Syncretic Electric: A Brief Reflection on Fiction

For the first time since I was a teenager, I am reading through Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I reread Dune a couple of months ago, and was struck by the many things that I missed while reading the book as a teenager. Still, I recognized how impactful Dune had been to me at the time, even if now I am capable of critiquing it in a way that I would not have understood then. This past week, I breezed through both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, and I am now beginning God Emperor of Dune. Coming back to these books has brought back the impact they had on my young psyche, and the role they played in my development.

When I first read these books, I was a Jehovah’s Witness. Granted, I was not a very good or faithful Jehovah’s Witness, but I did define myself by my relationship with that religion. The whole Dune saga presents a deeply suspicious view of religion, while simultaneously recognizing its great power. The struggle that plays out across the books is largely a religious struggle, an argument playing out several positions on the freedom of mankind. As a young man struggling with my religion, these books helped to deepen my sense of suspicion and distrust for the dogma that I was immersed in.

My reasons for leaving the faith that I was raised in were entirely my own. However, these books helped me to understand an alternative. They gave me a strange kind of hope. It was a cold, analytical hope, but it was still a hope. If nothing else, the novels that I read showed me that there were other ways of living, that were other things that were true, and this was an idea that clashed utterly with Jehovah’s Witness doctrine.

Many Pagans have spoken of the role of literature in their coming to Paganism. The books that we read as children, science fiction and fantasy, informed the ways we relate to the world, and when we found Paganism, well, for many of us it was a homecoming. I have to say, however, that for myself, literature did not lead me into religion. If anything, literature lead me out of it. By my late teens, I no longer thought of myself as a Jehovah’s Witness, and for several years, I consider myself to be something like an Atheist.

My love of literature took me very far away from religious belief. The Hobbit is one of the first books I remember reading, followed quickly by The Lord of the Rings. I return to these books regularly, and reading them again is like slipping into a well worn sweater, comfortable and warm. They do not, though, stir any religious feeling. If anything, they remind me of why I left religion in the first place. These books remind me that there are other truths, that there are other ways of being, that there are so many different ways of looking the world, of understanding the complexity of life.

Books plant seeds. When we read, we open ourselves up a bit to the strange influence of others ideas, and they lay dormant inside of us. The influence of books depends on how nurture the seeds they plant. For me, the literature of my youth led me away from religion, because that was what I wanted it to do. My own experience, my own understanding, took these books which for many were a clarion call to faith, and turned them against religion. My experience of the literature of science fiction and fantasy was a liberation from religion.

Sarah M. Pike observes:

 Neopagans assume that there is a dynamic relationship between fiction and their own lives. They see their experiences reflected in Arthurian legend, J.R . R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and ancient Greek myths. They react as if the boundary between fictional and real worlds is fluid, and their ritual work draws heavily on the fantasy novels and myths they are familiar with. (2001, p. 170)

Fiction definitely had a great impact on my life, as it continues to do. Looking at my life and my relationship to the books that I love, I can largely agree, personally, with Pike’s commentary. However, in the end, I was not brought into Paganism by these delightful fictions. If anything, the same suspicions that I experienced in my youth, directed then toward the faith of my upbringing, remain. I grow nervous when people appeal to these beloved friends of mine as support for their belief and practices, not because I doubt the sincerity of their belief or the efficacy of their action, but because I wonder how we could have read these same books and come to such different conclusions.

In my understanding, the boundary between fiction and reality is fluid, but only in as much as we allow fiction to open us up. A good book should leave us changed by the end of it, it should have touched something inside of us and shown us something we would not have experienced otherwise. For me, the literature of my youth showed me possibility, change, and variation. I hope that we, as Pagans, can continue to understand how important possibility really is.

 

References:

Pike, S. M. (2001). Earthly bodies, magical selves: Contemporary pagans and the search for community. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press


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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.

  • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

    I would say I have a similar relationship to fiction when it comes to my spirituality. As an avid reader and a fiction writer, it’s hugely important to me, and many of the books I have read have definitely changed and informed my life. But my Paganism was sparked by something more integral to me, I think. And fiction and mythology informs my practice no more than, say, science or philosophy. It’s a big conglomeration of all the things that inform my life experience.

    • Julian Betkowski

      I am still cautious, though, of the urge to justify spiritual experience through either fiction or mythology. Spirituality must, I feel, be capable of bearing its own weight, and not rely upon the support of alien vectors. I do agree with you, as my spirituality is heavily influenced not only by literature and mythology, but also philosophy and some science.

      However, I think that it is important, at least for myself, that I do not use these other forms of discourse as a justification for my spiritual belief. My experience and my understanding has moved me to draw certain conclusions, and that should be enough in and of itself. I think that we make a mistake when we try and tie our spiritual experiences too deeply into other realms of knowledge.

      Spirituality cannot be proven by literature anymore than it can be disproven by science. While literature may lead us on to spiritual experience, it is not directly analogous to it.

      • Thisica

        This is why I keep a separate lexicon for personal experiences from everyday and scientific discourse. For instance, I do not use the word ‘energy’ when describing how I feel about such experiences, since I find that it is confusing for me as a physicist, who sees the word ‘energy’ as a abstract physical variable. I also try to keep as clear as possible–which is more of an ideal anyway–the distinction between my personal experiences and my personal interpretations. They aren’t the same to me. This allows other people and I to form our own opinions about what the experience means to us without denigrating the experience itself.

        • Julian Betkowski

          It is very important, I think, to recognize the experience foremost, and then to come to interpretation, which is always a secondary practice. Our interpretations should respect the experience, and not seek to replace or justify it. So, I really do think that it is a good idea to specialize our language, as you suggest, in order to help us maintain the primacy of the experience.

      • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

        I like your take on this – as a naturalist, I veer too much sometimes towards trying to justify everything with scientific thinking, and I find it hard sometimes to allow the spiritual experience and feeling to speak for itself.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer
    • Julian Betkowski

      As usual, that is a brilliant article, Christine. Part of my concern with the way that we approach fiction, as Pagans, is that I fear that we conflate spiritual experience with its immediate object. So, if I am spiritually moved by a passage in the Lord of the Rings, I then take the Lord of the Rings as sacred. I would suggest that this is a category error. The spiritual experience is contingent on so many things, and works in such an expansive way, that when we approach them in this way, I fear we end up restricting and denaturing spirituality.

      I have had profound spiritual experiences gazing upon abstract paintings in the Carnegie Museum, but that does not mean that the paintings, or the artists, or the museum are sacred. It merely suggests to me that the context was such that it opened me up to spiritual possibilities. I suspect that fiction can work in the same way, and that it is a powerful mistake to reduce spiritual experience to its immediate object, since that closes down the possibility of wider spiritual experience or understanding.

      Further, I think that it is important, as you noted, to recognize the intention behind the creation of works of fiction, as well as to recognize the role that these fictions play in the larger culture. The idea that there should be a difference between entertainment and edification is fairly new, and we need to be aware that even novels, prior to the Modern Era, often functioned as pedagogical tools.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Also, potentially relevant? Certainly fascinating. “Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.” http://www.medicaldaily.com/psychologists-discover-how-people-subconsciously-become-their-favorite-fictional-characters-240435

    • Craig Dennyson

      Therefore, I am Doctor Who. Where did I put my sonic screwdriver?

  • Sunweaver

    Curious that Greek mythology is lumped in there with Lord of the Rings, since those myths are more than “delightful fictions” to your average Hellenic. Even more curious is that you don’t make that distinction in your statements following the quote. Where’s the line between fiction and sacred stories, then? Is it all “just” fiction?

    • Julian Betkowski

      I do have a word limit, and in trying to keep this article under a thousand words I couldn’t examine every detail. I wanted to pull that quote intact, rather than splice it into sections, since I felt that it does have some power, even if it is a little controversial. Given that the rest of my post is concerned with literature in the proper sense, I felt that the quote would be understood in that context.

      Mythology is more difficult than most people are willing to admit, and there is still room for fiction within religious discourse. However, we need to recognize that there different purposes behind different fictions. There is also poetic meaning, by which many people interpret myth today. The easy example is of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which most modern Christians read to contain poetic truth, not literal truth. How many of us Pagans accept the etiological stories at face value? Those need to be reinterpreted, and if they are to continue to have relevancy be read as a sort of divine fiction. But this really wasn’t the point of my writing, here.

      However, my concern in this article, being based heavily on my own experience, is that we should be cautious to allow literature to operate on us in an open ended fashion, to help us expand our horizons, rather than narrow them. Literature shouldn’t be used to excuse or justify our own desires, but to show us that there is more out there.

      • Sunweaver

        “The easy example is of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which
        most modern Christians read to contain poetic truth, not literal truth.”

        …I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Globally, you’re correct, but where I’m from, you can’t hardly swing a cat without hitting a Bible literalist. And the last time I made a comparison between ancient Greek heroes and modern hero stories, there were some who assured me that the ancient stories were about real people who lived and breathed. There are polytheistic literalists, too.

        I’m not making a value judgment here; but I do find it interesting to see where others draw their fiction/non-fiction/divine story line.

        • Julian Betkowski

          I’m not necessarily trying to draw lines here, and simply because something my be fictive, doesn’t mean that it can’t be divine. There are sacred fictions, and there is a long tradition of sacred theater. However, I think that it is important for us to recognize the different ways that fictions operate, and that religious usages of fiction are very different from our modern conceptions of entertainment.

          If you decide to take a literal reading of some of these stories, then you are making arbitrary distinctions to disregard certain realms of knowledge. I think that it is really dangerous to conflate scientific knowledge with religious or spiritual knowledge. By insisting on the literal accuracy of certain etiological stories, we are stripping them of their spiritual truth or accuracy, while simultaneously closing ourselves off to other realms of knowledge.

          People may do these things, but my argument is that such behavior is essentially a misunderstanding and miscategorization of knowledge. For these stories to have continued relevancy we need to be willing to adapt our interpretive strategies.

          • Sunweaver

            A lot of people derive value from understanding mythology, at least in part, as a literal thing that happened. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a misunderstanding. It’s certainly not an understanding that works for you, which is fine, but not everyone sees mythology as fiction. These stories can be perfectly relevant to a person who understands a mythological event as historical fact. For that matter, historical fact can be relevant or inform a person’s spiritual experience and practice. The accuracy of the story isn’t really relevant to the spiritual or religious value derived from it and nor does the story necessarily have to be interpreted at all– at least not on a conscious level.

            I once had a major spiritual experience when I learned how mitochondria work, not from any conscious interpretation of that, but because it was just there and elegant and beautiful– in a completely non-theistic way (at least at the time).
            If a story connects you with the divine, helps you be more compassionate, or otherwise adds positive value to your life, there’s no misunderstanding. If it does not do these things and you think it ought to, that’s the time to either “adapt interpretive strategies” or find different stories.

            • Julian Betkowski

              I hardly said that all mythology was fiction, or that I interpreted all mythology as fiction. I simply said that there are some mythological stories that, given our modern understanding, we need to reevaluate. I was drawing a distinction between literal sense and poetic sense.

              There is still historic value in reading the Iliad, even if we are too far distant to know with certainty the truth of the narrative. I would never suggest that the entirety of such a work is fictive. However, given the literary nature of the work, it is also a mistake to read it as a literal history. Numerous interpretive strategies must be employed to perceive the full import. When we restrict ourselves to one way of understanding a text, we limit our understanding. If we insist on reading the Iliad as a literal history, we will miss the poetry of the text.

              And even you said, “at least in part.”

              • Sunweaver

                I am hesitant to say that if a person doesn’t take a particular strategy when reading a text, then they’re doing it wrong. Whether or not the reader believes the story to be literally true is irrelevant to the value derived from the story. Why is it necessary to reevaluate or reinterpret if spiritual growth can be had from a simpler understanding?
                A Buddhist can study the story of Buddha’s enlightenment for decades, analyzing every word, understanding the historical context, filtering out the myth from the history, interpreting the story up one side and down the other, but that’s not going to bring enlightenment. Sometimes the lightbulb comes on a little easier if you’re not all wrapped up in “interpretive strategies.” That’s an interesting academic pursuit and has worth in and of itself, but it’s not necessary to spiritual growth.

                • Julian Betkowski

                  I’m not talking entirely about spiritual growth at this point, as I thought was making clear. Reading the first chapter of Genesis as literal history makes an understanding of Modern Science impossible. You might not want to say that they are wrong to choose to read the text in that way, but the ramifications of such a reading are certainly questionable.

                  Further, who are you to say that a close analysis of the words of Buddha in a historical or linguistic context won’t bring enlightenment? Some of my most profound experiences have resulted from careful research or even a close reading of a dense passage from a philosophical text.

                  By insisting on one view, even if it is the “common sense” view, we run the risk of restricting meaning, rather than expanding it. What about the long history of analysis in Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities? What about the Kabalistic practices that purposefully deconstruct and reconstruct texts? All of these represent different interpretive strategies particularly designed to bring about enlightenment, or at least a deeper understanding of their respective texts.

                  Again, quoting myself,”For me, the literature of my youth showed me possibility, change, and variation. I hope that we, as Pagans, can continue to understand how important possibility really is.” I have been suggesting that the experience of literature and fiction should be open ended, and have argued from that position for this whole conversation.

                  • Sunweaver

                    I’m not anti-analysis, but I don’t think that’s the only right way. I’m just wary of “should” as pertains to any aspect of religious practice. “I should” is fine. “You should” is… a limited way to approach the diversity of religious practice.

                    And the nature of Buddhism doesn’t lend itself to enlightenment via academic understanding. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, but the stories Buddhist teachers tell don’t point to that as being the primary way in which enlightenment occurs. I say this as a Buddhist myself– and an academic.

                    At this point, we seem to be going around in circles, so thank you for the conversation. I’ve rather enjoyed it. Life’s no fun if everyone agrees with you all the time.

                    • Julian Betkowski

                      I am always glad to have a good conversation!


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