A Rich Web

The web of rich and potent customs surrounding Easter is a testament to how profoundly religion molds culture. And it makes me wonder again why religion is so neglected in speculative fiction as an element of world-building.
on Apr 1, 2015 · 6 comments

For the longest time, I thought Easter eggs were a tradition mainly for children. I thought they were one of the secular trappings of Easter, like the Easter bunny. Not that this made them bad – I’m not the Scrooge of Easter here – but still, to me they had no Christian meaning, nothing but the most casual linkage to Easter.

And then, last week, I learned better. Eggs were once an integral part of the Christian observance of Easter, due mainly to the Lenten fast. As long ago as the fifth century, Socrates Scholasticus noted the custom of abstaining from eggs during Lent, and by the end of the seventh century the Church was laying it down as a universal practice: “It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain.” (Canon LVI of the Council in Trullo)

Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas would write that because the Lenten fast is “the most solemn of all”, it “lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods”.

The Catholic Church no longer observes Lent so strictly, and most Protestants do not observe it at all. Only the Orthodox Church still prohibits eggs during Lent. Yet to this day we live with the legacy of a fast we have not only given up, but forgotten.

Because “milk foods” were forbidden during Lent, households would use them up before Ash Wednesday. In the Orthodox Church, the week before Lent was called Cheesefare Week. Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) was known as Pancake Tuesday in Great Britain; my Lutheran grandmother called it Doughnut Day and would make doughnuts, although her family did not keep the fast in the old way. In other countries, Shrove Tuesday had other names, and was marked with similar customs of food and holiday: Bursting Day, Carnival, Fat Tuesday – which is, in fact, what Mardi Gras is, and what it means.

On Easter Day, the fast ended, and Christians ate again meat, cheese, milk – and eggs. Before partaking again, people would bring these foods to the church to be blessed by a priest – and there is, in fact, a traditional Easter blessing for eggs. In Ukraine, which has an elaborate tradition of Easter eggs, the decorated eggs would be blessed by priests before being given to family members.

Beyond the significance Easter eggs once had in marking how Lent’s abstinence turned to Easter’s rejoicing, there is a very old custom of dyeing eggs red to symbolize Christ’s blood. There are legends of eggs miraculously turning red at the first Easter, variously involving Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and even Simon of Cyrene.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis web of rich and potent customs, and even its weak modern legacy, is a testament to how profoundly religion molds culture. And it makes me wonder again why religion – one of the most vital parts of any culture, shaping everything from individuals’ inner selves to society’s outward customs – is so neglected in speculative fiction as an element of world-building. Even when it appears as a matter of worldview, it can be little or nothing to the world-building.

In secular sci-fi, religion is often absent without explanation. Perhaps this is convention, perhaps it springs from the old belief that science will displace religion, perhaps it reflects the authors’ own irreligion; I have a notion that those who discount religion in their own lives are likely enough to dismiss it in their fiction.

In Christian fantasy, religion may be present as a matter of individual belief, but it is often culturally absent. Characters may talk about God, usually in vague monotheistic terms, but there is none of that cultural imprint all genuine religion leaves, in stories, songs, feasts, fasts, decorations, and word formulas (“I swear on a stack of Bibles”). I can count on one hand all the times I’ve seen anything like a church or temple in Christian SF – and that’s something everybody does. Jews, Christians, Muslims, pagans, Buddhists: We all end up raising a building.

So why don’t people in fantasy or sci-fi? Are secular authors uninterested in religion, or are Christian authors trying to stay out of the theological weeds? Is it too much trouble for authors to devise a religion to build into their world, or is the whole question too inevitably enmeshed with real-life religion? Or am I overthinking this, and authors no more have a special reason for neglecting religion than they have for neglecting other aspects of world-building?

What do you think?

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. dmdutcher says:

    This is a good point, and not one easy to answer.

    I think in terms of church period, many Christian SF writers tend to do dystopian type novels, and a physical church is a sign saying “please attack or arrest us.”

    The tradition might be a generational thing. Thing is, much of modern evangelicalism or fundamentalism was a rebellion against that kind of cultural Christianity. The downside of having a strong web is that it’s possible to be a part of the culture with zero real belief in the thing that spawned it. This is part of what created the Reformation, and evangelicalism’s focus on a personal relationship with Jesus was in opposition to a certain collective relationship where people define themselves as good Christians by how they observe the sacraments and perform the cultural rites of the church.

    I think that this is changing, as people rediscover the web. They like the traditions, but they understand that they aren’t enough; you really do need a personal, knowing relationship with Him, too. This is how the old “frozen chosen” high-church denominations are now changing into fierce orthodox forces compared to the wishy-washy “tea with the vicar” cultural churches the Jesus generation rebelled against.

    The post-evangelicals ironically are doing the same thing. They are rebelling against the culture of evangelicalism more than the message (though many rebel against the message too)- they hate the homeschooling, bland, nicey-nice culture of wives in dresses and youth groups, because those things have become rites more than real experiences.

    I think there’s a long list of things Christian authors should include, though. Most of the books seem to be in a certain type, and you don’t see church because it’s not easy to include in it.

    • bainespal says:

      Good comment, D.M.

      I know that before I ran into “post-evangelicalism” on the Internet I longed for a faith with a sense of profound tradition like in fantasy novels. Which is kind of ironic again, because as McDermott notes regarding Christian fantasy, explicit religious traditions used to be pretty rare even in mainstream fantasy until recently I think. The fantasies that really inspired me as a kid — mainly LotR and WoT — had very minimal religious tradition in their worlds. However, the sense of living myth — of being real and really being descended from real legacy — felt so spiritual to me that it affected my conception of an ideal church environment anyways.

  2. Tracey says:

    Hmm, thought-provoking post. Now I’m inspired to go flesh out my storyworld’s religion(s)! 😉

  3. Funny you should mention that–I’ve noticed this problem in a Christian fantasy/religious persecution story I’m reading right now. For the most part, it seems like the characters are ready to die, “Because ‘God’ is real,” and that’s about it. Nothing about “I will not deny Him because…” No threat of eternal damnation, no creation story even, or real background to the religion or false religion or conflict between the two. Maybe there was more of that in the first book, but it’s sure not in the second book.

    I can’t explain why it happens, but maybe it’s a blind spot for some writers, along the lines of authors who are great with a plot, but can’t seem to develop their characters? I also think dmdutcher is right about the connection to the contemporary American church. The average writer isn’t going to write much (or well) about things they don’t think about in daily life. It may not even be something they realize they should research or ponder. Hence the supposedly medieval societies where everyone is “my lord,” horses are always galloping, and people head to church on Sundays to doze through a sermon.



  4. LadyArin says:

    Immediately i started thinking of authors who have included religion in some fashion in their speculative books — Richard Adams, Brandon Sanderson, Terry Pratchett — but you’re right, in general it’s neglected or not treated in-depth.

    Maybe that’s why i like those authors so much? Ha. Though it might be part of it.

  5. Julie D says:

    I didn’t know all that about eggs. Thank you for the fascinating information

What do you think?