We’re all gonna die, and isn’t that beautiful?
Does Brandon Sanderson create “Mormon” art? Did J.R.R. Tolkien write a “Catholic” saga? How about C.S. Lewis—were his books distinctly “Anglican”? Maybe George R.R. Martin and Philip Pullman—the latter I only include among these legends to contrast their greatness with his execrable, hateful screed—are “atheist” writers, just like Douglas Adams?
The answer to all of these questions is “Yes.” If you don’t think a writer’s faith influences their writing, you’re dreaming.
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Brandon Sanderson Is Your God
He’s the biggest fantasy writer in the world. He’s also very Mormon. These things are profoundly related.
“But Alexander, atheists have no faith!”
That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo. Atheism is a religion. It just places its faith in different things. It has its own dogma and strictures and blasphemies, its own adversary, its own eschatology, its own temples and sacraments. Stop deluding yourself.
The point isn’t to dunk on atheists, or anybody else (well, maybe that Wired writer)
That Wired writer may come across like a condescending jerk, sneering at his host’s earnest hospitality, but he has a point about Sanderson’s writing being informed by his religion. Because Sanderson is human, just like (presumably) that Wired writer,1 whose writing is also informed by his religion. And that’s okay.
Then let’s talk about Mormonism in another way. Let’s talk about it as it relates to fantasy. Because it’s no secret: Mormonism is the fantasy of religion. “The science-fiction edition of Christianity,” I’ve heard it called, with its angels and alternative histories, embodied gods, visions and plates made of gold. I ask Sanderson if I’ve got the ultimate promise of the religion right—the ultimate promise being, as I understand it, that we humans will, if we’re good, and marry well, and memorize the passcodes, eventually pass into the highest kingdom and come into our divine inheritance. We’ll become gods, in other words, and get our own planets.
Sanderson doesn’t balk at the characterization; he agrees that’s the gist, and he knows where I’m going. He knows I want to know if what he’s doing—writing fantasy books—is fundamentally, in some way, some very central way, Mormon. Of course it is, he says. The worldbuilding. The gods incarnate. The systems of magic. So much of Mormonism is about rules; so are his books, where miracles don’t happen unless you put in the work. That’s when, between mouthfuls of pork cutlet, Sanderson makes the connection between his work and the work of his Heavenly Father explicit. This is when he speaks the seven words of truth, the only ones I’m certain he has never said, in quite this way, ever before: “As I build books,” Sanderson says, as I sit there, for once entirely enraptured, “God builds people.”
All fiction is message fiction, whether you like it or not. And writing being informed by religion doesn’t mean that a writer is explicitly trying to convert the reader, though if anyone reading my books wants to become Orthodox, or Christian generally, then great. But they don’t have to, or even be Christian to enjoy my books.
I enjoy Douglas Adams’s books.2 I enjoy George R.R. Martin’s too.3 They are good writers who wrote entertaining stories (albeit, the latter’s is unfinished). I never got the sense they were trying to make me an atheist. I didn’t enjoy Phillip Pullman’s writing, despite him being a technically skilled and imaginative writer, because his message was obnoxiously in-your-face, “Aren’t Christianity and Christian’s stupid, and evil, too?”4 I felt like he was trying to convert me to atheism, and it turned his story from universe-hopping mystery into a bitter jeremiad where I was rooting for the bad guy (God) to murder our heroes.
All of this makes me wonder what Orthodox writing is. What themes? What vibe? What feel? The easy answer is “read Dostoevsky,” but I want to parse things out a little more, though Dostoevsky, as always, provides the perfect thoughts to use as a springboard.
1. Man’s Fallen Nature is Front and Center, and there is No Salvation without God
“And what's strange, what would be marvelous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Though Orthodox services are full of praises to God and his love, man’s fallen nature is never kept far out of mind. There is a lot of praying for forgiveness and the power to overcome the wiles of the Evil One. Deep despair mixed with unshakable hope is a key part of Orthodox writing, just like it is a key part of the Bible (more on this later).
2. God Provides Necessary Limits, and Necessary Forgiveness
“If there's no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn't that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?” The Brothers Karamazov
Without God, the saying goes, all things are possible . . . and that’s not an endorsement. The idea that you will be resurrected at the end of days, and you will face reward or punishment for how you acted in life underscores the fact that life matters. It also, related to theme one, means that we’re bound to fail because none are sinless. But this is where God comes in, Christ the redeemer. If you repent earnestly, and accept Christ, your sins will be forgiven. Not might be forgiven, but will. Orthodox writing should be infused with this theme, even if not overtly; it can be couched in other ways similar to how Tolkien expertly embedded Catholic5 themes into his epic fantasy.
We’re so jaded that we forget how unbelievably powerful this is, and I mean “unbelievable” in the most literal possible sense of the word, because the idea that we will be forgiven by someone who loved us unconditionally makes zero sense, leading us into theme three.
3. Faith is Irrational
"I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth."
We’ve all heard the phrase “fool for Christ.” Other denominations, of course, take this to heart as well, but in my experience this is a very Orthodox theme. We are all fools for God. Our belief sounds crazy to others—it even sounds crazy to believers—but that’s okay because it is crazy. It’s also true. This is very hard to explain, and one of those “You know it when you see it” things, but it explains why martyrs would rather be executed in brutal ways than deny Christ. Orthodox writing should be steeped in this idea.
4. Man is Also Irrational
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering . . .”
Human behavior can be inexplicably counterintuitive. This is due in large part to the fall (see theme one). How this manifests itself is rich fodder for stories. People do things to harm themselves for reasons that make zero sense. Sometimes these people aren’t religious, but sometimes they are. Everybody falls off the bike, so to speak. It’s the why that should be explored.
Orthodoxy is doleful but not dour. It is heavy sadness at the condition of life mixed with unspeakable joy. It is very romantic in the classical sense of the term. Everything I’ve read by Dostoevsky and especially Nikos Kazantzakis, touches on this theme.
5. Everyone Has a Religion
“There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
We discussed this above. The point is, if you’re not worshipping God, you’re worshipping someone or something else. And it might be pretty nasty. “Freedom from religion” does not promise what people think it promises. You might disagree, but this is a theme I believe should be present in Orthodox writing.
6. The Only Thing that Matters is Forever
Dostoevsky says openly in the Diary of a Writer that the only idea capable of inspiring a man is that of the immortality of the soul.
Lev Shestov, In Job's Balances: On the Sources of the Eternal Truths
If you’re not writing about the human soul, bro, are you even writing?
Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool's paradise.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot
To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
A Note on Northern Courage
A really good piece by Johann Kurtz has been making the rounds. Briefly, the concept of northern courage states that Northern European cultures fight on in the face if certain defeat because it’s the right thing to do:
Tolkien perceived in the great cultures of Northern Europe an unshakeable commitment to fight, and to fight well, to the bitter end - even when defeat was certain. For him, this was exemplified by the gods of Norse mythology, who knew they would die in the final battle, Ragnarök, but nonetheless they went to fight, despite the prophecy that sun would become black, the earth would sink into the sea, the stars vanish, scalding steam would rise, and flames would touch the heavens.
It feels wrong to disagree with the great man, but this is hardly a uniquely Northern European trait. If I may toot my own culture’s horn, what about the real-life example of the Greeks facing certain doom at the hands of the invading Persians at Marathon? That the Greeks won isn’t the point: they were expecting to die, but they fought anyway. Better death than surrender.
And then the Spartans at Thermopylae decades later? “Eat well, because this night we dine in Hades.” Death was a certainty, but to fight was the right thing to do.
And then the decisive naval battle at Salamis? None of the Greeks thought they’d make it out alive. Not even that arch-schemer (and I say that with love) Themistocles, who knew he was crazy, but if he could delude himself into thinking they had a chance, he could delude others.
How very Orthodox of them. And the weren’t even Christian.6
But the idea of northern courage isn’t uniquely Orthodox, nor is it uniquely Christian; I’m sure it exists in the religion, literature, history, and mythology of other cultures. But it remains an inescapable Christian, Orthodox, Orthodox-adjacent theme.
In conclusion, to sum up the paradox of Orthodox writing, we’re all miserable sinners who are going to die, and isn’t that beautiful?
PS That Wired writer has come under a lot of flack for his piece on Sanderson. I think that the article raises a lot of interesting points about the nature of fandom, but it also, as the Deseret News put it, was “more about the writer for Wired, Jason Kehe, than the man Kehe claims to have traveled to Utah ‘in the freezing-cold dead of winter’ to profile.”
If you want to read some Orthodox writing, you’ll love my sword-and-planet trilogy The Swordbringer.
His name is Jason Kehe. I just enjoy referring to him as “that Wired writer.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The rest of the series is good too, but it is definitely very nihilistic, which I have to assume is a function of Adams’s atheism.
The first three A Song of Ice and Fire books are masterpieces, and I will die on that hill.
The Golden Compass? More like The Golden Comp-ASS.
The Venn diagram of “Orthodox themes” and “Catholic themes” has something like 95 percent overlap.
This critique is in no way intended to detract from Mr. Kurtz’s excellent article. I highly recommend you read the entire thing.