Is Spirituality Fantasy?

(Part 1 of 3)

Ok, since last week’s post was all about profanity, I thought we might now turn our attention to the profound.  This is going to be the first of a three-part series about gods and religion in fantasy, with an eye towards the situation where an author and his readership might have different real-world beliefs.  The series will culminate in a World Crafting piece on gods and deities.

In one of my earlier posts, I’ve talked about how, within the macro-genre of speculative fiction, the distinguishing factor between science fiction and fantasy is the respective absence or presence of the supernatural.  Since that post, I was asked at lunch one day, “but what about spirituality?” My immediate response was: “Fantasy.”  She seemed a little taken aback, because the word “fantasy” is synonymous with “fictional”.

Now, I realize that can get me in hot water.  She didn’t react this way, but I could imagine someone thinking, “Wait, are you telling me my religion is fantasy?”  (Well, maybe yes, but that’s beside the point).

Consider for a moment:

A Christian says to an atheist: “I don’t understand how you can’t believe in God.”
The atheist says, “Sure you do.  We’re not that different, you and me.”
“Impossible,” the Christian says.  “What do you mean?”
The atheist replies, “You already don’t believe in hundreds of gods.  Zeus, Athena, Odin, and the list goes on.”
“That’s true,” the Christian concedes.
“See,” the atheist says.  “In almost all the gods that people have ever believed in, you and I agree.  I’ve just gone one god further.”

As I alluded to before, the crux is the word “fantasy”.  It implies “fiction”–“not true”–“not real”–“imaginary”.  No one likes the implication that what they believe to be real (in this case that person’s religious metaphysics) is being called “imaginary”.

(Almost) all fiction has story elements that are realistic, including science-fiction and fantasy.  In fantasy, walking through the woods, falling in love, being cheated on by a lover, hating an enemy, are realistic experiences we can relate to, and it’s these touchstones of reality woven through the fiction that make the story relatable–they ground us to the story–and help facilitate the suspension of disbelief.  Science-fiction tells us what the fiction is: the science and/or technology (although the implication here is what might be possible–sci-fi has the luxury of being fiction today, possible tomorrow).  Fantasy, on the other hand, tells us it’s the magical/supernatural elements that are the fake, because it plays “what if” with the underlying metaphysics of the world..  (I’ll admit, I’m somewhat generalizing here).

From a writer’s perspective, how does spirituality affect the “genre”, because not everyone believes the supernatural is fiction.  I would argue that the presence of spirituality in a story does not, by itself, make it fantasy.  You could have sci-fi with spirituality as a subtext, and spirituality often plays a role in mainstream, non-SF fiction as well.

This brings me to what distinguishes fantasy from “just fiction”.  Mainstream fiction is a story that *could* happen but didn’t.  Fantasy, by definition, is a story that can’t happen, because the metaphysics of the made-up world aren’t real.  Magic doesn’t exist.  Nor to ghosts, vampires, or gods (at least not in the way they are portrayed in fantasy).

What about a reader who believes in God?  Is this to say that–from a writer’s perspective–faith must be fantasy and treated as such?  No, I don’t think so.  The key is in how it’s handled, and for there we must look to real-world experiences of spirituality and how they can be had, shared, and then dismissed by others.  These experiences are open to interpretation.  Faith and spirituality affect people’s lives, and so too they affect character’s lives.  However, religious miracles are neither overt nor reproducible.  Once they become so in fiction, then I would argue that we’ve crossed the line into fantasy, because that’s not the way our world works (even if you believe in such things).

It doesn’t matter whether or not the author believes that what he’s writing about is real… the reader has a say in how the genre is experienced.  In this case, the experience of the genre as fantasy or realistic fiction is a shared agreement between reader and writer.  For a mainstream audience, the author needs to understand and accept the characteristics of the generic reader.  If you write about miracles, manifestations, and direct active intervention by deities, you have to accept that your work of fiction will be characterized as fantasy.  If the voice of your narrator is not aware of this, it could be very well characterized as poorly written, bad fantasy.  Or just preachy.

So, to keep faith and spirituality with an active supernatural role in the story from crossing the line into the fantastic, the aspects of the supernatural need to be subtle, with a reader’s freedom left open to interpret events differently from how a character might interpret them.

And that leads the way to next time, where Part 2 of this series will address spiritual allegory, the role of the transcendent within fantasy, and how to make the story accessible to an audience of diverse beliefs in such a way that gives a reader room to grow over time without growing out of the story.  In other words, why I like Middle-Earth and not Narnia.

See you next week,

3 thoughts on “Is Spirituality Fantasy?

  1. Pingback: World Crafting: Gods | Inner Worlds Fiction

  2. If you write about miracles, manifestations, and direct active intervention by deities, you have to accept that your work of fiction will be characterized as fantasy.

    I think this depends on how miracles et al are presented. Is Arthur C. Clark’s “The Star” fantasy or science fiction? I would argue for the latter – God is not a character, even though the story is about a priest’s faith. What about the BSG revival? Angels are very explicitly revealed as such in the finale, so even though many episodes of the series were grounded in gritty realism, one could convincingly argue that it was a fantasy. Tolkein’s _The Lord of the Rings_ is fantasy, albeit less directly so similar contemporary works like Lewis’s _Narnia_ series. Then again, is the supernatural the hallmark of fantasy? _Alice in Wonderland_ is a fantasy, yet there is nothing mythological about it – no gods or demons, but the passing strange. Lovecraft’s works mix the strange and the divine with contemporary science – is his work fantasy, science fiction, or something else? Others have built in both directions from his original works (contrast Stross’ “A Colder War” with Derleth’s “The Return of Hastur”).

    I would argue, instead, that the terms “science fiction” and “fantasy” are less natural classifications and more marketing tools used by publishers to identify potential audiences for a particular work. Sword-and-sandals-epic? Fantasy. Laser-sword-and-space-opera? Science fiction. They could be the exact same story, with just the setting and props tweaked, and yet you would find different people buying and reading them.

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