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Liturgy and Lunacy

Since Christianity is such an integral part of the Western society we inhabit, it’s only natural that it will have a prominent place in our stories. It shows up in all genres but we often see Christianity or its derivatives in fantasy, horror, and surprisingly, science fiction.
| Nov 2, 2016 | 5 comments |

It’s a sad truth that the Church is a very fractured stained glass window. As with all major religions, Christianity has many denominations, sects, rituals, centers of leadership. It is not my place to judge which denomination is best aligned with God’s vision for His bride or which group of people are following Him most closely in their hearts, but it would be wonderful if we were truly one unified Body of Christ.12260283_f520

Imagine how this looks to someone on the outside looking in. We as Christians shake our heads at the violent disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the polar opposite lifestyles of secular and Orthodox Jews, but for non-believers, Christianity looks just as convoluted and tangled. Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian…the list goes on. Catholics and Protestants were actually at war in the United Kingdom only a couple of decades ago.

Since Christianity is such an integral part of the Western society we inhabit, it’s only natural that it will have a prominent place in our stories. It shows up in all genres but we often see Christianity or its derivatives in fantasy, horror, and surprisingly, science fiction.

Since fantasy draws on the overbearingly religious Middle Ages as its template, it’s no shock to see churches, temples, priests, and prayers mixed in with magic and sorcery. J.R.R Tolkien, the emperor of Western fantasy, was a devout Catholic and helped lead C.S. Lewis, another fantasy titan, to Christ. The fantasy genre is filled with prophecies and saviors, and while these elements are not unique to Christianity, it is easy to spot parallels between many fantasy stories and those in Scripture. Religion in fantasy often has a more Catholic slant, with emphasis on rituals, symbolism, and hierarchical priesthoods.

In the horror genre, the church is usually portrayed as either a sinister cathedral presided over  autumn-country-church_-_virginia_-_forestwanderby depraved priests and nuns or as a fanatical Pentecostal church out in the countryside with a smooth-talkin’ yet utterly vile preacher keeping watch over his lunatic flock. The Catholic cathedrals bring an ominous European atmosphere to the story while the rowdy Pentecostal country church has a sort of Southern Gothic charm and ambiance. Either way, something dark and devious lurks beneath the surface of the church in horror stories, and while there are some men of the cloth who fight the darkness, more often than not, they are servants of the darkness they claim to fight.

I was more than a little surprised to discover how many science fiction stories contain spiritual references and institutions. At first glance, there is little room for God in science fiction, where technology and space exploration has purged humanity’s pliable minds of the supposed delusions of “God” and replaced it with alien races, artificial intelligence, or our own advancement. Yet I have come across several examples and strangely enough, it seems to fit. The most prominent instances that stick out in my mind are The Canticle of Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. Miller’s time-spanning classic is blatantly Catholic, so much so that the story wouldn’t be possible without this framework. The Hyperion Cantos actually gives a biological explanation for the shape of the cross that symbolizes Christianity. Jesus and space don’t often mix in the fiction world but they are not as irreconcilable as one may think.

Stories need theatrics and drama so it’s understandable that books utilize the two facets of the church that best display these qualities. We can counter the sensational portrayals of the church in fiction by building her up as a unified and respectable institution in reality. And I wonder if anyone’s written Murder at the Megachurch…

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5 Comments on "Liturgy and Lunacy"

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Tamra Wilson

In my stories, which are urban fantasy/fairy tale based, I want to have a bunch of denominations represented, but I only imply which ones. This is to foster unity in my characters, and hopefully my young readers. So far, I have conservative Congregationalists, two Anglicans, two Catholics, and a version of Christianity that is used in the fantasy part of the storyworld, which is mainly liturgically based, so Lutheran/Catholic/Anglican and the version of Congregational where I worship.

Steve Taylor

So, a Congregationalist, an Anglican and a Catholic walk into a bar. The bartender says hey boys, will it be the usual?

Tamra Wilson

The one Anglican and the one Catholic would love that joke.

R. J. Anderson

A Canticle For Leibowitz was a revelation to me when I read it as a teenager, because I’d never come across a piece of general market SF — let alone a widely acclaimed classic — that treated Christianity with such sympathy and respect for the humanity of those who practiced it. I was so baffled by this, I thought I must have misunderstood the author’s intent — surely any minute he’d turn around and rant about how pernicious and deceitful Christianity was, and how all Christians were hypocrites and fools, and how Christianity was responsible for the world’s destruction, and all those other things I was used to SF authors ranting about.

I wouldn’t say I loved the book as a whole, as it wasn’t the kind of story I normally got excited over as a fifteen-year-old (too much introspection and philosophizing, not enough action). Also, the benignly ritualistic Catholicism of the story was not the kind of day-to-day Christian living I was most interested in (and starved for) seeing in fiction. But as a Christian reader I was thrilled to not be slandered, patronized or scoffed at for a change. And now that I look back on it, finding Miller’s story helped cement my resolve to go on writing fantasy and SF from a Christian worldview for the general market.