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The Fiction of Belief

Some may note that I've been writing of matters religious more than usual of late. The inspiration for these conversations has come from finishing James Morrow's trilogy about the death and subsequent disposal of God, starting with the magnificent Towing Jehovah. This is the latest in a genre of books I've always loved: religious fantasies.

While I remain an agnostic, I've found myself drawn towards the allegory, myth, and storytelling of religious authors ever since I received a full set of C. S. Lewis' Narnia series in my childhood. One reason I've drifted away from the harsh skepticism of many of the more vocal atheists I've known has been their seeming inability to recognize the beauty that's come from mankinds' religions, and especially from Christianity. There's some kind of compulsion in atheist circles to engage in a kind of metaphysical bookkeeping, to declare that the suffering of the Crusades or the fervor of the Inquisition (or nowadays, the existence of paedophile priests) cancel out the glory of a cathedral or the beauty of a well-written allegory. I can't think of a work, an ideal, or even an emotion that has sat in the minds of men which wouldn't go bankrupt on that kind of ledger, be it the heights of faith, the passion of love, or the relentless inexorable compulsions of logic. Nonetheless, these atheist accountants only ever seem to audit the faithful.

In any event, religious fiction has always held a particularly special place in my heart, and it has been through this that I've learned what little smatterings of theology that I've come to study. The nature of evil? First got introduced by Faulkner's A Light in August. [1] The problem of pain? Hadn't seriously considered it until I'd read through The Man Who Was Thursday. Theodicy? Didn't even know where to start looking until I finished Blameless in Abaddon.

I'd highly recommend learning from fiction, particularly for those who are already strong in their faith (be that a faith in God or his non-existence). For one thing, these books are quite good in their own right. But they also draw from the wells of the world's faiths, the works of men and women who have spent their time considering the most important of problems. The roots of these novels are thus often deeper than first appears. For those interested, here are some of my favorites. And for those of you who can suggest further reading, the comments are always open.

The Faithful
I'll admit, my reading in this area is primarily limited to two authors, Lewis and Chesterton.

coverThe Man Who Was Thursday: As prolific as he is optimistic, Chesterton's fiction applies his paradoxical humor to quite serious questions. He denied that The Man Who Was Thursday was in any way an allegory, but it's certainly fooled a few critics. Thursday deals with the infiltration of a circle of anarchist terrorists by Gabriel Syme, a member of a new police squad formed to combat the evils of anarchism and nihilism. The premise is both delightfully absurd and yet terribly noble: the anarchist who could condemn him is bound only by his word not to do so, and this conspiracy of the faithless by the end of the story numbers in the positively legion. A conspiracy of gentlemen masterminded by the sinister and enigmatic Sunday.

coverThe Napoleon of Notting Hill: Only peripherally religious, and more a social satire, The Napoleon of Notting Hill chronicles the rebirth of romance in a world drained dry by rationality. Auberon Quin, who is picked as the ceremonial King of England, shocks his nation when he begins to rule as an old-style monarch. But even he is confounded when Adam Wayne accepts the joke at face value. Soon the suburbs of London are waging war with one another, as two men's madness infects the city.

coverThe Chronicles of Narnia: More recent, and infinitely more well-known, The Chronicles of Narnia are straightforward allegory. Indeed, this is probably the first allegory that most children read, and the amazing thing about Lewis' writing is how well it translates into adulthood. As PG noted recently, Lewis wasn't afraid to draw from other traditions when he felt like it, and the influence of Greek mythology is pretty easy to see in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whilst I always felt The Silver Chair had a vague feel of Taliesin about it.
The Skeptics
Of course, it's not just the religious that write religious fantasy. Some of the most convincing and talented skeptics have written some spectacular religious fantasy.

coverAlmost Anything By James Morrow: If Chesterton's arguments for religion are more powerful because of his optimism and humor, James Morrow might be a modern Chesterton. Most of his religious satires, however skewering, at least reserve equal silliness for fanatics on both sides. (Like many in this section, I couldn't tell you Morrow's actual beliefs, but the books at the very least distrust organized religion, with particular criticism for the Catholic Church.) He's probably best known for Only Begotten Daughter (winner of a World Fantasy Award), which deals with the second coming of the messiah as a woman. However, it is his Corpus Dei trilogy which best showcases his balance of fanaticisms. The series begins with Towing Jehovah, in which the former captain of a Valdez-like oil tanker is hired by the Vatican to tow the dead body of God to a resting place in the North Pole. Curiously, while the Vatican doesn't wish mankind to know their creator has passed on, neither do the world's atheists. After all, atheism becomes a bit of a dead letter in the face of a two-mile corpse. After this particular misadventure, Blameless in Abaddon details how God's body becomes the central attraction of a Baptist theme park in Florida, and is later tried for crimes against humanity in the Hague. The trial itself is a fair introduction to theodicy ("the justification of divine attributes... in respect to the existence of evil." OED) Finally, the death of God excites a plague of nihilism in The Eternal Footman, when each individual's death takes on a particular and very personal form.
coverGood Omens: I'm not sure if it's fair to lump Gaiman or Pratchett in this category, as their religious position isn't immediately obvious. Nonetheless, the book is vaguely heretical, and posits a kind of mini-revolution against both God and the Devil. When the Anti-Christ is born and Crowley (a demon who didn't fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards) is responsible for swapping him into the family of the American ambassador to England, the first of a long series of mistakes results in a very curious Armageddon. Satanic nuns, the last of the English Witchfinder Generals, and the four other horsemen of the apocalypse are only some of the characters of this comedy. Probably the least serious of the books in this section, but well worth a read.
coverScepticism, Inc.: Just as funny as Good Omens, Bo Fowler's novel much more clearly belongs in the skeptic category. It also has the distinction of being the only novel ever narrated by an intelligent shopping trolley. This unlikely storyteller narrates the life and times of Edgar Malroy, proprietor of a chain of metaphysical betting shops. Malroy's schtick is to challenge believers to 'put their money where their metaphysics are,' and will only take bets upon subjects which cannot ever be fundamentally proven (e.g. the existence of God). Pretty soon this strange show of faith has captivated the world, driving many of the world's major religions into insolvency. A satire on some of the absurdity of organized religion, it's also a magnificent comedy.
coverHis Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass): The atheist's answer to The Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman does no less exploration of the soul, the structure of creation, or the relationship between religion and society. Nonetheless, he reaches almost antithetical conclusions to Lewis. The novels focus upon heroes and heroines in an alternate Oxford, in which every individual has a 'daemon,' a sort of physical manifestation of their soul in the form of an animal. This universe, as well as ours, is a created one, but unlike the world of Narnia, the forces of creation, or indeed the society thus created, are neither cuddly nor benign. In case you've been avoiding children's books since the hype over J. K. Rowling, it's worth noting that Pullman's a much better author, with tighter prose and a better control over plot.

These are just a few of the books I could list here. And I've not even considered one more souce of perspective on religious fantasy: Japanese comics and anime. Just as American authors have picked, chosen, and mangled Shinto or Buddhist tradition to flavor their writings with a feel of the 'other,' Japanese fantasy has begun to adopt almost random bits of Christian theology as part of their plotlines. From the mutant Angels of NeoGenesis Evangelion to their more prosaic counterparts in Haibane Renei, anime seems spun through with ideas pulled from the common stories and symbolism of Christianity. While some of the adaptation is superficial, some shows that the authors have spent a good deal of time researching Christian thought. Some is worth watching just to see the outside perspective in the midst of cultural transfer.


[1]: OK, Faulkner's a bit of a stretch here, because he didn't write religious fantasy, but it's an example of a fictional work that sent me off to learn about non-fictional metaphysics.


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Interesting remarks on towing Jehovah. I am reminded of a quip, I believe from GKC, to the effect that "if there were no God, there would be no atheists." Thanks, by the way, for your postings over at Civil Dialogue--I can always use the help! Syme
Enjoyed reading your thoughts. Sadly, over here in the UK, ( and probably in the US ) anything that pokes fun at religion or even hits it with a big stick is regarded with suspicion. My manuscript, Heaven Help Us, is a humorous/religious/fantasy where God and the Devil aren't enemies and the world is saved by a motley crew of beings from heaven, hell and earth. As I'm a 'first time' writer ( although I have made my living writing ad copy for the past 25 years) it seems that the bottom line rules and religion is too hot a subject to handle. But it is heartening to know that religious fantasy DOES have its followers. All the best. Bryce Main. ( bryce11@ntlworld.com)

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