Superversive Blog: Guest Post — Where Religion and Fantasy Meet

This essay began as a post on John C. Wright’s blog. I mentioned that I’d love to post something on this subject for the Superversive Blog. And, here it is!

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Theologic License

by Matthew Schmidt.

An apologia before I begin. Being Christian, and more particularly Catholic, I am writing this from the perspective of a writer considering Catholic theology while writing. However, I believe the same issue will occur to anyone who is attempting to write but also is concerned about their theological accuracy, whatever their theology may be.

The problem of mixing speculative fiction with actual religion has existed since the first time Og told a ghost story around the cave’s fire, and, having returned to hunting the next day, wondered what ghosts meant for the Great Spirit. Whatever Og’s conclusion was has been lost to time, but we see it again more recently (relatively speaking) in The Divine Comedy. In the depths of Hell, Dante comes across Odysseus, who is eternally punished for attempting to reach Purgatory by the sole effort of humans. What exactly the presence of Odysseus implied for the panoply of feuding Greek divinities of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the further reality of the True Divine, is not considered.

But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily.
The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.)

The science fiction author can only avoid the same questions with sufficiently hard science and sufficient planning ahead. (Be sure to put three or so bishops on your generation ship to avoid issues of apostolic succession.) Reach for any other ingredient—time travel, artificial intelligence, or worse yet, extraterrestrial life—and now you have some irritating theological question, one that will devour your creative energies like a black hole.

And avoiding that singularity is the key. In my experience as a writer, attempting to write any kind of speculative fiction while staying behind every jot and tittle of established theology is futile. Fear of writing heretical ideas will do more damage to your writing than actually writing something theologically inaccurate.

After all, by the very definition of fiction, we write of things which God did not do. For Divine Wisdom did not see fit to make Mars habitable to life, allow steam to be able to power giant battle mechs, give information the ability to travel faster than light, or open doors to adjacent dimensions on a convenient schedule. Even “literary” fiction cannot escape this, as whenever it invents an character or happening that does not exist, it tells of an option that the Creator did not take. This leaves only fiction which describes events exactly as they happened, i.e. nonfiction.

But suppose you are willing to stretch the bounds of theology. Should you create a new theology to encompass your alterations? It depends. I’ve found that attempting to construct a sound theology for an idea before using it, unless this is actually relevant to the story, is also pointless, and also hamstringing. There was no point in Lewis breaking off onto a discourse on what Tash actually was in the middle of The Last Battle. At the same time, had he never considered what Jesus would be like in a world like Narnia, we would never have Aslan.

But let us return to Dante for a moment. The Divine Comedy is inaccurate in multiple ways, even setting aside the unexplained existence of various figures of Greek myth. The Catholic Church does not teach anyone specific is in Hell, let alone their location and specific punishment, and Dante must have been well aware of this. But the point of the Inferno is not to map judgments to sinners, or a soapbox for Dante to place his adversaries in eternal damnation. The Inferno depicts the soul of the unjust, and whatever liberties it takes to do this are to show poetic truths, not theological ones. Odyesseus is placed where he is to show the inadequacy of natural powers to reach the supernatural.

But could Dante had succeeded if he had stayed within the boundaries of theology? No. There was no one more suited to attempt Purgatory than Odysseus, and fail. Had Dante even invented another figure, that figure would require his own odyssey, which, to have the same power, would require yet more theological inaccuracies to create dangers against which mortal strength could prevail. Only then could this new Odysseus fail against the supernatural.

In that sense, even the Odyssey must contain poetic truths, no matter its pantheon. So, too, can we bring a great many works into the realm of the holy things.

But how far can we stretch this?

I will now take an example from the world of videogames. Of all the games I have ever played, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked is by far the most blasphemous. Aside from the game-enforced necessity of summoning demons (in the post-apocalyptic Tokyo of the game’s dark plot), and the consequentialism which drenches every “choice”, its greatest offense against sound theology is its “God.” The theology of “God” (as identified by the direct use of the Divine Name) is bizarre and contradictory, both shown as an omnipotent Judeo-Christian Deity and also only a most powerful being that overpowered the previous most powerful being. Said “God” is as if from the Old Testament filtered through a pagan lens: no mercy for sins, no remorse over doing evil to do good, and no ability to raise the dead. (Not even the Messiah can raise the dead, one character says to another in one scene.)

But even despite that theology, and the extreme liberties which the game takes with biblical stories, even then there is a kind of poetic truth that would have been lost with a more accurate theology. Only if resorting to the use of demons, and only if demons are powerful, can it speak of the desire of power and its abuse. Only with the pagan need to justify blood with blood can it offer the choices it does, which sacrifice a few for the many. And only if God would create a paradise on Earth through violence would there be any reason against joining Him, and only if God could possibly be defeated would there by any reason for attempting to oppose Him. By a bad theology, it makes that final real choice: paradise of ruthless order, or hellscape of freedom. And even with all its darkness, at the very end of one of the last battles comes one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen in a game, a true eucatastrophy.

Do I recommend anyone go as far as DSO? No. I think there are ways to tell a similar story with much less darkness, and far less blasphemy. But such a different story would only be able to tell different truths. Yet, while different, possibly better.

And that is my final advice. What matters not is if a work fiction bends the truth. What matters is the truth it tells. A story can be utterly, and knowingly, inaccurate, yet still show a beauty it could not otherwise. Or, I believe, a story can stay within the boundaries of theology, and show nothing but evil. (For even demons believe there is a God.) And that is determined not by studying theology, or ignoring it, but hearing the call of Beauty in the wild.

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