Are You A Teacher In Israel, and Do Not Know These Things?

...the greatest part
Of mankind they corrupted to forsake
God their Creator, and the invisible
Glory of Him that made them to transform
Oft to the image of a brute, adorned
With gay religions full of pomp and gold,
And devils to adore for deities.

Paradise Lost, John Milton

This is a subject I have thought about nonchalantly for some time, taking it almost for granted with my own writing, until I was jostled by a little lack of information into considering it more seriously in general. Can I get any more vague than that...? The subject is that of religion in literature. I don't mean strictly fantasy, I mean historical fiction too (I consider science fiction to be a fantasy of a sort). The problem, I realized some time ago, is that you very rarely come across any signs, any gestures, any notion of religion in the pages of a book.

You might argue at first that this is because religion as a whole isn't usually the point of a story, and you don't want to muddy the waters, and you don't want to offend people, etc. I would like to respectfully blow both of those notions back where they came from. If you take a good look at human history in an over-arching sense, the way an eagle might look at a landscape, you will discover a wildly colourful but always persistent drive toward worship. Mankind has an inherent need to worship, an almost frantic need to worship. You will find that in every society you study, in every age you choose. Man will build a pantheon before he builds a code of law. It is so basic to his nature, so deeply woven into his psyche, so human that I find the lack of it in literature to be startlingly unrealistic.

So does every story have to be about gods and men, appeasement and atonement? Not always directly, of course not. But when you have a driving way of life, a paradigm that lies closer about a man than his own clothing, don't you think it a bit odd that it so rarely surfaces in stories about mankind? When I read I find two common default religions in stories: in the fantasy the religion of the character is his quest and his devotion to accomplishing it; in historical fiction (rather more accurately) the religion is that of self. But I have to read that back into the text because I'm looking for it. The author probably doesn't realize it at all. So acknowledge it! In The Eagle of the Ninth, which is one of my favourite novels, there is a scene in which Marcus desperately, ardently beseeches his god Mithras to clear the skies so that the smoke-signal can get through. It is pure paganism, and of course I don't agree a whit with the man, but I agree with the author for putting it in there. It would have been ludicrous for Sutcliff to have portrayed her soldier any differently. He was a centurion of the Roman army, a follower of the Persian god Mithras (who had become a favourite among Roman soldiers). It was not only accurate to history, it was accurate to man.

How do you show religion? There was a time not very long ago when religion was the cadence of life. You could not go a week without the community partaking in the heartbeat of it. Longer ago than that, before truth sorted out the muddle of religion, you had sacrifices and feast-days, a regularity and an importance of regularity that bound not only the people to their gods but the people to each other. That is a hard thing to miss and it is not hard to show. In historical fiction it might be as simple as noting the Sabbath hush that falls over a village, in fantasy it can be as subtle as a charm over a door to ward off evil. It need not be right (though I hope you know what right is) but it ought to be accurate, which is a truth itself; and it ought to be there, if only to add another dimension to the story.

My novel The Shadow Things, rather less than subtle, took this bull by the horns. It takes place in a time when religion oppressed, when gods were to be appeased, not loved, and atonement was a word whose definition was not understood; it's grim, it's dark, but it's true. And in retrospect, looking back from the high vantage point of years in a culture levened by Christianity, I as the author and hopefully you as the reader can appreciate what kind of "religious" world the truth was going out into, and working against, and transforming. I might have made the gates of hell a little less grim, a little less resisting, but that would have been untrue. Yes, they gave way in The Shadow Things, but it was a hard and gruesome fight all the same.

However you do it, whether blatantly or subtly, don't forget this important aspect of humanity: he must worship something, and that need is too obvious to ignore even in literature.

“Oh—something!” he ejaculated, too flustered to know exactly what to swear by.

7 ripostes:

  1. Well said. Not necessarily true (man so seldom is), but always accurate (at least inasmuch as we know the history). You did both very well in The Shadow Things, and I trust you will continue to portray history unvarnished. Revisionism is a crime against truth, regardless of who perpetrates it.

  2. It is true, dear Jenny. Mankind is designed to worship. I always feel so horribly for those who have not found that Christ is the only way, for they will never be filled with their idols.
    "Eyes they have but they cannot see, ears they have but they cannot hear, mouths they have but they cannot speak..."
    And it *is* an issue that is overlooked in literature. Thanks for the reminder! :)

  3. Yes, yes, and yes.
    This is one subject I have been struggling with in... well, all my books. I desperately want to portray the Faith in my novels, but I struggle to balance that thread with the other story lines {i.e. the actual adventure}. It either takes over the whole novel making it into "just another Christian fiction" with foreseeable outcomes, or it's just a shallow undercurrent that doesn't feel necessary. There has got to be middle ground... somewhere. Please?

  4. Penslayer, I appreciate your examples of how religion, a constant of human life, might be used in a simple yet effective way in fantasy (a charm over a door) and historical fiction (a Sabbath hush); and your example of how this aspect of life was touched upon in The Eagle of the Ninth, in the soldier's prayer to Mithras (the not true thing which is accurate).

    Perhaps writers don’t touch on this aspect of life much in fantasy or historical fiction, because they believe that their worlds can exist very well without it, and that our world would be better off without it.

    In the film Gladiator, this aspect of life is dealt with so fetchingly that the accuracy is almost seductive. Maximus’s Roman piety mostly consists of worship of his ancestors. It’s hard not to be drawn into this piety, especially since it’s played out against the gorgeous soundtrack; and we can forget that this piety not only includes some sound morals, like a devotion to family, but the desire for personal vengeance. I always draw back at his pious death, trying not to participate in this as not only accurate but True. The film almost succeeds in making a viewer like me believe that his murdered family is awaiting him in the Elysian Fields (‘a better place’). I have to remember that the door he seeks to open leads to hell.

    I'm eager to read The Shadow Things.

    This was a thoughtful post, well worth reading.

  5. You are very right, Maria. I also feel something rise in me at Maximus' sacrificial death because, the pagan trappings aside, he fought against tyranny and died in the attempt of honouring his father. Those kinds of things speak out to us. But that, differentiating morality from religion, is perhaps another day's discussion altogether. The point remains: despite his piety and good intentions, men like Maximus were lost and without hope in the world.

    Gwyn, your question is far too long for a simple comment. As Abigail too posed it when reading this over my shoulder, I think I will take a full blog post to address the "middle ground" of having the Faith in "Christian fiction."

  6. Dear Penslayer girl,

    Since I can't think of anywhere else to post this I shall do so here. I bought Shadow Things a little way back but forbid myself to read it till after exams, and since their completion have read it up in a day. I think what I love best about the book, for I did love it immensely, was the way in which it portrayed faith. Yours was a book that took religion by the horns and shook out the truth. I felt both the dark hopelessness and fear that comes from following a false religion, and felt the freedom and hope of Christ's love. I saw in your storytelling the true persecution of the Gospel that comes from the devil and those opposed to God and his Great Grace. Mostly I thank you for writing the truth--for showing how shadowy and pale these earthly things look in light of a long and brilliant eternity with Christ. It brought back for me the fear and wondrous joy I got when first I read 'The Last Battle,' and found myself flung on the other side of the stable door.

    I'm eagerly awaiting your next book :)

  7. My dear Colleen Elizabeth, it is always a heartfelt relief as well as an inspiring thrill to discover that the readership has "got" what the author was trying to say. Just so, it seems, in the case of you and I. Furthermore it is strangely humbling as well as thrilling to know that I have spoken the truth and that the truth has been acknowledged - just so here. So I want to thank you heartily for this encouragement. It truly means the world to me.

    Always further up, always further in!