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A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Back from the Con: A Priest in SF Fandom

Over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of July, I was having a whale of a time at the fabulous CONvergence science fiction and fantasy convention over in Minnesota. And, to be honest, were it not for the fact that I’m currently 34 weeks’ pregnant, I would have been having an equally fab time at the World Science Fiction Convention that was held this past weekend in Chicago.

My attending SF conventions is a surprisingly hard thing to explain to my colleagues and parishioners back home. “You’re going to do what?” “Why?” “You’re into spaceships and things?” And of course the perennial, “So do you dress up in costume?”

To be honest, I don’t mind those kind of questions anymore. The SF and fantasy subculture, despite being all over our cinema and television screens, filling our bookshops and being pretty much the language of the internet, is still rather poorly understood by the average person in the street, or in my specialised case, the average person in the pew. In fact, coming out as an SF and fantasy fan in the Church of England is pretty much as hard as coming out as a Christian among my SF peers. Neither side, on the whole, seems to get the other. That’s not to say there is no crossover at all. Certainly, in American SF fandom there seem to be a relatively high number of Christian fans, although in my experience thus far there are far fewer in the corresponding British groups.

So, at the beginning of any kind of meeting between these worlds there are a lot of basic questions and assumptions to get past before any kind of meaningful conversation can take place. Yes, I’m into spaceships, and have been since I was old enough to start picking books out of my primary school library. No, I don’t wear costumes. More because I don’t have the skills to make them or the flair to wear them than any kind of deeper reasoning.

And on the other side… Yes, I believe in God. Yes, a God who created the Universe. Yes, I do believe that all the time. No, I don’t think He did it in seven days.

The thing is, once you do get past those basic questions, once you’ve established that the things you believe or enjoy don’t automatically make you a nutter, then the conversations really start. And they can be amazing. Because these days there is that lack of simple general knowledge about the things either cultural group get up to, there is a curiosity and openness that can stimulate some great dialogues.

I enjoy sharing my love of SF with my congregation, especially my firm belief that the flexibility of the genre allows for the exploration of deep questions about the world, spirituality and human nature that might not be possible in other forms of literature or media. I’ve not delivered a Doctor Who related sermon yet, but with the new season already begun, it may only be a matter of time before that happens.

When it comes to speaking about my faith at SF conventions, I feel that this is actually a part of the ministry to which I’m called. My calling isn’t just to serve a single parish. Rather, it’s to be a witness in the wider world, which for me includes the world of Science Fiction. More than often, this witnessing is a delicate thing. There is often history and hurt for people in their experiences with Christianity or organised religion in general. My role isn’t one of proselytising. It can’t be. Instead, I need to be a living representative of what I believe, and where possible, and where I’m empowered to be, a conduit for the love and acceptance that I believe God offers to all people, everywhere. That can take the form of private conversations where people need to talk through their spiritual burdens. It can take the form of the cut and thrust of more academic debate, about evolution, understandings of the Bible or my thoughts on Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament Law, where my theological training is at its most useful. Or it can take the form of participating in programme panels about the role or representation of faith in the SF genre.

At CONvergence I was glad to be included as a speaker on two faith-related panels: “The Importance of Faith in Fiction” and “The Christian Roots of Modern Fantasy”. With my growing confidence in my own ministry, I’m enjoying these kinds of panels more and more. I can speak clearly about issues that are close to my heart, and connect not just with my fellow panellists, but with everyone who packed into that particular convention room to listen to, and often to debate with, us. Again, the aim isn’t to evangelise. It’s to enable conversations, to share thoughts and understandings, to broaden minds on every side. And I love it. I really do.

Pulling down the barriers
I delivered a sermon this Sunday, the 2nd September, entitled: “Religion: Cause of all the World’s Problems?” It was about how believers, and Christians in particular, are often not the best witnesses we can be. The God I follow, who I believe was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, is a God of revolution. He’s about overturning the human desire and yearning to build walls around ourselves and our communities and judge those on the outside. Jesus was about radical openness for the outsider, about destroying the barriers that keep us apart. And following that example can be hard. It can be easy for non-Christians to look at the way some Christians behave or express themselves and honestly think that there is nothing there of Christ at all.

So the challenge is to live his example – loving, listening, and confronting the walls that humans insist on building to exclude and judge others. And as a Christian, as a priest, as an SF fan, I need to do that from the altar, from the pulpit, from the dealers’ room floor, equally.

And if I can do that just a little, who knows how many barriers may come down, how many better relationships built?


  1. What an interesting and refreshing exposition, reflecting – I suspect – the views of many who see the value of witnessing through the everyday. People like to categorise to help them make sense of the world, unintentionally creating barriers as they do so, and effectively alienating those on the other side. I particularly liked the closing statements: you can probably hear me applauding from across the counties. I also like Sci Fi, but can’t get the ears to fit. Thankfully.

  2. Right there, with you. I hadn't thought about CoE being harder to be a clerical geek than other denominations. (High church, that is. I can't imagine the head trip the low church geeks go through.) At least in my denomination, there are a lot of high profile Catholic priests, who're geeks.

    I also think part of the problem is that there are so many poorly-written examples of clergy in a sci-fi context. (Like in the new "V" series.) It would be nice if there were a show where clergy were represented as being multi-faceted characters, who have the same issues and struggles as the rest of us. (I think that's why Shepherd Book was popular.)

  3. cfd - Thanks very much for the comment! Any particular kind of ears? Vulcan? Ferengi? ;) I think it's an ongoing human trait to want to create closed circles for themselves. It's about comfort and security, but also about rejecting the Other, and one of the biggest challenges to be overcome, whether or not you're a person of faith.

    bigumuse - Thanks! I'm not sure the CofE is necessarily harder than other denominations, and I know a few of my friends at theological college were also of the SF/F fan persuasion, but certainly the crossover feels pretty rare in my current parish.

    Sadly I agree with you about the current state of faith portrayals in SF media. There have been some great examples in the past - Shepherd Book is a standout, as is the thoughtful treatments of clergy and faith in Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, but at the moment there's not much out there. That said, perhaps some others out there can think of examples to prove me wrong?

    1. Caroline - Ferengi probably top Vulcan ears for difficulty of acquisition and wearing, although somebody, somewhere would know where to get a pair. And a stapler might work.

  4. Hi Caroline,

    That was a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I write SFF and have had stories published by Innsmouth Free Press - Yes, that Lovecraft thing. For me, in trying to define a 'Mythos for our Times', the interesting issue is the struggle of an individual to be a thoughtful, moral person in world replete with material temptations and anti-religion pressures. The encounter with the Elder God is the meeting that tests the character's ability to remain true to their beliefs in the face of powerful pressures to recant.

    It isn't easy to be a Christian sometimes, these days. The moral-right wing crazies have created a climate that has people asking or thinking, Are you one of them? - the minute I confess to a deep working relationship with God. Far better then I think to try and be a person who lives her principles more than talking about them.

    I agree totally with your statement "So the challenge is to live his example – loving, listening, and confronting the walls that humans insist on building to exclude and judge others."

    Already as a teenager when asked, What is a Christian? - I answered that it wasn't about words, but that the person with real beliefs is instantly knowable by their actions.

    Finally, I'd say this applies not only to Christians. I've known many people from many different faiths, out of whom the love of God shown brightly and observably.

    Oh, and I follow you on Twitter (MeSaare)

  5. "Jesus was about radical openness for the outsider, about destroying the barriers that keep us apart. And following that example can be hard. It can be easy for non-Christians to look at the way some Christians behave or express themselves and honestly think that there is nothing there of Christ at all."
    Yes thank you I really enjoyed this thoughtful post. So many of the scripture readings recently - including at mid week Eucharist today - have been about taking the Good News out into the world - and I was challenged today by a parishioner who didn't feel our outreach beyond the church was good enough.
    I'm struggling with the whole concept of Christianity versus what H P Blavatsky and others have called Churchianity - and hope to write more fully on this myself soon. Will seek you out to follow on Twitter!

  6. saare-snowqueen - Thanks very much for your comment! Your story certainly sounds interesting. The Lovecraftian theme always seems to be the narrative of how mortal minds can face madness and survive, so seeing that framed in terms of how belief can temper that encounter seems like an interesting new spin.

    I know what you mean about the automatic 'being tarred with the same brush' effect that expressing ones' Christian (or any other religious) beliefs can seem to attract. It can make it tempting to avoid that whole possible confrontation, especially since letting faith shine through actions is a great way of letting that conversation come gently in its own time.

    All the same, at least for me, probably because of my role as a priest, expressing those beliefs as a framework is very important, since it gives context to how I try to live and act towards others. Breaking barriers involves making it clear which barriers I'm after breaking. :)

    Eleanor - Thanks for commenting! Indeed, a lot of the midweek readings have been about outreach. I was astonished at how the Morning Prayer readings from Acts flowed so beautifully into this theme for the Sunday readings. (Although perhaps I shouldn't have been?) I look forward to reading your take on Christianity vs. 'Churchianity' - let me know when you publish!

  7. I wish you were my minister.

  8. Great article, thank you. I find that the big ideas in a lot of SF (which I love) are a great way of linking science, theology and philosphy when it comes to ways of reflecting on our origins and our place in the universe - and helping people explore the nuances of factual and metaphorical truth. It's really rewarding taking this approach in schools (I led collective worship this morning about 'God speaking the universe into being') but I'm increasingly finding I can also do the same with adult congregations.

  9. Misa - Aw, thanks!

    Reverendally - Thanks very much. I really like the idea of taking the SF and religion connection into schools - I'll have to give that a try next time an opportunity presents itself! Oddly, it would occur to me to use SF and SF-nal ideas as ways to get into questions of origin and truth with an adult audience before I'd think to use them with children, but perhaps that says more about my adult-centric involvement with the SF world than anything else. Certainly, it would make sense that they could very much be used with both.