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If you’re here for the Heart project, this is the main page.
Following on from the previous post, here’s part 2
What SFF can learn from Christianity #2: There’s always someone more fundamentalist than you.
So we all know what a fundamentalist is, right?
1. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.
Was that what you were expecting? Definition 3, perhaps. Let’s look at the history behind definition 1 for a moment.
There’s a good overview here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals), but to summarise, the Fundamentals was a series of 90 essays, published in the US between 1910 and 1915, designed to defend and affirm a reformed conservative Protestant faith against both modernism and liberalism. They were widely distributed, free of charge to pastors, missionaries, teachers and so on: those who followed the Fundamentals became known as fundamentalists. There was a great deal in the Fundamentals that was orthodox Christian belief – the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the deity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit – alongside the inerrancy of the Bible (the Protestant version), a particular reading of the Second Coming, and a refutation of evolution.
You could reasonably describe (as I do), fundamentalist Christianity as one of the last gasps of the Romantic movement – but its strong effect in the USA still has considerable legacy today. The fundamentalists were simply Christians who followed the Fundamentals, became Christians who believed the Bible to be (more-or-less) dictated to men by God and therefore the very word of God, and thus in 1948 became incredibly excited about the founding of the state of Israel as presaging the Second Coming. Innately social conservatives, fundamentalists have tended to be both politically and socially right-wing for at least half the 20th century.
So that’s what a fundamentalist was. What is one now? The problem with any set of rules or beliefs is the strictness with which they’re interpreted. No law, no rule is so perfectly worded that there isn’t some sort of wiggle-room around the edges, no tariff of punishment so explicit that there is no need for a judge to mitigate the sentence. And things can go both ways. Most of the Christians I know are a tolerant bunch, and don’t take things as far as, say, Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.
Actually that’s a lie. All the Christians I know don’t take things as far as Fred Phelps, because when it comes to Christian fundamentalists, Fred Phelps is pretty much the nadir. Even those who forbid women from the pulpit and hound gays out of their churches aren’t as fundamentalist as Fred Phelps.
The church which I used to go to was a conservative evangelical church – still within the Church of England, but during my time there, increasingly adrift from it and at odds with it. It’s reasonable to say I was a bit naive about what the leadership there was actually like when I first went. My theology has hopefully both broadened and deepened as I’ve got older, and it turned out that finding another church to go to was by far the most healthy option, for all concerned.
But however right-wing, however conservative, however reactionary my old church was, it was never as fundamentalist as Westboro Baptist. This church, which probably most of the people reading this will read about and say “why, Simon, why?” is considered heretic, apostate and non-Christian by Phelps. That’s because Phelps considers all other churches, denominations and sects as heretical. He alone is the judge of what passes for authentic Christianity, and to his mind, everybody else fails.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe anything about Christianity to be true: what’s important is that this is the dynamic between people who believe doctrinal purity to be important. It’s layered, stacked like a pile of books, if you will. Except it’s books all the way down. There is no end to bottom of the stack.
When it comes to what are termed social justice issues, exactly the same dynamic applies. There will always be someone more fundamentalist than you, someone who considers your feminist, anti-racist, queer political stand not quite intersectional enough. To them, you are the enemy, just as much an enemy as everybody you consider an enemy. Fundamentalism, in whatever form you encounter it, is essentially toxic, self-destructive, and anti-relationships. I believe we’re better than that.
This is not a counsel of despair, however. There is a way of sidestepping the whole fundamentalist mind-set. My relationship with God is – mostly, because relationships are complicated and involve family and friends – no one’s business but mine and God’s. The same goes with the people you interact with. How you do that is, caveats in mind, between you and them. The Golden Rule, which perhaps unsurprisingly crops up in most of the world’s religions, is Do to others as you’d have them do to you.
Or as two wise men from long ago once said, “Be excellent to one another, and party on.”
(Some background context for this post will probably be helpful. Science fiction and fantasy conventions are either industry-run – that is, a commercial organisation organises the whole shebang – or they’re fan-run – that is, a temporary and voluntary committee is formed to both organise the logistical elements and also co-ordinate other volunteers to run the various events. Inevitably, a lot of the behaviours that have been tolerated or simply ignored till recently – up to and including serious sexual assault – are uncomfortable parts of these conventions’ past and change, while badly needed, is often perceived as difficult and/or unwelcome by some. Even having something as straightforward as a harassment policy is seen in some quarters as controversial. That there is a legacy of racism and sexism in science fiction fandom is hardly exceptional, but is sad, since SFF is supposed to be a forward-looking genre.)
There are lots of things I could say at this point, but I want to narrow it down to two observations. Both arise out of the passing interest I have in church history. If you think the link is somewhat tenuous, bear with me. This is the first.
#1: If you insist on doctrinal purity, you’ll end up as fissiparous as the Western Protestant church.
Fissiparous is one of my favourite words, too long alas for Scrabble, but it’s magnificently exact. Fissiparous means:
1. biology reproducing by fission
2. having a tendency to divide into groups or factions
We’re going for meaning 2 here, and anyone with a vague knowledge of the Protestant Reformation will know that the original protestants, like Martin Luther, weren’t planning on setting up their own churches in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church at all. What they wanted was to reform the practices and doctrine of their mother church, the excesses and abuses that they railed against reversed, and remain priests of the one Holy and Apostolic church in good conscience. (We’re ignoring the Great Schism between the Roman and Orthodox church here, for brevity’s sake.)
History tells us that it didn’t happen like that. The protestants were more successful in the north and west of Europe, and were anathematised by the Roman Catholic Church. The reformed churches, including eventually the Church of England, became independent from Rome. (Let’s also ignore all the wars between newly Protestant countries and old Catholic countries, because that’s tangential to the argument.)
The reformed churches now had to organise themselves outside of the Roman Catholic structure. For the most part, they kept the same institutions (priest and bishop, parish and diocese), but didn’t answer to the pope. In England, the king was made the head of the church. Other, more radical groups, went for a congregationalist structure, where each individual church was more-or-less responsible for its own affairs, overseen by a travelling hierarchy who were most definitely not to be called bishops.
And this is where we get the term “broad church” from. The Church of England is a broad church, in that it suffers (I use the term advisedly) a wide variety of traditions under one roof. Crudely, we have the catholics, the evangelicals and the liberals, and while not exactly believing in the same things and not exactly hating each other, there is a lot of tension between the more passionate adherents of the three strands.
Other churches are not so broad, which is where the argument about doctrine comes in. The first split in the Christian church was (oh go on then) the Great Schism between the eastern Orthodox churches and the western Roman Catholic churches, over the source of the Holy Spirit, the primacy of the Roman pope and whether or not communion bread should be leavened or unleavened. Adding geopolitical concerns and personality to the mix led to east and west going their own separate ways.
Fast forward half a millennium, and we have another major split, this time between the reformed and Roman Catholic churches, again over practice and doctrine. Some reformed churches like the Church of England remain mostly extant, barring the occasional problem with Methodists. Some split again almost immediately, and continue to do so, leading to this joke, first told (the internet tells me) by Emo Phillips.
Two men are standing on a bridge, one is about to jump off and the other is trying to talk him out of it. The man asks the jumper, “So are you a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew or what?”
The jumper replies, “A Christian.”
The man says, “Small world, me too! Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox?”
The jumper answers, “Protestant.”
The man replies, “Me too! What denomination?”
The jumper says, “Baptist”
The man replies, “Me too! Southern Baptist or Northern Baptist?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Baptist.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern region?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
The man replies, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1912?”
The jumper answers, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1912.”
The man then pushes the jumper off the bridge and screams, “Die Heretic!”
This is exactly the situation that an insistence on doctrinal purity leads to. That no matter how much we share in common, it’s the differences that define us, and it’s what leads us to pushing each other off the bridge.
I was at my usual CofE church this morning with an incredibly diverse congregation – ranging from non-Christians to Young Earth Creationist Christians and every flavour in between. The Church of England is a church that doesn’t have a membership as such (though I am on the electoral roll). There are no membership requirements, no statements of what I believe to sign, no questioning by the vicar as to whether I’m pure enough to go on the tea and coffee rota. I don’t agree with everything they believe and vice versa: but with typical Anglican fudge, we get on with both it and each other. If I went along to my brother’s church (he’s a Baptist), the situation would be entirely different – baptism by total immersion as an adult would be just the first step in becoming a member.
Fandom faces a similar choice. It can be a broad church that has a few basic doctrines that we can say without crossing our fingers, or an ever-increasing number of fissiparous factions that, like the man from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region council of 1879, thinks everyone else is a heretic. Most likely, because fandom, like Christianity, isn’t monolithic, there’ll be both a broad church and lots of increasingly smaller, more doctrinally-purer-than-thou factions.
I don’t think the fissiparous urges of the Western Protestant church has helped Christianity in any way. More often than not, the churches involved end up fighting each other over the dwindling number of believers prepared to turn out on a Sunday morning, while wider belief and spirituality remains high. Similarly, people will continue to read and watch SFF – but fewer and fewer will want to be involved in fandom in any meaningful way.
Hear endeth the first lesson.
And lo, it came to pass, that even though the forces of darkness (here represented by the somewhat inclement weather submerging the entire of the south of England – which is the important bit as any fule kno – and winds so strong that my hat almost blew away) raged mightly, they did not prevail.
But enough of the cod seventeenth-century language. The book was launched. It was read from. The bloke what wrote it answered questions about it. He even signed a few copies. It was a success! Huzzah!
Many, many thanks for a brilliant turn-out from the home team, and for Helen Holmes Photography for taking the photos in what was universally acknowledged as not the best lighting conditions (Forbidden Planet Newcastle’s book dept is essentially a basement lit with fluorescent tubes).
It’s a long review (as befits a long book, I suppose) and I’m not going to type it all out – it’s the better part of a page. Suffice to say, the reviewer thinks I’ve done rather well, and again, from the comments in the review, I’m gratified that they’ve “got it”. Yes, it’s epic fantasy: yes, it’s science fiction: yes, it’s a deconstruction of familiar tropes but it’s done with reverence and love.
Here’s the conclusion: “Any attempt to summarize a work this enormous, ambitious, and ultimately powerful can only give the reader a few starting points. I needn’t fear disclosing too much plot when so much lies ahead – along with fascinating characters whose actions, fears and ultimate fates become absorbing enough to lift the book well beyond the level of a clever concept. It achieves the drama of the best epic fantasy while taking the form apart and putting it back together, still very much alive.”
Also: book signing! Forbidden Planet! Newcastle! Tomorrow, 1-2pm!
So, time for a recap.
Arcanum is launched on a mostly-unsuspecting world on Jan 28th. This is not greeted with universal acclaim: there are rumblings in the nether regions about how (and I quote) “I thought this would be a book about magic”. Weeeel, yes and no. More on this in a moment.
As of now, Amazon.co.uk has Arcanum with 3 5* reviews, and on Amazon.com, 1 5* and a 4*. Which isn’t bad. Arcanum is also the Mysterious Galaxy Out-of-this-world Original pick for February. Which is also not bad.
I have a book launch/signing at Forbidden Planet in Newcastle upon Tyne this Saturday (15th Feb), 1-2pm.
Now comes the rub. Friend and colleague (and esteemed script writer) Philip Palmer tweeted last week: “Reading Simon Morden‘s Arcanum – not just a fantasy novel but a glorious hymn to the miracle of science”. Cheers, Philip. That’s pretty much the cat out of the bag.
Okay. Take a deep breath and say it with me: Arcanum is not just a fantasy novel. It’s not, to quote one of the Amazon reviews, about “a merry band of heroes in search of a MacGuffin.” Firstly, the band of heroes aren’t particularly merry, because there’s very little to be merry about – having dodged one existential threat, they find themselves facing another, and this time no amount of fancy footwork will get them out of trouble. Secondly, there is no MacGuffin. Or rather, there is a MacGuffin, but it’s one the heroes have to make themselves, literally forging their own victory out of nothing but ideas and hope.
Arcanum is about politics and social order and religious pluralism. It is also, at its beating heart, about science, both its practice and its philosophy. So you could argue that Arcanum is science fiction – it’ll be interesting to see whether or not it’s considered for any of the SF prizes (like the Clarke Award, hint hint), even though it’s not the first thing you’d point at and say “that’s science fiction”.
Arcanum has wizards and warriors, elves and dwarves, giants and unicorns. It portrays a world in which magic is not just possible, but has been the pre-eminent source of power and authority for centuries. It is also a glorious hymn to the miracle of science. Who says you can’t have both?