Culture: January 2009 Archives

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

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