Sunday, June 11, 2006

Trinity Sunday in the Land of Mâvarin

Reprinted from my personal blog:

Writer's Weekly Question #19:
We are a society that is literally besieged by historical, political, social, and even religious upheaval and decisions due to our connection to an information driven world. Do these things impact our creative process and do our opinions concerning various historical, political, social, and religious questions show up in our products (this can be writing, or art, or other things that involve creative process)? If so, how?

Well, the short answer is, "Of course it does." Even if we're writing an historical novel, a romance, science fiction or (as in my case) fantasy, we can't really help being influenced by the world around us, along with literature, art, music, family, and personal experience. But not so fast. That doesn't always mean that our stories are full of GWB and a controversial war, gay marriage and the latest pope. Sometimes the stories have to do with showing a better society, or a worse one, rather than the one we've actually got. Some things we may prefer to ignore and leave out, in the hope that the book will be about things more eternal than topical.

Even if some portion of the work is informed by current events, that may not be the most important thing about the story - and it probably shouldn't be. Sure, old Will Shakespeare had contemporary influences and constraints, but that's not why his plays are still performed. Ambition, politics, guilt, love, struggles between classes and religions, cultures and families... all that stuff is still with us. It transcends the particulars of Elizabethan England, not to mention the nominal setting of each play. Still, the contemporary issues of the day find their way in there, too, often interacting with ageless questions and eternal verities. And when a writer does include a reference to a current controversy, it's often done on the sly, so that a discerning person can appreciate it, and others can ignore it or be oblivious to it. That way, there's a certain level of plausible deniability, and the political, social or religious commentary doesn't stop the story dead in its tracks.

How does all this apply to me personally? You folks know, because I mention it rather frequently, that writing about religion or politics always makes me nervous. I have my own opinions on these subjects, and sometimes I even state outright what they are. But I also have strong feelings about tolerance and pluralism, and respecting the right of others to an informed opinion that doesn't match my own. All this stuff comes together in my personal philosophy. The greatest cause of evil in this world is the tendency to divide the world into Us and Them, and treat Them as undeserving of the same respect, tolerance, compassion and human rights that we accord to Us. This is the attitude that lies behind wars and terrorism, religious intolerance, sexual politics, the rich lining their nests at the expense of the poor, even most crime. So no, I don't talk all that much about Jesus or Dick Cheney, Israel or Ireland, Iran or Iraq. But Us and Them, well, I talk about that rather a lot. It informs and transcends all the specific issues that pop up from day to day.

Rani Fost, alienated heroNow, let's talk about Mâvarin. My first novel, Heirs of Mâvarin, is mostly about three specific characters, dealing with their own internal struggles while on their way to do things that affect the whole country. Religion exists basically in the background, and the politics have no contemporay equivalents that I'm aware of. Yet there's still a little social commentary buried in there, not because I deliberately put it in, but because it's part of the human condition. Rani, my most alienated (and ultimately most heroic) character, is black. That doesn't seem to have made him too much of an outsider or second class citizen growing up, but the fact that he grew up without a father is another alienating factor. It marks him as different, as much as his skin did in a nearly all-white community. Then when he becomes a tengrem (basically a monster), he's the ultimate outsider, alienated from humanity itself, and subject to being hunted down and killed. The fact that he is very much a "Them," even an "It," makes it more significant that Del sees past all that, and knows Rani is still his friend, still deserving of his compassion, affection and protection. At the same time, two "Them" groups that most people distrust, the tengremen (well, some of them) and the selmûnen, work together to help overthrow an illegal and oppressive government in favor of the rightful one. (This is the book that's currently awaiting a reply from a major publisher.)

Then in the second novel, Mages of Mâvarin, comparative religion becomes a major theme driving parts of the story. And here is where author Karen gets nervous. Will people understand what I'm talking about, and what I'm not? Some will, certainly. But for others, the people who think that any mention of magic is Satanic, and any religion that doesn't mention Jesus is sending its practitioners straight to Hell, the books are going to be problematic even before my character Fabi gets to Hemlarbeth. What will they make of this?

Baku Dener, compassionate atheist Fabi looked up through the rain at the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Câlaren, stark holy places that reached far above the pillars of cloud. Even this late in the day, even in this weather, the snow gleamed as if with a light of its own.

“Impressive, aren’t they?” Baku said. “I can almost understand why the superstitious might believe that the Câlaren are the home of the gods on Earth. The tallest mountains in Mâvarin would be that much closer to the Afterworld, if there were an Afterworld.”

“Here we go again,” Bora said. “Don’t encourage him, Fabi.” She had obviously heard it all before.

“You don’t believe in the Gods?”

“I believe that a human girl named Mâshela was probably born in a cave halfway up the middle peak. She wasn’t the Daughter of Lokvanishmû, though, because there never was a Lokvanishmû.”

“I’m amazed. You don’t believe in the Gods, and yet here we are, about to trade with the priests of the Holy Town.”

“That’s business. Anyway, most of the priests in this town are pretty good people, unlike some of the ones I’ve met elsewhere. They’re just self-deluded, that’s all.”

Fabi shook his head. “Call me deluded too, then, because I believe in the Gods as well. I’d rather not argue about it, though.”

Fabi and his friends, atheist Baku and his wife Bora, proceed to visit four churches in Hemlarbeth over the next couple of days. The Temple of Lokvanishmû, the Father and Creator, mostly contains people with a military or authoritarian sensibility. The Church of Mâshela, the Daughter of God, the Redeemer, has an underground hospital on site. The Church of Thâle, the Spirit of Wisdom who takes many forms, is heavily attended by artists, selmûnen and same-sex couples, people who aren't in the mainstream of society but contribute to it nonetheless. Last of all, off by itself is the little Church of the One, attended by more selmûnen and other mystics, people who have come to believe that the other three gods are really part of One God after all. And visiting all these places, helping the faithful with his honest and fair dealing, is Baku, a compassionate atheist who later is heroically generous to villages devasted by xenophobic massacres.

I fully expect that some people, when this book is published, will think I'm promulgating some kind of evil paganism. Others will recognize the Trinity, but find it an abomination because the names are all wrong, Mâvarin's incarnation of the Son is a woman, and homosexuals and even atheists are tolerated and respected by the faithful. Nevertheless, I have to have it in there, this old and current debate about the Trinity, the role of religion in other worlds, and the need for religious tolerance. I have a whole, hugely defensive disclaimer already written, trying to explain that the books are not anti-Christian, and that while they don't endorse a specific sect and should not be mapped to the real world as exact equivalents, they do represent my beliefs to some extent. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Fabi, Harisi and Shela are all Episcopalians, but they aren't far off.

Let those with ears to hear, hear! As for the rest, if they don't try to get the books banned, I'll be very pleased.

And no, there's no George W. Bush figure in that book, either.

I was thinking about all this today during Father Smith's sermon for Trinity Sunday. Sometimes it seems as though we think of the God of Moses and Jesus of Nazareth as two entirely separate Gods, and barely think of the Holy Spirit at all. It's not really surprising. The concept of a Triune God is a rather tricky one, Jesus is offstage for the whole of the Old Testament, and the Holy Spirit doesn't have a lot of dialogue in the Bible, despite having inspired most of it.

If we really pay attention, though, we see that all three aspects of the one God were there all along.


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