Tags: religion

What I Do On Sunday

I don't talk talk about divinity much. I grew up reading Asimov and Niven in a time period where the predominant theme in science fiction seemed to be that religion more often than not turns out to be a hoax and smart people don't believe in God.

Intellectually, I know that's not true. The number of Nobel laureates who believe in a higher power ought to be sufficient to dispel the myth. But early conditioning is hard to break, and a secret corner of my brain is terrified that the moment I mention church or prayer, every reader in scifi fandom will run screaming in the opposite direction and never again buy anything I write. Paranoid? Obviously. But it's how I feel.

Here's the sitch.

I don't want to be ashamed of my religion. I don't want to slather it in anybody's face, either. But being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ is part of my everyday life. Shouldn't it be a part of my public persona, as well?

My answer is yes. So if you're one of the people who plans to run away screaming, please do it now.

* * *


My Sunday generally starts on Saturday afternoon. I collect stuffed animals, flip through my picture charts, and print out coloring pages with illustrations of scripture stories. If I'm really on the ball, I'll stop at the store for gooey doughey frozen pretzels.

Sunday morning the alarm rings at 7:30. If we manage to avoid last-minute diaper changes, unexpected vomiting, sororal squabbling, and misplaced beloved toys, we'll get to church half an hour early. That's usually enough time for my kids to eat the breakfast they skipped at home while my husband greets the other congregation members and I set up the primary room.

Primary is the heart and soul of my Sunday. On the surface, it looks like playtime. Stuffed animals, snacks, songs and coloring sheets. But the point of primary is most emphatically not to be day care. It's Life Training 101. My job is to help show the children how to respect and love others. How to use the scriptures to find answers to their questions. How to trust their feelings and stick by their decisions. How to accept and fulfill the unmeasurable potential that they have inherited as children of God.

You know that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?

It's a little bit like that.

After church, the kids race gleefully through the hallways while my husband and I visit, take care of organizational stuff, and pack up. We come home, eat lunch, crash for a nap. In my ideal world, I spend the next few hours playing piano and doing topical scripture study, but I confess my ideal world doesn't manifest very often. There is usually dinner of some kind, sometimes a game of chess, and -- on special occasions -- an ice-cream-and-movie party.

By the end of the day, I usually feel like a wrung-out little puddle of goo. Church is exhausting. But it's also extraordinarily fulfilling. I can think of nowhere in this world where I would rather spend my time on Sunday.

On Literal Interpretations of the Bible

A few days ago a friend passed me the link to this article: David Lose: 4 Good Reasons not to Read the Bible Literally

In my opinion, Mr. Lose has nailed the topic perfectly. I agree with every one of his four points.

I disagree, however, with his polite shock that 3 of 10 Americans say they interpret the Bible literally. If you look at the statements used in the Gallup poll, there's a lot of room for subconscious interpretation. Given the choice between those three statements, and with no further prompting from the interviewer, I'd probably go with the first one. Not because I believe that every single word of the Bible in infallible, but because the second question leaves open the question of Christ's divinity.

Let me phrase it another way. I believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God. I realize that a lot of other people don't, and I'm fine with that. But for me, the primary function of the Bible (yes, even the Old Testament) is to testify of Jesus Christ. That's the point of scripture. So when someone asks me whether I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, my immediate and subconscious (and possibly inaccurate) assumption will be that they are asking me whether I believe that Christ is God's Son.

Now look at those three statements again. The first statement supports Christ's divinity in unequivocal terms. The second statement is wishy-washy. It's not clear about which parts should be taken literally and which shouldn't, which leaves it open for possible interpretation as implying "Christ was a great prophet inspired by God, but he wasn't really God's Son". Given the choice between those first two statements, I'd rather go with the one that's technically less accurate but emotionally more in line with my beliefs.

So no, I'm not really surprised that 3 in 10 Americans went with the first answer. (I'd be very surprised if those 3-in-10 then went on to argue that every single word of the Bible is infallible truth, even in passages that directly contradict each other. But I don't think that most of them would.)

Communication

A few nights ago I was tucking my two-year-old into bed, and she was trying really hard to tell me something in that soft-palate, sometimes incomprehensible language two-year-olds speak. I tried repeating it back to see if I'd understood her right. "Better cars?" "Bitter pears?"

She kept shaking her head no. Dear heart that she is, though, she didn't get frustrated. She lay quietly thinking for a while and then said (with obvious concentration as she struggled to recall the words), "Dear Heavenly Father..."

Ah! Bedtime prayers! Now I knew what she'd been trying to say. I repeated it back, just to be sure, and she nodded an enthusiastic yes. So we said a prayer together and I tucked her under the blanket.

As I watched her fall asleep, I was reminded what a formidable task communication sometimes is, and why two-year-olds so frequently lose their cool and fall to the ground in heaps of wailing despair. How tragic, to have a concept you're desperate to communicate, and no good way to make yourself understood.

Subtexts

All the online talk about subtexts and religion in science fiction has gotten me thinking about the subtexts in my own work.

It would appear that I am a literary hypocrite.

Let me start by explaining that I'm a believing sort of person. I believe in a Being greater than man, and in a reality that exceeds our capacity for perception, and in phenomena that science has no explanations for. I tend not to talk about this much, partly because it seems like good manners not to and partly because it's not a topic that lends itself to small talk. But it is a fundamental part of my world view.

Yet when I look at my fiction, what do I see? A clear atheist subtext. Even my stories in which religion plays a major role often do so in the context of "Look, your God isn't who you thought He was." (Exceptions are The Breath of Heaven, in which a rogue AI concludes the necessity of God, and Ghost Chimes, which speculates on the reason why we lack contact with the afterlife.)

In A New Kind of Sunrise I gave my nomadic tribe a religion based on ancestor-worship, then proceeded to write the story with a clear assumption that their religion consists of nothing more than wishful thinking. There is not a single event in the story that could be construed as divine intervention, and there is no correlation between the tribe's conformity with their religious tenets and their success or failure in their goals.

Why is that, I wonder? I don't consider religion irrelevant, and I'm pretty certain my subconcious doesn't, either. My best guess is that it's a subconscious assimilation of the tropes of the genre. I mean, killing God is a favorite theme of science fiction, perhaps because it represents the extreme in power reversals. And if one starts creating supernatural events in fiction one is then -- again according to the tropes to the genre -- compelled to justify those events to the reader. Deus ex Machina, common enough in real life, is a naughty word in Western fiction.

I don't have any specific conclusions here, just observations. I doubt my writing style will change much merely because I'm aware of its subtexts. Then again, in small ways, it might.

Because I'm Sometimes Obsessive-Compulsive...

Inspired by Eric James Stone (who was in turn inspired by a complex sequence of posts) I've decided to test the religion-as-a-plot-element theory on my fiction.

My theory is that while religion is a common background element in fantasy fiction, it doesn't come up as an actual plot point any more frequently in fantasy than in science fiction. Here's how the stories pare up:

SCIENCE FICTION

The Man Who Murdered Himself -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
Ghost Chimes -- No overt religion, but religious themes, so we'll count that as a minor role.
All Praise to the Dreamer -- The alien overlord is a pseudo-religious overlord. Minor role.
Pastry Run -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
The Breath of Heaven -- An artificially sentient system kills man and invents God. Yeah. Major role.
Blue Ink -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
City Health Center, 4 PM -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
Monument -- Religion plays no role in the plot and yet, the story feels religious to me, somehow. I'll count it as a minor role.
Dead Men Don't Cry -- The villain is a religious zealot, but the plot would work just as well with a different motivation, so no role.
A New Kind of Sunrise -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
Backlash -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
Movement -- Religion plays no role in the plot (although, interestingly, I did choose to place the story's climax in a Cathedral).

FANTASY

Kitjaya -- Yes. Major role. (Although technically, this story could just as easily be classified as science fiction. We'll stick with fantasy because BCS is a fantasy publication.)
Hexes and Tooth Decay -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
In the Halls of the Sky Palace -- Religion plays no role in the plot.
A Song of Blackness -- Religion plays no role in the plot.


TOTALS:

Science fiction: 3 minor roles, 1 major role, out of 12 stories.
Fantasy: 1 major role out of 4 stories, and that one really might just as easily be called science fiction.

What have a learned from this? That I am a less overtly-religious writer than EJS. Also that I write far more science fiction than I do fantasy.

Conclusion: It appears that my religion-as-plot-element ratios are about the same across science fiction and fantasy, although I don't have enough data to demonstrate a clear result.

Technology and Religion

I've been mulling over Eric James Stone's links re: Religion in Science Fiction.

Actually, I find it pretty hard to avoid religion in secondary world-building. It's difficult to create a culture without also giving it a belief system. This is particularly true for low-technology cultures, which forces me to wonder why belief systems seem so less essential in high-tech cultures. Once my creations reach something akin to steam engine technology, the culture no longer feels incomplete if I neglect to assign a belief system.

Why is that?

The initial reaction is to assume that technology and religion are incompatible, the one constantly displacing the other, but experience tells me this is untrue. Citizens of first world countries are not predominantly non-religious, and award-winning scientists are not automatically atheists. No, something far more subtle is going on here.

I think it may have to do with mobility. Also homogeneity, or rather, the lack thereof.

You see, once a society reaches a certain technology level -- oh, about the level of the steam engine -- travel becomes commonplace rather than exceptional. Instead of having isolated pockets of culture that rarely interact with each other, you begin to have more diversity. By the time you reach space-age technology (and assuming that there is no theocratic government enforcing religious homogeneity) your society is such a grab-bag of intermingled cultures and belief systems that describing all Martians as sky-worshipers sounds about as ludicrous as describing all Philadelphians as dog-owners.

So I guess what I'm wondering is whether the perceived lack of religion in science fiction actually has that much to do with the authors' (or the readers') biases, or whether it's simply that religion as a backdrop is not prevalent in high-technology stories. If you compare the number of stories that include religion as a plot element, is science fiction really less religious than fantasy or any other sub-genre?

I'm not convinced that it is, although I'd be happy to consider evidence for either case. ;)