Snap Thy Holy Fingers!

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I love movies and books about the mystical nature of religion. Constantine, Stigmata, The Seventh Seal, The Prophecy…I just cannot resist them. The other day I watched a movie trailer for Legion, in which God sends his angels to exterminate the world’s population. The archangel Michael (played by the wonderful Paul Bettany) is the only one standing between mankind and the apocalypse. I whispered, “Ooh, I want to see that.” My teenager, sitting next to me, frowned. “If God’s tired of humanity,” he mused, “why go to all the trouble of sending the battling angels? Why doesn’t He just snap His fingers and make the people disappear?”

He was right. If an omnipotent being is tired of his creation, why would he bother with the trouble of watching them run and scream and die? Isn’t that a lot of effort for no real return? This is the problem of using an omnipotent being and trying to limit it.

Religion is an important part of worldbuilding, and you should probably give it at least as much thought as your magic systems. Every culture in our real life has its own beliefs and rituals, some rudimentary, some highly sophisticated. It has great influence over some societies, while others treat it as just another thing to do. In your fantasy culture, it’s up to you, the author, to decide how much power the religious community and the god they worship wield, and then to display that power properly in the narrative. Even if your characters aren’t particularly religious, it’s a good idea to weave those aspects into the story, for depth and richness. My pirates, for example, occasionally mention a god or two, but there’s no real devotion shown to them. I, the author, know exactly who those gods are, what their spheres of influence include and what they can be expected to do when their worshippers ask. It didn’t come into play in the story, so the reader didn’t see it. But I definitely know.

So how powerful do you want your gods to be? This depends entirely on how the story needs to play out. There’s nothing wrong with using a god as a character, or for human characters to call upon and employ a god’s power. But think about that whole omnipotence problem I mentioned earlier. If your god is so powerful that he can do anything and everything, it might not make a lot of sense for him to bother with sending others to do his bidding. Takes more energy that way, you know. If you do come up with a reason for an omnipotent being to take the long way around to reach his ultimate goal, be sure you make it clear in the narrative.

And making the god’s avatar look like Paul Bettany doesn’t hurt.

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16 comments to Snap Thy Holy Fingers!

  • Nice post, Misty. The related issue that I deal with when creating alternate worlds is whether I want my gods and goddesses to interact with the human world, as they do in, say, Greek mythology, or in Guy Kay’s Fionivar books. Or, on the other hand, whether they should be more standoffish; more along the lines of “I/we created the world; our work here is done…” I love the idea of the interactive gods, but I always shy away from it because I think it would be very difficult to do well.

  • There’s also the idea that there is no real god in your world. I don’t mean atheism (which is certainly one way to go) but rather having people worship and believe in a god or gods but there isn’t one in the world beyond their belief. Or perhaps there are gods in the world but the ones people are praying to don’t exist. I realize the non-existent god angle takes away from the “I’m writing fantasy and want my gods to play” aspect but, for example, in my WIP I have two strongly religious characters locking horns because they are convinced theirs is the real god. In the case of my tale, they both can’t be right, so much conflict is created.

  • QUOTE: “If God’s tired of humanity,” he mused, “why go to all the trouble of sending the battling angels? Why doesn’t He just snap His fingers and make the people disappear?”

    My issue with religion in general. It doesn’t always make sense and no one can give me a good answer why.

    I do kind of enjoy twisting religion though, especially for urban fantasy. Having to do that now in the UF I’m currently working on. I like to play the “what if” game. What if this or that was misinterpreted, what if they’re all right, what if none of them are right, what if Gods can only work through their followers for one reason or another, what if this is Hell or Purgatory, what if demons and angels aren’t as black and white as some think, what if the Gods really are space aliens, etc. My favorite is generally misinterpretation. It’s easy to say that rewrites and translations throughout the ages muddied the waters of understanding and what really is true is this.

    I tend to have an easier time with fantasy Gods, due to many years of creating D&D campaigns. 😉

  • Todd

    Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you will remember if we were good men or bad, why we fought, or why we died. No, all that matters is that two stood against many, that’s what’s important. Valor pleases you, Crom, so grant me one request, grant me REVENGE! And if you do not listen, then the hell with you! – Conan

  • Great points, Misty. You pin point the idea that religion as we actually experience it is usually a conglomeration of ideas and traditions which have involved over a long time. Much of the traditions around angels clearly don’t really come from a theology in which omnipotence is central. I like my fictional religions like my actual religions: each with a range of beliefs and traditions rather than an absolute position.

  • Misty, this is a great post!
    The problem I have with fantasy books that have an ultimate evil presented as antagonist, (you know, the evil thing that is taking over the world and killing everything) is that there is usually no ultimate good to balance it out. The writer leaves out any question of a good god to balance out the bad. Mankind (or a man [pick your religious savior archetype]) saves the day, all alone, and I get tired of the ultimate evil, David vs. Goliath scenario. And let’s face it, mankind will never fight evil because true evil is too smart to look evil. Evil (true evil) looks good, looks safe, looks appealing. Adolph Hitler looked good to his followers. They didn’t think, “Let’s go to the dark side today.” Mass murderers we’ve *met* through the TV screen don’t wear bones in their hair or shirts made of human skin. Pedophiles carry candy or pictures of lost puppies. They look…ordinary. Not the true evil they are.

    Dang it, I got on my *evil* soapbox, didn’t I? What I really want to comment on is not ultimate evil. I want to talk about religion as a writer’s tool, as per your post.

    It’s hard to write books that don’t anger *some* geo-political-religious-ethnic-social group. In the Rogue Mage books I tiptoed very softly around religion because I was writing a post-apocalyptic (in the religious sense) novel, but throwing in magic, mages, black/white/and gray angels, dragons, and, um, no god, no demons (in the traditional spiritual sense), and no devil. All I wanted to do was write a book that would make people ask questions and tell a good story. As Daniel said, I played the *what-if* game.

    Weaving a story that fit most Revelation-style end-of-world beliefs, without an appearance of true good and evil, was both challenging and fun. The down side is, that my Christian friends look askance at me, and my Bast, and goddess worshipping friends fault me for making Darkness bad and Light good, and my Wicca pals shake their heads at me.

    But (so far) I’ve not been burned at the stake or run out of the church. And I sold through-—every writer’s primary goal.

  • “If an omnipotent being is tired of his creation, why would he bother with the trouble of watching them run and scream and die? Isn’t that a lot of effort for no real return?”

    Depends whether he is doing it for himself or not. If God uses intermediaries, as he does in many religions, it is often for the benefit of others. This may be the benefit of his agents who are given the honor of service. It may be for the benefit of the baser beings who would not be able to withstand direct exposure to the divine presence without a shielding intermediary. We pitiful fallen humans don’t get our brains drowned by drinking from the holy fire hose. Just because God is omnipotent doesn’t mean he can’t choose to limit his power himself for one reason or another.

  • Val Ford

    Ooh, good post, Misty! I really like this, and your teen is right. The other thing to remember, though, is that whole “With infinite power comes infinite responsibility.” Your infinitely powered being is going to have a very different mindset – it simply might not occur to them. The other thing that I’ve seen used is that the infinite being is like a scientist. “If I send this avatar/tweak this person, what will happen?” Just a thought.

  • Emily

    In my current WIP, my main character is a normal woman (well, as normal was a hero in UF can be…), who is Catholic in the modern day south. She also has demonic powers. I ran into the same problem Faith mentioned, which is if there evil, where the heck is the good? And so I do have both sides (which manifest as angels and demons) but Catholicism (or more generally Christianity) isn’t the only “right” religion. All religions have aspects that are right (that is, the adequately explain how the world works) and have aspects that are wrong (they don’t explain how the world works).

    I expect by the end to upset every group, though that isn’t my intention. Hellfire just sounds like a cool power to have. 😀

  • Emily

    Oh, one other thought I had… I’m a Christian, and I know that is important to me… but I don’t find it necessary to have Christ or Christianity in every book I write. Religion varies by world and reading books about fantasy religions doesn’t offend me. I also have no intrest in writing for the “Christian” market (for a list of reasons, the biggest being I’m sure that they wouldn’t want me).

    I do, however, feel obligated by my beliefs to characterize some things as good and some as evil. (i.e. ultimate selfishness at the expense of others lives, etc. is evil and the willingness to admit guilt or take responsibility is often good). Now this is, of course, my own limit. But Misty’s post made me think about how my own experiences with religion affect my writing, and my writing of religion.

  • Emily’s second point is an interesting one and worthy of a post in itself. I feel a strong impulse to convey something of my own world view, my own ethics and morality in my books. It may not always be obvious but it’s there. I’m not sure I could stop doing this if I tried, but if I did I’d then begin to wonder what exactly I was writing for.

  • In learning classical mythology right now, I find it interesting how religion has evolved from animistic deities to anthropomorphic deities. The ancient Greeks first worshiped the sun (animistic) as just a ‘thing up on high’ aka, Hyperion. Later, they decided to give the sun man-like qualities (anthropomorphic) and named it Helios. The advantage to Anthropomorphic deities (man-like) is that you can pray to them, offer sacrifices, and if the gods are listening, they might grant what you seek, be it favor or something else.

    Rarely have I seen animistic gods in fantasy. The gods are usually an active roll in some way, whether granting gifts or powers to followers or engaging the mortal world in the form of avatars, or even directing the legions from up on high. This makes sense though, it’s much more interesting if there is a higher power with an angle on how things work out in the mortal realm than a fiery ball in the sky that does nothing no matter how much you pray or sacrifice.

  • Emily

    AJ> thanks… I don’t think I could stop conveying my ethics and ideas in my writing either. I face the same thing with teaching. Every now and again I have to make some kind of ethical statement. The simplest example is my rant against plagiarism because it is wrong to cheat.

  • I guess it really depends on the story. In one story, I have gods who only intervene if you ask for it, and in another, their manipulating many parts of the conflict. There’s also the issue of what kind of deity you have. If they’re more animistic, say, like kami, they could act all sorts of ways. Perhaps they are like animals, and you can entice them to do things with offerings. If a river god likes a particular type of flower, and the people want the river to change course, they could plant a bunch of those flowers some distance from the river. Or perhaps each God has specific, weird interests, and so only a very few people see anything to gain by following them.

    Personally, I prefer gods with more power than your average mortal, but less than omnipotency. If a mortal can give the god something they want, you’ve got a great way to involve gods with a personality in the story, without wondering why they care, or why they’re doing something out of their way for the protag.

  • This gives a writer a lot to think about. Great post. However, maybe in the story LEGION, God wanted the people to suffer first? Of course, if that is not stated in the film or in the trailer it would be hard to know why he didn’t just snap his fingers and make us not exist anymore. Lots to think about and mull over.

    Thanks!
    Happy writing!

  • In the movie Constantine, John explains that God and the devil have a deal, no direct intervention. That sort of concept could explain why a God doesn’t appear on the mortal plane and wipe everybody out, or just snap their fingers and *poof*.