I’ve been thinking about the death last week of Ray Bradbury. I’ve enjoyed his writing since I was a child, it is full of whimsy edged with grim humor, and a love for the human experience. He was special to me in being, till last week, the only living author in a chain of writers, some Christian, many not that played a big part in my own religious life. I have no hesitation in crediting fantasy, sci-fi and horror literature with the start of the process that brought me to active involvement in the church.
Fantastic literature has something of a mixed relationship with religion. Tolkien, who essentially invented modern fantasy, was a devout Catholic. On the other hand I’ve met intelligent people serious about their faith who were concerned that reading Harry Potter might tempt children into witchcraft. From my own experiences I see more value than danger in fantasy, and see its increasing prominence as an expression of skepticism in the value of our societies quest for materialistic control at the expense of everything else.
At age seven or eight I considered myself an atheist in a vague, precocious child sort of way. A friend of the family used to insist my twin brother and I were not children, but forty seven year old dwarves. Perhaps in keeping with a tiny old man’s worldview religion seemed like a set of dry counter factual statements about the nature of the world, one more of the pointless arbitrary systems adults were always coming up with. At some point that faded into indifference. I’m not sure I could piece together all the events that led me to more active involvement in church during college, but I am sure fantastic literature played a big role in the process.
I was a voracious reader of everything, but particularly fantasy and science fiction. In Bradbury’s short stories in particular I found a sense of wonder, a sense of hidden mysteries, strange light shining through the fabric of the everyday, something that felt more real, more intense and important than everyday realities of doing what teachers said and fending off bullies. Later on in college, as I was becoming more involved in church, I hung quotes from Fahrenheit 451 on my dorm walls in an expression of outrage against cars and TV and pop culture in general. There were other writers like Chesterton and C.S. Lewis that connected that sense of mystery and rebellion against the ‘world’ back to religion, insisting that not just stories but reality itself should evoke that wonder. But there is an explicitly spiritual dimension to Bradbury’s writing as well. Poking around the internet gives one only a hazy sense of his personal beliefs, but to me at least the Christian echo is clear for example in Fahrenheit 451’s story of a man blindly content with his place in a corrupt world, but awoken by the witness of a young girl. There is something explicitly Christian also about the ultimate form his rebellion takes, becoming a living bible, memorizing Ecclesiastes, banned like all other books.
Everyone’s path to belief is different, and I know many people don’t ‘get’ fantastic literature, but I think it has something key to contribute. As I see it the exact same disaster seems to overtake the atheist and the shallow believer, the delusion of thinking they understand the fundamental nature of things. To my mind, the whole point of religion is that it allows one to be certain of what is you need to do: take care of people you’d rather smack, give when you fear you won’t have enough for yourself, while staying healthily vague in your understanding of exactly what is going on. (My wife will testify that vagueness is my specialty.) At its best religion can provide clarity where it is needed, in guiding action, while admitting that ultimate understanding is beyond us. I think the fantastic encourages this healthy viewpoint, calling us to action that imitates heroes and heroines and reminding us that without wonder, without a trembling confused kind of love for everything around us we can’t live in any kind of sane relationship with each other or the world. That’s a fact that I think all of us, believers and nonbelievers could use some reminding of. Thank you Ray, I’ll try and remember.