The advent season is upon us and to countdown, the Keep Calm and Read On Blog will be hosting 4 weeks of Fictional Liturgy. Fiction, as discussed in a post I wrote for MuggleNet back in October, has the power to create empathy and teach the reader. It requires reflection. Good fiction contains wisdom. In these 4 blogs I plan to focus on a cultural issue and a specific work of fiction ranging from novels to films, while sprinkling in some personal notes from time to time. I wrote them as one would write a sermon…or at least how I imagine one writes a sermon. I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar nor do I claim these pieces of fiction I reference to carry more weight than the Bible. These posts will reflect my beliefs but I hope they will also reflect the message of Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom. Merry Christmas.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
Earlier this year, a scandal on the same scale as Cupgate (mentioned in the first blog of this series) swept the nation. Someone posted a picture of a dress and some people saw it as white and gold while others saw blue and black. It was as if the world had imploded. Friends became foes; families were torn apart and this all happened because they didn’t see the same colors in a photograph. Turns out, there is a scientific explanation to this mind bending phenomenon. So what can we take from this trying incident that rocked our nation to it’s core? What we see isn’t always objective. Not everything is what it seems.
Growing up, I used to believe that Catholicism was a universal belief. As far as I was concerned, everyone I knew was Catholic like me. Then I learned my friend was a Nazarene, my cousins were Jewish, and my neighbors didn’t even go to church. It took a while for my developing brain to wrap my head around the idea that every person believed something different. Then things got even more confusing when I began delving into the history and layers of different beliefs. I wondered how I could know my beliefs were correct when someone with the completely opposite perspective believed they were the correct one.
Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather takes a fascinating look at the idea of truth and belief. A self proclaimed atheist, Pratchett’s ideas certainly reflect his beliefs which begs the question, why the hell am I blogging about messages that seems to argue against my own beliefs? Well, I don’t think I am. Out of all the blogs I’ve written for Fictional Liturgy, this one have given me the bulk of my problems. I had to really contemplate how to approach this subject and am quite nervous about posting to be truthful. But the truth is, we can learn from anyone. Others have discussed Pratchett’s relationship to Christianity and the article that really helped me a lot is from a blog called Eureka Street. Their article states,
“But conversations like the one above [quote that began this blog] between Death and Susan show that there can be no great gulf between someone who believes in a purely material universe and someone who believes that there exists something beyond that universe, so long as they can agree that justice, mercy and duty are important values to uphold.”
Truth isn’t objective. The way we understand truth is through a combination of our upbringing, our current culture (which points back to history and how our culture came to do and believe certain things), the media we take in, etc. The ideas and rituals which we put into practice all stem from somewhere. More often than not the roots look very different compared to the actual plant.
Take the Hogfather as an example. The Hogfather started out as a basic winter demiurge. His ancient ties to magical rituals meant that he began as an animal sacrifice to ensure that the sun rose. When folks realized that the sun could rise without him dying, he had to find a new occupation. Thus, he began handing out presents every winter but also continued to hold onto his roots of ensuring the sun to rise. It’s strange, right? Pratchett’s novels are often very absurd. But if we really sit down and think about it, Hogfather’s commentary on how we came to believe and celebrate things really isn’t all that strange.
Take the equivalent of the Hogfather in our world, Santa Claus. Santa’s origins go all the way back to the third century. Nicholas, born in Myra or modern day Turkey, first became known by his generosity. He gave away all of his wealth and traveled the countryside to help the poor and the sick. Or what about Thanksgiving which came about so the Puritans could escape religious persecution. They didn’t eat turkey but deer meat. And Thanksgiving didn’t bring peace between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. Read more at this link. Today, Santa carries a Coca-Cola bottle and Thanksgiving is all about football. The Hogfather legend no longer seems so strange.
The reason I am spending valuable time on this is because ideas change. Sometimes what we have been taught to believe comes from an artificial or misinterpretted place. As time passes, details fade and we know no better. Take ideas discussed in this blog series like feminism and LGBTQ rights. Today our views of these things, whether you agree or disagree, look very different from say the Middle Ages or the Civil War or Biblical Times.
Therefore it is safe to assume that it is a hard task to define a universal truth. Truth is subjective, neither consistent nor eternal.
Now the question becomes, what can we possibly take away from this concept and how does it apply to the quote used at the beginning of this blog? In the quote, the character of Death implies that justice, mercy, and duty are human inventions and don’t truly exist, nor does Santa or the Hogfather. Yet we tell our children they exist. Why? Well, Death says that children need to start believing the little lies so that they can grow up to believe the big ones.
Here is where it gets tricky. How can this apply to Christians? The implication is that everything is of human invention and therefore everything is a lie, including God. But let’s take a step back one moment. We can’t dance around the truth. Organized religion is human invention, a way to make sense of the world. Now some readers may be thinking, oh so God is just a way to get through to the next day? No, Death is not saying that. He makes that explicit.
Religion is an idea and there are multiple ideas of religion. If you put a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Hindu in the same room they will all have multiple viewpoints of the world and their life based on their religion. What’s more is that they will all strongly back up their belief with their own evidence. Who is wrong? Who is right? We can’t know. Sure we can attempt to find truth but it will never be a black and white concept. Truth always exists in the gray.
Going back to the evolution of ideas, put a 1st century Christian, a 14th century Christian, and a 21st century Christian in the same room. They will have multiple viewpoints of truth and they are all of the same religion! Ideas are ever changing and truth is never fully realized because our spectrum will always be limited by the circumstances of our birth.
The point is that universal truth is hard to find. Ideas are every changing. Whether it be ideas of death, feminism, homosexuality, or proper table manners. As I said earlier, truth is a subjective quality and therefore it is neither consistent nor eternal.
And most importantly, these ideas can’t exist without people to believe in them.
So why would I write this blog? The big reason I felt the need to write this is because I am sick of people separating themselves because of things like religion and differing viewpoints in general. I once read an account from a Native American man about who God is. What struck me was that the God he described sounded like the Christian God I believe in. Turns out, we aren’t so different after all.
Jeff Kesselman says on Quora, “Death’s point is that none of the most important things in life are “natural” or “real”. They are all things we chose to believe in because that belief makes the world and our lives in it a better place. That the importance of a belief is not existence of what is believed in, but simply the existence of the belief itself. Terry Pratchett has also said “Man is the ape that tell stories.” And it is through stories of all varieties that we shape and manage our world.”
Stories hold a lot of power (obviously, I based a whole blog series on the sacristy of stories). We should use stories to share experiences, explore the unexplored and the fascinating, and remain open to finding truth in all places.
“IT’S THE EXPRESSION ON THEIR LITTLE FACES I LIKE, said the Hogfather [Death].
“You mean sort of fear and awe and not knowing whether to laugh or cry or wet their pants?”
YES. NOW THAT IS WHAT I CALL BELIEF.”