This question from the Catholic Writers Conference dealt with how I handled the complicated subject of heresy.
Q: Have you ever had a story dictate you portray heresy or sin sympathetically? How did you handle it?
The protagonists of The Mer Cycle trilogy were considered heretics by the religious institutions they challenged. Both the orthodox religionists and the “reformers” (they were called Taminists) considered themselves to be true to the common scripture they both used — although the orthodoxy depended a great deal on tradition and commentaries written through the ages by religious scholars.
In THE SPIRIT GATE, which explored an alternate history Poland (Polia) in the 1400’s, I had the Holy Frankish Empire, the Teutonic Order, the Islamic Turks and the pagan Poles and Mongols meeting in a war of wills, weapons, and magic in which Polia was the prize. My Frankish bishop was the worst sort of heretic — he was destroying his own faith and its institutions from the inside, blindly driven by his own desire for spiritual power.
His rationale was Machiavellian — the ends (ridding Polia of pagan and heathen influences) justify the means (“Twilight” magic, in this case). But I portrayed him sympathetically in the sense that there were those who felt his strong-arm tactics were exactly what was needed, and he believed he was doing the right thing.
When portraying heresy, I think it’s important to remember that heresy is often defined by viewpoint. The Pharisees considered Jesus Christ a heretic, but for reasons of their own did not want to deal with Him under Jewish law. Christ, himself, deals in parable with something the Jewish clergy would have considered sinful at best and heretical at worst. Specifically, for said clergy to break laws of ritual purity to aid a fellow Jew left bleeding by the side of the road, and for a heretical Samaritan to cross strict territorial boundaries to come to the aid of the same unfortunate fellow.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ doesn’t just portray this sinful and heretical behavior sympathetically, he recommends it to his audience as godly.
In the history of the early Christian Church, the “heresy hat” traded hands a lot over the centuries. In the fourth century, for example, the Arians and Athanasians took turns wearing it. More recently, the Báb was considered a heretic against Islam, but obviously the millions of Bahá’ís in the world don’t regard Him in that light.