Biblical fan fiction
Ben Chenoweth, Educational Designer / eLearning Coordinator at Melbourne School of Theology suggests using Biblical fan fiction assignments in theological education.
What is Fan Fiction?
Are you a fan of fan fiction? Do you even know what fan fiction is? And what on earth does it have to do with theological education?
Fan fiction can be defined as “writing 1) by amateur fans of a particular media text or texts (television program, book, film, role-playing game, anime, cartoon, etc), 2) commencing from (but not limited to) some of the characters and sometimes premises of that text or those texts”. Fan fiction, then, is a derivative work that takes a media text as its source and then expands on that source material in some way.
One of the first popular culture inspirations of fan fiction was the television series Star Trek. When it was cancelled – after only three seasons – fans of the show were unwilling to abandon the characters and the narrative universe that those characters inhabited. So they began writing their own stories, some of which were even distributed via magazines which came to be known as fanzines. When the internet came along the popularity of fan fiction exploded. The largest fan fiction website is fanfiction.net. The top five books (or series of books) in terms of having generated items of fan fiction is: 1) Harry Potter, 2) Twilight, 3) Percy Jackson, 4) Lord of the Rings, and 5) The Hunger Games. In particular, the Harry Potter series has generated nearly 800,000 individual works.
While the occasional piece of fan fiction might achieve wider distribution (a series entitled Master of the Universe involving the characters from the Twilight books achieved wide popularity after its author edited it into Fifty Shades of Grey and sequels) most is only read by fans of the original source.
Biblical Fan Fiction?
The Bible too has fans who utilize the biblical text as the source or springboard for their own writings. On fanfiction.net’s book list, the Bible comes in at number 27 with just over 4,000 items. While these figures demonstrate that fan fiction authors are far more interested in writing about Harry Potter, it shows that there are still people out there wanting to write their own stories about the characters and events in the Bible.
This is where fan fiction can intersect with theological education. Instead of always asking students to write a theological or exegetical essay, we should be giving students the option of writing a short story that is either based on a specific passage (or genre) in the Bible.
Here are some example questions to get you thinking…
- You are a member of the Sanhedrin. Describe the events of Passion week from your perspective.
- Based on Lk. 7.18-23, write a first-person account of Jesus’ early ministry from the perspective of John the Baptist.
- Choose one person who attended the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and write their perspective of what happened.
- What might an Old Testament prophet say if God gave them a vision of 21st century Australia?
- Use apocalyptic imagery to describe the groaning of creation (Rom. 8.19-22) in light of the current ecological crisis.
Biblical Fan Fiction Can Encourage Deep Learning
I would argue that the creative process involved in coming up with a response to questions like these actually encourages deep learning. In preparing to write a short story, the student will still need to do the same amount of research as for a theological essay. Clearly, they will need to understand that research and apply it appropriately to the given question. So far, so much the same. However, the analysis and synthesis of that body of research is essential in coming up with the background context of the short story, if that context is to be historically accurate and believable to the reader. Creative writing is therefore more likely to be a holistic, rather than a piecemeal, process, if the end result is to be internally and externally consistent. The author will need to immerse themselves deeply in the historical situation and then describe what happens from that viewpoint. To do this successfully, they will definitely need to work at those higher levels of learning.
So this is a plea to everyone setting assessments in theological education: give students creative writing options! I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
For a more detailed presentation of this topic, including assessment considerations, see Ben’s article “The Pedagogy of Biblical Fiction: Where Research and Creativity Collide” in Wondering about God Together: Research Led Learning and Teaching in Theological Education (Les Ball & Peter G. Bolt, eds. Sydney: SCD Press, 2018), 284-302.
 Juli J. Parrish, Inventing a Universe: Reading and Writing Internet Fan Fiction (Doctoral Thesis, 2007), p. 11. She includes two additional points – “3) explicitly calling attention to itself as fan fiction, and 4) published on the internet.” – but these are not integral to the concept of fan fiction taken in a more general sense.