This might seem a bit puzzling to people who care for neither and tend to confuse the two. But even though they're usually intermingled at Barnes and Noble, there is a core difference between them, which runs much deeper than the accidentals (swords vs lasers, space ships vs. dragons), and it’s this: the struggle for a sci-fi writer is figuring out how to solve the conflict, whereas the struggle for a fantasy writer is creating a real conflict in the first place.
This is because sci-fi writing starts out with the rules of the world in mind, and the conflict develops naturally from them. The concepts of good and evil don’t necessarily have to come into play. A world with impermeable boundaries and laws tends to create conflict between self-interested characters without appeal to any larger moral values. The writer’s job is to somehow solve the problem without breaking the rules.
In fantasy, the very idea of magic assumes that there are no rules which can’t be broken. So the challenge for the writer is figuring out from where any real drama will come. If a powerful magician can theoretically get out of any jam with the wave of a wand, then where is the suspense? This is why the ideas of pure good and pure evil almost always come into the picture. The only way to stop a good guy with a wand is a bad guy with a wand. So fantasy writing tends to be a little less cerebral and more heart driven (this is the 101 course; obviously, these genre lines get blurred all the time).
Superhero stories sort of straddle this conundrum depending on the powers and limitations of the hero. At one end of the spectrum, we have batman: a smart dude, but a dude, nonetheless. At the other, we have Superman and his kryptonite, which always strikes me as a pretty contrived plot device, a sort of negative deus ex machina. It’s as if the writer realized he had created a character to whom nothing interesting could ever really happen and then said, “…But wait. There is this one thing that can hurt him.” This is how children make up stories—not because their minds are unshackled by convention, not because their imaginations are limitless, or some other romantic notion, but because kids suck at making up stories.
When we talk about how the biblical gospels are normally read, we run into many of the same issues with Jesus that we do with Superman or in the fantasy genre. The church has always officially endorsed the paradox that Jesus shares the experience of being one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human at the same time. But unofficially, most of us were taught, tacitly, growing up, that Jesus was somehow above the fray, that he had already read the book and knew how it ended, and that he never really doubted that he would be just fine.
In other words, we were taught that Jesus was hardly human at all but was merely playacting the role in a scripted and tightly controlled stage production. Sadly, because of this contrived piety we have about protecting the Jesus story from any doubt or drama, any of the very real and risky heroism of the man, himself, is lost on us. We “honor [him] with our lips, but our hearts” go to Ghandi, MLK Jr., Oscar Romero, and Aung San Suu Kyi—real human beings who really had to forgive the unforgivable and risk everything for truth in the face of power and violence.
Nothing is more deadly to Jesus’ relevance in today’s world than the piety of Christians.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Forget for a second that it’s Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who was and is and is to come, yada, yada, and so on and so forth. Instead, try to read with fresh eyes a story about a guy getting arrested for obstructing the tax system, questioning the religious elite, and making dangerous critiques of people in power—in short, arrested by the rich and well connected, who don’t quite agree with his interpretation of 1st Amendment rights.
The authorities come out at nighttime to get him, because this is the sort of arrest that might draw the wrong kind of publicity were it done in broad daylight and, say, captured on a cell phone. He has a small but skittish band of followers, and when one of them sees the authorities coming, he puts two and two together and asks that perennial question that comes up anytime truth tests the patience of power one time too many, and confrontation is inevitable: “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” It’s not a philosophical question. The arrest party is small, and there’s a chance that, if they make the first move, the skirmish would be over quickly. Then there would be at least reasonable odds that their teacher could flee the country to safety. But to do so would be to lose the chance to stand up for truth.
Before Jesus has a chance to respond, one of them lashes out with a jumpy and unpracticed slash, cutting off the ear of one of the cronies. So the fight is on, right? You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet, the ends justify the means, just cause, just war, and all the rest, yeah?
No. “No more of this,” Jesus says. Violence of any degree and any sort will not be tolerated among his followers, even if indulging it just this once could save a good man his life. Rather than hurt another human being, he allows himself to be arrested, and neither he nor anyone else is unclear on what will happen to him next. The story takes great pains to communicate that he is not at all certain that everything will be ok. He doesn't accept his fate because the last chapter in the story is a foregone conclusion. He accepts it for the sake of the truth. God is fundamentally, basically, at the very core of divine being, nonviolent.
If, in the deep recesses of your subconscious, Jesus were allowed to be a real human, you’d be in tears right now. You would have just encountered the divine truth for which Perpetua and Felicity, Bonhoeffer and Niemoller, Biko and Mandela all lived and died. And the movies made about Jesus would be a hell of a lot more badass.
But perhaps you missed the most explosive truth the world has ever known. Perhaps it’s too far buried under two thousand years of incense and candles and doctrines, and instead of a man who made an excruciating decision for the sake of truth, you see a holographic specter floating through this screenplay, never in any real danger, himself.
So be it. Eventually, you may decide just to leave this story behind entirely, because you see no place for theological formulas in your world of nationalism, and preemptive war, and judges bought and paid for, and white supremacy. Maybe you’ll decide to leave it behind entirely and take action for something that you believe actually matters.
Go for it. Change the world. I'm begging you, for my grandkids' whose parents aren't even born yet, please. But if you’re going to head off and start living for something that matters, if you believe you’ve emancipated yourself from the story of Jesus the Christ and are now living for more practical outcomes like peace, and eco-justice, and relief for the poor, and justice for minorities; I suggest you take a look around to make sure he isn’t standing right in front of you in the picket line. My guess is that he is.
Superman cannot save us; only love will.
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.