It’s been a month since I’ve posted anything.
Goodness. Life sometimes sneaks up on you and then drops a piano on your head. It’s ok, it’s good for the humility. And there may be something in all there about a certain someone being a workaholic incapable of putting limits on himself.
But I digress.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about the question of worldbuilding. For those who don’t know, it’s a technical term for what writers do, especially in fiction and sci-fi, when they use specific details to create a fully immersive secondary world for their fiction. Tolkien is the undisputed master of worldbuilding.
But worldbuilding is not limited to fiction. As I’ve been doing more reading of, and listening to, books and podcasts on subjects relating to human behavior (have you read The Social Animal? It’s good), I’ve noticed something that I’m not sure we’ve all considered enough. It’s the almost indisputable fact that what we call “reality” is actually a fairy limited construct that depends very much on each individual person. Jordan Peterson even calls it something like a two-dimensional cartoon that our brain creates for us, lest we be overwhelmed with sensory input.
I’ve seen this in my life in very clear ways. You know when you’re talking to someone about an event that both of you witnessed, and your version seems to be the exact opposite of the other person’s version of events? What was that person even doing, right? Except, this seems to be a hard reality about the way people experience life. They do it through the mediation of stories they unconsciously tell about themselves.
Most often, people don’t think about these stories. They passively construct their own story out of the fabric of the story society tells them. But that, in our time, is a very, very bad idea. Modern society is fractured and seemingly incapable of creating hopeful stories, certainly not stories of redemption that involve sacrifice and love. I talked about this at Doxamoot, and in a recent video I did for my youtube channel.
Why Good Storytelling is Important
So when I hear very, very ultra-Orthodox people tell me that reading fiction is sinful, I can’t help thinking that they’re really missing the point. The underlying assumption that such people seem to have is that their default position as human beings is already on the way to sanctity, and so all worldly distractions are exactly that–a distraction. Perhaps that’s true of some of us. It’s certainly not true of the vast majority of us.
The truth is, I’m afraid, that we have become so thoroughly modern, so completely de-sacralized in our relation to the world, that we need to learn first how to be normal human beings. Fr. Seraphim Rose understood this when he encouraged people to listen to Haydn and read Dickens. Many of us have simply lost the ability to perceive the beautiful. and without that, we will never learn to commune with the One Who is Beautiful and the source of Beauty.
So now, more than ever, we need to tell and listen to good stories. They soften our hard hearts. They take us outside our own sinful selves, forcing us to empathize with those who are NOT US. This is fundamentally a good thing.
And the fact is that secular humanists understand this very well. A certain fantasy writer named M John Harrison has written on the idea of “good worldbuilding,” and he attacks the kind of immersive secondary world sub-creation that Tolkien is known for, precisely because it has the power to influence readers to see the world in the way the author wants them to:
The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It’s a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world’s a watch & God’s the watchmaker. It reveals the bad old underpinnings of the humanist stance. It centralises the author, who hands down her mechanical toy to a complaisant audience (which rarely thinks to ask itself if language can deliver on any of the representational promises it is assumed to make), as a little god. And it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.
In other words, this author recognizes the power of worldbuilding to influence listeners. And far from that meaning that we shouldn’t read fiction (for fear of being badly influenced), it means we must seek out and tell (and listen to) only the good stories. Because we can be influenced very badly by bad storytelling, but we can be transformed by good storytelling.
I speak more about this in a recent podcast episode with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick over at the Amon Sul podcast:
The Trouble with History
What we might not have thought about is that our view of history is similarly tainted by the worldview, or worldbuilding, of the historian. I’ve written before about the fallacy of history being a scientific endeavor of recording and transmitting “true facts.” For example, many of us, though we don’t know it, follow a default reading of progressivist history that assumes as its end goal the idyllic formation of some kind of heaven on earth.
Someone who has consistently spoken about this subject is Fr. John Strickland, in his excellent podcast, Paradise and Utopia. He has finally begun putting his invaluable perspective on the history of Christendom (and therefore “the history of us”) in a wonderful book that I had the pleasure of editing, The Age of Paradise. This is book 1 in a planned series of 4 books that will cover the entire history of Christendom to this day.
This is a wonderful book, and it speaks very much to an important aspect of culture creation: knowledge of our own history. Let’s be honest, many of us simply don’t have it. So now’s the time to learn.
Live Q&A with Father John
And so, I invite you to a live chat I’ll be having tomorrow with Fr. John on the Ancient Faith Radio facebook page. If you’re not on facebook, the interview will be available on youtube in the near future. Click on the image below to be taken to the event page and to sign up:
I look forward to seeing some of you there!