Where Fiction Saves Lives

Recently, in the last ten years or so, I’ve started putting my spirituality directly into my fiction writing. So there’s always a character, usually one of the prominent supporting characters, who is the Enlightened or Nearly-Enlightened Master. 

(Usually. In Loki of Midgard, it’s Mistress Oydis. In Debts of Honor it’s Luna Lovegood. In Venus in Effigy it’s actually a character who never made it to the page, but was still in my head, affecting things. In Looking Long Into The Abyss, it’s Queenie Goldstein.) 

But it’s more than that. Most prominent in Loki and Debts, we get examples of actual meditations, of breathing exercises, of people calling on the hard emotional and spiritual work they’ve actually done that has so entirely changed their lives for the better, and it is sometimes lifted directly from my own life.

Is it overtly Christian? 

Usually not. In fact I have only written one overtly Christian character so far, and it’s Viktor Krum – I made him an Orthodox Christian, which is delightfully far away from so many of the Protestant and Catholic issues as to be an entirely different religion, without the difficulty of actually being entirely different. But I digress. Most of my characters who are enlightened or nearly enlightened or on the path, or doing spiritual work aren’t Christian, and I’ve done that on purpose.

I’m not speaking to Christians. Christians are not my intended audience. I mean, sure, I happen to know some of my few thousand fanfic readers are Christian because they’ve told me so, but I also know that the rest of them range from Asatru to No Thank You, and heaps of them sit comfortably in the Spiritual But Not Religious section.

Now, it’s worth saying that I have colleagues who genuinely don’t believe ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ is a valid section. I happen to disagree, and quite frankly most days I feel more comfortable in that section myself, despite my technical religiosity. I also am perfectly aware that there is the more conservative strain of Christianity who believes there is no salvation outside of the church, or the person of Jesus, which you might imagine is splitting a hair but believe me, there’s a lot of splitting of hairs in salvific theology. And (clearly?) I do not belong to that camp. Which gets me in trouble with the people who do, and is a breath of fresh air for those who don’t.

And it’s interesting, because I’m about to renew my ordination vows next Tuesday. It’s something we used to do annually before the pandemic, and before our new bishop who came on the scene only slightly before that. And one of the vows I took at each ordination (two, first to the diaconate, second to the priesthood) and at every renewal since then is that I believe the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation.

And what follows might be me splitting a few hairs, but then again, I’m an Episcopalian and we weigh our written word very carefully; we do not write down what we do not mean, there is a wealth of meaning in what we do write down, and if we haven’t written it down exactly that way, then it’s still open to interpretation. Lawyers would find our word choices water-tight, and we like it that way. And so when the vow says ‘all that is necessary’ for salvation, the unspoken here is that the Bible might genuinely contain a whole heap of other bullshit that is totally distracting (can’t tell me the stories of god-sponsored genocide and incest ISN’T exactly that because I just won’t believe you) but in the midst of that bullshit there is a pearl, and that pearl describes what is necessary. Other texts and other wisdom from other traditions and cultures might also contain that pearl, and perhaps for some even more clearly so; no problem. Not saying you can’t find it other places. Just saying you can find it here.

But I digress. Again.

My heart is with the Spiritual But Not Religious folk, despite my Christian upbringing, despite my theology degree, despite my ordinations, despite the fact that I’m still employed by a parish to be their priest, administer their church, and lead their rituals. Half of my spiritual directees are Spiritual But Not Religious. And I have no desire to evangelize them, to turn them into Christians. But I do want to help them have the best relationship with God that they can have, to be able to define their own personal values and live up to them better every day, and to work out the most important practical lesson that I think the Bible has to offer, even if it is like a Zen Koan; when you sort out loving your neighbor as yourself, you will have fallen sideways into loving God.

And so that’s what’s in my writing, too. Eeeeverybody is wrestling with what it means to love yourself, and your neighbor as yourself. There’s usually at least one intimate relationship in there because I tend to believe that for the people who participate in them, our most intimate relationship is the bellweather on our capacity to love others as ourselves. (Jesus has some great quotes on the subject, but I’ll spare you. Instead, have a quote from Eckhart Tolle on the subject of your spouse: They are the sharpest tool of your enlightenment.) 

And you know, I feel rather vindicated in my choices, writing wise. Mostly because in the two large archives I’ve used since I started to write and post online so many years ago, I get an opportunity to easily communicate with the people who read the stories I write. And they tell me if they can’t stand what I’ve written (I’ve had a few of those), and they also tell me if they love it. Sometimes they tell me that it changed their lives. That it was the perfect thing they needed to hear just then. That they read it to their dying best friend and it gave them comfort. That it helped them in their darkest moments. That they use that meditation, now. That it inspires them to reach for something better and to know that they deserve it. That they’ve memorized the passage, the poem, the quote and it lives inside their hearts, now.

I’m reminded of Mr. Rogers, who some may not know was a Christian minister (his flavor didn’t call their ordained leaders priests, but it’s the same role). And the only congregation he ever served was his PBS show in which he taught a whole generation (or three) of children what it was to love their neighbor as themselves. He did it deliberately and with great care for the wellbeing of the children and zero care for turning them into Christians.

Mr. Rogers is my hero, and despite the fact that my content is aimed at adults and will never be on PBS, there is a similarity in essence, I think.

(The title of this blogpost was inspired by a Neil Gaiman quote, which I’ll go into in next week’s newsletter, for those who are interested. It’s free, btw.)

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