I confess that I’m a big fan of deconstructive criticism. So when I discovered that there was a new academic work with the title Queering Faith in Fantasy Literature: Fantastic Incarnations and the Deconstruction of Theology, by Taylor Driggers, my response was “yes, please.” I was not disappointed. This is a dense, scholarly, and important new study and contains the delightful phrase “fantasy literature is theology in drag” (p. 159). I should stress that this is not for the theoretical faint-of-heart, but, for the specialist or the well-informed nonacademic reader, it has a lot to offer.
It covers a lot of ground, starting with Derrida’s theories of deconstruction and moving through feminist and queer theories. Overall, Driggers takes as his thesis that “fantasy can become a mode of counter-storytelling to dominant theology” (p. 12). He argues that, through worldbuilding, fantasy authors can critique conventional theology and offer glimpses of theological spaces that can include those who are not generally welcome within Christian orthodoxy. He presents his arguments primarily through a close reading of three works: C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (1956), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (1977). What I admire particularly in this work is that Driggers never attempts to replace one monolithic interpretation of a text, or of theology, with his own, or to offer his own theories as an “end-all.” Because both his arguments and the way he structures his material are so multilayered and discursive, he is able to, in a sense, perform his own theories and allow his readers the same freedom in their own reading.
Although Driggers protests at one point that he does not intend his argument to be teleological (more on this a little later), nevertheless it progresses logically through four main chapters. In the first, Driggers introduces the framework of Derrida’s theories of deconstruction and outlines the way he believes these can inform a reading of theology through fantasy literature. In chapter 2, Driggers discusses the affinity between fantasy literature and the discourse of écriture féminine theorized by Hélène Cixous. Fantasy, he argues, is a vital resource for those historically deemed “other” by Western culture. Thence, Driggers moves to the theories of Luce Irigaray, particularly those concerned with embodiment, seeking to find a way that a female subject can embrace a feminist perspective without being forced to give up their faith. In Chapter 4, Driggers makes the case for fantasy literature as theology in drag, arguing that the monstrous or the marvellous are able to dress up in ways that “perform the fluidity, contingency and liminality of queer figurations, religious or otherwise” (p. 159). In his conclusion, Driggers examines a few recent works, including N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, in light of his deconstructive theories, and leaves the door open for future scholars to continue the conversation.
For me, the strongest element in this work is Driggers’s discussion of deconstruction, which he believes is “crucial to understanding the subversive and transformative potential fantasy literature carries for theology” (p. 12). One of the most important aspects of deconstructive criticism as Driggers presents it is the notion that throughout his writing Derrida is “harshly critical of the God of classical theology figured as absolute presence” (p. 25). This is probably the best starting point to the understanding of the way the concept of deconstruction is used throughout the work: there are no absolutes, including God. Derrida expresses the notion that God surpasses all understanding, but takes that idea much further than a traditional theologian would, and rejects the idea that theology has absolute authority (p. 26). Driggers explains that Derrida’s theories do not profess a denial of meaning or an implication of the death of God, nor do they propose that any reading is a free-for-all in which any interpretation is valid. Rather, he argues, “it is that textual meaning is not rooted in a monologic, unitary or closed signification” (p. 29). In this respect, Driggers suggests, faith transcribed via Derrida’s theories “would be characterized by constant attentiveness to the other and to alterity or difference” (p. 32). Most importantly, he declares, “a deconstructive approach to theology is understood as a theology giving particular attention to the contingency of its concepts, iconography and symbols, the processes involved in their construction and their inextricability from a variety of historical, philosophical and ideological conditions” (p. 33).
Given the increased diversity of representation and exploration of issues concerning gender and sexuality in recent speculative fiction, it may seem to have been an unusual choice for Driggers to have focussed his attention on those three relatively early works of Lewis’s, Le Guin’s, Carter’s. Unusual perhaps, but I believe it was a wise one: Driggers explains that his aim in focussing on earlier texts is to demonstrate that while we might not be surprised to discover certain issues in contemporary works, fantasy literature has always been concerned with them; indeed, he argues, “[fantasy literature] has been deeply invested in gender, sexuality and religion, in ways that remain relevant to the social, political and theological landscape of the twenty-first century” (p. 4).
Another refreshing aspect of this work for me was the opportunity it offers to free to some extent both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien from critical shadows cast on them of late. Not, of course, that they can fully escape charges of, for example, racism, sexism and colonialism, but Driggers addresses particularly the trend in some current academic research that offers readings of fantasy as a form “uniquely suited to the propagation of orthodox theological truth” (p. 11). Authors most commonly discussed in this context include, of course, C.S Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, along with Charles Williams, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. Driggers argues that a reading of fantasy as Christian apologetics first and foremost “is uninspired both as theology and as literary criticism” (p. 11). For example, he acknowledges Tolkien’s deep Catholic faith, but cites passages from “On Fairy-Stories” (1947) in which Tolkien expresses a longing “to hold communion with other living things” and to “open a door on Other Time.” Similarly, Driggers highlights a passage from Till We Have Faces that illustrates Lewis’s surprising movement away from logocentrism: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them.” Till We Have Faces is arguably C. S. Lewis’s finest work, yet it is underdiscussed by critics (perhaps because it doesn’t fit as easily into the Christian Orthodox critical schema), and Driggers’s close reading is thus a welcome and refreshing addition to Lewis scholarship.
Driggers stresses that his theoretical discussions are intended to be multilayered; rather than dealing with his chosen works one at a time, he revisits them in light of the different theories. He wants to demonstrate—and succeeds in doing so—that the theories overlap, arise out of common impulses, and remain in constant conversation with one another. Occasionally there are discontinuities, but overall the discussion is iterative, with each new aspect shedding light on what has gone before and opening up new possibilities.
Many of the central issues discussed in this work—fantasy, theology, and queerness, for example—are exceptionally broad and often disputed. Driggers has a light touch and is careful to articulate the most general definition of such terms in order to give himself interpretive space. In one sense this is a strength, allowing him a fairly free hand in terms of his choice of material. It could be argued, for example, that The Left Hand of Darkness is more science fiction than fantasy, but I think Driggers successfully demonstrates that the distinction doesn’t matter a whole lot. On the other hand, the author’s attempt at inclusivity via the breadth of his definitions of terms runs a certain risk of appearing to treat certain aspects superficially or leaving himself open to accusations of omission. He does acknowledge that there is a lot more to say, for example, about trans issues, but I’m not certain that it is sufficient to simply ask for those with more expertise in the area to come along and fill in the blanks.
While Driggers successfully defends his choices of focussing on earlier texts and discussing The Left Hand of Darkness as fantasy, I feel he is less secure in his choice of feminist criticism, particularly in the case of Luce Irigaray. Cixous’s theories without a doubt hook nicely into deconstructionist theory, and there’s no denying the influence of both critics on early feminism and on “women’s writing,” or of the importance of fantasy and the monstrous to women writers in the mid-twentieth century (such as, of course, Angela Carter). However, there have been feminist critics since Irigaray and Cixous who are more intersectional and who have addressed what is problematic in second-wave feminism. First of all, both these early critics are extremely essentialist in their views; Irigaray, especially, is cis- and heteronormative. Driggers acknowledges their essentialism, but I don’t think he demonstrates how their theories can be extended to a broader context of LGBTQ experiences today. How, for example, might a trans woman encounter Irigaray’s theories of embodiment and how can we move beyond her heteronormativity? Driggers gestures towards such questions, but I don’t think he addresses them adequately.
Driggers’s project is obviously to demonstrate how fantasy, by defamiliarizing the primary world, can open up theological spaces to those marginalized under conventional religion and, in Driggers’s words, “unsettle received wisdom about God and uncover ruptures, discontinuities and silences within the presumed unity of Christian orthodoxy” (p. 69). Nevertheless, he himself acknowledges the inherent risk of not just “feminizing fantasy,” of propagating the association between women and unreason, or between nonbinary expressions of the body and “the monstrous.” Moreover, Driggers notes perceptively that “fantastic endeavours to queerly re-vision theology in the twenty first must take care that they do not inadvertently reaffirm and naturalize the gendered and sexual norms they claim to be subverting by importing them wholesale into a secondary world where the rules of our world need not apply” (201).
All that being said, however, I believe this is an important study that brings new light to both fantasy literature and to theology. As I wrote this, the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, with implications for the future dismantlement of a host of other human rights legislation in the US, including same-sex marriage. SCOTUS has thus consolidated its disputed position as a group of heavy-handed lawmakers governing according to the most narrow interpretations of orthodox Christian theology. In such a political and social context, the argument of this book becomes all the more compelling and urgent.