Welcome text

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?