When one reads old fairy tales like "The Seven Foals" and see how central Christ is to making them so beautiful it is hard to go back to such swill. I'm not a Hard SF guy though I can enjoy a good story in that style, but a story that is morally and spiritually corrupt is far worse and one I can't abide by.

    So perhaps I am more of a snob than I thought.

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    1. There's a difference between being a snob and having standards.

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  2. "Let's go kill God" was what pushed me out of a lot of Eastern fantasy in the 2000s, especially because it was clear who the God was they were gunning for.

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    1. *nods*

      Interesting how none of these stories involve a plot to kill Thor.

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    2. The Shin Megami Tensei/Persona series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Dragon Quests 6 and 9, even all the way back to Breath of Fire 2 all good examples of jrpgs guilty of this.

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  3. Would you think of Tolkien then, potentially, as "hard theology" at least as far as The Silmarillion goes, or is that instead "hard mythology?"

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    1. I'll let Brian answer, but my take with Tolkien is that it is more hidden theology. I've heard of people converting to the faith because of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I've not met or heard of anyone who converted from reading Tolkien.

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    2. Theology specifically refers to God, so we'd be restricted to Tolkien's portrayal of Illuvatar. In that case, Tolkien fudges a bit to reconcile the pagan epic feel with his Christian faith, but I'm not gonna call heresy.

      But like Lewis, he was writing in a different time.

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    3. Convert, no. Push a lapsed Catholic back to the faith, yes, several times - granted, that might be more due to his letter and a afemic work than his published fiction, bur Tolkien, is still, a window back to the faith I'd argue

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    4. Sorry. Reading my comment again, I see it’s an end thought and does not properly address the question nor convey what I was trying to say. My apologies, I do that a lot when commenting.

      What I was thinking, was even if considered categorically hard Theology, it matters little if the average reader is not going to notice it nor draw any lessons from it. To grasp the theological parallels requires additional reading and study by the reader (read the Simillarion, read Tolkein’s letters and notes about illuvatar and the Valar, etc). The parallels to God, angels, Satan, and the descent of man, etc. are not obvious nor direct like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series. Most readers of LotR and the Hobbit can’t tell you how Illuvatar and God are alike, nor can they easily say which characters portray an example of Christ (Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn), so lessons on Christian life are not readily drawn. However even a neopagan can tell you Aslan is clearly a type of Christ, and can easily see the successes and failures of various characters in the light of Christ’s teachings.

      Also, the writing style of Tolkien’s books keeps it away from being a theological tract in that they are deliberately written as historical-mythological works, like Beowulf, rather than a novel with direct theological concepts in them. Tolkien wanted to tell a story, a grand history, and downplays any transmission of theological concepts. Not so much with Narnia or Lewis’ sci-fi novels.

      It’s the lack of being able to draw a direct lesson from the novels that leads me to think this is why I’ve not heard of anyone converting to the Catholic Faith because of LotR, but I know plenty who have come here from reading the Narnia series.

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  4. Wright's post and yours and putting into words something I've felt for a long time.

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  5. Brian, I've heard some solid priests lament that this is the first time we, the Church, lack a faithful theologian. As you said, hard to find good theology when even the best of the Church are so disconnected from Tradition and Teaching.

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    1. Hyperbole aside, there are plenty of brilliant, faithful theologians if one knows where to look. The problem is they get no support from the hierarchy and academia.

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  6. Maybe Gene Wolfe if you believe his protagonists. Severian supposedly meets God (book of the new sun) and Able meets Michael the Archangel (Wizard Knight).

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  7. Off topic - I finally picked a Gundam to try. Almost on a whim, "Iron-Blooded Orphans". The name was cool and when I googled it the reviews were all good.

    Man am I glad I tried it. The first grest mech show I've watched since Gurren Lagann. Just awesome. The animation alone is in a class of its own.

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  8. I'd nominate Tim Powers' "Declare" for the Hard Theology title.

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  9. I don't mind hard theology not making appearances; whenever we come into contact in the real world with hard theology, we're listening to a theology popularizer break it down into something more mundane. It's hard, too, to really move the story along with hard theology unless you're mixing it with history or conspiracy theory--Eco comes to mind. But then, hard theology just becomes the butt of the joke, basically.

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  10. Excellent article, Brian. Very intelligent and brings up good concepts to consider. So, I'm going to put my current wip on the chopping block and see what you guys think, if you don't mind.
    There are speculative elements that clearly are not reality (a bit of a must for fiction. I mean, we can't just copy the bible word for word). But those elements breach topics of spiritual warfare, the power of spoken word, and miracles.
    Then there are spiritual realm elements that, let's be honest, nobody can really fathom, and there are more questions than answers. For instance, my story considers topics like, "If angels and demons are in a near-eternal war, do they die in battle, and what happens to them if they do?" And "If Angel's once had free will to rebel, do they still have free will, and do the exercise it?" Also, why does God allow our enemy to continue in his ruthless campaign agaisnt us? What are His thoughts towards fallen angels who were once his children?"
    These seem to me like hard theology questions without hard theology answers, but I personally have found it incredibly humbling to go to God with those questions. It instilled in me awe at the complexity of everything under His governance.
    And then there are eternal truths, that no "sound" Christian would debate: God's intimate interest in our personal lives, His trustworthiness even when things appear hopeless, and His power to redeem and restore.
    So where does that kind of stuff land? Soft, hard, DMN? I want to know.
    Thanks for initiating the conversation.

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    1. You are welcome.

      What say you, chat?

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    2. I'm not familiar with blogger. How do you do that? Or are you on Twitter or Facebook?

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    3. I was addressing the commentariat.

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    4. "Also, why does God allow our enemy to continue in his ruthless campaign agaisnt us?"

      Strictly speaking, this is the only theological question of those you posed above.

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    5. I'm sorry I never responded at the time.

      @McOwan: 'Hard' vs 'Soft' is not measured by difficulty of the questions, but by how well they conform to theology proper, just as 'Hard' vs 'Soft' science fiction depends on how much the counterfactuals stray from how we understand science works.

      I can't really tell from your questions how hard or soft your story would be. For what it's worth, I don't care that much because I am intrigued by the possible settings and plots implied by the questions you ask, and I want to read about them.

      Please.

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