Wednesday, July 12, 2006

“Imminent Pre-Millennium Eschatology” and Science Fiction

Yes, the above phrase refers to the common (and mostly American, I should add) interpretation of those Scriptures referring to the Second Coming of Christ, perhaps made most familiar by the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. But I believe it wasn’t LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ writings on end times and prophecy (Left Behind and before) that started it all, but Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. This view is pre-Tribulational, meaning a belief that Christ will return for His people at an event called “the Rapture” (“we shall be caught up together to meet Him in the clouds”), before the seven-year outpouring of God’s judgment, referred to as “the Tribulation.” Pre-millennial refers to the belief that the seven-year Tribulation must be completed before the actual return of Christ to the earth (as opposed to the “in the air” return referred to in Thessalonians), when He deals at last with the forces of wickedness advancing on Jerusalem, and ushers in a thousand years of peace (brought about by His literal reign on earth).

That’s a very short primer, completely off the top of my head, on Pre-Tribulational, Pre-Millennial Eschatology. Imminent just refers to the belief that Christ’s return—the Rapture, or catching away of God’s people—could literally happen at any moment.

Chris Walley’s suggestion is that this popular view effectively kills any interest many American Christians might have in science fiction (perhaps fantasy too, although I think this concern is most relevant to speculative writing with a futuristic bent). I think it’s a question worth raising. Even if we believe Jesus CAN return at any moment (and I think Scripture teaches that we should be ready, whether that means for His literal return, or for Him to take us home, because this life holds no guarantees), and even if we believe that He WILL return at any moment (a little more tenuous, in my opinion), can we really KNOW that He will be back today? This week? This year?

Even, gasp, this century?

The world seems to be spinning so morally out of control that it scares many people to think that God won’t give us a quick rescue. After cutting my teeth on the standard fundamentalist pre-Trib, pre-millennial view, I was pretty freaked the first time I had to consider an alternate viewpoint. But I can’t remember that upbringing seriously interfering with my enjoyment of science fiction … my views on God, the universe, and everything often clashed with secular writers’ philosophies on various issues, but somehow I’ve always been able to suspend disbelief of actual setting for the sake of the story. I’ve since learned that not all Christians can do that.

So do I think Left Behind damages the cause of science fiction in Christian circles? Not necessarily. Of course, I get far less ruffled over the flaws of the Left Behind series than I once did—partly because I’ve met Jerry Jenkins and read the first book for myself (I’ll cover that on another day), but partly because I know God can and will work through almost anything. Lots of people have come to Him because of that series. People have also come to Him through “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which is considered blatantly heretical by the churches I grew up around. If God can speak through a braying donkey and a prophet bent on cursing His people, I’m sure He has no problem using any one of us, no matter how skewed our interpretation is of His Word. And I know He has no problem keeping those who are His, however they’re drawn to Him.

Back to the question of an imminent return of Christ. I think we have to say that no, we can’t know when. In fact, the more I study Scripture, the more I lean toward a delay of at least a couple more decades, just enough for the Church to get past the flush of eschatological passion fanned by Hal Lindsey’s books, and for many people to go back to saying, “Well, look, since the days of the early church, all things have remained the same … He isn’t coming after all!”

And my suspicion is that the world will become far more hostile to Christianity in general before the time is near. Even the Left Behind prequels speculate that things won’t really start to happen for an unspecified period of time yet.

The key word here is speculate. “What if,” as Madeleine L’Engle said in the quote I used yesterday. This leads me to a question posed by my good friend and neighbor, James, in a private comment a few days ago. Why Christian science fiction? Well, I ask in return, why not? If all of story can be defined as “what if,” then speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, allegory, and the like—just takes the “what if” a little farther than other flavors of fiction.

I think the real barrier to Christians’ acceptance of science fiction (or any sort of speculative writing) is an underlying desire to reconcile everything in our own little worlds to the truth of Christ. Some of us feel this desire more strongly than others, especially in light of Scriptures such as the one about “casting down imaginations.” Yet I know people who are very dedicated Christians but see no contradiction in being fans of Star Trek or the old Robert Heinlein stories, even though Star Trek’s “theological” premise is that super-advanced aliens planted mankind on Planet Earth, and Heinlein was a hardened atheist. I wonder often if the fault, then, is with those of us who have a harder time seeing past the New Age or atheistic belief threading through those stories, who can’t just “unplug” our brains and let ourselves be entertained? Speaking personally, there was a time where I had to stop reading any sort of secular fiction because I was too sensitive emotionally and spiritually to the undercurrents in most of it, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to appreciate fiction that is redemptive if not Christian. (For instance—a movie that surprised me in this regard was “Hellboy.” No, I can’t really explain it, either. [very big grin] I guess I liked the fact that the Christian character was portrayed in a positive light, and that his faith is what gives the main character the motivation to make the choice he does at the end.)

Still, some of us long for, say, a Star Trek where a few of the characters live out an authentic Christian faith … for a rollicking space adventure where the reader isn’t getting bombarded with a relentless hatred of God, or gratuitous cursing or sex … for heroic fantasy where full due is given, sooner or later, to the Creator of the universe and the blood redemption offered through His Son. We aren’t asking for an idyllic portrayal of believers or the world around us, and all that might be beyond it—but to at least include that which is the strongest reality for us, as Christians.

Does that at least sort of answer your question, James? :-)

8 comments:

  1. I was pre-trib at age 15 when I got saved, and I became a SF reading nut at age 16. My eschatology never interfered with my enjoyment of SF. When I read, I know it's someone else's mind and someone else's "what if world," and they are playing God. I let them play God.

    Now, I will not read an outright blasphemous story that insults God. You can insult Christians in stories--and I have read christian bashing stuff in SF--and I figure, well, we can act like demonspawn and fools, we have it coming often enough. But God is not someone I want toyed with. I received a Speculative poetry magazine today, and one poem took liberty with God, so I just kept going. I don't need to or want to read it. I move on.

    What I think *is* unfair is that Christians are so often the butt of jokes and that faith is not treated with any respect that would be accorded to other ideologies. And that's bigotry of of sorts. I think that's why HELLBOY stands out for you (and I liked it, too; bought the DVD), because the character's faith is treated as if it's genuine. He's a good man doing the best he can in a very strange situation.

    I don't believe in imminence. I think Paul and Christ said too much about "signs" and what to watch for. We're not supposed to be caught utterly by surprise. If we are, we haven't been watching. :)

    But I do think we can't predict. Jesus made that pretty clear. We can know a general time (and I'm nt sure this is it, anyway), but not THE day.

    Pre-trib didn't start with Hal Lindsey. He just had that bestseller--the book at the right time to start a fever--but it had been around a hundred or more years before he got hold of it.

    It's still not consistent with early church teaching, or, for that matter, Pauline teaching. We all have blind spots. When I was taught pre-trib, I read it all to FIT that scheme. It didnt' occur to me there were other ideas on end times. But once I read the others, I went, "Oh, so now I understand why I couldn't make X verse fit pre-trib. Pre-trib's screwed up." :)

    Mir

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  2. Shannon,

    Fear of imagination--that is probably a reason science fiction and fantasy are not accepted by Christians moreso than eschatology. (Perhaps, choice of eschatology is more an indication of this underlying fear--or just a spirit of fear itself? Just brainstorming... :-) Fiction that closely mirrors life as we know it is much less intimidating to most, as the culture shock involved in the reading is diminished, although I know people who dislike all fiction, period. In contrast, those who enjoy sci-fi/fantasy delight in following the "what ifs" down their meandering paths, even if they might conflict with the world as we know it. While this process is entertaining, I usually find more food for thought in well-written books in these genres than say a mystery or romance. I would hazard a guess that some dislike sci-fi/fantasy because it's not pure "entertainment" but makes them have to think and work a little for the enjoyment.

    Someone introduced me to Anne McCaffrey when I was a seventh grader and I devoured sci-fi/fantasy from the library that summer, but I never watched Star Trek or any of the other science fiction TV shows or movies until I was a licensed driver because my parents have no use for these genres of story. (For example, I saw The Return of the Jedi as my first Star Wars movie when I was in high school--boy was I confused). I've never flat-out asked my parents why they dislike the genre, but maybe I will someday. :) It's possible it's just a deeply ingrained teaching that runs in the family, because though my mom and aunts are avid readers, my "librarian" aunt pulled The Chronicles of Narnia out of the church library back in the 80s or early 90s. Wasn't sure they belonged. (Acckk!!)

    As far as Mir's comment about Christian's being portrayed as foolish, I think that's to be expected--Jesus told us that in this world we would have tribulation, BUT, be of good cheer. :) It does give us a good reason to write in all genres from a Christian perspective, but I also take it as a caution that I don't make the same mistake and stereotype those I don't understand well.

    Enough ramblings for this morning...got to get back to the "real" world--whatever that is. ;)
    Sherri

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  3. Thanks, y'all, for your musings! Mir, I meant to mention that it didn't all originate with Hal Lindsey, either--really it was a vision/prophecy spoken by a young girl back in the 1800's (IIRC), but Lindsey's books were, to my memory, what really fanned the current flame.

    Sherri, I think you hit the nail on the head with "fear of imagination." The Scripture about "casting down imaginations" doesn't mean we aren't allowed to be imaginative--there's another case of confusion between modern and Shakespearean English for you--it has more to do with defending the faith from philosophies which seem to disprove the truth of Christianity. (The role of apologetics, if you will.)

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  4. Great post! And good comments too!

    Having been raised with the JWs, I was taught that Armageddon was 'just around the corner.' In the Cold War '80s it seemed like it was. Anyways, after I changed my mind about that I did some reading on apocalyptic thought, and surprise, surprise - there have *always* been factions of Christians who thought the end was nigh and who scoured the Bible for clues about it. The JWs and the Seventh-day Adventists both had their roots in The Great Disapointment, which you'd think would've turned people off of millenial speculation. But every era's had some of it, right from the start, even when the general attitude was 'Not for awhile yet.' And as you said, Shannon, we're called to be mindful and alert, not least since our own ends might come at anytime.

    I liked Hellboy too! I've read some of the comics (and the BPRD spinoffs), and Mignola seems to like mixing Catholic imagery with H.P. Lovecraft and his other influences. All of the Hellboy and BPRD writers I've come across have used religion creatively and reasonably respectfully. There's one story I remember that had a crazed fundamentalist preacher, but they included a kind and reasonable preacher to balance him out.

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  5. Sorry, this is unrelated, but I think you might be interested in this: http://clawoftheconciliator.blogspot.com/2006/07/high-praise.html

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  6. Great post Shannon. You're so brainy. No matter what we believe the bottom line is that we shoudl always be looking for Christ, waiting for Him in expectation. . .waiting for our groom. It is those who are looking who will see Him.

    I enjoyed Hellboy too! I want to go watch it again. LOL. Regarding Christians and SFF, one thing I've discovered about myself these last few years, is that I am ALWAYS searching for God and His messsage in everything I watch, read, or hear (music). I didn't realize that probably until recent years when I discovered I was seeing things in a spiritual light that others were not. Mostly, because they were not looking for it.

    This should be a good way for Christians to carry their faith over to whatever they read and or watch--always looking for the redemption.

    K
    Love you!
    Beth.

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  7. See, this is what happens when I limit my blog reading to two days a week (mostly). I miss great stuff.

    My father-in-law will read books about why Harry Potter is evil, but he will not read Harry Potter to see for himself. (This is the type of CBA reader who is unlikely ever to get into Christian speculative, don't you think?)

    Total aside: Did you know that virtually all of the "end timers" (the ones who make predictions as to the day and week of all that flashy zapped-from-moving-cars stuff, who work out these detailed timelines and go through scripture looking for secret codes) are engineers?

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  8. I must agree with Beth Goddard who said that you are "brainy". I have always said that I appreciate our friendship because you are one of the few friends that I have where the "waters run deep". I also have to admit that there is MUCH to think about in what you say Shannon. I am not 100% sure that I agree with everything but I will say that it definitely has broadened my horizons and given me a new perspective on what Christian Science Fiction is defined as.

    Please allow me to try and connect the dots within my own mind, this might not make sense... LOL.. I have several types of READING that I do. Most of the time you can categorize them into two areas. One is technical mumbo jumbo that I have to usually memorize so that I can apply that knowledge to my techie world and the other is so that I can just enjoy reading and unplug my brain from the harsh reality of the world I live in.
    I guess when I think about the word FICTION I have never really correlated it with "real" Christianity. Now that I think about it I have read some books that were not necessarily "hard core" Christ centered books but did make mention of a particular "faith" somewhere within its plot. I just never connected the two together.

    Several years ago I got caught up in The Forty Days of Porpoise (oops) movement. Actually I like a LOT of what Rick Warren had to say in his book. One of the things he does in that book is to dispell some of the age old myths and man made customs that we all assume is God given or truly biblical in origin. One of the things he said that blew me out of my apple cart was that there is no such thing as Christian Music. I was like , WHOA there buddy, you have really blown a fuse there dude. He states that music is music is music and that ONLY the lyrics make it Christ centered. I was like, wow man, thanks for clearing that up for me because as far as I was concerned there WAS such a thing as Christian music.

    In summary, and you know how hard it is for me NOT to babble, my world has been broadened somewhat by this new world (reading material( you are speaking of.

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