Faith And Fiction: A Rumination

     The more you look, the more you see.Robert M. Pirsig

     It’s amazing the way the realm of the mind expands, providing ever more room to prowl, and hopefully to grow, to him who is willing to look at significant subjects synthetically as well as analytically. Consider this observation from the great Frederic Bastiat:

     I am not one of those who believe that a science has inherently its own natural and immutable boundaries. In the realm of ideas, as in the realm of material objects, everything is linked together, everything is connected; all truths merge into one another, and every science, to be complete, must embrace all others. It has been well said that for an infinite intelligence there would be only one single truth. It is only our human frailty, therefore, that reduces us to study a certain order of phenomena as though isolated, and the resulting classifications cannot avoid a certain arbitrariness. [From Economic Harmonies]

     I’ve exploited that idea in fiction in On Broken Wings, and am about to do so in a novel about which there remains much to be decided (and written). Have a snippet:

     “One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to your visit,” Ray said, “is that I’ve wanted the opinion of another priest about the tack I’ve taken in introducing Fountain to the Faith. As a priest of long service who’s already acquainted with Fountain’s extraordinary cooking, you were the ideal candidate…well, after His Holiness, of course, but I couldn’t expect him to sit in on these sessions.”
     “From what I witnessed this evening,” Monti said, “I think he would have enjoyed it.”
     Ray smirked. “Thank you for that, Domenico. Maybe he would, but he does have other duties. Anyway, I’m eager to hear your opinion of my approach and how effective you think it’s likely to be.”
     The Piedmontese priest sat quietly for a long moment, his hands on his knees and his gaze lowered to the floor.
     Brace for impact, Bubba. He’s not going to content himself with a little casual praise or a flip dismissal.
     “It has been proposed,” Monti said at last, “that from a sufficiently determined examination of any single fact about the natural world, a supremely powerful mind could unearth all the laws of existence. A French philosopher called it the perspective of an infinite intelligence.”
     “I think I’ve read that somewhere,” Ray said, “but how does it square with our doctrines?”
     Monti smiled. “Perfectly. You made masterful use of it this evening. It was an eloquent expression of the fundamental Truth of our Faith: that God made the world, that He made it lawful, and that He decreed it good. Creation is not many laws or truths, but one: the omnipresence and supremacy of His will, expressed in all matter and energy and the laws they embody. That we might never discover all those laws is only a recognition of our limitations. So also is the reluctance of many to credit the unity among them.”

     That perspective is central to the desire to know God. For if He exists – and I’m sure you’re aware of my position on that question – then He is the Infinite Intelligence of Bastiat’s insight. Moreover, He, having created all things, is the ultimate unifying factor among them. Though we puzzle out the laws of nature one by one, as forced upon us by our human limitations, He is the great Unity that stands behind them all.

     One whose faith is truly fundamental to him – as C. S. Lewis once put it, who sees all other things by its light – cannot help but seek the connections among all that he sees. For there are surely as many connections as divisions. It’s something to keep in mind as our part-wise knowledge of the universe expands and ramifies.

***

     In the main, Christian writers either write explicitly polemic fiction or keep their faith out of their stories. Exceptions are few. Catholic writers, being members of the last demographic cohort it’s socially acceptable to mock, revile, and discriminate against, tend to keep their religions even closer to their vests. The speculative genres are even sparser in this regard. There aren’t many openly Catholic writers of fantasy or science fiction currently practicing. I can name a few – Jon Mollison; Declan Finn; Clayton Barnett – but it’s a fairly short list.

     Yet Catholics are exhorted practically from the cradle to see God’s Will in all things, and to praise Him in all our uses of them. You’d think the infinite openness of SF to unusual ideas and settings would be grist for our mills. Once again, with a handful of exceptions, that seems not to be the case.

     There are probably several reasons for that. One of them would be the aversion most readers have toward religious motifs in fiction. A reader who suspects that he’s about to be “preached at” is likely to turn aside at once. Another might be that it’s far too easy to let religious elements dominate a story, such that other plot elements don’t get the emphasis they need to give the tale dramatic unity.

***

     After reading this piece, one of the aforementioned writers, Clayton Barnett, commented thus (slightly edited for ease of comprehension):

     Science Fiction:

  1. Warfare in Space,
  2. Time travel,
  3. Mental powers,
  4. Apocalypses and post-apocalypse environments.
  1. Nope.
  2. Nope (time travel is childish wish fulfillment).
  3. Nope (unless thinking quickly counts).
  4. Not really; I focus on the recovering city-states of the Breakup, not the Breakup.

     *** Looks like my entire 12-book future history of Machine Civilization fails your test. Perhaps that is why no one is reading it?

     And my one attempt at urban fantasy/horror? Cursed Hearts? Sure, Maya is a psychic vampire, but Chris is just an orphaned synth from Hokkaido. No money, no military training. Guess I can call that fail by your standards, as well.

     Yet. All of my books are, culturally, from “our side of the river,” as TheZMan puts it. I’m not going to buy a sports team on this revenue stream, but I am reaching minds. Which is all I ever wanted to do.

     Well, that’s priority-selection at work. If you strive for originality, avoid the most popular motifs in contemporary genre fiction, and emphasize novel ideas, you’re going to get an audience consistent with those priorities. Beloved Co-Conspirator Margaret Ball and I have made the same observations. There is absolutely nothing to be done about it.

     Yet Clayton and I soldier on. We do so because of our priorities. They’re a reflection of our common faith, the fundamental truth by which we see all other things. Along with that – and in this matter I speak only for myself – it’s become staggeringly clear that the attenuation of Christian faith in America is at the base of nearly all our sociopolitical ills. Even among self-described Christians, faith has largely been reduced to a “yeah, yeah” / Sundays-only component of life, pushed to the margin and not allowed to affect anything else about our decisions or actions.

     These days I hesitate to call anything “obvious,” but to me this is as plain as any truth has ever been.

***

     If, as the late Andrew Breitbart has told us, “Politics is downstream from culture,” we tale-spinners are critical to pulling America out of its tailspin. Indeed, it’s possible that no other trade could be as important to the effort to pull the nation back from the edge of the abyss. For men live by the stories they’re told. Tyrion Lannister said it in the final segment of Game of Thrones, and it has always been so.

     Christian novelists have the largest responsibility of all. Hasn’t the story of Jesus of Nazareth been repeatedly called the greatest story ever told? Hasn’t His New Covenant, his simple statements of God’s requirements for Man, withstood all the mockery and hatred two full millennia of His detractors have heaped upon it – and Him? Doesn’t the endurance of His Gospel, and the Church He charged with conserving and promulgating it, tell us how utterly vital it is to Man’s desire to live and flourish?

     To Clayton I would say: Just keep on keepin’ on, my friend. Sales volume is far less important than reaching minds…provided we reach them with the right ideas, framed in persuasive stories. And this morning, having once again arisen early, looked at yesterday’s fiction output, and resolved to rewrite every word of it, I would say the same to myself…with a few “Oh BLEEP!s” thrown in, of course. Dad was a Navy man, after all.

8 comments

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    • GrumpyOldTimer on April 28, 2021 at 7:09 AM

    Thank you for this one. I have been struggling with how to reach my fellow spiritual travelers for some time now, while occupying myself writing science fiction. I have been (separately) praying for guidance. How blind I am sometimes. Most times. 😉

    Your post today brought it all together for me. My path forward is much clearer now. Prayers answered; I hope.

    You will never know how much good you do. Just keep on keeping on.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thank you most sincerely, G.O.T. I try not to waste anyone’s time, but beyond a few minutes’ diversion and amusement, I’ve seldom felt I’d provided much of significance here. I’m pleased beyond words that you’ve found something of value in my jottings. Be well!

    • jwm on April 28, 2021 at 9:26 AM

    My list of daily web visits keeps getting shorter.  It seems like everything I read is more depressing than the last thing I read. This was good, Mr. Porretto. It points in the direction I’ve been looking. As the world around us devolves into madness and evil we are, all of us, yearning to be able to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. What are you gonna’ do? Grab a picket sign, and stand on a street corner? Write a scathing editorial? Maybe drop a comment on a blog.

    All pretty futile.

    We cannot stop what is happening. But we can fight the darkness where we meet it. Those who have the creative fire must create. You can’t stop the madness, but you can create some beauty in a world that no longer values beauty. You can speak truth in a world committed to lies. You can tell a story of men and women with values, and virtue where values are despised, and virtue mocked.

    I have to guard myself against the crazy. I have to do something. For my own part, I’ve a hundred pound chunk of Italian rock on the table, and I plan on hammering that rock into a thing of beauty. I will take my anger at all this bullshit, and let it fuel that creative fire.  Burn the Devil with his own tool. That stone  will be here making somebody happy long after I’m gone.  I’m sending it down to the future. Can’t think of a better plan…

     

    JWM

     

    JWM

    1. I think the world still values beauty, JWM. It’s just that, owing to “cultural trends,” beauty is in shorter supply than it ought to be at the moment. If you can sculpt that rock into something beautiful, those who see it will be uplifted by it. The critical part is “taking off the bushel:” i.e., making it visible to as many others as possible. It’s a challenge, but others have surmounted it, and I’m sure you can, too.

  1. Appreciate the mention.  I’m currently 19k words into a book I didn’t even plan to write:  while she’s only a nominal Catholic, Empress Faustina at 43 is at least fecund with seven children and I’m trying to listen what the three adult males’ stories are.  Prince Edward’s raw material is complete and I’ll be starting on Robert today.  It’s the first time I’ve had a “normie,” a non-modified demi-human, to work with in a while and am very curious as to where this will end up.

    One mind at a time.  Cheers.

    1. One mind at a time.

      That’s the only way it can be done, Clayton. Minds worth “catching” are like eagles. They don’t flock. You have to pursue them one by one.

    • Tracy C Coyle on April 28, 2021 at 1:31 PM

    I’m glad for the reference to Clayton, I will check out his books.

    I don’t fear religion in books IF it is part of the story.  I’ve found your efforts well within that boundary and because (I’ve said this to you before) I enjoyed the Catholic parts of your story I was/am willing to at least reconsider the faith religion I was born into.

    That said, I am not religious, I’m agnostic.  But I acknowledge the Universe was created and that means ‘a Creator’.  And the Universe MUST reflect the Creator in all it’s parts, down to the least part.  So I agree with  Bastiat.  When someone looks at Nature and claims to see God, I fully accept and agree.  But Nature is also a bitch and that should be acknowledged also!

    I’m not offended or off put by faith in books….that just means I am secure in my own faith.  Something sorely lacking amongst the masses.

  2. Aside:  this is a reply to Tracy Coyle but clicking the Reply button leaves me unable to type; perhaps it is just for this site’s users?

    I walked away from Christianity around the time I was ten.  I was a hard-headed rationalist even then and wanted hard answers.  All I got from Sunday School in the 1970s was some Old Testament asshole and some New Testament hippie.  To use the more precise term from the great Steven Den Beste, I was materialist agnostic.  It was not until I was in my mid-20’s that I discovered both people and books about the Faith… people and books which were rational.  It is literally a damned shame that no one would take the time to show me things such as that when I was a teen.  While preferring the Orthodox Liturgy, their organizing their churches along national lines was too big a pill to swallow, so I crossed the Tiber when I was 26.

    Outside of “Worlds Without End,” which a reviewer called “[my] most Catholic book,” you see that mental and spiritual divide in my characters.  Most have lost their faith; some regain it.  Of the Machines (the future history is called Machine Civilization, after all), only Henge is Christian.  Nichole 5 tries to learn, even prays once, but admits defeat; the rest just don’t care.

    It’s not a centerpiece of my stories but rather like cosmic background radiation, it’s there is you look for it, invisible if you do not.  I’m just telling stories about people.  And, I hope you come to know them and like them as much as I do*.

    *Except the people in “Crosses & Doublecrosses.” One of my bestsellers but populated by some of the most vile characters I’ve ever had behind my eyes.

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