This is part of a series where guest authors will share their views on how their belief systems affect the fictional worlds they create. Not all of these people will be religious. If you’re interested in participating, email me at email@example.com.
Chris Lester is is an author whose work can be found at http://www.metamorcity.com/ as well as at Smashwords. He’s a long time friend and his journey echos mine in many ways. I highly recommend you check his work out. This guest post is the edited version. He gave me permission to edit as I saw fit, but I’ve posted it in its entirety here. I recommend you read the whole thing.
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.
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.