What SFF can learn from Christianity part 1

March 2nd 2014

Posted by: in: From the Author, Non-fiction
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(Some background context for this post will probably be helpful. Science fiction and fantasy conventions are either industry-run – that is, a commercial organisation organises the whole shebang – or they’re fan-run – that is, a temporary and voluntary committee is formed to both organise the logistical elements and also co-ordinate other volunteers to run the various events. Inevitably, a lot of the behaviours that have been tolerated or simply ignored till recently – up to and including serious sexual assault – are uncomfortable parts of these conventions’ past and change, while badly needed, is often perceived as difficult and/or unwelcome by some. Even having something as straightforward as a harassment policy is seen in some quarters as controversial. That there is a legacy of racism and sexism in science fiction fandom is hardly exceptional, but is sad, since SFF is supposed to be a forward-looking genre.)

Dear fandom,

There are lots of things I could say at this point, but I want to narrow it down to two observations. Both arise out of the passing interest I have in church history. If you think the link is somewhat tenuous, bear with me. This is the first.

#1: If you insist on doctrinal purity, you’ll end up as fissiparous as the Western Protestant church.

Fissiparous is one of my favourite words, too long alas for Scrabble, but it’s magnificently exact. Fissiparous means:
1. biology reproducing by fission
2. having a tendency to divide into groups or factions

We’re going for meaning 2 here, and anyone with a vague knowledge of the Protestant Reformation will know that the original protestants, like Martin Luther, weren’t planning on setting up their own churches in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church at all. What they wanted was to reform the practices and doctrine of their mother church, the excesses and abuses that they railed against reversed, and remain priests of the one Holy and Apostolic church in good conscience. (We’re ignoring the Great Schism between the Roman and Orthodox church here, for brevity’s sake.)

History tells us that it didn’t happen like that. The protestants were more successful in the north and west of Europe, and were anathematised by the Roman Catholic Church. The reformed churches, including eventually the Church of England, became independent from Rome. (Let’s also ignore all the wars between newly Protestant countries and old Catholic countries, because that’s tangential to the argument.)

The reformed churches now had to organise themselves outside of the Roman Catholic structure. For the most part, they kept the same institutions (priest and bishop, parish and diocese), but didn’t answer to the pope. In England, the king was made the head of the church. Other, more radical groups, went for a congregationalist structure, where each individual church was more-or-less responsible for its own affairs, overseen by a travelling hierarchy who were most definitely not to be called bishops.

And this is where we get the term “broad church” from. The Church of England is a broad church, in that it suffers (I use the term advisedly) a wide variety of traditions under one roof. Crudely, we have the catholics, the evangelicals and the liberals, and while not exactly believing in the same things and not exactly hating each other, there is a lot of tension between the more passionate adherents of the three strands.

Other churches are not so broad, which is where the argument about doctrine comes in. The first split in the Christian church was (oh go on then) the Great Schism between the eastern Orthodox churches and the western Roman Catholic churches, over the source of the Holy Spirit, the primacy of the Roman pope and whether or not communion bread should be leavened or unleavened. Adding geopolitical concerns and personality to the mix led to east and west going their own separate ways.

Fast forward half a millennium, and we have another major split, this time between the reformed and Roman Catholic churches, again over practice and doctrine. Some reformed churches like the Church of England remain mostly extant, barring the occasional problem with Methodists. Some split again almost immediately, and continue to do so, leading to this joke, first told (the internet tells me) by Emo Phillips.


Two men are standing on a bridge, one is about to jump off and the other is trying to talk him out of it. The man asks the jumper, “So are you a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew or what?”
The jumper replies, “A Christian.”
The man says, “Small world, me too! Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox?”
The jumper answers, “Protestant.”
The man replies, “Me too! What denomination?”
The jumper says, “Baptist”
The man replies, “Me too! Southern Baptist or Northern Baptist?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Baptist.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern region?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1912?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1912.”
The man then pushes the jumper off the bridge and screams, “Die Heretic!”


This is exactly the situation that an insistence on doctrinal purity leads to. That no matter how much we share in common, it’s the differences that define us, and it’s what leads us to pushing each other off the bridge.

I was at my usual CofE church this morning with an incredibly diverse congregation – ranging from non-Christians to Young Earth Creationist Christians and every flavour in between. The Church of England is a church that doesn’t have a membership as such (though I am on the electoral roll). There are no membership requirements, no statements of what I believe to sign, no questioning by the vicar as to whether I’m pure enough to go on the tea and coffee rota. I don’t agree with everything they believe and vice versa: but with typical Anglican fudge, we get on with both it and each other. If I went along to my brother’s church (he’s a Baptist), the situation would be entirely different – baptism by total immersion as an adult would be just the first step in becoming a member.

Fandom faces a similar choice. It can be a broad church that has a few basic doctrines that we can say without crossing our fingers, or an ever-increasing number of fissiparous factions that, like the man from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1879, thinks everyone else is a heretic. Most likely, because fandom, like Christianity, isn’t monolithic, there’ll be both a broad church and lots of increasingly smaller, more doctrinally-purer-than-thou factions.

I don’t think the fissiparous urges of the Western Protestant church has helped Christianity in any way. More often than not, the churches involved end up fighting each other over the dwindling number of believers prepared to turn out on a Sunday morning, while wider belief and spirituality remains high. Similarly, people will continue to read and watch SFF – but fewer and fewer will want to be involved in fandom in any meaningful way.

Hear endeth the first lesson.

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