New Weird Fiction, OntoTheology & Cultural Memes — My PhD Dissertation Proposal
(In 2008, I proposed doing a PhD in theology and approaches to post-humanism. Accepted into a PhD program on this topic, but then I went to a full-time day job again.)
“We are a [species] whose little children demand wearily at the end of each day, ‘Momma, tell me a story’,” novelist and theologian Andrew Greeley once observed. In fact, human beings do not merely ask for stories to explain experience, but also use the act of story-telling to structure experience itself into a comprehensible series of moments linked by time and by causation. As educational psychologists and sociologists tell us, the self is “constituted through an exchange in language.” We weave a web of words, and live inside it, and call it world.
It is thus interesting to observe that an arcane interest in the abstractions behind language and text is rapidly becoming secondary to a new 21st century resurgence of interest in religious belief as a prime motivator for literary production and critical inquiry. To cite one sign of the shift, upon the death of Jacques Derrida in 2005, eminent cultural critic Stanley Fish wrote that soon “religion” would succeed “high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy.” One of principal interpreters of literary theory movements – Terry Eagleton – further explained in his 2004 book After Theory that the global connectiveness of our society demands that society and literature address larger questions than literary “sub-text” and in fact that societal movements and literature writ large are now attempting to wrestle with big questions and articulate “grand narratives” once more.
The time is ripe for a new look at one of these “grand narratives” – the Christian redemptive story, and to re-think it in “story as theology” terms. “Story theology” has been done before, yet unsuccessfully. This project seeks to re-vitalize, re-think, and re-articulate “story theology” in specifically post-modern and feminist terms.
The nascent “story theology” of the 1960s and 1970s can roughly be said to be the domain of a diverse group of creative thinkers, among them Paul Ricoeur, Jürgen Habermas, Sallie McFague, Mary Daley and Andrew Greeley. In different ways, these thinkers articulated the deep truths of faith in a mode that emphasized narrative, metaphor and story over systematic structure. Yet this “theology in metaphor/story” lacked a rigorous philosophical foundation for creating theology from cultural narrative and rapidly became a hand-maiden to the dominant model of theology as forcibly enacted “upon” submissive listeners by patriarchal “teachers.”
For context, this early version of “story theology” is briefly summarized, along with the various critiques brought to bear upon these early efforts to outline non-systematic plot-driven faith experiences. The critiques of early “story theology” were broad-ranging. One principle weakness was the lack of a rigorous philosophical foundation, a gap I aim to amend in this study. A secondary – yet no less important –critique of 1970s “story theology” emerged out of feminist/womanist and liberation perspectives. After all, it is clear that the lives of many do not come together in such a fashion as to form a “story” that can be articulated in the Western norm. Yet in the 1970s, when so-called “story theology” first emerged, those interested in the approach drew overwhelmingly from a White, privileged tradition of narratives which to a great extent upheld the status quo of Colonial oppression and pre-feminist understandings of the world. Furthermore, if theology aims to encompass all existence in its understanding, then a merely anthropocentric (phallogocentric?) “story” misses the entire point from an ecological and liberation perspective. Do non-human species know “story” in the same manner that human beings “know” story? And if not, doesn’t God relate to existence beyond mere human “story”?
In our current context, it is thus interesting to note that this dominant church itself has become increasingly irrelevant to both European and American culture. In the same manner, the “story theologies” of the 1960s-1970s were often not pertinent to the cultural moment, and instead harkened back to an idealized space of unquestioned hierarchies, consolatory accomplishments, and immature theological nursery rhymes, not to mention the reinforcement of stylized gender roles and the surfacing of easy platitudes as “morality points” in the conclusions of far too many “story theologies.” Finally, instead of drawing out of the culture to find theological points, story theologies of the period far too often placed on top of cultural moments and occasions stories which were not organic to the experience. Instead of deriving theology from the stories of life-as-it-was-lived, theologians tried to drive theology into the story that was happening in front of them.
The project continues by describing how one might profitably create a “story theology” that is particular to our current cultural and literary context. I am seeking to establish a more rigorous philosophical foundation for a theology that is derived out of the contemporary narratives / stories in a culture, based on the theological work of Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Sallie McFague and others (with reference to Kierkegaard, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Lyotard and Mark C. Taylor).
In the following larger portion of the project, I then demonstrate how this re-configured “story theology” can be used to outline story-theology-in-formation. My proof case is found in the microcosm of speculative fiction read within the urban technology/ecological culture(s) of the Pacific Northwest, with the view that this sub-culture may be a test case for cultural movements across Europe and North America.
Today, we recognize that the European and American landscape is increasingly becoming a “Post-Christian” cultural space, with profound implications for the future of theological discourse. Any thoughtful observer must ask: after the “church-as-we-know-it” disappears as a formal entity of shared cultural identity, on what ground will we build and maintain a common spiritual conversation? Today, the Pacific Northwest is an interesting laboratory to discover what shared ground may exist in the future for a different kind of theological discourse, as the rich speculative story-culture of this area may presage and prefigure the re-narrating of North American spiritual life.
Religious scholar Patricia Killen recently described the Pacific Northwest as the None Zone, for a majority of residents indicate in surveys that they are affiliated with “None” in a list of religious organizations. Yet today many – if not most – people in areas like the Pacific Northwest consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Professor Killen recently shared with me in personal conversation that she feels that what is often left out of descriptions of her work – and left out of the overall equation – is the fact that many – if not most – residents of the Pacific Northwest consider themselves “spiritual” and find meaning in “stories about God.”
To a great degree this is now the approach to Western strains of religious belief that one can find in continental Europe. People know the Christian faith story, but they do not find it formative for their lives, although it influences their lives in a deep manner. What is this “deep manner”, and how can one be “influenced” by a description of reality without it being “formative”? The difference lies in the peculiar character of “story” as a human construct, and the fact that the boundaries upon what a story may be considered to be, and the truth-claims of a story have shifted in the last few decades.
Despite surface appearance of an empty absence of “religion” in this culture, spirituality and the truth-claims of “faith” are present to a large degree in the Pacific Northwest. I will examine the manner in which truth-claims of the technological and ecologically-focused sub-cultures of the Pacific Northwest are formed, with a specific emphasis on enacting the philosophical analysis proposed in Part I of this project, with the aim of “discovering” the theology within the “stories” of the culture.
We are led to the culture’s contemporary stories in order to understand what “religion” or faith-expressions are emerging. It is conceivable that some of the new or re-vitalized literary genres of the 21st century demonstrate to us a new kind of faith expression entirely, and a radically new way of understanding Christianity as one of the dominant “grand narratives.” In this study, we thus ask what religious expressions can be found in new 21st century kinds of literature, and what the telling of these stories will mean for the future of both theological discourse in the North American church… and in the long term, for human ontotheological understanding.
The possibility of a resurgent and re-articulated “story theology” provides one fertile possibility for a future theological space in which one could enact a genuine cultural discourse, taking into account feminist, ecological and post-colonial (and possibly post-human!) understandings of culture, self, and narrative “reality.”
In the Pacific Northwest’s embrace of “post-modern” speculative fiction stories to explain spiritual identity and faith in the future, one can find the growing ground of a new kind of narrative self-understanding. Speculative fiction is a broad term that encompasses a number of recent developments in contemporary fiction, from Harry Potter to His Dark Materials to the TV show Lost to online RPG/Shooter games like Halo and Second Life. Within this broadly defined “genre” can be found every sub-genre of fantasy, science fiction, horror. One particular type, which blends all of these sub-genres into a hybrid and hyper mix, has recently been titled “New Weird” fiction. Some of the writers playing in this field include China Miéville, Steve Cockayne, Storm Constantine, M John Harrison, Mary Gentle, Ian R. MacLeod, K.J. Bishop, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jeffrey Ford, Kathe Koja, Hal Duncan, Justina Robson, Steph Swainston, and Jeff VanderMeer.
What’s most interesting about speculative fiction – and New Weird in particular – is how often spiritual, theological, and religious themes find their way to the foreground. In fact, I would argue that speculative story-telling serves a directly catechetical purpose, as it comments and shapes the possibilities of narrative itself, especially as it shapes cultural conceptions of self and other within (and beyond?) story.
Although it is fairly new to rise in the broader cultural context, “speculative fiction” is beginning to be the dominant cultural currency in the Pacific Northwest, and as such, has particular news to communicate to us. In this section, I will argue that both speculative fiction (writ large) and “New Weird” as a rising sub-genre in itself, are especially indicative of a new kind of spiritual and religious self-formation in the Pacific Northwest and in other areas of the world that are particularly tuned to technological and ecological concerns and self-definition. If the contemporary culture is not overtly “religious” in the traditional sense, yet much of its fiction concerns itself with theological, religious or spiritual themes, something must be happening on a philosophical level. What “spiritual” messages are coming through the fiction?
The “faith stories” of years past were “grand-parental” stories with an inviting beginning, a solid middle full of character development and an ending that wrapped up the loose end with the heroes triumphant, in the arms of a patriarchal God. Today’s stories are different. Through the use of popular fiction – specifically the contemporary fantastic and speculative fiction of writers like Neil Gaiman, Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Justina Robson, Steph Swainston, and Jeff VanderMeer – I hope to point out that contemporary speculative ideas are only distantly related to the Sunday School texts we might familiarly associate with stories about God. This is true of both overtly theological stories and the more subtle spiritual /theological stories we find in culture.
In this section – the longest and most elaborate portion of the proposed project – I analyze contemporary literature through the lenses of thinkers as varied as Xavier Zubiri, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Hans Küng, Donna Haraway, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Rosemary Radford Ruether – in order to discover and illuminate the following characteristics of today’s speculative and New Weird writers.
Initially, these are the characteristic elements I have found:
- Beyond the West – stories that foreground non-European perspectives, experiences, and understandings of time, identity and spiritual sustenance,
- Critically Feminist – stories that critique gender hierarchies and emphasize bodily experience as a primary “text” in understanding spiritual “salvation,”
- Undercut Narrative Security – instead of a “consolatory” closed circle, many of these stories violate our expectations, setting up a parabolic experience,
- Without Closure – stories that open genuine moral dilemmas to adult complexity, allowing a space for more perspectives in the “story,”
- Bricolage and Hybridity – instead of fitting into standard “generic” models, most stories found in this study emphasize “post-modern” high/low stories without “adequate” beginnings or endings – narratives that are increasingly embraced by the culture as valid explorations of human experience.
Out of this broad overview of contemporary and developing narratives, a new kind of theological understanding is emerging – a “theology” that emphasizes the inclusion of non-Western spiritual perspectives, ‘feminist, ecological, and post-colonial critique, and a perspective that emphasizes the possibility that any “post-Christian” theology must itself be a hybrid bricolage, constantly breaking and resurrecting itself.
To summarize the point of this project, I will once again reference a conversation by novelist and priest Andrew Greeley, who was once challenged by his teacher and friend John Shea to write a new kind of catechism – a catechism, which instead of merely providing answers, would ask “new questions” – “Questions which, instead of applying religious truths to life, search in life for hints that point at religious truth.”
The current project proposes to engage in much the same catechical exercise, but in a manner and mode that is more pointed to our present cultural and philosophically critical moment, inquiring into what it means to ask certain questions, and how these questions are being posed in contemporary stories.
What Shea originally suggested “was a correlational catechism that linked religion and life experience in a mutuality in which each illumined the other instead of a catechism in which religious truth was imposed independently of life.
Like Greeley, I am, at heart, a novelist. Greeley writes that he was “convinced by the story theologians that narrative was the fundamental, primordial, and most effective way to communicate a religious tradition,” and thus “turned to writing theological novels, comedies of grace, parables of God’s love. The correlations between religious symbols and human experience outlined in this catechism became for my novels the structure, the warp and the woof of the stories that I would tell.”
Today, many writers are risking re-narrating religious life & language, creating a post-christian “Christian” story, in many instances. What this means for the future of the church in North America (and the world?) is an interesting dilemma.
OUTLINE OF COMPLETE PROJECT
- Part 1. Theology and Story: A Summary & History, A Way Forward
- Part 2. Cultural Context: Post-Modernism and the Pacific Northwest
- Part 3. (Re-)Defining Theology as Story in a Post-Modern, Post-Christian Context
- A. Beyond the European Western Story, Beyond “Theo-Logy”
- B. Gender Critique and Feminist Understandings. of Story
- C. Undercutting Narrative Security: Breaking Consolation
- D. Without Closure: Opening Genuine Moral Dilemmas
- E. Bricolage and Hybridity: The Creation of Theological Moments
- Part 4. Toward a New Understanding of “Story” as Formational of Theological Understanding
- Part 5. Toward a New Understanding of “Story” as Formational of Morality and Human Behavior in a Post-Modern and “Post-Human” Context