does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writing and Religion

Recently, I found myself vexed by a discussion which turned on religious belief. It is easy to get vexed when the subject of religion comes up, you say? Sure, except the irony for me was that instead of my being the secular voice holding off convinced religious believers, I was the “religious” voice trying to hold my own with decidedly secular nonbelievers.

As I explained in my earlier post Religion, My Writing, and Me, I probably reside in the interstices between conventional belief and nonbelief. So to have to stand up for religion was unexpected. But there I was with the members of my long-time book discussion group explaining why I felt they were shortchanging the validity of religious belief. Myths and religion, I tried to tell them, are not simply infantile representations of truths eventually reducible to scientific axioms.

At one point in the discussion, I felt so frustrated that I found myself doodling in Spanish, convenient because no one around me could understand it. I found that scrap of paper while cleaning my desk the other day, and here is part of what I had written: “Mythology helps one navigate the space between the known and the unknown. It can exist outside the confines of intellectual truths that cannot and may not ever capture reality in its entirety.”

Then I discovered that Joseph Campbell in “The Historical Development of Mythology” had said it much more elegantly than I:

“… whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted; but also, reciprocally, that whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or a sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door.”

Mythology and Religion are not necessarily synonymous, but I believe that the above Campbell quote applies to both. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of religious belief. If I am any indication, we in the middle may usually choose to remain silent about personal religious beliefs in the face of opposing views. My experience with my book discussion group was definitely anomalous for me.

That experience made me realize how real-life silence about personal religious and spiritual beliefs can also be reflected in one's writing. To be clear, I do not embrace a style of writing which engages in proselytizing or hagiography. I am simply suggesting that fine literary work can incorporate spirituality in the seamless way it does so in ordinary life. Marilynne Robinson has done it. Graham Greene has done it. So has Chinua Achebe. Why do I have the feeling, though, that today they represent the exception rather than the rule?

I end with the following questions:

o If you write fiction, do you find it easy to incorporate religion and spirituality?

o How is religion best incorporated in a fictional work? Should it be treated any differently than any other subject?


Judy Croome said...

Judith. wow. This post totally resonated with me. It's what I wrestle with all the time. My comple struggle with my writing is that I attempt to incorporate spirituality into my writing. That's where my voice lies, and as much as I've resisted it I keep on going back to it. After much struggle I find fantasy & symbols are my key. I believe firmly there is a crying need for some sort of hope - faith, if you will - and i will continue to write my books even if ultimately I have to copy William P Young who wrote the shack and self publish. Spiritual writing (not religious) may be out of fashion at the moment, but I beleive more than ever there is a need for it. Currently reading Rumi's love poems about the mystical surrender to the Divine. They are, well, divine!

Sun Singer said...

I find the problem of spirituality and religion to be more vexing in discussions than in my writing.

Since my beliefs are not mainstream, they're not easy to discuss in an arena where the others involved presume everyone in the room is a member of an organized church.

Even though I'm writing fiction, it is very personal to me. So, I seldom think of "incorporating spirituality" any more than I think of incorporating any other part of my Self.

Readers, I suppose, don't worry a lot about this because--in fantasy and magical realism--they don't expect the characters to sound like the everyday man or woman on the street.


Anne R. Allen said...

This is a fascinating subject. Like you and your commenters--and I'm pretty sure, most people--I "fall in the cracks" between organized religion and atheism. Those are some mighty big cracks.

I think it's as irrational to think humans are the most powerful beings in the Universe as it is to think there is a Great White Penis in the Sky who controls our every move and hates everybody we hate.

But I've run into all kinds of trouble because one of my novels featured a protagonist who was a conservative Baptist preacher. She was flawed, but I portrayed her in a positive light. People on both sides thought she somehow represented me.

In the end, the only thing to do is laugh and go on to create as many diverse characters as I can.

Spirituality springs from a place that isn't about reason, so I guess it makes sense people are unreasonable about it. But it can be so tedious.

Judith Mercado said...

Whenever I muster up the courage to write about religion for this blog, I always wonder if anyone will show up to read the post. Or whether I will receive vituperation. It is therefore a relief when thoughtful persons like you—Judy,Malcolm, and Anne—show up to share how you feel about this subject. Thanks for confirming for me that it is worthwhile to venture out of The Silence. I think this is a first step for me in owning what all of you seem to recognize—that this component of myself and of my writing is perhaps intrinsic to who I am. Maybe if more individuals step out of The Silence, more and more of us will free to speak in voices that don’t just represent the strident extremes.

With respect to writing craft, I aim to develop stories that reflect the fullness of the human condition. If that means that I write negatively about someone who is like me, fine. If it means that I write positively about someone who is totally unlike me, that’s fine too. I just want to create the best characters and story I possibly can. For me, that means I must respect the story and the character on their terms.

Thank you for gracing my blog with your presence.

Andrew Cort said...

I enjoyed your comments on being "in between". I gave up posting on Amazon forums and most blogs as I found myself in the depressing situation in which atheists hated me because I don't agree with their radical contempt for all things spiritual, and many (perhaps most?) religious people hated me because I don't subscribe to their intellectually childish literalism and blind faith.

I especially enjoyed reading your sentence "Myths and religion, I tried to tell them, are not simply infantile representations of truths eventually reducible to scientific axioms." I write non-fiction myself, but my work is about the underlying meaning in myth and scripture, so it's sort of a blending. Here's how I addressed this issue in the opening of my book "Love, Wisdon and God: The Longing of the Western Soul":

"The dream of buried treasure has always fascinated the human mind: the lost treasure of the Pharaohs, buried in Egyptian tombs; the jewel-filled treasure chests of pirates, buried on Caribbean Islands; the incalculable treasure of Solomon’s Temple, discovered by the Knights Templar and hidden once again by the Freemasons. In an age of science, commerce, and common sense, these stories have stirred our imaginations, inspired us with hope and yearning, and encouraged not a few individuals to embark on great adventures. Most of these adventures, of course, have come to naught. Some of these seekers have returned with a few items for the museum, some have returned with empty hands and a good story, and some have not returned at all.

The reason why these treasure hunts have by and large been unsuccessful is that most of these stories are symbolic and mythological. But this does not mean that a treasure does not exist. The stories themselves may not be literally true, but the meaning revealed by the stories is true. Among contemporary people, myths tend to be dismissed as childish fantasies or the unscientific gropings of primitive minds. But the mythological vision of the world has always been, and still remains, an important way of experiencing and understanding reality. Myths reflect our deepest psychological and spiritual truths.

A ‘hidden treasure’ does exist, just as all these stories claim. The fabulous jewels, the silver coins, the golden statues, all of this is real – far more real than anything found in a museum. It is true that this treasure is buried and hidden, just as the legends tell us. It is also true that a map exists, and it is a secretive map that requires special knowledge and preparation before it can be read and understood. There is even a guide who knows the way. However, the treasure is not buried under desert sand or a building in Manhattan. The map is not written on a scrap of faded parchment or the back of a national document. And the guide is not some enigmatic vagabond in a faraway land. The treasure, the map, and the guide, are all at hand.

The search for buried treasure is the sacred quest of the soul."

Taryn Tyler said...

That was very well said about loosing truth when you try to explain away a myth. I try to avoid validating religious beleifs in discussions because, although I do fall somewhere between nonbelief and traditional belief, I am a bit closer to the traditional and people mistake my argument for the validity of religious beliefs in general for an argument for my religion which I would never presume to make. Everyone's spirituality is different.

I have recently decided to stop avoiding mention of religion in my work. I think so long as the author isn't obviously trying to persuade their readers over to their way of thinking or, worse, asuming that they already think the same way addressing religion in fiction is part of addressing humanity.

A Cuban In London said...

Here I am sitting at my desk, having just read your wonderful and nodding so vigorously that i could be mistaken for a head-banger at a metal concert.

Yes! We need the mythos in our highly pragmatic lives. And this comes from an atheist. The fact that I don't believe in God and refute any evidence of its existence should not mean that people have to follow suit. The irony of the Abrahamic faiths is that they stressed the 'doing' rather than the 'believing' when they came into existence. Judaism definitely had a strong ethical side which was lost when rationality (of all things! Go figure!) got in the way.

By the way we keep confusing faith and religion. I have faith. I have faith in human nature, that makes me a humanist. I have faith in my fellow humans, their virtues and imperfections and treat them accordingly.

Many thanks for such a brilliant post. And that quote was so right! We should never think that by being more science-orientated we hold the reins to truth, the absolute truth.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Andrew, Tara, and Cuban, comments like yours encourage me to just write my truth, regardless of where it falls in anyone’s spectrum, religious, political or otherwise. This has been a great help for me as I work on my current fiction project and sometimes worry whether there will be an audience for what I have to say. Thank you for bolstering my courage.

Nevine said...

Judy, I know we've had this "discussion" many times before. I can recall countless occasions when you mentioned how odd it is that I do incorporate the religious into my fiction, though I have said that I am a non-religious person. Like you mentioned in your post, the importance of religion and myth in our lives can't be discounted. In my mind, religion was not created so we can follow blindly the words laid down for us, but rather so we can better understand the grand scheme of life. There is certainly much to be learned from the stories and parables that are in the Bible and the Koran and other religious texts.

Like you, I am silent about religion. But... then... my silence leaves me feeling unappeased. Somewhere, I need to express my "secular religious" beliefs. For me, sometimes I find, in a religious statement or expression that has made its way into our memories throughout history, a "moral" to the story I am trying to write. And it seems fitting for me to use that expression to express that worldly statement I am trying to make.

I personally think that religion should be incorporated in a subtle manner in writing. After all, as writers, it is not our job to "preach", but rather to "inspire". And the type of inspiration I am talking about is not at all the religious type, but the inspiration of thought... and reflection... and growth.

Fascinating post, Judy!


Sheila Deeth said...

What a fascinating post and conversation. One of my brothers told me, when I was a kid, that writing fiction was like telling lies. But maybe it's more like telling myths, and spirituality might be the breath that gives at least some of them life.

Judith Mercado said...

Nevine and Sheila, thank you for continuing to expand my understanding.

Mista Jaycee said...

Excellent post! I've long ago come to the belief that Adam and Eve were literary figures used to denote the first Men and Women and how they fell. Hard to accept that Eve alone gave birth to a Blonde Blue eyed waif and a tall, dark skinned brown eyed set of children through the same womb and genetic material. Enjoyed your post!

Brent Robison said...

Judith, I'm sorry I came late to this discussion, since it is so right up my alley. I've also found myself in the unfamiliar position of arguing against a reductive secularism that amongst my family I'd be in favor of. Your post articulated the very core of my current study and thought, as well as the crack my work seems to fall into. And great comments too!

My collection of linked stories got its life and its skeleton from a spiritual impulse but still is in a literary category, which makes it an odd animal. But (to mix metaphors) that's the path I intend to continue walking, because that's my truth. I've explored the subject in various posts on my blog but I may have expressed it best in a guest post on a Christian website (imagine my surprise at their invitation!):

In my work, Religion (that organized kind) tends to get skewered in favor of something deeper, perhaps Spirit, or Unity. And science for me is not about reductionism, but rather wonder and awe... showing us an amazing picture of the universe that birthed us. After all, "spiritual" is just a word for science we don't understand yet. And myth is the necessary finger pointing at the moon. I owe a great debt for my sanity to Joseph Campbell.

Thank you for venturing out of your silence. Please keep it up!

Mohamed Mughal said...

When I write fiction, I find it difficult to NOT include spirituality or religion. But what if a writer does? I'm with the school that says "judge not."