Novels that get religion right

Okay, in reference the recent post about *Yet Another* SFF Novel Where Early Christians Are Intolerant, Bigoted And Basically Eeevil, and the extreme lack of contemporary work that treats religion in a more thoughtful and historically literate manner . . . here is a compilation you may find of interest. Thanks to everyone who helped build this list!

Published in 1960, The High Crusade by Poul Anderson. This is an immensely fun and moderately believable story, a real classic. Craig reminded me of it.

Published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time, which I had inexplicably forgotten about. SarahZ added this title, which I should have thought of myself. SarahZ also gets a gold star because science and religion are not shown as opposed in this one.

Published in 1969, In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, which I just thought of right this minute. It’s not SFF nor properly historical, but it is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read.

Published in 1971, Operation Chaos, also by Poul Anderson. Mary added it to the list.

Published in 1991, A Bad Spell in Yurt by C Dale Brittain. Extra credit for having a friendship develop between a person of faith and a wizard, which is almost as good as between a person of faith and a person of science. Thanks to Phineas for pointing this one out.

Published in 1992, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, also added by Mary.

Published in 1996, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, presents both science and Christianity in a positive light. Well, more or less. What people get wrong in this one has to do with their lack of omniscience, for which no one can be blamed even if the consequences are dire. Incidentally, I don’t believe in the evolutionary background of the alien species in this duology. AT ALL. But I still really enjoyed it! Even though, fair warning, it contains the second most horrible set of events I’ve ever encountered in literature. Thanks to SarahZ for reminding me of this one as well, though I’m not sure I have the nerve to reread the duology. The ending is hopeful, though, so if you pick up the first book, you really must go on to the second (Children of God).

Published in 2002, Declare by Tim Powers, another suggestion offered by ElaineT.

Published in 2003, The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw, on of my very favorite historical novels.

Published in 2006, Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, which I haven’t read but which is now on my radar for the second or maybe third time. I think I must try it. Craig and ElaineT both pointed this one out.

Published in 2008, The Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks, which deals respectfully with faith if not specifically with Christianity. Megan reminded me of this trilogy, which I read and pretty much liked, but it was just a bit over the grim and gritty line for me and I wound up giving the trilogy away.

Published in 2009, In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield. I read this but am embarrassed to admit I don’t remember the bishops, about whom Siavahda says in a Goodreads comment, “I think I remember that one is not very nice, but the main one definitely is a lovely man and helps save the lives of the main characters — although he does temporarily turn against them at one point, it’s for very understandable reasons fueled by his faith.”

Published in 2014, The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgersen. I haven’t read it. Goodreads says: A chaplain serving in Earth’s space fleet is trapped behind enemy lines where he struggles for both personal survival and humanity’s future. ElaineT and her husband give it two thumbs up.

Also published in 2014, Paradigms Lost by Ryk E Spoor, of which ElaineT says it “doesn’t have a lot of overt Christians but treats all believers respectfully.”

Published in 2015, The Mechanical and others in the series by Ian Tregillis. Siavahda says, in a comment on Goodreads, that this one “actually kinds of reverses the trope; the super-sciencey people are the ones who are the worst, morally, although most of them are only grey rather than outright evil. The priest who’s one of the main POV characters is a wonderful character and really embodies the best of what I think Christianity is supposed to be.” Well, I’m not keen on the scientists being presented that way, either, but I don’t think EEEVIL scientists is really a *trope* as such, so it doesn’t strike me as so offensive and lazy as the intolerant-ignorant-person-of-faith thing, which you just can’t turn around without tripping over.

Published in 2015, Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman, which of course is one of the ones I suggested.

Okay, that’s sixteen titles. Given that something like 2000 SFF novels are (traditionally) published per year, this is not very many.

If we tried to list SFF titles that represented just *particularly egregious* instances of the EEEVIL Christian trope, how many do you suppose there would be? If we tracked that trope from 1960 to the current day, I bet we’d also find a pretty obvious trend. Not that I’m volunteering to put in the work to define terms and count up books, so don’t hold your breath for that one. But still.

Okay, I’m adding some of these to my TBR pile now, not that I have time to read them just riiiight this very minute, but at least I want to remember they’re on my virtual TBR shelves. Yes, Eifelheim is one of the ones I’m going to try.


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16 thoughts on “Novels that get religion right”

  1. Oh, if we’re talking about religion-positive rather than Christianity-positive I can think of a lot more examples!

    Glenda Larke’s Havenstar has a beautifully complex religion with some pretty obvious Christian overtones, and although most of the priests and such are in opposition to the main characters, it’s only because they think what the main characters are doing could potentially destroy the world. And they’re not totally wrong. It’s made very obvious that the religion/no-religion debate is way more complicated than the main character would like it to be, which I loved.

    Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone has a mix of positive and more negative religious characters (and a really interesting approach to magic and religion anyway). This follows through the rest of the series.

    Every priest-type person in the Chalion books, as far as I can remember, is a good person, and often the one who helps the main character/s find the answers they need/save the day.

    Evensong’s Heir be LS Baird is all about religion; the main character is a sacred singer/representative of one of his religion’s founders, and although it’s questioned a few times neither the religion nor their practises are portrayed negatively.

    Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series is about magic, not religion, but the Powers That Be are those that inspired the stories of God/Lucifer/Michael; in book four, I think, the main characters actually meet Michael, and even the Lucifer-figure is not portrayed wholly negatively, even if it is the Enemy.

    The Pyramids of London by Andrea K Host has a beautiful relationship dynamic between people and their gods.

    All the ones I can think of from the top of my head!

  2. Also Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery, which is about a young woman who can see the workings of miracles in an AU Europe. I can’t remember if the religion is called Christianity, but it’s a very obvious stand-in for it if it’s not. And religion is definitely not portrayed negatively there! It’s one of my favourite books, actually.

  3. Judist Tarr’s stories about alternate Middle Ages with magic and elves and lots with the Crusades (I’m thinking mostly of the Hound and the Falcon series) touch on Christianity and faith in both the positive and negative aspects. Carol Berg’s two books “Blood and Spirit” and Breath and Bone” do a lot of the same thing.
    And although they are not about any of the our major religions, but a religious system created by the author, I love Bujold’s Chalion books, and how they delve into faith and spirituality and religion.

  4. The Berg titles are Flesh & Spirit and Breath & Bone which go together, and another look at the same setting with stuff she though up after the first two and a very different main character Dust & Light and Ash & Silver. The whole family like them, and yes, she handles religion respectfully, good and bad sides.

    I’ve never gotten along with Tarr’s books, although they seem like they ought to suit me, but I remember being very irritated with the monk and the way Christianity was handled in her very first published book.

    I also appreciate Bujold’s CHALION for how she handles belief with respect.

    Seems like GEne Wolfe and Orson Scott Card ought to be on this list, but I haven’t read anything by either in years and never got along well with Wolfe’s work. The OSCs that I read didn’t have a lot of religion in them except the historical novel, which come to think of it fits our hostess’ request. It even made polygamy and women buying into it comprehensible to me. Sort of. I wonder what I’d think now…?

    John C. Wright’s Book of Feasts & Seasons probably fits, but it’s still pending on my Kindle. The one story in it that I ran across elsewhere did. And the stories are all based around Catholic feast days, so as I said, the book ought to fit the request. We have a lot of his stuff, but I haven’t read any of it yet.

  5. Orson Scott Card has one of the worst treatments of religion I’ve ever read – Lost Boys (mystery, not a SFF). In it, every non-Mormon character is just flat out evil. It was my first major break with him as an author.

  6. _Thank you_ for pointing out this trope, which I tend to roll my eyes at and ignore because it’s so ubiquitous, but, really, SFF is the place where the whole nature of faith can be explored in all its interesting facets, so it’s pure laziness for an author to ignore religion entirely (the majority) or blame everything on the Christians.

    Bujold is excellent at depicting religion, not just in the Chalion books but in the Vorkosiverse as well (Cordelia’s religion is never identified as Christianity, but it sounds an awful lot like it, and the Barrayarans burning offerings to the dead is a religious rite used to great emotional and thematic effect.)

    Card is a little bipolar I find, maybe because he’s too hyperaware of being a spokesperson for religion? Speaker for the Dead has a lot of interesting and intelligent things to say about religion (and, totally off-topic, but speaking of twist endings, I thought the answer to the mystery about the piggies was every bit as mind-blowing a surprise as the ending of Ender’s Game), but then Xenocide goes a little sideways (it’s been years, so I can’t quite remember, but I think there was a sort of weird religion based around everyone having OCD). And then Children of the Mind deals interestingly with all the existential questions that religion deals with, but in the context of artificial intelligence. Lost Boys was just a terrible, terrible book in all respects.

    In defense of The Lie Tree (which, granted, isn’t my favourite Hardinge, but is still a really good read), yes, there are bigoted Victorian Christians, but they’re all individual characters with individual prejudices and motivations, most of which aren’t religious at all. It’s not the blanket use of the trope that you see in other books; I don’t think you come away thinking, oh, of course, those Christians, all so narrow-minded. At least, I didn’t get that sense. (But, then, I’ve developed rather a thick skin about it, so maybe I just didn’t notice!)

  7. I was, of course, mostly thinking of Christianity, but thank you all for adding stories that deal positively with other religions as well. It’s totally true that Bujold’s Chalion series offers one of the few fantasy worlds where an invented religion feels real — and is treated positively.

  8. ah, religion positive!

    Archangel by Sharon Shinn, an SF world where the “miracles” are clearly high tech, but you still root for the theocrats.

    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison also has a fictitious religion treated with respect. Where the conflict is the more pious main character and his less religious surroundings, and is also a fairly minor thread so it may not be what you’re looking for.

    Limbo System by Rick Cook, with a priest as a significant figure. (That one’s Christian; I forgot it last time.)

  9. Allan Shampine

    Interesting thread. Simon Green is another author who consistently has low key but positive depictions of faith. I liked how in Shadows Fall he snuck in the Rapture in a way that I’m sure most readers didn’t even catch it.

    There is some genre effect involved as well. In horror (and dark fantasy to a lesser degree), positive depictions of faith are much more common. So much so that there are tropes like the troubled priest who finds his faith anew, and the protagonist who finds a moment of faith at the edge of the precipice. Perhaps the less common appearances in science fiction are related to the general tension between science and faith in society today, although much of science fiction is just fantasy with different labels on it.

  10. Allan Shampine

    David Weber also has a lot of good depictions of faith. His SF series based loosely on the Reformation, for example. Lots of scum, but also lots of people of great faith who are clearly heroes to the author.

  11. Allen, I’m not sure I agree about David Weber. The thing is, even the religious people who are presented positively are still presented as *wrong* and *needing to change* and *having to join the modern world* and so on — and they are terribly if gently repressive until they reform, because that’s just how religious people *are*. And the baddies are very, very bad in exactly the most typical way. Weber’s treatment of religion is just something I tolerate rather than appreciate.

    I may have to go read Shadows Fall to see how Green handles the Rapture!

    Good point about horror and dark fantasy; that makes perfect sense and of course I would miss those books because I mostly avoid horror.

    Good choices, Mary. I totally agree about THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.

    I always thought Shinn missed a chance to do really interesting things in that universe — I’d have made the computer a fully aware AI *and* given it sincere faith — oh, well, maybe someday I could do something like that. As it is, Shinn’s world is a lot like Card’s XENOCIDE — a sincerely-felt religion that is fundamentally based on misperception.

  12. I’ve never commented here before, but I started reading a couple months ago, and couldn’t stop. I find the topics you discuss here very interesting, and I agree with many of your opinions.

    Anyway, for my small contribution to this discussion, I’d like to mention the Queen’s Thief series for a (non-Christian) faith that’s treated well. I love the way Eugenides interacts with his gods.

    And yes, I did find “The Lie Tree” bothersome in this aspect. Which is too bad, because I’ve liked her other books so much.

  13. RachelD, I’m glad you’ve liked Hardinge’s other books because I really hope I do, too.

    Of course the Queen’s Thief series is pretty great in every way! The gods MWT has created really suit the Greek-ish setting; you can see they’re sort of like the Greek Gods, except more competent and generally nicer.

    And thanks! I’m glad you enjoy the mix of writing and puppies and other random stuff here!

    Mary, thanks for the recommendation for Tower of Dreams.

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