Monday, October 3, 2011

The Suspension of Belief

No doubt, you’ve heard of the Suspension of Disbelief which is the concept of a reader willingly accepting during the space of a story something that we know to be absurd or extremely unlikely. A superhero who can blow a building down with his breath, for example. But what if we turn that around? Is there such a thing as the Suspension of Belief?

I think it’s interesting that we discuss the Suspension of Disbelief but not the Suspension of Belief. On the surface, they seem like similar concepts—perhaps even the same. If a reader can be caused to suspend his disbelief in a superhero, could he not be caused to suspend his belief in something like God? If you believe in God, I’ve already raised your hackles. Weird, isn’t it?

And it isn’t just belief in God. The same could be said of one’s politics or one’s commitment to their favorite sports team. Even within the space of a story, it is easier for a person who believes in God to believe that the Easter Bunny exists than it is to believe that God doesn’t exist. I find that very interesting and something worth our attention.

I think that part of it is that when we attempt to remove something the reader knows to be true, such as God or his position on a hot topic like abortion or the definition of marriage, the author appears to be taking an argumentative position. The reader knows God exists, so any author who says otherwise is probably an atheist promoting his own agenda. The reader would be understandably upset, but why would that same reader be able to read a story about Zeus or one of the other pagan gods and willingly suspend his disbelief? Why would he be able to read a story about Santa Claus?

For one thing, while the Greeks and Romans worshipped those gods as the highest beings, people who serve God know that God is above those gods. We can treat them like all other fictional characters and if they did exist, God would still be above them. Another reason is that it is easy for us to accept that there are things about our Universe that we don’t know. Christians readily accept that there are angels and demons, even though most of us have never seen them. Atheists may reject the notion of angels and demons simply because they are spoken of in the Bible, but many atheists are willing to accept the possibility of highly intelligent aliens, even though we’ve never seen them.

To give you a practical example of what I’m talking about, I was watching a television show in which one of the characters is supposed to be able to communicate with the dead. (Yeah, I know that’s not a very Christian thing to be watching.) I don’t believe people are able to communicate with the dead. I realize that the Witch of Endor talked to Samuel, but she seemed more surprised than anyone about that and God made a special allowance for that. If the mediums are actually communicating with anyone, I think they are communicating with evil spirits who are claiming to be the spirit of the deceased person. But I digress. The thing is, I was willing to suspend my disbelief and for the sake of the story accept that this person could see whatever message the dead person was sending her, but when the actor said something along the lines of “I talk to the dead and I’ve seen a lot of things, but demons don’t exist,” that disturbed me. While I could suspend my disbelief in her ability to talk to the dead, I could not suspend my belief that what God has told us about the existence of demons is true.

As storytellers, we need to be aware of that. We can add the impossible to our stories, but we cannot remove the proven.

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