Small Gods

After each incident of ‘Islamic terrorism’ someone is likely to remind us that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’. Christianity is founded on a message of “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” but has to face disturbing facts about times when the church acted in ways that didn’t match that ideal. Even Jews, with their classic image as victims, have sometimes in their history been terrorists, aggressors, and persecutors. Some critics say that violence is characteristic of monotheistic religions, but Hindus earned no honour from the bloodbath that followed the separation of Pakistan from India. Disturbing histories don’t prove that religion is evil, but they demonstrate that evil people can pervert faith for evil purposes. Few things are more frightening or dangerous than a man who has absolute power and who’s convinced that he’s absolutely right.

In past ages kings employed court jesters to cheer them up between their acts of despotism; but the jokers also gave them wise counsel or criticism under the disguise of comedy. Laughter can be a powerful moral force. Humour may expose faults and errors more effectively than logical reasoning. It is with that in mind that I invite you to investigate a world that’s quite like ours, but in some ways is more logical. The sun that travels round this special world does just what it seems to do in our universe – it passes round the planet daily (how charmingly logical). This alternative world looks flat, and it really is. If travellers sail close to the edge, they risk falling off. I’m speaking of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

A fictional world worshipping multiple gods doesn’t sound like edifying reading for a Christian – especially since it’s also deeply into magic. You may not therefore share my enthusiasm for such fantasy – but there’s one title in the series that I highly recommend to my fellow believers. It casts light on issues we should, in humility, be wary of. In any case, it’s a good story.

Small Gods tells the story of a Discworld country called Omnia where the people are monotheists. Does that sound better? Their church is hugely successful. In fact, the whole nation belongs to it and follows its teachings religiously. There’s just one problem or, perhaps it would be truer to say that there’s just one thing that’s right, and everything else is a problem. The whole nation follows the religion of one god, but the number of people who truly believe in their god can be counted on one finger. The Omnian church makes the laws and administers them – and its rule is both strict and cruel. It’s so strict that it comes close to killing the one and only true believer. Where have I read a story like that before?

The one true believer is a novice monk called Brutha, and the one true god appears to him in the form of – wait for it – a tortoise! Is Terry Pratchett mocking religion? Maybe so, but his observations give insight into the ways of religion ‘as others see us’, and we’ll do well to learn from what he saw. This story is a caricature, but one that conveys valuable truths.

True to type, the church that holds the reins of power in Omnia is led by men who value power above faith. That’s a fault that’s been repeated over the centuries. And one particularly strong leader of that church, a man called Vorbis, sees an opportunity to increase his power by taking over another country (only for their good of course!). It’s a mission with an army. But Brutha, the peace-loving believer, gets co-opted into the enterprise.

Brutha is a simple fellow with no aspirations to lead or to rule. He knows little of the politics of his religion and understands less; and he would never think of rebelling against the church – but others do. Their part of the story demonstrates another side of misapplied religion – hair-brained naivety. Their clumsy attempts to overthrow Vorbis’s wicked rule come close to backfiring and securing his tyrannous rule permanently. They almost destroy the one hope of bringing about redemption and justice.

Christianity has had a chequered history, with varied examples of behaviours that brought shame to the name of Christ and distorted his teachings and his legacy. It’s easy to condemn the men – and the occasional woman – who acted out of character with the true spirit of the gospel. Of a truth, most of them were not true believers; the fruit of their lives showed them to have been false. But there have been genuine believers who lost their way by falling under the spell of power-seeking. True Christianity is humble and loving and, as Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, love “is not self-seeking”.

Small Gods shows what can happen when religion takes over from faith. It demonstrates the dangers of unrestrained legalism (and it also gets in a dig at the potential foolishness of mysticism). The story demonstrates the power of simple, honest, faith and morality to break through religious tyranny and perversion. It’s a story of faith.

You may wonder what good can come from reading a fantasy novel. In this case, it may provoke you to ask yourself:
Do I truly believe in God, or am I just conforming to religious ritual?”
“Is my belief in God reflected in goodness towards other people?”
And, if you are in any kind of leadership position in the church:
Am I in this to serve people, or to control them?”

Now I’m not saying that Terry Pratchett has written a Christian book, or that we can number him among the faithful. He didn’t profess faith. But he demonstrated morality – and he wrote a good story. I recommend it.


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