The fear of the Lord,” says Proverbs 1:7, “is the beginning of knowledge.” Indeed, God’s scriptural appearances are often terrifying. Moses sees only God’s cloaked back and is nearly undone by the sight (Ex. 34:4–8). Isaiah sees God’s throne room, complete with disturbingly inhuman angelic creatures, and is devastated by the gap between his impure language and God’s pure goodness (Isa. 6:1–5). Angels appear with the cry of “do not be afraid”—precisely because their appearance can easily inspire fear.
Even in the New Testament, divine appearances are often far from conventionally comforting. Paul is stricken with blindness (Acts 9:3–9), the apostles see tongues of flame appear on their heads (Acts 2:3), and Jesus’ glory itself is only revealed to his three closest three friends (Matt 17:1–8). Each of these moments testifies to God’s profound goodness—but it is an un-cozy goodness, a goodness so far beyond us that it fills us with awesome fear. Indeed, one of the Ten Commandments exists purely to prohibit us from cheapening our images of God, turning him into the likeness of a created thing.
If God is necessarily cloaked with mystery and awe (lest we be destroyed by the sight of his goodness), what is the Christian artist to do? In the visual arts, this debate has led, in the East and the West, to a series of iconoclasms—moments when all images of God were destroyed, lest they fall afoul of the Second Commandment. In literature, there has been less direct fear about depictions of God, but writers have confronted similar dilemmas.
The most successful depictions of God in modern writing tend to be indirect. Novelists, like Marilynne Robinson or Leif Enger, tend to focus on human faith rather than God himself. Miracles may (in Enger’s case) or may not (in Robinson’s) be shown, but for the most part, we don’t see anything like a terrifying encounter with God. Fantasy fiction seems to do better. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis managed to strike a note of the uncanny. Yet for Tolkien’s most popular works (The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books), this meant keeping God offstage. And Lewis’s Aslan, though famously “not a tame lion,” often seems precisely that—a comforting voice that remains in the background.
A Skill and a Calling
These thoughts were running through my mind when I read through the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, a much-lauded fantasy novelist whose World of the Five Gods series recently won the Hugo Award for Best Series, one of genre fiction’s most prestigious awards. Though not herself a Christian (Bujold describes herself as agnostic), she is rare in the field for the seriousness with which she takes religion. (About C. S. Lewis, she once quipped: “He makes Christianity look good. There are many Christians who make Christianity look bad, also.”) And while her Hugo-winning series technically features a polytheistic world, it is often fueled by questions (and answers) familiar to Christian theology. Her novels treat religious devotion sympathetically while portraying a world in which the gods are objectively knowable and invariably good. Indeed, reading her books brought me to a deeper understanding of just what it means to have “the fear of the Lord.”
This became especially clear as I read Penric’s Mission, the fourth book in the series. The title is something of a pun: Penric—a seminary-trained sorcerer—is sent on a clandestine mission to contact a foreign general, but his mission fails utterly, leaving him adrift and seeking purpose in life. Though he has stood face-to-face with gods more than once in these stories (and been used by them, he believes, providentially), he now finds himself a man without a vocation, left to help heal the wounds that his failed mission has inflicted.
Penric’s superiors, misunderstanding his abilities, send too many critically injured patients his way, too fast. As the death toll rises, so does his sense of guilt—to the point where he attempts to take his own life. Speaking about his trauma in a temple, he arrives at a moral: “And thus I learned the difference between a skill and a calling. To have a calling with no skill is a tragedy anyone can understand. The other way around ... less so.”
Penric’s feeling of lacking a place in the world is a nearly universal human experience, regardless of one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Yet in referring to his “calling,” he invokes his seminary-trained sense of divine providence. To have a calling is to be called by something beyond oneself—something greater, or (more to the point) Someone divine. For Penric, the tragedy of his life was that people misread his obvious skills as divine providence, treating him as a mere tool, not as a human being. And so he was used up, laboring under traumatic circumstances but without any sense that he was fulfilling a divinely ordained place in the cosmos.
Bujold’s gods, then, richly inform her characters in a way that ought to be more common in fantasy literature. Yet the very presence of the gods—their beauty, worth, and glory—is at least as significant as any theological doctrines characters draw from them. Thus, even though Penric ends the novel with as much uncertainty as ever, the final scene is one of collaborative worship.
The moment is iconic in adventure literature: Three bedraggled heroes have just won a desperate fight, and they are fleeing, at night, across a mountain range to safety. As they walk, the general’s sister decides that a prayer is called for. And so, “she hummed the old hymn of praise under her breath as they reached a flatter trail.” Penric recognizes the hymn, even though it’s being sung in an unfamiliar language. “‘Sing it aloud,’ entreated Penric from his perch. ‘I’ve never heard it in Cedonian.’”
The rest of the passage is worth reading in its entirety:
She looked up to find no one left; before them, now, the land fell away in velvety darkness. A hundred miles distant it rose again, like a black blanket rucked up upon the horizon, the promise of Orbas.
“Fair enough,” huffed Adelis, and let down his burden. They all found seats upon the stony ground, under the sweep of the stars. She shared the water pouch around.
Then Nikys straightened and took up the old words, as Penric had requested. Adelis came in on the chorus in a bass harmony, as he had not done since they’d sung in the temple as youths, before … everything. Penric murmured in a pleased way, and then, at Nikys’s demand, offered up a hymn of his own in his native Wealdean, in a breathy but surprisingly true baritone.
His words fell strange and sweet upon her ears, and so, trading mysteries, they sang up the moonrise.
The passage starts from a moment of dark uncertainty, and in fact, the darkness never lifts. Yet the three people, surrounded by the beauty of creation and the wonder of narrow survival, turn to songs of praise. The song enfolds even Adelis, the cynical and generally irreligious general, in its atmosphere of piety. For a beautiful moment, relief is found, not through a gaze turned down on the world of humanity, but one turned upward in praise. Everyone is unified—and more than one tongue and nation find a common purpose.
Standing in Awe
But the moment that lingers with me is the final line: “trading mysteries, they sang up the moonrise.” Like the fathomless landscapes stretching out endlessly before the characters, the term “mysteries” carries a reminder that even a god (and definitely God) is beyond our human perception. It carries a sense of reverence—the sort of wonder at which one trembles, knowing one’s human limitations. Standing in awe before God, the characters learn how to love a being they cannot understand. And thus, with a lesser reverence, they learn how to love others.
Yes, the line is in service to a love plot, but it invokes a feeling of the numinous—a sense that only by worshiping a god beyond our understanding can we nourish the bonds of human love. It depicts an imagination alive to the terrors and wonders of God, one capable of enduring, even treasuring, the strange wonders of other languages and peoples.
In this novel, then, fear before the mysteries of the gods awakens awe, wonder, and love. And I am reminded, once again, what a treasure of faith I have. I serve a great God, whom I should ever seek to know but also a great Mystery, before whom I am reminded that I am small, that there is much I cannot know, and that I am not wise.
And from this fear of the Lord, I can grow to love, act, and live more wisely.
R. S. Naifeh is a fantasy writer who lives with his wife and son in Missouri. When not writing or teaching, he can often be found hosting board game nights and discussions of strange films about Christianity.