Choosing My Religious Institution

I’ve been following with some great interest the path of Aaron Jacobs, once a friend of a friend and now a husband of a… y’know it’s not important.  What is important is said path has been mirroring mine to a considerable degree — he recently expatriated to Australia and has in the interim been working on his writing, specifically fantasy fiction.  I’ve yet to read his fiction, but judging from his blog and what he’s shared of his inspirations and research, it seems incredibly like my jam.

Like me, he’s been keeping up at regular blog.  Unlike me, he’s pumping out a thousand or two words every couple of days about our shared craft1instead of my just-barely thousand words of, hey, life is normal now in Asia, isn’t that weird?2Also, 20% of said thousand words in every post is likely found in these snarky footnotes.  Am I padding again?  My bad., which has been a thrill to read and has inspired me to consider other aspects of my stories.  I tend to get tunnel vision when I write.  I am, as listening to Brandon Sanderson describe in his excellent series of lectures at BYU, a “discovery writer”.  I can’t do the outline thing well.  I open a new document/Evernote, put fingers to keyboard and start pounding away.  Writing for me is like following the money for Lester Freeman; I don’t know where the fuck it’s going to take me.

When I started writing what would become the subsequent drafts of “The Priest of Smugglers’ Run”, I didn’t have a single clue about what story I wanted to tell.  I knew this; that there was a woman with a bad attitude, anger management issues and a fuck-all large sword.  Jest Rovanna is a character whose story I want to tell, I just don’t know what the hell has happened to her.

That’s not true, I knew something else.  There was a man.  Her foil, her tormentor, possibly her lover.  Protharious has always been central to the story that I want to tell of her.  In him, there were a few things that I knew; he was urbane, highly intelligent and well-read.  He’s a bit of a physical weakling.  He’s immensely powerful but is reticent to show his ability.  In short, he’s the anti-Jest.

And he’s a priest.

That final detail has led into a fit of world-building.  TPoSR is written in all drafts as a first person past narrative — not quite a memoir, but an interview, interrogation in which Jest describes how she went from uneducated fuck-up hunter to an uneducated but more worldly fuck-up sword-for-hire.  First person is great for communicating character, which is what I want to write about, but not great for discovering the world.  So, I had to go back and work on the part of the iceberg that’s hidden underwater.  Smugglers’ Run, her starting point, screamed frontier town to me.  Suddenly, her setting to me seemed that of a Western.  We have some morally grey folks living on the fringes of society, where the rule of law doesn’t have much meaning.  But to show that, of course, I need to have a reference point to what extent the law has in the other, more occupied areas of the world.

Enter the capital of Peria, Tenederis and the Perian Church.

I’m Catholic.  Wait.  Let me rephrase that.

I was born Catholic, baptized, received communion but never confirmed my faith.  I don’t talk about that much.  My faith is incredibly personal and rapidly evolving.  However, my issues with the Catholic Church as an organization are nearly legion.  The first priest that I truly got to know, the Bishop of my high school’s dioceses, was found embezzling money from the dioceses to pay blackmail.  He was gay, had or had since broken up with another man, and it was being held over his head.  He left the dioceses $16 million in debt.  He got away with a slap on the wrist.  Bishop Pat was an interesting man, for sure, and I can’t deny that I rather liked him.  He was a likable sort.  He had a way with people and an easy manner that made him a lot of friends.  Some of those friends apparently were high up and he avoided jail for embezzlement and sexual harassment.  I know, sexual harassment & Catholic priests.  As far as I know, he never molested children.  So, positive there?

Needless to say, learning this only reinforced my belief that declining Confirmation was a good thing.

The lesson of Bishop Pat has stuck with me.  I’m fascinated with the characters that seem like decent, likable people but turn out to be complete bastards.  When I first started writing Jest’s story, Protharious was always going to be a man with secrets, but I wasn’t planning on making him the primary antagonist.  But as I started to work on his faith and figuring out if there was an institution around him, I realized that though it fits into so many tropes of fantasy, that the Perian Church had to be this organized, political and moral institutional authority that would serve as my counterpoint to the rough-and-tumble characters of Smugglers’ Run.

(Yes — I could just describe the characters of Smugglers’ Run as they are and you’d get the point.  We’re talking about dirty folk that live near a muddy river in the forest and the only permanent building in town is where they brew the hooch.  This isn’t a stretch, folks.)

Aaron’s latest post about fantasy religion spurred my mind into overdrive about the role I’ve chosen for the Perian Church.  He’s right about fantasy tropes of gods & religion, and though the Gods only are paid lip service in my world, the religious hierarchy that’s been built around their worship has a massive impact on Jest’s world.  The Church is not too dissimilar from the Roman Catholic Church, which is Trope #1 about fantasy religion.  They have a hierarchical system of priests, from your lowly village vicar to the Prelates, a council of nine high priests3one major difference, the Perian Church is polytheistic.  Protharious is an Arch-Deacon, effectively equal to a Cardinal.  The Church exerts incredible political pull in the world.

But since I’m fascinated with the bad guys that only think they can get away with it, I couldn’t make the Church above the law.  So I made it just another Ministry within the bureaucratic4thank the Gods for spell check, I can never spell that word government of Peria, the big centralized nation squarely in the middle of the world.  I took who I thought would be my primary antagonist, John Wren, and pit him against Protharious as well as Jest.

And yet, after a thousand words, none of this talks about the actual Gods in my book.

Well, that’s because early on, I decided that I didn’t want to involve the Gods.  They might not even be real.  There is magic in the world, but it’s not divine5not… yet?  Dun dun dun.  I thought of magic as science, and from there, decided that this was going to be a rather low magic world.  Magic, named “The Art” by those that invented it, is just another metaphysical science.  Spells took a lifetime to research, and years — decades, sometimes — of learning to cast.  The Art is powerful but as technology, specifically physics, surpassed what it could do, it fell out of favor.  Want to lift a boulder?  Use a set of pulleys and cranes.  Want to rain fiery rocks down on your enemies?  Meet the catapult and trebuchet, which we can build in a year and reuse.

Priests do have magic — they call it divine, of course, but it’s more like a trained ability.  And its not very powerful, all mentalist type stuff, limited to simple commands.  Each priest has varying degrees of power.  I think you can guess where Protharious is going to fall on that spectrum.  Despite their branding of it being proof of the Gods’ will, not too many buy into that fully.  Jest explains early on that she thinks most priests don’t actually have power, but the nature of group-think is that if you’re at a religious service, and the priest says, “Kneel,” then everyone’s going to kneel because nobody wants to stand out or embarrass the priest.

Of course there are going to be some differences between Roman Catholicism and the Perian Church.  The Perian religion is polytheistic and their Gods don’t have names.  In fact, they are referred to as the Nine Nameless Gods, or just the Nameless.  They have domains like the Greek Pantheon — one God oversees the earth, another the dead, another crafts.  Perians as a nationality are identified as merchants and agricultural.  Their economy, and to an extent their society, is based on agricultural goods, sort of the bread basket of my world.  Their Gods are supposed to be tailored towards that effect6roughly described the nine domains are morality, law, chaos, death, weather, earth, craft, dreams and home, lending some thought that the Gods didn’t make mankind, but at least in the case of the Perians, mankind made the Gods.

This led me down a different path of thought than Aaron.  I do think there are actual deities and beings of immense power in the world.  Jest’s story at one point was going to be about the birth of a new power, an empowering Goddess.  She — the Goddess — is still in the last draft of the story, just not acknowledged or awake yet.  Jest’s people, the Acians, have a monotheistic religion that worships a shadowy figure called “The Eternal Man”.  Their faith is in part ancestor-worship, as the Eternal Man is an ascended human.  I suppose it has some similarities to Buddhism, but as I know so very little of that faith, I’m hesitant to describe it as such.  Aaron made this point and I can only reiterate it; if you’re not familiar with the subject, don’t fucking ape other’s religion/culture.

Which is what has emboldened me to write about religion in my story as an institution, not a faith.  Growing up within the largest religious institution in the world gives me the experience and authority and the personal experiences to draw on when describing organized religion on a governmental scale.  Having come of age when the sex scandals of the Catholic Church came to light colored my opinion of the institution, not the faith7seeing how others interpret Christianity, however….

So, in that sense, I guess, thanks Bishop Pat?

2 Replies to “Choosing My Religious Institution”

  1. I think it’s awesome how radically different we can approach the same topic just due to tweaks in upbringing, especially since we otherwise have incredibly similar tastes in entertainment/media. Give the same fictional church to a cynical/borderline-lapsed catholic and a gnostic-educated jewish agnostic and they each take an entirely different direction with the premise.

    1. Agreed a hundred percent. What’s interesting to me is how religion-focused I can be on iconography. There are a lot of images that I am choosing for Jest and her story that are very inspired by biblical art and illustration. Clearly it’s all the programming I received from my years as a Catholic schoolboy.

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