Views & Reviews
No. 22 Copyright (c) 1994 Biblical Horizons July, 1994
A Short Survey of Good
Fantasy and Science Fiction
for Christian Schools and Home Schools
by James B. Jordan
From time to time I am asked what is good SF and fantasy that teenagers in Christian and home schools might enjoy. The following brief discussion is my answer that question. I’ve tried to point out authors and stories that are not widely known, and therefore have set aside G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Stephen Lawhead. So, here goes.
Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is not a Christian, but his writing is excellent, and his moral values are quite acceptable. His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes was made into a _ne movie some years back. His Dandelion Wine is, in my opinion, far more enjoyable than Tom Sawyer and should be on any reading list. Finally, Fahrenheit 451 is without a doubt the best dystopian novel of the twentieth century.
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four projects a society in which the state crushes the intellect by forbidding people to read. Not very realistic. In Fahrenheit 451 it is political correctness that leads to the outlawing of books. Bradbury’s 1953 book was far more prophetic than Orwell’s. Consider this passage from the novel: "You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, after all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun?." Thus, "Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo? Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book." And so, "There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick . . . ."
Good stu_. Prophetic. Required reading.
James Blaylock. I’d have to say that Blaylock is B+ to Bradbury’s A, but his novels are entertaining, and Blaylock is an evangelical Christian of sorts (reads the Bible; trusts Jesus; doesn’t always go to church). Some of his novels are better for more mature readers, but Land of Dreams and The Last Coin are _ne for teens, and quite enjoyable.
Tim Powers. Powers is a friend of Blaylock’s, and a practising Christian of sorts (some kind of Antiochian brand of eastern orthodoxy, last I heard). Powers writes the same novel over and over again. His main character always winds up cut in his head, hands, and feet, and manages to save the day; but the main character is usually not all that good of a guy. For the most part, his novels are not "entertaining." A teenager who really goes for SF and fantasy might be given Dinner At Deviant’s Palace, which contains a great deal of Biblical allegory. Point the reader to the city of Jerusalem for Los Angeles, the garden of Eden for Venice, and the sacraments for the demonic drug "blood" and the good beer that the hero drinks to combat it. This book is, however, stronger stu_ than the rest of what I’m discussing here.
Manly Wade Wellman. Wellman’s stories of Silver John are wonderful. Written in mountain dialect by John himself, they tell of the adventures of John the Balladeer, with his silver-strung guitar, who banishes evil and witchcraft wherever he _nds it in the mountains of Appalachia. John is an explicitly Christian hero, and in one of his tales John tells some children about the "only man who was exactly six feet tall." Since these are fantasy novels, Silver John does employ a kind of white magic, based on a book called The Long Lost Friend, but this is always clearly an implicitly Christian technique. As a Christian electrician uses electricity, so John uses some of the techniques of white magic. Now of course, magic does not exist at all, so this is fantasy literature.
Let me provide a few lines from After Dark, to give a feel for Wellman’s (John’s) style. "It wasn’t full night yet, as I’ve said; but I thought to myself, something sort of snaky showed there, like the shadow of the log. And I made my long legs stretch themselves longer to get away from the place, quick as I could. Whatever was I there to do? Well, gentlemen, I’d been a-going through the county seat, and there were signs nailed up to tell folks about a big sing of country music, along about sundown . . . . I reckoned I’d just go and hark at it and maybe even join in with it."
Look for John the Balladeer (all the short stories) and the following novels: The Old Gods Waken, After Dark, The Lost and the Lurking, The Hanging Stones, and The Voice of the Mountain.
Randall Garrett. Long-time SF writer underwent a conversion to Christianity toward the end of his life, the end result of many years of interest. I recommend his Lord Darcy stories. They are set in the Anglo-French Empire of the 20th century, obviously in another world. In this world, magic really works, but devout magicians are licensed by the Church and work to defend Christendom against evil magicians. Lord Darcy is a Sherlock Holmes in this world, Chief Investigator for His Royal Highness Prince Richard of Normandy, and he is ably assisted by Master Sorcerer Sean O Lochlainn, his Dr. Watson.
These are very clever stories, and quite in the tradition of Holmes and Chesterton’s Father Brown. A one-volume complete collection was published a few years ago called Lord Darcy. This included two previously published collections of stories: Murder and Magic, and Lord Darcy Investigates, and one novel: Too Many Magicians.
Gene Wolfe. Wolfe, an active and devout Christian, writes adult fantasy and SF. He has one novel for teens, however, The Devil in a Forest, set in the Middle Ages. This is an excellent novel, very well written, and should be on any reading list.
Two of Wolfe’s short stories should be included in Christian anthologies for high schoolers: "The Detective of Dreams" and "Westwind." The former is contained in the collection Endangered Species, and the latter is found in the collection Storeys From the Old Hotel.
Cordwainer Smith. I have called attention to Smith’s work often over the years. While his stories are all clean as regards language and sexual content, most are fairly literary and probably would not be enjoyed by teens as much as by adults. I suppose, however, that if you’re going to have them read complex material like Moby Dick, you might as well let them have a go at Norstrilia or the novella, "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." If I were making an anthology for Christian schools, I’d include "The Dead Lady" in the book.
Now let me turn to a short list of some of the best SF short stories that I would have teens read. These are not by Christian writers, but are striking and helpful in forming a good conscience.
The _rst is the classic "Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes, which is widely anthologized. It is a series of diary entries by a mentally retarded man who undergoes a treatment to raise his I.Q. As this poignant story ends, the man’s I.Q. reverts to what it was before, and the careful reader will also realize that he is soon to die as a result of the experiment. Keyes expanded this story into a novel, but as a novel it is not successful. It is successful as a story to be read at one sitting. Hollywood made a movie of it called "Charly," but again, the beauty of the story was marred by the sexual dimensions Hollywood stu_ed into it, and also, there is no comparison with the written style of the story itself. The Bible tells us not to mock the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. No one who reads "Flowers for Algernon" will ever think of feebleminded people the same way again.
Isaac Asimov’s story "The Ugly Little Boy" has a neanderthal child brought by a time machine to the present. A tough old spinster is hired to help control and teach him. The story unfolds the gradual a_ection between the boy and the woman, until she becomes a surrogate mother for him. That last page would jerk tears from a hard of molybdenum steel! A wonderful story, employing the cave man myth to good e_ect. "The Ugly Little Boy" has recently been expanded into a novel this is called "cashing in." I have not wasted my time reading it. The punch and beauty of this tale lies in the fact that it can be read and experienced in one sitting. To stretch it out into a novel could only ruin it.
Jerome Bixby’s "It’s a Good Life" is a horrifying re_ection on human depravity. In this famous story, a child is born with godlike powers, and in the rage of birth destroys the world. All that is left is his home town _oating in some kind of space. He uses his powers to force people to do what he wants. He is a bad little boy because no one could ever spank him. This story, in considerably altered form, was dramatized in the _lm, "Twilight Zone: The Movie." The story is better. You will never forget it. Neither will your kids.
Gun owners may want their kids to read A.E. Van Vogt’s most famous story, "The Weapon Shop." Put with another story, this became the equally good novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher. The theme is expressed in the slogan of the Weapons Shops: "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free." Van Vogt writes what is called "super science _ction," swashbuckling adventures featuring fabulous heroes who save the universe.
Well, doubtless there are more that could be mentioned. I have not said anything about the stories and novels of Christian writers Fred Saberhagen and Walter Miller, mainly because their works are either not clearly Christian or are rather more adult in their appeal (though not "adult" in sexuality).
Maybe some of you have some writers, novels, or stories you’d like to contribute to this list. If so, send them in, with short descriptions.
Theology At the Movies
John M. Frame
After I go to a movie, I usually "debrief" myself, asking what the _lm was about, what I enjoyed, what I didn’t, etc. Sometimes my debrie_ng occurs in conversation with others, but often I simply sit down at the computer and type up my own review of the _lm, seeking to put into words my response to the experience.
I have gathered some of my reviews together, with some introductory essays, to present to my students at Westminster Theological Seminary for our course called "The Modern Mind," a critical survey of modern thought and culture. In order to teach such a course, one must have some source of regular _rst-hand exposure to cultural trends, and I have found that for myself _lms are the best means of gaining that exposure. Although I love music, I confess I _nd modern avant-garde music, both popular and "serious," very hard to listen to. I have little taste for, or understanding of, modern art. Novels take too long to read; plays are too expensive. I used to watch a lot of TV but, well, we now have young children in the house, and I don’t want them to become "addicted." I do read modern philosophy and theology, but I also need exposure to something more universally popular, to see how academic philosophical and religious ideas are re_ected and anticipated in the general culture. For that purpose, _lm has become my medium of choice.
Movie reviews are a dime a dozen; why do I add mine to the pile? Well, reviewers di_er greatly in their emphasis. Most are concerned with aesthetic or technical matters, or with judgments of entertainment value. Christian reviewers tend to focus also on the moral tone of _lms, some actually counting the instances of sex, violence or foul language. A few reviewers o_er unique perspectives. Jim Jordan, for example, brings to his reviews a rich background in literary symbolism, and he suggests patterns of symbolism in _lm that have subtle but profound bearing on the content of the _lm. All these approaches have their usefulness.
I do not have Jordan’s sensitivity to symbolism. I do have thoughts about aesthetic, technical, and entertainment values, which I will express from time to time in the reviews. I am obviously interested also in the moral aspects of _lm, though I have neither the head nor the heart for counting up dirty words.
Though I have no degree in _lm or drama, I do have some knowledge of the history of _lm, having enjoyed movies and discussions of movies from childhood. I believe that my musical experience also gives me some appreciation for dramatic structure: ebb, _ow, and climax. But others certainly have stronger quali_cations than mine for expressing opinions on these matters.
What I do bring to the reviews is, in a word, theology. For theology is my main life work. It is Jordan’s too, and Harvie Conn’s. But perhaps because I am less knowledgeable than they about matters of cinematic detail, I tend to focus more than they on the larger picture. I see the "messages" of the _lms less in the context of _lm as such than in the context of the general culture and of those great cultural debates which are at bottom theological. My approach is to stand back from each _lm and ask, what is it trying to tell me? What is its world-view, its law, its gospel?
The world-view is the most important issue in _lm. That is the element that is most culturally in_uential (often in a destructive way), and it is often most central to the _lmmaker’s purpose.
One of the old _lm moguls (Sam Goldwyn’s name comes to mind, but it may have been someone else) is often quoted as saying "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Many _lmmakers have made this sort of claim, that their work has nothing to do with messages, with theology or philosophy, that it is nothing other than "art for art’s sake," or, at least, "entertainment for entertainment’s sake."
I would not want to claim that art can be reduced to theology or philosophy. Art tends to be particular and concrete, while philosophy, and theology to a lesser extent, tend to be general and abstract. Art strives to entertain; theology and philosophy generally do not, although the di_erence here too is a matter of degree. (Plato, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard are entertaining in a way that Aristotle, Kant, and Tillich are not. That fact is not irrelevant to the proper evaluation of their work.) Art does have dimensions that delight or disturb us, quite apart from any ideological content. Much of what art communicates is the ingeniousness of its own design: its colors, its musical harmonies, the juxtapositions of its scenes. In _lm, much of the product’s quality comes from the sheer interest of the camera angles, the harsh or soft focus, the direction of the light, the short pauses in the actors’ speech, the vast range of artistically formed detail.
Having said all of that, I must add that it is simply false to claim that art has nothing to do with "messages." Indeed, we are living in a time in which the messages of art are becoming more and more explicit. Oliver Stone, for example, is quite explicit about the political content of his _lms. He is not at all embarrassed by claims that he has an axe to grind. So much the better. In the _lm community, directors and actors are praised on all sides for participating in _lms (even, often, mediocre _lms) that take "controversial" positions on moral/political issues. That is, they are praised when those controversial positions are the ones that are popular in the _lm community and in the national media.
The "art for art’s sake" rhetoric tends to appear when these controversial projects receive criticism from conservative or Christian viewers. To such criticism, the standard reply is, "Art is not philosophy and should not be judged as such. Art is above politics and religion. Art communicates only itself, not ideology." But that reply is disingenuous. Everyone knows that it simply isn’t true.
Even such concepts as beauty and form are not religiously neutral. What is beautiful to a non-Christian may very well be ugly to a Christian: homosexual romance, for instance, or the demonic simulations in Disney’s "Fantasia." Some techniques, of course, like the use of hand-held cameras, can be used by Christians or non-Christians. A dim level of lighting in a scene does not necessarily distinguish Christian from non-Christian _lmmaking. On the other hand, such dim lighting can be used to make a value judgment. A director’s choice to use dim lighting in a room for the scene of a meeting might in some contexts convey that director’s view that the characters at that meeting are fairly unsavory. That doesn’t mean that dim lighting always indicates the presence of evil; but granted other elements of the drama, it may indicate that. And of course Christians and non-Christians tend to disagree as to where evil is to be found.
Message, then, is not all there is to art, but it is an important element of it, one that is especially important to Christians who are concerned about the impact of _lms on their families and upon society. From one "perspective," it is the whole: for when we ask about "message," we are simply asking what the art as a whole is communicating to us. The message may not always be easily expressed in words, or in the terms of philosophy or theology. But attempting to express it in words is a worthy goal for a reviewer. Nor is the message of a _lm to be obtained in the same way we obtain the message of a philosophical treatise. Films, even Oliver Stone’s, do not simply teach or preach. But no one should have any objection to analysis of a director’s artistic decisions to see what they reveal about his vision of life.
It is usually not hard to answer the question, "What does the director want us to think (about the characters, the events, the setting, the atmosphere)?" It is usually pretty clear who are the basically sympathetic characters, who are the villains. In _lms as in real life there is, of course, moral ambiguity. There is good in the worst, bad in the best. But even to make such comments we must be able to use moral terms; we must be able to distinguish good from bad. The chief approach of my theological analysis of the _lms will be simply to ask "What does the _lm consider good, and what bad?"
So my reviews will basically try to sum up the "message" of each _lm: its ideology, its values, its world-view, its philosophy, its theology. I will comment on other elements of the _lm as they seem especially relevant to formulating that message. In the process I will try to observe proper distinctions between art and philosophy, especially to recognize the particularism of a _lm’s focus. But particularism is of no interest unless it is in some measure universal, unless it reminds its viewers of what they, too, have observed.
Such is the program underlying these reviews. I hope that readers and viewers will _nd them in some measure edifying. May God use them in some small or large way to strengthen the Christian presence in the contemporary world.
One word of warning: since these reviews attempt to be serious analysis rather than "viewing guides," I will not avoid discussions of endings. Obviously, one could not meaningfully discuss "Hamlet" or "Death of a Salesman" without saying something about the endings of these dramas. The same is true about signi_cant _lms. Those who can’t bear to know the ending of a _lm before seeing it should proceed with appropriate caution.
My thanks and appreciation go to those Christian authors who have entered this arena before me, who have endured the scorn of the world by developing a Christian interpretation of _lm and who have often endured the scorn of Christians because they have chosen to go to movies. Especially, I have learned from the contributions of Donald Drew, Harvie Conn, Jim Jordan, and Keith Billingsley. Much should be said also for the work of an orthodox Jew, Michael Medved, who has exposed the moral antagonism between Hollywood and "traditional American values." Whether he recognizes it or not, those values he cherishes are, by and large, the values taught and advanced by the Christian gospel.