Sunday, February 27, 2005

God, Without the Soul Crushing Tyrany

Cory Doctorow found this essay by Will Shetterly, which says everything about Science fiction/Fantasy writing's relationship to religion that I've been wanting to say, but couldn't. I tried, but every time, it devolved into a rant about the imbecility and intolerance of Conservative Christians attitudes towards Literature of the Imagination (see, I still can't even just link to it without pulling a punch or two):
I was an atheist, but in my teens, I craved some form of enlightenment. I tried drugs and found they only made me happy to sit in the dark. I tried Theravada Buddhism and found that my problem with formal religion encompasses all formal religions. I thought I had outgrown religion, but the truth is that my need for revelation was answered in the literature of speculation, fantasy and science fiction, the genres that test unlikely propositions in stories.

Those stories gave me new myths. While the passion of Jesus, the trials of Job, and the tolerance of the Golden Rule only made me think about the hypocrisy of conservative Christians, I felt the sacrifice of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the suffering of Winston Smith in 1984, and the respect for difference in Star Trek's Prime Directive. I read Isaac Asimov and Zenna Henderson and knew that all people should live as equals, sharing wealth and knowledge. I read J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin and knew I should strive to do good, no matter the obstacles.

If I had been a different kind of reader, I might have found meaning on a different shelf of the library. All stories are implicitly spiritual, whether they're about Philip Marlowe seeking a murderer, Elizabeth Bennet seeking love, or Dorothy seeking Oz. Every genre has its metaphor: Mysteries are about truth. Romances are about love. Fantasy and science fiction are about wonder and purpose. By putting people into impossible circumstances, they ask, "Who are we? Why are we here?"

These implicitly spiritual stories, just as explicitly spiritual ones, can be divided into parables and fables. Mysteries and romances, like Jesus' stories about servants, are meant to be plausible. Because the stories could be true, we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, Scarlet O'Hara, or the Good Samaritan. But fantasy and science fiction, like the stories about Jesus' miracles or divine birth, are meant to be implausible. By asking us to consider something outside our experience, like traveling in time, becoming a monster, or turning water into wine, they ask us to throw off our preconceptions and see the world as if we had never seen it before. Because it's impossible for a story to occur in our world, we know that it's about something more than its details, and we can learn from Santa Claus, Superman, or the Son of God.


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