Faith, Fictional Worlds, and Meaning

One of the key features of faith is the way that it shapes the way you see and interact with the world. A simple example of this is that I have faith that the chair I am going to sit on is not going to collapse beneath me, therefore I can sit on the chair without wasting time worrying about it!

Something that I’m interested in is how we humans create, or find, meaning, and it seems to me that our faith (and here I’m talking more about macro-level faith, like religion) shapes the way that we find meaning in the world. Many of the things that I, as a Christian, find value and meaning in, like a time of singing in a church service, will not have the same value and meaning for someone of a different faith.

This relationship of faith and meaning becomes even more interesting (for me anyway) when fictional worlds are added into the mix. As a reader, how does my faith inform my interaction with a world in which that faith simply can’t exist (i.e. a fantasy world which has its own distinct, real pantheon of gods)? On one level, there is a fundamental detachment between the real world and fictional worlds (particularly fantasy worlds) that allows me as a reader to go in with a blank slate, and learn from scratch what is good, bad and significant in the context of that world. This is why I don’t have a problem with reading fantasy books containing magic, as that magic normally has a completely different function and meaning within the fictional world to the one it has for me, as a Christian, in the real world.

On the other hand, I don’t want to suggest that I just leave my faith behind when I engage with a fictional world. It means too much to me, and is too much a part of my life for me to simply detach from. Just as in the real world, my faith draws me to certain things within fictional worlds, though those things might look different. An example of this is my recent post on Itkovian, from Memories of Ice. I found his story particularly compelling because of the parallels with Jesus, though other readers might not have seen that significance, or paid much attention to it if they did.

Another dimension to this is how I use fictional worlds as a Christian writer. The book that I’m currently working on is set in a fantasy world, though it is a world that draws heavily on periods of European history, particularly the Byzantine Empire and the Vikings. Despite historical similarities, it is a very different world to our own, shaped by another reality that lies alongside it. By accessing this reality, certain humans have become godlike, and other, non-human beings have passed into this world. I have created this twin-reality world because it is a vehicle for my ideas, most of which are tied in some way to my faith. The clearest idea is the closeness of the supernatural, but there’s more to it than that. What I’ve arrived at is a world that is fundamentally different from our own, and from the world in which my own faith exists, but the world nevertheless contains my fingerprints, and those fingerprints are inevitably coloured by my faith.

I think that the same could be said of every fantasy world. Just look at Tolkien’s world as a fantastic example of how faith colours a world that otherwise bears little resemblance to our own. Though the forms that significance takes may be different, that significance can still be there.

What I’m arriving at, in this roundabout way, is the idea of a tension in the fictional worlds of fantasy literature. On the one hand, they are fundamentally different from our own, which allows me, as a Christian, to engage with them on their own terms, and identify what is important in that world, regardless of what I believe to be important in this one. On the other hand, those worlds can never escape the fingerprints of the faith of their authors, whose worldview will be transmitted one way or another, and my interpretation can never be free of my own faith (nor would I want it to be).

The end product is something that I find pretty amazing. The ability to be you, with your worldview and history, transported to a world that is completely alien, is something that I have never experienced in quite the same way outside of fantasy literature. As a Christian, I am not afraid of this; it is a way to engage with ideas that would never have occurred to me otherwise, and, even better, to discover more about myself and about God even in those faraway places.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Great article! I honestly believe that fiction’s ability to take people entirely out of their world views and comfort zones and just imagine is one of the most powerful tools of christian writers to talk about their faith. In my life it’s always a temptation to view religion as merely an addition to the world around us, and for fiction to seamlessly wrap religion with ‘real’ world, without the fake dividers we impose on ourselves, makes me endlessly grateful to Christian writers who discussed their faith in their fictional works.

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