Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Dystopian Draw; or, This One is Not About a Book

Christians are not utopians. - John Stott, The Living Church

Sometimes I will come across a phrase or a sentence that neatly and compactly sums up something I've known all along, but never realized. My worldview and my tastes and my beliefs will already have moved me in a certain direction, but I haven't already given assent to a thought because it hasn't been brought to the front of my consciousness before. That tiny sentence by Stott is one such idea.

When I first read A Clockwork Orange I realized I was drawn to dystopian literature. It confused me at first. After all, A Clockwork Orange is a particularly forceful book with hardly a particle of light in it. But I'm a Christian – I should be drawn to the light and not the darkness. Should a book like A Clockwork Orange really fascinate me so much? I read 1984 – it was the same thing, only considerably less violent. The crumbled and dysfunctional worlds they portrayed didn't appeal to me, but the books and others in their genre provided a reality that seems so much more attainable than their antonymous utopian counterparts. It wasn't because I wanted a dystopian world, but because it seemed a great deal more real than any utopia ever could be.
And then Stott offhandedly provided the answer. It's because we live in a dystopia, and we know we do. There isn't any perfect society, and there never will be, not until Christ comes to us again. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, the last utopia vanished and the first human beings and all their descendents have since lived in a world that is filled with darkness, sin and sorrow.

And yet, God has created us to live in the world. In, but not of it, as salt and light. He doesn't call His children to hide out in little communities and try to avoid all the bad stuff out there and not let it affect us, but rather to work at changing the world, bringing the light of Christ into it. For us, unlike for Winston Smith, Alex, and the other protagonists, there is hope of a better world to come. There is rest at the end of a long journey, relief after pain, joy after much sorrow. For those who follow him, Christ brings comfort into the world.

These kind of books show us what we are capable of. They expose our fallenness in ways that dreamy stories of a more perfect society cannot. Without Christ there can be no perfect society. Dystopias give us a view of what life without Christ becomes, where a world lost in darkness flounders in all attempts at saving itself. As Christians, we should not watch the world descend into the darkness, but rather do what we can to follow Christ's call and carry light into it. We should be world-changers, not creating a present utopia but preaching of the one to come, the perfect existence in Christ.

So I think this is why dystopian literature draws me in. It shows me what the world is and can be, and calls me to do my part in changing that. Most of those books aren't calling for Christ, but Christ is what the world needs. The books are a call from outside for us to do our work as Christians.


  1. *laughs maniacally* Hoooray! Thank you for providing me an excuse for my inordinate love of 1984. I still have to read A Clockwork Orange. It's...funny that you say 1984 was less violent.

  2. I thought it was. Wasn't it? At least...more consistantly. Maybe I percieved it differently because for most of Clockwork Orange, it's the protagonist inflicting the violence.

    1. I don't know. I've never read A Clockwork Orange *hides in shame* so I couldn't tell you.

  3. This reminds me of something from Lionel Trilling: " What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have." Trilling was by no means a Christian, but even he managed to see that we often relate the most to art (and as a literary critic he was referring to literature as an art) when it shows us the painful things in life. That goes a long way to explaining anybody's love for books in the dystopian genre.