Not Always Popular

Today we are going to discuss three distinctly Christian subgenres of speculative fiction and why they are not always popular with Christian readers of speculative fiction – such as myself, and possibly you. Feel free to share.

First, a disclaimer is in order. I am not, in principle, opposed to any of these genres, and as a reader I have at least dabbled in all of them. I am certain that each one boasts some truly fine books. I am not saying that there is anything inherently inferior about such stories – let alone inherently wrong. It’s simply that I – playing the odds of what I am most likely to enjoy – don’t choose to read them anymore.

And now, enough disclaiming and onto the point. The three distinctly Christian subgenres are …

The End Times. Again: some fine books belong to each of these categories. Evan Angler’s excellent (and sadly discontinued) Swipe series is a shining illustration of the point. In the main, however, I don’t enjoy novels about the End Times. On the one hand, I find it dreary to read about relentless loss, tribulation, and cataclysm, culminating in the Anti-Christ’s conquest of the entire Earth; on the other hand, I find it predictable. It’s just mapping Revelation prophecies to the inevitable conclusion. I loved Angler’s End Times series, but I wasn’t sure it was an End Times series until the second book. Until then, I thought it might have been a dystopia flavored by apocalyptic prophecy – and hoped that it was.

The Nephilim. My instinctive response to the Nephilim subgenre is neutrality. I am not offended by the angel/human concept, and if you recast the essential idea in a sci-fi form – members of an incorporeal species assume physical bodies to interact with humanity, and interact to the point of reproducing – it’s actually pretty intriguing. (Question: In such a scenario, would the offspring really be hybrid? Because for reproduction to be possible, wouldn’t the assumed bodies have to be genetically human, perhaps with minor variations from the norm …?)

But – and how can I put this kindly? – novels about the Nephilim often take an extreme left turn into strangeness. UFOs, Roswell, tinfoil government conspiracies, monsters, aliens – sometimes all in the same book (I know – I read it). It’s all too much. The Nephilim subgenre also gives too much play to false readings of Scripture: one, that it was because of the Nephilim that God sent the Flood; two, that the Nephilim are somehow connected to the End Times. (In a cheap intellectual sleight of hand, some quote Jesus, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man” – leaving off the rest of the passage, where Christ explains in what way the days of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah, and it isn’t the Nephilim.)

Angels v. Demons. I don’t question the poetic triumph of Paradise Lost, or the shrewd, sharp effectiveness of The Screwtape Letters. And it isn’t only the classics. This Present Darkness was one of my first loves in Christian speculative fiction. But over the years I cooled toward stories that give center stage to angels and demons. I admit, the last couple books I read in the genre did much of the cooling. Yet I think it is a general – not, of course, a universal – weakness of such stories to make angels too … human. I want a bit of grandeur or otherworldliness, a flavor of heaven or hell. It’s a tall order, and harder the larger the role. Even now, I think that angels (good and bad) can be well-used in fantastic fiction – but especially in roles that are somewhat marginal, or mysterious.

In my earlier years of reading, I wandered through these subgenres and ended at the conclusion that they are Not My Thing. It’s curious how easily they overlap. Somewhere, I know, they have converged entirely into an End Times novel where the Nephilim fight with demons against angels …

Can We Say …

The Nephilim walked into history in Genesis 6:4, which runs, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The Nephilim are mentioned once more, as the terrifying inhabitants of Canaan (in reality, the ancestors of the prodigiously-sized Anakites; whether they have any connection with such groups as the Rephaites is more than I can say).

The actual importance of the Nephilim, in theology, religion, and the arc of the Bible’s narrative, is slight; their fascination is large. Their close connection to the much-disputed “sons of God” entrenches them in controversy; their association with the outsized denizens of Canaan increases the intrigue. Their name means “fallen ones,” and Nephilim is frequently translated giants, including in such venerable translations as the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and the Wycliffe Bible. (The Geneva Bible also provides the alternate word tyrants.) Giants, fallen ones, heroes of old, men of renown – wouldn’t you love to know more about them?

One ancient, and still popular, interpretation of the Nephilim – it appears in the Book of Enoch, written before the birth of Christ – holds that they were the children of fallen angels and human women. For obvious reasons, this interpretation is the one that prevails in Christian speculative fiction. It’s not that the writers necessarily believe it, any more than sci-fi writers necessarily believe that it’s possible to go back in time or to travel faster than the speed of light; it’s just that it’s that sort of idea. The idea is acutely uncomfortable. But ideas often are in a genre that takes, for its parents, people like Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm.

What sets the Nephilim apart from other ideas is that they are derived from the Bible. Nobody really cares whether it’s possible to go back in time when reading (or writing) time-travel stories. Nobody ever liked Star Wars less because some scientist debunked lightsabers on the grounds that that’s not how lasers work. We’re all happy to set aside debates and, for the sake of our chosen stories, presume what we suspect to be false. But should we have a different standard when the debates are centered around Scripture?

This question goes beyond the Nephilim and, if you care to follow it, wanders into all sorts of nuance. Is it all right to write a novel where the rumor is true and the Apostle John never dies? (This, too, happens in Christian speculative fiction.) Can we say that Daniel founded a school of astrology that eventually trained the Magi, though we know in our hearts that never happened? Can we have time-travelers at the Crucifixion? Can we have the Nephilim after all? Are the answers to all these questions conditional on the details, on what we do with the premise more than what the premise is? Is it simply a matter of staying in the gray and not infringing on the black and white? (For example: We can say the Nephilim were giants or tyrants or angel-human hybrids because that argument has been going on for centuries, but we can’t say they caused the Flood because they didn’t, and if you don’t believe me, read Genesis 6 past verse 4.)

What do you think? What sort of lines have you drawn, in your reading or writing?

Review: Kingdom Wars II: Tartarus

In the first book of the series, Jack Cavanaugh showed evil come behind a beautiful face. In Tartarus, it comes with a smile. And a comedy routine!

The book kicks off with the discovery of an ancient manuscript, a false gospel now unleashed on the world. False gospels have been seen before, but nothing like this one. The Gospel of Thomas didn’t provide directions to find the gifts of the Magi, or a description of advanced physics. But even that is quickly overshadowed when Jesus descends on Mount Olive with a heavenly host and declares, “It was a joke, people!”

While the false Messiah throws Christendom into upheaval, Grant Austin’s life is being thrown into upheaval by angelic visitors. This is what comes of being 1/4 angel: Rebel angels show up in your life, smooth-talking or trash-talking, with questionable proposals involving trips to Sheol. Faithful angels show up, too, friendly enough to help you discover your Nephilim powers, not friendly enough to keep you from falling off a “cosmic cliff” (or to repeatedly bash your head against the wall as part of said training). Grant would rather be the poster boy for normal. Most urgently, he’d rather go to heaven.

As one of Cavanaugh’s characters says: His Nephilim blood condemns him. This is the prevalent view among Christian novelists, and Cavanaugh himself goes at least halfway to accepting it. But he mines deeper into the issue than many authors, asking questions of justice and mercy. Cavanaugh doesn’t hesitate to assert that the unholy union of humans and rebel angels had unholy consequences, yet his handling of the Nephilim is neither one-dimensional nor unsympathetic.

One’s theology of the Nephilim is interesting but unimportant. Christians are divided over whether the “sons of God” – and thus their offspring, the Nephilim – really were angelic. And even if they were, the Bible tells us so little about them, and places them so decisively in the ancient past, that it is a moot question. We probably can’t know the answers, and we certainly don’t need to. What is, theologically, of more concern is Cavanaugh’s account of what immediately followed Jesus’ death: He went to Sheol, preached to the souls there, defeated Satan and his forces, and, “The triumphant Son led his captives and the saints of the past … into the courts of heaven and presented them to the Father.”

This invokes a doctrine called the Harrowing of Hell (some of these doctrines really need to be re-named in modern terms). That belief is stated, among other places, in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hades [hell or Sheol].” A few elliptical passages in the Bible are its basis:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. (1 Peter 3:18-20b)

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

Cavanaugh’s reference to captives probably comes from Ephesians 4:8-10.

This is another old debate in Christendom, and I bring it up to point out that whether Cavanaugh is correct or not, he is grounded in the opinions of many orthodox Christians.

The false Christ of Tartarus is, if not a unique idea, at least a unique portrayal. The ruse Cavanaugh invents for his villains is clever and original. Its effectiveness is depressingly realistic. That Hideous Beauty expressed the idea that evil can be beautiful. Tartarus expressed the idea that evil can be genial and even funny. Many have tried to discredit Christianity by making it out to be a lie. Making it out to be a joke, and even a funny one – that is a remarkable touch.

I enjoyed the first book – that’s why I picked up the second – but I was surprised at how much I liked Tartarus. The writing seemed smoother and, somehow, deeper. Characters showed new complexity, their dilemmas took on greater urgency. Like the first book, this one shows imagination and humor. The plot is good, the solutions unexpected and satisfying. It has my recommendation.

Review: A Hideous Beauty

By Jack Cavanaugh

Demons. Angels. Nephilim. Spiritual warfare. It’s left the theology section for a new home on the Christian fiction shelves. In A Hideous Beauty, Jack Cavanaugh offers another supernatural thriller.

The cover has the White House in the background, which is why I picked it up. I’m a sucker for stories about presidents. I quickly learned it was more a story about a writer. Grant Austin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and about to learn that the world isn’t what he thinks. His first clue is when an old rival starts glowing.

Grant is an agnostic, but seeing is believing, and before long he’s doing a lot of both. Cavanaugh throws a few curveballs, and A Hideous Beauty is not what it pretends, for many pages, to be about. Grant Austin learns of a plot to assassinate the president and makes it his mission to prevent it. But he learns that, behind it and through it, there is another battle being waged.

Cavanaugh writes with humor, and he shows imagination in portraying the supernatural. I have to give him credit for making his angels impressive. I also have to give him credit for making one of them occasionally something of a, well, jerk. Good guys can be grumpy. An angel, if you met one, may not be sweet and lovable.

Jack Cavanaugh is a good writer, but there are places in the book where the writing could have been smoothed over a little. Nephilim, demons, and angels have become popular as Christian fantasy, and sometimes it’s overdone. A Hideous Beauty is not. In fact, there are times when it seems oddly ordinary. But if you pick the book up and wonder why you’re following some guy’s nostalgic trip through his old high school, please be patient. It won’t be long before people start glowing.