Friday, October 10, 2014

Religion and Fantasy

Last spring I submitted a religious-themed science fiction story to a religious short-story contest. I don't usually submit to contests, and I never submit to religious markets, so this was doubly out of character. Still, the story was a speculative piece about a possible solution to a relevant bioethical issue that hasn't (so far as I know) been seriously considered yet, and perhaps rather too specialized for a more general market.

After I submitted the story I forgot about it, figuring it wasn't likely to get anywhere. So I was surprised when the editors contacted me to tell me that it had made it to the final round. Eventually it was one of the top fourteen (out of hundreds, with ten winners in the end). But when we spoke on the phone, I was informed that there were serious qualms about the story, to the effect that the thought of publishing it scared the hell out of them (well, the word they used was "heck," but I knew what they meant), and that one reader had had a very bad visceral reaction to a particularly shocking image.

Mission accomplished! Unfortunately, after some highbrow literary back-and-forth, the story was rejected. Structural problems were cited as the cause. Fair enough. How did it get as far as it did? Got me. Why was a personal interview felt to be necessary? I don't know.

Now, none of my other stories have religious themes. If anything they have philosophical themes. Religion is divisive. I suppose the same could be said for any strongly held opinion. All the same, there are plenty of religious sci-fi novels – VALIS, A Case of Conscience, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, to name a few famous ones. I'm not saying they're all necessarily friendly to traditional religion, but they at least treat it seriously and try to grapple with the issues involved, as opposed to the silly Carl Sagan, "Nightfall" approach.

So suppose I sit down to write a religious sci-fi story. Not a trite religion story that happens to take place in outer space, or a sci-fi story that happens to have an ironic genuflection thrown in, but a sci-fi story that has religion woven into its very fiber. Well, clearly speculative fiction can only be religious as such if it speculates about religious things. If you have what we might call a dogmatic religion, this involves the possibility of coming to the wrong conclusion about an issue that hasn't been settled yet, or deliberately denying or questioning some tenet that is held to be settled. And that bugs some people.

But what are the duties of the fantasist or scientifictionalist to his religion? Here I speak as what I happen to be, a Catholic. Our beliefs are clearly enunciated and organ-ized, but at the same time there's this constant outgrowth and deepening and process of maturation, or what John Henry Newman called the development of doctrine.* Sometimes an idea which was once seemingly universally rejected later becomes an article of faith. To someone interested in such things, there is a rich field for speculation. But suppose you get something wrong? Or suppose that you decide to write a story that clearly contradicts some received article? Is that bad? I think it's fair to say that a lot of people who consider themselves very religious would say, yes, it is bad.

Let's look to Tolkien, the great exemplar for Catholic fantasists. Tolkien, it is often claimed, wrote in a purely Catholic universe. This is debatable, depending on what one may mean by it. But he seems to have departed from established doctrine for literary effect on at least one occasion. In The Silmarillion it is intimated that death is the gift of Eru, the One, to Man, rather than a punishment for transgression.** In a letter he notes that this understanding of death is an Elvish myth, told from their perspective, and perhaps neither here nor there as regards the Christian myth. But he goes on to say:
I suppose a difference between this Myth and what may be perhaps called Christian mythology is this. In the latter the Fall of Man is subsequent to and a consequence (though not a necessary consequence) of the "Fall of the Angels": a rebellion of created free-will at a higher level than man; but it is not clearly held (and in many versions is not held at all) that this affected the "World" in its nature: evil was brought in from outside, by Satan. In this Myth the rebellion of created free-will precedes creation of the World (Eä); and Eä has in it, subcreatively introduced, evil, rebellions, discordant elements of its own nature already when the Let it Be was spoken. The Fall or corruption, therefore, of all things in it and all inhabitants of it, was a possibility if not inevitable.
Despite what he says regarding the divergence from Christian myth, this reminds me of the Catholic understanding of "physical evil":
[...] God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" toward its ultimate perfection. In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection. [CCC 310]***
For my argument, though, that's immaterial. What seems clear to me, based on Tolkien's manner, is that he was not at pains to align his secondary world with his beliefs regarding the primary world, though he plainly regarded Middle-Earth as a mythical prehistoric precursor to Europe. In fact, the various parts of The Silmarillion contain a good amount of theological speculation.

My own opinion is that a story is a literary artifact, not a profession of faith, and that an authentic religious impulse in an artist will move him to make the best work he can make, regarded as a work of art and nothing more. Of course his faith will inform it, as it must all he does, but this is not a matter of particular concern to him, and may be quite hidden to casual observers.

Consider the bee. The bee spends her days gathering nectar and making honey. It is not her concern to deliver a message, to illustrate a virtue, etc. Her task is simply to make honey, and she goes about it assiduously until she dies. In this she glorifies God, for such a honey-maker God has made her to be. Be what you are, Catherine of Siena said, and you will set the world on fire.

Further, fantasy is a kind of play. We are regular mass-goers here at Casa O., and my children have played mass since a very young age, using makeshift surplices, thuribles, candles, and the rest. Well, because they're children, they sometimes don't get it exactly right. They even introduce terms and ideas that might raise the eyebrows of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Do I correct them? Of course not. Why? Because I'm not a narrow-minded wet blanket, and I recognize that playing is a way for children to process their experiences and grow into adults. Well, we are all children in the eyes of Eru Ilúvatar.

As regards Tolkien's popularity among my co-religionists, and my own seeming propensity to be put on the Index, well, there was a time when Tolkien's works were more beloved by heavy metal bands (and by Leonard Nimoy – watch only if you hold sanity cheap!) than the would-be architects of Catholic culture. But now he stands canonized. In religious circles one hears unceasing praises of him and Dante and Flannery O'Connor and Evelyn Waugh, but what really strikes me about these authors is that they established themselves on their own merits, in the world at large, and not in a religious literary ghetto. And if they didn't now have a kind of communal Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur one suspects they'd be rejected out of hand. As Solon said to Croesus, no man can be called happy until he's dead.

It's this perceived adherence to the faith, and not literary merit, that a certain religious critic looks for. They stand diffident, reserved, careful to neither praise nor censure, until they have some kind of idea about where the author stands. They want to be certain whether the author is on their team or the other team before they commit.

Take Anne Rice. Not many years ago she returned to the Catholic Church and proceeded to write a multi-volume fictionalized life of Christ. (I don't think vampires were involved.) She actually took out ads in First Things and sent a review copy to Richard John Neuhaus, who responded with a backhanded compliment, something about how it wasn't exactly Dostoevsky but maybe people would benefit from it. Anyway, everyone lauded her. Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something special about her vampire books. I actually heard a nun speak about it in front of a group of catechumens. Then, not long after, she left the Church again, in something of a huff, and Catholic-types talked about how they'd always felt there was something not quite right about her Christ novels, something not altogether real about her conversion.

Then there's Oscar Wilde, an author I happen to admire. He experienced a deathbed conversion, so he's canonized. But if that conversion had remained unknown, or if he had lived to repudiate it, then (one suspects) certain critics wouldn't care about him except to make snarky triumphalist comments about his lifestyle.

In the end, then, the attitudes here are not far from those of the diversity-obsessed. They're primarily concerned with secondary elements, and not altogether honest in their criticism. If you're religious and just want to write then it seems you must steer your way between this Scylla and Charybdis. Or, to continue the analogy, maybe just ignore all voices as you would the Sirens.

* As a matter of fact, Newman wrote a speculative historical novel about the early Church (Callista), which I read in grad school – read it aloud to my wife, in fact, if I recall correctly – but didn't much care for. It's richly detailed, but rather too minute in its descriptions, and the characters are wooden, which isn't surprising, seeing as Newman was a great admirer of Ivanhoe. My wife adores Ivanhoe, but me, not so much. I read it in the cab of my pickup truck during lunch breaks at a warehouse job across from a brewery when I was sixteen. I enjoyed it then, but have never been able to stomach it since: it reminds me of the overpowering smell of cooking barley.

** This would seem to be tied to the idea that the men of Númenor lay down their lives voluntarily, in full possession of their faculties, rather than seek to prolong their years through dotage, and are praised for it, another idea that is problematic from a Catholic point of view.

*** It seems to me that the ideas expressed in this part of the Catechism, about physical evil, the angels and the visible world, the intrinsic goodness of each created thing, the interdependence of creatures, the beauty of creation, the hierarchy of creatures, and the cosmic sabbath-rest, form the central theme of The Book of the New Sun, another monumental Catholic work.

No comments:

Post a Comment