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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Spirit Ring, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A Christian Novel?

The Spirit Ring is a fantasy novel, by Lois McMaster Bujold, set in Italy during the Middle Ages. The book was a Locus Fantasy Award nominee. (See previous post for a plot summary.)

Before I discuss this book, let me mention two other important works of fantastic literature, both also partly set in the Middle Ages. Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, was a nominee for the Hugo Award in 2007. It supposed that aliens came to earth in Germany, and considered, among other things, the possibility of aliens becoming converts to Christianity. It was possible. The other book is the Doomsday Book, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In this book, a time traveler goes from England's near future to study the Middle Ages. She finds, among other things, a true believer, a good man, an unlettered, but devout and unselfish priest. Both books also consider the important question of where God is when things hurt us badly. I don't seem to have ever posted on Doomsday Book, a serious omission, considering the stated subject matter of this blog. Sometime, maybe.

One of my most important posts is "What must be Christian about a Christian novel?" In that post, I set forth six important criteria, which help me to answer that question, not always to my own satisfaction. That post has links to other posts, related to books by Elizabeth Moon, J. K. Rowling, and others, considering whether some of their works should be considered to be Christian novels. I have also considered that question twice, in relation to books by Bujold, here and here. I couldn't convince myself that either of the works in question were fully Christian, by my criteria. I believe that The Spirit Ring is, in fact, such a novel, and it is by a major author of fantastic literature, who has won Hugo, Nebula, and Mythopoeic awards -- so far, no other author has done so -- and has written both science fiction and fantasy.

Why do I say that The Spirit Ring is, in some sense, a Christian novel? (Lest there be any doubt, it is not "faith fiction," a form of literature which is Christian in world-view, but one aimed at a niche market, Christians. Bujold writes, and her publishers market, to those interested in fantastic literature.) Here's why I believe it to be a Christian novel:

1) Is there a Christ-figure? That is, does someone offer his or her own life for someone else, and, in some sense, to redeem that person? I would have to say no to this question. There are people who sacrifice themselves for the good of others, especially Thur Ochs, a miner turned metal worker who agrees to enter the castle controlled by Ferrante, an evil man, as a spy, for the sake of his brother, Uri, who, Thur believes, may be a prisoner there.

2) Is there belief in orthodox Christian doctrine? Definitely. Abbot (and also Bishop) Monreale is clearly a character who believes in the ability of God to redeem others. In spite of obstacles, he offers the spirit of Jacopo Sprenger, an evil wizard, a chance to repent while that spirit still has the power to choose:
"Jacopo Sprenger. Though your spirit is parted from your body, you still partially exist in the world of will. While your will is free, you may yet effectively repent, confess your sins and profess your faith; I swear to you God is greater than any evil you can encompass. Stop. Stop now, and turn your face around!" Monreale's voice was anguished in its sincerity.
He had ridden through the night not to destroy Vitelli, but to save him, Fiametta realized. (Lois McMaster Bujold, The Spirit Ring. Riverdale, New York: Baen, 1992, p. 341)

Monreale also offers the spirit of Uri Ochs absolution, and Uri confesses his sins, and his confession is accepted by Monreale, just before his spirit ceases to manifest itself in this world.

3) Is there monotheistic prayer to a Divine being? Fiametta, a young woman, is the heroine of the book. She is able to do some magic herself (so is Monreale). Both she and Monreale believe in the power of prayer, another orthodox Christian doctrine. With Fiametta, it seems to be prayer in emergencies. Monreale also prays in emergencies, but Bujold gives the impression that he is not only a cleric with some ecclesiastical power, but a devout man, and one who habitually prays. He is described as being on his knees more than once, and on at least one occasion, he believes that he has received guidance from God, in answer to prayer. It wasn't the answer that he wanted.

4) Does an important character express a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord? Monreale doesn't say that, but he is portrayed as living in that way.

5) Is there consciousness of supernatural guidance? See item 3, above.

Fiametta and Thur attempt to temporarily place the spirit of Uri, Thur's dead brother, in a statue made using Uri as a model. Fiametta prays more than once during the process. Bujold doesn't explicitly say that their work is divinely guided, but there are several developments that are close to miracles, if not actual miracles, and Thur makes some wise decisions, in carrying out this task. They succeed, and their success leads directly to the defeat of Ferrante and Vitelli. Neither Fiametta or Thur have ever done anything like this before -- they needed wisdom beyond themselves.

6) Is there explicit rejection of evil, or turning away from evil acts by a character? Clearly, Monreale, Fiametta, Thur, and others, have rejected the evil of Ferrante and Vitelli, and Monreale seems to have a lifelong history of seeking good.

As indicated under point 2, an evil character is offered a chance to reject evil, which he does not take.

I wouldn't say that this is an overwhelming case for The Spirit Ring as a Christian novel, but it's close enough for me. I have never read anything by or about Bujold that gives a clear indication that she is, or is not, a Christian.

Lest there be any doubt, I do not believe that Christians should practice magic, even if they pray devoutly before they do so. Nor do I believe that the soul, or spirit, stays around for a while after death. Neither of these is orthodox Christian doctrine. And, as far as that goes, as a Protestant, I don't believe that it is necessary to gain absolution from a priest to have one's sins forgiven. That is orthodox Roman Catholic doctrine, but not mine, and the Bible seems to agree with Protestants on this, according to 1 Timothy 2:5. All of these are features of Bujold's sub-creation. The third item, absolution by a priest, was orthodox in the time in which the book takes place, and it would have been strange to have left out that part of medieval Christianity.

So why don't the other two features mentioned in the previous paragraph make this a non-Christian novel? Because, in my mind, they do not negate the basic world-view of The Spirit Ring. In The Shack, widely (although not universally) accepted as a Christian novel, the three persons of the Trinity appear as three separate and distinct human beings, or at least as three persons who seem to be human -- they eat, for one thing. That is not orthodox Christian doctrine, but it doesn't mean that the book is not fundamentally Christian. Both The Shack and The Spirit Ring have fantastic elements, and are fictional, and anyone trying to use any such book as their foundation for doctrine is making a serious error.

My criterion is not that there is no unorthodox doctrine, Christian, or not, in a book, but that there is some orthodox Christian doctrine held by one or more important characters.

Thanks for reading.

On August 19th, 2009, I did a small amount of editorial work on this post.


Unknown said...

Nice summary, Dr. LaBar. I was wondering how you would view the topic of magic in relation to a Christian worldview. I haven't read the book, so I don't know the details of how magic influences the direction of the plot. Don't you think this is a relevant topic (magic) in relation to faith in today's world? Our New Age friends have made it so.

By the way, I'm George Gasperson. Didn't know my last name didn't come through with my last comment.

David Murdoch said...

Absolution by priests is scriptural and it is what Jesus Christ established.

John 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

I think my own book would probably pass that criteria for a 'christian book'.

God Bless,

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, George. I should have guessed who you were, from recent events. You, according to Blogger, have chosen not to allow your profile to be displayed, which may be wise. However, that means that a person can't get to your blog through comments you leave on other people's blogs. (I have subscribed to yours, using Google Reader, but am behind in blog-reading, yet again.)

I don't think Christians should touch magic with a 10-foot pole. There's no suggestion of that being approved by God in the NT, and some suggestions to the contrary. (The same is true of the OT.) I think that magic is possible, but that it is often, perhaps always, powered by demons. Miracles are powered by God.

Here's a definition for magic: the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.

I would differ, in that I am afraid that it really isn't "human control."

I know little about the so-called prosperity gospel, but wonder if that isn't a form of invoking magic?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, David Murdoch.

I didn't say that I didn't believe in absolution by priests, but that I didn't believe that it was necessary, and linked to a Bible verse to back this up. As you say, it is scriptural, although I'm not sure that the verse you quoted specifies a particular, special group of Christians, as opposed to Christians in general.

We aren't going to solve differences between Catholics and Protestants here.

I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with your book. My criteria are pretty loose.

Thanks again for commenting.

Teddi Deppner said...

Fascinating take on how to determine if a book is "Christian" in terms of the storyline. Enjoyed your perspective.

Per your comment on my personal blog, Martin, I've looked around for the specific place(s) that Lois Bujold has talked about her approach to storytelling, and her awareness of the collaboration that takes place between the writer and the reader.

I seem to recall her discussing it in several interviews or essays, but have only thus far found one reference (there's a lot of materials to pore through at, the fan-run site where I get much of my Bujold info). She said,

"Another problem with the question is that there are no books, only readings. Given the same words-in-a-row, each reader will construct a different experience in their head depending on what they bring to the text; and so, it follows, will take away different messages as well."

Full article here:

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you so much, Teddi Deppner.

In the interview, Bujold said "That said, every writer writes their world-view, as inescapably as breathing. But that's not a choice or an agenda, that's just a constraint."

But she doesn't say (or get asked) anything much about her world-view.

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