Fictional Theology

I’ve been going on in my own comments (shame on me) about what constitutes a religious theme in literature. It’s not an idle question for me; the original novel (the Right Novel, to which the Wrong Novel, the Wrong Prequel, and the NaNoWriMo novel are prequels) was meant to be a fictionalization of a certain historical religious persecution. If I ever get anywhere with it, I would judge my success by whether I’d made it peculiar to those events, specificially the religious and philosophical tenets that led to them. I’m not expecting to have any difficulty writing about persecution per se, but making my theme more than a random religious persecution is much more of a challenge.

It’s easy to write, say, Baha’i fiction about today’s Baha’i, because you can say, look, Baha’i. When, instead, you’re writing about an obscure religion ten thousand years in the future, in its struggles against some other equally fictionalized oppressive regime, how do you know they’re Baha’i without either some link to the Baha’i of the past or some uniquely Baha’i moral quandary for them to face? I still don’t know what that pivotal point is, so the novel has gone nowhere fast.

Likewise, in a world where I see only hobbits and dwarves, elves and pre-Christian men, how do I know the theme is a Christian one? Where is the connection to something uniquely Christian? I don’t see it. I judge The Lord of the Rings by the standards I apply to The Right Novel to tell whether I’ve succeeded in writing from the standpoint of a particular religion - is there something there that conveys the spirit of the faith?

It’s not enough for The Right Novel to be moral - I hope all my novels, whether or not they get finished, will be moral. Writing isn’t interesting without some sort of moral dilemma. I hope they’ll convey my morality, and that only the bad guys will endorse moral values of which I disapprove, but I know my morality agrees with everyone else’s on most points - mercy, honor, self-sacrifice, what have you. Those things are a given, and I hope they’re in my fanfic, too. They’re the basic level that I see in The Lord of the Rings, and that’s obviously enough for a great story.

When I look for models for the Right Novel, however, I look for stories that convey ideas with which the reader might disagree. That’s something I find, not in Tolkien, but in Ayn Rand and C.S. Lewis. Not many writers take this approach, and fewer succeed as consistently as an Ayn Rand - some pass off bald statements as theme, like Greg Egan mocking Christians on a bad day, or in the tedious and badly written didactic stories RJ mentioned. That’s not literature, though, that’s assertion.

Considering my lack of progress with the Right Novel, I wonder how often I would write that sort of story of ideas. When I look over my fanfic, I don’t find much in the way of controversial morality - there’s my Ayn Rand pastiche with its debate over the morality of genocide, and a short, obscure story about virtue as its own punishment and another, similar story about breaking the rules. Then there’s a smattering of pro-Borg sentiment, especially in this filk, and a story about mirror-mirror morality. None of the ideas are truly integrated into a story the way I’d want the Right Novel to be.

I’m losing my train of thought, so I’ll stop here. Pardon any incoherence.

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