On Religion in Fiction

In honor of my cousin Eli’s Bar Mitzvah, this post is going to be about religion.

No, I don’t care what religion (if any) you practice.  But if you’re writing a novel, chances are that at some point you are going to write about religion.  And if you aren’t writing about religion at all, you should be, because religion is a big part of the human experience.  Wherever you fall on the spectrum, from fervently religious to mildly spiritual to militantly atheist, religion touches your life.  The religion of your society is going to affect your thinking, whether you ever set foot in a place of worship or not.

There ARE atheists in foxholes, but they’re going to cry out “Jesus Christ!” or “God!” just like everybody else when the gunfire starts.

To pick on J.K. Rowling a little more, the lack of religion in the Wizarding World puzzled me.  Her wizards and witches remember that the Burning Times happened.  Okay, so what is their relationship to Catholicism or Christianity?  Good, apparently, because they celebrate Christmas.  Alright, so when do they go to church?  Never?  That’s odd.  They do make a big deal over Halloween too, maybe they’re Pagan, or Druidic?  But Pagans and Druids celebrate Yule or Solstice, not Christmas.  Maybe the wizards and witches of Great Britain are all just pointedly secular.  After all, they’re little gods themselves with all that power.  All right, then why are they celebrating Christmas?

I know that plenty of secular Americans celebrate Christmas.  The culture of Christmas is so overwhelming, my choices are to be an anti-social jerk or celebrate it along with my non-Jewish and generally non-religious friends.  But without a long-standing tradition of Christianity in this country (Christianity being the majority religion), they wouldn’t celebrate Christmas.  They’d have Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or Chanukah, or Festivus, or no big late-December celebration at all.

I understand that JK Rowling likely wanted to keep religion out of her novels.  Religion is a messy thing that certain individuals get very uptight about, and so religion is frequently left entirely out of popular media.  Sometimes that’s appropriate.  Something light or irreverent or especially artsy won’t always be attempting to depict real life.

Except that religion isn’t ever left out, it lurks like an elephant in the room.  The disregard for reality leaves a created world feeling flat.  That works with Looney Tunes, but something as meaningful as Harry Potter is cheapened by avoiding the subject.

If I’ve convinced you that religion is a theme worth including and exploring, the next question is how.

I actually think religion is something that George RR Martin does well.  Martin writes about multiple religions, and also about individuals who are more or less religious.   He frequently has characters participating in religious rites or festivals, making oaths, and taking the names of the gods in vain.  He leaves the true nature of the gods ambiguous.  Characters discuss religion, and are motivated by it.

Ultimately, Martin doesn’t have very nice things to say about religion.  R’hllor seems inclined to give his power to the brutal rather than the beneficent, and that generally holds true for the many gods of Westeros and Essos.  If you’re interested in a more nuanced and even more complete exploration of religion in fiction, I would recommend Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth.  The story is set largely within a monastery, and it proves to be a very good vantage for exploring 12th century England.  While there are plenty of scheming, power-hungry clergy and bad guys taking advantage of pardons for their sins, there are also legitimately good priests and monks to be found in Follett’s medieval England.

I would also recommend Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Small Gods.  Here again religion is the main theme of the story, and we see both the good and the bad in it.  But the book retains the light, comic tone that Pratchett uses throughout his Discworld series.  Religion doesn’t have to be so very serious.

Of course, your characters may live in a more modern and secular society, and religion may not be a theme you want to explore all that deeply.  That’s fine too.  Perhaps the best example here is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon.  Several times throughout the film, the titular character lists the few things in life that are really important to him;  “My body. My pad. My ride. My family. My church. My boys. My girls. My porn.”  I love how, “My church,” is just another thing in that list.  The audience may not spend much time in church with Don Jon, but we don’t need to.  We know he goes regularly, along with his whole family, and that tells us a lot about the character and the world he lives in.

It’s really a matter of what you want to get across.  Merely acknowledge religion, or explore it deeply.  Damn religion, praise it, or fall somewhere in the middle.  But do yourself a favor, and write about it.

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