Full version of Chris’s post:
The Word and the Breath
an essay on writing and belief by Chris Lester
Scott Roche invited me onto his blog to talk about my system of belief and how it shows up in my writing.
“In the beginning was the Word.”
So says the Gospel According to John. The universe, all that ever was or is or will be, began with a Word.
What is a word?
Words aren’t just ideas. They aren’t just thoughts. You don’t actually think in words, as much as your long experience with language might make it seem like you do. People who have no language still have thoughts and ideas. A baby can recognize its mother, can have the idea and concept of its mother, before it ever knows the word “mother” or “mama.” An idea alone doesn’t make a word.
Nor is a word just a sound, or an assembly of letters on a page. I can write the arrangement of letters “ancagwalathump”, and I can sound it out according to the rules of English (or any other language that uses those letters), but that doesn’t make it a word. Symbols by themselves aren’t words.
A word is an idea packaged in a way that conveys it to a recipient. Words are relational.
The Word was intended for an audience, an interlocutor.
Before we even existed, the Word was for us.
I have been impressed with the power and importance of words for as long as I can remember. Words, and especially stories, the bigger ideas that we craft from our words. I think I always sensed that there was something profound and magical in stories, because I’ve always been fascinated by them — by reading them, listening to them, and making my own. It was much longer before I could give that magical power a name.
When I was a teenager I read about J. R. R. Tolkien’s idea of storytelling as “sub-creation.” It has been a long time since I read those words, and I may not have gotten all the details right, but here is how my teenage brain internalized the concept: God’s ideas were given form and substance through the Word and became the Creation. We, as created beings who possessed a portion of God’s creative spark, could likewise give form and substance to our own ideas through words, bringing into existence other worlds that were “sub-creations” — smaller and less perfect than the original Creation, but reflecting our own selves and thoughts and character and the creative spark that exists in us. We could use our own creative voices to illuminate truth in ways that were unique to ourselves and our own perspectives. We could tell stories, and create worlds, that no one else could create, and those “sub-creations” honored and reflected our own Creator.
This last part had implications that I elaborated more as I grew older. In my mid-twenties I tried to articulate what I thought was essential to human nature, what made us special among God’s creations. I decided that there were four essential qualities to humanity: we reason; we make choices; we love; and we create. Creative expression was essential to our humanity, and a person who squashed that creative spark was diminishing him- or herself, becoming less than completely fulfilled in their humanity. If, as C.S. Lewis said, creatures worship God by doing what they were created to do, then creative expression was an act of worship, and a uniquely human one.
Looking back with the perspective of my mid-thirties, I realize that this view was colored by my own cultural and individual perspectives, a point of view shaped by Western individualism, intellectualism, and the arrogance that I and many other creative folks fall prey to. For someone who had been telling stories most of my life, it was a rather self-congratulatory sort of belief system, one that placed me and other creative people outside Plato’s cave and most of the rest of the world’s population inside it. As flawed and pretentious as it was, though, this mindset had one real benefit as a writer: it made me believe that I had something worth saying, and that I had a duty to say it — to use the voice that was mine and no one else’s. That made me write, and keep writing, and share what I had written with others — and those things, in turn, made me a better writer.
If it hadn’t been for that philosophical and even religious drive to create, I might not have put in the time to do it. I might have stopped telling stories. And while I no longer believe that creative expression is necessary for full participation in humanity, it was certainly essential for me to fully get in touch with myself. Because deep down, I am a storyteller, and I always have been.
So that was why my beliefs led me to write, and to keep writing. The question of what to write was another matter, and the relationship between my beliefs and my fiction has been a long and tangled one.
In my early to mid-teens, I thought that my storytelling was intended by God as a tool for inspiration and evangelism. Growing up in a conservative Evangelical community, surrounded by “Christian” music, “Christian” books, “Christian” t-shirts, “Christian” TV shows and “Christian” youth programs, I thought that it was important for any creative work that a Christian created to carry a religious message, either overtly or covertly. I thought that honoring God with my creative talents meant using them to carry the message of the Gospel. I was a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, though, and that was what I wanted to write. So when I started writing a sprawling space opera series — with warring alien races, vast conspiracies, hot-shot starfighter pilots, and a secret struggle for Earth — I tried to put Christianity in the center of it. My shapeshifting alien humanoids, the heroes of the series, were a utopian society, which in my understanding at that time meant that they had to be Christians — doing Christianity the “right” way, without all the moral compromises and ugly chapters that had plagued human Christianity. Likewise, my villains — the Grey aliens of abduction lore — were made the unwitting pawns of false gods, demonic entities bent on dominating all life. This battle between alien races, with humans caught unknowingly in the middle, was a proxy war in the heavenly conflict between God and Satan. My fiction was a direct commentary on, and dialogue with, my faith.
And it was awful.
First, I had failed to understand the connection between genre and theme. Space opera is certainly prone to big battles for enormous stakes, but those stakes are very literal and tangible, very “in your face.” Supernatural fiction, when it’s done well, is subtle and covert, as the struggles of light and darkness play out in small, quiet settings and events that could almost be taken as mundane, if not for a few unsettling details. (To see this sort of fiction done well, I recommend Terry Brooks’s novel Running With The Demon.) As the God Entity says in Futurama, “If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” This kind of subtlety is the antithesis of space opera, and by trying to fit these two wildly different genres together, I created a story with horribly uneven tone that didn’t fit into either setting.
My second mistake lay in believing that a society of “true” Christians would never lie, cheat, steal, abuse authority, or otherwise treat people badly. They would, in essence, be morally perfect, and create a utopia. There are a few dozen problems with this, starting with the whole package of assumptions about what “true” Christianity is, but from a literary standpoint it has one flaw that is unforgivable: perfect people are not just unrealistic, they’re boring. By disallowing my characters and their society from having significant flaws — for fear of making my Christian heroes look bad — I cut myself off from most of the interesting sources of conflict, as well as most opportunities for character growth.
Because of these and other flaws, my space opera series was stillborn, terminated when it was only a little more than halfway to term. I did not yet understand all of the problems that plagued it, only that it wasn’t working and I didn’t know why — so I went on to write some smaller stories that focused on individual characters, flawed characters with opportunities for growth. I stopped trying to write about idealized Christ-followers, and started writing about ordinary people who were imperfect and broken in ordinary ways (and sometimes in some extraordinary ways). These stories were a marked improvement, and they can still be found online if your Google-Fu is strong enough. They have their flaws, and some of them still delve into religious tract territory, but they aren’t the awful embarrassment that my space opera stories were.
As I grew up, my stories became less a vehicle for sharing my faith and more a tool for exploring it and working out my problems with it. In my twenties I came to California, started grad school, and started getting exposed to new ideas more frequently. I formed friendships with people I respected who were ex-Christians, or progressive Catholics, or Unitarians, or not religious at all. I found myself challenged in my conservative ideas and values on every level, and nowhere more so than in the area of sexuality.
I had been raised to believe that “fornication” was wrong, that sex was holy within marriage but sinful outside it, that pornography was evil, and that marriage was only between one man and one woman. Yet I was repeatedly being exposed to evidence that challenged these beliefs: healthy, happy relationships that had begun as “fornication;” Evangelical Christian couples who had abstained from sex before marriage, and then self-destructed as it became clear they were sexually incompatible; couples that incorporated pornography and erotica as invigorating parts of their sex life together; and the overwhelming evidence that some people are not biologically wired for heterosexuality. I didn’t know what to do with all of this new data; I didn’t have a place in my religious framework to process them at that time. So I started processing them in my writing.
You can see this processing taking place in a lot of my early Metamor City stories, which I started writing around that time. “Huntress” was my first exploration of a lesbian character, and it also contains my first erotic scene. “The Muse” has a strait-laced religious boy from the suburbs feeling confused, tempted and uncomfortable with his own desires, as he tries to figure out how to relate to a “promiscuous” woman from the city who doesn’t share his cultural background but is nevertheless a good, kind and caring person. “Troubled Minds” has a teenage succubus who was raised by nuns in a Catholic-esque boarding school, who wrestles with the fact that her sexual appetite (a very literal term in this case) cannot ever be squared with the strict standards of behavior she has been told that she must fit into, and who is haunted by the fear that her god will reject her, in the end, as “just another demon.”
I wasn’t sure what I believed about these things, at this point. Writing in Metamor City gave me the opportunity to explore ideas that were unthinkable in my strictly orthodox religious context, to game out their ramifications in a setting that could be dismissed as fantasy if anyone pressed me too harshly on it. (My early character profile for Morgan Drauling actually included the justification that it was “okay” for her to be bisexual because biological differences in sex were irrelevant for a vampire, who was dead and therefore beyond classification as “gay” or “straight”.) Of course, it wasn’t just fantasy: it was a series of thought experiments. In figuring out what I thought about my characters, I came to understand how my own thinking on questions of sexuality had shifted. I might eventually have gotten to where I am now even without these stories, but they certainly helped me to make the transition more smoothly and swiftly than I would have otherwise.
In the last few years I have come to a new understanding of my faith that integrates Christianity with progressive social values. I have learned to see the teachings of Christ as not only a framework for individual salvation and healing, but for the healing and restoration of the world. I have come to believe that God intends for us not to escape Earth for Heaven, but to work for Heaven manifest on Earth — until “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” I came to see that prayer as not a passive cry for deliverance, but an invitation for God to use me in that purpose. To sincerely pray for God’s kingdom to come is to indicate our own resolve to participate in its coming.
In coming to this new understanding, I set myself at odds with many of my brothers and sisters in the church. To the Evangelical mindset, human beings have no agency beyond repenting and begging God for forgiveness; there is nothing that people can do to make the world any better, and indeed their whole eschatology presumes that things will get progressively worse, until at last the world is remade in God’s Last Judgment. This worldview leads logically to a nihilistic mindset: “It’s all going to burn anyway,” I was assured by more than one elder in my church, as justification for why environmentalism was unnecessary and doomed to failure. It also leads to an attitude of life under siege: everyone on the outside, in “The World,” is captive to Satan’s will, an unwitting pawn of darkness; and everyone on the inside, in “The Body,” is constantly at risk of being tempted and led astray by worldly desires. Any material pleasure is suspect, and none more so than sex, or indeed any activity even tangentially related to sex. Paradoxically, we were told that sex was a great gift from God, but apparently one so dangerous that it had to be carefully contained within a set of rigid cultural walls. I had already seen the ways this repression could go wrong, had spent years hating my own body and its stubborn, insistent desires. Now I saw how the obsession with sex led my brothers and sisters to hate and fear whole classifications of people whose sexual desires they deemed abnormal: gay, bisexual, transgender, polyamorous, all were branded as unholy and immoral. All rejected. All outsiders.
So naturally my next story was about them.
MAKING THE CUT was my love letter to the conservative branch of Christianity that I could no longer be part of. In the Hive’s paranoia, its apocalyptic fantasies of future conflict with the mundanes, I could explore the terrible consequences of the Evangelicals’ obsession with Armageddon. Like the church, the Hive controls the sexuality of its members to serve its own purposes. Like the church, it exacerbates conflict with outsiders because it believes that such conflict is inevitable. Like the church, the Hive’s strictures sometimes lead its people to make very poor decisions, twisting and burying their own identities in a desperate desire to fit into what is expected of them. Some of my readers found it unbelievable that Daniel would become a woman in order to have a place in the Hive — but is that any more incredible than a gay man trying to force himself to become straight? By the end of the book, my heroes were in the same place as I now found myself: tangentially affiliated to the group that raised them, still feeling some loyalty to it in spite of their disagreements with it, but not really part of the community as they once were, and unlikely to ever be so again. They can hope that, in time, the Hive will come to see things as they do, or to have more flexibility to permit differences of belief — but large, ponderous organizations of fearful people do not change themselves quickly, or without a fight. They have too much emotional investment in the rightness of their cause to back down now.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking of all the ways the Hive is different from the Church. You’d be right. I didn’t set out to write an allegory, or to make the story an author tract. The themes I describe above arose organically through the process of writing the story. Other themes appeared, too, and blended with the religious ones — there’s a lot of post-9/11 America in the Hive, as I tried to process the changes that were happening in my country during the previous decade, and Daniel’s frustrations with his place in the world mirrored my own trapped feeling as I worked a dead-end job in title insurance after returning from grad school. I didn’t try to nail down any one of these themes with perfect one-to-one correspondence. I knew from the beginning of the story most of what would happen, but it wasn’t until a third of the way into writing it that I realized what it was about.
But we write what’s on our hearts, whether we mean to or not, and the religious and cultural issues I was wrestling with inevitably worked their way into my story. This is one of the great benefits of writing fiction for me: it helps me figure out how to talk about the things I don’t know how to articulate. It gives me a window on my own subconscious.
Since my religious transition from conservative to progressive values, I have repeatedly found the themes of progressive spirituality cropping up in my fiction: the importance of honesty and authenticity to one’s self; the need to embrace the diversity of others; the crucial importance of empathy and compassion; the futility and self-destructiveness of brute force as a tool for resolving conflict; and the root of so much suffering and misery in the world coming not from malice, but from simple arrogance and moral blindness. Now I am writing the third full-length novel in Metamor City, tackling head-on the questions of class divisions, economic injustice, marginalization of the Other, and way that shame and discomfort lead the middle classes to turn a blind eye to those in the greatest need. These themes are as progressive as anything Freire or Chomsky could have asked for, but they are inspired not by Marxism, but by the Sermon on the Mount, the Syrophoenician woman, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The teachings of Christ, taken as more than bland moralizing, are as radical as anything that political thinkers have proposed in the last three centuries — and sparked a similar violent backlash from those holding the power.
How does my faith inform my writing? How does it not? Throughout my life, with all the twists and turns in my spiritual journey, my fiction has been a reflection of my faith. In it, you can find the things that are important to me, the questions I am wrestling with, and the answers whose boundaries I am beginning to feel out. I believe in Christianity, as C.S. Lewis said, “as I believe the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” The Word, the source of all life and all truth, finds new expression in my sub-creations, and through them I speak back into the universe: an imperfect reflection of the original, but with inflections, variations and perspectives that are uniquely mine.
And that is what makes them beautiful.