“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ There was an evening, and there was a morning: one day.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I love reading epic fantasy novels. The longer, the better. In one series I’m working my way through as each new entry is released, The Stormlight Archives by fantasy master Brandon Sanderson, each book weighs in at about 1200 pages. I’ve read through book four, and he’s rumored to have planned it to be at least 14 books long. In any event, as I have been lately reading through one of Terry Goodkind’s last books before his untimely death, something occurred to me that I wanted to explore with you this morning. Let’s talk this morning about thousands of years of Middle Ages-like culture, worldview, and why Christianity is better.
I know that fantasy and science fiction are often lumped together into the same basic category, but they really are different. This difference was actually noted and explored in a terrific episode of the phenomenal Disney cartoon, Phineas and Ferb, a few years ago. The brothers and their group of friends attended a major Comic-Con in town where half the group was supportive of a particular fantasy film franchise, while the other favored a science fiction story. The entire convention was split in two and warred back and forth over which title was the best. Of course, it all ended happily ever after before that particular day of summer vacation ended, but it made the point. I tell that story so that when I say that I’m a fantasy guy and not so much a science fiction guy, you’ll understand a bit better what I mean.
As I have read through various major sagas, though, I have noticed a pattern that many of them share. For whatever reason, as I have been reading through the fourth and final book of the Nicci Chronicles by Terry Goodkind, the pattern has caught my attention enough for me to write about it. In most fantasy series, there are regular references to significant events that took place thousands of years before whatever the contemporary storyline happens to be. Often the main storyline involves the fulfillment of one prophecy or another. It occasionally references the rediscovery of some sort of magic that was common in the past, but was then lost in some cataclysmic event. Sometimes the spirit of some past major figure returns to impact the present in some way. However it plays out, there is regularly an enormous timeline leap that figures prominently in the story.
For entries into the fantasy genre, most of the time the major weapons of choice are essentially medieval weapons – swords, bows and arrows, clubs, maces, axes, and the like. Characters wear armor and carry shields. There is magic, of course (and if you are going to write a fantasy epic, the first thing you need to figure out is what the rules of magic in your story will be), but the broader culture in terms of technology and quality of life is basically a slice out of the idealized Middle Ages in Europe. The thing is, though, when you turn back the clock the few thousand years or so to the significant time in the past, the culture was pretty much the same.
Now, some of this is attributable to the presence of magic. When people can accomplish things by magic that we use technology for today, the technologies we use aren’t developed. Now, yes, I know well the line about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, but that doesn’t apply here. Magic in these stories is not a substitute for technology. It’s magic. There’s a difference. Why, even in the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where toward the beginning the leaned a bit into that magic-is-simply-advanced-technology line early on, as Dr. Strange and the mystical world have begun to figure more into things, they’ve pretty well abandoned it. Magic is magic and technology is technology.
Given this, the question that bubbled up in my mind (because I think about these things…which I why I have a blog so that I can put thoughts out on digital paper) is this: why haven’t these cultures changed basically at all in several thousands of years’ worth of history? The new Lord of the Rings series from Amazon, The Rings of Power, that releases today takes place thousands of years before Tolkien’s trilogy…and the world is basically the same. I know all of this is for the purposes of the story, and I know they are fictional tales, but to have basically no progress of any kind over the course of that much time seems rather wildly unrealistic to me. But then as I thought about it a little bit more, I realized that it is perhaps not quite so unrealistic as it seemed at first thought.
Before Christianity really began to come into its own in the 6th and 7th centuries, there were cultures around the world that had been in place for a very long time. Whole empires had risen and fallen several times over. There were hundreds, even thousands of years of human history predating the arrival of the Christian church. Even on this side of the cross, there have been cultures that have risen and fallen basically uninfluenced by the Christian faith. And in all of these different cultures across different times, the amount of technological and social and moral progress from one to the next was basically nil. Yes, there were of course a few significant technological advancements. I don’t mean to deny or minimize those. But the amount of progress humanity has made since, say, the 14th century as compared with all the previous centuries doesn’t even compare.
Now, again, someone could argue that things were gradually snowballing, and it just so happened that at about that time in history, things really started moving. And yet, when you survey the kinds of explosive developments and discoveries that have happened since then, they pretty much all came from the same general geographical location. But wait, someone might argue, what about things like the invention of paper or gunpowder in China? What about important advancements in mathematics that came out of India and the Muslim world? Those things happened there. No doubt about it. Those were critical inventions to the development of many, many other things. But the subsequent developments didn’t happen there.
What I am trying to get at is this: The kinds of technological and social and moral advancements that are responsible for where the world is today exist because there was a worldview framework in place that allowed them to exist. Without that worldview framework, certain ideas may have happened, but they were largely dismissed out of hand because they didn’t fit within whatever was the alternative worldview framework. And the worldview framework that allowed for all of these developments and more is the Christian worldview.
The Christian worldview, thanks to passages in the Scriptures like this one from the very beginning, has long held that God created the world in an organized, intentional fashion, and that if we study it carefully, we can learn more about the wonders He has made. The Christian worldview holds that the futility of work is not a good thing and that time- and labor-saving inventions are a good thing. Yes, of course it’s true that too much leisure isn’t a good thing, but when we can automate certain things so that our days are not consumed by an unending litany of small tasks that never seem to get finished, we can give more time and attention to explore the world and figuring out ways to make life better for everyone. And that is exactly what we have done.
The Christian worldview holds that history is going somewhere and we should be going with it. There is an upward moral trajectory toward the kingdom of God that we should be following. People are all uniquely created in God’s image, and since we are all God’s image-bearers, we are all worthy of dignity and respect regardless of who we are or where we’ve come from. We haven’t by any stretch always gotten that right, but no one else even holds a similar idea. All of this progress and more has only ever come in meaningful, measurable ways when the Christian worldview has been unleashed on a particular culture. Interestingly, all of these fantasy epics, which are devoid of anything like the Christian worldview, demonstrating basically no progress over the span of thousands of years of history get it right. No other worldview does what this one does. If you haven’t signed up for it, it’s worth your time. It always has been.
This will be my last post until Tuesday. I’ll look forward to diving into Hebrews 11 with you then!