Two open books on a white background.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Speculative Sunday

May 30, 2023

Earlier this spring, literary fantasy novelist Victoria Goddard agreed to an invitation to join us at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church for what we are calling “Speculative Sunday.”

I say from long experience hosting authors in churches that it is frequently an uphill battle getting people to read a recommended book prior to the author’s visit. I’m often pleased at how many people buy the book while the author is with us, and many readers do get around (in their own time) to reading books they purchase, but so far, the phenomenon with Victoria Goddard has been of an entirely different sort.

Many members of my own congregation have purchased and are already reading The Hands of the Emperor, the “anchor” novel in her Lays of the Hearth-Fire series. Not only that, but I’ve had around a dozen messages from friends and social media followers saying things like “I bought two copies for my nieces.” Friends from across the country are now reading Goddard after a few simple recommendations.

To be clear, it doesn’t always work like this. For example, I’ve been recommending to people for over a decade that they should drop everything, go find themselves a copy of Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Ozark Trilogy, and read it. But almost nobody follows my advice. It’s rollicking great sci-fi mixed with magic, and great writing also, but alas.

But this time, for whatever reason, a generous number of folks have decided that they will in fact try to read an 800-page novel by a literary fantasy novelist prior to her visit!

I suspect this is at least in part because I’ve offered simple teasers for how the novel is different. That it’s about leaders of an empire who actually make decisions for the good of the people, like establishing a universal basic income. That there isn’t any war, so the narrative drive isn’t centered in fighting and combat but rather the real struggles of bureaucrats (yeah, I know right?) to make the world better.

One friend said, “I had no idea until just now that there was science fiction that wasn’t dystopian! I have to read this.”

And of course, reading culture has by and large given the impression that science fiction is all dystopian. It’s 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World that gets assigned in high school classrooms. I’m still waiting for a high school teacher to assign Goddard.

But they should!

The last two weeks I’ve been slowly making my way through the second volume in Lays of the Hearth-Fire. It’s equally long and continues the adventures of the emperor and his “hands.” I’ve grown to love these two characters so very much and will admit that the novel has been providing me as much or more spiritual succor as Easter did this year.

If you know me, you know I love speculative literature (the catchall term to encompass what has historically been called sci-fi/fantasy). More generally, I love all the geek culture. I hardly saw any of the Oscar nominees this year, but I’m all caught up on Marvel and Star Wars. I even used my continuing education resources in 2021 to attend the World Science Fiction Convention and will be using half of my con-ed this summer to head to Gen Con, the world’s largest gaming convention (the other half will be used more seriously, to participate in a regional DEI training for non-profit leaders).

Reading speculative fiction in communities of faith can enliven the social imaginaries of such communities to expand the scope of the “as if” they are willing to hope for, believe in, trust. To have faith.

My point: I’m serious about “the speculative,” and weave a lot of it into my preaching, teaching, and strategizing. I think part of the reason our congregation has been able to be as generative as it has been in so many ways is connected to this.

Returning to a previous point, perhaps we assume all speculative fiction is dystopian because we also experience a lot of life as dystopian.

This is especially true in our social imaginaries. In real (daily?) life we frequently experience good, true, beautiful things. But when we look at the economic, political, and ecological spheres, when we consider “life in the Anthropocene,” or in “late-stage capitalism,” we struggle to imagine hopeful alternatives, to hold out for “as ifs” more capacious than the present dis-order.

We all recognize (though it’s hard to admit this to ourselves) that, in a sense, nothing is working. That so many things could be better. In the words of Ursula LeGuin, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” However, LeGuin goes on to argue, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

This is why I love speculative fiction. Through it you do far more than rearrange the furniture of dysfunctional systems – you transport the reader to entirely new vistas, to worlds outside the regular frame.

As an example from Goddard’s long and immersive novel The Hand of the Emperor, the secretary (the hand) of an emperor, through the exercise of sheer talent, persistence, and genuine good-heartedness, establishes a universal basic income for all citizens. And they also take a vacation together to help the secretary reconnect with his home country (an island nation) and do some self-care.

Imagine a world in which we didn’t simply wish for a universal basic income, but our leaders established it! Imagine a world captivating not because there is constant war against evil, but instead because bureaucrats strive and actually succeed at making the world better for absolutely everyone. Imagine a world where we weren’t all just struggling and scraping to accomplish the small advocacy goal of the moment, but instead are accomplishing a general uplift that lightens the load of everyone.

Novelist Alexandra Rowland says of The Hands of the Emperor, “It filled my soul up to the very brim with light, and it held my heart gently in its two hands and did things to my emotions that I don’t even have the language to describe.”

This is what church – properly construed – can do. Worship can, or could be, at least in part an exercise in such speculation, with God as imagined audience. 

I believe reading speculative fiction in communities of faith can enliven the social imaginaries of such communities to expand the scope of the “as if” they are willing to hope for, believe in, trust.

To have faith.

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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