Pastoral Reflections On The World Science Fiction Convention (#WorldCon2021)

Pastoral Reflections On The World Science Fiction Convention (#WorldCon2021) December 19, 2021

December 15, 2021

I’ve basically been reading science fiction and fantasy since I could read. I can still remember certain first reads, as if they were inscribed into my body: William Gibson’s Neuromancer, series by Lloyd Alexander and Ursula Le Guin, mind-blowing space opera from Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, the whimsical fantasy of Piers Anthony, entry into the Forgotten Realms universe with Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.

When I settled in for my first year of college at Luther, I had sat down on my bunk to read the first volume in R.A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale trilogy. I was at that time just getting to know a character, Drizzt Do’Urden, who would become the most popular character in the entire Dungeons & Dragons universe. As I sat reading, my RA, who it turns out was also a hard-core evangelical Christian, said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It took me a while to even process what he was talking about, until I realized he didn’t believe in reading “fantasy” literature.

About a year later, that RA (the resident assistant, not the author and creator of Drizzt) established a cult at the college around which their still exists a bunch of bizarre lore, but all I can do is thank God for that “garbage” because it kept me suspicious and distant from emotionally manipulative faux religiosity.

At that time, I still kind of believed in a very hard division between “literature” and “genre” fiction. It didn’t even occur to me that The Odyssey, assigned my first year, was itself “fantasy” literature. After a wander period in college and seminary when I focused much more on reading “classic” literature, for most of my adult life (roughly, the last 25 years) I’ve unashamedly been a broad and deep reader of both genres, fantasy and science fiction, and the many sub-genres connected to them.

Nevertheless, it isn’t until this year that I’ve ever gathered with other humans also focused on this genre of literature. I get on a plane and fly to DC and am spending a week at the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ll hear the Hugo awards announced Saturday evening, the premier awards in science fiction and fantasy.

The rest of the week, I’m sitting in on a few dozen lectures and readings across a wide range of topics, from asteroid mining to Arabian fiction to “Gameschooling” to Queering Necromancy to the Future of Work (Post-Pandemic edition).

As I’ve been packing today, it occurred to me that this form of literature has funded my imagination to such an extent that I don’t even always see the influences. But nevertheless, my first book, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation In A Trans-Media Era, has a book cover with an homage to the film Tron, a recent essay I wrote for The Christian Century was on our conducting catechism class in Minecraft, and another recent installment for a book was in a volume on Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change. The book is chock full of reflection the way our future is influenced by our ability to collectively imagine. It’s social imagination sci-fi.

This is my first return to DC since my daughter and I were there the week the pandemic broke in March 2020. At that time, we were present advocating for refugee resettlement, stoking the imagination for a form of neighborliness the then president and his party were attempting to completely strangle. Now, two years later, more refugees have arrived just in November than arrived in all of 2020.

Things really can change.

So too with science fiction and fantasy. Back when I was reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, or the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, those were books by white men mostly about white men. Now, forty years later, science fiction and fantasy publishing is at the forefront of gender and other forms of representation. And when the classics are made into television (as Foundation and Wheel of Time are this year) the imagination of previous writers seeing diversity where there had been homogeneity has now influenced the production of those adaptations.

This is why I’m using my pastoral continuing education time to attend a science fiction convention. As difficult as it is to exercise the imagination these days, those writing fantasy and science fiction are doing it. And they’re doing it well. I want to be near that kind of imagineering and see how it can help shape the church. And humorously, a World Science Fiction Convention is not unlike a church synod assembly. Some days they offer yoga at the start of the day, and on Saturday you can even attend a Torah study.

I’m also thrilled to get back to DC. I feel like it’s going to take me through the feels, as we flew out of DC in 2020 at precisely the moment the whole world was shutting down. I got on a plane Friday afternoon and when we landed called the church council to cancel worship services. I had no idea when we did that we’d still even be talking about the pandemic 20 months later. That’s another thing science fiction facilitates. Sometimes the things we know about the world, and their potentialities, can result in the world changing quickly, irrevocably, immeasurably.

Stories help us to be ready. They fund our faith.

December 16, 2021

After directing camps in my early career and more recently organizing things like Interfaith Camp and Queer Camp, I’ve become rather fascinated with the sociological makeup of temporary human gatherings.

Today I came out to day zero of the world science fiction convention. I had thought I was going to register. That didn’t work out because they had a printer fail. Since the convention is basically 100% volunteer organized, things like this inevitably happen but also convention-goers show a lot of grace and adaptability.

I sat in the lobby of the hotel for a few hours and a series of old timers came and joined me. They had a lot to say. Most of them have been attending WorldCon since the 1970s!

I learned about filk, which is basically a culture of creating folk music with science fiction and fantasy themes. Apparently a lot of sci-fi authors and fans have bands. And these filk gatherings also encourage group participation.

Bottom up participation, close to an-archist culture, pervades WorldCon and the Hugo’s. Nominations of books come from members. The winners are from member votes. There is no “academy” who decides.

I know of very few awards as prestigious as the Hugo’s that are completely membership driven.
I’m intrigued by this organizing by the collective model. It’s how we tend to role with our own camps. It keeps the costs way down. And it makes even the famous authors just “one of the fans.” Unlike comic cons and other events where you have to pay for signatures, here they are just free for the asking.

For all that science fiction and fantasy writes of kingdoms and empires, the organizing of this gathering is decidedly socialist.

December 17, 2021

If I had one aspect of Cons I would like to transport to the life of the church, it would be fan and geek culture.

Fans and geeks are unashamed. They will talk anywhere with anyone about the things they love. But they do not do it because they believe it is their job to make geeks out of those they talk to. There isn’t a colonial aspect. They geek out purely from love.

Fans simply make sure they are always following and keeping up with what is going on. They keep track of the players, the stats, the wins, the losses, and they feel personally invested.

They show up. Some of them even write fan fiction and create new things from that which they love.

The truly intense ones are geeks. They know the thing they love so well they can play with it. They might mess with the lore not because they are rejecting what is written, but because they love what is written.

They feel free to mess around with and play with content because they have a sense of belonging. They are comfortable with the geekiness of the rest of the geek community because they trust the shared love, idiosyncratic and each in their own way.

I think this is why lgbtq community blends so well with progressive church. Social justice can sometimes be a bit sterile and serious. It needs markers of fan community. It needs colors and styles and habits and play and love.

I’m reflecting right now on how we might make every Sunday morning a Jesus Con, a Prog Con. I wonder how we might be geek church together.

December 18, 2021

A vignette:

Yesterday I picked up General Tso’s chicken at the Chinese carryout across the street from the convention. Everyone is eating outside for COVID reasons, so I sat near a young-ish group wearing butterfly wings.

I’ve been finding “are you having fun?” to be a serviceable way to meet people, asking people who they are being a bit too heavy of a way to get introduced. The three buzzed loudly and after a bit of adjustment and twisting around (we were all sitting on thigns other than chairs while eating), began to chat.

The group was a brother-sister pair plus the brother’s boyfriend. Turns out the brother-sister pair grew up going to conventions, WorldCon in particular. They said, “I grew up thinking this was the way the world was and then was sadly disappointed.” So they come back to WorldCons now even after the passing of their parents because it is home.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Con is the way the attendees steward the story of the conventions as a form of in-group identity. Quite often they say, “I found my people.” Or, “Let me tell you the history of what the many Cons were like and where they took place.” This typically comes up in any conversation long before any personal introductions like “where are you from” or “what do you do.”

As we talked, Wesley Chu walked up and joined our conversation. He was both interested in lunch tips, and because I had just attended his kaffeeklatsch he now quasi-knew me (Chu is a New York Times bestselling author with multiple books now optioned for television). This is another part of these Cons. Authors are still also just fans and people. There’s no special treatment.

Chu was heading off soon to go see the new Spiderman film, but in the meantime Juliette Wade walked up and introduced herself. This was a novelist new to me who now intrigues me, as I think she writes at the intersection of disability justice and sci-fi. Joining her was Kate JohnsTon, who among other things is a sensitivity editor. Turns out Kate is also new friends with a neighbor of GSLC here in Fayetteville, who just set up a coffee with me next week. So that’s weird small world.

This morning I got up and the first thing I did was playtest a new RPG with a novelist who is turning his stories into a game. We took about 30 minutes to create characters, then immediately set our characters out on a rescue/capture adventure on another planet. Leaning in to a bit of gaming with the hum of the convention in the background was just about perfect.

Now this afternoon I went to a session on Queering Necromancy. This panel discussion was packed to the gills. It’s hard to summarize everything said by the panel, but one thing stood out. A panelist said, “In a way, coming out is necromancy.” It’s both a kind of coming back to life after death, a raising of oneself, but it also means in some instances dying to others in order to live.

Such forums, interesting in their own right because they are so creative and fertile for the imagination, also remind me how important transgression is and how frequently we forget that transgressions are crucial to the gospel and Christian faith.

This morning Michael Wilker, the pastor-friend hosting me down on Capitol Hill, mentioned a concept in Joseph Sittler, that Sittler encouraged pastors (and really anyone) to exercise the contrapuntal.

The contrapuntal is when you get out of your normal rhythms of work and life in order to engage another note, another resonance, another harmonic, because in doing so you will then hear the other notes differently.

Getting into this space and experiencing the authors and fans here is a deep contrapuntal note for me. It hits on stuff I’ve been geeking on my entire life. I hope these narrations of it may be a kind of counterpoint to anyone reading them.

December 18, 2021

When I finished seminary I had, like most of my classmates, learned to read texts. I had learned moderately well how to read texts in Greek and Hebrew. I had gained facility reading theology.

This was the goal, but it also disconnected my perception of the world. For example in my first call I arranged for our youth group to read The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer.

Now that is a great book, and worth reading. And Bonhoeffer was famously good at youth ministry in his calls.

But it’s not a book youth in our culture have been prepared to read. It’s in translation. It expects at least considerable knowledge of the Bible. Plus theology.

As I have continued in pastoral ministry I have therefore had to unlearn much of this training, or I guess I should say re-arrange or translate it.

Partially I have done so by writing a lot. By writing you learn new voices and ways of communicating.

But also increasingly I have committed myself to simply investing time and energy learning the language of the people with whom I am in relation, and then strive to find ways to speak faith in those idioms.

This is one reason churches offer pastors continuing education time. Our church gives me two weeks a year to invest. I try to use it well.

For example last year I spent the whole year reading about trauma. I attended local events on trauma, and offered a series of lectures at the adult learning center on it.

This year I decided to engage my geek. I registered to vote in the Hugo’s and attend the world science fiction convention.

I don’t know if it has occurred to many pastors that they could use their con Ed for non-churchy events, and that perhaps it might be wise and life affirming. Anyway I recommend it.

Partially I do so because I think the clergy at their best have always added value to the world through their avocations. I’m thinking here historically, when clergy used to do things like breed peas (yes the peas we eat are influenced by Gregor Mendel who was also into that).

Pastors are musicians, or organizers, or artists.

It’s like the obverse story I learned last night. Gene Wolfe, one of the towering greats in sci fi, worked as the editor of a Plant Engineering journal and wrote science fiction on the side. He was responsible, believe it or not, for designing part of the plan mechanism that makes Pringles ships. Legend has it the mustache on Pringles tubes may even be modeled after his.

The point is, we can all be more than one thjng. Hyper specialization is over rated. And church insider lingo and practices is a remnant of Christendom I think we can release.

Which isn’t to say theology lacks value. It certainly has value. But for the most part should those of us trained in theology spend all our learning time gathering with like-minded clergy in safe church spaces, or out in places like a science fiction convention where what we believe is tested and tempered by the wider world.

I prefer the latter. Maybe because at root my spiritual center is apostle, with pastor the day job. Like any apostle, I feel called to the edges to see how the gospel can play there. Which is of course also different than wanting to make the gospel dominate there. I’m not interested much in making science fiction Christian. I’m interested in how science fiction (and the community around it) can make me more Christian.

December 19, 2021

Final WorldCon reflection, on the works themselves:

I mean ultimately people are fans OF something, readers are people who read the things.

And these “things” are media, entertainment, literature, fiction, novels, movies, stories.

It’s possible in my previous posts I’ve made too much out of what science fiction and fantasy can “do.”

Of course I believe fiction and film and other creative output really does facilitate real-world creativity. It does even more than that.

But on another level, in the same way that rest is for its own sake, and not as a tool for greater productivity, so too creation or enjoyment of creations exists for its own sake.

We don’t have to read novels because such reading will accomplish something. We can just read. Or watch a movie. Or stare at a tree.

The winners in last night’s Hugo’s somewhat proved this point. I think most people who enjoy Martha Well’s Murderbot novellas, or T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, would not say that those novels serve some kind of larger purpose.

They won because they are loved, because they brought joy, because they are good.
Now it’s possible that they will do something. But one of the strengths of genre fiction over the category called “literature” is a certain lack of pretensions. You “literature” at least in part to “better” yourself. You read MurderBot because it’s fun.

This does make me wonder: what is your method for deciding how much of your time can be devoted simply to fun. To watching television, reading novels, listening to a great album, going to films. What’s the right balance that allows for the real joy that media offers for leisure and joy and fun? How much is too much, or is there a point at which it is enervating, or steals time from being a good neighbor, a responsible citizen, a helpful member of the family?

I’ll admit to a certain kind of workaholism. Because my work as a pastor is a set of relationships with tasks embedded, there’s a way in which I’m relating everything in my life to my work. Even this blog post is kind of an example.

So this week, especially when I was just going to things or doing things purely for the joy of it (like the last session I attended, on the science of asteroid mining), I do have that twinge of guilt. Shouldn’t I do something more applicable?

But if there are rhythms in life (God-given, Sabbath) then on the other hand all work and no play…

There’s probably some sliding scale on media consumption that could help us measure when we are engaging entertainment in ways that are life-affirming, and when they are life-distracting or even harmful, and so in that sense we can’t simply say that all creative production and consumption is inherently good or worthwhile.

But a certain additional level of intentionality (including intentional abandon) may be warranted, if for no other reason than because when we create or enjoy books or film or other creative arts, it gives us the opportunity to build communities of fans around it, or at the very least converse with ourselves in our own heads about the wonders around us that illustrate the extent to which the human mind and heart can co-create with God.

"Clint was describing what he sees. How does that translate into disliking?" We grow spiritually ..."

If You’re Evangelical It’s Time For ..."
"I remember a guy who came over to me out of the blue and asked ..."

Answering the question: Do you know ..."

Browse Our Archives