Faith

I am a Christian of a conservative evangelical stripe. (If it matters to you, I lean to the Calvinist end of the Christian theological spectrum.) I am not ashamed of this.

I also love to read and write science fiction and fantasy. I am not ashamed of this.

This is not a contradiction in terms, or an oxymoron, or a paradox, or an antinomy, or any other such condition. Sorry, it’s not. This is, however, leading me to scratch a particular itch that has been bugging me for a loooooong time.

No, I’m not going to indulge in a theological rant. Not my purpose here. Nor do I intend to delve into issues of morality, ethics, doctrine, or comparative theology. (Contact me off line if you want to have that kind of discussion.) I’m not even going to discuss whether or not religion should be a part of whatever cultural world building you do. (Although that would be an interesting discussion in its own right.) What I do want to do is raise a few points about how religion is portrayed in fiction-or more specifically, how people of faith are portrayed in fiction.

As I have admitted, I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. In the last (mumble) years, I have noticed a trend. It’s more prevalent, I believe, in science fiction and modern urban and paranormal fantasy than it is in more general or high/epic/quest fantasies.

There has always been a tendency for science fiction as a genre to treat religion as if it is irrelevant. But increasingly of late, I see stories where characters who are people of strong religious faith are consistently described as if they are either congenital idiots who are so stupid that they willfully believe in things that are patent falsehoods, or they are amoral connivers and hucksters, or they are amoral religious fanatics whose most fervent desire is to destroy anyone and everything that does not fit their very narrow viewpoint of what is right and proper. I as a reader am left with the implication that the only reasonable people around are those who are not religious.

Granted, religion has from time immemorial been a haven for con-men to take advantage of their credulous neighbors.

Granted, a lot of people today go through the religious motions just so they can find social or business or political advantages.

Granted, institutionalized religion has been involved in a good many wrongs over the centuries.

This does not mean, however, that all people who are truly believers in whatever they profess must necessarily fall into those categories. The majority of people of faith are good people, moral people, who care about what’s right and wrong and care about other people. That’s been true throughout history, and is still true today. To consistently portray them as a whole as mentally deficient, as power-hungry despots, or as wolves preying on sheep is unrealistic. An individual character can be credulous, or venal, or fanatical as the story demands, but an entire class of characters shouldn’t be. It’s sloppy world building. It makes for cardboard cutout two-dimensional characters, which in turn makes for sloppy writing and two-dimensional stories.

It’s not dishonest to write stories about characters whose beliefs are different from your own. Eric Flint makes no secret that he’s an atheist, yet many of his characters in the 1632 series are accurately and warmly portrayed in their religious beliefs. I’ve read that David Weber is a lay Methodist speaker, and I know from personal correspondence that he is a man of Christian faith of some depth, yet he has skillfully portrayed characters in several of his Honor Harrington novels of a level of religious or political fanaticism that would rival the worst we’ve seen in real life in the last twenty years. And personally, I wrote a story in which the bad guy was totally amoral and a rapist. (And yes, I was very glad to get that story done so I could get him out of my head!) Yet I promise you that his nature and beliefs were not consonant with mine.

It is dishonest, however, to write stories about characters and not portray them fully. It is dishonest to craft characters and tar them with the brush of all the excesses and sins committed by others under a particular banner (be it Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, atheist) but not give them credit for their virtues. Even out and out villains have some virtues-how much more should regular people have?

And in the end, it makes for boring reading. Really.

Is the same thing happening in other genres?

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine (http://grantvillegazette.com) or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

6 responses on “Faith

  1. Joe Vasicek

    Amen! I think this is a trend not only within the literature but within the sf&f community as well. When I interned in Washington DC, I made it out to one of the Capclave meetings, and while overall I found the people there genuine and delightful, when they learned that I was a Mormon some of them looked at me as if I was a seven headed monster! This especially surprised me because Utah has such a flourishing sf&f scene.

    I think the problem happens when the community becomes a little too inbred. I won’t pretend like we don’t have a propensity for that here in Utah, but it’s certainly a problem for sf&f communities that identify themselves as entrenched clans of social outcasts. Not to put anyone down at all, since I’m certainly a geek myself, but it isn’t healthy to completely shut yourself off from people who don’t belong to your tribe.

  2. David C

    Yeah, I’ve noticed some of that action in the community myself, part of which maybe has to be attributed to a lack of politeness & courtesy.

    Of course, to be fair, I have to admit that I sometimes get a similar reaction from church folks when I tell them I not only read SF&F, I write it as well. 🙂

    David

    Amen! I think this is a trend not only within the literature but within the sf&f community as well. When I interned in Washington DC, I made it out to one of the Capclave meetings, and while overall I found the people there genuine and delightful, when they learned that I was a Mormon some of them looked at me as if I was a seven headed monster! This especially surprised me because Utah has such a flourishing sf&f scene.
    I think the problem happens when the community becomes a little too inbred. I won’t pretend like we don’t have a propensity for that here in Utah, but it’s certainly a problem for sf&f communities that identify themselves as entrenched clans of social outcasts. Not to put anyone down at all, since I’m certainly a geek myself, but it isn’t healthy to completely shut yourself off from people who don’t belong to your tribe.

  3. David C

    @Joe Vasicek

    Forgot to add that the community issue, while worthy of comment and maybe even a discussion of its own, is really a side issue to the issue I raised — depicting people of faith in fiction.

  4. Evan Braun

    I think you’re quite right, Dave. It’s a matter of good characterization vs. bad characterization.

    If I’m going to write a story about Egyptians (which I did recently), a lot of research has to go into it to make sure they’re characterized well. This also means I have to learn something about Islam, as it’s going to be hard to avoid. Am I going to paint them all with a terrorist brush? Obviously not!

    In the real world, people’s identities are forged by faith (or lack of faith) almost more than any other factor, so as storytellers it behoves us to understand faith as compassionately and sensitively as possible. I mean, shouldn’t we want our fictional creations to be as fully fleshed-out (or as nearly so as is possible) as their real-life counterparts?

    As you say, it makes for more interesting reading.

  5. Frank Morin

    Good post. This is a touchy topic for many people. There’s far too much anger and distrust out there between believers and non-believers. It’s hard sometimes to have an intelligent conversation with people and explore differing beliefs. It’s too bad really.

    I find that mentality interesting, and disappointing. I remember a comment I read from someone that they’re disgusted with Brandon Sanderson and won’t read any more of his books because he uses religion in them. What a sorry state for that person.

    I totally agree with you: good characterization means exploring multiple aspects of your characters. In my novels, I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone to try to accurately and fairly portray villains or people whose belief system is dramatically different than my own. I may not like them, but I need to be fair to them. And the stories are so much better for it.

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