Friday, July 28, 2006

God is a Feminist Science Fiction Writer

Walter Brueggemann, in his wonderful book The Prophetic Imagination, observes that "The speech of God is first about an alternative future" (64). This was one of the statements that first got me thinking about the connections between faith and SF/F, and that prompted me, among other things, to moderate a series of panels at WisCon about Faith, Feminism, and Fantasy. There've been two F(3) panels, in 2004 and 2005. This year we switched gears a bit and did one on "Where is the Religious Left?" (answer: right here!), and next year I'm hoping to moderate a panel on "Writing SF/F as Spiritual Discipline," although I don't know yet if it's been accepted. This year at WisCon, someone came up to me at the SignOut and thanked me for "making WisCon safe for Christians," which I may have to put on a t-shirt. (A prodigiously talented but extremely combative UNR student once described me, in a moment of grudging admiration, as "a Christian who kicks ass." I definitely need to put that on a t-shirt.)

This week, rereading the Brueggemann book for my Creativity, Spirituality and Transformation class, I've been especially struck by his statements about hope and compassion:

The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there. Hope . . . is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. . . . The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly forfeited because they are an embarrassment. The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly squelched because they are a threat. (65)

Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. . . . Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. (88-89)

In other words, rickety contrivances of Doing Good aren't trivial. They're subversive. And one way to disarm and dismiss the subversive is to trivialize it.

Brueggemann's comments resonate very strongly with Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs, which had a huge effect on me when I read it in graduate school. Tompkins defines literary modernism as a reaction against the nineteenth-century domestic novel produced by the "damned mob of scribbling women:"

In modernist thinking, literature is by definition a form of discourse that has no designs on the world. It does not attempt to change things, but merely to represent them, and it does so in a specifically literary language whose claim to value lies in its uniqueness. Consequently, works whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history, and which therefore employ a language that is not only not unique but common and accessible to everyone, do not qualify as works of art. Literary texts, such as the sentimental novel, that make continual and obvious appeals to the reader’s emotions and use technical devices that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be. (125)

According to this definition, if a book's accessible and has emotional appeal, it's Not Art. And if a book talks about changing the world, or descibes a world that's not a mimetic representation of everyday life, it's Not Art either. Well, so much for SF and fantasy, not to mention any text with political or potentially didactic content (feminist, Marxist, fill-in-the-blank-ist). This one paragraph helped me understand why nearly all of my high school teachers, many of my college professors, and too many of my professors in graduate school dismissed genre fiction, sometimes even as they were embracing feminism: they'd absorbed modernist biases they didn't even realize they held, because their own teachers had accepted and taught those biases as self-evident truth.

I entered graduate school in 1990, and things have changed quite a bit since; popular culture's now a respectable academic discipline with its own conferences and journals, and previously marginalized texts and autbors have been reclaimed and energetically scrutinized. I received tenure at a state university on the basis of my publication record in SF/F -- fiction, not criticism -- which would have been impossible twenty years ago (although I don't know how many places it would happen even now; I'm acutely aware how lucky I am to be at UNR, for many reasons!). These are all very healthy developments.

And yet I still sense that hope and amazement are undervalued and in short supply, both in the academy and in the larger culture. I'd love to be wrong about that, and if any of you have evidence otherwise, please share it. Of course, from the perspective of many of us, these are very dark days indeed politically: but Brueggemann would argue, I think, that such days are precisely when it's most crucial to offer hope in the form of alternative futures, rather than succumbing to despair.

So here are my questions: What hopes and yearnings have you denied, suppressed, felt embarrassed for holding? How can you make those hopes and yearnings visible, in artwork and other creative activity if not yet in direct political action? How does your own compassion represent a critique of Things as They Are, rather than a purely personal emotional response, and how can you imagine rehaping the world into Things as They Could Be?


  1. Those are fine questions, and I trust someone will have fine answers. I only have a quibble: You say, "A ... UNR student once described me ... as "a Christian who kicks ass." I definitely need to put that on a t-shirt." I would smile if I saw you wearing that, but I have to say that as a pacifist, I'm becoming increasingly reluctant to use the language of violence as metaphors for action. I don't want to kick ass; I want the kicked ass to be healed. I don't want to be a warrior in any cause; I want to be a worker who helps right the harm done by the servants of war. Too many people don't understand metaphor; it lets people twist Jesus's words to bad interpretations.

    Picky, picky, picky. I'm very glad you're blogging!

  2. You're absolutely right, Will; thanks for pointing that out. I've done a lot of thinking recently about metaphors other than "battle" for cancer and other illnesses, for some of the same reasons.

    The phrase was funny (or not) largely because it came up in the context of this student being blown away that I'd gone a tiny bit out of my way to do something nice for him, which evidently wasn't an experience he was used to from professors or many other people. So he was paying me a high compliment, but could still only use the language of antagonism to frame it.

    But, of course, none of that would come across on the t-shirt. Although it's also funny because I'm small and definitely not very athletic looking, so there's some situational irony too. But I agree with you that the unfortunate metaphor would trump that.

    Last Sunday at church, our preacher talked all about peace, the mess in the Middle East, who would Jesus bomb (answer: nobody), and so forth. And then the newly formed family choir sang a hymn with handbells that they'd worked very hard on, and it was a martial hymn: marching into battle with Christ, etc. The homilist was singing along with the choir, but many of the rest of us acutely aware of the cognitive dissonance, and acutely uncomfortable.

    Re the fine questions: there's no one set of fine answers!

    Great to see you here. Thanks for commenting, and please come back!

  3. I sometimes think many Christians in the last century and a half were reluctant to use metaphors of work because they smacked too much of communism or socialism or acknowledging that maybe we shouldn't live under robber barons. Or maybe they just thought work sounded like less fun than war. But I'll happily be a worker for peace (especially when it's more metaphor than work, ahem!). Off hand, though, I admit I have nothing good for metaphors of healing. Maybe it's better to do without metaphors sometimes: "war" applied to things other than war seem to always fail: see the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terrorism--

  4. I tried to leave this comment before, but it got lost . . . .

    Anyway, one helpful healing metaphor is illness as journey. That fits the strangeness of the experience -- the fact that it's uncharted territory -- and means that people who've been there before can offer at least partial maps. It also makes sense of long-lasting illnesses or disabilities as different cultures, with their own dialects, customs, and worldviews.

    And the journey metaphor has the happy effect of ensuring that "winner/loser" military language gets lost. We're all going to the Undiscovered Country someday. Some of us will get there more or less directly from Healthy Home. Some will take a detour to the Continent of Cancer (or some other ailment), return to Healthy Home for a while, and then set off for U.C. And some will set off for U.C. directly from the Continent of Cancer. But taking a route that's different from someone else's doesn't make you a better/worse or stronger/weaker person.

  5. I like the journey metaphor enormously. One of my favorite lines from the Gospel of Thomas is "Be a wayfarer." It sounds true to Jesus to me.

  6. This entry is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

  7. You're welcome, Harry!


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