Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Faith and Fantasy

I suppose, in a way, it's no surprise I turned out like I did. I didn't have the most conventional of childhoods, having been brought up by an Anglican priest and a psychiatrist, and for that I'm massively massively grateful. I remember a patronising university lecturer once asked me what my parents did, and when I told her that Dad is a priest she said, "Oh that must have been very difficult for you growing up." Like anybody involved with the church is immediately suspect. I know that it goes against popular opinion, but my experiences of the C of E have been mostly on the positive side. Granted, a lot of this is to do with my father's brilliant approach to ministry, but I do think that popular opinion tends to be very dismissive of all things religious, without even trying to look at the positive things the Church (and churches generally) are involved in, and the way in which faith can enrich people's lives.

All of this is a hugely round-about way of trying to say that Faith (let's give it a capital 'F' shall we?) has always played a big part in my life. Not least in my writing.

Reading my first novel, Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos, one may be forgiven for believing that I'm not all that big a fan of organised religion. One of the groups of baddies in the novel are called the Final Faith. Think the Inquisition at their worst, but with black magic as well as hellish torture devices. While it was not I that created the Final Faith - Twilight of Kerberos is a shared-world series  - I certainly enjoyed writing about them. The Final Faith, as the name suggests, is an organisation that knows that they are right: there is one God and his pronouncements are this and anybody who says otherwise is damned. This sort of determinism gives me the fear. In my day-to-day life I have found doubt and tussling with metaphysical crisis and discussion an enriching process. The Christian that is without doubt really needs to think again, in my opinion. Faith shouldn't be about lack of discussion and following rules. Faith should be all about discussion. It's a journey, not a destination - if one were to get a bit cliched. But I think that's true.

For me fantasy fiction provides a great means for exploring religious themes, matters of metaphysics and faith. In fantasy you can deal with a world in which there is a God, or gods. In Call of Kerberos, and its sequel Wrath of Kerberos, there emphatically is a God. He, or It, is a huge gas giant that looms over the planet. Silus, my main character, is the only one on the world who can actually talk directly with the God. In doing so, he naturally finds out that God is not all he figured out. While the main aim with Kerberos was to write a kick-ass sword and sorcery novel that channeled my love of Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard and Dungeons & Dragons, it's true that some more personal concerns slipped into the text during the process of writing.

The main threat in the first novel is something called The Great Flood, an event where reality as the characters know it will be washed away by the coming of a whole new universe. In Summer of 2007, a month after Ali and I moved into our new house in Abingdon, we were flooded for real. It was a massively traumatic event and the reality naturally found its way into my fiction.

The Call of Kerberos is also about a couple who are expecting their first child. At the time Ali and I were trying for a child, and I think I put a lot of our desires and fears into the characters of Silus and Katya and their newborn son, Zac. Ali and I went  through a period of IVF and were very lucky to succeed with our first run at it. Maia, our daughter, was born in February this year. The Wrath of Kerberos, it seems to me, deals with the fears and delights of being parents for the first time.

Coming back to faith, though, both the novels are about a man who knows God (not the Christian God, this is a big weird gas giant thing after all) and then finds out that God is not at all what he expected. And that's what faith is for me: a dialogue with the unknowable, but also a realisation of the human in the divine, and the divine in the human. Humanity has always been at the centre of my faith and, having been raised in the C of E, Jesus is naturally at the centre of that. We grew up in a run-down mining town in the Midlands, and I was always stuck by how the message that my Dad brought to a community that was utterly on its arse was one of hope, but also one of community, of shared human values and the joy and comfort that sense of community and spiritual fellowship can bring.

Anyway, back to the writing.

The most recent thing I've written and had published, 'The Day or the Hour' for the fantastic new anthology Pandemonium, is perhaps one of the more overtly religious things I've written. Not religious in the sense that I'm trying to preach to or convert the reader with my writing - I would never never do that, I've always believed you have to come to faith on your own terms - but in the sense that the main character is a liberal Anglican priest. I don't think that my Dad has ever read my fiction (genre isn't really his cup of tea) but I think that if Dad read this one he'd recognise himself. Hopefully in a good way. One of the scenes in 'The Day or The Hour' is directly inspired by a specific moment in Dad's ministry. The story is really about a a metaphysical crisis made manifest. What if a priest who has spent his whole life in believing in a God who is love, finds out that God is actually the Old Testament blood and thunder version, and that the most phantasmgorical visions of Revelations are real? My priest finds himself involved in The Last Battle between Good and Evil, and there he has to make a rather radical decision. Scenes of angels and demons are contrasted with a Priest's more mundane experiences of dealing with human evil and human goodness, all still in a spiritual context.

When you're the son of a minister and a psychiatrist, it's sort of inevitable that you will end up writing about the metaphysical and the spiritual in some way, and this had been my take on faith in action, as it were.

As an aside, if you want a depiction of the Church in popular culture that feels true, and is also very very funny, you could do no better than to check out the brilliant BBC 2 sitcom, Rev. The last episode of the first series is, in particular, utterly heart-breaking and deeply moving. Here, however, is one of the lighter moments.


  1. Nice post. I was brought up a Untitarian Universilist and questioning was what we did . glad I was given the opportunity to learn about so many different religions, there is more than one door to get where you want to be ;)

    Your covers are beautiful.

  2. Thanks Sharon. Absolutely with you on the many doors image, I use that in the follow-up to Call of Kerberos. Glad that you like the covers.

  3. Very interesting post. I'm curious though: do you think the Final Faith show a difference between the validity of religion and faith? I ask because, when asked, I usually say that I have faith but not religion - I believe in a higher power but view churches as only the domain of the mortal and so as the constructs of humans are sometimes excellent, sometimes awful. And occasionally I'm accused of being an agnostic/atheist/heretic just because I don't identify with the embodiment of my faith as some giant "mega-Santa" in the sky.

    But, if you're depicting a "hero" as someone who communicates with a force that isn't connected with the dominant religion aren't you implying that salvation won't be found through religion (as opposed to faith)? And, if so, what would your father make of that? :)