Faith, Morality, and Fiction
I am now a published author. Sort of. All right, I once wrote a short story (which I never even tried to get published) and I got a (totally-unrelated) letter published in a minor magazine/journal (what exactly is the difference?).
The magazine in question is First Things, a Catholic (allegedly ecumenical) magazine dedicated to the twin propositions that a) religion actually is relevant to life, society, economics, politics, etc. and that b) everyone already has a degree in theology, so any background or context on anything would be a total waste of space. They also have a website, which is basically more of the same.
The August/September issue (they do 10 a year, take the summer off, and renumber the ones on either side) had an article lamenting that there is no longer any literature being written with a religious worldview or dealing with serious moral questions. As someone who has read a lot of books, and not found that at all. In fact, ideas from fiction for a noticeable segment of my religious/cosmological/philosophical/ethical understanding of the world, and the fiction is question is nearly all recent.
So I wrote them a letter (actually email) in response.
The reason that Randy Boyagoda (“Faith in Fiction”) believes that there is little religious and/or morally serious fiction being written today is that he is looking in the wrong place. There is a lot in the genres of high fantasy and, to a lesser extent, science fiction. Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have by far the most depth of anything I have read, including any of C.S. Lewis’s fiction. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series draws heavily on Christian ideas, among others, and contains serious considerations of questions of duty, stewardship, and the responsibility of the strong to weak. Dawn Cook’s First Truth and sequels revolves around questions such as loyalty, personal freedom vs. commitment, and the moral status of manipulating others for their own good. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series originally deals with questions of sacrifice, just war, and love for others, and, beginning in The Blood of the Fold, has enemies that can possess anyone who does not truthfully pledge allegiance to the Messiah-figure.
I assume most of you know I have trouble writing short stuff. Oh well.
In science fiction, there are fewer examples, but they do exist. David Brin’s Brightness Reef, and to a lesser extent its sequels, deals with a religion called the Downward Path that preaches atonement through racial devolution to a non-sapient state. “A Song for Lya”, by George R.R. Martin contains a beautiful, if somewhat twisted, Christian allegory and focuses of the importance of love (charity). Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series draws heavily on assorted Bible stories, Christian values, and religious ideas about what makes a good life, although the cosmology is more Mormon than Christian.
These stories do have more imaginative settings and more exciting plots than what is traditionally called literature. However, when done well, these add to, rather than detract from, the meanings. For example, Stephen Donaldson’s argument that hope must be based on faith instead of power is strengthened by being expressed by a giant. David Brin’s exploration of the relative importance of environmental stewardship in times of crisis is especially compelling when discussed on a planet with a damaged ecosystem during an interstellar war. Dawn Cook’s use of rakus (dragons) running a covert eugenics program to prevent the birth of potentially-destructive wizards gives a new and interesting perspective on the associated questions. There are actually many books with serious religious content being written; they are just not where many people look.
I got the following response from Randy Boyagoda (published with my letter):
I am in two minds about this. On one hand, I got published. Hehe! On the other hand, Randy Boyagoda seems to to have missed my points. For one thing, 5 of the 7 authors I listed regularly write bestsellers (David Brin and Dawn Cook being the exceptions). I suspect that they are read by a lot more people than the sort of book he is thinking of, and that the people reading them are more likely to consider (and possible accept) the author's position instead of merely analyzing it. For another, another, the issues in these stories are generally the same as in real life; they have merely been writ large. But most importantly, there is a connection between these two things: These novels are successful in a large part because they have depth, not in spite of it. Plot and setting do not preclude character and theme.
Richard Hamilton offers a persuasive brief on behalf of contemporary fantasy and science fiction. Select works may encourage a greater sense of belief in imagined worlds, indeed universes, governed by religious presences and dictates, but while these works tend to sustain very passionate readerships, their purchase on the broader culture and public conversation is decidedly limited.
But I was discussing, for lack of a better phrase, elite contemporary literary fiction. There, though its creators, sponsors, critics, and readers understand the very best work as being in continuity with the best that man and women have imagined and written, the most influential works today are marked by a noticeable discontinuity in terms of the place of religion and orthodox religious experience.
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