Faith in Fiction 6: Faith-Bashing versus Realism

This is the question that came up at an online Catholic writer’s convention several years ago: Can you write positively or neutrally about other religious beliefs without betraying your own?

This is a real fear among some writers with strong religious convictions (or secular ones)—that their own beliefs may be called into question if they are not negative about the other belief systems they portray in their fiction. A writer might fear that if they avoid real elements in a belief system that would impact their characters negatively, they will sap their story of realism, or that if they do acknowledge those elements, they’ll be accused of bashing that belief system—even if it’s their own. Conversely, some fear that if they give another belief system a positive treatment, the reader might walk away with a good opinion of something the writer—because of her own strong beliefs—thinks of as a false or questionable belief.

Speculative fiction is, to a great extent, about problem-solving. To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, SF is our way of projecting the solutions to future problems so as to better grapple with the ones we face today. Much science fiction warns readers of the pitfalls inherent in certain assumptions, be they technological or ideological. One of the falsest of assumptions that human beings make—and one that underscores the attitudes of a great many fictional antagonists—is the the idea that the ends justify the means. What is good for them—power, wealth, control—must be good for the faith, the world, the Universe (bwahaha).

Even for a writer with no intention of bashing anything, the subject of religion is a sore point for many people. Some writers simply avoid dealing with it altogether. I find that untenable, so I have to be willing to take my licks. A content editor at my publishing house characterized my fourth novel, The Spirit Gate, as “Christian bashing” because one of the antagonists was an arrogant, power-hungry bishop with a Machiavellian philosophy. The editor felt I’d added insult to injury by showing noble Muslim and pagan characters. She somehow missed the fact that the main antagonist of the story was a pagan wizard, and that I made the point that in pursuing his self-aggrandizing course, the bishop was acting in conflict with his professed faith. (The managing editor later read the book herself, disagreed with the first reader, and apologized for the bruhaha.)

Are there flaws in the doctrines of any of the thousands of sects of Christianity? As Christ urged His followers to unity, and the past 2000 years have seen so much schism, I think we must bow to the inescapable logic that there must be flaws in church doctrine. If your fiction contains depictions of religious beliefs, it’s hard to avoid touching on some doctrinal issues. The danger comes in extrapolating negative feelings about sectarian doctrine into a blanket condemnation of an entire belief system and all of its adherents even for the sake of a ripping yarn.

One of my favorite pieces that I’ve written (A Cruel and Unusual Punishment—published in Interzone magazine and the anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God), deals with the staunch convictions of an IRA terrorist that his blowing up of a school bus full of Protestant children is a justifiable act of war. I structured the story to follow the Stations of the Cross (the stops Christ made on the Via Dolorosa as He made His way to His crucifixion) and began each “station” with a quote about the nature of heaven and/or hell. I was ever aware that I was dealing with an individual character who felt he was on doctrinally safe ground in believing it better for those Protestant children to die for the cause of a free Ireland than to grow up to become adult apostates. I might have veered into a scathing condemnation of Catholicism, or Christianity as a whole. Instead, I chose to have the prison priest tell him, “Liam, your Cause is not the Cause of the Church.”

A writer who is troubled by a trend she sees in her belief system or any other, may wish to project that trend onto a future fictional canvas to explore with the reader what that trend might look like if carried to its logical extreme. And when you project an institutionalized religion into the future, you certainly could posit that its flaws will magnify, or morph, or diminish or….? So, yes, Christianity (or some part thereof) may have a second Dark Ages if it serves the story. Islam may be declared a subversive political movement in some countries of the world. Zoroastrianism might see a world-wide revival. Buddhist extremists might arise preaching complete withdrawal from the common world. An obscure Jewish sect might spawn a future wave of terrorists.

The question for the writer is: What do any of those developments look like as background to your story?

Here, as in many areas of writing, “show, don’t tell” is a good policy. If you wish to make a point about an element of religious doctrine, for example, it’s more effective to illustrate how that doctrine affects the individual than simply to say, “This is a bad (or good) doctrine” or to even have your characters argue the point.

In every case, I think it’s best to let your reader decide how they feel about the situation.

Next time: Religious waves of the future

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Faith in Fiction 6: Faith-Bashing versus Realism — 15 Comments

  1. When I read Philip K. Dick’s Eye in the Sky, I was pretty impressed by the way it took each character’s ‘belief system’ and made it into a group psychosis. When I reached the end, where we were in the scientific belief system of the main character. After all the other crazies, it shed a lot of doubt on ‘science.’ Rationality is just another form of blind faith. Creepy. But awesome.

    • If you’ve followed the New Atheist movement at all you can see a real-world example of how science can morph into “scientism”—a world view that posits science as a belief system that has the answers to all of mankind’s problems, including moral ones.

      Rationality—or rather rationalization—is what humans use to justify untoward behavior within any belief system be it religious, scientific, political, or commercial.

      I love the way fiction can take these ideas and run with them.

  2. For me religion is totally a part of character. A specific character may be of a certain religion, just like he might have curly hair or an allergy to egg white. Furthermore, he or she may be devout, casual, or only a twice-a-year churchgoer. There is an entire spectrum of intensity, in addition to all the flavors of belief. Religion has been such a powerful shaper of history that it is not reasonable to leave it out completely — it would be like leaving out sex, or war.
    What I find a little unrealistic is those novels set in a period of great religiosity, that somehow manage to dodge all mention of faith. I suppose the greatest offender of this type is Georgette Heyer, who managed to write dozens of splendid Regency novels without any religion at all except when a clergyman presides at a wedding.
    Right now I am writing a novel with a scientist-clergyman hero — in the mold of Charles Darwin, who would have taken holy orders except that this gig on the Beagle came up. Given his training, how can my hero help but show it? When I last left him he was adventuring through time and space with a paperback of Augustine’s CITY OF GOD in his pocket. He says he’s going to write a theological treatise; I don’t think I should let him.

    • Brenda, Heyer didn’t dodge that every single time — I can remember a couple of times where the heroines were religious, including Arabella, where she was a clergyman’s daughter. She was not a pious, constantly harping on religion character, but she was constantly bringing up the teachings of the church through example, trying to improve the lot of the poor around herself.

      Of course, her aunt, her host for her coming-out, was appalled at this tendency, and it was used for comic effect. But it was a comedy of manners, in a sense. I agree that when you consider how important religion was to the folk of the Regency, Heyer did not include characters reflecting the times. We don’t even see many cases of the family gathering to go to church every Sunday.

      But then Heyer is accused of using Victorian, not Regency, sexual mores in her books. So they were modern “historical” romances with touches of humor, not reflections of the time.

      • Heyer’s mores are closer to the twenties than Victorian, though you can see a heavy influence of silver fork novels, and Jeffery Farnol. But otherwise, she does pay extremely scant attention to religious practices of the time; with a couple of exceptions (Papa in Arabella and a kindly priest in These Old Shades) her clergymen are servile and buffoons.

        It’s said that one of the (many) reasons her Great Medieval Novel failed so spectacularly was that she couldn’t overcome her modern contempt for religion, which–like it or not–was integral to the medieval worldview.

    • I completely agree with you, Brenda. Faith and religion are part of a person’s character (I’ve actually been blogging about this in a series called Why Religion? on http://www.commongroundgroup.net).

      I love the idea of your scientist-clergyman. I think people tend to forget that for a very long time, most scientists (or natural philosophers as they were known until the 19th century) were clergymen and men and women of faith who felt it was their duty to explore God’s creation. I personally know a number of religious folks who still feel that way and have gone into the sciences because they believed it to be an act of worship.

  3. It’s odd what people sometimes focus on when looking at religion in SF. One of the things that made Brian Thomsen want to buy Fire Sanctuary was that he felt it was a profoundly spiritual book. More than once, I had fans ask me if I was Mormon, purely because of the polyandry and polygyny in the book.

    Yet the only argument I had stem from that book was when I casually said that the people in the book had twisted Christianity into something else to serve their needs. A religious friend laughed and told me that they were NOTHING like Christians at all. I am fond of her, and so did not point out that five thousand years from now, with all the changes, rises and falls of civilization in-between, the odds of a religion remaining as it is now are small — and the offshoots of it may take many strange forms.

    Consider snake handlers, a small but persistent sect of Christianity. Who are we to tell them that they are not Christians? Of course, snake handlers probably think everyone else is no longer Christian, because of incomplete faith, shall we say. Only those who believe that they can handle snakes without dying from a bite are true believers.

    • Not quite so — if you are bitten, and die, apparently this does not mean you have failed in faith. It just means that God has decided to call you home, via rattlesnake. This was the argument when a famous snake handler recently was bitten and died:
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/mack-wolfords-death-a-reminder-that-serpent-handlers-should-be-lauded-for-their-faith/2012/06/05/gJQAWDN8FV_story.html

      The logic of this kind of escapes me, but then snakes make me nervous.

    • Because “it is further written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’”? But, no, on that principle they are merely extremely bad Christians.

      But, in the abstract, the notion that it can’t be said that this or that depiction of Christianity is wrong — well, it makes the English language useless. The whole point of words to indicate some things, which means they must exclude all else. If “red” does not exclude “green” or “purple” or even “pink” it does not serve its purpose. Furthermore

      • Whoops, lost track of myself.

        Furthermore, once the word “Christian” is beaten into uselessness, people will develop new words to mean what it meant — and then people will start to complain about being excluded from it.

        • Do you remember ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’? I forget the scriptural citation, but it’s the unforgiveable sin. And this is it. If you pollute the meaning of the words themselves — if you say that war is peace, life is death — then all rational discourse ceases. That’s why it is unforgiveable — because you can’t communicate any more.

          • Amen!

            And I find this tendency to redefine everything rampant among aspiring writers. Part of the problem, though—if not the core problem—is that they don’t realize they’re calling war peace or redefining terms by using them inappropriately.

            I had a librarian defend the misuse of words by citing the plasticity of the English language. Of course, language evolves. Everything evolves or it dies. But as you say, in literature, the unforgivable sin is to fail to communicate by intention.

            “If people don’t understand what I’m trying to say then they’re not my readers,” says the workshop attendee. “MY readers will understand me.”

            But it’s one thing to say something that the reader doesn’t agree with and another to say something the reader just doesn’t understand because you used words differently than in a mutually agreed sense or strung together sentences no one could follow.

            Reminds me of that old joke: What do you get when you cross a mafioso with a deconstructionist?

            You get an offer you can’t understand.

    • Heh. When Baen published THE MERI, I got a bunch of fan mail from people who were convinced they knew exactly where I was coming from religiously speaking. One thought I was writing about the Mary cults in the Catholic church, another was certain I was depicting a return to the ancient ways of Wicca, a reviewer said authoritatively that I had included New Age material and advised readers to skip those parts. Another asked if I’d ever heard of the Baha’i Faith, because it seemed I was saying something about the progressive revelation of religion in my made-up world.

      On that last one I had to cry, “Bingo!” The quotes at the head of each chapter were actually paraphrases from various sacred texts including the Bhagavad Gita, Dhammapada, Torah, Gospels, Qur’an and Baha’i scriptures. In other words, sources that are anywhere from 160 to 4000 years old—not a New Agey piece in the bunch.

      It made me do some serious thinking about how much of the reading experience is really conditioned on the reader’s biases and moods and ultimately made me very conscious of word choice and symbology.

  4. “As Christ urged His followers to unity, and the past 2000 years have seen so much schism, I think we must bow to the inescapable logic that there must be flaws in church doctrine.”

    blinks

    Looks eminently escapable to me. Given that in His own lifetime, we are told that one teaching caused “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” one might suspect the flaws are in the followers.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. And these human followers, with all their flaws, were the people who forged church doctrine.

      Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Maya culpa 🙂