OF ZOMBIES, ALIENS, AND ELVES: Seeking Salvation in Speculative Fiction

June 14, 2015 1 Comment »
OF ZOMBIES, ALIENS, AND ELVES: Seeking Salvation in Speculative Fiction

By Nicole R. Pramik

Some of Jesus’ most powerful lessons were delivered through parables—and the art of the parable isn’t entirely lost in modern fiction. At their heart, all stories ponder the question, “What if?” But this becomes the backbone of speculative fiction, which encompasses the categories of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. This genre gets its name from its postulations about worlds, beings, characters, and social systems that don’t exist in our world but may bear similarities to it. 

Likewise, speculative fiction reflects on what is wrong with our world, what has been done to fix it, why those solutions haven’t worked, and its ultimate fate. Much like a parable set in paranormal, futuristic, or fantastical disguise, speculative fiction presents a roadmap to salvation—from the horrors of sin and death, to our attempts to resolve sin’s effects through science and technology, to realizing that redemption means reliance upon a power outside of our control. In fact, speculative fiction often explores biblical issues but normally doesn’t deliver them in religious packaging. 

(To note, not every work of speculative fiction is edifying. The works and authors mentioned here are for illustrative purposes only, though ultimately all truth is God’s truth, whether the external wrappings involve zombies, aliens, or elves.)

Horror—Realities of Sin

Horror emphasizes the presence of sin and death, symptoms of a spiritually fallen world. Just as the Bible never sugarcoats the reality of evil—“the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)—horror doesn’t gloss over this sobering reality either. The antagonist in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, is a demonic foe who preys upon innocent people and whom only God can annihilate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shows how pride is a monstrous sin. The writing of H. P. Lovecraft and some of Neil Gaiman’s works recognize that evil exists, usually in monstrous forms, and its chief aims are to kill and destroy.

Even popular apocalyptic zombie fiction like The Walking Dead showcases beings who have been reduced to their basest desires, much like the spiritual state of the unsaved soul. This is a perfect illustration of Paul’s words to us that “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—biologically alive yet spiritually deceased. Thus horror shows what we can become without the saving grace of Christ if we allow our sinful natures to erode us. But even horror stories can present glimmers of hope that evil and death can be defeated. As Lovecraft wrote in “The Nameless City”: “That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die.” 

Science Fiction—Salvation Through Works

While horror delivers poignant, and sometimes repugnant, views of our fallen world, science fiction presents solutions to the sin problem. In their book From Homer to Harry Potter, Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara claim that science fiction “tends to be marked by a progressivism’s optimism about the power of scientific knowledge to improve the lot of humanity.” In many science fiction stories, characters resolve problems using human solutions, thus presenting a humanistic approach that we can bestow salvation unto ourselves. 

In the classic tales of Jules Verne, for instance, man is pitted against nature and relies not upon God but upon scientific knowledge to survive. Similar threads run throughout the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, which feature worlds wrecked by human solutions or where religion is depicted as part of the problem—a hallmark of humanistic thought.

However, science fiction can also show the flaws in this humanistic approach. Eric Garcia’s Repo Men, for example, describes a healthcare system that allows people to replace natural organs with artificial ones—a technologically spawned salvation from death—yet the novel calls out this system’s erroneous ethics. Similarly, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent dystopian trilogies pit characters against tyrannical governments that attempt to create better, more stable worlds that eventually crumble apart. Thus science fiction stories possessing this counter-humanistic theme echo Paul’s words that we are saved by God’s grace, “not by works,” since our efforts are futile at best and damaging at worst. 

Fantasy—Redemption’s “Magic”

Rather than dwelling on the darkness of sin and death or assuming we can be our own saviors, fantasy shows how we need to rely on the unseen to redeem us. According to Dickerson and O’Hara, fantasy explores “the interaction of the natural with the supernatural,” implying that we cannot save ourselves from sin, no matter how learned or tech savvy we become (Ephesians 2:8). In some cases, this is presented literally such as in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series, in which angelic warriors protect mortals against demonic evils, or William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood, where figures from folklore protect the world’s children against the Nightmare King. 

But normally fantasy takes a more indirect route, such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where characters fight evil and rely on powers or “magic” that don’t originate from themselves or through their own merit. (The incorporation of magic in fantasy, to note, is dissimilar to real-world witchcraft; instead, it’s a generic term referring to a force outside of human influence.)

In this way, magic symbolizes God’s unseen power as characters are shown having to rely on a “force” rather than their own methods. Hence fantasy recognizes there is evil and corruption in the world and people can try to save themselves; but in the end, we need help from a power greater than ourselves. And this power is the redemptive work of Christ. As Paul asserted in 2 Timothy 1:9, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” Meaning salvation is nothing we can earn and is a force we cannot control.

Fantasy in general can be viewed as an allegory of salvation where mortal efforts prove futile and reliance upon an unseen force provides deliverance. C. S. Lewis noted that fantasy, out of all the speculative genres, had the best chance of exploring Christian themes. In his opinion, theological topics were akin to “sleeping dragons”—if awakened, they might hinder someone from learning about Christ due to negative preconceived notions. But fantasy enables the gospel to be told without pretense. 

Speculative fiction ultimately ponders salvation itself—its purpose and significance regarding how sin and evil deteriorate us, how we attempt to correct our spiritual deficiencies, and how our efforts come up short. It is only by relying upon the unseen power of Christ that we reach a restorative resolution. The gospel provides the basis for many views found in speculative fiction, however steeped in darkness, science, or magic they might be. “This story is supreme,” Tolkien wrote regarding Christ’s redemptive work, “and it is true . . . . God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves.” 

Nicole R. Pramik is a freelance writer in Catlettsburg, Kentucky.

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